One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.
— Henry Miller
Everyone in therapy wants to change. We hear it every day, from new patients and old. They come in with a problem, that frequently sounds like this:
“I’m ________________ (fill in a way of being), but I want to be __________________ (fill in ‘better’ version of way of being). Where do we start?”
It reminds me of an old comic strip I used to read (maybe Dixie Dugan?), in which there was a character that obtained plastic surgery. I can’t remember whether the person wanted to hide, or just look better, but I do remember the premise was this: plastic surgery can make you look ANY WAY YOU WANT – all you have to do is point to the right picture, and let’s go!
Otherwise known as magic. People love magic. Another favorite magic fantasy is hypnosis. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “Can’t you just hypnotize me and make me different?” Magic lurks everywhere in our society, but we don’t always call it magic.
“Lose ten pounds from your thighs in two days, without having to diet!”
“Send $29.99 for step-by-step instructions on how to have power over women!”
“Make up to $5999 per month, from home: no sales, no calls, no products!”
“Take my weekend seminar, and never be shy again!”
I love magic, too – hell, most of art is based on magic, on teleportation: it ‘transports’ you. For two hours, I can watch a movie and be somewhere else; for days I can read a book and be someone else; I can watch a music video and be swept up in the energy, or sadness, or joy, or wildness, of a song. We all want to be somewhere else, someone else, and we want life to be ‘different’ than it is – better. We want all things to be possible, and in art, in fantasy, all things are possible.
We don’t want to have to work for it: we want it good, and we want it now.
Sounds like a child, doesn’t it?
Mommy – I want a pony!
In a movie or a book, as soon as little Johnny says, “I want a pony,” we know that somehow, some way, he’s gettin’ a pony. In real life – not so much. One of the things we like about movies, about books, is that the story makes sense, it ‘goes’ somewhere: almost like there’s a ‘God’ watching over the whole story – because there is: the director, and the writer! We want there to be a God, a Higher Power, watching over us, too, but all too often, when a child in real life says, “I want a pony,” the response is:
“Do you realize we live in a city?”
“Do you think we’re made of money?”
“Get real, dodo!” (Sadly, the ‘signature’ rant of the parent of a patient of mine.)
And this is assuming that there is even anyone there to listen. More often than not, and so very unlike ‘the movies’, our wishes are met by the other person’s being preoccupied with their own issues, or distracted, or even cynical. We express a wish, and are told, as in the old English nursery rhyme:
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
So we learn that to wish for something unrealistic leads to being mocked, put down, or ignored. We learn that this is for ‘babies’ (though for many of us, it wasn’t even okay as babies!).
Why are people so ‘mean’ about irrational wishes? There are several reasons:
For one, most likely they never had anyone to treat their ‘irrational’ wishes with respect, either, so there is no role model for this; also, if you don’t get something yourself, you have no way of accepting others needing it.
For another, people feel that to ‘encourage’ irrational wishes is to lead the child (or person) down the wrong path: i.e. our job as parents is to teach the child about real life.
Further, it makes parents (especially those who actually care) feel inadequate:
Jeez, now what – how am I supposed to get this kid a pony?
And inadequacy feelings lead to anger:
You made me feel inadequate, so to show that I’m not inadequate, now I have to make your wish seem ridiculous, and paint you as a spoiled baby.
In fact, the skillful handling of irrational wishes is one of the most important jobs of a parent. Unfortunately, most parents are unprepared for the task. So the child learns to ditch all of the elements of ‘wishful thinking’, and it’s a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, because in wishing lies great power.
Almost all meaningful change starts with a wish:
Why can’t I be taller?
I want to be rich and famous.
I want to be young again.
I want to love my life.
Yes, these are all either irrational, or certainly not reachable by mere wishing (i.e. magic), but is the recognition of irrationality the ‘end of the line’ for a wish? It doesn’t have to be, and much, much, is lost if it is. For a wish – even if it’s a wish for ‘magic’ – can be just the beginning of the ‘line’, not the end, as most therapists can attest to. Wishing, hoping, dreaming, are direct pipelines to what’s inside of us, and fantasy is one of the most profound (and useful) of the signal qualities that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
But how do we use it?
As I mentioned earlier, parents spend an inordinate amount of time “drumming into” their kids that you have to be realistic in life. So it’s safe to assume that most people, by the time they’re even young children, actually “know” the score:
You can’t attain anything without work.
Money doesn’t grow on trees.
Don’t wish your life away.
Wanting something, or even deserving it, doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.
Okay, so they know these things, on some level, but what does that actually mean? Well, in most cases, what it means is that, while they’ve learned these (admittedly) valuable lessons about reality, they may also have learned to suppress their irrational wishes, maybe even lose touch with them.
Well, to most people, having ditched everything irrational, all that’s left is the humdrum, the ordinary, the boring – that is, going ‘straight’. But somehow, a lifetime of being good, of being realistic, of not wanting more than you can have, of settling for the regular stuff, doesn’t seem that thrilling, that exciting, or worth fighting for.
