On Teaching Abnormal Souls

Throughout my teaching life, I have naturally had many opportunities to counsel students who were looking for some guidance on personal matters — typically, given my philosophic character, matters of a “big picture” nature, rather than passing practical concerns. The most interesting and enriching of such opportunities, from my perspective, are usually those in which the student’s problems are more fundamentally spiritual, his basic psychological condition more essentially troubled or abnormal, and therefore the chance for a prolonged interaction, leading to more essential personal development, much greater than is typical with those who already feel essentially stable and “comfortable in their skin,” as the saying goes.

The latter, stable types normally feel no compulsion for serious self-development in the first place, for a reason spelled out clearly by Hobbes three hundred and fifty years ago: Necessity is the mother of invention. Where there is no felt need, there is no impetus to develop. Hence, these stable young people’s problems, such as they are, will almost invariably be narrowly focused and relatively superficial in character; one cannot help feeling, even while watching them shed tears, that they will be just fine soon enough, mainly because they are already safely locked into a predictable life pattern, one generally in line with the tenor of the age, and hence their difficulties, however stressful they may feel of a moment, are mere surface shudders, transient fears about next steps and future prospects, rather than existential questions about one’s place in the cosmos. 

As for the other, abnormal types — those who lack the basic stability of the “well-adjusted” — they come to talk almost in spite of themselves, less with a problem than with a vague (or occasionally not so vague) sense of dread about life in general. They come, but they do not know exactly why they come, or what they are hoping to find. Perhaps they half expect me to know what they are looking for, and to inform them. Perhaps they are just drawn by the opportunity to unload a burden they have not yet fully defined, and have never felt the freedom to share with anyone before. But why with me? Probably because I am strange, even — here as a foreign professor in Korea — visibly strange, in addition to being temperamentally and intellectually different from the people they have previously encountered. The abnormal and searching types — the misfits who have lost interest in trying to fit — tend to have a radar for recognizing their spiritual kin. And for such people, especially when they are young and uncertain about everything, the sight of another of their kind, one who is older and more experienced, and what is more, who seems to have survived and figured it out, can look awfully like a life preserver to one struggling in dark, rough waters.

My encounters with the most engaged of these students often turn into long-term soul-searching relationships, variously ranging somewhere along a spectrum between psychological counseling and Socratic dialogue — Socratic teaching being, in a sense, the truest and most in-depth form of psychological investigation. Some of the students in question have in fact tried professional counseling, to no avail, or even to violent aversion. Contrary to the judgment likely passed upon them by the failed professionals, they did not abandon that route because they were “not ready to face their problems,” but rather because they were — hence their willingness, even eagerness, to maintain a running conversation with someone they believed might actually be able to help them find what they really needed, namely a sense of purpose and meaning from within, rather than a sense of compulsion and aimlessness from without.

With complete humility and without a hint of boasting, I can cite many obvious ways my sort of teaching is likely to be far more beneficial to a genuine misfit than anything that passes for “therapy” (i.e., normality correction) in today’s psychological climate:

Unlike today’s professional counselors, I actually believe in the psyche (i.e., soul);

I do not encourage people to mask or palliate their painful thoughts and feelings with self-serving lies and society-serving pharmaceuticals;

I am not a moral relativist;

I believe in human nature, which is to say in humans as living beings with a natural purpose, rather than material mechanisms with intrinsic functions no more complex than that of a lab rat; and,

I do not regard my role as that of social-adjustment facilitator,  i.e., independent-mind crusher, but rather as that of conduit to one’s own soul, whether that noble destination happens to coincide with the imperatives of “getting along” or “succeeding in today’s world,” or not, and also regardless of whether the necessary path to that destination happens to lead through emotional rings of fire, or gauntlets of social sirens singing of comfort and pleasure if only one agrees to step off the true path and join the chanting mob of the Normal.

On top of all those obvious reasons, there is also this one, less obvious merely because it is the most omnipresent: I do not ask for money for my services. In fact, I am not offering any “services,” and neither am I looking at those who seek my assistance as sources of my own material benefit. I talk to them because I want to, because they interest me, because they ask me to talk, and because it is rewarding to be trusted by someone in a delicate condition and then actually to live up to the challenge of that trust. There is no way to overstate the significance, in the heart of a more precarious sort of soul seeking understanding and direction, or even just one living outside of the easy spiritual commerce of our modern platitudinous certainties, of feeling and knowing that he is being heard and helped by someone whose concern and willingness to listen and help is not turned on or off according to the presence or absence of “that beautiful sound of clinking nickels,” to quote Lucy from the Peanuts comic strip.

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