I ran out of money the last year of my PhD in psychology and had to get a full job. I took a position running an experimental group home to take the lowest functioning people out of Willowbrook, the infamous New York State institution know for its negligence and abuse of residents.
It was overwhelming. I lived in the group home and worked 18 hours a day. Between trying to prevent clients from killing each other, studying for my comprehensives, and planning my dissertation I was getting frazzled. The staff were quitting on me left and right, the rules and regulations that came with running the home were mind-boggling, and the less than warm welcome from the town left me bedraggled, frustrated, and edgy. I decided to talk to my dissertation advisor and mentor, Dr. Cohen.
Looking for Perspective
Dr. Cohen was the most published of anyone in the university and yet had the reputation of being both kind and wise. His perspective on things often brought guidance through understanding. He could bring clarity out of confusion.
His large and imposing office was the kingdom of the intellect. Floor to ceiling books and journals. He was always busy putting things back on his shelves. When I came to see him he invited me to have a seat, and he continued shelving books as we talked.
“Hello,” I said.
He motioned toward the chair facing his desk in the center of the room. I sat down.
“I’m just so overwhelmed I didn’t know what to do. There’s just a lot going on,” I said, cutting to the chase.
“I don’t know what I’m doing with these profoundly disturbed people. I’m not sleeping, I can’t hold on to staff, I’ve got a nonverbal violent woman with an IQ of 36, a 7 foot tall man with gigantism, a man with pica, synesthesia, and encopresis, a woman with Prader-Willi and with intermittent explosive disorder, a Down Syndrome man who mumbles and I can’t understand at all, and a woman who is catatonic.”
The professor was lost in rearranging books and didn’t answer.
“And my staff? I take a week to interview and hire someone only to have them last 2 days –and I’m distracted.”
He was still putting books away.
“Violent woman, giant, pica. Synesthesia, encopresis,” he said pausing, “Interesting, Prader-Willi, intermittent explosive, catatonic, Down Syndrome, interesting. No good staff, and you’re distracted, yes?”
“Yeah, this is my life, and if I don’t get my degree I can’t get a university job, or a license. I can’t get this all done,” I said throwing up my hands. “I’m out of control. I can’t take care of everyone and myself. I can’t handle the paperwork and bureaucracy. I can’t do it all!”
He came over to me and stood alongside. He put his left hand on my right shoulder and took a deep breath.
“I recommend you give up.”
He patted me on the shoulder twice, and then went back to his books.
“Yes, of course. Nothing is working out how you planned, your personal life is chaotic, and you’re overwhelmed with responsibilities, and have no idea what is going to happen, yes?”
“So give up.”
“What about my dissertation?”
The professor waved his hand dismissively. “Let it go. What do you need that for? All it is going to do is prepare you for a career with disturbed people, more headaches, disappointments, and obstacles. I say let it go,” he said as he continued going through boxes on the floor.
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“Just give up?”
“Just give up,” he said, studying one of the books. “Just give up and do nothing. Maybe get a hotdog pushcart in the city. Sell hot dogs on the street. It is a good living, you are your own boss, and you are independent. I see you as a hot dog vendor.”
“You think I should sell hot dogs?”
“Yes, the good ones.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Of course you will have to get a permit to have a business, a pushcart business, from the city,” he said casually, “and insurance, for when someone sues you because the hot dogs were not cooked well enough.”
“And you will need to display a certificate of inspection approval from the Board of Health. They are picky and difficult, but you can deal with them.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
I nodded like I was one of those dolls with the bobbing head in the back of a car.
“You will be frightened about walking home, but you can hire bodyguards. And be sure to get up early so no one steals your good spot on the street. Are you a good fist-fighter?”
Finally, I understood.
“Thank you,” I said.
He continued to put his books away.
“Yes. I recommend you give up, and prepare for a life of ease.”
Perspective is a Powerhouse
Dr. Cohen’s perspective helped me recommit to my goals and work more efficiently and effectively. Within the year I finished my dissertation, got a job teaching and eventually got my license. By showing me that no job is easy he helped me get back on track.
Perspective is one of the powerhouses inside the virtue of wisdom. It is more than just high intelligence in that it involves taking in views from all sides before rendering a decision. Research shows that perspective is in the top 10 strengths used at work, highly valued by high school students, central to the engagement route to happiness, a good predictor of a student’s GPA, and an important defense against the negative effects of stress and trauma.
I’m now in the position to counsel graduate students. They make appointments with me when they are confused, overwhelmed, or directionless. I suppose they believe I have perspective. My advice?
“Have you ever thought about selling hot dogs: The good ones?”
“Cut the mustard” – Wiktionary definition: To suffice; to be good or effective enough.
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