10 March 2008

Failing the Test

I've been trying to get into Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. Yeah - not happening. Last night around 10:30 I gave up. I usually give any book 100 pages if I'm struggling at the start, but I got to 85 and just couldn't do it anymore. It's too bad, really, because Rushdie is one of those authors I'd always wanted to try. Of course, he's most famous for his controversial book The Satanic Verses, and I suppose I'll try that someday. But for now, it's off to something more my speed: Fragile Things, a collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors. And, of course, I'll continue listening to The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett - I'm loving this story while I run/take the bus/etc. I've actually fallen behind on my podcasts because every spare iPod moment is dominated by this book, which happens to be 40 hours long. That should keep me for a while.

It's an interesting thing when a book just doesn't work for me. I tried to get through Ulysses a few years back and couldn't do it, even though it's always near the top of the "Best Books of the 20th Century" lists. I'm not disagreeing, mind you: it seems to me that if enough people found it worthy, so be it. But for me, the remarkable style Joyce wrought in that book just didn't work for me. Maybe it will someday, or maybe it won't. The same thing happened with The Brothers Karamazov; by all accounts it's a wonderful novel, but I can't even get to the Grand Inquisitor before losing interest. It's not that I don't like to read, or that I'm not willing to challenge myself; it's just that for whatever reason, these and some other books just don't fit with me.

We watched the movie Reign Over Me the other night, and I was struck by the same type of thinking, watching Charlie Fineman (played by Adam Sandler) work with the therapist played by Liv Tyler. As Fineman struggled to open up and do the hard work of healing, I thought to myself, "She may not be the one. She might not be the mental health person who can help him. I wonder how that makes her feel?" From my own history in therapy, I know there is a certain amount of compatibility that needs to be present for a therapeutic relationship to work. I've been fortunate to work with two very compatible counselors at stressful times in my life, but I know of others who've left those therapists because they just couldn't make things work right.

I have to wonder, do psychiatrists and psychologists fall victim to the same misplaced Messiah complex as pastors? Do other people in the "healing/helping arts" have to learn how to separate their personal identity from their professional work? I wonder about this because in my vocation, there will be people I can help, but there are also people I can't, and I've had to learn how to make my peace with this (actually, I'm still learning). Of course, there are varying degrees of competence and excellence in psychotherapy and ordained ministry, but I also know some very competent pastors who've been forced to leave calls because they just weren't able to be the person that call needed them to be (or wanted them to be, which is an entirely different problem). There's no fault involved - it's just a growing realization that, for whatever reason, this just isn't working, and at some point you reach the tipping point and have to leave the not-so-fitting parts behind.

I'm sure there are people who love Salman Rushdie's work. I know Joyce and Dostoevsky have their legions of admirers. But they didn't work for me, so I'm off to somewhere different. I can't really compare literature to therapy or ministry, of course; they aren't even remotely similar. And yet, I wonder: in this thing we call vocation, where's the difference between our work not 'clicking' with certain folks and our work not 'clicking' at all? It's one thing if something I read fails the test for my reading preferences - when we "fail the test" in our professional fields, is it the same, or something different? At what point do we need to begin to ask ourselves, "is it them, or is it me?"

Well, anyway, that's the Monday afternoon thoughts on literature, ministry and vocation. Carry on.



  1. Don't feel bad. Rushdie didn't do anything for me either.

  2. This is one of the strongest arguments against universal healthcare. A friend of mine who lives in England needs serious therapy, and each week she dutifully goes to this government assigned therapist. All they do is fight and argue with each other. She wishes she could have a different therapist, but because of the governmental healthcare policies, she is stuck with the one she cannot get along with. She isn't allowed to change therapists. And so she dutifully goes every week, wastes the therapist's time and her time, and doesn't get any better.

    I have a book that I've been reading since grad school, because I just can't get into it.

  3. i tried to post yesterday and well it wouldn't take... but the gist was that your thoughts are very similar to my inner journey right now. what fits? what has been a forced fit? what satisfies the heart? hmmm... good lenten ponderings.

  4. I'm working my way through "Pillars of the Earth", and really enjoying it, too. Then it's on to "World Without End."

  5. As a person who knows the pastor side well and lives the therapist side, you are spot on...you spend your life figuring out, "is that theirs or is that mine?" Sometimes it fits like a puzzle piece, and other times it just doesn't work.

    Sidenote - I loved Reign Over Me because what it did do extremely well was make the point that the only thing we can really do is meet people where they are at and accept them there. I think I actually wrote a post about it...

  6. In my first vocation as a famil lawyer, I determined pretty early on that whether I would be able to help a client was dependent upon chemistry first and foremost. We cannot "fix" everyone's situations. Sometimes our voice saying the same thing as another voice just doesn't sound the same. Although once I told a prospective client that after listening and trying to offer general insight, all of which was being rebuffed, that maybe he would be better served by seeking other counsel. It clearly was not going to work well for him or me. He got indignant and told me that I could not "fire" him if he wanted me anyway.