Stories from a Counselor’s Chair
by Rich Jacks
Associate Dean of Students: Health and Wellness
Whitman College Baccalaureate
Saturday, May 19, 2012
Thank you President Bridges, for inviting me to speak at this time. Welcome, 2012 graduates, friends and families.
I have titled my talk “Stories from a Counselor’s Chair.” This is a chair I have been sitting in for a long time. It was just 50 years ago this spring that I received my BA; however, unlike most of you, I never left college. One way or another I found a way to delay that eventuality – until now. In the short time we have together I want to share two stories that relate to my experience of being a counselor. One is about some interesting research and the other is a metaphor from my childhood. The first story deals with relationships and the second one deals with procrastination and depression; both are common to this counselor’s office.
When I was a new doctoral student on Stanford’s campus, the first thing I did was join a research program on friendship and loneliness.
We placed an advertisement in the Stanford Daily that said, “Are you lonely?” etc. The undergraduates who participated in the research were given a pathology screening test and interviewed. We ended up with a group of 25 normal, successful Stanford undergraduates who said they were lonely. We then asked the faculty who lived in residence halls to identify undergraduate students with a full quiver of friends. Not necessarily the social butterflies, but students that seemed really satisfied with this aspect of their lives. We invited those students to come in; most of them were flattered when they found out what we were doing. We gave them the same tests and interviews.
So we had two groups of Stanford undergraduates who were very much alike in all aspects, except that one group was lonely and the other group was satisfied with the friendship aspect of their lives. We put them in a room with a couple of chairs and gave them topics to talk about. We had a camera up in the corner recording them and a microphone dangling down (the technology wasn’t quite as sophisticated as it is today). The topics we gave them to talk about were the War in Vietnam, which was still winding down; the use of Acid (it was really big then); premarital sex; relationships with their parents, etc. We videotaped them for 15 minutes. Then we went through the video tapes trying to find out how the friendly group was different from the lonely group. We found one striking difference; the friendly group made lots of “self-disclosing feeling statements.” The lonely group made none.
The next phase of the research was even more fascinating; we brought a group of the lonely people back and asked if they would be actors and act for us. They said sure, they were capable of acting. We asked them to act friendly and they did. They sat upright, they were attentive and followed the conversation exactly and asked question after question after question. All without disclosing any feelings!
We examined self-disclosing statements and realized there are at least two dimensions; one is what you say. For example if you are standing outside a classroom just before a final and you say, “I’m kind of worried about this test.” You can probably share that comment with anybody, but there are feelings that each of us has, that we have never shared with anyone and never will. The other dimension is who. Some people may be very good friends that you can say anything to, and you know you will always be totally accepted. On the other hand there are probably people who you are just totally tongue tied around and can’t share anything. If you push those dimensions together you get one long slow gradient. We found that working gradually up that gradient by making one self-disclosing feeling statement each day; one can change from lonely to satisfied in the friendship aspect of their lives.
My second story takes me back even farther. I was a junior in college, sitting in my apartment off campus. I remember this club chair from my folks’ basement. That club chair was so broken down that when you sat in it, it felt like you were going to the floor, but you didn’t. It was so comfortable, I loved it. I remember sitting in that chair and I couldn’t get out. Procrastination and depression were my enemies. I was so far behind that all I could do was get further behind. Bottom line was I couldn’t get out of the chair; I just couldn’t move so I sat there and fantasized.
I recalled a similar feeling. I grew up 100 miles East of here in Clarkston, I was an only child and both of my parents worked. By the time they thought I was old enough to get into trouble they sent me up to Uniontown to work on the ranch. So there I was a 13 year old who couldn’t do much, on a ranch. Most of the time I felt like I was given stuff to do to keep me out of the way, not real work. And then one day, part way through the summer, my uncle told me to plow the field out by the highway. I was pumped, I was just 13, but I was going to do a man’s job. It wasn’t simply relieving someone over the lunch hour; it was just do it. I was excited, I fueled up the tractor, a big old fashioned Caterpillar, I got the plow ready and went out to the field and opened it up. I think it must have taken me half a day to get around the field the first time. By the time I got around the field once I was depressed, just like I was when I was in that chair. The only positive thing that I could think of was that at the end of the summer I would get off the tractor and go back to high school. I would go along until I got to a corner, reach back and trip the plow, do a 270, head down the next direction, set the plow and go back to day dreaming. That’s all I did. I felt terrible. I fantasized, but the tractor just kept going. The tractor didn’t budge; you can’t veer it off course. It doesn’t slow down, doesn’t speed up, it doesn’t matter if there are hills or bumps – it just keeps going. By the time that week was up I could tell I was going to get it done sometime because each circle was smaller and smaller. I actually think I finished it on Wednesday of the second week and it felt good, really good. I decided as I was sitting there, in that chair, that I was going to become a tractor.
Tractors don’t move very fast, but they move forward, tractors can’t get anxious, they don’t worry, they just get the job done. So I became a tractor. I still ate, I needed fuel, and I would sleep. When I walked past people I would wave with a big smile and say hi but not veer off my course. I didn’t tell anybody that I was a tractor, but I knew I was a tractor. I think I actually only had to do it for three days. After three days, I didn’t get everything done, but I had enough done that I could tell I was going to finish. I was out of the hole the chair had made.
In fact, I have been a tractor many times in my life. I never did get over procrastinating, so I have needed to become a tractor. It may seem crazy to think of this 70 year old man pretending he is a tractor, but hey it works for me. Your task is to find what works for you.