Existentialism and psychotherapy

Although I studied a variety of therapies in my preparation for a career as a psychotherapist, I never identified exclusively with one approach – gestalt, client-centered, behavioral, psychodynamic – as a descriptor of my style of therapy. I was an eclectic practitioner, but have always considered my therapeutic orientation to be existential.

I respect that there are therapists whose work has a religious foundation, but mine was a secular practice. I validated faith in God and prayer as best I could, with clients who found meaning in their religious beliefs; but if clients asked me to pray with them, I declined. Although I was raised as a Christian, and most of my values are rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic, I’m an agnostic of the kind that’s very comfortable with saying “I don’t know” when asked about specific religious beliefs. I think that it’s just as arrogant for an atheist to assert sure knowledge that there is no God as it is for a religious person to assert that I’m in error for not believing what they believe. Define God, then we can talk.

I don’t believe that I have the authority to definitively answer questions about religion and am tolerant of  those who claim to “know” that their beliefs are true, as long as they do no harm as a result of religious beliefs. Of course, there’s considerable room for debate about what constitutes harm. (I personally consider any form of indoctrination to be harmful.)  I consider myself an existentialist because existentialism directly addresses morality and personal responsibility, without the excess baggage of sin and redemption and pleasing God. I’ll briefly summarize some of the basic principles of existentialism, as I understand them.

First, existentialism asserts that there’s no universal Meaning “out there” that all right-thinking people can apprehend – as opposed to religions, which assert that there is, i.e. “God’s plan.” To existentialists, concepts like Sin and Redemption and Divine Intercession are constructs based on religious doctrine. They don’t exist in any objective sense. Meaning only exists in the eye of the beholder. Life is absurd, as illustrated by Albert Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus.”  Sisyphus continues to push the boulder up the hill, despite knowing that it will just roll back down. He persists, despite the absurdity of his efforts, because the act has meaning for him.

Because there are no absolute rules, or Divine rewards or punishments in an afterlife, we are each free to do whatever we want. But the other side of the coin of freedom is responsibility. We’re absolutely responsible for whatever we choose to do, and can choose to behave morally even if we don’t believe in Heaven and Hell. We can choose to live in good faith with others, because of our moral responsibility for all of our actions. Although we can find joy and meaning in authentic relationships, we’re all essentially alone in our lives. (A song sung by Country singer Bill Monroe expresses this as well as anything I’ve read on the subject; “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley,/ You’ve got to walk it by yourself,/ ‘Cause nobody else can walk it for you./ You’ve got to walk it by yourself.”) We each have to deal with Angst (anxiety) and dread that comes from the knowledge that we will someday cease to exist. Existentialists don’t rely on the comfort of religious promises of eternal life for the faithful, to come to terms with our mortality.

To say that there’s no objective Meaning to existence “out there” isn’t to say that meaning is unimportant. As an existentialist I’m free (like Sisyphus) to find, or create, my own meaning. One of the best-known existential therapists, Viktor Frankl, named his school of psychotherapy logotherapy – from the Greek “logos”: meaning, or reason. (I’ve written about Frankl in previous posts. I’ve recommended his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, to more clients over the years than any other book.) Although I didn’t practice logotherapy, per se, I’ve worked with many therapy clients to help them find or create meaning in their lives. It can be a life-or-death matter with people who are suicidal.

I initially saw existentialism as grim and forbidding: if there’s no extrinsic Meaning to existence, then all we can do is to sweat along with Sisyphus, acting as if there was meaning to our lives. But now I see the richness of choice, where I once saw austerity. Existentialism gave me a philosophical context for the I-Thou encounters of psychotherapy. We all have a need for our lives to mean something; but we needn’t rely on “God’s plan,” as taught by this or that religion, or on promises of eternal life, to find meaning in our lives.

If you want to learn more about existentialism and the colorful characters (Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Camus, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) who formulated its principles, I recommend Sarah Bakewell’s highly-readable At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. I’d never have guessed that phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty was good at dancing the Jitterbug.

