It was time for her annual review and she had been transferred only recently to my unit. A year in the hospital and this was the first time we would be talking together. The nurse pointed me in the direction of a woman sitting in the TV room in her bathrobe and slippers. We were strangers to each other and I can only imagine how odd it must have seemed to her when I explained that I would like to speak with her about her past year in the hospital. To my delight, the woman smiled and followed my lead to a nearby consulting room.
The room was an unremarkable space with a nice view of the distant hills. It contained a table, one comfortable chair and a hassock. Before I could even say I was going to get another chair, she was sitting on the hassock and motioning me to the chair. The chair, she said, is for those in authority and assured me that she was fine just where she was.
Nonsense, I protested, there are plenty of chairs around here and there’s no reason we shouldn’t both be comfortable. I proceeded to drag a hard back chair from the next room for myself and invited her to use the easy chair already in place. If I sit there, she smiled, I will feel like a queen. She urged me to take the soft chair and cautioned me not to use the hassock where she warned me I would feel like a bum.
How sad, I thought, that this woman was drawn to a lowly place where she felt perfectly at home. She clearly recognized the benefits of rank and authority and perhaps even longed to experience them, but the queen’s chair, the throne, was never intended for the likes of her.
Seconds passed or maybe only an instant. How do you measure time when it is crammed with feelings and dimly apprehended associations, flashes of incomplete thoughts and memories, moving too quickly to seize and examine? This is the work of intuition, the answer that comes before you are aware that you have worked out the problem. There would be time later to reflect. In the moment, you can only act. And so we agreed to share the throne, 10 minutes at a time, but she would have to go first while I started with the hard chair. We had no need of the lowly hassock.
In the days that followed, I set out to learn more about chairs. How did they come to be used and why are they such readily accessible symbols of authority? From the Web site, Random History, I learned that chairs have been around since the Stone Age. Even before the first person fashioned a seat with a back and then sat down on it, relics of sculptures at Neolithic building sites pointed to the existence of chair and bench-like areas.
While simple seats have been found in Chinese tombs dating between 20,000 and 40,000 BC, records suggest that the vast majority of the Chinese did not use chairs, preferring instead to kneel on the ground and support their weight on their heels. In the Western world, hieroglyphic evidence suggests that the Egyptians used chairs in all strata of society at least since the third millennium BC but the seat of honor was reserved for the Pharaoh. The ornate throne sealed in the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1352 BC bears witness to the exalted status of royalty.
Evidence of the early use of chairs and the progressive refinement of chair design has been found in Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome through the time of the Visigoth invasion in 410.
From that time until the dawn of the Renaissance one thousand years later, the historical record is strangely silent on the subject of chairs. What we do know suggests that chairs were scarce and, where they were used at all, they were reserved for the masters of the household, even in the wealthiest of families. With the emergence of a wealthy class of noblemen in the fifteenth century, the chair made a remarkable comeback. By the seventeenth century, the ornate thrones of monarchs like Louis IV, Queen Christina of Sweden, and Alexis I of Russia proclaimed the divine authority of royalty.
I knew none of this when we agreed to share the room’s only armchair. It was enough that our shared culture and language gave us the pope’s chair of Peter, seats of power, chairmen of the board, royal thrones, and chairs of learning at universities throughout the world. On a personal level, there were the straight-backed chairs of my straight-backed youth, the wicker rocking chair we bought because it looked good and seemed comfortable and the worn armchair favored by my wife’s parents and our daughter’s visiting cat.
The woman’s associations to chairs remained, like so much else about her, shrouded in mystery.
And so we went about the business of the interview. Why are you here? Do you have great faith in the future? Tell me as many words as you can in one minute that begin with the letter f. Time passed and the 10-minute mark for switching chairs came and went. After 30 minutes, the woman said it was time to exchange seats, and so we did, each of us, I hope, a little wiser, a little less like strangers.
Alan Bodnar is a psychologist at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.