When I was a sophomore at Fordham University, all of 19 years old and able to drink legally for the first time because New York’s drinking age was only 18 when it was 21 pretty much everywhere else (this was in 1973), you could hear Bruce Springsteen in any hallway in any dormitory at nearly any time of day or night. For a kid from north Jersey going to school in the Bronx, hearing Bruce everywhere was a gift of the gods, or perhaps a gift from “a God,” Bruce that is. “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle” had just been released and most of us were in a Bruce-induced mania. “Rosalita, jump a little higher. Senorita, come sit by my fire.” Or “…Sandy, the aurora is rising behind us. This pier lights our carnival life forever. Oh love me tonight, for I may never see you again.” I was that kid singing those songs in that hallway, yearning for Rosalita or Sandy to please love me tonight. God I was lonely; I was a teen.
By fall of 1975 I was a student teacher in an uptown High School on the east side of Manhattan riding the subway and the bus to get there on time every morning. Plastered all over town, on every mode of transportation and on billboards, were images of ultimate cool: Bruce Springsteen, rock god. This poster, advertising his Born to Run album, was the best, at least for me. I mean really, who wouldn’t want to be this man, especially when the one doing the wishing was 21 years old and trying to figure himself out?
At the time I never realized what a gift Bruce was giving us, in giving us this image that seemed to declare that he knew his pathway lay in a particular direction. To me it screamed self-assurance, something I didn’t yet have. This picture told me that with a leather jacket and a good pair of sneakers anyone, even me, could be an object of desire. But what I didn’t know I learned years later in his autobiography “Born to Run:” Bruce suffered, and likely was suffering in 1975, from depression and anxiety. For a guy in a leather jacket writing about “Racing in the Streets” it was hard to imagine that he didn’t have a driver’s license because he was too anxious to drive. I am glad that I didn’t know this in 1975; I wasn’t ready to discern the difference between facts and truths yet. I learned the facts about Bruce’s suffering in 2016, the year he released his autobiography. Afterward I recalled a famous line from John Ford’s film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:” “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Thank you, Bruce, for letting us embrace the legend back then, but having the courage and authenticity to give us the facts later on. And I believe firmly that the legend that Bruce gave us in the early 1970’s held a deeper truth about himself, one that he could hardly imagine until much later on in his life: that there is indeed something legendary about the willingness to be candid and vulnerable about your own suffering. If you read between the lyrics you can find Bruce’s authenticity about his suffering in those early songs.
Working as a psychotherapist for the past 25 years I have been in the business of finding something deeply true amid the facts of a person’s life. I’ve heard story after story, some very painful and some quite funny, silly, or sometimes even deeply spiritual. I never knew on any given day what I was going to learn about someone. Over and over again I heard people struggling to find their own truths in the midst of the facts of their lives. This process can be so difficult to follow, especially when memory struggles to reconstruct facts. Traumatic events and the powerful stress hormones they release damage memory formation. We build our truths from those narratives; how difficult it is to do this work when the narratives are so painful and so poorly remembered.
When I first started my practice 25 years ago the first challenge was to decorate my office. The furnishings I chose were pretty simple: lots of earth tones, some greenery and “soft corners,” a lesson I learned from a feng shui master. After the furniture came the walls. I found a watercolor of a vineyard that captured those earth tones perfectly. Then a Japanese floral print; another match, but so far my office seemed too impersonal, warm in a way but still somewhat sterile. On the one hand therapists should not have items that make the room a sort of biography of themselves. We stay away from family photographs, drawings made by our children and grandchildren, even our bowling trophies don’t make the cut. But at the same time it’s good to have something in the room that tells my client something about me, something that gets to what might be true about me, if not getting at my facts and narratives. After much contemplation I resolved the issue by hanging that poster of Bruce, the one that was hanging around all of the subway stops and MTA buses in New York City back in 1975. That would let people know something true about me, without having my life story get in the way.
Bruce hung on my office wall for the better part of 25 years. Occasionally Bruce would become a focus of a conversation. “Yes, Bruce has suffered from depression too. You’re not alone.” Or “who wouldn’t want to BE Bruce Springsteen now and then?” One day speaking with a client struggling with yearning, wanting desperately for his life to be something, anything, other than what it was, and knowing that this client loved Bruce’s work too, this quote from “The River” felt reassuring, maybe to both of us:
But I remember us riding in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night, on them banks, I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?
Or is it something worse?
Bruce offered no easy answer, no answer at all, about what to do when your dreams have died and you’re filled with remorse, regret. But just the knowing that we’re not alone in heartache, in yearning, to know that the man in that picture suffered too, gave hope. And I’m grateful for that gift from Bruce, the gift of authenticity and willingness to bare a hard truth.
I retired from my private practice earlier this year, just five weeks ago, actually. My truth at this point is that retirement is not easy. The facts are that I’m 67 years old and planning on focusing my time and my energy on “the greater good,” whatever that turns out to be. I’m fortunate that I no longer need to be concerned with creating income. My wife and I live a frugal life, no frills really. But it’s difficult to walk away from so many people that I’ve tried to help, and in the helping come to know their facts but more importantly their truths, at least as best as we could figure them out. And it’s in hearing the stories, in making sense of them and finding some truth that we come to love one another.
We find this emerging love in Jesus’s all-time greatest story about the outcast (the Samaritan) who came to help the privileged one (the Jewish man coming down from Jerusalem). Jesus’s narrative speaks strongly to the need for unconditional compassion, but it leaves out something important I think. The Samaritan could see easily the facts of the matter: the robbery, the beating, the dying man in the dirt on the side of the road. So could the lawyer and the priest who walked by and ignored the needs of the man. But I think the truth here may be that the Samaritan saw the man and knew “this could be me; this IS me.” The story tells the Samaritan’s truth about compassion, but not how he came to know his truth. I suppose it was from his own suffering, perhaps the same suffering that made him a Samaritan, an outcast. But it turned out his truth created love without boundaries.
I tell that old and glorious Gospel story because my work has been to hear stories and tell stories and help people tell their own story. The crux of our work as therapists is in our capacity to hear, receive, and tell stories that find meaning and truths. Throughout these 25 years I’ve tried to keep my own facts to myself; it wasn’t my therapy after all. And I have tried to allow our shared truths to result in love, just as I think the Samaritan had a story that allowed love, rather than prejudice, to emerge. This kind of love is perhaps best understood as agape, a Greek word usually translated as “fellowship” or “charity.” Once I know your story, and can reflect on my own story and how it informs me about our shared truths, then something happens that is helpful to my client, and maybe to me, as well. Whatever it is that happens that is helpful inevitably is in the context of love, agape, emerging.
There was always that Springsteen poster hanging there in my office, and it always suggested something of my own story, both the facts and the truths. It always reminded me that the stories, the facts, should always lead to the legends, the truths.
This morning I opened a package sent to me from two of my former clients, a married couple, who I’ve known for about a decade. Inside the package was a framed picture that looked like this:
It’s difficult to put into words how grateful I am for this gift. What makes this such a perfect gift is it speaks to being known, to my truths being known, by these lovely and loving people whose lives I’ve been involved in for so long. When I think about gifts, I come to realize that this is the greatest gift any of us can give: to have our truths known and acknowledged to each other. In their note accompanying the picture were the words “maybe we were born to run.” Right on, Mike and Sue! Never stop telling your stories; never stop finding who you were born to be and what you’ve been born to do! And thank you for your lovingkindness. That is the greatest gift!