When I take a new patient or client into therapy I usually begin by asking him or her for the story of his or her life. First, I want to get a narrative understanding of who this person sitting in front of me is; and second, of course, I want to see if I can identify any recurring patterns in their behaviour over the course of a lifetime.
Sometimes a client will need prompting, so I say, “Let’s start with your childhood. What was it like for you growing up?” Occasionally I get a defensive reaction to this: “There was nothing wrong with my childhood. My parents were great.”
I explain that I am not necessarily looking for problems. Of course, if problems exist I want to hear about them; but we are affected not only by the bad things that happen to us, but also by the good things that happen to us. Acts of cruelty can scar us, but acts of kindness can have an equally long-lasting effect.
When I was five years old my grandfather Adam was 64. One day the following conversation took place.
I’m going to take you to see the swing bridge on Monday.
What’s a swing bridge, Granddad?
It’s a big bridge over the Manchester ship canal that swings
open so that ships that are too tall to go under it can get by.
I should explain that Adam was an engineer, and I suspect that taking me to see the magnificent feat of engineering that is a swing bridge was probably as much for his pleasure as it was for mine. I am thinking that he might have meant a bridge at Barton; I have no idea whether this is so, or indeed if the bridge is still in existence, and perhaps more importantly, whether it still swings.
Granddad, you can’t take me on Monday. You’ll be working.
No I won’t. I’m going to retire tomorrow.
Well, ‘retire’ is when you don’t have to go to work any longer.
Why are you going to retire?
So I can take you to see the swing bridge . . .
Adam died the following day, and I never got to see the swing bridge.
When I was about six years old, someone asked me that perennial and sometimes irritating question “What do you want to do when you grow up?” and I answered “Retire.” Everyone thought this was very cute, but I meant it. I enjoy the work that I do, but the fact is I would much prefer not to do any work. Unfortunately, for simply financial reasons I can see no prospect of my retiring, but it does remain my one unfulfilled ambition.
It was not until many years later that I made the connection between Granddad wanting to take me to see the swing bridge, his unfulfilled retirement dream, and mine.
Those who know me well often accuse me of being a ‘workaholic’. Personally I think that that is something of an overstatement, but I do work hard every single day. In some sort of perverse way I have an overriding feeling that if I can get all my work done, then I will be able to stop.
Who knows? Maybe one day I will retire. And if I do, on that day I will go and see the swing bridge, find out if it is still swinging, and think of Adam.