I’m just a little bit trapped in my family room, while men of various nationalities and native tongues install wood flooring in the adjacent kitchen. So I thought I’d post, for a change. Maybe the various native tongues brought this story on.
The biggest part of my job at the counseling agency where I work is to provide clinical supervision to graduate student interns. We work with a variety of colleges and universities in the area which offer masters’ and doctoral degrees in counseling and psychotherapy. Our interns are required to audiotape or video their sessions, then present them for critique in supervision.
Last year, one of my interns was a priest from Malaysia. I almost always enjoy working with interns; it’s gratifying for me to help them grow and it’s truly exciting to me when I can watch someone realize they’ve discovered a true gift, a calling, for the counseling profession. Ed, the priest, was one I would say was truly gifted, and has great potential.
Throughout the year, I supervised his work. I was immediately struck by the sense of calm that his presence brought to the environment. I’m not sure that can be taught or learned; I think it’s part of a person’s spirit or it isn’t. Ed had this quality to a remarkable degree. He was an extremely well-educated, well-traveled man, probably in his early 40s. The most challenging part of his work was trying to make sense of American culture, particularly in regard to how we treat adolescents.
Ed was often clearly shocked by the way kids speak to their parents; and surprised that we condemn corporal punishment. He described having been beaten as part of a normal upbringing. He is close to his parents and does not see them as having been abusive in any way — his perspective was that beatings were for his own good, not out of their anger. Be that as it may, he agreed to the agency’s policy of requiring parents to agree not to use physical punishment while they are in treatment.
Working with Ed challenged me, both as a counseling supervisor and as an American. He asked questions that I honestly can’t answer, like “Why did she buy an XBox for Christmas when they can’t pay their rent?” “How will children learn respect if their parents don’t behave honorably?” It was fascinating for me to see “us” through Ed’s eyes.
Part of “speaking the language” of another culture is learning the slang, the idiomatic idiosyncrasies of a region. This is true, by the way, of American adults working with American adolescents. Not that we necessarily must “talk the talk,” but we must understand what they’re saying. (You know’m sayin’?) I helped Ed out with these kinds of things, when I saw he was floundering. Although he is a priest, his language was mildly peppered with profanity. My “style” as a counselor is to match (as much as is comfortable, without being disingenuous) my clients’ or supervisees’ way of speaking. So he cursed occasionally, I cursed occasionally, and we understood one another.
One of Ed’s client families was a very conservative, evangelical Christian Mom, Dad and two teens. They would not have dreamed of uttering a hell, a damn or an ass, unless they were reading from the scriptures.
One day, Ed sat down in my office and said, “I believe I have offended the Purebreds.”
“Oh? How so?”
“I’m not sure, but I may have cursed at them.”
“Oh. What did you say?”
“Well, you know how they are always flat, and never express any emotion?” I did know this; we discussed it regularly. Ed went on, “I have tried and tried to get them to share some feelings, but they do not. Last night, Adam was very disrespectful to his father. When I asked how his father felt, he said, ‘I do not like this.’ That’s all he said! No passion, no emphasis! So I said to his father, ‘Well, if it were me — and here I pounded on the chair arms — if it were me and my son spoke to me that way, I would let him know that I AM MAD AS SHIT!! MAD! AS! SHIT! MAD! AS! SHIT!’ Then everyone grew silent and looked frightened… is ‘shit’ considered vulgar?”
“Weeeelll…yea. It is.” I had to laugh. I couldn’t help but imagine the wide eyes and dropped jaws of the Purebreds while their Asian counselor pounded the chair and shouted about being MAD! AS! SHIT!
At the end of the year when we talked about how things had gone in the supervisory relationship, Ed profusely expressed gratitude for what he’d learned from me. He even asked if I would supervise him via Skype when he returns home. I would be honored. I told him that part of the reason he had learned so much was his humility. He was brighter, and more mature and better educated than most of my students have been. But he was by far the most humble; the most willing to risk being vulnerable, telling me about his blunders, asking for help. This ability is uncommon among humans in general; in my experience, it’s almost unheard of among priests, of whom I’ve supervised many.
He listened carefully to my assessment, and offered this perspective, “I don’t feel that I am being humble. I am being a student. In my tradition, a student finds a worthy master, and then submits himself wholly to the teachings of that master. You have been a worthy master.” Yea, that was a good day at work.
Usually when Ed offered his perspective on American life, I was left thinking, “You’re right; we’re pretty fucked up.” But there was one moment I recall when I felt some national pride, following Ed’s examination of Americans. Commenting on the prayer presented at President Obama’s inauguration, he said, “I thought it was just perfect. It was honest about difficult things, but in the end, it brought humor. It said, ‘We can laugh while we work together to do better.’ That is a very American way of being!” I hope so; I like to think of us that way. Here’s the part of the prayer he was talking about:
“…we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say, ‘Amen.'”