Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
June 2017 - Volume 17, No. 6
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The Harpist in the Doorway

[Preface: When I consider the meaning of things it’s the meaning more than the thing itself that is life giving and even healing. This also is the root of our story-telling, which has long been the primary bearer of meaning in the human world. When I started writing this, I hadn’t meant to become so ‘philosophical’ but rather to expand and affirm that which brings to each of us an enhanced richness of life, experience, healing and even joy.]

There are times when something means so much more that it means. That’s what I want to talk about here.

To help frame the subject, I’ll begin by describing three types of people whom I’ve experienced.

I’ll begin by mentioning those who insist on their ability to attach special meaning to almost everything. I dated a woman like this many years ago for a couple years. But early on in this relationship, her “special gift” wore off as not one of the ways she endeared herself to me. Then when she began to take me on as her special project, to mold me into the specific forms of her own special world, our relationship took the final form of dry burnt toast. No amount of good butter, fine jam or other fanciness of spread could redeem it.

Some preachers and politicians can be like this. The meaning of anything and everything becomes determined by a defining text (cf. the Bible) or ideology (like that of a particular political party), and the defining ‘text’ defines everything. The narrower the text or ideology, the closer it can become a cult.

2). Then there is an opposite. Meaning is limited to empirical experience (as opposed to theory or logic or imagination.) In my undergraduate days (back in the 1960s) there emerged a philosophy called “logical positivism” (or later, “logical empiricism”), whose devotees posited that all meaningful propositions must be reducible to sensory experience and viewing. Thereby, all authentic insight is to be formed on a strict following of empirical manners of verification. Some of these folks were my friends, but what I considered their general lack of a lively imagination didn’t add much fun to their presence. I knew their world of meaning wasn’t for me. Like an overcooked steak, there was no juice.

Life with them was as boring as some of you may find the words of the preceding paragraph. And after all, I was born to a literate and conscientious preacher and a story-teller. Being around neither of those folks I’ve described above would feed my soul.  

3). Nothing means anything.

Then there’s a third grouping of folks I consider in this context.  These are people who’ve been so wounded and/or betrayed by life that they just don’t trust anyone or anything, so the world of ‘meaning’ is empty and essentially without meaning. Pain and violence sometimes become their only relief from the nothingness of their nihilism. These folks I’ve met among my clientele, as well as those folks who engender the tragic occurrences that so fill our news programs.We, in turn, love to hate them. And we’ll spend billions and sacrifice our young people to try to kill them. To make sense of this is to help make sense of them. It’s a long road up from the place we want to put them.  

It’s been said that one hallmark of being human is that we are beings to attach meaning to things. And each of these three types are illustrative of this human urge to wrestle with the meaning of things.

The Harpist

One of the skills of psychotherapy is to enrich the meaning of things, for the purpose of  enriching the life of the individual and/or of society. It’s not necessarily the presence of things, but the meaning of things present. I’ll often remind clients that there are more meanings of things, or options in life, than we realize.

One of my elderly clients came to me with a recent history of botched surgeries, leaving her handicapped, incapacitated and in constant pain. Surely not the makings of an enriched life. But she told me a few times that one day while a patient at Ann Arbor’s University Hospital, a professional harpist showed up, positioned herself in the doorway to this woman’s room, and for a time played beautifully upon her harp. 

We didn’t talk much about it - it’s one of those experiences that maybe best shared with very few words. Readily though it became a rich image shared in our mutual imaginations. Let the reader take a moment, and even begin to imagine the multi-level richness of such an experience. 

I would hope that each of us, in our work, our relationships, and our attending to the beauties of life, can become the bearers of such ‘meaning-full’ gifts to each other.  

The meanings in stories

My “school” years

Many once-upon-a-times in my life, I was ‘going to’ school - public school, college, graduate school, professional school.  I was a good student.  I paid attention.  I did my homework, I got good grades (highest in my high-school class - though there were only 54 of us.). I was rarely challenged, what I was supposed to learn and what I did learn were pretty much in sync with each other. I wasn’t bored, nor was I really excited. I did ‘just fine’.  

I wasn’t exactly the “popular” type, but in looking back throughout my education I was well-respected.

I’m sure I had a lot of imagination, but I don’t remember a lot of it. I was a good boy. (That didn’t do much to enrich my dating life.) For years there was no Robin Williams to put a real spark into my education.  