My love story

I fell in love with my first wife, Doris, as an Army lieutenant serving in Germany. She’s a German who spoke fluent English when I met her. I still spoke some German, having lived in Vienna  for four years, when I was in middle school. Doris was my first lover, still living with her parents; but we soon found an apartment and moved in together. Believing that we were destined to grow old together, we got married – much to the relief of her parents. I had a Top Secret security clearance and had to get permission from the Army to marry a foreign national.

We had an unconventional marriage. Although we were in love, we discovered that neither of us was reflexively jealous, or a conventional thinker. We read the popular book Open Marriage, by Nena and George O’Neill to one another, and discussed the option of having other lovers. Some open marriages are monogamous. Only one chapter of the book is about the option of having other lovers, and the O’Neills  expressed their dismay at the wide perception that open marriage automatically meant polyamory. Open marriage is a concept much larger. It’s a concept – radical for its day – of the marriage bond as an ongoing choice to be together in a loving, committed relationship, as equals. We wrote our own wedding vows, pledging to be together “as long as we both shall love.”

During the six years of our marriage, Doris and I each had other lovers, and jealousy wasn’t a problem for either of us. We usually got to know and like one another’s lovers, and there was never any secrecy or deception. We never considered ourselves “swingers,” and we didn’t seek out strangers to have sex with. It’s just that we had the option to become lovers with some of our opposite-sex friends. When we divorced, amicably, it wasn’t due to our polyamory. We remained friends and, for several years, lovers. Even after the divorce, my parents still treated Doris as a family member. She lives in Germany now, and we remain close friends to this day.  My wife Maria and I visited her two years ago.

Doris came to visit me in Beaufort, SC after our divorce and, to my delight, she and Maria hit it off right away. Maria and I were lovers, but at that point we were seeing other people, too. Years later, Doris told me that she’d regretted our divorce, and had hoped to “win me back.” But when she saw how Maria and I were together, she knew that we were meant for each other. Despite this discovery, she was never jealous of Maria, and over the years they’ve come to be like sisters. They have three things in common: each is a lovely woman, they are among the most honest people I’ve ever known, and neither of them has a mean bone in her body.

I knew from early-on in our relationship that I wanted to marry Maria. She had just divorced her husband of seventeen years, and I knew that she needed to “play the field” before she might decide that she wanted to spend her life with me. (I feared that I might turn out to be her “transitional man.”) She knew that Doris and I had had a polyamorous open marriage but she knew, once she decided to marry me, that she wanted our marriage to be monogamous. We’ve both been faithful to one another since the day we agreed to marry, and I’ve never regretted giving up a polyamorous lifestyle. I consider our marriage to be an open marriage because we’re autonomous equals, neither of us tries to control or dominate the other, and we’ve been together in a committed relationship for thirty years out of loving choice, not momentum or a sense of obligation.

For a polyamorous open marriage to work, both partners have to want it, to trust one another and be trustworthy, and to always remember that theirs is the primary relationship in both lives. I have friends who have had a polyamorous open marriage for over forty years. It’s my belief that polyamory can be a valid choice in a loving marriage. While most marriages probably need to be grounded on a pledge of marital fidelity, I don’t consider monogamy to be morally superior to polyamory. It’s just a choice that some loving couples can make.

I don’t miss having other lovers because I’m happily married to the love of my life, who isn’t polyamorously inclined. But I can still tell Doris that I love her, over the phone or in person, and Maria isn’t jealous. Doris and I get along better as brother and sister than we did as a married couple. I have the good fortune of still being a close friend to my first lover, and one of the great joys of my life is to see and hear Doris and Maria talking and laughing together. Even if they’re laughing about me.

Suicide prevention

While the act of suicide is sometimes a long-considered, planned option which nobody can prevent, most suicide attempts are impulsive. According to one study, approximately one quarter of the people who try to kill themselves do so within five minutes of their decision to attempt suicide. Only a small fraction of people who survive a suicide attempt go on to die by their own hand. Throughout my career as a psychologist, I assessed many people shortly after a suicide attempt. A question I always asked of them was, “Are you glad that you’re still alive?” Almost all of them were glad that their suicide attempts had failed. I concluded that most suicide attempts are mood-specific behaviors, often involving intoxication on alcohol or other drugs. Once their mood changes, or they sober up, they no longer want to end their lives.

