I have just spent a frustrating day marking exam papers. Specifically a drug calculations paper. I came across several papers where the answer given by my student was at odds with the answer I had worked out. This gave me two options. Either the student was wrong or I was ! Given my poor maths I decided that the problem might be with me, not my student. Going back over the exam papers I saw that the student was giving the right answer to the exam question on their sheet. What had happened was that I had made a couple of mistakes when copying out the original questions to make an answer sheet. To my relief I spotted the mistake before the marks went to the students and I was deluged with cries of “But you’ve marked my exam wrong, Terry.” (Which is always embarrassing for a lecturer- as well as making a lot of extra work.)
This reminded me of a story by the Jewish writer, Chaim Potok. In “The Chosen” one of the characters trains to become a Rabbi. Part of this training is in exegesis- in his case of the Torah. There is an incident where Dany, the protagonist, is taking part in a discussion about a particularly difficult text. Various explanations are offered which involve some bewildering and clever mental gymnastics. The text has to be understood as having been given directly and verbatim by God to Moses. A number of rabbinical explanations are explored, all of which seem to stretch the limits of intellectual credibility. Eventually Dany is asked for his opinion. His answer is along the lines of “It’s a copying error. If we put this word in place of the one that is there, the whole text is made clear.” This reply is greeted with outrage by Dany’s classmates who accuse of him of heresy. Their argument is that the Torah is-and has to remain- a sacred, unchangeable text. (If Moses wrote down exactly what God was telling him, how could there be any errors? For Dany to suggest that something a simple as a scribing error was the problem was to undermine the nature of Torahic authority. And thus challenge the certainty that here was the Word of God.)
This wish for certainty is always occurring in counselling. I met a man the other day who wanted help with his angry feeling towards his girlfriend. “I love her but she just presses all my buttons. I really need some help with managing my anger. Can you offer me something?” As the conversation went on I found my self wondering about what “copying error” might be happening. I had the growing feeling that this man had made his girlfriend his project-and that he did not have any unsuccessful projects. So I suggested that rather than look at anger management, perhaps it would be more useful for us if we looked at why he was staying with this woman if she so enraged him.This was clearly not the answer he wanted to hear. It undermined his view of the text of their relationship. He left telling me that he would ring me if he wanted to work with me. (So far my phone has not rung!)
As I have written before, I spent a number of years in Christian fundamentalism trying to convince myself that Billy Graham’s slick motto “God said it, I believe it , that settles it!” could work-or work for me! If there was a problem or a difficulty the fault had to be mine. Not God’s. Or the Church. Or the world view of fundamentalism. I had misread the text.
I can think of another patient whom I saw who was in an abusive relationship. His wife was an alcoholic who, when drunk, would become physically and verbally abusive towards her husband .He also came for anger management. After three or four sessions it became apparent that my patient did not have any anger management problems. his problem was why he would remain with a woman who treated him so badly. Like my more recent example, this man was unwilling to try and think about what kept him in this relationship. For both of them I was expected to agree with their reading of their text. Any suggestion that a variant reading might be possible and helpful was not needed.
I see so often in clinical practice the price paid by people desperate to cling to a given world view- no matter the cost to themselves. Any suggestion that there is a copying error and that a different way of thinking might be helpful is anathema to them. Which always feels very sad.