When it comes to grief - death, separation, loss - to think of the truth is to be in pain. A person asks, "Why can't I just see this differently, feel differently?" But they are trapped by reality, by something they can avoid only by distraction or delusion.
In many cases of suffering the pain is rooted in one's interpretation of things. For example a person feels disregarded by others, without realising that others are simply absorbed in their own concerns. By shaping one's perspective the problem may go away. Many people, drawn to the fantasy that they can ultimately protect themselves from suffering, imagine that this example is the paradigm of all suffering. But many cases of suffering are not like this - they exist in reality, and must be endured, and any attempt to reduce them to distorted thinking is a form of evasion. Furthermore, when that attitude is taken to the real suffering of others, it is a form of cruelty. A violent assault, a childhood of abuse, a terrible loss, are realities that must be faced as real.
Reality is made of basic elements, such as time. People often speak of time as relative, but it is also an iron law. For example you and I are ageing and there is nothing we can do about it. When suffering is real then time is something that must be endured. We labour through the hours. Furthermore it is because there is time that there is suffering. In the same way that because we are bodily there is suffering. For, thanks to both, we are unable simply to think ourselves out of the difficulty. Because while we can forget mere abstractions, time and bodily pain (which includes emotional pain) pins us down, in a time and a place, like a butterfly on a board.
And yet, for this very reason, we can transcend. Not transcend the suffering, but become changed. Suffering, when it represents a reality we come up against, may operate like a sharpening stone, honing us with every recurrence. In suffering many emotions may swirl, often contending with one another, chaotic and fighting. At a deeper level a war develops between hope and fear, love and hate. We have a choice between them, the ability to consent to one or the other. But this must be done in time, in the repetition; we must endure making this painful consent over and again, compelled to choose each time through the pain. And we are slowly shaped by this repetition. If we choose the good each time we become better people. The suffering then changes from a hell to a purgatory, to use a medieval distinction: whereas hell is pure absence, pure suffering, in purgatory there is suffering but also hope and love, a forward movement.
We are beings who suffer in time. I have always been interested in the subtle aspects of this truth. Of late I have reflected on the idea of fidelity to the future. That is a form of hope, often born as the risk of loving that which is not yet. Loving without an object, but with a space for the unknown object. An important person or meaning waiting up ahead. That offers us strength and consolation, but in a paradoxical way, for it is also a waiting without consolation. It is to attend, which means to look, to listen, and also to wait upon. In this context suffering may again be used, in a variation upon the notion above of being shaped through pain in time. To be faithful to the future is to let my present suffering shape me: to become the kind of person I am needed to be, that they need me to be, up ahead at a meeting toward which I am moving, and which I do not yet know. To maintain fidelity through time in the midst of suffering, and without adequate consolation at the present time, is again to be honed. It is to purify and strengthen the heart.
So the secret to being transformed through suffering is not to find a cure for it, but a use. A transcendent use. That may in no way diminish the pain, and it may make it worse for a time, though often it lessens it, provided one is focused not on lessening it but on using it.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Artwork: Kathe Kollwitz
I help a lot of people who are recovering from a relationship with a narcissist, whether a parent, partner, friend, employer, or other. Narcissistic parents do the most harm, but for many of my clients the trouble does not end when they have grown up and left home. This is because narcissists are at their worst when things do not go their way, and one of the greatest challenges in life is ageing. Narcissistic parents often become worse as they age. How do you behave according to your deeper values while protecting your well-being, around such a parent?
I don't believe that anybody puts their hand up early in life and says, "Please give me a personality disorder, make me a selfish person who harms my kids!" This is not to deny our responsibility for our behaviour, but as I will discuss in another blog post, narcissism is a kind of insanity. I often suggest to people that they think of it in similar terms to intellectual disability. Instead of the intellect, however, the retardation has taken place at the emotional and moral level. As a result the narcissist has a distorted relationship with value: an inflated sense of their importance, and a correlating lack of empathy for others. Sure, they might play the game of empathy (and they may be masters at keeping up appearances), but when it really comes to it, when they are tested in any true way, they lack it. To understand the emotional mechanism that causes these we have to look at a narcissist's relationship with shame. Shame is a universal human experience. It can be unhealthy, but in the right amounts, in the right contexts, experienced and held in the right way, it is vital for our emotional and moral health.
