What does Gustav Mahler have to do with my theoretical orientation?

My Theories of Counseling class got to chapter 6 in our textbook and I was ready to shut my book and call it a semester. Existential counseling! That was it, me in a nutshell, the place from which I draw understanding and meaning and ideas. I finally had a name and a vocabulary for what underpins my ideas about the world, especially that universal struggling to make some meaning out of our world.

I’ve been immersed in the arts and humanities since childhood, and I believe this has had an effect on how I view the world. The arts and humanities connects you to a world of human emotions and experiences in a way that most other fields can’t. Most artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers–at least the ones that leave the greatest impact on the world–struggle with questions like, “What is my purpose?,” “What did that mean?,” “What is the point?,” and “Am I alone?”

Part of my beliefs can be attributed to my time in the musicology program at Penn State. Even though existentialism wasn’t necessarily discussed, those issues were always in the background with Mahler, Beethoven, Messiaen, Monteverdi, and even the Beatles, all departmental focuses. (And in retrospect, perhaps all musicology departments are like this simply due to the nature of the field.)

I didn’t realize how strongly my background influenced my thinking until I got to my Theories class last spring. It underpins everything I do and believe as both a counselor and a person, including guiding my choice to return to school for counseling. I like that existential therapy offers a worldview instead of merely tools and skills–and that I can incorporate tools and skills from other theories into helping clients as needed. I also like that existential counselors give the counselor-client relationship central importance and serve as guides rather than teachers or coaches. In our science-based, results-driven world, I think what some clients actually seek is that human element of a caring, supportive relationship to help them through a tough time. Maybe that sounds simplistic, but when was the last time you put down the cell phone and laptop and sat down with someone who really cared to hash out what it all means and what you’re going to do about it?

So, in a way, Mahler, Beethoven, Messiaen, Monteverdi, Stravinsky, Schubert, Schumann, a whole group of early American composers, Strauss, those out-there avant-garde composers from the sixties, Bach, the Beatles, and every other composer I’ve studied have everything to do with how I think. And so do the writers, artists, and thinkers connected with them through the intricate web of influence that make up the arts and humanities. We are all trying to figure out the same things.

This weekend, I renewed my passion for both music and counseling. My husband and I heard the Kansas City Symphony perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.” Gustav Mahler struggled to create meaning out of a life that kept forcing him to ask “Why?,” and turned his questioning into an epic musical journey through strife and meaninglessness into redemption. Not everyone has the outlet of music, or even any kind of outlet, to ask these questions. I hope that as a counselor someday, I can walk with my clients on their journeys to find what is meaningful and true for them.

Photo source.


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