While in grad school, I volunteered as a telephone crisis hotline worker. I was trained to talk to people who were in crisis, to keep them from engaging in attempts to harm themselves or others. From early in my clinical practice I was called on to evaluate the suicide potential of clients. I learned that many people who attempt suicide are ambivalent about living. “To be, or not to be; that is the question.” At the core of this ambivalence is the issue of existential meaning.

One of the major existential therapists of the twentieth century was Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist that I’ve written about in previous posts. His book Man’s Search for Meaning was based on his experiences as a survivor of a Nazi death camp. He observed that in such a hellish environment, those who fought to live were people who had a sense of meaning in their lives. He called his method of psychotherapy logotherapy (logos means “reason” or “plan” in Greek), and his therapeutic approach was to help patients find, or create, meaning in their lives.

Lives bereft of meaning are empty lives, but sometimes the vacuum can be filled. Although I was able to help some suicidal clients to find something to live for, one of my severely depressed therapy clients died by his own hand. It was the worst thing that happened in my career. I really liked “Allen,” saw strengths and personal qualities that he couldn’t see, and worked in therapy to help him find reasons to go on living. I saw him on Wednesday afternoons, and he always kept his appointments. When he didn’t come in one Wednesday, I immediately called his apartment. When he didn’t answer after several tries, I looked up his address and drove to his apartment. When he didn’t come to the door when I knocked and rang the bell, I intuited that he was dead, inside. Sadly, this proved to be the case. It turned out that he’d bought a gun that morning, gone home, and used it. On a Wednesday, instead of keeping his therapy appointment.

I went through predictable self-recriminations and judgments. Could I have done anything differently that would have prevented his suicide? But I recognized this as a question that could never be answered. My colleagues knew that I was grieving as if I’d lost a family member, and supported me in my grief process. A peer review of my clinical records found that I’d done and documented everything properly, in terms of recognizing and dealing with Allen’s suicide risk.

A few years ago a close friend committed suicide. She suffered from bipolar disorder, and had confided in Maria and me that she would take a drug overdose in certain future hypothetical situations. She said it matter-of-factly, and wasn’t depressed when she said it. We knew that there was nothing we could say that would change her mind. We hoped that she’d never find herself in one of those imagined situations.

Philosophically, I’m torn on the issue of the “right to die,” because if suicide were to be legalized, it’s inevitable that some depressed people would convince themselves – or be convinced by others – that it was their duty to die, perhaps because they felt useless, or they wanted to leave an inheritance, rather than spend their money on their own medical care in old age. I’m no longer a therapist, but if I knew that someone was acutely suicidal, I’d do whatever I could to try to prevent an impulsive suicide attempt. (Many times, as a Designated Examiner in the Probate Court, I recommended involuntary hospitalization for suicidal people.) But once a person has suicided, I don’t make judgments about their decision to end their life. I don’t have the authority to judge.

Most people who end their own lives do it to escape intolerable pain – whether physical or emotional. Allen killed himself because he could no longer endure living with severe depression. His life had no meaning worth living for. I tried unsuccessfully to help him find reasons to live. Albert Camus considered suicide to be “the fundamental question of philosophy.” He wrote, “I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. . . . I therefore consider that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.”

Which takes us back to Viktor Frankl, who found meaning in the Hell of a Nazi death camp, survived, and went on to be a founder of the humanistic psychology movement.

Paddy Chayefsky

I’ve been a cinema buff all of my life, and one of my favorite screenwriters is Paddy Chayefsky. He wrote the screenplays for some of my favorite movies – most of them dark comedies. In this post I’ll write about my three favorite movies scripted by Chayefsky. Those of you who’ve read my previous philosophical and metaphysical posts will appreciate why the one Chayefsky  movie I’ll cover, that is not one of his dark satires, takes us deep into the realms of ontology and quantum physics.