Narcissists are people who have never learned to tolerate shame. They react to it cutting their experience of things in half, and walling off the shame. This is why they rarely make genuine apologies or take real responsibility. Instead they protect themselves from feeling shame by seeing themselves as superior. If shame says "You're bad" they counteract it by telling themselves "I'm excellent." Things do get complicated, for to avoid responsibility the narcissist may express self-loathing, to distract you by eliciting your sympathy, but ultimately there is this sense of entitlement in a narcissist, a double-standard, a sense of being different and better.
The problem with this very unhealthy coping strategy is that, as the narcissist ages, all that feeds their sense of superiority usually fades – depending on the individual it may be their body, their prowess, their sphere of influence, their mental capacities. Usually they deal with this challenge at first through the psychological defense known as Denial (yes, the same defense they use to ward off shame). A common example of this is acting like they are young. Hence the stereotypical ageing man who trades his wife for a sports car and young lover. However as denial ceases to function, their worse defenses begin to emerge. These include envy, for example in the mother who criticizes her daughter-in-laws cruelly, and other forms of subtle or not-so subtle aggression.
Putting others down is a key defense-mechanism of the narcissist, because as I have pointed out they need to feel superior in order to feel valuable. They often put others down more vigorously as they age in order to retain that sense of superiority which is being challenged by the effects of ageing. Who they criticize is often determined by other features of their distorted narcissistic psychology. For example a narcissist tends to “split”: to divide others into all-good or all-bad. Hence the uncle who behaves gregariously to one of nephew while relentlessly putting the other down. Or the narcissistic mother above, whose sons can do no wrong but whose daughter-in-laws are wholly inadequate in her eyes. Narcissists split because they cannot tolerate the emotional complexity involved in healthy relationships, hence they have favourites (i.e. good people) and dissapointments (i.e. bad people) among their children and other people generally. Sometimes, of course, the one person is seen by them as all-good, and then all-bad, and then back again, in a roller coaster of affection and rejection. This is why many narcissistic parents fall-out with their children over some petty grievance, and then the relationship is repaired and all is good, and then there is another falling out and cutting off, and on it goes. As a narcissist ages this idealising versus devaluing pattern may worsen. They will take no responsibility for it, of course, blaming their child instead, and in the good times denying that any rupture ever happened.
The narcissist’s sense of value needs to be inflated like a balloon. When it deflates they often become depressed. This depression may take the classical appearance, or it may look different to the untrained eye, for example they may become manic or aggressive. In older age, paranoia is common at this point. Suddenly others are spiteful in the narcissist's eyes. They fear the malevolence of the world. I said that their psychological defenses worsen, and this is a further defense, against their fear of dependence and helplessness. Remember, they need to see themselves as superior, which means believing they are invulnerable and all-capable. Rather than accept such a state they defend themselves by projecting them onto the world in the form of imagined threats and dangers. For whereas the healthy person accepts with some grace the realities of ageing – increasing dependence and incapacity - for the narcissist these experiences lead to despair, to a lost sense of value as a person, and to a sense of the world as bereft of meaning. Their paranoia is a last ditch defense against such despair. For if other people or the world is threatening them, then they must still matter. They still have value. Of course many ageing narcissists do not fall so low emotionally and hence do not need to defend themselves through paranoia or madness. They stay afloat at a level of fearful self-absorption, whining about the aches and pains of age or the lack of care of others toward them.
