“One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.”
aNewDomain — You think you’re in this to win, and now you find yourself mourning the election. It was rough. And now Donald Trump is headed for the Oval Office.
Listen. Life isn’t always about winning. Sometimes it is about losing.
I reflect on this matter after a couple of quite trying weeks. Aside from the obvious misgivings around the elections, It seems like I am beleaguered in all of my employments right now. I’m an existential psychologist, as you know. I teach students and counsel clients. But these days, I keep finding myself saying the wrong thing, or missing a beat when someone needed empathy or missing making connections to people who feel marginalized.
As far as supervising my student therapists, I find I am coming to the end of some relationships. Our time together just naturally elapses.
What a wonderful time to fail. I have given all I know how to give. Now my students are starting to see that I am not bottomless, not infinite.
Two weeks ago, during an emotionally trying experience in counseling one of my favorite students, she kind of balked. She told me I wasn’t as empathetic as she needed me to be. She said my comments sounded canned, generic. Even though we talked about it for awhile, there was nothing I could say to satisfy her.
And she was right.
“Sometimes your students surpass you. You hope that they will. You carried the ball this far and it is up to the next generation to carry it forward. Ah, it hurts to be found lacking! But how amazing it is to be just a mortal being, after all.
And so you are mourning the election. There’s a lesson in that.
Being mortal is full of lessons. Finding out that your teachers and leaders are fallible is a lesson, too.
That’s because we’re human. We can’t help but gloss over some faults. Cognitive dissonance makes our teachers greater than they are.
You wouldn’t listen to a fool, would you? So, since you’re listening, I must not be a fool.
Only I am.
Our students idolize us to some degree and that presents dangers, risks.
Any great thinker is ultimately a hypocrite. Moral philosophers are no more moral than anybody else. One of my favorite existential psychologists prescribes medications and when I found that out I was shattered.
When Bill Cosby was outed as a rapist, a lot of us lost a childhood icon – a nice, funny man who arguably did more than anybody for integration in the United States.
Because of The Cosby Show, my experience of black families was that they were completely normal. Just like my family: a little dysfunctional and totally in love and basically OK.
Losing your idols is hard. Now that I know what I know about The Cos now, well, the knowledge taints all my memories of him.
I feel bad thinking about the good times. That comedy album, and the show, Fat Albert.
How much worse is it when your idol is Martin Luther King Jr.? Learning about his serial infidelities changed me as a man.
For the better.
King was only a mortal man, as I am. Weak, tempted, fallible.
Not a god, not an idol.
Reading about King’s faults while being keenly aware of his successes helped me learn how to a man, and just a man.
The thing is, King managed to do great things: important, self-sacrificing, terrifying things. He sat in jail with equanimity because it was worth it, risked beatings because it was worth it, watched his friends suffer at his side because it was worth it. He didn’t do it because he was a god or a saint. He did it as a man, a mortal, weak, tempted man.
We can do things that matter. My students can find out that I am just a man, too. We can be mourning an election, we can be freaked out. We can talk about it.
I apologize a lot.
When I feel like I am failing, I say so.
And when it is time to say goodbye, we talk about it. And then we say goodbye.
What I want my students to realize is that death is the ultimate failure: You can’t count on me, not in the long run. I’m going to abandon you. I will die. And before that, our professional relationship must end.
It cannot last beyond its appointed time. Once I have taught all I can, there is no further justification for going on.
This is the lesson I try to impart. That you can’t count on me. And your clients, they can’t count on you, either.
You will fail people. Hurt them. Give them less empathy than they expect in the moment. You will forget their names or what happened to them, things you should remember. You will go on vacation while they suffer. You’ll abandon them; die.
And your leaders, and the people you count on to perpetuate those leaders, of course, they will fail you, too, as soon as they just can’t do it anymore.
They are just human beings after all.
It can’t be helped. But what beautiful lessons! I learned them from my teachers. And my students will learn them from me, and then they will go on to teach the others.
I know. You are mourning the election.
The wheel turns.
Cover image: Jason Dias for aNewDomain, All Rights Reserved. Inside images in order of appearance: Jason Dias for aNewDomain, All Rights Reserved; “Philanthropy at the tomb of Howard” (1797) by Sophia Haine: via Chronicadomus, Photo, All Rights Reserved.