Jon Carlson: A positive force in counseling, psychology and the world
Written by Matt Englar-Carlson and Jeffrey Kottler
Up before dawn on a beautiful Wisconsin morning in the woods, it is time for Jon to walk his dogs, Huxley and Harper. He tries to squeeze in a walk of 30 minutes or more before his day begins.
Jon’s long, lean body is folded over itself as he manages to scrunch himself into a chair built for an 8-year-old in the local elementary school where he volunteers a few hours each week because the school can’t afford a regular counselor. A little girl is crying in the chair opposite him, referred by her teacher because her father got hurt in an accident.
Jon’s next stop is his clinic a few miles away. Here he is seeing the first of four clients before heading to the university to teach a class and supervising students.
During the two-hour commute into Chicago from his house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Jon calls his son Matt to talk about everything going on in their lives: their respective exciting things at work, updates on the grandkids, discussions about favorite sports teams, new music and books to share, a new collaborative book project and pretty much life in general. Next he calls Jeffrey about an idea he has to add to their collection of more than a dozen volumes about different facets of counselors’ experiences.
When Jon gets to his university office, he sorts through invitations for him to visit as the leading spokesperson of his generation about Adlerian counseling. He agrees to return to Thailand to do a series of community-invited mental health workshops with allied health professionals on parenting education and fostering family relationships.
A stack of manuscripts, submitted to the journal he edits, is sitting on his desk, waiting for decisions regarding their status. He leafs through a few before calling Jeffrey again; he has another idea for a book they could do together.
Jon is sitting before a studio audience, cameras rolling, as he interviews one of more than 300 notable figures in counseling and psychotherapy after a demonstration of the person’s theory in action. After the taping, Jon teaches a supervision class.
Jon checks in with his wife of 50 years, Laura, and his four other children, each of who lives in another part of the country, pursuing their own careers.
The day ends with a moment of daily reflection, with Jon sending a prayer of lovingkindness to all of the people he interacted with that day. As an avid Buddhist and frequent visitor to audiences with the Dalai Lama, he practices mindfulness whenever he can — and whenever he doesn’t get caught up in “distractions.”
This was a single day in the life of Jon Carlson, private practice counselor and psychologist, school counselor and school psychologist, film producer, author, journal editor, professor, supervisor, avid runner, wellness fanatic, friend, father and colleague. Throughout his long and distinguished career, resulting in the publication of 64 books, 185 articles and more than 300 training videos adopted by universities around the world, Jon has been a leading figure within the fields of counseling, psychology, education, and Adlerian theory and practice. He was also committed throughout his life and work to developing what Alfred Adler called “social interest.” Jon wanted to be a positive force in the world and believed that encouragement could be way of life.
“Too many people seem to look at single events in judging their lives. Single events do not describe a person. We are all more than our best or our worst events. I can focus on a long-term marriage, successful children, athletic success and a wall full of professional honors, but they do not describe true satisfaction for me. I measure success and satisfaction on how I get along with the important people in my life: my wife, children, friends, colleagues, bosses and the students who I teach.”
Jon had a long teaching career that included positions at Wayne State University, Governors State University, Nova Southeastern University, University of Hawaii, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and the Adler School of Professional Psychology. At the time of his passing, Jon was the distinguished professor of Adlerian psychology at Adler University, Chicago, and psychologist with the Wellness Clinic in Lake Geneva. He was also professor emeritus at Governors State University. He worked hard at being a complete professional, earning two doctorates (Ed.D. from Wayne State University in counseling and guidance and Psy.D. in clinical psychology from the Adler School of Professional Psychology), and was licensed and certified many times over (licensed psychologist, marriage and family therapist, clinical counselor, school counselor, alcohol and drug counselor, and certified sex therapist).
“I have been privileged to have provided over 60,000 client contact hours. My clients have experienced so many different problems with a full range of developmental issues. I have not been exposed to most of their problems but still have had to accept responsibility for their resolution. This has called for me to listen very carefully, reflect on my own experiences, read books and seek supervision. The problems related to death and dying are frequent direct or indirect concerns of all clients. The same with so many other problems. I have been fortunate to have thought about so many issues and to try them on for size for my personal life.”
For a man who packed as much as possible into his life, the past several years had been challenging for Jon. Six years ago, he had begun battling a rare form of lymphoma with treatment that included innumerable rounds of chemotherapy, coronary quadruple bypass surgery and a stem cell transplant.
His initial reaction was one of incredulity: How could this happen after all the years of running and exercising and completely committing to holistic wellness? He had always tried hard to be a model for his clients. But now he quickly pivoted into a reframe. Maybe all of those years focused on exercise and wellness were preparing him to fight this. He endured innumerable procedures, treatments and rehab, and mostly recovered.
This past August he was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), most likely associated with his previous chemotherapy and stem cell treatments. This led to more chemotherapy and radiation, and a bone marrow transplant followed. But this time it was not enough. Yet during all of his years of illness and treatment, he continued seeing clients, teaching, writing and, intermittently, traveling the world to do workshops, although he now might hold the record for most visits to emergency rooms around the world.
“I have worked hard at being physically healthy, mentally healthy, spiritually healthy and relationally healthy. You can’t teach what you don’t know. Our clients do not believe us when we suggest that they do things or think in ways that are not consistent with how we live our life. I do what I do for myself, but I also do it for others. It is so important for me to be able to prove to others that living healthy is possible no matter how busy your life.”
Matt and Jon had recently completed a new book on Adlerian psychotherapy, and it was the last book that Jon held. Jon and Jeffrey were beginning another book together on counselor expertise. Although Jon was declining rapidly toward the end, they also collaborated to help him record some of his final thoughts about his life, his work, his family and about death.
“My drive to live healthy comes from this deeper compassion and love for others and wanting them to be healthy and happy, even though it appears selfish to some. I frequently realize that I am helping myself while helping my clients. I don’t set out to do this; it just happens. In other words, in solving others’ problems, I have been able to work through ones that I was aware of and others that I wasn’t.”
Jon always wanted to travel the earth. During his lifetime, he visited six continents, often teaching, researching or engaging in social justice service projects along the way. He taught Adlerian psychology in Lithuania, walked the Great Wall of China, explored the jungles of Borneo, hiked in the Himalaya Mountains in Nepal and India, and traveled with the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Namibia. He often took students, family and friends with him to share in the experience. Jon had an adventurous spirit that was evident not only in his life journey, but also in his many contributions to our profession.
“I don’t know what happens when we die. I doubt that it has anything to do with 70 virgins or some other such big reward. My Christian upbringing tells me that the next life depends on how we conducted ourselves in this one. Maybe I’ll connect with those that have gone before me that were my teachers, from my parents and siblings, to those who I admire, like the Buddha, Jesus and Adler. My final thought is one that is attributed to Alfred Adler. Adler indicated that ‘Meanings are not determined by situations, but we determine ourselves what meaning we want to give to situations.’ I hope I have at some level demonstrated how death and dying can either be an adventure or a tragedy.”
Matt Englar-Carlson is a professor of counseling at California State University, Fullerton.
Jeffrey Kottler is clinical professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Jeffrey and Jon co-authored a dozen books together.