As a friend of mine put it in response to one who did some damage in our friendship circle, narcissists are “walking projection machines.” We have seen how the narcissist “projects” their sense of helplessness by imagining that the world is malevolent. Another form of projection common to narcissists involves their ability to project their feelings into others: to make others feel the way that they secretly do. These are feelings that the narcissist cannot acknowledge or accept as their own. So they instinctively dump these feelings into others through manipulative means. The most common example is when they make their children feel ashamed, that emotion which above they cannot tolerate, but there are others. Their helplessness in ageing may lead to the narcissist to manipulate their child into feeling powerless in their presence, while they themselves try to exert control over everything in order to feel the opposite. By doing this they maintain the illusion of being powerful. This can be very hard for the adult child who is now caring for them, but who thereby feels powerless and controlled, or who finds themselves somehow feeling ashamed constantly, or who simply finds there parent impossible to negotiate with.
Because most people find ageing difficult and the worst therefore sometimes comes out in them, it is easy to excuse such narcissistic behaviour, ascribing it simply to old age. Such an attitude is damaging for adult children who have spent a lifetime trying to develop a more healthy sense of who they are after all the damage done by their parent in childhood. A dilemma such adult children often face, is not only what to do around their parent to protect themselves, but how to remain compassionate. I will offer some principles to guide action, but I will begin by saying that the instinct to compassion is good. For a start, nothing will build up your sense of self so much as doing what you know is right, is kind, is just. And no action will leave you feeling unlovable or without value so much as the opposite. Compassion for a narcissist is right and good. After all, as I say, who puts their hand up to become such a person. As Philip Larkin wrote in his famous poem regarding harmful parents:
“But they were fucked up in their turn,
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy stern,
And half at one another’s throats.”
The instinct to do what we can for our parents is a good thing, no matter how lousy that parent was. Within proper limits, of course. This is not about evaluating their behaviour and deciding if they deserve it, rather it is about you doing what is good. So it has less to do with their personality and more to do with your deeper, better values. That said, there are some important principles that can guide what you do, and how you do it, when dealing with such a parent as they age. The first principle is knowledge of their narcissistic psychology, which I have just sketched, and beyond that you need self-knowledge, you need to remain in touch with reality, and you need to set boundaries and maintain them well. I am assuming here that you will remain in contact with your parent, and may be a carer for them in some capacity. I am leaving aside cases where such parents are so toxic that you need to cease all contact, which is sometimes best.
Principle two: Self-knowledge
You were raised by this person. The behaviours you now witness in them are probably exaggerated versions of what was always there. This means that your buttons are going to be pushed. Perhaps it will be your sense of shame, or of helplessness, or of not mattering and existing only to serve them, or that some catastrophe is just around the corner. You need to recognise this process within you, and you need to hand back, so to speak, the things they project or dump onto you - to see that it belongs to them and not to you. To let it go from within. You are a separate person without their debilitating emotional disorder.
This sense of a separate self is vital. You should take stock of how far you have come. You should distinguish your healthy coping strategies from the unhelpful ones you received from them. You should reflect on who you are as a different person to them, and importantly on who you want to become - get clear on your values. Your parent may try to draw you back into the old drama, and you must come to recognise your buttons and how they push them, and return each time to your better way of being. When you focus on your better values and identity and act accordingly, you gradually change your emotions into healthier ones.
Principle Two: keep in touch with reality
Knowledge is power. And sanity. Narcissistic parents can do damage not only to your sense of yourself but also to your sense of what is real and reasonable. Gaslighting is common. It is important to do some reading as per above to recognise how and why a person becomes narcissistic and what type of narcissist your parent is. You need to recognise that your value as a person is not dependent on their opinion of you, but on how you are in the world toward others. And how you are with yourself: you need to become your own wise, compassionate parent and caretaker. Furthermore you need to become more clear on what healthy parenting and healthy relationships look like. You have to develop a sense of proper boundaries, which we will discuss below. You need to develop a big picture sense of what it is to flourish as an individual and in relationships which is good and realistic.
