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Religious advice on divorce ... from my employer
January 17, 2012 10:50 AM   Subscribe

I went to a counseling session at the employee assistance program at the midwestern U.S. state college that I work at, and the handout that I received is religious. I'm not, and it made me uncomfortable. How do I approach this?

I had a counseling session at my state college's employee assistance program to ask about taking sick time or a work adjustment while I'm going through my divorce.

The counselor advised against it, and when I was leaving, gave me a photocopied handout that is an excerpt from the book "How to Survive the Loss of a Love."

In a few short pages it works in a lot of references to God and faith. For instance, part of one of the poems:

In solitude
I do much.
In love
I do more,
but
in doubt
I only transfer
pain to paper
in gigantic Passion Plays
complete with miracles and martyrs
and crucifixions and resurrections.
Come to stay
or
stay away.
This series of passion poems
is becoming a heavy cross to bear.

The handout also quotes the Talmud, "The sun will set without thy assistance."

I am not religious, and it made me uncomfortable.

This would be fine to me if I was getting it from a friend, since it would be coming from a person who cared about me. It would be ok to me in a lot of other contexts. But from my state employer?

I'm at a low point in my life and don't know if I'm overreacting. And I don't know how much I have in me to take this very far. I have another session scheduled, so I'm at least planning on talking about the handout.

But what do I say?

I don't think this handout should be used at a diverse state institution, but do I take this anywhere beyond telling the counselor that it specifically made me uncomfortable?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total)
 
My reaction is that you probably do not have the spare cycles to devote to a campaign against this issue while you go through your divorce. Can it not wait until the other issues in your life are more settled?
posted by kalessin at 10:57 AM on January 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


You have enough on your plate right now. I would mention to the counselor that it made you uncomfortable as part of taking care of yourself, but now is a poor time to take it further.

There's plenty of time to address this when you're back on your feet.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:00 AM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think you should not say anything *right now.* You have a lot going on and need to stay focused on your life and your well-being in the near term. You have a legitimate point and sometime down the road you will be in a better position to defend it should you choose to do so. In the meantime take care of yourself.
posted by headnsouth at 11:02 AM on January 17, 2012


At least from the examples you've provided, the impression I'm getting is not that the handout is religious, but that it's a poem which uses religious imagery to make its point.

I think that's certainly something you can bring up with the counselor in a session, but beyond that I don't know that it would be a good use of your time to take it much further. It just seems like a bit of a gray area, and it also seems that you have bigger things to which you can devote your energy.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:04 AM on January 17, 2012 [10 favorites]


You're not overreacting, but it's also not your responsibility to turn this into a crusade at a time when you're already so stressed that you're seeking counseling! : )

But if you feel like something must be done, is there someone you can hand this off to? Like, HR or a union representative? Or even the head of the counseling office? I agree with you that it's not appropriate at a state institution.

Hang in there and good luck with your divorce.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:05 AM on January 17, 2012


For what it's worth, that poem doesn't come across particularly religious to me - I mean, it's using religious imagery, but it doesn't sound like it's written from a Christian perspective. (OK, I googled it - the poet, Peter McWilliams, was more into Transcendental Meditation than Christianity.)

I agree with the other posters - tell the counselor(s) that it made you uncomfortable, but this doesn't seem like something you need to crusade against right now. I am a dyed-in-the-wool, life-long atheist, and I 100% believe in the separation of church and state, but that doesn't have to mean that no one can ever bring up religion ever.
posted by mskyle at 11:05 AM on January 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


Agreed with the above, and I also think that the fact that it quotes Jewish and Christian traditions means that it isn't likely the pamphlet was given out for religious reasons. I mean, "the sun will set without thy assistance" is totally true, regardless of whether it was in the Talmud or not.
posted by downing street memo at 11:06 AM on January 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't think this handout should be used at a diverse state institution

I hate to say it, but I think you're overreacting. The whole thing seems to be online here. As far as I can tell, the work isn't religious as much as it's irredeemably hokey. I am religious, and I'd feel uncomfortable of my employer offered me such ridiculously bad poetry under the theory that I'd somehow benefit from it.

But if you look at the work as a whole, there really isn't all that much that's even vaguely religious about it. The authors are a psychiatrist and a psychologist, both of whom go on to write some really terrible-looking self-help crap. I mean, yeah, there are a few scattered references to God or Jesus in there, but they're really not part of any kind of religious content. They're appeals to presumably common cultural values or at least perceptions thereof, i.e. most people, don't dispute that Jesus had some nice things to say about stuff, and the references are largely limited to that. If such references to religious things are enough to trigger you, that itself may be something worth talking about.

