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Fellow Travelers

Great authors corral my unfinished thoughts and polish them with astonishing clarity. They inspire my emotions and leave me with a deeper understanding of myself and my world. Irvin D. Yalom’s brilliant book, The Gift of Therapy, challenged my understanding of what it means to be an authentic, open and humble therapist and person.

Yalom shared a wonderful tale about giving and receiving help from Hermann Hesse’s, Magister Ludi. The tale goes as follows...

Joseph and Dion were two renowned healers who lived in biblical times. Though they were both highly effective, they worked in different ways. The younger healer, Joseph, healed through quiet, inspired listening. Pilgrims trusted Joseph. Suffering and anxiety poured into his ears vanished like water on the desert sand and penitents left his presence emptied and calmed. On the other hand, Dion, the older healer, actively confronted those who sought his help. He divined their unconfessed sins. He was a great judge, chastiser, scolder and rectifier, and he healed through active intervention. Treating the penitents as children, he gave advice, punished by assigning penance, ordered pilgrimages and marriages, and compelled enemies to make up.

The two healers never met, and they worked as rivals for many years until Joseph grew spiritually ill, fell into dark despair, and was assailed with ideas of self-destruction. Unable to heal himself with his own therapeutic methods, he set out on a journey to the south to seek help from Dion. On his pilgrimage, Joseph rested one evening at an oasis, where he fell into a conversation with an older traveler. When Joseph described the purpose and destination of his pilgrimage, the traveler offered himself as a guide to assist in the search for Dion. Later, in the midst of their long journey together the old traveler revealed his identity to Joseph. Mirabile dictum: he himself was Dion – the very man Joseph sought.

Without hesitation Dion invited his younger, despairing rival into his home, where they lived and worked together for many years. Dion first asked Joseph to be a servant. Later he elevated him to a student, and finally, to full colleagueship. Years later, Dion fell ill and on his deathbed call his young colleague to him in order to hear a confession. He spoke of Joseph’s earlier terrible illness and his journey to old Dion to plead for help. He spoke of how Joseph had felt it was a miracle that his fellow traveler and guide turned out to be Dion himself.

Now that he was dying, the hour had come, Dion told Joesph, to break his silence about that miracle. Dion confessed that at the time it had seemed a miracle to him as well, for he too, had fallen into despair. He, too, felt empty and spiritually dead and, unable to help himself, had set off on a journey to seek help. On the very night that they had met at the oasis he was on a pilgrimage to a famous healer named Joseph.

For some, it can be strange to think of therapists as needing help, but nobody is immune from life’s certain darkness: discouragement, aging, illness, isolation, loss, meaninglessness, painful choices and death. This gloomy but realistic side of life helps me to be more open, honest and human with my clients. We call ourselves "client" and "therapist" but we are really fellow travelers, each with our own human weakness, on a journey toward becoming the best version of ourselves.