In the context of reality I should mention that the term "narcissist" is often loosely used as a form of abuse, applied to people who are certainly not personality disordered. I agree that this is problematic, and they you should be wary in using the term. At the same time, everybody who has come to counselling with me to discuss such a parent has described behaviour that is clearly at the level of the personality disorder, and without being able to engage in formal diagnoses it is important for the sanity and well-being of such people to call a spade a spade.
Principle three: enact boundaries
Boundaries are about what you will tolerate from your parent with respect to words and actions, but equally they are about what you are willing to do, and how you will respond to your parent’s behaviour. As I mentioned above you should try to become more clear on exactly what behaviours of theirs affect you the most, and in what way. How do those actions make you feel? Angry? Helpless? Numb? What do they make you think? What do they make you do? For example are you still trying to placate their impossible demands? Or taking responsibility for how they feel? Discern the patterns and their content. Does your parent attack you directly, or by insinuation? Or do they aim the attacks at your partner or children instead? If you want control of boundaries then you need clarity about what is actually going on.
When you ask your parent not to do certain things as a way of setting boundaries, you cannot control their response. They may listen and comply, or they might only pretend to while continuing to call you ten times a day, or they might explicitly reject your requests. You cannot control their response or their behaviour, but at this moment you have asserted your boundaries for your own sake. By doing this you stand up to them and express your self-respect despite their attempt to diminish it. Of course you may be ‘punished’ for this, but often it is worth it. You can then enact they boundaries as far as your actions are in your control. Answer only one phone call a day.
When you assert boundaries you will need to have clear consequences in mind. You will need to communicate them to your parent, and to enforce them, just as you would a child. "I can only answer one phone call a day, and as I said I am busy and can only speak for thirty minutes - I will have to end the call then." When adults fail to enforce consequences children lose respect for boundaries, and it is the same when dealing with the childishness of narcissistic parents. Remember of course that, just as when dealing with children, you should act in a firm but calm manner. Try to maintain a nonplussed demeanour, reminding yourself that your parent is like a child in this moment. Know yourself and do not let them shame or guilt you as a means of manipulating you.
This is a brief over-view, sing-posting a few principles which can help guide you with your narcissistic parent. What kind of relationship, what boundaries, and what actions are best for you is a question that cannot be answered generally, but can be worked through by considering your desires, values, and situation.
Klara hates the feeling that she is making “demands” on others, and this causes problems in her personal and professional life. She becomes over-polite when requesting something of another at work, but this is a reaction to her anxiety. The other person perceives that tension and reacts to it as criticism or aggression, becoming tense themselves. "This makes everything worse." Klara tells me she wants to make others feel comfortable and respected, but that her efforts often have the opposite effect. Such instances play on her mind and as she talks about them she is in tears.
So the problem arises, at least partly, because when asking something of another you feel you are making demands on them?” I ask.
“Yes. I feel like I'm imposing on people. As though the only choice is either to push against others, or to submit or retreat.”
At this point more psychological approaches might explore 'the mechanics' of the problem, perhaps by looking childhood experiences, or by offering training in assertiveness skills. As a philosophical therapist I was curious about the picture of human interaction which guided Klara. For as Iris Murdoch said, we are creatures who make pictures of ourselves, and then come to resemble those pictures. What pictures did Klara hold, which guided and shaped her way of being? That is to say, what was her implicit philosophy? I considered this for a moment and then reflected to her, “Recently I was reading a discussion of Greek mythology, and it struck me that their picture of how life arose and societies formed, was based on struggle and strife. Other mythologies may view life as arising primarily out of harmony, but for the Greeks existence, whether we like it or not, is partly a competitive struggle, a clash of blind forces. I wonder whether implicitly you see life according to that Greek perspective?”
“Well I don’t think it should be that way.”
“But perhaps, at a gut level, you see it this way? Even if you think differently when you reflect on things?”
People often espouse a certain philosophy or ethic intellectually, but contradict it in their actions and emotions. It is one thing to state an opinion, another to believe it in one’s heart.
