Sometimes people come to therapy not to look for answers; rather, to report the answers they’ve found. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to make sense. That is, if you’ve found the answer to your question, then why the need to give money to a therapist to announce it? Why not simply ‘go’ with it?
But, sometimes the answer we stumble across is a complete shock and surprise. It startles us. It’s an answer that asks us to behave in a way running counter to everything we have ever thought or believed. It’s an idea that, for us, is as odd and awkward as asking a right-handed baseball pitcher to suddenly throw left-handed. Completely counter-intuitive, and therefore most unsettling.
This must be how Columbus felt when he set sail from Europe, essentially saying that the only way to find out whether the world was round or flat was to sail out there and see if he fell off the edge. “I’ll let you know how this works out,” he must have shouted in Italian to the folks on the dock. Then, with a maniacal giggle and a shrug, “Unless, of course, it’s doesn’t work out.”
So, maybe people come to therapy to report these sorts of answers just to ‘check in’ with a mental health professional before they set sail. Maybe it’s like “Just wanting to drop by and give somebody one last chance to tell me I’m crazy. Not that that would stop me, actually. But, still.”
I think about all of this as I listen to the man sitting in front of me. He’s in his late 50’s. A thriving father and grandfather. He found his vocation early in life, and never looked back. He makes a comfortable living, but grins when he says his “dirty little secret” is that he would do what he does for free. He loves it that much.
He is successful in everything but love. Twice married. Twice divorced. He says he’s lost count of the times he was certain he had met “the right one.” He says he told his best friends to slap him if he ever used the words “soul mate” again. One by one, every woman disappointed him. One by one, every woman finally came up short regarding something the man couldn’t live without.
It’s ironic this guy isn’t bitter. To the contrary, he remains an idealist about love. I tell him his description of what he knows to be possible in great love is keen and articulate. Impassioned. He’s a walking, talking Oprah Winfrey series when it comes to love.
There’s this woman, see. Again, a woman. He’s been dating her exclusively for two years. He’s crazy in love with her. He shows me her picture. Then he pours out his frustration. She confounds him. “It’s like I need a United Nations interpreter to talk to her,” he says. “We’re both speaking English, but …” His voice decays into defeated silence.
“Here’s where I would normally leave,” the man says, like he’s reading his own case history from a file.
“Maybe ‘leaving’ is how you know your vision of great love is right and true,” I submit to him, cautiously.
“But, that’s [bovine excrement],” he protests, and I merely shrug in return.
“Look,” he says, defiantly, “58 years of my ‘keen and articulate’ ideals have gotten me nowhere. I’m, like, the hero of tragic romances. So, any reasonable scientist would notice that I’m the only common denominator in the experiments. I’m ready to try something different, if for no other reason than what the hell!”
“So, for you, ‘different’ would mean staying instead of leaving?”
He throws his hands up. “I guess so,” he says, almost impatiently, with punctuated incredulity. And again I picture Christopher Columbus setting sail.
Almost as an afterthought, I say, “You know, some people call what you’re doing ‘making a commitment.’”
And the man is dumbstruck. Deep in thought. “Commitment,” he says, as if trying on the word for the first time.
He doesn’t make another appointment. I won’t be surprised if I don’t see him again. But I won’t soon forget him. I admire his humble courage, or should I say his courageous humility.
He just woke up one morning and said, essentially, “I’m going to do something completely different if for no other reason than because what I’ve been doing all my life has never gotten me what I most want.”
Bon voyage, Christopher!
(You may reach Steven Kalas at email@example.com. Steven Kalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal pries who writes a regular column for this newspaper. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)