By Wayne Taylor
Sunny Day Counseling Guest Blogger
Every now and then there are moments when my life seems like a Monty Python sketch. Specifically, it’s seems like the sketch where, in the middle of a grave or serious situation, one character starts to obsess over a single trivial detail. In Monty Python it might be an article of clothing, or someone’s height, or a word that someone says, but everything comes to a halt as the character forces everyone to focus on that inconsequential detail. In the context of sketch comedy, this can be very funny, but when it happens in my life, when I realize that I’m the character that’s obsessing about minutiae, it’s not. My wife finds it mildly amusing that I will go off on a rant about how every article of clothing and every single possession my children own has been dropped in the entry way of our home and has been lying there for months and how my children’s failure to take responsibility for their belongings can only portend the complete moral collapse of Western civilization. If she’s in a good mood, she will tell me I’m missing the point. She tries to remind me that I’ve lost perspective on raising children, that I’ve lost sight of the “gestalt” of the parenting. She is a psych nurse, and in psychological terms “gestalt” is the idea that the whole is something other than its parts. And while the whole experience can involve learning and growth, the components of the experience can be unpleasant, unplanned, and unhappy.
The late Joseph Campbell would often point out that many myths begin with “the call to adventure.” That is, something happens that interrupts the usual pattern of the potential hero’s life. For example, he or she might be so absorbed in hunting that they suddenly find themselves in a part of the forest they do not recognize. In mythic terms, the person has entered a space where not only adventure, but also physical, spiritual, and emotional growth are possible. For Joseph Campbell these unexpected interruptions in our daily lives are tremendously valuable because they get us out of our ruts, out of our routines, and put us into an environment and landscape where we can learn something new or, even better, become something new. To lose sight, then, in these moments of the possibilities of the larger experience--to focus just on the inconvenience, just on all the things are out of place and might be left undone—is, well, silly.
Years ago, I was in Munich, Germany, for some business meetings. Over the course of a week, I spent nearly all my time in a conference room, and when it came time to return home, I felt vaguely cheated. I decided that before returning home I owed it to myself to experience the “gestalt” of Germany. My meetings were finished, the business was done, and I had three hours before my flight. So instead of taking a taxi to the airport, I decided to take the train.
I didn’t understand the train riding conventions in Germany; I didn’t know where or how to buy tickets or who to give them to once I had them. But I was ready for adventure, so I asked the hotel’s concierge where the nearest train station was. He told me that the closest stop was Englschalking and that I would need to take a taxi to get there. I thanked him, and I went to the corner and flagged down a cab. I got in and said, in what I hoped was passable German, “Englschalking.” The taxi driver looked at me quizzically, but then shrugged, and off we went.
The road to Englschalking wound through the city. Gradually businesses and shops were replaced by houses and apartment buildings. In most places stone fences pushed toward the road, offering only the occasional glimpse of the houses nestled inside. Bavaria, it seemed, did not yield her gestalt easily. Trees, bushes, and the occasional violet of lilacs filled in the seams between homes and buildings. Soon we came to a semi-industrial part of town where factories and warehouses replaced the houses.
It was next to one of these warehouses that the taxi stopped. The driver turned to me and said something in German that seemed to indicate that we had arrived. On my left were train tracks with two small raised cement platforms on either side. There were no shops, no ticket booths, no traveler’s aid--nothing. I got out of the cab and looked around. Englschalking, I surmised from my surroundings, meant "boondocks" in German. The taxi driver seemed a little concerned about just leaving me there, and he kept waving his hands and saying "hotel bad" and waving his hands some more. He was desperately trying to communicate, but I couldn’t understand his German, and he couldn’t understand my English. I looked at my watch and decided that I didn’t have time for much more adventure. My quest had failed. I felt stupid for even thinking that this would be a good experience. Defeated, I renounce adventure and turned to the taxi driver and said in the only other foreign language I knew, "Aeropuerto, por favor."
The taxi driver instantly brightened. He was, he told me, Francisco, from Barcelona, and the hotel had given me bad directions--they were the worst for giving people bad directions--and the next train wouldn’t come for at least 45 minutes and that if I wanted to take the train I should go to the Ostbahnhof station toward the center of town and he would take me there if I’d liked but herewas not a good place to catch the train. I told him to take me to the airport.
We would have to wind around a little bit, but it would be okay, he explained, and he talked to me in Spanish the rest of the way. He talked of German wines, cars and autobahns, the local university where his daughter went to school, and the unusually wet spring. While he talked, I looked out the window. The countryside was partly obscured by haze and low clouds, but the fields were now long and bright with yellow flowers. I had not expected the road to Englschalking to pass this way. It was a bad place to catch the train, but a good place to ride the back roads to the airport and to see Germany through the eyes of a Spaniard. That’s gestalt for you.