At the Zoo
Larry B. Gelman, Psy.D.


LBG1 1In college I had an obnoxious undergraduate professor who claimed to be related to the famous advice columnists of that era, the identical twin sisters, Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren. Two things were immediately remarkable about him at the time. First, he was really quite brilliant in his field of sociology. Secondly, to my consternation, he was significantly much more arrogant than I!

Begrudgingly, I struggled to maintain enough of an “open mind,” at least from my myopic perspective, to endure his chronically annoying and personally humiliating classroom antics. Specifically, I elected to temporarily suppress trying to overtly compete with him, mano a mano, on his full-professorial academic level and in so doing, I serendipitously discovered what a progressively fortunate beneficiary I was to become of his condescending, pedantic and insufferable intellect, as he repeatedly challenged his students to go well-beyond the obvious in our sociology studies so that each of us might see if there was anything else meaningful to be discovered or learned.

One dual course requirement was for each student to spend an hour on a field trip, initially, at either the Brookfield Zoo or the Lincoln Park Zoo; then subsequently, on yet another day, to spend an hour at the famed Art Institute of Chicago. The simple assignment for the zoo outing was to select any animal and observe it in its environment, all-the-while, copiously documenting, as descriptively as possible, as many discrete and/or continuous observations; then to do the same with any picture, statue or sculpture of our choosing at the Art Institute, thereafter.

Being a consummate over-achiever, I allocated four hours to each assignment and was exhausted by taking so many notes. At the zoo, I selected a female orangutan to study. I watched her like a hawk looking for anything out-of-the-ordinary. Approximately three and a half hours following intense observation and rigorous scrutiny, I had what I thought to be a novel, if not revolutionary idea.

It occurred to me that I could either be the passive, dependent, hapless observer of the subject of my study or I could alter the frame of reference and, in an intentionally active, independent and expectant fashion, progressively orient myself to have an approximative, “as-if” experience. Stated differently, I imagined, “as-if” I were the orangutan and instead of my being a dispassionate observer, it was “as-if” I actually was the orangutan, looking at me, looking at her, over and over again. Soon, I just knew what she would do next, not so much in a prescient way; rather, in a very direct and immediate way, “as-if” I were she!

In shock and utter amazement, I ruminated obsessively for days about my “as-if” experiencing. Years later, I would learn about the heuristic psychodynamic construct of projective identification but, right then and there, I was on fire with the joy, if not rapture, associated with my accidental new discovery. The Art Institute was next on my agenda.

Having frequented the Art Institute dozens of times during my youth, I felt I had a truly unfair advantage over all of my classmates. I was reasonably conversant with many of the works of several renowned masters, quite a few of the lesser-known portrait artists, loads of fascinating pictures of black and white film photography, various historical period statues, numerous sculptured pieces and many of the non-human still-life creations. Although I wracked my brain for years to identify the exact painting I chose to observe, suffice it to say, that I chose to stand in front of a picture of a bowl of inanimate fruit because I believed choosing any art work representing human figures would be akin to cheating and, therefore, would provide me with no intellective challenge at all.

Roughly two and a half hours later into my commitment to a premeditated four hour observational stint, I began to more intentionally, as well as, to more discontinuously transition into the approximative, “as-if” experience from my previous experiment at the zoo. I had little, if any, expectation since I was observing, ad nauseam, a bowl of inanimate fruit. However, to my genuine delight, if was, “as-if” I became the fruit! And also the bowl! And also the fruit in relation to the bowl! And also each individual piece of fruit in relation to every other piece of fruit! And also the canvass! And also the frame! All looking at me, looking at the aforementioned, over and over again. Wow!

The two requisite observational descriptive class reports, along with a lengthy elucidation of my idiosyncratic field trip experiments, prompted my professor to look at me with provisional concern which gave way to a wry, knowing smile. He was extremely pleased that I had gone “above and beyond” minimal compliance with the assignments and that I seemed to have learned a thing or two about the value of committed field research. Yes, I got the only A+ from him, ever!

More importantly, throughout the course of my professional career, both as a clinical psychologist and also as a personal mentor, I have, increasingly, found myself, in the sincere and committed service of each one of my valued clients, approximating an, “as-if” experience by imagining that I am them, in the moment-by-moment of the experience of their moment-by-moment experience in their experiential reality of each now, “as-if” I am them, whether this may occur for a fleeting moment or for a very long interval of time! No matter how odd or atypical such an assertion may appear, I assure you, most assiduously, that it is the honest truth!

By my experiencing an approximative, “as-if” experience of the experience of the other, the other’s experience is no longer separate and discrete, i.e., alien, from my own experience. I am, thereby, significantly enabled to be maximally receptive to those in my charge in a profoundly empathic and deeply respectful way. The character and nature of a healthy and relevant projective identification, without unhealthily or inappropriately projecting me onto the other, permits me to approximate an “as-if” experience, not only with regard to who the other experientially is, but also how the other experientially experiences themselves as experiencing their being within their unique life-space . In this way, I can open myself up to an “as-if” knowing, both pre-verbally and pre-logically, in a way that I would never be able to know, otherwise.

It has oft been said that “when the student is ready, the master appears.” Funny what one can learn from an annoying, challenging and frustrating college professor whether it be at a famed art museum or even at the zoo!

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Author Note: Dr. Larry B. Gelman is a Clinical Psychologist and a Personal Mentor

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