Breaking through to my true self

But I did have a father, a Methodist preacher, with whom I was close, and whom I consider one of the wisest cynics I’ve ever met. And I had a professional story-teller mother. It was a good home. And in retrospect there were many slow-growing seeds during all those years well-sprinkled into that good rich Mid-American soil of my psyche. 

Then there was that moment, two or three years into my clinical psychological training, when one of my trainer-mentors said to me “Bill, you know the (official) material well enough by now - begin to let it go and find your own way from here on.” That was probably around 1976.  (I’ve written about that before in an earlier Newsletter.)

He blessed me with the freedom to fly on my own - and in so many ways I began at that moment to become the man that I am now. I could make up my own mind about the meaning of things I encountered, experienced, and the freedom to listen to others separate from the categories and limitations others and other ideologies wished to impose. He provided that ritual moment which burst forth from the soil both my parents had themselves consciously prepared. They purposely didn’t guide me in what to do with my life, but encouraged me to find my own life path. And in my case it fit my temperament and personality well.

I didn’t always please others, and I made mistakes. Probably more than I’m willing even now to remember. But I was becoming my own person, my own man. I had heard my harpist in the doorway.

And so I’ve become a story-teller, I tell my stories - often my best manner of transmitting wisdom to others. How often I will say to a client, “let me tell you a story.”

The heart of story - the transcendence of Metaphor

A good working definition of metaphor is “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract” (Google). Hence, the harpist in the doorway to my suffering client’s hospital room.  

After Mike Brown’s words of blessing, the act of which itself has mythic overtones, I found myself on a path of study that seemed to pull from and unite so many elements of my past.  (That’s why. I’ve purposefully mentioned some of them here.)  

1) I became more involved with the structure of metaphor through the early founders of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), and through them to the metaphoric (and hypnotic) work of Dr. Milton Erickson. 2) I became more involved in the mytho-poetic men’s work pioneered by a new mentor, the poet Robert Bly, and subsequently mythologist Michael Meade (to mention a few).

Every client has a story to tell - even though it may be deeply hidden. My work is to listen and honor it (sometimes just by listening). And then, when appropriate, to find or create a metaphoric response. By the time someone arrives in my office, many of the ‘logical’, ‘scientific’ or behavioral attempts have already been tried, also psychological interpretation or analysis. Why insist on continuing to invent the same wheel that already doesn’t work here?  

When my mother died, she had collected a library of some 300 books, collections of stories from all around the world. She knew stories. And the stories knew her. As in the old story-teller tradition, she carried the stories in her heart. Then when she had a right audience (and every audience for her so easily became a right audience), the story would emerge from her heart, through her lips, and then into the ears of the hearer, and then into the heart of the listener, where it would come alive with it’s own inherent healing gifts. This is the heart to heart center of the “aural tradition” where the story-teller became the primary bearer of wisdom and healing gifts.  Remember even perhaps in the memory of some still alive, when the local physician was often the most learned person in town. He (or she) didn’t just know medicine and anatomy, they also knew life. They didn’t just have knowledge, the knowing of things, they had wisdom, the knowledge of what do to with it, the right use it for ongoing and the healing of people. They knew the stories of things, and the use of metaphor to bring healing. Even today, it’s often the elders, the ‘old ones’, the grandparents who are the best and wisest healers in our families and culture.

“There’s a story for that”  

But to hear the story, we need a story-teller who carries that kind of wisdom in their heart. Then we need to open our own ears - recalling the Biblical injunction “those who have ears, let them hear.” When our ears hear, then we need receptive hearts. Only then can the world begin to heal.  

That’s the way it seems to have been for millennia, until our (modern) time when so much knowledge seems to be carved up into square separate boxes - all the various ..ologies (knowledges) of our world. Life cannot be contained in square boxes, even lots of them, even if the edges seem to match, which they sometimes apparently can. Even solving the Rubik’s Cube doesn’t heal or fix anything real.

I have happily noticed that story-telling is returning to radio, especially Public Radio. And there are those “driveway moments” when we can’t leave our cars until we hear the end of a story being told.  

Is the ‘harpist in the doorway’ a healing story? It’s power and its healing isn’t from being a true account, although it is. It’s so much more than just data. I know, and so do you, that something powerful was happening. And in so few words. For certain I will keep that story close to my own heart all my days.

Pay Attention

Comments (1)

  • You produced a beautiful description of Mother and her storytelling. Thank you!

    — Alice, 6/5/2017

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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