It is officially spring in the San Luis Valley. The winds are heavy, and they carry with them some unintelligible wrath of the gods. When you’re working on “accepting” your “fate,” these sorts of environmental phenomena test your focus. The San Luis Valley was never meant to be a permanent settlement for the human race–at least not for the past 2,000 years or so– and the gods never let you forget it. Nothing grows here, naturally, except for rabbit brush and the more pathetic species of cacti. The winters are dry and frigid, with overnight lows often surpassing -30 Fahrenheit. Summers are dry and hot, and the weather never changes. Spring is dry and cold, and so windy we often end up with afternoon dust blizzards so thick you can’t see six feet in front of you. That leaves autumn. Autumn in “the Valley” is actually a wonderful time of year. I imagine there are few places on the planet that are as welcoming and comfortable as the San Luis Valley in the weeks between August and Halloween. One gets the sense that the San Luis Valley, as the gods intended it, was to be a nice, quaint little rest stop for Native American nomadic hunter-gatherers as they made their way south for the winter.
Leave it up to the land-gluttonous European to take a look at this godforsaken landscape (for three-quarters of the year, at least) and decide someone should live here ALL THE TIME. The only explanation is that it must’ve been fall when the Spaniards first got here and decided to call it a day. Then, a couple of centuries after the Spaniards, the Mormons made their way to the Valley–probably also in the fall– and decided it was amenable to settlement and polygamy.
But not me. No sir. It may have taken me upwards of 20 years of living here to get the message, but I got it all right. It’s probably time to leave. I have survived at least 19 more winter and spring seasons than any human has any right to. So I did what any self-respecting American does when he or she needs a major life change–I applied for a job somewhere out of town that offered me a lot more money. Twenty-thousand more dollars to be exact.
Now, knowing what we already know about my relationship with fate, the fact that I would be making such an exorbitant amount more in salary than I already do, I was fairly certain there was no way in hell I was getting the job. And I didn’t.
I did get a face-to-face interview, however. It was an all-day sort of thing. Six hours of answering questions about why I’d want to make $20,000 more doing essentially the same job I’m already doing. I felt I had done well for the first four hours or so. And then, during the “Big” interview, with all the big-wigs of the facility, they asked about my “process” for determining counseling interventions after making a diagnosis.
This was perfect. The question was a kind of a lob. They had tossed it up and were waiting for me to crush it between the hoop, like some sort of divine-wind Lebron James dunk. An easy two points. When you’ve been in the mental health field for going on 10 years, five of those years as an actual mental health counselor, even someone as slow-witted as myself learns that “professionals” don’t like real answers. They want something clever that sounds good. They don’t want actual concrete specifics. Those are boring. They want poetry. And, like poetry, it doesn’t even need to make any sense. It just needs to sound good.
So I said, “Well, honestly, I feel like I’m the type of clinician who treats people. I don’t treat a series of symptoms.” Which was an answer that had the benefit of not only being extremely vague, but vague in that nice, poetic way. It was also true. Rarely do I take whatever diagnosis I provide seriously. Mental health is not like physical health. You don’t make a diagnosis and then implement a set, accepted collection of specific interventions which have been proven by real science to treat the dis-ease. Having depression is not like having gangrene. Being suicidal is not like having irritable bowel syndrome. Being schizophrenic is not like having high blood pressure. Human beings and their central nervous systems are too complex. You never know what is underlying a set of mental health symptoms. It could be a childhood trauma, or it could be a lack of sleep. It could be a bad relationship, or it could be a too-frequent ingestion of psilocybin. It could be some combination of all of the above, or include a trigger you never even considered.You never know. And even when you do find out, you never know what’s the best way to deal with the problem until you try out a few different things. I talk with my clients, essentially, and treat them like human beings first and foremost. I try to understand them and help them understand themselves.
But they all looked at me like I was speaking a different language. Like they didn’t read poetry.
“Can you give us a specific example of an intervention you have used with someone you diagnosed with, say, anxiety or depression?” one of them finally asked, she being a woman who had to gag the question out through a mask of pure incredulity on her face.
“Well,” I responded, unsure of where to go with my response. I could tell that the poetic angle hadn’t taken. But the question didn’t compute with me, anyway. Each client is an individual, with individual needs. There are very few–if any– specific interventions I do with every client of a given diagnosis. Maybe the poetry was too vague and general. Maybe they just needed more of it. Maybe I just needed to flesh it out a little more thoroughly. So, instead of something boring and concrete (and dishonest) like, “I initiate evidence-based cognitive-behavioral protocols, such as cognitive mapping and daily thinking journals” I instead continued with: “It just depends. Human beings and their central nervous systems are too complex. You never know what is underlying a set of mental health symptoms. It could be a childhood trauma, or it could be a lack of sleep. It could be a bad relationship, or it could be a too-frequent ingestion of psilocybin. It could be some combination of all of the above, or include a trigger you never even considered. You never know. And even when you do find out, you never know what’s the best way to deal with the problem until you try out a few different things. I talk with my clients, essentially, and treat them like human beings first and foremost. I try to understand them and help them understand themselves.”
This time they all looked at me like I had kicked their dogs and pissed on their cats. I knew then and there it was over. The American Dream of making more money was done for now. I had failed to realize that I was in a room with a bunch of Doctors of Psychology, who had wasted years of their lives doing “research” and therefore wanted an answer about my Cognitive-Behavioral interventions. They wanted cognitive mapping and thinking journals. Not poetry. Poetry was for those of us with Master’s degrees only. Poetry is for the plebes. Poetry is fun, not serious. And Doctors of Psychology are serious people.
