To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Alan and the Crazies

Alan was the second of the Masters who began to teach me, and I basically always liked him. He often seemed serious, even stiff--he was genuinely formal and reserved, and his voice was dry and somewhat nasal. I always thought that if he'd been allowed he would have worn a collared shirt and a tie every day of his life. The whimsical school uniform never really looked quite right on him. But Alan's seriousness, like so much else about him, was an illusion he made no effort to confuse with the truth.

Alan was--and is--a psychologist and a stage magician. I think I mentioned already that he was actually hired specifically as the school's magic teacher. He never denied that stage magic is based on illusion, but he also maintained that illusion is magical. I have a friend who was Alan's particular student, just as I ended up working closely with Charlie. My friend sometimes went with Alan to the hospital--Alan did magic shows as a form of therapy, mostly for hospitalized children, to cheer them up. He had also gotten himself recognized as a hospital chaplain, though I'm not sure how he did that, as he was not ordained in any particular religion. My friend told me about one time when Alan, in his capacity as chaplain, sat at the bedside of an atheist who was dying of cancer. The atheist was explaining how he wanted to be able to hope for a miraculous cure, and he wanted to be able to hope he was going to Heaven, but he just couldn't make himself believe in either miracles or Heaven. He believed only in reason, and reason told him he was about to die, painfully, and that would be the end. Done.

Alan smiled, and said, quite casually, that hope has an odd way of showing up unexpectedly--and he opened his hand to reveal, of all things, a live white dove.

The dying man almost leaped out of his bed in shock--he hadn't known that Alan could do magic--and then recovered himself and said "it's just a trick," in a voice that my friend said sounded very sad. Alan readily acknowledged that he'd used slight-of-hand, though he wouldn't explain how he'd managed to do it--doves are too big to hide up a sleeve.

"But," Alan said, "for a second you thought it really had just appeared miraculously, right?"

"Yes," the man told him, "I thought the world had just gotten bigger, or something. But it hadn't. And thank you for the entertainment, but I'm still dying of cancer."

Alan became serious.

"Yes, you are still dying of cancer. But remember how that felt--believing for a moment that the world was bigger than you thought. There's a gap between what you know and the limits of what is real--and in that gap was a white dove you didn't know existed. Can you swear there aren't two white doves in this room? Or three? Can you swear you know so much about the world that there can be no miracles, no Heaven?"

And the man began to cry. When Alan finally got ready to go, the man stopped him and asked how he'd known to bring the bird, since he couldn't have known where the conversation would go, and also how he'd gotten the bird in past hospital security. Alan just smiled.

"I'm a magician," he told the man, and left.

Alan taught a course on stage magic, which I never took, along with Intro to Psychology, which I took because it was mandatory, and a pair of other electives I would not have missed; The Psychology of Illusion and Illusions, Damn Lies, and Statistics. I'll tell you about those courses sometime. Alan was a popular teacher, and he had his group of students who particularly admired him, his own favorite friendly audience and group of willing volunteers. I wasn't one of them, though, like I said, I always basically liked the guy. But I first encountered him not as a magician (I'm not counting that trick with the ring on my first night, since I didn't know him at all yet) but as a group therapist.

Yearlings had to take a year of group therapy, along with our year of zazen. We were put in groups of ten, mostly with people from other dorms, mostly other yearlings, and we met as groups almost every Wednesday. Then, we'd have dinner together. Alan ran the program, but since all four groups met at the same time, he met with each only every fourth week. The rest of the time we had a format to follow.

The first few weeks, though, the meetings were staggered so he could attend all of them and get us going. He taught us group-bonding exercises, ice-breaking games, and the format we were supposed to use when he wasn't there--and he cautioned us against trying to play therapist with each other. Someone asked, why not?

"Because you're crazy," he deadpanned.

"Am I crazy, too?" asked a girl in the corner--Kit would want me to call the girl a woman, since she was over eighteen, and I mostly quit calling women girls because of Kit bugging me about it, but this woman really was a girl. She mostly wanted attention. Alan gratified her by pronouncing her crazy, too.

"I'm crazy, you're all crazy..." he added, and a hint of a smile played about one corner of his mouth as he waited to see if someone would deliver the next line. I can recognize a Lewis Carrol paraphrase when I hear it, so did the honors and set him up.

"How do you know we're crazy?" I asked him.

"You must be, or you wouldn't have come here!" Alan replied, grinning like the Cheshire Cat himself. But then he sobered, and gave a real answer to the question about why we shouldn't practice therapy on each other.

"I'm your psychologist, an expert on the human mind--which is bull, of course, because I'm nuts. I have issues, hangups...but it works because my craziness isn't connected to yours. We're not really in each others' lives yet, so I can see things in you I could never have seen in myself, things I couldn't see in a friend. But implicit in our therapeutic relationship is the assumption that I know more about your minds than you do--which I don't. You know that, and I know it. But you'll make that assumption anyway if you come to trust me as your therapist. And for anyone who is actually in your lives, as you are in each others', with all the investments and conflicts of interest that implies, for anyone in your lives to encourage you to believe that they know more about your life and mind than you do is abusive. And I won't have you do that to each other."

It was a bittersweet day when I realized I had become Alan's friend, and could no longer benefit from his keen perspective.

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