“I shall go unbounded, standing outside of your door.” Eric Andersen
Singer-song writer Eric Andersen was a favorite of mine during the days I dreamt of becoming a wandering troubadour. Possessing the soul of an artist but the good sense to secure a paying job, I struck a sort of compromise by pursuing the most artistic of the medical arts.
One of Eric’s recurring images is that of a door between him and someone he’d like to be with –or used to be with– or doesn’t want to be with anymore. That image resonates with me doubly. Triply. My role as a therapist required me to perform a balancing act between intimate participation and detached observation, while both as a musician and a writer I share with other creative artists the rewards and burdens of a life devoted to one’s art.
My task as a therapist was to pass through the doors that shut people’s inner selves off from the world, and from themselves, by plunging into the vortex of their emotional turmoil. If I were to be helpful I couldn’t let myself get fully sucked in. It was necessary to be inside yet outside at the same time.
All the while I had to stand both inside and outside of myself observing my own emotional reactions. From there I could empathize with my patients’ feelings and points of view while using my own reactions to appreciate the reactions, often negative, they elicited in others. I had to do that without getting caught up in or acting on those reactions. To do so would have rendered me no more helpful than the rest of the people in their lives. This required an acute awareness of my own inner self, with its issues and trigger points, that could prejudice my view of others. With time, my natural tendency toward introspection developed into a finely honed tool that I employed automatically and effortlessly. That’s not to say I have it all figured out, not by a long shot, but as Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Therapists are artists. Like all artists they are consumed much of the time with what’s bubbling around in their own minds. They must follow these thoughts toward the unconscious, the fertile soil in which creativity thrives. They are open to ideas and questions that may not occur to most people. They develop views of reality that “normal” people may find odd, or one hopes, startlingly revelatory. This is because the workings of the unconscious mind do not follow conventional logic. It’s also why simply giving people practical advice is not always an effective way to help them.
Unlike many people therapists become comfortable holding contradictory ideas in their minds simultaneously. They know the the best approach to solving some problems is often at odds with common sense.
This sometimes makes social relationships a bit more complicated for them than for most people. When people meet me for the first time, they are often alarmed when they learn of my past career. They assume that I will “analyze” them. Though they have nothing to fear from me, they are not altogether wrong. A deeply embedded mode of thinking is not something that can be turned on and off at will. Because of this, I must take care not to impose perceptions and insights on friends and acquaintances lest those observations inflict discomfort on those who are not seeking, and should not be subjected to, my counsel. In this sense, even in pleasurable and intimate social interactions, there is a door to their souls that they inadvertently keep open and a door to my mouth that must intentionally remain closed.
Even in everyday situations, therapists may experience a sense of detached observation and isolation. They have to learn not only to be comfortable with that state of affairs, but to make the best use of it, always, and only, for the benefit of the relationship. In some way or another, all artists share in this predicament.
My wife is a painter and silversmith. It’s not just a job. It’s who she is. While most people in our age group are retired, she continues to work full time at her art. Usually when friends invite her to join their social organizations and outings she politely declines, explaining that artists often need to forgo such pleasures in the service of their muse. The paradox of artists is that they reach out to the world through their art yet need to withdraw from it if they are to have time to create.
Each individual’s perception of the world is unique. This is especially true of artists. They not only don’t relate to, they even actively spurn some of what the average person takes as reality. This is evidenced by the fact that paintings of exactly the same subject done by several different artists will all be different from one another.
Despite being outsiders looking in, artists aren’t necessarily lonely or unhappy. In fact, they often feel a kind of joyful connectedness that others may have difficulty tapping into. If successful, their art will convey depths of feeling and a sense of discovery to those who can’t generate them so easily within themselves.
When people talk about artists suffering for their art, images of freezing garrets and short rations come to mind. We two artists are neither cold nor starving, but we still “suffer” for our art. We hold ourselves, or at least some parts of ourselves, apart from the world at large and from some of the distractions that many people structure their lives around. The tradeoff is the quiet space in which we can do what we love to do. What we must do.
The reward for self-imposed semi-isolation comes when, after what can be a long period of struggle, the image, the words or the melody flash into the mind as if out of nowhere. It’s as though they always were there. We need only to open the doors to our minds and let them in. In the process we experience a sense of wholeness that we hope we can impart to others.
From a private and protected space in which we craft our images, we open our doors to others and invite them to open their doors to us.