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Dude, Where Are My Keys?

What does a therapist really do?

People often ask me what exactly it is I do. It doesn’t always satisfy their question when I say that I talk to people about their problems, or provide a safe place for them to vent, or process past emotional trauma. To better explain the work I do, I sometimes tell them a story. It’s based on a parable attributed to the Sufi mystic Nasrudin. It’s also attributed to Noam Chomsky. It can also be found in various forms in numerous American newspapers going back all the way to the 1920s. It goes like this:

A policeman was walking his beat one night when he came upon a drunk man searching around on the ground underneath a streetlight. The policeman asked the drunk man what he was doing. The drunk man said he was looking for his keys. The policeman started to help him look for the keys, but they couldn’t find them. The streetlight shined brightly on the ground, but there were clearly no keys anywhere to be seen. After a few minutes, the policeman asked the drunk man if was sure he had lost his keys around there. The drunk man said no, he actually dropped them a couple of blocks back, but the light was better here.

I love this story! It’s so simple and clear. To me, it speaks to how we can find ourselves searching for meaning, for answers, for help, but doing it in our own little patch of brightly lit pavement without realizing the keys we are looking for lie elsewhere. It’s bright and safe here; it’s a comfortable place to look. To go off and look in the darkness and the unknown would be scary. Much safer to stay in the light.

Another reason why we tend to look where we know the thing we’re searching for is not is that looking for something gives us a purpose, and it can feel satisfying to engage in this process. This act of searching feels good in and of itself. This process of searching can even be more satisfying than the end goal of finding. I think this is because searching is open-ended and full of possibility, while finding means we have to deal with what we have found. And this is where a therapist can be a great help. The therapist is your guide to this search. Let’s continue the parable with this in mind.

As the drunk man continued to search for his keys, the policeman got a call about a robbery in progress and left. Then a stranger showed up, carrying a flashlight. The drunk man explained his situation, and the stranger offered to help by walking back up the block with him to help search for the keys where they were actually dropped. The drunk man was apprehensive about this. The events that led to him losing his keys were blurry. He had some vague memories of getting into a fight, of yelling and screaming, of experiencing emotions he would rather not feel again, and which he had intended to suppress by getting drunk in the first place. The stranger gently encouraged him to be brave, and he promised he would be there with him every step of the way to support him. Even though it generated feelings of fear, it made sense to look for the keys where they were actually lost, didn’t it? The drunk man had to admit it did.

So the drunk man and the stranger walked back up the street, side by side, the stranger shining his flashlight at the road ahead of them. The drunk man was nervous, but with the stranger’s help, he retraced his steps, navigating the route back toward where he dropped his keys. Eventually they reached a dark, isolated street corner leading to a dead end. The drunk man felt a wave of anxiety surge through him, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, and he turned to leave but the stranger stood behind him, urging him to go on, and then handed him the flashlight.

The drunk man took a deep breath and shined the flashlight around the dead end. It was cold and uninviting, there was graffiti on the walls, and trash littered the street. Then the flashlight revealed a dog, a dirty mutt, crouched in corner, growling. The drunk man’s first instinct was to drop the flashlight and run, but the next feeling he had after this urge was the safety of having the stranger with him. He turned to see the stranger still standing next to him, a supportive look on his face, a gentle nod to continue on, so the drunk man turned and faced the dog. The dog growled threateningly but didn’t make a move toward him. The drunk man stood there studying the dog, and eventually realized it seemed familiar to him. He remembered this dog from the past, and in that past the dog wasn’t angry and threatening. It was a gentle pet, a friend. He used to pet the dog and it would lick his hand playfully, but then because of some traumatic event in the past things changed and the dog became angry and dangerous. As the drunk man experienced this memory the dog stopped barking and started to wag its tail. Emboldened, the drunk man approached the dog, holding out his hand. The dog tentatively came towards him and sniffed the drunk man’s hand, then yelped playfully and rubbed up against him. The drunk man felt a wave of relief wash over him as he petted the dog, remembering all the good times they had spent together before things changed.

The stranger placed a gentle hand on the drunk man’s shoulder and pointed over to where the dog had been sitting. The drunk man looked over and saw, up against the curb, the lost keys. He picked them up, looking at them as if seeing them for the first time, feeling a sense of accomplishment he hadn’t felt in ages. He turned to the stranger to thank him for his help, but the stranger demurred, telling him all he did was walk beside him. It was the drunk man who was brave enough to undertake the journey.

We each have our own metaphorical keys, and we’ve all lost those keys at some point in our lives. Sometimes we lose them in places we don’t want to go, so we look for them where we feel safe. We might feel good in the act of looking for them under the brightness of a streetlight, but we won’t find them there. It’s hard to confront our past, especially when we’ve spent a good chunk of our lives trying to forget it. We all have growling dogs lurking in the darkness of a time we don’t want to remember, but if not examined and confronted, the fear of these dogs will determine how we live our lives in the present, often with a negative influence.

It makes sense that part of us doesn’t want to find the keys, because it can be scary. Logic doesn’t apply in this situation. It makes sense to think that we would look for our keys where we dropped them, but our mind is excellent at using emotion to twist logic and protect ourselves from pain. The pain lies in the darkness and it hides the truth, but it’s the truth we need to find because through confronting it we will be able to finally open the door that can lead us to a happier place.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Phil Stark, AMFT
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