What is a Red Herring?

often, for me, it’s money

“The money issue is a red herring,” I wrote today in my journal. Where does THAT expression come from, I wondered. And am I even using it right?

This expression first popped up in British foxhunting circles. Smoked and salted herrings turn bright red in the curing process and emit a pungent, fishy smell. Although the term “red herring” had been around since 1420 to describe the smoked version of the fish, it was first used to mean a distraction in a British gentlemen’s magazine published in 1686. The article touted an effective way to prolong a fox hunt: Drag a dead cat across the trail, masking the fox’s scent and confusing the hounds. The author suggested using a red herring if no cats were available. Nearly 200 years later, in 1884, the term was used more precisely to mean a false clue.


Oh yes, a false clue — that’s exactly what I meant. I was writing about therapy, something I’ve invested many years in, and many dollars. For quite a while now, more than a year, there’s been a voice in my head telling me it was time to quit. There were various reasons suggested: she’s incompetent, you’re wallowing, you’re done — this is as good as it gets, she’s stringing you along to get your money, you should be able to handle your own life by now, you’re too old for this, you’re wasting a lot of money, think what you could do with all that money if you didn’t keep throwing it away on this self-indulgent waste of time.

Under all that, clearly there have been conflicting views of my therapist. I don’t trust her, I realize, after all these years I still don’t trust her. She says things I don’t like, she hurts my feelings, she misunderstands. I’m not sure she even likes me! I think she doesn’t, she’s just pretending to, she’s covering her dislike of me with her “therapeutic” stance. Or even worse, is just using me to get money.

I push away from her, go to every other week sessions for a while, but then I miss the weekly check-in, the one safe place to dump everything. Ok, I’m not done, I think. I go back to weekly and pretty soon she pisses me off. I say I need to take a break. I don’t see her for several months… then I go back, feeling needy. Is this stuff addictive, I wonder?

There’s a fear that I won’t know when to stop. Maybe there’s no end to it. “How do you know when you’re done?” I asked her one day.

“Depends how far you want to go,” she said.

“I want to go all the way!” I blurted out. She looked surprised, then came a quiet little smile.

I thought about that for a week. “Pretty crafty marketing strategy on her part, right?” says the voice. Maybe that’s her game. How can I tell?

What does “all the way” even mean, I wondered. It means no more pain, another voice said. Is that even possible, I wondered? I thought about all the kinds of pain I no longer suffer from: doing things I don’t want to do, getting in fights with my sisters, faking feelings I don’t have, nursing resentment instead of communicating…

Ok, then it IS working! She DOES know what she’s doing! It doesn’t even matter whether she likes me or not if I’m getting what I need out of this. Imagine how I’d feel if the rest of my pockets of perpetual pain got emptied out? Is there any possible way to use money that could be better than this?

I thought about all my failed relationships. What did I do when the going got painful? I ran away, that’s what I did. I thought the other person was the problem, or even if I sensed that my own limitations were the problem, who cares — I wanted out! That was my main strategy — distance.

So I’m not going to do that with her. I’m going to work through everything that comes up. Maybe I’ll be done when nothing more comes up? Right now it’s painful, so many suspicions, hurt feelings, misunderstandings. After each session I have to give myself 24 hours to recover. I’m facing into the wind, I’m not turning away. I expect a reward.

I don’t consider myself a Christian, but I do think Jesus must have been onto something. My whole life I’ve wondered what he meant by

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?

For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Who knows what seeking the “kingdom of God, and his righteousness” means? Who knows if Jesus even said those words? I like how A Course in Miracles interprets Jesus’s message in light of psychology. Salvation is 100% a matter of healing your mind, it’s not magic. A Course in Miracles also boils the practice of Jesus’s message down to one project — healing relationships — that’s what it’s all about, that’s what we’re here for.

And of course that’s what therapy boils down to as well. I don’t know how to seek the “kingdom of God,” but I can definitely tell whether or not a relationship is working. I can tell whether I’m in pain or at peace.

There may be people who hear words attributed to Jesus, who study the Bible, or a Course in Miracles, and they have a sudden revelation that heals everything — no more pain. There are also plenty of people who pretend to have done this.

I have tried the fake it ‘til you make it positive thinking route. Guess what? Turned me into a shit sandwich — holy on the outside, pain on the inside. Didn’t work for me. So I’m left as a slogger. A slogger blogger! A blogging slogger…

Therapy offers me a workshop, a place to slog, where it’s ok to be messy. I don’t have to look happy and put together, or think positive thoughts. I don’t have to pretend to like my therapist either — sometimes I don’t. I can trail around after her like a little orphan hoping to be adopted — she says it doesn’t scare her because she knows her boundaries. That hurts my feelings. But I know it is probably necessary to help me feel safe. She doesn’t distance, nor does she come too close. I can question her motives. I can even leave — she lets me come back.



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