Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College



Dad and George
A story of indirect communication

(see Kierkegaard's 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 window too.

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 ineffective.

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:

    1. Did Dad deceive George? (And did Socrates deceive Euthyphro?) Explain.
    2. Is indirect communication of the sort used by Dad and Socrates effective? Would some other kind of communication be more effective? Explain.
    3. Is using indirect communication morally appropriate? just? right? good?
    4. Why or why not?

(ps. The photo above is of my Dad and me, not Dad and George.)