This is a story that began 40 years ago. When I was just starting out in psychology, it all seemed so complicated that I was never quite sure I knew what I was doing. Then one night an old man appeared to me in a dream. He held a large diamond-shaped crystal which he described as the crystal of wisdom. So I did what any resourceful but insecure beginner would do in that kind of situation. I asked him to give me the crystal. That’s exactly what I need. May I have it? Not so fast, the old man replied, I’m blankety blank years old and this crystal is all I have left. You’re young and at the peak of health. You have your whole life ahead of you. By the time you are my age, you’ll have your own crystal.
I never forgot that dream and from time to time I wondered how the crystal would arrive when I turned blankety blank. I hit that milestone during this holiday season and I am still waiting. The crystal was not sitting on my bedside table when I awoke on my birthday. Nor was it on my breakfast plate, or in the coat closet, on the front seat of my car, or anywhere in my office at the hospital. Snapping into a more reasonable frame of mind, I realized that the crystal would probably come by Fed Ex and would be waiting for me when I got home. I was wrong again. Just when I had begun to think I had been duped all along, a colleague suggested the obvious.
The Fed Ex people delivered the crystal to the wrong house. Of course, with that simple assumption, everything fell into place and I had a strategy to recover what my dream visitor so long ago had promised would be rightfully mine.
All I had to do was find the address to which the crystal had been delivered, ring the doorbell, say that there must have been some mistake, and ask for it. I would start in my own neighborhood and, if necessary, expand my search from there. Before I could put my plan into action, my neighbor was knocking on the kitchen door bearing, I imagined, the gift mistakenly delivered to his house. Actually he was there to announce his decision to have all the pine trees in his yard taken down. Because his plan would radically alter the appearance of his property and to a certain extent mine, this man was showing his usual consideration that makes him such a good neighbor and friend. Even without a crystal, it takes wisdom to appreciate the possible effects of your actions on others and, once you have done that, then it’s equally wise to tell them what to expect.
My neighbor’s wisdom in this matter came as no surprise. In the years we have shared a common property line, we have had many yard work conversations about everything from the challenges of family life to speculations about the existence of an afterlife. Although his recent announcement and the reasons for his decision clearly showed wisdom, it was not of the sudden and unexpected variety that one might anticipate if it came from a crystal delivered by Fed Ex. Besides, he knows the dream and would never hold out on me if the package came to his house instead of mine.
So I kept looking. Perhaps whoever it is that sends these crystals thought it best to have mine delivered to my office. In a big new hospital with labyrinthine corridors and lots of meeting rooms and offices tucked in every available corner, it would be easy to deliver a package to the wrong place. All I had to do was to listen more carefully in all of my conversations with colleagues and patients and when I heard a sudden increase in wise statements, I would know where to find my crystal. The more I listened, the more wisdom I heard but it rarely came packaged and ready for instant use. The ideas had to be weighed and tested against the challenges of everyday life before they took on the heft of true wisdom.
When I listened to patients struggling to find new meaning in lives shattered by misfortune, mental illness, or their own rash behavior, I entered into a dialogue not unlike that of any two people looking for answers to big questions. When everything you counted on is lost, how do you make a meaningful life out of what remains? How do you take responsibility for the hurt you have caused others and still find a way to forgive yourself? Why do some of us survive the same calamities that destroy others? Although the circumstances and rules governing the interaction would be different, this is the kind of conversation I might have with my neighbor when we take a break from raking leaves. I can imagine Plato and Aristotle discussing similarly weighty matters over their own back fence though, being revered philosophers, at a much deeper level.
We are all looking for wisdom and we find it everywhere and nowhere. I have not given up looking for my missing crystal though I suspect it will be less like a beacon and more like myriad glints of light reflected from the surfaces of one broken dream after another. Only by listening will I ever know for sure.
Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.
By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.