Klara answered, “Well yes, it does feel like that. At a reflective level it is important to me that everybody feel included and acknowledged, but I don’t know how to do that when I need something from them. It feels like in reality we have to choose between forcing things, or submitting and retreating into a corner.”
“And that is why you feel, at such times, that your way of being and your desires are an imposition on others?”
“It sounds silly, doesn’t it.”
“On the contrary this is normal: we are confused and divided beings.”
“So I am condemned to be like this always?”
“No, I think we can change ourselves."
"By clarifying and embodying better, clearer perspectives.”
“But how? I've tried to get over this before. Perhaps I'm just a neurotic. How can I possibly change things?”
“Well, in practical terms, it can start with our conversation. People are doomed to repeat what they cannot represent to themselves, and hopefully through reflection you can come to recognise these things better, so that you can change them. And it is important to understand that our conversation is not only about getting to the truth of matters, in the sense that you walk away with a packaged insight - equally, it is a practice."
"By making a habit of examining things, I can shape myself?"
"Yes. We practice that activity more intensely here, so that you can do it better out there.”
Klara thought for a moment. “Okay.”
“Tell me more about this feeling that you are imposing.”
“Well, people are coming from different places. Often I don’t know how to read others so that I can do right by them.”
“Do right by them?”
“Often I don’t know what will hurt another, or make them feel uncomfortable – how they will experience my actions. It’s like, what right do I have to impose something on another, especially if that means wronging them, hurting them?”
“I am unclear on how you are wronging other people?”
“Hmmm. I’m not sure what to say.”
“Tell me what is it to wrong somebody?”
“Well…it’s to hurt them.”
“You would define ‘wronging a person’ as ‘hurting them’?”
“And by ‘hurt another’ you would include certain other feelings that you have referred to, such as ‘making them uncomfortable’?”
“Okay. But what if another is hurt in response to your action, and yet you did nothing wrong?”
“It seems there’s a problem with your definition.”
“I can see what you're saying.”
“And yet this problematic definition has real consequences for how you perceive and experience things. Especially considering that as you move about in the world you will come across people who want to take offence, desire to feel indignant, prefer to see themselves as having been wronged.”
“Yes it does."
“So I think it is a mistake - a serous one - to conflate doing right by another, with making them feel happy or good.”
“Maybe? But to do well by others, to make other people happy, surely that’s the heart of morality?”
“You make a good point, and yet... Let's take as an example my work as a therapist. It is generally seen as the task of helping people become happier, and some therapists certainly have a need to be the bringer of well-being. But imagine a situation where I can do something that will make a client feel happier, but I know that it is not good for them. For example, imagine they are giving themselves over to self-absorbed resentment, and they want me to collude with that. They want me to say, ‘Well this is just how you feel, so that's all there is to it.’ If I do what they want, and if I do it skilfully enough, then they might consider me a wonderful counsellor, they might tell their friends to come see me, and so on."
"But what if, instead, I take a risk and say what I think they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear? Something which I predict will help them in the long-term. Something which I think they need to hear right now. I say, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I think you are being unfair and are simply indulging your worse side.” Then I do something which might make them uncomfortable or worse. They might not come back, they might criticise me to others, they might genuinely feel that I am bad. But surely I have done better – I have done right by them - when I act in this second way.”
“See, that just makes me really anxious?”
“Yes, it makes me anxious too!” We laugh. “But doing good to another can involve making them uncomfortable, angry, distressed, and we have to tolerate the anxiety of such consequences….”
“I hear what you’re saying. And actually I feel a bit silly - I've been walking around with a simplistic picture. I'm not always so simple-minded, you know."
"That's how it goes. We are full of unexamined beliefs and pictures which are false or problematic in ways that cause problems in our lives."
"Hmmm. And yet, I'm still unsure that I agree with where you are taking this. Many of my problems are not about doing what’s right, they're about doing what I personally need to do, or want to do. If getting my work done had such a clear moral justification, then I would feel more self-assured, and would act confidently, instead of feeling like I’m imposing and instead of getting anxious.”