The first Chayefsky movie that captivated me was The Americanization of Emily (1964), a WWII satire starring James Garner, as a US Naval officer, and Julie Andrews, as an English Army driver. I regard it as one of the best anti-war movies ever made. The Allied forces in England are awaiting D-Day, and Garner works for an Admiral. He’s an admitted coward who thinks his job as a “dog robber” (procurer of whatever the Admiral wants) will keep him out of combat. He meets Emily, who hates war, having bedded one too many soldiers who have since died in combat. She falls for the charming American officer and is glad that he’s a coward, and unlikely to participate in the coming invasion. Powerful people going mad is a recurring theme in Chayefsky satires. In this case it’s the Admiral, who goes off the deep end and decides that he wants Garner’s character to be the first man to land on Omaha Beach, so he can film the Allied landing! I remember the essence of a powerful anti-war speech in the movie, about how honoring the fallen with medals and flags and parades ultimately serves to glorify and perpetuate warfare.

Chayefsky’s best-known film was Network (1976), starring Peter Finch as a network news anchor, and Faye Dunaway as his flint-hearted producer. Finch won an Oscar (posthumously) for his portrayal of Howard Beale, whose increasingly unhinged behavior from behind the news desk leads to higher ratings. The network exploits his growing madness to get more market share, and hires fortune tellers and performers to make the news broadcast more entertaining. The best-known scene in Network  is when Beale, rain-soaked and disheveled, exhorts his audience to stop watching, open a window, and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” He goes on to tell his audience to tune in and watch him blow his brains out on live TV. It’s savage social satire, with brilliant dialogue. I’d hoped when I first saw it that it would prove to be an inoculation, to prevent the continuation of the trend of chatty news and “infotainment” on network news broadcasts. But, alas, it proved to be predictive, not preventive. There was a time when network news organizations didn’t compete for ratings, and pretty much stuck to news reporting. Today, the Evening News  greatly resembles the circus depicted in Network.

The third Chayefsky film I’ll cover is Altered States (1980), which starts out as science fiction, but turns out to be a love story. Chayefsky became fascinated with the work of consciousness researcher John Lilly, and did a lot of reading about psychedelic substances before writing his only novel, Altered States. The book was adapted for the screen by it’s author, and the movie was directed by British bad boy director Ken Russell. It stars William Hurt as Eddie Jessup, a brilliant neuroscientist obsessed with consciousness research and plagued by existential angst. Blair Brown co-stars as his wife, a brilliant biologist who has to live with her husband’s emotional distance. Dr. Jessup is willing to be his own guinea pig and ingest strange psychoactive substances in the course of his research. One day, while he’s alone in the lab for an unauthorized “trip” in a flotation tank, his body reshapes itself, in an evolutionary regression. He temporarily becomes a primate, an early ancestor of man.

Accounting for this transformation requires a paradigm shift in the relationship between corporeality and consciousness. One school of thought (material realism) holds that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of being a complex biological organism: it serves to enable the organism to survive. The other major school of thought (monistic idealism) posits that physical reality arises out of consciousness. Dr. Jessup has personally experienced a physical transformation that his mind enabled, and his new understanding of the nature of reality has terrifying metaphysical implications. He loses all control of the now-constant shapeshifting and becomes something monstrous, damned. He is rescued from the Abyss by the power of love.

I recommend the novel as well as the movie. Chayefsky’s name doesn’t appear in the film credits, because of disputes with Ken Russell. Russell’s contract specified that he couldn’t edit out any of the dialogue in Chayefsky’s script. He kept to the letter of the contract, but had some scenes with multiple overlapping conversations going on at once. Chayefsky didn’t like that, and didn’t want his name associated with the film. What dialogue you can make out is brilliant and thought-provoking, but you’d have to read the book to fully grasp the depth of Chayefsky’s speculations about the nature of consciousness and its relationship to physical reality. Apparently the book wasn’t widely read, but it remains one of my favorite modern novels.

