Private Wisdom









Ralph Waldo Emerson had this to say about the giving of advice, and the drive within each of us to offer it – thinking, as we do, that we are offering a wondrous gift:

Although this garrulity of advising is born with us, I confess that life is rather a subject of wonder, than of didactics. So much fate, so much irresistible dictation from temperament and unknown inspiration enters into it, that we doubt we can say anything out of our own experience whereby to help each other.

All the professions are timid and expectant agencies.

The priest is glad if his prayers or his sermon meet the conditions of any soul; if of two, if of ten, ’tis a signal success. . .

The physician prescribes hesitatingly out of his few resources, the same tonic or sedative to this new and peculiar constitution, which he has applied with various success to a hundred men before. If the patient mends, he is glad and surprised. . .

The judge weighs the arguments, and puts a brave face on the matter, and, since there must be a decision, decides as he can, and hopes he has done justice, and given satisfaction to the community . . .

And so is all life a timid and unskillful spectator. We do what we must, and call it by the best names. ‘Tis little we can do for each other.

We accompany the youth with sympathy . . . but ’tis certain that not by strength of ours, or of the old sayings, but only on strength of his own, unknown to us or to any, he must stand or fall.

That by which a man conquers in any passage, is a profound secret to every other being in the world, and it is only as he turns his back on us and on all men, and draws on this most private wisdom, that any good can come to him.

Or, in perhaps less lofty terms, I offer this delicate observational plum, from a former patient at the Memphis V.A. Hospital, circa 1971:

Hell, Doc, you may think you know everything, but when it comes to me, you don’t know shit.

And to think, he knew that without ever reading Emerson!

But we all know it, don’t we, without having to consult Emerson, Freud, Dr. Phil or even Dear Abby; we all know that, when it comes down to us, other people, no matter how smart they are, don’t really know shit.

When I, as a therapist, have to write something about what I ‘know’ on my website, or on a referral site, or to a potential new patient, what do I say?

That I know all about relationships, mood disorders, substance abuse, career issues, loss, life transitions, and a long laundry list of other things that people struggle with? That I have a tremendous amount of experience with almost any issue that might come up?

Or that, when it comes to your life, your experiences, and what keeps you up in the middle of the night, I really don’t know shit, but that I promise to listen hard, respect you, and try my heart out, and that, together, maybe we can chase some of the shadows away and put you on the path to a better life?

Which would you rather hear? Right: you want EXPERTISE, not the old college try, don’t you? I mean, when you’ve got a mysterious skin rash that’s been making your whole life hell for months, and you finally haul yourself off to Dr. Whitesnow, the (expensive) dermatologist, for help, you don’t expect to hear,

“Dude – that’s gotta hurt!”

Hell, no – you want him to fix the ‘affected area’ with a gimlet eye and start rattling off fancy-sounding terms and unpronounceable potions that will fix you right up, don’t you? You want sureness, exactitude and precision. I mean, that’s how we tell we’re in the presence of a pro, isn’t it? We want white hair, a deep voice, and a little, knowing chuckle as the Doc says,

“Sure, son – seen it a million times, and every single time, it’s been Dermaticularis Aureolitica, commonly known as High Mountain Rash. Have you been on a ski trip within the last six months?”

And you slap your head and say, “Oh my god, Doc – of course, now it’s all so clear: it all began that weekend we went up to Mammoth. But how did you know?”

And he chuckles again, benignly, as he peers at you over his half-glasses. “Son, when you’ve gotten your medical training at Harvard, interned at Johns Hopkins, are a Lifetime Fellow of the International Dermatological Institute, have an Endowed Chair in Dermaticularis Aureolitica, and are the Director Emeritus of the American College of Rashes and Bumps, you just know.”

You’re feeling better already. “So, you think I really have this, this, uh . . .”

“You can just call it D.A. if you want – we do. And yes, that’s definitely what you have, son.”

See – that’s what we want: expertise, advice, certainty, for god’s sake!

But, uh oh, now he says, “However, there’s often a psychological component to these things. So to be absolutely sure, I’d like you to see a colleague of mine, Dr. Schleppinger.”


Did he say, Psychological Component?

You mutter, “Sure, Doc,” imagining you’re going to be sent to someone who maybe has a sub-specialty in the Low To Mid-Mountain Rash variations of D.A. or something. No problem. But then he hands you a business card:

“Leo Q. Schleppinger, Ph.D. Consulting Psychologist.”

Oh shit – here we go! I must be a real mess if they’re bringing in the witch doctors! I thought I was going to be treated by experts, not some clown who’s going to ask me when I first started liking girls, or what it felt like when my pet rabbit died when I was five. Am I going to have to look at ink blots and tell them this one looks like my Uncle Fred – the one who always wore ladies’ hats? Am I going to have to ask my mother whether my first word was boo boo? Damn it to hell, I came here for expertise – for advice, not mumbo jumbo!

