I don’t often write, or speak, about matters of faith. In counseling school, it was drilled in to me that I must never impose my belief system on others lest it inhibit or sway someone else away from their own truth. My role is to understand, not to be understood.
But this is a blog, not a therapy session. And I feel compelled today to write about how to allow magic to happen in your life.
I don’t know about you, but when I pay close attention I become aware of forces that seem to nudge me in one direction or another. When I stop trying so hard to control things and get out of my own way for a change, doors open, amazing coincidences occur, and opportunities are delivered to my doorstep.
Let me tell you a story. It is entirely true, although the names and identifying details have been changed to protect people’s confidentiality.
I had an extraordinary experience when I was doing my psychologist internship at a community mental health center. It was a very difficult year for me; one that I spent doing psychological testing and (attempting) therapy with severely and persistently mentally ill clients.
The clients that I was working with had often led nightmarish lives, filled with intergenerational poverty, and searing trauma. A number of my clients had been — literally — tortured by their own parents. Doing therapy with them felt like attempting to glue a pulverized wine glass back together.
I remember one testing case I had, sitting across the table looking into the dull-marble eyes of a little girl who was cognitively disabled and living in an institution, because her satanist (yes, satanist) parents had induced labor three months early to ensure that she was born on 6-6-06… and that was only the first of many unspeakable things that came after. Before I did this internship I didn’t believe that true “evil” existed. Now I do.
In this environment I did the best I could. But the needs of my clients were so great, and the resources were so small, I often felt completely helpless. I felt like I was sitting in a tiny boat surrounded by drowning people. I couldn’t do enough, love enough, or help enough, to right the wrongs that had been done to them. The forty-five minutes we spent together once every two or three weeks was not nearly enough to solve their problems, heal their hearts, or untangle the snarls in their minds.
I was a relatively fresh intern, so I still cared. I tried. Therapists who’d been on staff for several years had survived the helplessness, the horror, and the impossible caseloads by hardening their hearts. I found them to be judgmental, and sometimes breathtakingly callus towards their clients. I don’t blame them, I’m sure that with more time in that environment my heart would have been broken beyond repair too.
Halfway through my internship I was simmering in a persistent state of anxiety and exhaustion. And then one of my favorite clients died of an “accidental overdose” which may or may not really have been a suicide. That’s the worst thing that can happen to a therapist. I was devastated.
I came to this field hoping that I could be of help, of service, to others. But after E died, I abandoned the illusion I’d held that I had any power or control over the healing of others. In my extreme helplessness I realized what had always been true: It’s not about me, or what I do or say or write. It’s about a power much bigger than me, that can lead people to the Grace, the Mercy, or the Redemption that they need to find in order to heal.
So I just started to pray. Every day I admitted to God that I was helpless. I stopped trying to save anyone. I just sat and prayed for clients while they talked to me, and hoped that God could do for them what I couldn’t. I asked God to use me to work through, and help the people in front of me. Even though I knew I was a total fraud as a therapist, the idea that I was available to be of service to God was incredibly comforting to me.
Then I met Bob. I was present for Bob’s intake interview, which was notable for the fact that he was illiterate and could not read any of the intake documents. The senior therapist conducting the interview rolled her eyes at me over Bob’s bent gray head as he laboriously drew out the letters of his short name, in the shaky script of a six year old. I felt for him.
He was in his fifties but he looked seventy. Bob had spent most of his life profoundly addicted to alcohol and drugs. When he could work, he’d driven a truck (acquiring multiple DUIs in the process) and done physical labor that eventually destroyed his body.
He wore his puff-front John-Deere cap pulled low, and talked in this gruff voice. I never did any formal psych testing with him, but if I did would likely have found an IQ to be in the 80s. Maybe lower. He struggled his whole life to understand what was going on around him. He knew when people looked down on him. Which was often.
Bob showed up for help because he was depressed. As we talked, his story spooled out of him: Over twenty years ago, in the darkest pit of his addictions, he’d had a child. A little girl. At some point, very early in her life, her mother (wisely) had prevented his contact with her. He acknowledged that had been a good idea. At that time he was addicted to cocaine as well as alcohol, and prone to violent rages, theft, and generally out of control behavior.
The mom eventually fled with their daughter out of state. Bob never saw either of them again.
But still…. decades later, in the cold light of almost-sobriety, he was in terrible grief and regret over the loss of his daughter. He berated himself, and felt incredible guilt over the lost time with her. He felt that there was no forgiveness for him, and no opportunity for redemption. So he succumbed to depression. He spent most of his time sitting in a chair at home, collecting checks, and ruminating about the loss of his life.
