One day, many years ago, when I was working as a psychologist at a children's institution in
England, an adolescent boy showed up in the waiting room. I went out there where he was
walking up and down restlessly.
I showed him into my office and pointed to the chair on the other side of my desk. It was in late
autumn, and the lilac bush outside the window had shed all its leaves. "Please sit down," I said.
David wore a black rain coat that was buttoned all the way up to his neck. His face was pale, and
he stared at his feet while wringing his hands nervously. He had lost his father as an infant, and had
lived together with his mother and grandfather since. But the year before David turned 13, his
grandfather died and his mother was killed in a car accident. Now he was 14 and in family care.
His head teacher had referred him to me. "This boy," he wrote, "is understandably very sad and
depressed. He refuses to talk to others and I'm very worried about him. Can you help?"
I looked at David. How could I help him? There are human tragedies psychology doesn't have the
answer to, and which no words can describe. Sometimes the best thing one can do is to listen
openly and sympathetically.
The first two times we met, David didn't say a word. He sat hunched up in the chair and only
looked up to look at the children's drawings on the wall behind me. As he was about to leave
after the second visit, I put my hand on his shoulder. He didn't shrink back, but he didn't look at
"Come back next week, if you like," I said. I hesitated a bit. Then I said, "I know it hurts."
He came, and I suggested we play a game of chess. He nodded. After that we played chess every
Wednesday afternoon - in complete silence and without making any eye contact. It's not easy to
cheat in chess, but I admit that I made sure David won once or twice.
Usually, he arrived earlier than agreed, took the chessboard and pieces from the shelf and began
setting them up before I even got a chance to sit down. It seemed as if he enjoyed my company.
But why did he never look at me?
"Perhaps he simply needs someone to share his pain with," I thought. "Perhaps he senses that I
respect his suffering." One afternoon in late winter, David took off his rain coat and put it on the
back of the chair. While he was setting up the chess pieces, his face seemed more alive and his
motions more lively.
Some months later, when the lilacs blossomed outside, I sat starring at David's head, while he was
bent over the chessboard. I thought about how little we know about therapy - about the
mysterious process associated with healing. Suddenly, he looked up at me.
"It's your turn," he said.
After that day, David started talking. He got friends in school and joined a bicycle club. He wrote
to me a few times ("I'm biking with some friends and I feel great"); letters about how he would try
to get into university. After some time, the letters stopped. Now he had really started to live his
Maybe I gave David something. At least I learned a lot from him. I learned how time makes it
possible to overcome what seems to be an insuperable pain. I learned to be there for people who
need me. And David showed me how one - without any words - can reach out to another person.
All it takes is a hug, a shoulder to cry on, a friendly touch, a sympathetic nature - and an ear that