Prisoners of metaphor

Humankind has been called “the magic animal” because of our linguistic ability. Robert Anton Wilson put it this way: “Language. . . allowed people to do what no other animal seems to do, namely to visualize and/or verbally ‘contemplate’ something that is not present before their senses. This fantasy or reflection or cognition allows us, then, to compare the imagined with the experienced.” The amazing discriminating mind that language has enabled is, however, a two-edged sword. Language has made it possible for us to progress as a species –  to create civilizations, art, literature – but it’s also responsible for a kind of suffering that’s unique to the human animal.

Any bad situation can be made much worse by the way we think about it. Our human imagination can make us depressed, fearful, or enraged without a realistic external cause.  If it’s responsible for the building of magnificent cities, it’s also responsible for the Holocaust and other man-made horrors. As a retired psychotherapist, I know well that people often suffer needless pain because of the way they think.

The purest truths, it seems to me, reside in our experience. Anything we say about things we experience is once-removed from reality. We  have to rely on metaphor to communicate our truths. Nothing we say or write about  love can match the purity of our experiences of love. Most words don’t have absolute meanings, and the possibilities of misunderstanding another person’s words are endless. We encode our thoughts into words, and every listener must decode them. Two people hearing the same sentence or speech might decode it in very different ways. Language is a leaky vessel for conveying Truth.

Not only do we have words for specific phenomenal things, like rain; we also have words for things that don’t exist in the same way that rain exists. Concepts like Justice and Salvation and Divine Right are noumenal, and might not have the same meanings to different people. And yet people often act as if certain noumena were as real as rain, and had some absolute meaning. Wars are fought over things (Honor, God’s Will) that are totally subjective, or can’t be proven to exist in the way rain exists. To most Muslims jihad means the inward spiritual battle against sinful impulses, but to some it means killing infidels  in the name of Allah.

The Wharfian hypothesis – a popular linguistic theory for much of the twentieth century – suggested that our experience is created by the language that we speak. While a person from our culture, at the beach, would see waves in the ocean, someone from another culture might see the water waving. According to the theory, the first person perceived the waves as things, while the second person perceived a process. While the theory has been largely discredited, I think there is some truth to it: language may not determine one’s experience, but it certainly shapes it to some degree.

Linguistic conventions can make us prisoners of metaphor. Words can almost instantly arouse emotions. A good orator or storyteller can put her audience in a trance. A speech can turn a crowd into an angry mob. In both his essay, “Politics and the English Language” and his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote about the manipulation of language for political purposes. Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” He also wrote, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” In my last post I wrote about the linguistic trap of “is,” and E-Prime as a tool for becoming more aware of what “is” is in our language and our thought. To the degree that you’re unaware of the limits of language as a means of conveying truths, you are under its bewitchment.

Our belief systems are largely constructed from our native language, and the conventions we live by are largely determined by the culture we were raised in. Because we’re all acculturated, we tend to share certain assumptions about what is real, and what is right or wrong, with the people around us. It’s even been speculated that each of us live our lives in a culturally-induced trance state. It’s easy to find seeming irrationalities or blind spots in people whose belief system differs significantly from your own, not so easy to become aware of your own culturally-transmitted limitations or fixations.

Imagine living in a culture whose language didn’t have the word “week,” and which didn’t have the convention of a seven-day week. How would life be different? Years and months are phenomenal  measurements of time, based on solar and lunar cycles. The four seasons are likewise phenomenal. The seven-day week is an arbitrary, contrived convention which affects the lives of most people on the planet. It’s noumenal, but seems to be experienced by most people as real, in the way that rain is real. Many workers wake up with the blues when they remember that it “is” Monday, and tend to have a bright mood when it “is” Friday afternoon. If you  were a castaway on a desert island, would you have a reason to know what day of the week it “is”?