But really, kalessin is right. The one thing you do not need to spend much time on right now is church/state issues in fuzzy settings like this one. Tell the counselor you didn't appreciate it and leave it alone.
posted by valkyryn at 11:06 AM on January 17, 2012 [15 favorites]


excerpt from the book "How to Survive the Loss of a Love."

After my spouse died, I found that about three-fourths of the popular/well-recommended books on dealing with the topic (loss of spouse through death/divorce/etc) were based around a religious theme, which I had no interest in.

Perhaps the counselor is just using the materials they have at hand, and might not be considering that someone coming in is not welcome to the concept of religious-faith-based self-support?
posted by mrbill at 11:09 AM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I mean, yeah, there are a few scattered references to God or Jesus in there, but they're really not part of any kind of religious content. They're appeals to presumably common cultural values or at least perceptions thereof, i.e. most people, don't dispute that Jesus had some nice things to say about stuff, and the references are largely limited to that. If such references to religious things are enough to trigger you, that itself may be something worth talking about.

The fact that "most people don't dispute that Jesus had some nice things to say about stuff" does not make references to God or Jesus secular (and clearly, some people do not believe that "Jesus had nice things to say about stuff").
posted by vorfeed at 11:10 AM on January 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Are you upset about the religious imagery or in your eyes, did it take your helpful outlet down a peg? If I got a hokey, pseudo-religious handout, I would be frustrated because I'd question the quality of the counselor who just denied me sick time/work adjustment.
posted by Katine at 11:19 AM on January 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


vorfeed, it's not secular, but it's also not proselytizing, which is why I think it would probably be not illegal. I'm sure the choir at this state college performs religious music. I'm sure the English department studies religious texts. This employee assistance program would probably suggest AA to an alcoholic. What I'm saying is, even for those of us who are nonreligious, agnostic, atheist, whatever, religion is part of the culture we live in, including the glurgy self-help culture.
posted by mskyle at 11:20 AM on January 17, 2012


Can you request to see a different counselor?
posted by smokingloon at 11:22 AM on January 17, 2012


complete with miracles and martyrs
and crucifixions and resurrections.


These words are not owned by any religion; they can be used by anyone. I do not see this poetry as religious at all.
posted by TinWhistle at 11:25 AM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


You could report it to Americans United, an organization "dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation."
posted by exogenous at 11:44 AM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oops, I hit post too soon. At any rate, I disagree that disliking "such references to religious things" means that you have "something worth talking about". I agree with others that this is probably not a battle worth fighting at the moment, but it's not necessarily an "overreaction" to dislike being surrounded by other people's (very specific and explicitly religious) "common cultural values or at least perceptions thereof". Part of the offense is the blithe assumption that everyone believes these things.

And yes, I agree that it's probably not illegal, but that doesn't make it non-problematic (and on preview: "Passion Plays" -- complete with caps -- aren't "owned by any religion"? News to me.)
posted by vorfeed at 11:48 AM on January 17, 2012


Is it possible the underlying reason for your offense is not the dumb poetry, but the fact that the person supposed to support you has taken the institution's side in persuading you not to take time off?
posted by MangyCarface at 11:57 AM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's just a handout. I think you can address it later.

I had a counselor who gave me a lot of handouts once. Some were good, some included a bunch of behavioral-psych stuff about gender roles that I thought was hooey. He was still a great counselor, just trying to throw a lot of resources at me. There's a lot of stuff like this out there, cobbled together for a very general audience. It's not looking to change you, it's looking to give you some tools and suggest some other perspectives. Take what works, leave the rest.

Mainly, it's kind of a loosey-goosey, unfocused, hard-to--use crappy handout more than a "religious" handout.
posted by Miko at 11:57 AM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would take this in stride as the sort of stuff that some counselors give. If it doesn't do anything for you, toss it and don't think about it anymore. I would not mention it myself, though I don't think you're strictly wrong for taking pause. If you need to say something, I'd say something like, "Hey, sorry, I'm just too overwhelmed for any more material like that." I would wait until she brought up the hand-out (and in that case I would say, "You know, it just kind of made me feel weird because I thought it was religious, although I really appreciate that you cared enough to give it to me") or until she tried to give me more (and go with the "overwhelmed" deal)
posted by Elizabeth907 at 12:07 PM on January 17, 2012


It kind of sucks for you that they used that, but it's also not necessarily a sign that they're going to be taking a "yay religion heals all" perspective either; a lot of "inspirational/supportive" material just tends to be phrased using religious imagery.

