Mind Matters — Out of Nowhere to Now Here?

Not long ago, I met psychologist Dr. Dan Gottlieb once again; this time at a stunning performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra. As we were waiting in line to enter Verizon Hall, he told me that he had a new book and asked me to review it. I heartily agreed. So here it is. The reader should know that, as the result of a truck’s wheel flying off and hitting his car, Dan has been a quadriplegic and in a wheelchair for the past thirty years.

He describes this freak accident as an “out of nowhere” experience in his new book, The Wisdom We’re Born With: Restoring Our Faith in Ourselves. He relates the story of Aviva, who, as a young college student, was celebrating New Year’s Eve in a New Orleans restaurant. Suddenly, she felt a crushing blow and fell to the floor in pain. Unknown to her at the time, her spleen, diaphragm, and stomach had been pierced by a bullet fired in the air from an automatic weapon five miles away. Her out of nowhere experience led to an arduous journey of a long recovery.

Although Dan’s and Aviva’s stories are uniquely theirs, Dan points out that the human condition is such that out of nowhere experiences of some sort are universal. We are never prepared for what may happen in an instant. At first, we may feel helpless, vulnerable. Aviva felt like she was “walking through a dark tunnel.” Dan advises that “if we can make our way through that tunnel, we may grow in ways that we could never have anticipated.”

In this book, Dan weaves his own personal experiences with stories of others: clients, as well as family, friends, and “strangers,” to help us return to our own inner wisdom and befriend ourselves.

Befriending ourselves and becoming comfortable with solitude may paradoxically be the path of moving from a “them” to an “us” mentality.

Dan has a show, Voices in the Family, that airs on WHYY. When he had a program on food insecurity and hunger, his radio audience responded angrily. Why? Dan contends that this “other tribe” was unacceptable because their plight touched the vulnerabilities of the listeners.

Why was this “other tribe” so unacceptable? They were threatening. If we were to accept this tribe, it means we would have to accept the idea that food insecurity could happen to anyone—even us. Oh, no, our ego whispers, I could not bear to live with that kind of vulnerability. I reject that, and I reject those people. I will go back to live with my secure belief that food insecurity, poverty discrimination, or social rejection could never happen to me. If you go away, I will be able to rest in that belief whether it is true or not. We have all sorts of mechanisms protecting us from realizing our own fragility and vulnerability. So when we see someone who is visibly vulnerable, put in this position by circumstances beyond their control, we are confronted by the truth of our lives: we are vulnerable humans at risk.
[pg. 178]

There are many times, I think, where we see the “other” rather than the “us.” Consider how we often blame the victim so that we can feel secure. Trayvon Martin’s “character” came into question; the young woman who is raped is called “provocative.” If victims are blameless, we feel threatened and vulnerable. So it is easier to deny our existential condition and pretend security without connection. Dan asks us to imagine moving from a “them” to “us” position by allowing ourselves to feel our vulnerability, and to feel love and kindness for ourselves when we feel that fear [of other]: “If we are able to do that, we can open our hearts and minds to our own experience. We are awake to our own suffering. And then … [we can] welcome the stranger.”

Dan invites us to return to our own inner wisdom, in a journey that takes us from “out of nowhere” to “now “here”—in the present, connected and fully alive.