Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
September 2012 - Volume 12, No. 9
Subscribe to this blog


I’ve begun to notice more that the experience of betrayal seems to be at the center of everything human.  

Every novel, every play, every opera, every great epic, every TV show, every fairy tale, every children’s story, every romance novel - all have a betrayal somewhere central to the story. Something has to be or go wrong before things can become right in a new way. The Holy Bible itself has two big betrayals, one at the beginning and one in the middle, and without either there would be little to engage us.

This realization has intrigued me for a few years now. Perhaps it’s from the work I do. In a sense, each person who comes to work with me is in some way broken (betrayed).      

And I know too, that if my work were simply to fix the broken, I’d have burned out from this work years ago. If I were in the furniture repair business, my work would be to use my best art to return a broken piece of furniture to its original integrity. Perhaps I could accomplish an almost 100% repair. The same if I were in auto or appliance repair.

Unfortunately the primary model of psychotherapy has now become the helping of people to achieve what I call “back up to zero.”  Just look at the new medical coding and diagnostic manuals that will take over in full force this next year (2013). Psychotherapy is bound to the Medical Model of “fixing” or at least ameliorating psychic suffering. That’s why the pharmaceutical model is so powerfully central.  And certainly much good does come from it. If you measure by that model, that model proves successful. Every insurance company lives (or dies) by it. And if the insurance industry lives by it, so then does all the rest of the medical establishment.

In a cynical mode, I may consider the purpose of the Medical Model is to provide a lucrative business income to those who manage this ‘fixing’ interface. That, in a nutshell, is the explanation of how our American healthcare system has become so expensive, inefficient, and resistant to any substantive change. It’s a business model, with its inherent (and often unconscious) disdain of those often most in need of help.   

In another way of speaking, the system is broken. It itself has betrayed us in many ways, and we have no larger “story” that will guide us to fixing and transcending it.

Now (finally) I return to my contention that the best understanding of what it means to be human is to pay attention to the stories that are powered by our overcoming a central betrayal.  

Only where we struggle to overcome betrayal do we find a transcendence - a growing beyond ourselves. For me, the essence of psychotherapy is much more transcendence than just ‘fixing a mental illness’.  

One very specific example of betrayal I encounter is marital infidelity. Both parties may want desperately to get back to “the way it used to be.” Yet that can never be. The trust that was never-to-be-broken, has now been broken. Like in the Book of Genesis, the Expulsion from Paradise can never be reversed. All that’s left is forward; and for the time being, much of that forward can be desert of pain and struggle. I like the Book of Genesis, because it’s so accurate to our own story. And its hopeful. Remember the Bible ends with full establishment of “the Kingdom” (which is of a different nature, and transcendent, to Paradise).

So I will tell the betrayed couple in front of me, that I can’t “take you back to the way it was.” But I can take you forward. From here on, that precious quality of trust must be earned by the sweat of your brow. The hope is that from such a struggle, both within and between each of them, what can be gained will far transcend what they initially had. That’s what the stories are all about. That’s why we read/watch/listen to them. All human hope comes from the transcendence of betrayal.  

The alternative is a benign and rather dull story, such as “Harry and Sally met; they fell in love; they got married; they had wonderful children; they had a good life; the end.” Nobody will care to read it. There’s no real humanity in it, no soul. There’s no betrayal, unless you consider the betrayal of missing a truly meaningful life. I jokingly say these people can live in “Grand Blanc” - the name of a town just a few miles from my home. The name of the town tells it all. (There are some good real people in Grand Blanc - I know, because some of my clients live here. I lived there myself for a few years long ago when I first came to Michigan.)

Let me add a clinical note here. The opposite or antithesis to this ‘struggle toward hope’ I speak of, is the human phenomenon of projection. We want to ‘project’ our own difficulties, pain, suffering onto someone else. Make it their fault. Put this suffering onto them instead. This is especially predominant in a political year. Its so very difficult to accept full responsibility and wrestle out our own shadow.  

Betrayal casts a great shadow upon our desire for and loss of innocence. The great psychologist Carl Jung taught us much about “shadow,” our dark side, and our temptation to project it elsewhere. The poet Robert Bly, another commentator on the human shadow[1], suggests that instead of projecting it elsewhere, we have the courage to retrieve it, to pull it back out of the bag (the long shadow that trails behind us) and deal with it ourselves, that we “eat it.” Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “I have had to eat my words many times, but each time they proved most nourishing.” Then there’s that great story in the middle of our Bible about Christ’s full willingness to carry the shadow of each of the rest of us, and of course, it (we) killed him. It seems that only where we wrestle with the human shadow does our true humanity emerge.

When as an individual or a couple we are willing to fully engage our own response to that betrayal, which seems to sit at the heart of all things human, something happens. Something wonderful happens, that would have been impossible without that struggle. The depth of affection, desire, and deep love, that can emerge for a couple that has wrestled with betrayal, is a joy to behold. This is not a guarantee that the relationship itself will survive, but that one or both parties will gain a richer more honest Life.

Consider the struggle of a couple over the death of a child, or even worse, the murder (deliberate death) of a child. I would not wish this on anybody, and it’s frequently too powerful for the marriage to endure. Yet those who can persist, together or even separately, carry a strength of soul, or a grace, that truly represents the depth of human character.

I could give dozens of additional anecdotes to illustrate this. I have a collection of many quotes from others that attest to these things. Perhaps at best, I have my own life, which has given me the luxury of the work that I do, and seeing these results again and again.

So we attend to the stories that teach us about betrayal. We want to know. They engage us at our deep center. They know something about being human. And we are always hungry to let them take us there, again and again.  

Pay attention.

BTW, if any of you know of any ‘stories’ that engage us, but don’t have a betrayal as the energy that drives them, let me know. I like being right in a creative way, but I don’t trust ever being absolutely right about something.    B McD


[1] Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow, (New York: HarperCollins, 1988).  This ‘little book’ (just 79 pages) continues to get praise as one of the best commentaries on the subject.

Comments (3)

  • In light of this perspective I shall make my personal theme song
    “Me and my Shadow”. I enjoy your work Bill (nearly as much as you do)! Thank you for “paying attention” as I have been starved for attention since birth but am definetely no stranger to betrayal.

    — Lana, 9/6/2012
  • About fixing the problem...“Nobody will care to read it. There?s no real humanity in it, no soul.” Maybe the life’s work of the soul is not a fix or the status-quot but a remodel. I see that one political party wants to return to the era when their stocks were soaring and the other wants to move forward to a different societal model of prosperity. Some embrace change and others will fight it with their last breath. All feel betrayed by who they consider the villain of the story.

    — Donna, 9/20/2012
  • Loss is another Theme

    Bill, very thought-provoking article with good examples. You are definitely hitting on something important related to human relationships when you say betrayal is a root cause of much confusion, suffering and angst.

    Loss may be another theme because it always requires some form of adjustment to a change. Certainly, it can involve a loss of innocence from being betrayed, but not all losses involve betrayal.

    Just some food for thought.

    — GemGirl, 8/18/2014

Add a Comment

will be kept private

Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

FREE Monthly Newsletter

Whether you are a client or not, you can always benefit from some free monthly words of wisdom:
Your e-mail address: