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  • Louis Hoffman

Robert J. Murney Tribute

Robert J. Murney, PhD (November, 1926-June 29, 2005): Mentor & Friend

When I received the second phone call from area code 417 today, I knew what message was waiting for me. Robert Murney has been nearing death for several months now. A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be able to return to Springfield to say goodbye, and I knew then it wouldn’t be long. Fortunately, I work in an environment that values relationship and mentors, so they were very encouraging of me returning to say goodbye.

Dr. Murney referred to himself as a working class clinician. He taught off and on for many years at the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology, but most of his forty plus years as a psychologist was spent with his clients who he never tired of listening to. Many times I encouraged him to put some of his wisdom down in the form of a book or article, but to no avail. He’d always say, “Yeah, yeah, I ought to do that.” But I knew he never would. He was more interested in being with people than writing. For a long time I thought it was sad that all his wisdom would never be shared, but through time I realized Dr. Murney and his legacy would live on in a much more precious form than the written word.

I moved to Springfield, Missouri to complete my internship at the Forest Institute Clinic (now the Robert J. Murney Clinic). I began getting to know Dr. Murney that year mostly through a fellow intern who sought out being supervised by him. The next year when I was preparing for my residency, I asked Dr. Murney to supervise me and he eagerly agreed. Although I only was required to take one hour of supervision and had set up with two supervisors, Dr. Murney still suggested we meet for 2-hours each Friday morning. For nearly 2-years we met every week.

Though we did talk about clients during this time, it quickly became apparent that this two hours was also time in which we were building a friendship. It just so happened that these 2-years coincided with some of the most challenging experiences of my life. Thanks to Dr. Murney, it was also one of the most rewarding and growth facilitating times. However, what amazed me was when he began going through some difficult challenges in his own life, he turned to me. I’ll never forget the first day he stopped by my office and said, “I need to process something with you.” I felt like looking around the room and asking, “who me?” But this is who Dr. Murney was. Even at 76-years old, he was still determined to learn more about himself.

This was one of the great lessons I learned from Dr. Murney — never stop learning about yourself or the world. Not long after we began working together, Dr. Murney stopped into my office with an issue of the American Psychologist saying, “I’m still trying to make sense out of postmodernism.” We sat and talked for nearly an hour that day about postmodernism and its implications. At 76, Dr. Murney didn’t need to learn postmodernism, but he wanted to. He knew there was something very important having to do with this theory and was determined to find out what it meant for the future of psychology. Experiences like this were common — frequently he would walk into my office or sit down at our supervision sessions with an article and say “what do you make of this?” He was never afraid to learn from anyone or seek their opinion. He never let his wisdom set him apart from others or learning from them.

From postmodernism we moved on to discussing religion and spirituality. Dr. Murney was a devout Catholic, but not in the traditional sense. I remember one day when discussing our views on religion he said, “I don’t talk with many people about religion. I’ve always known that if most people knew what I really believed, they’d kick me out of the church.” This was a statement that deeply resonated with me allowing me to explore some of my questions about religion in greater depth. Over the next couple of months, religion and spirituality were common topics in our supervision sessions as we explored what it meant to us to be truly spiritual people. I’ll never forget Dr. Murney’s vulnerability and openness in sharing his struggles with me. They helped free me to my own journey.

Not long after this, I remember hitting a real low with some things in my personal life. As I was traversing some difficult times, I came under attack by two people in my personal life. By this time, Dr. Murney probably knew me as well as anyone. He knew my commitment to integrity and ethics; often to neurotic levels as he would point out. He also knew how deeply it wounded me to be attacked by people who knew me well enough to see these commitments in me. As I shared what was happening one day and, as often happened, I was intently searching for my contributions to the situation, I could see the famous Murney jaw clench, a maneuver he used when he was really mad. Typically, there were only one or two individuals who could really bring the jaw clench out in Murney. He then broke out and almost yelled, “That just really pisses me off.” I was surprised, but relieved. Dr. Murney was always one to be straight forward. If I was being a jerk or not handling things well, he was always the first point that out. But in this instance I learned a lesson about the healing nature of anger. His anger was part of his caring for me and part of his commitment to me. This was one of the first lessons I learned in allowing myself to own my anger (something not easy for me to do).

A few weeks later I saw the famous Murney jaw-clench again. This time I was in a friends office and he came in and pronounced to us, “I just hate being told what to do! In all my years, I’ve never got passed this.” He went on to tell stories of the two times he got in trouble in the military — both times because he did not want to do what he was told to do. He was able to recognize that his anger was irrational in that it was out of proportion to what was warranted by the situation, but he also recognized the constructive side of his anger. Once again, Murney was always open to learning and growing, but he was also willing to look at how he could use things such as his anger. In existential terms, he was always willing to own his daimonic urges (or shadow in Jungian terminology) and find ways to use it productively.

