Dad and George
A story of indirect
description of indirect communication)
I'd like to tell you a story, a true story,
about my Dad and George.
Dad is a much beloved physician down in Eugene,
just retired a year or two ago, who did family practice medicine for about
fifty years or so. He also practiced addiction medicine, started a local
drug and alcohol treatment center, and has worked with alcoholics since
his earliest years in medicine.
Anyhow, this story happened several years
ago, and Dad later told it to us over the dinner table one evening. It
seems that about two o'clock in the morning one night he'd gotten a call
from a couple of Springfield police officers. They had been called by
George (not his real name, Dad has always been careful about confidentiality)
to his old apartment building in an unsavory part of Springfield because
a whole bunch of people had been shooting at him all evening from the
buildings across the street. When the police arrived they had checked
out all the buildings across the street and found no one over there at
all, let alone anyone shooting, and when they asked other people in the
neighborhood about the matter, no one had heard any gunshots or anything
else unusual all evening. So the officers realized that George was probably
just coming down off another of his drunks and was probably suffering
from another of his many bouts of DTs, delerium tremens, those terrible
and peculiar hallucinations that long-time alcoholics and those who treat
them are so familiar with.
So the officers had gone back up to the second
floor landing in George's apartment and had told him through his apartment
door that no one was across the street shooting at him, and that he was
just having another of his bouts of DTs.
"So please let us in, George, so we can
take you over to the Johnson Unit at the hospital and get you detoxed
again. Then you'll feel a lot better."
George would have none of that, though. He
knew people were over there shooting at him, and if the police officers
hadn't been able to track them down, then he certainly wasn't going to
trust them to come in and haul him off somewhere. He knew better than
to trust them, since they obviously weren't in very close touch with reality.
Instead, George had been begging them to get
Doc Kerns down here. "Nobody's comin into this apartment except Doc
Kerns. You get him down here and he'll show you that people really are
over there shooting at me."
George had been asking for Doc Kerns for long
enough that the officers finally called him, and so it was that Dad found
himself at 2:00am climbing up the dirty wooden stairs in George's old
apartment building to the second floor landing. It was illuminated with
one bare lightbulb, and the two officers were still there waiting for
him. They explained to Dad that they had checked everything out fully,
and that there was no evidence that there had been any shots fired in
that neighborhood for years. They apologized for calling Dad out so late,
but said George was clearly not going to let them in, and had been calling
for Doc Kerns for an hour.
So Dad thanked them and knocked on George's
door. "Who's there?" "It's Doc Kerns, George."
A minute later and George was unchaining and
unbolting his front door. He then cracked it open just barely enough so
Dad could squeeze in sideways. "Get down, Doc!" George shouted
as soon as Dad was in, so Dad hunkered down. He saw that George had his
bed and mattresses laid up against the window to protect him from the
shooters across the street. Dad then waddled over to the window and when
he peeked up over the edge of the mattress, George hollered: "Get
down!" So Dad ducked down. George needed help pushing the dresser
over to the window to make a better barrier, so Dad helped him with that.
There was also a large pack of big timber
wolves and a couple of bears over in one corner of the room, growling
and threatening to attack George, so Dad helped him keep the wolves and
bears at bay with a chair. On the bed and floor there were brightly colored
snakes of all sizes and descriptions constantly grabbing onto George and
trying to crawl up his legs and bite him, so Dad helped him pull the snakes
off and throw them out the window. George also had hundreds of bugs of
all different shapes, little and big ones, red ones, yellow ones and bright
green ones, crawling all over his chest and arms and all over his face
too, so Dad helped him pick the bugs off his face and throw them out the
Dad, in other words, was buying into George's
reality, or at least giving the impression that he was buying into it.
He was, as Kierkegaard says, "accepting the other man's illusion
as good money," all with the purpose of eventually helping George
get downstairs and into Dad's car so he could be taken in to the Johnson
Unit for detoxification. And it eventually worked. George was taken in
to the hospital that night and was detoxed, and eventually he went through
a treatment program and went on to recovery.
The interesting thing to notice in this little
vignette, though, is the striking difference between the mode of communication
used by my father and the mode used by the police officers.
The police officers spoke the simple truth
to George: they explained to him that no one was shooting at him, that
he was simply having another bout of the DTs and that he needed treatment
in the hospital. That was the simple and straight truth. But George, because
of his temporary impairment, was completely unable to hear the simple
truth spoken to him directly. The officers spoke to George using direct
communication. With direct communication you "begin directly with
the matter one wants to communicate," says Kierkegaard. "But
direct communication," he continues, "presupposes that the receiver's
ability to receive is undisturbed. But here such is not the case; an illusion
stands in the way." And because an illusion stands in the way (both
with George and with Euthyphro), direct communication becomes completely
Dad, on the other hand, used indirect communication.
He did not "begin directly with the matter he wanted to communicate,"
namely, that George was sick and needed to get treatment. He began instead
by "accepting the other man's illusion as good money." Or rather
by pretending to accept the other person's illusion as good money. Thus,
there is a kind of deception involved. And if Kierkegaard is right, the
deception is necessary, at least in the case of the person who is stuck
in an illusion. Without the deception, the person does not get past their
illusion and thus does not get on to treatment (in George's case) or on
to seeking truth (in Euthyphro's case).
Thus says Kiergegaard:
One can deceive a person for the truth's
sake, and (to recall old Socrates) one can deceive a person into the
truth. Indeed it is only by this means, i.e., by deceiving him, that
it is possible to bring into the truth one who is in an illusion. Whoever
rejects this opinion betrays the fact that he is not over-well versed
in dialectics, and that is precisely what is especially needed when
operating in this field.
Dad's motive was probably a good one, namely,
to help George get better. George was not properly in touch with "the
real world," and he would get better only when he began to reestablish
a healthy relationship with that world. Now should we ask whether Euthyphro
is laboring under any similar illusion? Plato thinks he is, and he sees
Socrates' motivations to be good ones also, namely, attempting to help
another person along the "steep and rugged ascent" on their
way out of the cave.
Questions to be answered and discussed:
- Did Dad deceive George? (And did Socrates
deceive Euthyphro?) Explain.
- Is indirect communication of the sort used
by Dad and Socrates effective? Would some other kind of communication
be more effective? Explain.
- Is using indirect communication morally
appropriate? just? right? good?
- Why or why not?
(ps. The photo
above is of my Dad and me, not Dad and George.)