Three friends — a CIA officer, a Green Beret, and a army psychiatrist — are sitting by a campfire (or maybe they walk into a bar). They've been drinking a bit, and have reached the stage where they compare feats of bravado, and someone asks which of them is the best.
The CIA spook says, "I gather vital intelligence and do covert operations in some of the most oppressive nations on this planet. We have overturned governments, changed viewpoints, and given vital analysis on foreign abilities."
The Green Beret scoffs and says, "Yeah, well, we search for and eliminate terrorist leaders in hostile territory, behind enemy lines. We routinely get dropped into the most dangerous places on Earth, fight our way out, and make those sons-of-bitches quake in their boots."
The two look to the shrink, who looks perfectly placid. "Come now, doc, you have to have something to say."
He pauses for a moment, puts his fingertips together, and then looks at the others over the top of his glasses.
"I repair broken souls and find lost minds."
When I was younger, I was enrolled in a psychology fieldwork class; they gave us a choice of either working with abused/neglected children or hospice patients. We were undergraduates, and so there was no 'real' work to be done; both experiences were there to give us a taste of what the field would be like.
Working with the children would be an experience where we could really make a difference, I thought. We would be placed as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and take our charges a few times a week away from their home (often, a halfway home or a local youth shelter) to, say, a McDonalds or the park or a library, and simply spend some time with them and talk about anything they wanted to talk about. I had dreams — delusions, perhaps — of leading someone out of a nest of substance abuse issues or helping them climb from a pit of neglect by showing them that someone loved them, and hopefully help them grow into happy, amazing adults.
There was a boy in the program who originally wasn't going to go to college; he ended up studying clinical psychology, what his Big Brother did, because he wanted to pass on, to pay forward the gift that he had gotten. There was a girl who, six or so years after being in the program, named her first daughter after her Big Sister. Those were the changes we could accomplish.
Working with hospice patients and their families, on the other hand, was the other end of the spectrum; instead of the young, it was the old; instead of teaching and leading, we would be learning and following. We would meet with those who had lived three, four, five times as long as we had, once a week, and spend a few hours with them. It gave us a unique opportunity to ask them what mattered and what they regretted after half a century; it gave them a chance to reminisce about their younger years and pass on what they learned to those who would face similar issues, even if they weren't the exact same ones.
I saw a chance to ask questions about life and death, love and regrets; I believed we would be told grand stories of history as it happened instead of as it was written, and smaller, quieter stories of their own lives and choices. I thought that we would share, and in sharing, make both our lives better.
I, in my naivety, asked to do both.
In terms of complexity, there are few things that can even be compared to the human mind. The sheer number of independent parts, the interconnected nature of disparate processes, the precise chemical balances that are held to ensure everything goes right; it is a machine where the whole is tremendously greater than the sum of its parts, a machine that our best technologists have yet to approach the ability to create. Even with nanometer manufacturing processes and the exponential advance of science and technology, our only imitations are to create robots that look alive, without being alive. Perhaps we understand the problem better than our predecessors, but we are no closer to a solution, to being able to instill consciousness where God chose not to.
I will always regret leaving him there. I stood up after our first meeting, in the office the size of a bathroom, shook his hand, and told him it was nice to meet him.
When the coordinator came in and asked when I'd be back next week, I said that Wednesday afternoons at 1pm would be just fine, thanks, even as I knew I would never be back. And I wasn't; I pushed the date off the first week claiming work, called out sick the second, and then stopped answering the calls.
I didn't have the courage to tell them I couldn't do it; I was young, you see, and full of cocksure arrogance, certain that I could change anything.
And when I saw that it was not so easy, I ran.
The mind is a marvel that the best of our neuroscientists and biologists and psychologists have yet to to understand. We comprehend cells, we predict the effect neurotransmitters, and we can elicit happiness or combat mood swings with application of electricity and pharmaceuticals. The most capable of us do amazing things with the same limited knowledge we all have, taking cases others think hopeless and coaxing the person back out of the shell; the clumsy fumble around making bad conditions worse, pushing those that could be saved over the edge. But for all that we have learned, the mind is as much of a black box to us today as it was to Freud or Skinner; our tools to decipher its secrets are shouts and explosives when we need whispers and scalpels. We grope around provoking 'stimuli' and measure 'responses', and all we know is that there is so much about ourselves we don't know.
Today John and I talk about our fears, everything from the small, irrational one that are implanted through small childhood experiences to the larger ones that guide how we act in life. He tells me that he's afraid of spiders, and we talk a bit about stingers and poison and movies and how many people die each year from spiders. We talk about adrenaline junkies and how they search out those things that are dangerous, and how that behavior can be good, in some forms, but it can also be dangerous if they live only for the rush of possibly dying.
It's been three months since I started working on him, and we're making progress, I think. He's opened up some, especially in these last two weeks, talking about events in his past that he's never raised before, and more than anything else, the way that he's been talking makes me wonder if there will be a breakthrough. He stops less often, bringing up topics himself; he trusts me now, perhaps — I haven't been pushing him at all this last month.
Even if there is a breakthrough, though, it's not like the movies, where all the problems are magically solved. The breakthrough is simply recognizing where deep seated issues, or habits, or destructive ideas rise from; it is only the first step on the long road to actually addressing them.
