Lacking Perspicacity

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.

8 thoughts on “Lacking Perspicacity

  1. Ira, you are a wise man who regularly reminds me of the important things in life. Turning 60 surrounded by a loving family and good friends is truly the best way to welcome the next phase in your life.

  2. This is great i am sure we all can be in your shoes when we see patients and we some times don’t have the right answer even when we are in our forties in your case I think you did not gain perspicacity because you are 60 but because you are wise and insightful you told me once we are all special no matter what and wanted to let you know you told me these words exactly in the moment I needed for me you was actually using the perspicacity needed saying the words I needed to hear thank you so much for this I know you are one of a kind

  3. Happy Birthday Ira, fellow traveler! I liked your piece, I am always touched at your humble and self-effacing courage with which you write; sharing and underscoring the deep humanness within us all.
    My comment is however to that deep human void of darkness that often comes in the shadow called aging. We all have witnessed the collective fear as we step toward retirement, the sentence, given to the aged. Why is it that we don’t have in our culture a true station for Eldership, what a waste of human resources, a life time of aquired perspectives. However, this cultural myopic blindspot, does not have to be swallowed, in fact I have rejected it. Instead, we have earned the right to now define for ourselves what it means to step into an Elder-role and discove Blessings that we can still bestow onto a very hungry and needy world. Imagine ending instead on a note of healing (which is where we therapists began) going out with the deep satisfaction that the art of Blessing (truely seeing others) is carried forth.
    Blessings to us all! – Gregory Guss, LCSW

  4. Happiest of Birthdays to you Ira.
    Clearly holding someone in their grief/depression requires much more than mental acuity and acumen as you were puzzled even in your twenties by his choice to “see” you.

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