“I wonder about that?”
“What do you mean?”
“You claim that your issue is not about doing right, not a moral issue, but rather it is about living out your way of being in the world: being a person who pursues goals, gets things done, asks things of others, for the sake of her personal interests? Something which is, roughly speaking, morally neutral?”
“And yet it seems to me that your struggle in these situations is essentially moral.”
“I don’t think your struggle is fundamentally a pragmatic one, such as how to get stuff done. I don’t think it is fundamentally psychological either, such as how to get past anxiety. Certainly the question of how to interact skilfully with others and deal with your anxiety has pragmatic and psychological dimensions, but what drives the anxiety is moral or ethical. Your fundamental struggle, your fundamental question, is "How do I treat others well, while pursuing my wants and needs?" That's the concern which drives the anxiety, which makes you tense and less skillful in your interactions."
“I see what you are saying.”
We silently contemplated this for a few minutes. Then Klara continued. “Your reference to Greek myth struck a chord with me."
"That the question we are grappling with here, is about the nature of human interaction?”
“Yes. A question about who we are."
"Yes. And of who we ought to be. Both as individuals and societies.”
“Simone Weil spoke about this by using the terms of gravity and grace, by which she grappled with the question: is force the only motivational power in the world, or is there goodness too? And if so, how do we distinguish them and embody the latter?"
"Yes. Must I use force to get what I want? Ethically I don't want it to be that way, but it feels like I'm doomed to impose my will, regardless of my desire to act more ethically. I think part of my problem is that I’m not clear on these deeper questions we are exploring. My emotions follow my opinions, and yet my opinion is confused.”
“Yes. I think Iris Murdoch is right on this, your perspective is guiding and shaping you, and your perspective, which up until now has remained unexamined, is showing itself to be somewhat incoherent and questionable. Your challenge is to bring your emotions into harmony with an examined perspective – one that is, as much as possible, good and true.”
“Where do I start?”
“You have already started. This is what we have been doing today.”
“Okay. Like you said before – it’s a practice.”
“Where to now?”
Well, to take the analysis further by bringing in another idea, it seems to me that you are suffering from an important confusion that is very common.”
“You are trying to control things which are out of your control.”
“It is in your control to do right by another, but how they react is out of your control.”
“You’re suggesting that those consequences are out of my control?”
“Yes. Living ethically clearly matter to you, but you suffer from a confusion about the location of the ethical or moral dimension. You instinctively locate it in consequences, and yet in reality it resides in your intention.”
“You mean I should disregard consequences.”
“No. And I should have qualified that statement. Your intention needs to be prudent. I am using the word in that ancient sense, where it is one of the key virtues in life, and refers to caring about consequences. Prudence is the virtue of calculating well, of being practical, while knowing that consequences are ultimately out of your control. A good intention is one that cares enough to be prudent.”
“So my intention is what matters.”
“I think that’s where our humanity lies, in our intention, which is to say in our will, in our attention, in our care and love, in our efforts. The rest is out of our hands.”
“That sounds easier said than done.”
“Absolutely, but much of the misery that I see as a counsellor arises from the desire to control things which are out of our control, and the consequent tendency to lose ourselves in fantasy rather than coming to terms with reality in its uncontrollable and frightening contingency. In your case, you want to believe that you have control over other people’s feelings, over how they react to you. But you have no power there. You can control noly your actions.”
“You are saying that my belief that I can control how others feel is based on fantasy?”
“Yes. It is a fantasy belief, which is based on desire rather than reason….”
“Well that’s scary! Why would I hold such deluded beliefs?”
“This is a good question which I want to ask later: about why it is so important to you that others feel good as a result of your actions - you seem to have a kind compulsion to keep people happy.”
“Oh god, let’s not go there!”
“Ha! I think we should!”
“Because it’s good for me, even if it will make me uncomfortable?”
We both laughed.
