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Desai on The Social Life of Suffering and Change

In this article Miraj U. Desai, author of Travel and Movement in Clinical Psychology​​​​​​​, discusses why social issues matter to clinical psychology.

The question of why social science matters is akin to an important question in my own field: why do social issues matter to clinical psychology?

The short answer to both questions is that we are fundamentally social and interconnected beings, but, given our inundation with our everyday lives, we often forget that basic truth. Social science matters because it reconnects us to each other and to the world around us. It resocializes us, and in so doing, can demand that we pay greater attention to everyone that makes up our global community, including those in need, suffering, or facing disadvantaged circumstances. It tells the untold stories. It reveals the hidden truths, problems, and potential that we are missing or take for granted.

That we are fundamentally interconnected is not a new insight. No, as Gandhi (1936/1960) said of truth and nonviolence, it is as old as the hills. Interesting that Gandhi chose “the hills” in that quotation. Those hills, those trees, those streams—that environment—are also part of this fundamental interconnectivity. They far predate us and provide the basic ground of our lives. The earth, as world traditions from phenomenology to Buddhism teach us, is fundamental to who we are (Abrams, 1996; Hanh, 2013; Husserl, 1934/1981). We are because it is, and we would not be, if it was not. And yet, we have forgotten this – we have forgotten just how much we depend on that which is not us, as evidenced by humanity’s ongoing problematic relationship to its own environment, other species, and our own neighbors: Human-induced climate change, war, oppression, discrimination...the list goes on and on. Our own well-being and the well-being of others, however, may ultimately depend on how much we can re-engage the basic truth of interconnectivity and refashion our world in a more humane, harmonious, and sustainable manner.

The social matters to my own field of clinical psychology for related reasons. We are fundamentally social creatures that live within a social world that has been collectively built. There is no fundamental “real” human world that exists outside of this collective process. Our individual lives and suffering, in turn, take place within this shared space. However, a field like clinical psychology, given its historical focus on addressing the suffering of individuals, can sometimes struggle to see all the ways in which a person is affected from without. But the world doesn't. The world sees. And it is reminding us with each passing day, through racial conflict and global poverty and environmental collapse. That is the world that suffers, and we suffer alongside that world. Our task as a field is, therefore, to reawaken and enlarge our own field of view (as Einstein once encouraged, see Calaprice, 2005)—to broaden our empathy and compassion further and further outside the clinic so that we can witness just how the worlds outside the clinic have a direct bearing on the suffering that goes on inside. We can therefore open up possible sites of “clinical” intervention to not only clinical problems but to social ills. By extending our field of vision, we also witness that we are not alone in this work and become humbled and invigorated in the process. We see that social movements, community members, trees, and streams have always helped to further overall well-being by addressing the very conditions for its possibility—but very few of these endeavors—and, as important, the underlying truths raised by their work—have historically featured in the teachings and trainings of the mental health fields. And yet, it remains a basic truth that good “mental health” depends on a healthy world. Indeed, it is a truth as old as the hills.



Abrams, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous. New York: Vintage Books.

Calaprice, A. (Ed.) (2005). The new quotable Einstein. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gandhi. M.K. (1960).  No Gandhian sect. In The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic book) (pp. 43-5). Ahmedabad: Navajivan. (Based on an original work published in 1936)

Hanh, T.N. (2013). Love letter to the Earth. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

Husserl, E. (1934/1981). Foundational investigations of the phenomenological origin of the spatiality of nature (F. Kersten, Trans.). In P. McCormick and F. A. Elliston (Eds.), Husserl, shorter works (pp. 222-233). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame/The Harvester Press.