THE 75-YEAR-OLD MAN in the hospital bed looked at me with a flat, unfocused gaze. Ted made it plain to me with a few curt answers and a doleful face that his life was over, finished off by his recent, devastating stroke that had totally paralyzed the left side of his body. His physical rehab doctor had pressed me to meet him out of concern that depression was sapping his efforts in physical and occupational therapies and dooming his recovery.
Ted was like many older men I'd seen who, after suffering sudden medical catastrophes, figured they had no other choice but to surrender to their dire circumstances. He hadn't asked to see a psychologist; in fact, he had never in his life dreamed of speaking with one. Yet I was supposed to march into his hospital room and sound some battle cry, compelling him to fight to live again.
Instead, after five minutes of painfully one-sided conversation, I asked Ted a question that I've found to be effective with other men of his generation in states of late-life debilitation and despair: "Were you in World War II?" Ted's gaze sharpened as if he'd only just become aware of my presence. 'Yes, I fought in the war," he declared in a voice suddenly clear and strong. This was the beginning of a dialogue in which he allowed me a view of his life and shared his past and present struggles against death.
In my work as a…