When I began my career as a therapist, I had the opportunity to work in a blue collar community north of Cincinnati at a community mental health clinic. My main gig was working with adolescents who had chosen therapy as an alternative to jail time for drug offenses. This was often in a group setting. One afternoon, during one of these groups, the fire alarm went off, necessitating an evacuation of the building into the adjacent parking lot. It was a beautiful spring day and my group stood outside together taking advantage of the unplanned cigarette break. Once I saw that my charges weren’t getting into anything, I began to walk over to the director to see if there was help needed checking through the building or organizing a reentry. On my way across the parking lot I was approached by a man who could only be described as a small mountain.
“Hello.” he boomed.
I nodded politely and responded in kind. As I made a move to continue walking, this fellow proceeded to step in front of me.
“Are you Jew?” He asked.
“Um, I am Jewish, if that is what you are asking.” I answered.
“Thats great! I am German!” said the man who was clearly American.
“Do you believe me? Cause if not, I can show you…”
He proceeded to lift up his pant legs to show me the tattoos on his calves. The artwork was actually quite impressive. On his left calf was the double lightening insignia of the SS, and on his right was a swastika being held by a very fierce looking eagle. Before I had time to take these in, he lifted up his shirt where he had emblazoned another swastika, this one bright red, with the words Deutschland Über Alles etched into his skin. Then began another enlightening conversation.
“So, did your grandfather burn?”
I thought that he was trying to get a rise out of me, and that I probably should just beg off from the conversation and keep walking, but, I couldn’t help myself.
“If you are asking if my grandparents were killed by the Nazis, no they were not. In fact my grandfather killed a bunch of Nazis, himself. I’m sure you’d be impressed by Nazi memorabilia that he took from their dead bodies.”
He clearly did not get where I was going.
“I believe that white people are better.”
At this point I was intrigued. “So you, who are a Nazi, has chosen to talk to me, an obviously Jewish person. Why?”
“Oh man, I don’t have anything against you guys or nothing, I think you are funny. Kind of like those clowns at the circus that all stuff into a small car and drive into the middle of the ring and then get out of the car and then run around and go back into the car.”
He was rambling a little bit at this point.
“Hey man, I’m two weeks clean, look at my new tat.”
At this point of non sequitur he rolled up his sleeve and showed me a tattoo of a hypodermic needle pointing directly at what had clearly been his favored injection site. I wasn’t sure if this was to remind him where to shoot up if he were clean for too long, or to deter him from using in the future, what I was sure of was that this man was not well.
This is why I love being a therapist.
While I do not seek out interactions with Nazis, and I generally do not work with the population with whom I had been involved at the time, I learned an important lesson. Everybody has stuff. Every person who gets in your way, gets on your nerves. Every driver that cuts you off in traffic, or calls for a genocide has stuff. We get so frustrated with the seeming chaos of human beings. We get so angry at the way people treat us, thinking that we are the target of their disdain.
Being a therapist means that I see that stuff. Not from a voyeuristic perspective, but from a human perspective.
Think of it this way. What grows love? I once heard the following equation to explain it.
I + K = L
Investment plus knowledge yields love. When we spend time (invest) with someone, and we get to know them, we love them more. This is true in romantic love, as well as friendships. The difference between people we love and people we can’t stand is that those that we love, we know.
Take my Nazi friend, for instance. He has terrible, dangerous ideas. Abhorrent notions of superiority based on the color of their skin. But, I spoke to him, I knew him a little more. And I no longer hated him.
As an epilogue to this great story was the reaction of my group to this fellow approaching me. As I returned to bring the kids back in and continue our group, I could see that they were conferring closely among themselves. When they saw me coming, one of them, who I assume was appointed the spokesman, walked toward me.
“Hey man, was Too Tall giving you a hard time?”
“Too tall. We know that guy. Did he give you a hard time?”
“Um, no. Why?”
“Because we were talking, and we could uh, take care of things for you.”
Of course I refused their offer, but, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t touched. Think about how you would judge seeing these kids on the corner. A bunch of hoodlums, you would say. Losers. Some of them had multiple drug offenses, domestic violence, vandalism. A bunch of ne’er do wells who don’t care about anyone but themselves. But I knew them. I had heard their stories, and I had been offered protection from the local antisemite. If that doesn’t bring people together, I don’t know what will. Being a therapist means that you recognize that although you may not like everyone, you recognize that if you just get to know a person, understand them, you can even love them.