I would just take the counselor aside and say that you'd really prefer they not give you anything with a religious tone to it because it just rubs you the wrong way. If they're anything worth their salt they'll make a note of that and comply.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:15 PM on January 17, 2012


Offering a counterpoint, you could also go back to the counselor and ask if he has any non-religious oriented handouts. If he asks, maybe mention you'd prefer secular-only advice as you're not religious. If he continues with the religious aspect despite your polite, mild protestations, drop him like a hot rock and find someone else. You have enough shit in your life without worrying about your counselor (potentially) beating you over the head with a book, so if that simple thirty-second interaction doesn't satisfy you just mooove on.

(And personally I think if you believe you need a 'mental health day' to get yourself through, take it and do something good. I do this every now and then due to panic attacks; the only thing I do is think for a few minutes about WHY I'm calling in. If it's just 'meh lazy', I stick it out. If the thought of going to work makes me start shaking, I call in. YMMV.)

Been where you are. It's no fun at all. It gets better, even if it takes you a while.
posted by Heretical at 12:15 PM on January 17, 2012


I'm another atheist who doesn't see any religion or proselytizing in what you've presented.

You claim that a pamphlet "made you uncomfortable." Not that it matters one way or the other, but are you sure about that?
posted by General Tonic at 12:30 PM on January 17, 2012


bringing this up to the counselor might force you to talk about religious stuff more than you want to, and will put him on the defensive which may not help too much in getting counseling. consider saying something to someone who supervises the counselor.

better yet, go to the 2nd session and wait and see if something similar happens again. if so, mentiion that it made you uncomfortable last time as well as this time and that it's in appropriate and if the counselor apologizes, practice the art of letting go/forgiving
posted by saraindc at 12:34 PM on January 17, 2012


Yeah, here's the key point: "gave me a photocopied handout." It wasn't something the counselor or the state employer worked up; it was something the counselor had to hand that she thought might be useful. Perhaps when she grabbed it, she thought, "Well, this isn't perfect, but it's got the gist right, and I haven't found anything else similar ..."

Anyway, given that it's a random self-help photocopy, and not materials that the employer or EAP developed, or that the counselor developed, or an expensive bought-and-paid-for system, I expect very little thought or emotional investment went into it. I would smply say to the counselor or whoever runs the EAP, "One of the handouts I got was, I felt, too religiously-oriented. I can see how it might be helpful for a religious person, but it made me uncomfortable." Don't tell them what to do about it, just alert them to the fact that it made you uncomfortable. The counselor can read between the lines and take the "friendly warning." Whereas if you start saying things like "totally inappropriate!" people may get defensive instead.

Whether or not such material is allowable at a state institution, the more salient point to me is that a counselor should be aware enough of her client's needs to say something like, "I have a pamphlet that may be helpful, but it uses some religious metaphors, would you like it?" or "This uses religious language, but I want you to read it; I haven't found anything else that explains it as well." or even, "Here's something that addresses this from your faith tradition, I think that will be helpful to you." Whatever. A good counselor should be aware of (and ideally friendly to) his or her client's religious orientation, because that's an important part of emotional health for many people.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:49 PM on January 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


I would mention at the next session that you found the pamphlet to be quite religious, which bothered you, and that you would appreciate it if your discussion and any other materials the counselor gave you were strictly secular.

As far as the handout being used at all, perhaps you could address it as keeping religious and secular materials separate, and asking people if they wished to receive materials with religious themes (opt-in). Some people may want handouts that reference Christianity (or Judaism, or Buddhism...), and that's okay as long as the counselor isn't trying to sell the clients on one religion over another.
posted by epj at 12:51 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can see how it might be helpful for a religious person,

The thing is that a handout like this would be equally useless to many religious people, because it has some content from several different faith traditions and explicitly endorses none. I wouldn't encourage them in thinking that, either. It's not really religiously focused, it's more like a general New Age/vaguely spiritually influenced thing.
posted by Miko at 12:58 PM on January 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Is a poem religious if it uses Prometheus stealing fire from the gods as a metaphor to describe the invention of Turing complete computing machines? If it calls an office cubicle farm a kind of Purgatory? If it compares a rakish character to Coyote or some other trickster spirit? If it relates the experience of standing among tall trees in a forest to the experience of standing inside a Gothic Cathedral? If it draws a comparison between pictures of family on a refrigerator to ancestor worship?

