I sometimes urge that I should be titled the Vicar of Towson, since I specialize in vicarious experience, sitting and listening and living with what people tell me. I do this on the grounds of Sheppard Pratt, one of America’s great old and very beautiful mental hospitals. Just outside my office is a beautiful old ornamental cherry tree. I have lived in Towson immediately north of Baltimore for more than twenty-five years now.
I am acquainted in depth and detail with many parts of town where I have never been or through which I have passed only occasionally – Dundalk, Glen Burnie, Pikesville, Pig Town, Randallstown and so forth. There are houses and and dinning rooms and basements and kitchens and bedrooms and yards and woods and school rooms that live vividly in my mind although I have never seen them and they existed in other times and other places. I have lived vicariously, too, in foreign countries – Israel, Iran, Zimbabwe,
France, England, Trinidad, Argentina and more
Proust wrote that “the only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes, in seeing the universe with the eyes of another, of hundreds of others, in seeing the hundreds of universes that each of them sees.” Psychotherapy is an art of such listening that the other can world forth a world, this world being his world - and have it shared, not statically, but so that it can live and breath, declare itself and grow. Psychotherapy is a partnership in presence. A good psychotherapist is a gifted story listener.
In his great ballad about war and loneliness, destruction and despair, “Talkin’ World War Three Blues” Bob Dylan evokes contagious dreams of a landscape of devastation in which “everybody sees himself walking around with no one else” and then proposes the antidote, simple, practical direct – “’I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours,’ I said that.” This goes right to the heart of the matter and to essential matter of the heart. When we deaden ourselves to others we go dead and this kind of deadness has everything to do with how war comes about.
But how do we open ourselves up and make it possible for others to lead us to imagine them so that they may be helped in how they imagine themselves, that is, in a crucial department of the reality of how they experience themselves? There is no fixed methodology. Getting the imaginative knack of someone else is compound of curiosity, mischief, the waking and stirring of pieces of the listener that may previously have been almost in a stuporous condition.
Each patient is a dream. Every way of living is a way of dreaming. Part of what language makes possible is that this waking dreaming should be able to be made sociable. I listen to my patient talk about how hard his conscience makes life for him, finding fault with him wherever he goes. I see a lonely little boy, one who does not know what he can count on. I see myself as a lonely little boy.
I think about expecting the worst and there being security in having something clear to expect. I think about how much safer it is to rage at yourself than at someone you need when you are little. I think about how tangled it all is and how there is no sword that can cut through the knot at a single masterful stroke. I say something about all this and notice the faintest hint of a smile on my patient’s face, as if I have somehow wormed my way into the dream and opened it up and let it begin to breathe.
I have seen him waiting and wounded by his waiting, a drawn expression on his little face as if somehow, unaccountably, he must be at root responsible for the punishment of deprivation with which he is living. I have seen this and felt it in the muscles of my face as they are drawn into a mirroring mask. He has found a way to let me keep him company, to let me in and himself out.
Vicarious living may be deeply real, if subtly so