It’s only Monday if you think it is. Your experience or interpretation of almost anything you encounter in your life is mediated by your belief system, your mental map. It’s possible, as Alan Watts put it, to miss the meal and eat the menu. We all need mental maps to navigate our way through life, but the map isn’t identical to the territory it depicts. If you don’t like some of the places your mental map takes you, you can re-draw parts of it – whatever your age. If you pay attention to the tricks and traps of language, it need not ensnare you, or limit who or what you may make of yourself.

 

 

Tools for philosophy

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “Philosophy is not a theory, but an activity.” There are five essential branches of philosophical inquiry: Metaphysics  is the study of existence; Epistemology is the study of knowledge; Ethics is the study of proper action; Politics is the study of force in human affairs; and Esthetics is the study of art/beauty. You don’t need a college degree, or formal training, to engage in serious philosophical dialogue. Anyone who speculates about why innocents suffer while the greedy thrive is a philosopher. Anyone who questions dogma is a philosopher. Anyone who thinks for herself and explores alternatives to the conventional wisdom is a philosopher.

Philosophizing can happen in living rooms and on the street. When people seriously debate about abortion or capital punishment or taxation, they’re engaging in the activity of philosophy. As a philosopher you’re not obligated to come up with final answers or solutions, only to ask pertinent questions and make reasonable assertions. Philosophy isn’t a contest. It’s been called an interesting extended conversation that’s been going on for a long time. You needn’t identify yourself with any established “school of thought” (stoicism, Platonism, existentialism, etc.), but can be eclectic in your reasoning. I think of myself as a guerrilla ontologist, which I wrote about in two prior posts on “Agnosticism and certainty.”

One way  you can recognize that you’re talking to a philosopher is when you hear him say, “Define your terms.” It’s a basic tool that philosophers use. When someone asks me if I believe in God, my likely response is, “Define God.” Then we can talk. Real dialogue requires that we understand one another’s definitions of words, because most words don’t have absolute meanings. Another basic tool that philosophers use is formal logic, but that’s too complex a subject to get into here. Yet another is the three-step syllogism, such as the classic example: 1. All men are mortal. 2. I am a man. 3. Therefore, I am mortal.

Another helpful philosophical tool is the thought experiment. It’s a tool for changing your perspective, examining your values, or thinking outside the box of your preconceptions about an issue. It usually takes the form of a “what if ______?” question, followed by a question about what you would or could or should do in that situation. A classic example of a thought experiment is, “If your mother and your wife were both drowning and you could only save one of them, which one would you save, and why?”

Another classic thought experiment is the runaway streetcar scenario. What if you saw that a runaway streetcar was about to mow down five people in its path, and you were standing by a rail switch that would re-route the streetcar to a track where only one person would be killed. Would you throw the switch? Would your decision be different if  the five were strangers to you, and you knew and cared about the one person who would die because of your decision to throw the switch?

Under what circumstances you might kill someone is also a values question posed by the thought experiment: if you could go back in time and had the opportunity to kill Hitler before he rose to power, would you? What if he was only a baby? Thought experiments like these help you to examine your values. Examination of ones values (sometimes called values clarification) is a specific process: what do you value over what? Do you believe in absolute values? Certain Republicans have cast themselves as “values voters,” as if they held a copyright on values. Everyone has values, from the Pope to a Mafia don like Tony Soprano. We all value this over that when it comes down to making practical or moral decisions. I don’t believe that any ultimate authority exists, when it comes to what we understand as being real, or just. That’s one reason I consider myself to be a guerrilla ontologist.

Another helpful philosophical tool for English speakers who want to better understand the role of language in our thinking is E-Prime. E-Prime (which I wrote about in my post, “It’s only Monday if you think it is”) is English that omits all forms of “is.” Nobody suggests that E-Prime should replace English, but it’s a tool for understanding what “is” is in our thinking. The Aristotelean “is-of-equivalency” posits subjective things as objective things, creating an either/or dichotomy that need not apply. If an apple “is” sweet, it cannot be tart or sour. If one person in a room says that it’s hot and another says it’s not, one of them has to be wrong. If “is” is omitted, and one person says “I feel hot” and another says “I don’t,” there’s no conflict. Wars are fought over where, precisely, the border “is.”

