Got Brains?—Part 1

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Answering the Question: How a Psychologist Is Trained?

From when I was a child, I spent most of my life feeling afraid, confused, and overwhelmed by what I found in the world and what I was supposed to do with it. And the world was very accommodating by so often demonstrating itself to be a hostile, overwhelming place. I really thought my situation was permanent, that it was fated, and that there was nothing to be done about it. Despite this, it gradually started occurring to me that, however static and unyielding the world seemed, it could be understood and at least managed to a certain degree, that with patience, perseverance, and attention, one could take hold of the rudder of one’s life and actually go someplace, someplace different from where one started. In fact, this was the driving thought behind my first written work, THE MEANING OF LIFE: A Child’s Book of Existential Psychology.

As far as I know, this is the first philosophy book for children. It is a picture book about the most basic dilemma, what we are doing here. Having written and published this mammoth work of 48 pages and 29 illustrations by Zara Kriegstein, I found out the hard way what should have been obvious. Adults—or should I say, grownups—made the final editorial decisions about what their children would read and they, as a group, had decided that their children should read picture books with pastel colors, perhaps on difficult subjects that were diluted and warmed to wrist temperature. That’s what the sages say a child needs, the experts on childrearing, the academics, the publishers, and the editors. So, that’s what parents taught their children they should want, although some minds are different and don’t work that way. Mine didn’t and doesn’t to this day. And I can tell you for sure, Zara’s didn’t either!

In keeping with this theme, I would like to fast forward from childhood to my 23rd year. I was standing in Tadich’s Grill, San Francisco, Planet Earth, waiting for a table with my uncle, his wife, and two grown children. My uncle as a successful pathologist was the last of four or five authors of the Type A Personality research study, no longer current, that identified the driven personality type as the one that would kill you sooner and, therefore by common conjecture and understanding, should be avoided. As we stood waiting for a table, a process which took over two hours, posing its own dilemmas, I made the ill-fated but ultimately informative decision to tell him of my as yet unformed plans for pursuing my education. I made the mistake, like the baby in my book, of saying I was thinking of studying to be a doctor. As a result of this, I spent the next two plus hours listening to a harangue that touched on two important points, why doctors were rightfully to be thought of as gods (or perhaps God himself) and why I would never be a doctor. (Please read medical doctor here because as it turns out I am a doctor now, a doctor of philosophy.) As I shortly realized, my uncle was right in his assessment of me. I did not have the discipline to be in his profession nor did I have the ability to absorb necessary facts. But, more importantly, years later I learned another thing. The information he had to convey came from a med school course that he likely gave himself and that was given to aspiring physicians in most if not all institutions, one that addressed issues of ethics as well as comportment (how does a doctor carry himself and how should he act?), and how a physician should think of himself, his place in the community as a result of his training, and in his relations with other people, some of whom would be his patients.  (I’m sure my uncle knew women doctors at that time, but that he considered God, like himself, to be of the masculine gender.)

After two hours of introduction on the rarity of the air I would be breathing, I realized that this was not the world I came from or was headed toward. Even today, I understand that world is best left to my betters. The problem is that these experts may be better, but they are not leaving me or the rest of humanity any better, but are merely keeping us alive, leaving us with a heartbeat, perhaps a brainwave, but not much else. Even with the extra time that the physicians grant us by keeping us alive, the world and most of the people who inhabit it, including me, are still left to fend for ourselves. The medical model does little to make this world more habitable however long they grant us to occupy our place in it.