“How do you do it?”
I hear the question again and again. From friends. From family. From my clients. What they are really asking is, “How do you sit all day long in a small therapy office, listening to the pain, the sorrow, the brokenness, the suffering, the darkest parts of people and of this God-forsaken world?”
I am a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing full-time in Wheaton, IL, and I’ll be completely honest: my response to that question is often a stumbling-mumbling mess of half-answers, incomplete thoughts, and loose ends. I imagine those asking the question figure I probably won’t make it through the week.
And yet, I do make it through the week. In fact, I do more than make it through; I can’t imagine my life without it. How can I possibly explain that?
The answer came to me unexpectedly (the way trustworthy answers so often do) on a late-autumn, Friday night, hunkered down in the basement with my wife and three children for pizza and Movie Night. Next up in our queue was Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hool. (Note to self: in the future, pre-screen all animated children’s movies from the director of 300 and The Watchmen. But I digress.) The story tells the tale of two owl-brothers, Soren, and his older brother, Kludd. As the brothers learn to fly, the sibling dynamic is quickly revealed; whereas Soren is clearly a gifted flyer, his clumsy older brother is all brute strength and no grace, a poor combination for an owl, who is meant to depend on stealth for survival. Kludd’s animosity toward, and hatred of, his younger brother are unmistakable. So, when the brothers are kidnapped by the evil and power-hungry Pure Ones, their paths begin to diverge. Soren escapes and seeks out the mythic Guardians of Ga’Hool, the legendary protectors of owl-kind. Kludd, on the other hand, has found a home in a place that values strength, power, and brutality. He is Anakin Skywalker in feathers.
As the movie began to reach its conclusion that night, I found myself frantically reaching for the DVD sleeve to check the length of the film. Ninety-seven minutes…less than five minutes left! Something was terribly wrong. Maybe you’ve had that feeling near the end of a good book or movie: “This can’t be right—there isn’t enough time!” But enough time for what? As the last scene ended, and Kludd raised his head, evil eyes glowing red, prepared to take up leadership of The Pure Ones, I sprung out of my chair and the answer sprung from my lips: “That can’t be the end…there’s nothing redemptive about that!!” Fortunately, my wiser-than-me, eight-year-old son understood my distress and said, “Don’t worry, Daddy, it’s a series. The story isn’t over yet.”
The story isn’t over yet.
The story isn’t over, and there is still time left, and redemption is still possible, and this might yet end well. We hunger for this, don’t we? We seek out stories, and we need them to end in a redemptive way. We need the characters to fight back, to overcome their obstacles, to stare down their darkness and their weakness, to stand up tall in the end, to shake off the shackles of their burdens, and to be free. We need it. In fact, some of us even demand it of our animated, feathered, protagonists.
And if we demand redemption from our fictional stories, how much more must we need it in our real, day-to-day, flesh-and-blood, this-is-my-story-and-I-only-get-one-shot-at-it lives?* The answer, I think, is that we need it very badly. Indeed, it may be precisely what our lives are all about: finding a way to make good from the bad, light from the dark, wholeness from the pieces, joy from the sorrow. And if that is what life is all about, then don’t I, as a therapist, have a front row seat to the best show on Earth?
Each time a person sits on my couch (yes, my office has the proverbial couch), I witness a great act of courage: the courage to tell one’s story to another person, to confess (in tears or in shouts or in whispers or in resolute steadiness) the ways in which life is not working out as planned, and to seek a different ending, to redeem what has gone before for something better. Sometimes this decision to participate in therapy is made whole-heartedly, and the journey is begun in earnest. Sometimes the decision is conflicted, ambivalent, and fraught with tension. Always the instinct is clear: there must be a better way, and it must be found.
So, I ask you, if story is our medium, and if redemption is what fuels the journey, and if I get to be a part of those journeys every day, how could I not do it?
*For the idea that story is an organizing principle in our lives, I owe a debt of gratitude to Donald Miller’s excellent book, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.”