This was also one of many times that I learned of the power of vulnerability and acknowledging one’s weaknesses from Dr. Murney. Here was a man respected enough and intelligent enough that he didn’t often have to admit mistakes and weaknesses. Yet he did on a regular basis. I soon found that as I applied this lesson in my own way, it greatly increased my effectiveness as a therapist, a friend, and a professor.

On a few occasions, I had the opportunity to work with Murney seeing clients or working with students. I was always amazed to watch this process. One of the great lessons he displayed was a deep recognition that it was rarely about him, but yet he was open to considering and acknowledging how he contributed to problem situations. This knowledge and openness allowed him to stay calm and open-minded in tense situations. It was amazing to watch how others would often become very upset around him, but he would remain steady. And afterwards, he always wanted to process it to see what he could learn from the situation and about the situation.

Another lesson I learned watching Murney was his ability to live the postmodern fluidity in session. Dr. Murney never seemed to get caught up in his ideas or trying to prove he was right about anything. He just shared his views and was always open to being corrected. He could make 5 or 6 wrong interpretations in a row and no one even seemed to notice because of how smoothly he moved on to different interpretations. Most therapists and leaders become invested in their ideas or interpretations, have their feelings/ego hurt when they are wrong, or are just not committed enough with the dialogue to follow through. But Murney never seemed to get too caught up in himself or his own process.

Many times I heard Murney state that he was a terrible judge of character. Once he stated, “My flaw is that I seem to think that I can work with anyone.” And for the most part, he could. He would often pick out people who everyone else had given up on and become determined to work with them. Most of the time he would succeed. I remember telling him toward the end of my residency, “that’s what I want to learn from you — how is it that you work with these people.” He never seemed to have much of an answer other than just believing in them and being honest with them about what they needed to work on. The true art, though, was his ability to tell people what they needed to work on in a way they could hear.

As I began to move on in my career, I was amazed with the wealth of people who knew Dr. Murney. I would talk to people from all over Southwest Missouri who seemed to know of this great man. Often, their face or voice would perk up when he was mentioned. His name always brought respect. He touched so many lives through his years as a therapist, supervisor, and teacher. He made his impact with people. Dr. Murney is not someone who’s name is known in the professional literature or organizations, but his impact on the world will live eternally through the lives he’s helped heal, the people he helped grow, and the love, compassion, and humor with which he lived his life.

Dr. Murney also had a way of making everyone feel special. Earlier this evening, I was talking with a very good friend about how everyone seemed to feel they had this special relationship with him. I am one of many deeply touched by this man. In addition to making most people feel special when in his presence, he also seemed to have this long line of honorary children, though he always treated them as equals. There was always one or two who he developed this special bond with. In these situations, he was more than a mentor because he would make the relationship mutual. He also looked to them. This made for a very unique mentoring relationship.

One last Murney memory seems appropriate to close with. When Dr. Murney’s wife was battling cancer, he really struggled accepting that he may have to say goodbye to her. He was not afraid of death, but was afraid of the losses that come with death. On my last visit, as Dr. Murney switched between holding my hand and the hand of the friend who went on the visit with me, this was evident. He was not afraid of dying, but he did not want to say goodbye to those he loved. And he loved no one more than his wife. In my life, I hope to learn to love more like that.

When Dr. Murney was faced with the possible loss of his wife, he shared a book with me. He said this was one of the few books that he read over and over in his life — seven times was the last count I heard. And it was right beside his bed in the hospital, too. The book is called Anam Cara, which literally means “soul friend” in Gaelic. The concept is similar to the idea of soul mates. Anam Cara is a very existential book that looks at relationships. O’Donohue, the author, discusses how being apart is part of being together. Death, also, is part of being in relationship and one of the great teachers about relationship. It is often in death that we learn to treasure life.

Now that Dr. Murney has passed, it is the many of us who loved him so dearly that are having the hard time saying goodbye. How do you say goodbye to someone like Murney? It was hard enough just moving to California and leaving his close mentorship and friendship. But now is even more difficult. I don’t want to say goodbye. I don’t want to stop learning from him.

In Robert Murney’s death, I feel his life. I see clearly what he has meant in my life and how much of who I am today is part of who he was to me. I’m sure I’ll rework this tribute many times because I will never be satisfied with what I want to express about Dr. Murney. But he knows. In our last conversation, despite the pain and painkillers, the message came through. Some people just don’t deserve to suffer and it is better that we say goodbye. The loss is ours and it is part of the gift he shared. The line that kept coming into my mind today is this:

There is one less saint in the world today…

Louis Hoffman June 29, 2005


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