Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Reflections on Psychiatrist Karl Menninger

While going through a file on "Love and Hate" I came across references to the works of Dr. Karl Menninger, and I remembered how much Dr. Menninger has influenced the thinking of students of Pastoral Care, and the impact he has had on me.

Known as the Dean of American Psychiatry, Dr. Karl Menninger (1893-1990) was one of the most practical and influential psychiatrists in America. Together with his family, he founded a world-renowned psychiatric clinic modeled after the Mayo Clinic, and located in his home town of Topeka, Kansas. President Jimmy Carter awarded Dr. Menninger the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition in recognition of his wide-ranging contributions. Unlike many psychiatrists, Menninger was neither hostile or indifferent toward religion, even though he was well aware of the vulnerability of those with mental illness to sick religion.

Many clergy seeking specialized training in Pastoral Counseling have been trained at Menninger's clinic, and many more have been trained in the concepts found in his writings. I never visited the Menninger Clinic, but many of his books were required reading when I was a graduate student at Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute and when I was a chaplain intern at Cook County Hospital in Chicago in the mid-fifties.

Menninger spoke of the power of love in a manner that was consistent with the teachings of Jesus. According to Dr. Menninger, love is an essential element of good mental health. He wrote of the need to "replace with love the blind compulsion to give hostages to hatred as the price for living". I was particularly interested in his clinical concepts of how to deal with anger and hate. I grew up in a religious atmosphere in which the expression of such strong negative feelings was forbidden, and anger and hate were therefore either ignored or repressed. And when at last these feelings did make their way to the surface, they were generally misdirected and often violent. As a child I was taught at home, church and school that hate and anger in almost every form was un-Christian. As an adult I learned that forbidding such feelings is not only unrealistic, but ultimately dangerous. When a person is not taught how to creatively handle the natural feelings of hatred and anger, these feelings often begin to control a person's behavior in unhealthy and destructive ways. I cannot tell you how often I hear people say they "feel hurt" when it is quite clear that they are angry but cannot bring themselves to express that anger. Hurt feelings, more often than not, is anger turned in on oneself. Unexpressed and inverted anger lead naturally to depression.

It is interesting how freely we use the word "love" to describe a myriad of people, places, objects, situations, ideas, etc. We understand that love has many meanings. Yet, somehow, we assign only one definition to the word "hate", and it is dark, sinister, and most unchristian. The dictionary simply defines "hate": "to dislike intensely, to feel extreme aversion for or extreme hostility toward." All of my ministry I have talked with people who could not bring themselves to use the word "hate" as a label for their feelings toward certain people who had used and abused them. The word was airbrushed from their vocabulary even as they described people who have kept them in abusive and destructive relationships. The only way they could bring themselves to even mention the emotion of hate when it was so obviously present, and more than justified, was to wrap it up in a semantic safeguard such as, "I hate their ways, but not the person" But, there is one person they will openly and verbally hate without any hesitation. They will say, "I hate myself". Once again we see a powerful feeling misplaced by turning it in on the victim. Self-hatred becomes a sick substitute for the expression of what is actually felt toward people who have been the real enemies of the our best interest and the source of our mental and (sometimes) physical distress. Can you hear what I am saying?!

In his book, "Man Against Himself", Menninger addressed the very root of the problem. He said, "We have come to see that just as a child must be taught to love wisely, so that child must also learn to hate expeditiously, to turn destructive tendencies away from himself and toward the enemies that actually threaten his well-being rather than toward the friendly, defenseless and the more usual victims of destructive energy". The "hating expeditiously" part of that counsel would have been completely unacceptable in the religious and social milieu in which I grew up. But after more than a half-century of trying to help people who were sick in mind, body and spirit from having turned their hatreds and anger in on themselves, I understand the efficacy of Menninger's counsel. To turn hatred and anger in on oneself is not a religious virtue. It is a self-inflicted wound and the source of a plethora of emotional and even physical problems, none of which are virtuous.

If the idea of "hating expeditiously" in some way offends your religious sensitivities, read the Book of Psalms with that phrase in mind. The Psalmists were not afraid to be angry or afraid to hate expeditiously. Here in this part of the Bible to which we characteristically turn for comfort and guidance in troubled times, the Psalmists knew how to purge their souls by directing their hatred where it belonged. The word "hate" is used more times in the Book of Psalms than in any other book in the Bible. The Psalmist in Psalm 139 speaks of how he feels toward the enemies of the Lord. "I hate them with perfect hatred" (verse 22).

We all know that hatred is not only a natural but also a dangerous emotion. It becomes malignant when it "freezes" and will not be moved by love or reason. Be careful with hate, but do not "deep-six" it. If you do, it will come back to haunt and harm you in many dangerous and unexpected ways.

I was initially shocked when Menninger wrote that "each person kills himself in his own selected way, fast or slow, soon or late, and the methods are legion". But at this end of my life I am shocked and saddened to see the ways in which people do just that, consciously or unconsciously, with the bottle, a drug of preference, a fork, by driving 90 miles an hour, or you name it.

Someone once asked Menninger what to do if you felt you were having a nervous break down. He said, "Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks and find someone in need and do something for them". That sounds like the advice of an old friend of ours who lived 2000 years ago. Hmmmmmmm.