Purpose of Life
Updated: Sep 7, 2019
Reflections by Dr. Stanley McCracken
For our first volume of Urban Pace, we have chosen Dr. Stanley McCracken as our guest. Because of Stan’s extraordinary gifts as a professor at University of Chicago, as well as his embodying qualities of compassion and wisdom, he extends beyond the classroom to others.
Stanley McCracken is a Lecturer in the School of Social Service Administration. He is a licensed clinical social worker and a registered dual disorder professional. His practice and teaching interests lie in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, co-occurring disorders, multicultural mental health, aging, spirituality in social work practice, and dissemination and implementation of evidence-based practice. Prior to 2007 when he came to SSA full-time, he had a joint appointment as Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, Department of Psychiatry and later at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. In addition to seeing clients in the department of psychiatry, he also worked with patients in the departments of gastroenterology, cardiology, primary care, and the diabetes center.
What question would you like the reader to think about?
What is your passion? What do you care about and what gives your life meaning?
Do you have any post-election advice?
This is a brand new ball game. The administration has cast doubt on the credibility of the media and the intelligence community. Part of the problem, less than a week after inauguration, is that nobody knows what the president is going to do. I usually advise that people, to the best of their ability, not get ahead of themselves and take the long view, if they can.
What theories do you find useful in your work?
My first psychology teacher was my father, a farmer and an electrician with a sixth grade education. He would teach me important life lessons from an early age. I have a rather concrete approach when it comes to this work, “Don’t try to control what you can’t and don’t waste your time with the small stuff.” At some level this is simply about two people talking together.
When it comes to theory it depends on the type of problem we are presented. As one of my mentors told me, “if your client needs a coat, get her a coat — we don’t need to process her feelings about being cold”. There are many useful approaches: psychoanalytic, cognitive behavioral, as well as biological. Recently, I have also been looking for ways to integrate spirituality. Social work has a couple different roots in the US, and a number of the early leaders were inspired by faith traditions and values, e.g., care for the poor, immigrants, improving working conditions, slums, child labor. There seemed to be an overlap of social work and religious ideals and values.
Are there any quotes you live by?
The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well. To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
What misperceptions do people have about the field of mental health?
I don’t worry about the students who worry about whether they are ready to begin their careers in social work, but I do worry about those who think they got it. One problem is that people are not prepared for how long it takes to understand this business. I would say it takes at least 10 years. I have worked in this field for 40 years and I still get supervision. Fortunately, I can consult with my wife, Susan, who is a clinical psychologist specializing in treating children and adolescents.
Any important experiences you have had with patients?
In my class, I share with my students the cases where I believe I failed, since these are the experiences that taught me the most. I once worked with a football player who enjoyed knocking out other players. It was at first hard for me to connect with him; later I was able to understand his inner pain. There are also clients who have faced horrific circumstances, and I admired and learned from their resilience.
Is there a connection between art and psychology?
Funny thing you ask that, last night I had several dreams of different patients presenting their art work, and I kept waking up and falling asleep only to see the same dream. When I was first studying psychology and social work, my professor said the best descriptions of mental distress can be found in novels. Actually, Susan uses novels, movies, and especially music as tools when treating her patients.
What is your favorite tea?
My favorite teas change over time. I most often come back to green oolong teas.
How do you keep balance in your life?
One thing I would advise: start Yoga before you’re 70. I have been doing Tai Chi for 40 years — that is how I keep grounded. The other piece is spending a good deal of my time supporting healers such as at Asian Human Services, Rush, and Urban Warriors.
Who is the most inspirational person in your life?
Susan, she has reinvented herself. As I mentioned earlier, she is a clinical psychologist; she is now resuming her voice lessons; and she recently completed training as a celebrant and will be doing her first two weddings. She is having a second act. If I were to describe Susan in a word it would be loving, kind, and inspiring.
We met in Portland, Oregon in 1973, after my Army service as an interpreter in the Vietnam conflict. At that time, I was playing music in a band, mainly string instruments: guitar, bass, sitar and the tiple (from Colombia). I would frequently visit the music store in Portland managed by Goody. Upon Susan’s first visit to the store, Goody told her that she saw a vision of us together, although we had never met before that. Goody then gave Susan my phone number to call, and that is how we first crossed paths, you can see that was the 1970s.
Each year we continue to grow together, we even once had our own band and played at weddings. My clinical work focuses on treating addictions and chronic health/mental health conditions, while Susan works with youth struggling with eating disorders and other challenges. We now present together on topics concerning mental health — how fortunate we are.
I wish Susan was here with us today, as I probably forgot some details and got others wrong, but she should be back home soon.
What message do you hope to impart upon the students you teach?
Consistently seek to practice Compassion and Curiosity, Humility, Empathy, Respect, and Sensitivity, that is a good place to start with anyone.
Take care of yourself first. Balance is important, and people in our profession do burn out.
Don’t stop learning and thinking critically—we have a long history of finding out that some things don’t work as well as we thought and might actually be harmful. Keep your priorities straight — you can replace jobs relatively easily, replacing families is harder and more painful.
Follow your passion. Some days are hard, but if you are passionate about what you do and celebrate small victories, you can bounce back.
What one word would you use to characterize life?
I never cease to be amazed.
Thank you for coming…
This interview is from our book Urban Pace: Snowflakes.