I really wanted to help Bob find forgiveness and ease his guilt, and maybe even reconcile with his daughter, but the ways I knew how to do this were blocked.
Bob was insistent that he couldn’t actually contact his daughter. He thought his sister might know where they were, but he had terrible anxiety that advances would be met with hostility and rejection because of the terrible things he’d done. He wouldn’t go to AA meetings, or work the steps. He was limited intellectually so using an “empty chair” to have him enact conversations with his daughter would have been way too abstract. He wasn’t able to write a letter.
I had no idea what to do, as usual. As I sat and prayed, a stray though floated into my mind: That maybe I could write out a letter for him.
We spent several sessions working on this letter. Bob provided all the words, and I wrote everything down: He told his daughter about the mistakes he’d made, and how sorry he was. He let her know that loosing his relationship with her was the tragedy of his life. He told her how much he missed her, and how often he thought about her. He told her that he cherished the few memories he had of her. He told her that he wished he’d been the kind of father that she deserved. I just listened and wrote it all down, longhand — many pages worth.
We never completed the letter. After several sessions, Bob stopped showing up regularly. I saw him again several more times over the next few months, but our work had been accomplished. In writing the letter we’d drained the infected abscess of guilt that had been powering his depression. In subsequent sessions he talked about garden-variety annoyances.
When I brought up the possibility of finishing our letter, he just shrugged. I think he was afraid to finish it, because then he’d feel pressure to send it. His anxiety around being rejected by his daughter was enormous. The unfinished letter stayed safe in my drawer. Bob regularly missed appointments. I didn’t think much of it when he missed his very last appointment with me, a week or two before my internship ended.
I kept the stuff I was working on with clients in the drawer of my desk. In the last week of internship, I went through and shredded everything. But when I found Bob’s letter, I had a unique impulse to send it to him. I still don’t know why. I had a thousand other, more pressing, things to do that day. But I stuck it in the mail.
On my last day of internship, I was cleaning everything out of my office. The twenty-pound binder with all my notes from Assessment Seminar. Hundreds of pages of psychological reports I’d written. Dirty toys mangled by hyperactive preschoolers. My wrecked DSM, bound together with aqua duct-tape.
My phone rang. “Is this Lisa Bobby?” a quavering woman’s voice asked. “Mmmhmmm,” I said distractedly, scooping paper-clips and orphaned staples out of my desk drawer. “This is Bob’s sister. We got your letter yesterday,” she said, and I could hear the tears shaking her voice. I stopped scooping paper-clips.
I wasn’t sure what to say. Why did she get the letter I sent to him? I didn’t have a release to talk to her about Bob. I couldn’t even acknowledge that I was his therapist. She went on, “Bob died last week. He had a health condition no one knew about, and it killed him. His funeral is today. The whole family came into town yesterday, including his Ex… and his daughter. And the day they arrived, your letter was in the mailbox waiting for them.”
Reality seemed to slide sideways at that moment. The odds of something like this happening by chance were staggering. I replayed the sequence of events in my mind and experienced the awe of watching all the little puzzle pieces fall into place just so, so as to create the moment when…
Bob’s daughter, who he’d had zero contact with for over twenty years, received a letter from her illiterate father in which he poured out is heart and made amends to her, on the day she arrived for his funeral.
I felt that the solid cover of objective reality had been peeled away just enough for me to see the truth: That there is a divine force looking for opportunities to intervene in our lives all the time. And on this one occasion, at least, it had connected.
That was the day I learned for sure that our prayers do not go unheard. When we make space for God to operate, he does. In talking to Bob’s sister (and later, his daughter) I learned that the girl was not okay. That she had spent her whole life feeling abandoned and rejected by her dad. She felt unloved, and worthless.
God needed her to have that letter. And so he mailed it. With my hands.
To this day, I know that I had absolutely nothing to do with any of that. I was the equivalent of the extension cord that one plugs from the wall socket to the electric fan. Just a conduit. But I was available. My absolute helplessness created a vacuum, a void of ego, that allowed God to step in.
At the time, I was open to any and all help because of my desperation. But I’ve learned that I don’t have to be scared and overwhelmed to tap in to the force that is trying to help all of us, all the time. I just have to ask for help, and then obey the nudges and little whispers, and pick up the opportunities put in my path. But mostly I have to stay out of the way, and just trust that God knows what needs to be done… especially when I don’t.
This is just one of my “magical stories.” Maybe someday I’ll share more. But how about you? Have you had any moments where you’ve felt guided by fate, or God, or the universe? I’d love to hear your inspiring stories, and I bet other readers would too. I hope you share them with us.