When I drove back to the San Luis Valley after the interview, the cherry blossoms were in full-bloom, finally. Cherry blossom season always comes later to the Valley, because it’s so fucking cold for so long. And when it does come, you hope and pray to the bastard gods that they ease up on the wind for a week or so, so that you can enjoy the majesty of the blossoms and properly meditate on the beauty and rapid impermanence of life, and to work on resigning yourself, contentedly, to your fate.
Thankfully, it was a nice day. A brief respite from mother earth’s springtime flatulence. So I laid myself down under a splendid tree in full, deep-purple bloom and considered my beautiful, rapidly impermanent life, and worked on resigning myself, contentedly, to my fate. I thought about my career and about what I do. I came to the conclusion that my job, essentially, is to help clients become “Good Philosophers.” I mean that in the old Stoic or Socratic meaning of the term. The Stoics and Socratics felt that being a “Good Philosopher” was simply identifying a set of rational, logical values and ideals and then living up to those values and ideals. What I see with many, if not most of my clients is they have certain perceptions of what it means to live the “good life” and then fail to live authentically to those perceptions. Or, perhaps more accurately, they fail to develop a rational, logical sense of what the good life really is, instead choosing to accept whatever society or culture or mom and dad tell them to accept, regardless if that society or culture or mom and dad seem happy and fulfilled themselves. (NB that the exception, from my experience, are clients with severe and/or ongoing trauma experiences. The difficulties for such clients are not in their inability to be “Good Philosophers” but in simply processing their traumas in conducive manners that help them to grow instead of wither.)
The ideal philosophers for the Stoics and Socratics were Diogenes the Cynic and Socrates himself. I have briefly mentioned Diogenes before, in prior essays. He was famous for sleeping in large, ceramic wine jars and for jacking-off in public. What the Stoics liked about Diogenes was that he was true to his philosophy. He believed in living as austere a life as possible and lived as austere a life as possible. That’s where “the Cynic” part of his name comes from, cynic meaning “dog-like” in old Greece. The common people believed Diogenes lived like a dog and so they called him “Diogenes the Dog.” Just the same, Socrates was admired for also living austerely and for dying with grace, when it was determined he should do so. Although “dying with grace” doesn’t really do justice to Socrates. He was unjustly tried and convicted, as well as excessively punished, for breaking a stupid law that should never have existed. But he had spent so much time philosophizing about humans should not fear or reject or shy away from death that he felt he should follow through with drinking the hemlock to sort of prove his point. In short, he accepted his fate. That’s a “good-ass philosopher” in the eyes of the Stoics and Socratics.
Meanwhile, if you couldn’t tell by my last essay, I, myself, am trying to come to terms with what it means to be a Bad Philosopher. Now, again, by “Bad Philosopher” I don’t mean I suck at generating syllogisms and get confused by logic formulas. I don’t mean my arguments are linguistically uncouth from the perspective of the logical positivists.When I call myself a “Bad Philosopher,” I’m basically saying I suck at following my own philosophical values and ideals.
I’m not the first, however. Oh no. There was Seneca, before me. One of the greatest Stoic thinkers that ever existed, if not THE greatest. But he was attached to his fortune. He enjoyed being rich and despised the thought of becoming a common plebe. And when he was exiled, he wrote letters to those in power bewailing his circumstances and begging for reconciliation with The Powers That Be. Not exactly displaying that serene detachment to externals that is one of the cornerstones of Stoic theory, were you, Seneca?
Then there was that ghoulish, creepy little pervert, Nietzsche, himself. Nietzsche’s whole philosophy was built around this idea of “yes-saying” to life. Now, Nietzsche wasted a million or so words on the idea, so far be it for me try to simplify or distill the idea into one paragraph, bur for the sake of brevity, let’s just say that Nietzsche thought it prudent to acknowledge that life was hard and violent and amoral, but to enjoy it anyway. Well, not only enjoy it, but to embrace it, and to sort of become one with the chaos of life. What Nietzsche wanted was for humans to acknowledge the existence of dragons and monsters and then be thrilled with the prospect of having to go out and fight the fuckers. However, while Nietzsche was sniveling derisively at all the pussies who didn’t have the courage to fight the dragons, he was crying himself to sleep at night because a few geeky, haughtily oblivious academics dismissed his writing and scholarship. So he continued to emphasize the aspects of his work that they despised and then got defensive when those academics continued to hate his work even more. This cycle got so bad Nietzsche eventually had a number of psychological breakdowns, died alone in a sanitarium, unhappy and decidedly not “yes-saying” to life.
(It’s important to note that Nietzsche psychological condition was initially attributed to a case of syphilis, but it seems likely that he was diagnosed with syphilis simply because that was pretty much the only method of understanding such psychological breakdowns at that time, and not because there was any actual evidence to support the diagnosis. I am just an idiot asshole who writes puerile and pointless essays in my spare time, but I’m inclined to lump Nietzsche’s downfall in with other “carpe diem” assholes like Jack London and Jack Kerouac. All of whom are writers I actually admire, but whose quests for exciting, adventurous lives ended up turning them into drunk, raving lunatic assholes.)
So, you know, if I am a “Bad Philosopher” I’m at least following in the footsteps of some giants of the field. Maybe there’s something to be said about being a philosophical hypocrite. Maybe there’s some virtue in the endeavor.
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