Friendship is magical stuff, I write about it a lot, because I think we grow more through friendship and love than by any other means. But I’m also fascinated by the strange incalculables, the stuff that we know is true because we lived it, but still doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, by normal standards.
Then again, I can never tell where normal standards apply and where they do not – because as a cult escapee (refugee from a dead culture), I have always been effectively a man from Mars, in but not of, my own society.
My cult was obsessed with psychotherapy, and was even founded by a charismatic who began her career as a classic cold-reading medium (con artist who flatters so effectively, the marks remain enthralled). There were no professional standards involved at all – nor were there any appropriate boundaries, but there sure was a whole lot of jargon and certainty. All of my childhood friends were subjected to group therapy in which we were expected to deal with adult trauma routinely. No one ever asked how that might help or damage us.
Of course it did great damage to every other child survivor of the cult I have been in touch with also, but sort of like the way that working the rigging in a ship as a lad would indeed make you incredibly nimble and dextrous (if you survived), we were often strangely enabled also, even as we were continually assaulted by the very psychic structure of our lives (and with no recourse to reality, since everyone we knew was cult-approved).
The weirdest thing about this rather dangerous and costly ‘gift’ is that while it presents us with insights which seem almost self-evident, they tend to either be remarkably penetrating or else complete and utter fictionalized nonsense. Which are which is very hard for us to tell, because both kinds present with a level of confidence we can only honestly call arrogant. (Yes folks, oftentimes, the con’s first mark is themselves).
Unsurprisingly, I have spent the rest of my life trying to understand human beings and especially, to learn to love far better than I was loved. But I’ve also studied the ideas which were perverted and used against our mental health, and tried my best to tease out the useful from the dangerous in ‘the talking cure’ in general.
Do you remember Asterix and Obelix comics? The plucky French cartoon barbarians resisting Roman domination? Asterix needed a magic potion (from the druid “Getafix”) to fight, but Obelix fell into a cauldron full of potion when he was a kid, so his problem was that he couldn’t ever turn his excessive capacities off.
For years I joked that I was kind of like Obelix, for psychology. I honestly can’t have any interaction with anyone without considering a number of aspects and potential buried clues, which simply aren’t a normal part of interpersonal interchange. Sure it helps me sometimes, but it can be a real pain, too (especially when it makes us hyper aware of the level of malice in people in key power positions). Turning it off would be a huge relief, but they didn’t ever think to install an off-switch in any of us.
Boy did I love the John Brunner novel about the psychic who was so flooded with insight he was driven half mad, and finally had to learn to master hard-earned mental quiet, in order to make anything of his talent/curse.
Then again – all of that being said – there are some times when this freaky skill-set becomes almost musical.
A few years ago, a musician friend of mine had an exciting opportunity come his way – literally, his life long dream job. A few months after recording an album with a super talented record producer, he was invited to join that producer as a partner in his latest venture – a brand new recording studio he was setting up in Montreal, where neither of them had ever lived before.
This was not the slick corporate sort of studio where millions are spent on leather sofas and exotic fishtanks. On the other hand, the equipment was first rate, and the guy was on retainer from Universal – so they were making real viable albums, not demos. It was probably the last generation of ‘just right’ studios, in fact. Where one could invest in radio ready recording, without having to also feed the fancy fish!
The funny thing is, before I even met him (though confirmed instantly when I did) I knew at once that the producer my friend would be working with was, like me, a chaotic creative. Highly generative, without much patience for all the back-office chores which alone can make that kind of skill set viable as a business.
Which is why I understood instantly why he was so enamoured of my pal. Not only was he unflappable and easy going, always pleased to lend a hand with chores, whether modest or glorious, curious and quick to learn, and genuinely fun to be around, he also had a supreme gift for not overthinking every damn thing, or letting those ‘over-thoughs’ stop him from steady action.
Still, my pal was entering a partnership where he felt a bit over-awed by his partner. He really wanted to be able to add even more to the project than his steady tiller hand, even though I assured him repeatedly that this was far more valuable to a creative madman than he was able to understand.
Catherine and I had a really fun adventure, helping him move to Montreal. Riding up in the U-Haul, helping him unload the truck at the studio at midnight, and at his new apartment in the north end, at about two AM. We had a super fun mini vacation for a couple of days after that, and really fell in love with the old town especially.
The weird longstanding rivalry between Toronto and Montreal has bothered me more than ever, ever since, since both cities so obviously have a lot of fine and useful things to teach each other (except about blind spots and arrogance, where both are long established rockstars – oh no wait, did I just explain it?) ;o)
When we got back, I got in the habit of having long phone conversations with my friend every night. He missed home, we missed him, and frankly, working in a recording studio is MY dream job too – so I was eager to soak up every lesson he was learning, on every level I could. Musically first, but with my writer-head also.
The funny thing was that as he told me about each new band they were working with, and the various stresses they encountered trying to not only punch-up the arrangements (radio was everyone’s goal), but then also teach the musicians to play the new parts well enough that they could still perform their own songs live, I found myself actually feeling the emotional dynamics of the thing as he related the basic dry events.
I gave him my impressions, and gradually each band fit together like a psychological jigsaw puzzle in my head and his also (just like every band I’ve ever been in). He reported back regularly, that his producer partner found the insights valuable, and that they often solved emotional conflicts which he was not sensitive enough to solve himself. He uses the part of my brain which is obsessed with understanding other humans, for musical understanding, which is probably why he produces (and plays every instrument better than almost anyone he ever records) and I write!
What I found confusing and yet also interesting about this long run of long distance enabling insight (and that’s not my assumption, but rather their feedback) was that I didn’t ever see any of the people I was trying to gain compassionate insight into. All of the elements I had previously considered essential to form such a subtle impression were absent. I had second hand and sometimes third hand reports, from someone who was not at all obsessed with inner conflict and turmoil. But somehow we were tuned-in just so.
Was that psychological insight? Was that a writer thinking about the arc of a life and the curious path of creative challenges and self-belief? Was that a friend caring about his friend, and trying to help him best?
And then, taking it from the other side – what exactly do we think a cold reading con artist is, anyhow?
Some of all of the above, mixed-in with the sort of confidence most accurately described as arrogance.
To be clear, I heard hours of mixdowns when my pal came back for visits, and whatever it was they were doing up there in sum, it got some really fine music in a whole lot of genres, beautifully played and recorded. There was no malicious intent (except insofar as the whole recording industry is more mind-numbingly exploitative than ever) and no people or animals were injured in the production of this particular tale.
The bands and studio crew were all after that magical sweet blend of art uplift and commerce, with a bit of spiritual growth added in, wherever possible (just because the producer was not himself an empath, that didn’t mean he wasn’t actively interested in those dimensions of all creative process). I felt grateful to be tuned-in, and pleased to add my odd vision.
But now I find myself left wondering, how do we clearly distinguish between helping people with non-linear empathic insight, and tricking ourselves (and them?), with false confidence in arbitrary narrative?
Even screwier, how do we clearly distinguish between ideas which are illusions but take us to great discoveries and growthful places, and those which, true or not, do us great and lasting harm?
Professionals and entire professions can also be wrong (lobotomy anyone?) So whatever those answers are, they have to be a whole lot more subtle than a certificate (no?)
Emma Goldman is my ultimate Occam for cases this. Can I dance to it?