In the mid-70’s, a blind, retired neurosurgeon came to my office in Westwood with a profound dilemma. He had been happily married all his adult life, and just before his wife died about 7 years earlier, she made him promise never to kill himself. She knew their love was the thing that sustained him, and knew he would want to end his life when she was gone. He reluctantly agreed to the promise, but now, seven years later, unable to do surgery or even to teach, his depression was intolerable and he no longer wanted to live. He was caught between his promise to his wife and his passionate desire to die in order to escape a life that became meaningless, lonely, bitter, and exquisitely painful.
I did what a novice therapist might do in such a circumstance, which was to offer some words of encouragement, explore other possible ways to find meaning in his life, but was mostly flummoxed. I talked to my supervisor, who wondered along with me why this wealthy, highly successful neurosurgeon would seek therapy in the first place from a young inexperienced man in his twenties, but offered little else that I could grasp. I did in fact discuss this very thing with the patient, but he didn’t reveal how he got my name or why he chose to see me. I offered him the opportunity to see someone else, but he declined.
At the end of the second or third session, which was to be our last, the patient dismissed me, telling me I did not help him at all, and that I lacked perspicacity. I didn’t know what that meant, although after I looked it up that night I never forgot the meaning. Of course, in retrospect, he was absolutely correct.
Over the years I have thought about that man often, wondering if he went home and injected himself with the combination of drugs to which he had easy access and that would end his suffering. But mostly I think of things I would have said and done differently, and wish, as I have about so many other things, that I could do that one over with the knowledge I have now.
I can never know that if I were to face that blind neurosurgeon for the first time now, with the nearly 40 years and many thousands of hours of experience as a therapist behind me, I could say the right words and offer the right guidance that would effectively ease his suffering. I know that I would approach it differently, but that is all I know.
What I lacked the perspicacity to know in my mid twenties as I sat across from that blind neurosurgeon was that I too I am that blind neurosurgeon, and most likely so are you. Those of us who love deeply also suffer deeply. Those of us who pledge ourselves to a path will meet crises along that path that will feel too big to bear, and those of us who insist on having hearts will have them broken. The suffering that allowing ourselves to feel alive inevitably brings with it is not the thing to be feared; it is life itself.
Yesterday, on my sixtieth birthday, my daughter asked me what the positive aspects of turning 60 were. I was ashamed that I couldn’t think of any, and in her characteristic way, she offered, “Well, at least you’re not 70.”
In the moment, I lacked the perspicacity to tell her that it was being there, with her and the rest of my extraordinary family that was most valuable about turning 60. Maybe, if I make it to 70, I will gain the perspicacity to treasure each moment as if it were the last. Maybe not.