Recently, a pre-doctoral candidate in psychology asked me why I became a psychologist. That question I have thought about in the past, with the implicit recognition, that the answer was not a simple one. I need hearken back to childhood to best respond to this young woman’s inquiry.
The American playwright, Tennessee Williams, once said: “Happiness is insensitivity.” As a child, I still very much remember the hurt I felt in the 1st grade when a friend left me, stranded in the classroom, waiting for him. Because the event did not affect him in the same way it did me, I am quite sure he has no recollection of it. I have carried this sensitivity to others to the present day. In fact, when I express my hurt that someone’s comment may have caused me, whether intended or not, my wife, Lisa, will plead with me to let it go. Good advice but most difficult to follow. Life can be wonderful, but at the same time, we humans can be most cruel to one another. My mother once told me: “We criticize the living but we eulogize the dead.”
I believe the insensitivity that Williams spoke about was twofold: 1) Handling the nasty comments and then 2) hurling nastier insults toward others. People that have a good sense of self probably manage the give and take of everyday life without being thrown off balance. They keep their cool or equilibrium. At an early age, the pain I experienced from the words and actions of those around me, most prominently my classmates, made me seek a path that would result in minimal torment. So, the weapon I chose to fight my proclivity of deep sensitivity was to make friends with as many people as I could. I intuitively knew that if I was to be critical of my peers, I would have to bear the brunt of their embittered reactions. I did not want to put myself in that position. Rather than criticizing others, I complimented them, at times, perhaps, excessively. My ability to have friends from all walks of life enabled me to stave off much of the harsh comments that otherwise may have come my way.
The late psychologist, Nathaniel Branden, who I met in Los Angeles, told me that the pain he had experienced growing up facilitated his work as a therapist. That is to say, as he mentioned, he could feel the suffering of his clients. I very much resonated with this observation inasmuch as a child, and afterwards, I frequently felt the emotional hurt endured by close companions. My own keen sensitivity allowed me this very important therapeutic power of empathy, that is the ability to experience what another person is feeling.
I first became intrigued with the process of psychology, in high school, when my friend Marc and I met on a number of occasions with another friend who had indicated to us the serious nature of some of his problems. I remember Marc being an “armchair therapist” making some brilliant comments in his attempt to help our mutual buddy. Perhaps it was a combination of my sensitivity and empathy that brought me closer to my companion whose pain I could almost feel. I was both excited and gratified to realize that listening and responding in an understanding way held healing powers.
I did not major in psychology because the prerequisites required a strong scientific and math background, not my strong areas of study, at the university I attended. Instead, I decided to major in cultural anthropology. In my sophomore year, I took a course in abnormal psychology, taught by Dr. Julius Wishner, I found captivating. Upon graduating from college, I joined the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) which now goes under the rubric AmeriCorps Vista, with the hope of giving me a year to figure out what I would do when it was time to become an adult and take on the responsibility of making a living.
I very much remember that day in August. I had been assigned to a community action program in Moses Lake, Washington where there had been some racial disturbances. It was located east of the Cascades where there is little rainfall and very dry conditions. It was a hot Sunday afternoon and, while sitting in the building where I would meet with my supervisor, I asked myself “where do I go from here.” By that time, I was quite sure I wanted to go into a human service area where I could directly help people. I had majored in cultural anthropology and, though I had enjoyed my work, I never felt stimulated in the same way as I had when I had taken the course in abnormal psychology. I then turned my mind to sociology, thinking about the possibility of either being a sociologist or social worker.
My thinking at the time was that sociology and anthropology dealt with people in groups. However, the practice of psychology concerned itself more with individuals and, for me, the most intense and meaningful conversations, had always occurred on a one-to-one basis. This is where I was most comfortable and also where I appeared to be at my best. I then understood explicitly what I probably had known all along, and pretty much from that day on, my course was set straight toward becoming a professional psychologist.