So, you dutifully nod and tuck the card away in your shirt pocket, thinking, maybe it won’t be that bad – maybe he’ll do hypnosis or something, or some ‘technique’ that’s over and done with in three visits, like your friend Hap, who stopped smoking with that guy who just ‘put him under’ and told him he didn’t need cigarettes anymore.

Yeah, that’s it. You think, maybe I can ask him to help me sleep better, while he’s at it, or stop snoring, or lose weight. Hey, this might not be that bad after all: three sessions and I’m a new man! He’ll just wave his fingers in my face like in those old Abbott and Costello movies, put me in a trance and say, “Rash, rash, go away – come again some other day,” and bingo bango, it’s gone!

You call the guy and set up an appointment for Wednesday at 6:00. You have to leave work a little early, but it’s okay – you told your boss you have an allergy appointment. You know, like with a real doctor. Heaven forbid anyone finds out you’re going to a nutcracker! But, nutcracker or not, you smile to yourself: wait till they see the slim me, the rash-free me, the good-night’s-sleep me.

The new me!

By Wednesday late afternoon you’re walking on air. It’s hard to even concentrate on your work. You think, “Gee, I wonder if it’s like at a cafeteria: just point to the stuff you want, and it’s done! One from Column A, one from Column B: stop snoring, lose weight, feel happy all the time. Hey, maybe he can make me want to go to the gym again, like I used to! As I do my reps, I’ll chant, “Advice! Expertise! Hypnosis! Advice! Expertise! Hypnosis!”

Wow, by this time next year, I could be ripped!

The traffic’s miserable. It’s a rainy night and suddenly everyone’s a student driver. And you’re starting to get a little nervous. Heck, that cream the Doc gave me is already helping my D.A. – why the hell do I have to go to a head-shrinker anyway? Just so Dr. Whitesnow can cover his ass, in case I have a nervous breakdown and sue him? In case the rash, in one patient out of a million, is actually an early sign of an impending meltdown, and I’m the one in a million? Did the Doc see something that he didn’t tell me? Something that made him think I’m actually going off my rocker? Something that cries out, “Have this guy put under observation, quick!” Something that you only pick up if you’re the Endowed Chair of the . . . what the heck was it again – The Fellowship of the Pimple, or something? Damn, now I can’t even remember a conversation I had just a week ago. Am I losing my memory? My mind? My mind and my memory? Wait, maybe that’s good: if I can’t remember anything, I wouldn’t remember that I went out of my mind, would I? Maybe I’ll end up one of those happy lunatics, content to sit and fill in coloring books in the day-room of the Shady Grove Home For The Mostly Gone. Would my wife come to visit me, or would she take up with that neighbor that’s always giving her the eye – what’s his name? Herb, Hubie, Harv – dammit, I can’t even remember my wife’s future lover’s name anymore. Herk, Howie . . . Oh yeah – Joe. Well, I was close, wasn’t I? I wonder if this Schlossinger guy can bring my memory back? But then, would I even want to remember going crazy and losing my wife? It is Schlossinger, isn’t it? Oh no, here we go again: Schlepperdink? Schlerdenbaum? Hell, what’s the difference, as long as it’s Advice, Expertise, Hypnosis!

With a start, you snap out of it and see the sign: Midtown Professional Building. That has a nice, solid ring to it, and that helps, some. Doesn’t it at least show that this guy is accepted in the company of other professionals? That they’re not ashamed to be seen with him, or at least not ashamed to pass him in the halls once in a while? Or do they even see each other in the halls? Do they eat together? Do they compare notes, and laugh, over meatloaf and mashed potatoes?

I just saw this guy who couldn’t even remember my name! What’s more, he couldn’t even remember the name of his wife’s future lover! Can you believe that? He came in for a rash, but we all know a rash like that is just a big red danger signal, flashing: Stop Me Before It’s Too Late! Say, pass me those rolls, wouldya?

You sit in your car in the parking lot, watching the rain make its way down your windshield, thinking, “Should I even go in? If he thinks I’m gonna sit still while he prods and pokes around in my mind, only to make fun of me over meatloaf, well he’s got another thing coming! He can take his Psychological Component and . . .”

But then cooler heads prevail (seeing as how you’re now under observation as a split personality), and you decide, fair is fair – at least give the guy a chance to actually abuse you, before you hit the panic button and count him out. And Dr. Whitesnow said the guy might help, and after all, he has a full head of white hair, so he should know: give the new guy a fair shot. I mean, he might not be that bad: maybe he’ll confine his lunch comments to tamer stuff, like the ink blots and Uncle Fred. I mean, maybe the other guys at lunch won’t even want to hear about some guy’s rash, while they’re trying to eat, right?