I do not believe the lines you quoted are problematic because they are religious. They could easily have been written by a somewhat melodramatic atheist or secular humanist without any sort of contradiction. In no way do they violate the separation of church and state, in letter or in spirit, on their own merits.

It may be a bad idea to photocopy poetry (a very personal kind of art) and hand it out to people you just met, but that's a separate question, isn't it?
posted by jsturgill at 2:24 PM on January 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


The poem is by Peter McWilliams (Wikipedia link that will go dark tomorrow, but you can Google him for other sites). I believe that he was a phenomenal poet in the areas of loss and healing and love, and he isn't a religious poet by definition. However, I have seen several of his poems include phrases or words that are also used as religious symbolism (cross, crucifixion, etc) but I don't believe he intended for them to be a direct reference to a specific religion. Just imagery. (I can't comment on the Talmud quote, but I am reading it without any religious reference at all. To me it says don't worry about the things you can't completely control...they're gonna happen regardless).

The book is How to Survive the Loss of a Love and is described on Amazon as: "One of the most directly helpful books on the subject of loss ever written, the first edition of this comforting and inspiring book, published in 1976, sold nearly two million copies. This completely revised and expanded edition encompasses not only the medical and psychological advances in the treatment of loss, but also the authors' own experiences." It's been a while since I read it, so I can't comment on how many religious references the authors put in. Are all of the photocopies from that same book, or are they from different books?

My advice is to take from it what works, and leave the rest. I totally get your concern, but I think now is the time for you to focus your energy on yourself and healing. If you see the counselor again you could ask if he/she meant to send a religious message with the handout and mention that you interpreted it that way so that he/she might be more cautious about it in the future. You are definitely not obligated to read the book nor the handouts. My opinion is that if you have other, more personal, issues to work on this is not a battle worth choosing at this particular time.

I am sorry for the pain you are going through...been there, done that.
posted by MultiFaceted at 3:39 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is a poem religious if it uses Prometheus stealing fire from the gods as a metaphor to describe the invention of Turing complete computing machines? If it calls an office cubicle farm a kind of Purgatory? If it compares a rakish character to Coyote or some other trickster spirit? If it relates the experience of standing among tall trees in a forest to the experience of standing inside a Gothic Cathedral? If it draws a comparison between pictures of family on a refrigerator to ancestor worship?

I'd say it depends on context. If the central message of the poem (along with roughly half its text) consists of a specific, extended religious metaphor, then yes, some people will probably consider it to be religious.

Also, the OP said in a few short pages it works in a lot of references to God and faith. This is not just about one single poem which may or may not be seen as religious; for one thing, it seems to have been included with at least one explicit reference to a religious text.
posted by vorfeed at 4:42 PM on January 17, 2012


vorfeed, you can read the actual handout above. I know reading it changed my perspective on it completely. I had imagined something very different.
posted by Miko at 5:01 PM on January 17, 2012


[Folks, from this point forward can you please not debate the "Is this religious" and maybe help the OP manage her response. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 5:20 PM on January 17, 2012


Write a courteous email to the person who provided the pamphlet, and maybe to HR Since we are a publicly-funded institution, I was surprised that EAP Office distributes material with religious content. blah blah but, personally, I wouldn't send it. Writing such emails, even in my head, helps me clarify my thoughts, and get the annoyance kinks out of my head. Sending them tends to make life crankier, and my life is plenty cranky.

Divorce is so not fun. I'm sorry you're having a crappy time.
posted by theora55 at 6:03 PM on January 17, 2012


I think that complaining about this will make you look foolish; there's no church/state issue to be found in that handout, just some lame allusions. If anything, religion as expressed in the quoted poem is bogging the writer down more: what with all the self-pity and martyrdom and whatnot, "this series of passion poems is becoming a heavy cross to bear." It's not even assuming Christianity has something helpful to offer the reader, much less proselytizing...or maybe I'm the one who's not getting it?

Anyway, I think you could safely cross this off your list of things to worry about. If you have an past that involved religious abuse or something like that, it would make sense for any allusion to religious content to make you uncomfortable, but even that would be a personal matter and not a church/state one. Apart from that possibility, yes, you're overreacting. It's not the government's responsibility to protect you from references to religion, even references in materials handed out in a state office.
posted by torticat at 6:18 AM on January 18, 2012


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