He's talking about the fear of being alone on holidays and then says about his childhood holidays, where his father wanted everything to be just right. It's an opening, a chance, and I take it — I ask him if it was all of the holidays or just some, in a sideways attempt at eliciting information without asking him bluntly and scaring him away.
He stops talking, though, and looks down. And this is what kills me — I know he's on the edge, teetering, wondering whether he should tell me, instinctively wanting not do, and I have no idea what to do
. There's no book, no manual, no operating guide that says, in case of A, do B. There's no overall proclamation that all people will respond in a certain way to a certain gesture, and we are all, goddamnit, fumbling in the dark here.
He shakes his head, finally, after ten seconds, and I have known him long enough to read the expression on his face; I start in my experiences of being along on holidays, about being stuck at airports. I talk so there is no emptiness, so there's no pressure, but with enough of a lead that that if he wants, he can pick up on the topic.
He doesn't; today is not the day that he will talk about it, and in the coming weeks I will never be able to coax him to this using this topic again. It is the story of our relationship; with each bit of information I learn, I get a bit closer to understanding, but often at the cost of burning the bridge that gave me that insight on him.
I can only hope that I reach him before there are no bridges left.
Humans are capable of the most incredibly altruistic actions — and, of course, the absolutely depraved. In every generation, there are those that, if given the opportunity, wouldn't hesitate to give everything to save the world, and those that wouldn't think twice before destroying it.
But what of the fact that there is no real predictor for events or occurrences that will cause people to be good — or go bad? There are certain 'orchid genes' which may cause certain children to be more fragile to certain stimuli that may negatively affect them, and there are many studies which state that children who grow up in broken families or in low income populations may effect destructive behavior when they grow up. But neither of these is a certainty; sadists have come from perfectly 'respectable', 'normal' childhoods, while some of the greatest humanists and saints were inspired by the incredibly cruel conditions of their youth.
And then there is this: not only can we as individuals be singularly inspiring or destructive, but we can be both, sometimes in the span of minutes. When a philanthropist kicks aside a beggar, even after he donates millions to starving children in Africa, when a war criminal goes out of his way to ensure that a certain horse farm is not bombed even as he calls for the destruction of cities; these are the complexities of humans that we do not understand, that we may never understand.
I met Geraldine's husband first, a spry-looking not-yet-bald old man with all his teeth, wheeling himself away from the hospital room with his walker collapsed between his knees, acting for all the world like a five year old. I met her daughter second, chasing after her father with an exasperated smile, asking him where he thought he was going, exactly, and scolding him to slow down before he hurt himself.
Her daughter paused to tell me this was the room, that her mother was inside, and then smiled apologetically and went to chase down her eighty-year old dad, who was now doing spins in front of the nursing station.
"Hello, Geraldine, how are you feeling today?" I asked, taking a chair next to the hospital bed as I looked over at her. She turned in my direction but didn't smile back; that was my first hint.
"I'm going blind," she said, and the smile died from my face.
"I can't see anymore. I have kidney and stomach issues, and I can no longer walk. They've been wheeling me in and out, all day, doing tests, drawing blood. And all this, I wouldn't care about, if I weren't going blind."
"So how do you think my day was?"
I was silent for a moment, and then I said, honestly, "I've heard better."
But I couldn't stand the way the way she nodded, the silent, I thought so, and I added, "But I've also heard worse."
"Have you?" She asked, and it wasn't bitter, just a question. Was I lying?
"Yes, I have," I said, and that was the beginning of our talks.
She was seventy eight years old, born in February of 1932. Six months ago, her body started breaking down, and she had been admitted to the hospital multiple times since then.
Her hospital packet was thirty pages long, full of all the medications she took and ways that her body was shutting down on her. For me, it only had two pieces of useful information: first, that she been admitted with visual hallucinations, and second, that she was getting cataract surgery.
"Do you think the cataract surgery will help?" I asked, starting somewhere I thought she would care.
For a second, I thought I had blew it; she was absolutely quiet, and I wondered if I had destroyed any chances of generating a rapport before it had even begun.
Then, quietly, she said, "They did a test on my eyes - there's a pigment or something they look for, and it's supposed to show up red. And it showed up red in one eye, but not the other. So, if I do the surgery, I should be able to get one eye back. That's worth it, wouldn't you say?"
"Yes," I replied quietly. "After all, even if it's only one eye, you'll be able to see."
"I thought so," she replied, and I wondered why she had asked in the first place. Only later did I understand.
"How long has it been?" I asked her.
"About six months. Six months ago, I could see, I could feed myself, I could do almost everything by myself. I could move around, make food, everything. And now..." She held up a hand, gnarled like the bark of an old tree, veins clear, skin sunken, and moved her fingers. She had good movement, I said, surprised.
"But the physical therapy is so hard to get into, you know?" she asked, and it was impossible not to hear the note of defeat in her voice. The physical therapy for what, she probably wondered, the ability to have better fine motor control for how many more months, before she couldn't lift her arm anymore?
"That's why I'm going back to the nursing home; I never could bring myself to do it at home. I just slept at home, every day. I slept more than I ever had," she said, and I understood.
The first time we talked, we didn't speak of her hallucinations, or of the disease that was eating away at her mind; we simply talked about her and what being able to see again would meant. We spoke a bit about her daughter and her husband, and when I stood to leave, she asked me when I'd be back.
"Next week, this time," I said, and this time, I meant it.