You scan the impressive name board in the lobby: Samuels, Sapperstein, Schaum – yes, there it is: Schleppinger! He’s right up there with the legitimate doctors, so he can’t be that bad, can he? At least he’s got his name up there on the fancy board, in the company of decent people. Let’s see – Room 444. Not too low, not too high – that’s good. Didn’t your high school locker number used to be 444? That’s a good sign. Hey, maybe this whole thing will pan out after all – especially if I get ripped.

You enter the elevator and push 4. You ride up, and the doors open. Not bad – they have carpeting on the floors, not too worn, not too garish or anything, just regular-looking, like decent people might have. Of course, he probably didn’t do the decorating himself, but still, it doesn’t do any harm either: decent carpeting goes with decent people, doesn’t it? You bet it does!

On the way down the hall, you repeat your mantra: Advice, Expertise . . . and dammit, what was that third thing again? Gotta hide that memory loss – that’s a dead giveaway. Oh yeah – Hypnosis! See – I’m fine!

The waiting room’s okay. At first all you could see is Vogues and Elles, but then, thank god, you root around and find a couple old Sports Illustrateds under the pile: you grab one of ’em, quick, and make sure you’re reading an article on the Detroit Lions when the door opens.

“Mr. Quigley?”

You put down the magazine (making sure the Lions page is still open and visible). “Yeah – that’s me.”

“I’m Dr. Schleppinger – pleased to meet you.” He offers his hand. Older guy, looks like maybe once upon a time he had a body, but if he’s doing self-hypnosis for his own gym workouts, it sure isn’t working. But all in all, not bad – no beard or anything, no sandals with socks or anything else suspect, if you know what I mean. For a second you consider going to a quick fist-bump to mess with him, but that’d only look weird. Gotta be careful. Firm handshake is best: keep it simple.

You’re ushered into one of those offices where you can’t tell if the guy’s a shrink or an anthropologist. Couple of weird masks on the wall, some Navajo-lookin’ blankets here and there. No pictures of Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, that’s for sure, but we’ll let that pass. He may not have an endowed chair, but at least he’s got a Barcalounger.

“So, Mr. Quigley – what can I do for you?”

You go blank. Think, think: you can’t show that memory loss right off the bat, you fool! What’s my doctor’s name, for the love of god? Say something – anything!

“Uh, that guy – you know, the one with the white hair, says I’ve got D.A., and I’m here for my Psychological Component.”

You can’t believe that just came out of your mouth.

He leans forward, brow knitted. “Excuse me, Mr. Quigley. Did you say the D.A. referred you? Is this in reference to some legal matter?”

You’ve got to do better this time. You take a deep breath. “No, no, Doc. It’s this rash that I got while I was skiing. He says it’s Dermococcus Auroriata, or something, and that I’ve gotta be checked out for a nervous breakdown.”

Now he’s leaning back, scribbling notes furiously. “Have you been hospitalized before?”

“Yeah, I had a real bad strep when I was in college, and, well, they thought, you know, just for precautionary . . .”

“No, I mean for your psychiatric condition, Mr. Quigley.”

You panic. “What psychiatric condition? Look, Doc, you’re just supposed to check me out for the D.A.”

“What does the D.A. have to do with why you’re here?”

Now you’re getting mad. “It’s the whole reason I’m here, man. There’s nothing else wrong with me but this rash.” You roll up your sleeve to show him the red bumps up and down your arm. “And if you want to laugh about this over lunch – well, so be it.” That’s tellin’ him!

“Why would I laugh about it over lunch?” He stops scribbling and puts down the pad. “Look, Mr. Quigley, maybe we’d better start all over. Why are you here to see me?”

“Didn’t you already talk to Dr. Whitesnow? I thought all you guys were thick as thieves.”

“Look, Mr. Quigley, whoever Dr. Whitesnow is, I’ve never met him, or talked to him. So let’s just pretend I know nothing about your case, especially since I don’t know anything about your case. Now let’s just take it from the top. Please calm down and tell me why you’re here.”

“Now you’re talking. That’s the first thing you’ve said that makes any sense at all.”

“I appreciate your confidence. Now, if you’ll just tell me the whole story, from the beginning.”

Okay, so here’s the deal . . .”

You fill him in on how the rash was making your life a living hell, the visit to Dr. Whitesnow, about D.A., then about the dreaded Psychological Component. “So you see, Doc, what I want you to do is basically the same kind of stuff they did for Hap, but including the rash.”

“Who’s Hap?”

“My neighbor, who was hypnotized out of smoking, by one of you guys. I’m sure you must know him – I can’t remember his name.”

