A friend of mine recently cut out a story for me the Newyorker about a monk named Ittetsu Nemoto in Japan who has been working change Japan’s suicide culture. He tried to reach out to people to help, but learned people need to be the ones to reach out to him. His experience is allegorical of whose agency is needed to create change. He tells a story about one man who traveled a long way on foot to reach him for help. Upon arriving at the temple, the man realized he no longer needed the monk.
Sometimes that happens in therapy. You work out a problem on the way to the therapist. I have a story about that.
I have a friend who is a little outside the mainstream. Let’s call him Donald. He likes to wear cowboy hats, his only phone is a landline, and while he has an internet connection at home he only ever goes online at the local library. Larger than life, kind of a genius, unlikely to put much value in your opinion. A bit paranoid perhaps, but who isn’t post-Prism. Earlier this week we had a difficult interaction that stuck with me until I began the drive to see my therapist.
I was chatting with Donald and another friend about farm life. It happens I know something about farms. I lived part of my life on a small farm with horses and cows. I made some point about isolation, and Donald chimed in to say, “What would you know, You weren’t born on a farm.” It is important to note that Donald was not born on a farm either.
Donald strode ahead to expound on what he had heard about the farm experience. I didn’t say anything for the rest of the conversation.
I couldn’t get the interaction out of my head. I felt angry and humiliated. Donald’s comment was so needless. He undermined the point I was making, subtracting from rather than adding to the discussion. I ruminated much of the evening. Imagining how I could have responded. Imagining having a subsequent conversation with him to confront his affront. I went to bed, fitfully found sleep, and awoke the next morning ruminating still.
Driving to my therapy session that morning my thinking shifted. Anticipating talking about the experience therapy changed my mindset from one of injury and revenge to curiosity about was going on in my head. This shift is largely due to the consistent experience of my therapist being curious about my experience. Thinking about this begins to make me more curious myself. Why am I so angry? What is the humiliation about?
It was hard to admit to myself, but I realized I was angry because I wanted Donald’s approval. I wanted him to acknowledge the value in what I said, validate my experience, trust that I am able to determine for myself when I contribute to a conversation whether or not I actually know what I say I know. I wanted him to say, “thank you Ian for that valuable insight.” Why would I want the approval of somebody so ridiculous, somebody who made me so angry? Mostly because I don’t feel confident. Donald seems larger than life. Standing at the foot of Mt. Donald is reminiscent of the view of a parent from the perspective of a child. I wanted a parent who would tell me I was okay, who would still the waters of my self-doubt.
With that thought I suddenly realized I didn’t need his approval. I remember what it was like to be on the farm. I had the experience. I shared it with other people I knew who also lived on farms. It didn’t matter what Donald thought, he hadn’t even lived on a farm himself. Even if he had, what did his opinion matter? If I sought his approval, where would that end? Do I need the approval of everyone on earth who could potentially disagree with me? Am I that child any longer? No. I know what I know. I can reassure myself. Donald’s disapproval represents his lack of experience, not mine.
Instantly my anger and humiliation left me, flooding out through that realization.
For that issue, I arrived at the door of my therapist no longer needing my therapist.