Did you ever have a mentor--either a personal or professional one who guided you through the intricacies of life and work? I had a terrific mentor when I was in my early twenties who not only helped me learn to do my job well but taught me how to live my life well. His name was Dr. Fred Wisner and his office was on Central Park West next to the Dakota building where John Lennon was shot. Every week when I would go to see Dr.Wisner for our weekly supervision sessions, I would pass by the area where Lennon was killed and think about the reasons that a madman like Mark Chapman would kill Lennon in the first place.
It was Dr. Wisner who helped me understand the human mind and to delve into my patient's psyche without being afraid of the darkness that was there. He took me inside the minds of Nazi War criminals like Rudolph Hess through his interpretations of the Rorschach cards and taught me that Nazis had no special skills or insight. They were simply average in intelligence and had no empathy for their fellow man. He taught me that degrees meant little except as an entry into a profession and that one's life work in psychology had more to do with being human and connecting with others than it did with being intellectual and right.
He told me stories about himself being a psychologist in training and wondering if he would be good at this work. He watched his own supervisor, a psychiatrist, pick up a depressed crying male patient and hold him gently on his lap and rock him back and forth until he was soothed. This gentleness helped him to understand how fragile the human psyche can be and yet how strong one must be in his masculinity to soothe a child like this. Dr. Wisner realized that this work was important and that he could help his patients. Today, perhaps his mentor would be afraid to hold a child for fear of a lawsuit--too bad, because the boy and I would have missed out on the usefulness of this story.
Dr. Wisner also taught me that being a therapist was like being an actor because actors took on the personality and personna of those they portray--I learned to get inside my patient's skins in a way that helped me sort out their pain and suffering as well as my own. After exploring the recesses of my own mind, I learned that there was nothing to fear in the torment of others. Dr. Wisner taught me to have self-confidence in my skills and in myself. He taught me that I was brave even when I felt low and down--he would point out all the positive things I had done with my life where I saw only darkness.
When I would leave his office, I felt light and buoyant--like I had chosen the best line of work that life had to offer. But what I did not realize at the time was that it was not just the job decisions that he had helped me with, it was understanding how to deal with my inner life and the world around me. I cannot think of a better gift I could have been given.
So, wherever you are Dr. Wisner, all I can say is thank you.