Formulating sentences in E-Prime is an exercise in the activity of philosophy. It helps to make you aware of how language affects your worldview and your judgment. Here are some examples of English sentences and their E-Prime translations:  “He is a liar” becomes “He lies a lot.” “She is very pretty” becomes either “I find her very pretty” or “I’m attracted to her.” (That she “is” very pretty can be disputed; the two E-Prime alternatives cannot.) “He is the smartest man in the room” becomes “His intellect impresses me.” “Look! There’s a UFO” becomes “I can’t identify that flying object.”

The use of E-Prime eliminates subjective bias, or what I call the objectification of subjective experience. Try writing, or copying someone else’s writing, in E-Prime and see what you learn. I think that your philosophy will benefit from the activity. I describe this blog as a psychology blog, “with a side of philosophy.” More about the traps of language in my next post.

 

At the Ministry of Mystery

Here’s the seventh and final installment of my Ministry Series:

 

I had searched long enough – too long – and was ready to give up on my quest for the Great Secret. Life without Meaning was too painful to endure, and I determined to go home and end my life by my own hand. I was parched with thirst, in a semi-delirium and near fainting. I only entered the government building to find a water fountain, to quench my thirst and find the strength to make it home. Inside, I asked a security guard where the nearest water was, and he pointed to a nearby door. I entered, slaked my thirst at the water fountain, and turned to leave.

A man in a trench coat and a slouch hat walked up to me. “Been looking for the Ministry of Mystery, have we?”

“But . . . how do you know?”

“Doesn’t matter. See, the thing is, it’s never in the same place twice. Finding it is . . . a matter of attitude. Just follow your nose, Bub. And believe.”

And then he was gone. I looked for him out in the hallway, but he was nowhere in sight. Only then did I notice the sign above the door: The Secretariat of Serendipity.

My head was suddenly, miraculously clear, my heart pounding: alive, alive, alive. I may have lost my Meaning, but I again found Hope. Back out on the street I felt the heat of the sun; studied with quicksilver awe the upturned faces of the members of a Cloud Counting Club as they stumbled past me on the sidewalk, unaware of their surroundings; followed my nose to a bakery, where I bought and ate a small cinnamon loaf; listened to the clang-buzz-tweet-roar-shuffle of city life. Looking as if with new eyes, I looked up and there it was: the ministry of Mystery – in a place where I had often looked and it had never been. I went inside.

There was only one person in the sparsely-furnished little office: a circus clown in full regalia, with a custard pie balanced on the fingertips of one hand. He beckoned mischievously with the other, and I crossed the room to face him. Beneath the face paint he looked – amazingly – like myself!

“Welcome, K.” he said in a voice just like my own. “I’ve been expecting you.”

“Expecting – you have? Who . . . who are you?”

“I am,” he replied, “the Truth.” He went on. “One day the village idiot was seen riding around lickety-split on his donkey, frantically looking for something. When people would ask him what he was looking for, he would reply, “I’m looking for my donkey!”

“Huh?”

“What you are looking for, bozo, is what is looking.”

“HUH?”

The clown looked deep into my eyes, soulful infinity in his gaze. “Remember,” he intoned, “who you really are.” And with that, he threw the pie in my face.

Food for thought.

 

And on that day I left Centre City, never to return. Up until then I had never really thought about the wider world wherein I now wander. I carry my few possessions in a sack, over my shoulder: wandering, working where there is work to be done, sojourning here and there when invited, getting to know new brothers and sisters, and loving the living of life. Pursuing the paradox now plain as the nose I follow throughout Homeland, singing my simple new song:

“My life is a quest, there’s a Grail I must claim.                                                                               (The Quest and the Grail are one-and-the-same.)”                                                                                                                                               ————————–

 

I’d love to hear from some of you who follow my blog what you think of my Ministry Series, and if you’d like to see more fiction on my blog. I’d thought the series to be complete, but am working on a new installment, “At the Ministry of Merchandise.” Thanks for reading!

Jeff Koob