Mystics, saints, and sages know that living with compassion is of enormous value. And so do many people who visit “heaven” because of a Near Death Experience and who return with descriptions of a dimension filled with warm welcome, kindness, and love. We are caught in a culture that does not put these generous qualities on the instruction sheet for how to live a good life. The belief today is that behaving that way makes you squishy-nice instead of edgy and sharp, as you need to be so you can clamber to the top of the pile where people grab for the stuff life is supposed to deliver.
I’d like to tell you a story about someone who was uncommonly and wonderfully kind to me. Long ago I was a mental health intern at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. During my first week I was assigned to work with Mr. T. H., a patient in one of the locked, new admissions men’s wards. His diagnosis – catatonic schizophrenia – meant that he had periods of time when he was unable to move, to speak, or to respond. He did not show the second typical symptomatic behavior which is over-excitement. Mr. T. H. remained motionless in a “catatonic stupor” and sometimes seemed like a statue when he held awkward poses for long periods of time. At other times his moving was just very tightly restrained. He’d signed himself into the hospital because he did not want to obey the voices that were telling him to shoot people. His choice to do that was unusual.
I was as green as any intern could have been. And, here I was, a small white housewife and mother from a suburban neighborhood meeting with a very tall African American man from the center of the city of Washington. I’d had an ordinary life with many comforts. He was an unmarried army veteran who’d served in Vietnam and was now struggling with great discomfort.
That first Autumn day four or five staff members were inside the glass-walled nursing station where they could see all the patients circling the dayroom each in their own disordered way. As I sat in the center of the large ward for my first session with Mr. T. H. the staff were clearly alert – and ready to be amused – as they watched my attempt to engage with him. We were sitting on straight-backed chairs placed next to each other.
I started out bravely. I had my first two or three sentences ready to say and I said them to a very, very still and silent Mr. T. H. And then I froze. I had no idea what to say or do next. I could see the staff observing from behind the locked door, standing up near the glass walls of the nursing station. All was quiet for quite a while. And then I sensed Mr. T. H. moving, turning his head – very, very slowly – towards me.
With great deliberation, halting after each word, he said, “Say, … I … wonder … what … you … are … feeling … now ….”
That more than broke the ice. With immense awareness he had reached across to me with a psychotherapeutic comment he’d probably heard himself more than once. And it was funny. It’s hard to convey that here, but along with his compassion came his brilliant and generous humor.
I laughed. I thanked him. And we went on to work together for many months. I learned about his tortured madness – the days when he could not avoid the feeling and fixed belief that rats were gnawing at his genitals, his terror about a possible breach of his containment of the demons that urged him to harm people, and his grief about losing the ordinariness of his life. He was released from the hospital late in the Spring because of a combination of the new medications then appearing to help with the crippling state of consciousness involved in psychosis, and because of his own discipline and drive for life.
I’ve often wondered where the years since have taken him.
He gave me the gift of a beautiful opening to my work as a psychotherapist.
He crossed the divide between patient and professional and made us both just two people sharing being alive together.
From my heart – thank you, Mr. T. H.