Magpies have a particular “here is a cat” call they do. For years, a pair of magpies have had a nest in one of our Austrian pines. I have seen them squawking at our cat when he comes out to patrol the yard. They get right down on the lawn with him, hop up within a yard or so, and noisily tell him off for coming around their nest. Oddly enough, the cat won’t lunge at them but crouches down, his ears back, defeated by these raucous avian pests. I have to go out and pick him up and take him back into the house, saving him from the aggressive birds.
My elderly dog, Maggie, was lounging on the deck as we enjoyed the warm spring afternoon sun. I heard the magpies’ “here is a cat” call again. Maggie leaped to her feet, charged down from the deck and right at the magpies. There was a strange orange cat in the neighbors’ yard, and as Maggie chased that cat, she was a young dog again. There is nothing more energizing to Maggie than to teach an errant cat better manners. The magpies told her the cat was there.
Yet when there are magpies in the garden, squawking at each other, Maggie completely ignores them. She has no interest in magpies, unless they tell her a new cat is in the neighborhood. I realized at that moment, Maggie understands magpie! What a dog! She understands dog, human, and magpie. Multilingual!
(What do you call someone who understands three languages? Trilingual. Someone who understands two languages is bilingual. What do you call someone who understands one language? An American.)
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What does that have to do with me, you ask? A therapist consulted with me, wanting some coaching on a difficult case. The boy she was treating, only 14 years old, had recurring thoughts of wanting to torture and hurt others. She wondered if she should refer him. After all, she said, she was a somewhat inexperienced therapist. “I know my limitations,” she asserted.
“No, you don’t,” I replied. We only know our limitations by failing, and she clearly had not failed. If anything, the fact that he told her about his fantasies indicated he trusted this therapist, and possibly he had anxiety over those thoughts. Her fear might actually be an empathic reaction to him. She was understanding more than she was giving herself credit for, and the proof was in the boy’s trusting and sharing.
It turned out that I was right. When she explored the meaning of the fantasies, he admitted he was frightened by them. He wondered if perhaps he was an evil person, a killer, someone who was a monster.
He doesn’t want to be a monster.
He is reachable, and she has reached him. The last thing I’d want her to do is to refer him. I am quite confident she can help him. I gave her some pointers and she left that session encouraged and energized. (If you want to know what I pointed out, think of ego-dystonic thoughts coming involuntarily into one’s mind. Sound like OCD? Consider that OCD is quite treatable through psychotherapy. Why shouldn’t she feel encouraged?)
My colleague understands more than she thinks she does. Like Joni Mitchell, who sang that at the party she was, “Me in my frightened silence, thinking I don’t understand.” That line has always made me laugh, since Joni Mitchell, whatever her faults, understands a great deal more than I ever have. Most therapists understand more than they think they do. If they are stuck in frightened silence, they don’t help, but if they can reflect and probe and encourage, they can be healers. “I noticed myself wondering if such thoughts make you uncomfortable?”
A week later my colleague reported. Her client is happier and confident he can transform his life into a useful and meaningful one. He has hope. She has hope. Their hope nourishes the therapeutic relationship.
You don’t know what your limits are until you have failed, and when you have, that is an opportunity to learn. Mentoring, supervision, and consultations are all things we can seek out in this impossible profession of healing the hearts and souls of the women and men, the boys and girls we minister to. In the mean time, perhaps you speak a language that you don’t realize you have learned. Steve Martin once said the best thing you can do is surprise yourself. You may be surprised at how much you do understand. Magpies are calling.