And there’s something else, too: living life that way doesn’t seem to fit with your insides. You hear a great song, see a great movie, read a great book, and you feel something inside you – something above and beyond the normal, the safe, the regular. It makes you want more out of life than just playing it safe and being good, and it makes you want more out of yourself than just falling into that long, grey line behind everyone else.
And what about those ‘weird’ feelings that come up inside, especially when you’re young – the ones that no one really talks about? Wanting to hurt yourself, or other people? Sexual feelings, or desires, that aren’t the ‘norm’? Crazy thoughts, about all kinds of stuff: running away, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, living an ‘alternative’ life, being different? You’ve been taught that these things are ridiculous, wrong, bad: yes, you understand all that, but the thoughts, the wishes, are still there. Are you supposed to just squash them, push them away, and march along with the crowd, acting normal, keeping your secrets inside?
Whom do you talk to about it? Your school guidance counselor – the nice one, who’s trying to get you ‘on track’ for college and a ‘good future’?
Your parents, who would just be worried – and mad, that you’re going against everything they’ve tried to drum into you all these years?
You keep it to yourself. Maybe smoke dope alone in your room, late at night, trying to get away from all the pressures to conform.
And if you’re already an ‘adult’, already grooved into regular life, what do you do? Well, variations on the same theme: maybe drink alone in the living room, late at night. Maybe have an affair, then feel crummy about it. Maybe try to lose yourself in sports, activities, interests, raising kids, work.
And maybe, just maybe, see a therapist, to figure out:
What’s wrong with me?
Well, very often what’s ‘wrong’ with you is that your dreams are under lock and key, exiled deep in a bunker inside of you. And even if you somehow got access to them, you wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway. You’re not really going to run off and join the French Foreign Legion, or become a hobo, or immediately act on any of your dreams, anyway, so being in touch with them just hurts, right?
But a therapist knows what to do with your dreams. When we can haul them out, together, and take a look at them, in a safe and accepting environment, they can work for you, in ways that might surprise you. It is possible to lead a life that doesn’t feel staid, constricted and boring – and sometimes it isn’t that different from your current life, but it requires the therapist doing what your parents couldn’t: letting your dreams ‘breathe,’ so that they can interact with, and be affected by, reality, without being mocked or squashed. They need to evolve, and, like growing a plant, this involves water (attention), good soil (a safe environment), and time.
How does this work? Well, it could look like this:
Sometime in the mid-Eighties, Harry, a big, burly guy in his early forties, came in to see me. At first glance, he looked like he should be the owner of a bustling Italian restaurant, or maybe a ‘mad’ sculptor (a lovable mad sculptor, that is). But what was he?
Yep – an accountant.
He told me that he came from a very difficult family background, in which his father was an alcoholic, his mother (“She was wonderful”) died when he was seven, and his ‘mean stepmother’ (yes, they really exist!) was always yelling at his father for being a weakling and a failure.
So where did this leave Harry? Well, on his own, mainly, unless his father wanted someone to make a ‘milk run’ to the liquor store for him, when his stepmother wasn’t looking. Not only did procuring a bottle of whiskey for Dad bring him a “Thanks, old boy,” but even a pat on the head and sometimes a quarter: “Here ya go kid – stuff yourself with Snickers.” When you’re starving for attention, even a pat on the head and a couple of Snickers can be a big deal.
There was no planning for Harry’s future, no encouragement, nothing but staying out of range of his stepmother. One day in high school, Harry was called in to the office of the school guidance counselor: the infamous Miss Magreblian. Apparently it was a requirement that every student had to see her once a year.
Harry dreaded it.
She was a tall, reedy ‘spinster’ lady in her fifties, with “not an ounce of fat on her, and a face that would stop a clock” (Harry’s exact words), and she had a reputation for being mean and scary. But she wasn’t mean or scary to Harry. He thought maybe she felt sorry for him – Harry remembered she once came up to him in the hallway and said, “Do you even have parents?” telling him that she had tried to contact them, repeatedly, for some reason, and struck out. His Dad had never been to any of his schools, not once, and his stepmother – well, it was best to keep her away from any part of his life.
He sat there quietly at Miss Magreblian’s desk, while she leafed slowly through his records and his test results, until she finally put the paperwork down and looked at him, with a small, pitying expression. Then, she sighed heavily, and said,
Harry – here’s the deal. You come from nothing and you’re probably on your way to nothing, but I’m going to say this anyway, because I’m supposed to offer you guidance, whether you use it or not. You’re not a bad kid – not a particularly bright kid, either – but all in all, you might make something of yourself, because you’re mostly quiet and get your work done. And I’m guessing you get it done with no help from anyone, either.
Harry squirmed in his seat, unused as he was to being talked about at all. Even though her words kind of hurt and made him uncomfortable, he also liked it, a lot, that she was acknowledging his existence. He nodded, “Yes, Ma’am.”