“And I would know him, of course, because we’re all thick as thieves?”

“Well, sorry about that one. I just meant . . .”

“That’s okay, Mr. Quigley, but the fact of the matter is, I’m not the kind of thief that does hypnosis.”

“Then why am I here?”

“I thought you were here to get help with your rash.”

“Well, I am, but if you don’t really even know how to do anything . . .”

“Did Dr. Whitesnow tell you I do hypnosis – or that that’s what you need?”

“Well, no, but . . .”

“So your knowledge of psychology comes mostly from Hap?”

“That’s not exactly what I . . .”

“Are you willing to talk to me about what I actually do, and how it might help you? You know, kind of get a second opinion, other than Hap’s? I mean, especially since you’re already here and everything.”

You’re calming down a bit. This guy’s kind of a nut, but not really a bad nut. It couldn’t hurt to stick around and hear him out, could it? “Sure, fire away.”

“Is it alright with you if I ask a few questions first? Sometimes I like to find out a few things about the patient, before I start offering solutions to his life – you know, even if only to keep in fighting trim.”

Maybe this guy’s alright, even though he doesn’t really know how to do anything. “Look, Doc – I’m sorry I shot my mouth off before. I guess I was pretty nervous about this whole thing. I mean, a Psychological Component can’t be a good thing, can it? And I’m sorry about the meat loaf, too.”

“I can let the meat loaf go, if you can let it go that I’m not thick with Hap’s hypnotist.” He stuck his hand out. “Deal?”

You shake hands. “Deal.”

Forty-five minutes later, you walk out feeling a lot better, though you can’t imagine why. The guy didn’t do anything, really, didn’t say anything, really. He didn’t even do any of the Big Three: no Advice, no Expertise, no Hypnosis. Kind of a fraud, but a nice fraud – the kind of fraud you don’t mind coming in to talk to again.

You do come in again to talk to him, a bunch of times. It comes out, somehow, that you’re a pretty angry guy (who knew?), that you resent the hell out of your wife (that’s what she always said, but you always thought she was a damn liar), and that you hate your new boss – you know, the young punk they brought in to replace the old, ‘good’ boss; the new kid with an attitude, who said he needed to ‘get to know you better’ before he knew how to work with you. Yeah sure – let’s get together and bake crescent rolls, kid! Imagine the nerve! The stupidity!

Well, anyway, after you talk to this Schleppinger guy a while, you find out a few things about yourself: you never talk to anyone, never trust anyone, and treat your whole life like it’s fifteen rounds with Mike Tyson.

Like I say – who knew?

And worst of all, no Advice, no Expertise, and no Hypnosis – what a gyp. But the guy was okay after all, you think to yourself: the rash is gone, and I don’t even mind my boss so much anymore, especially after Doc S. suggested I tell him I’m willing to try and talk it through – no, not baking crescent rolls or anything, but you know, just kind of getting a fresh start. And my wife – she says I should have done this years ago, that I’m acting like a human being again. She even told me to tell the Doc, ‘Thanks.’ I mean, the wife and I even started having . . . . well, you’re all big boys and girls, you know what I mean, right?

But the thing I never could figure out was – what took the Doc so long? I mean, why didn’t he just bring in the heavy artillery right at the start: you know, Advice, Expertise, Hypnosis? Why beat around the bush, bobbing and weaving all that time, when he just could have hit me with his best shot, right off? I don’t think he’s the type to just drag it out for the money – no, I don’t believe it’s that. I still don’t get it – he could have just told me off right at the beginning:

“You’re being an asshole – stop it!”

You know, something like that – something direct, so I would have known where I stand right away, instead of pussyfooting around the truth, playing ring-around-the-rosy with me all that time.

I still didn’t get it, so on our last session, I asked him, straight out: “Hey Doc, you know I really appreciate everything you did for me and all. But I just want to ask you, how come you didn’t just come out and tell me right away that I was angry, that I was holding my wife at arm’s length, and that I was being unfair to my boss?”

His answer made no sense, but I’ll tell it to you anyway, just for the sake of completeness.

Well, at first he started quoting Emerson at me, something about “profound secrets” and “private wisdom” – you know, the kind of crap you’d expect from a guy like that. No offense, but you know what I mean: I wanted a real answer.

Well, I cut him off, quick, and said, “Look – can’t you just cut the crap and answer me, in the most plain English you can think of, why you didn’t just tell me all about myself, right off the bat?”

Well, he nodded slowly – you know, like it was gonna kill him to speak English. Then he just shrugged and said,

“Who knew?”

See what I mean? Kind of a nut, but like I say, a good nut. So, the whole thing worked out pretty good, in the end.

Oh yeah – except for one thing:

I never did get ripped.
























Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.