In 1988, I was a first year graduate student in the Counseling Psychology program at Tufts. I did my internship that year at The Academy of Physical and Social Development in Newton. The choice to do my internship there had more to do with the fact that it was accessible by public transportation than anything else. Call it karma or call it luck but it couldn’t possibly have been a better fit for me. 26 years later, my current practice is an offshoot of that one.
After finishing my groups one night, I caught a ride home with my supervisor, Dr. John Cloninger. We started talking about psychotherapy and I tried to pick his brains about what he felt were the mechanisms at work in helping people to change. We spoke about a good friend of mine who was really struggling. She and her siblings suffered through chronic physical abuse from their parents when they were kids. My friend was the only one who came through relatively unscathed. She was in medical school while her brothers were both battling severe mental illness. As you can imagine, she carried a lot of emotional baggage and I asked John how a therapist would even begin to work with her. How does a person who carries that around with her continue to honor and care for her brothers and tend to her own emotional well-being at the same time she’s trying to enter a very demanding field? John gave me some very considered answers but finished by saying “With your friend or with anyone else, Bruce…the most important thing you can do for them is to just listen.”
He was right. And not just about psychotherapy.
I’m thinking about this today because of a Facebook exchange I had yesterday with my old friend Charlie. Charlie has had a bigger influence on me and the career choices I’ve made than just about anyone I know, other than my parents. I met him in 1982 when I was a freshman at Hofstra University. He was a sophomore and was taking the same Adolescent Psych. class that I was. I was walking across campus one day when Charlie, a loud, large, African-American dude, stopped me and said “Hey – you’re in my Adolescent Psych. class and I’ve noticed you’ve asked some interesting questions. I’m wondering if you’d be interested in an organization I work for.” He told me about Student Outreach, Hofstra’s Crisis Intervention Center. I came down to the office to check it out and decided to train to become a counselor there. Outreach was founded in the 70’s in response to the increase in drug overdoses on campus but it continued on to help students through just about any type of crisis imaginable on a college campus – from relationship problems to suicide. I was an Outreach counselor for 3 years, co-directing it for 2. I learned a lot about people and their issues working there and continue to draw on those experiences all the time.
I also got to be very good friends with Charlie. Charlie was one of those guys who was interested in everything. He had been a standout football player in Queens as a teenager but was also a wonderful musician (his song “Am I Really Deep or Am I Just a Schmuck?” is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard and I still remember all the words…well, most of them anyway) and student. One day he was talking to another Outreach counselor about his interest in Buddhism shortly after expressing his deep admiration for one of our psych. professors. The other counselor said “Listen to you!…Freakin’ Buddha Granofsky!” That’s how I still think of Charlie.
This is a picture of Charlie from back in the day. I’m not sure what he’s singing here but I’d like to think it’s his immortal classic “Am I Really Deep or Am I Just a Schmuck?”
I got my Outreach nickname – MVI, or Most Valuable Intern, from the Samuel Shem satire about modern medicine called The House of God. It’s kind of a Catch-22 style novel about young doctors. You should read it. It’s funny.
Anyway, when Charlie graduated, we gradually drifted apart but I tracked him down about 15 years ago. To say that he had changed a bit from our college days is a vast understatement. In college, alongside his intellectual gifts and undeniable charisma, Charlie could come across as being on the hedonistic side and he was, if nothing else, a free-thinking iconoclast. When I tracked him down in the late 90’s, he told me that he had become a born-again Christian and was an ordained minister working for the Salvation Army. As a secular Jew who skews to the political left, I was a little worried that my old friend and I might not have much in common anymore. On the other hand, I knew that even though his career path might not be the one I would have predicted, he was undoubtedly doing great work with some of society’s neediest people.
Since Facebook has come along, Charlie and I have been in much more frequent contact. We both try to limit our posts about politics but it’s fair to say that we disagree on almost everything in that realm. Charlie is part of that rare breed that the GOP clamors for – a conservative, evangelical, African-American man. Judging by the demographics from the last election, the Democrats are probably salivating for more people like me, a middle-aged white guy, as well. Occasionally, both of us post about politics. Generally, we respect each other’s intellect and heart but we almost always disagree. For the most part, even when Charlie posts something I disagree with, I try not to join in, given the tendency of political threads on Facebook to degenerate quickly into ugliness and vitriol. Yesterday, he posted about the events in Ferguson and I couldn’t stop myself from responding.
This is the 2014 version of Charlie
It’s not my intention here to make this a conversation about who’s to blame for Michael Brown’s death or whether or not rioting is the appropriate response to it. It’s a tragedy when an 18 year old is shot and killed. As for the rioting, I think Martin Luther King’s comments about the riots of the late 60’s got it right:
“I think we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard and what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear the economic plight of the Negro poor which has worsened over the last few years.”
But then he went on to say:
“Riots are self defeating and socially destructive.”
Here’s what Charlie had to say about Ferguson on Facebook:
“It was a crazy night last night. Ferguson was again on fire. What did those small business owners do to Michael Brown? How ludicrous it was to see POTUS call for tranquility while Ferguson burned! Michael Brown was a kid who made a stupid choice to rob a convenience store. Stupid. He’s dead because he was stupid. Michael Brown will not, nor can he ever, be considered a civil rights hero.”
When I read it, my first reaction was one of shock that my friend seemed to be chalking this whole thing up to President Obama and a convenience store. My first comment on his thread reflected that shock. Charlie quickly clarified that it wasn’t his intention to blame the President for this and that he recognized that the issue went beyond one kid and his fatal interaction with a police officer. We got into a great private exchange. Charlie focused on how the riots are ultimately self-defeating in the way they destroy the community’s economic base, the most obvious means that community has for improving its circumstances. In my responses, I recognized the irony of trying to speak with any authority about Michael Brown and urban riots to an African-American man who ministers to his area’s most vulnerable citizens. But I tried to make the point that even if it’s not an entirely rational response, rioting may be seen as the only one available by people who understandably viewed the lack of an indictment as a societal sanction for killing unarmed black teenagers.
Eventually, Charlie and I wound up coming pretty close to agreement. Even before we took our conversation private, he posted this:
“Bruce, I don’t blame POTUS for this, it was simply Chekhovian to see him on the split screen. Brown’s problems and society’s (by extension) are far greater than a convenience store robbery. It was just dumb. Dumb for a kid to steal, dumb for a kid to die over it. Senseless, just as the looting is, and I’m pissed about it. And I am willing to do something about it, beyond long-range criticism.”
And I know that he really is willing to do something about it. Charlie has always been one to put his money where his mouth is. Regardless of our political differences, I would never deny that his love, energy, commitment, and empathy are indomitable forces for change.
In the end, I come back to my old supervisor’s observation that the most important thing we can do is listen. We don’t always have to agree. But the more we listen to each other with real respect, the more we’re likely to learn that our differences are much smaller than our common bonds. Charlie and I have a deep, abiding respect for each other. It would have been very easy for us to lock ourselves into knee-jerk, ideological arguments over this issue. Just watch CNN, Fox, or MSNBC to see how easy that is. Prior to our exchange yesterday, I had a great deal of respect for my old friend. It’s only grown since then. Going into the holiday weekend, I can feel very thankful for that.