She sighed again, and went on, chewing her pencil thoughtfully between words.
So, here’s what I think: as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, the world revolves around money. Now, there are two ways to get it, legally. First, come the people who are smart enough to make a lot of it. Then, come the people who help the smart people take care of what they’ve made.
She paused, chewing thoughtfully again.
I’m thinking you’re the second kind – the helpers.
Harry wasn’t sure if he should be insulted or grateful. They sat there in silence for a moment, until he managed to sputter, “So, what does that mean – you know, about me?”
She waved her hand at him. “Quiet – I’m thinking.”
Wow, imagine that: someone was actually taking time to think about him. He knew, somehow, that her next words would shape his whole life. He noticed he was holding his breath.
Finally, she tapped the pencil on her desk, decisively, three times. “An accountant, I think.” She paused, chewing the pencil again, and looking at the ceiling. “Yes, that’s it.” She carefully placed the pencil back in her desk tray, with finality. “Harry, I don’t know if you have it in you, but that’s what you should shoot for. If you don’t make it – well, you’ll still have a college education to fall back on. And a quiet kid like you, who does his work, can always manage to scrape by.”
She looked at him with a not-unkind expression. “I think we’re done here.”
So that was it: the gods had spoken. He was supposed to be an accountant, if he was smart enough, and hard-working enough, to make it. If it wasn’t exactly thrilling, at least he knew she was right about that money stuff: anyone who could help the smart people who made lots of money, take care of it, would always have a job, somewhere.
Well, Harry rode that interview for the rest of his life. He did attend a local community college, then transferred to a state college, majoring in accounting. He graduated – not with honors, maybe, but he’d had to wait tables practically full-time – and eventually, went all the way through and became a CPA. He got married, had three children, owned his own home, and had a German shepherd he called Miss M, in honor of you-know-who.
All in all, a “nice life.”
So what did it mean, that one day he walked into my office for the first time and said, “My life isn’t enough”?
That his whole life was a sham, or a mistake, or a mess?
No – to me, it just meant that he had reached the next stage: the stage where he could take all that he’d worked for thus far (successfully), and add to it. He had enough experience now, enough self-esteem, to recognize that fifteen minutes of guidance, given him twenty-five years before, was not enough to carry him through the rest of his life.
Sadly, I find that many therapists are too eager to ‘rip into’ their patients’ lives, to dismantle them (“How could you stay with him after that?”), to tear them down, like malfunctioning engines. Instead of helping to build on what is already there, they assist people in creating major, unnecessary drama and pain. So often, the ‘problem’ is not the existing family relationships, or the existing job, but an inability to access what is inside, and put it to good use, in a way that also preserves what the person has already built up over so many years.
The Wizard of Oz is a classic example of what I’m trying to say: Dorothy leads a (purportedly) ‘drab’ life on a drab farm with drab people, until she has a kind of spiritual awakening, that enables her to ‘see’ her life in a new, colorful, richer way than before. The real problem, ultimately, was her inability to appreciate what she already had, rather than the seeming drabness of her surroundings and people.
And yet, if Dorothy had come to therapy at the beginning, many therapists would have in effect agreed with her initial ‘take’ on the situation, and recommended leaving the farm as the solution, i.e. that she “had a lot more ‘going on’ than the other people on the farm, greater dreams, and more potential” – needs that (supposedly) couldn’t have been met on the farm.
But what was the actual solution? It was Dorothy’s ‘stepping up’ to take a more empowered view of the people on the farm – her own view: instead of being the little, passive girl who lived amongst all these ‘big’ people, who were beyond her ken, she (or at least her unconscious) stepped up to see each of them as they actually were – flawed beings, each of them needing something specific to be complete. In seeing these ‘adults’ as merely human beings, like herself, she was able to join them in the human race, to feel like we are all in the same boat. And ironically, in seeing all of their flaws, she was able to see them (and herself) in all of their beauty, as well.
And so, in the end, she didn’t have to leave the farm after all, in order to be her real self: she merely had to step up (where she was) to a more empowered self, and a richer, fuller, inner and interactional life.
So, the therapist’s job is to help people find, and follow, their own ‘yellow brick road’ to inner consciousness and empowerment – not help them run away to what A. A. calls a ‘geographic cure.’ Someone once said, “Wherever you go, there you are,” and that’s true, as far as it goes. What’s more true is this: “If you’re not ‘there’ here, you’re not ‘there’ anywhere.” Movement in space isn’t the answer – movement inside is the answer.
So, the next time you “wish for a pony,” take a closer look (maybe, with some help): you might already have one!
And Harry? Well, in therapy, he ‘remembered’ that he’d always wanted to sing in a barbershop quartet. These days, you might see Harry on the weekends, in a church, or a retirement home, or even on a stage, singing Sweet Adeline, with three of his closest friends. I went to see them once, and they won a local barbershop contest.
Harry came up to me later, with a big smile on his face, and said, “It’s like magic!”
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.