“I suspect that you are trying to make yourself feel safe in a dangerous world, by means of this conflation of things in your control with things out of it.”
“So I’m crazy?”
“No more than the rest of us. This is what we do.”
But I did not want to explore these psychological questions just yet, rather I wanted to remain with a philosophical examination of Klara’s picture. So I continued, “But before we examine such things, I would like to return to the question about whether, by being who you are, and pursuing your goals, you are able to live harmoniously with others, or whether you are condemned to live in competition with them, perhaps hurting them.”
“Yes, that’s the question I need to answer. I can agree that the effects of my actions are out of my control: some people are over-sensitive, others are bullies who pretend to be hurt as a way of getting power. But at the same time it matters to me to live well with all others if I can, especially with those who are reasonable - not everybody is a manipulator, and most people are not, most of the time. This means that it is reasonable to pay attention to how others feel in response to my actions.”
“But at the same time this frustrates me. I feel like I’m making myself a servant of others. How do I pursue my needs and wants? Or is that even compatible with taking care of others?”
“The question is whether to put yourself or another first?”
“I wonder if conceptualising it that way – in terms of egoism versus altruism – is part of the problem?”
“What do you mean?”
“Either you pursue your own ends and so impose on others, or you subjugate yourself to the emotions of others. You are stuck in this either/or dilemma?”
“Yes, it’s something like that.”
“And this way of conceptualising matters has real consequences in your life. And yet it is only one way of picturing things, which runs contrary to other perspectives which may be better.”
“Your problem can be summarised by the question, Who should I serve first, myself or others?"
"An alternative perspective can be expressed by the question, How is it good to be? What would a good person do in this situation?”
“How is that any different? You might conclude that being good simply means serving the other to your detriment.”
“There are subtle yet profound differences. Here is an experiment you could try which embodies this different perspective: Rather than seeing things as a matter of you versus others, stand back from your self. Simply view people interacting – you happen to be one of them – and ask what it is good for this person (who happens to be you) to do. Ask generalised questions, about moral character and behaviour, and how they apply to this person (you), in this situation.”
“It sounds odd. What difference will that make?”
“Well for one thing it will enable you to better overcome the psychological pressures which confuse you, the neurotic pressures which I promised we would explore later. I mean the guilt, the need to make others happy, all these things have power over you when you are sunk in your individual perspective. It is when we are sunk in our individuality (as single people, or tribal groups) that we are afraid and weave complex defence mechanisms."
"But the difference goes further. In the past you have been anxious due to the feeling that you may be acting forcefully and selfishly. I suggest that you step back from yourself and ask, What is good and just for one to do in such circumstances. Your answer should include what it is good for one to do as a being responsible for their own life, responsible for pursuing their own ends, creating their own flourishing. You have a responsibility for your own life just as you do, in different ways, for the lives of others.”
“Hmmm. I do like this way of looking at things.”
“Looking is the operative word here. From where do we look? I think we need to spend time looking at things from more universal perspectives, more cosmically, from outside of our little life and little view. The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome practiced a meditation called the view from above which helps embody this perspective. To the degree that we fail to gain such perspective - above and beyond ourselves, outside ourselves - we become more blinkered, defensive, selfish, as well as depressed and anxious.”
“So you are suggesting that I can act more confidently by stepping back and seeing myself as another person, and by discerning what that generalised person should do, according to general ideals. And this will mean I feel confident doing things sometimes for myself ahead of others’ interests, and of course sometimes second to others, depending on what seems morally better at the time.”
“Yes. As I say, you have a responsibility toward yourself. That sentence means one thing when you are bound up in your egoistic perspective, and another when you stand outside your self-interest to take a broader view. I am not saying all this will always be easy, or that you will always have answers. Nor am I saying, actually, that everything can be reduced to general rules. But actually a lot of things can, at least to a degree, and it becomes easier to do this over time.”
"Won't I become a bit of robot, doing what one does?"
"I am suggesting that you consider what is best in us as human beings, and form your principles according to that view."
“And I will be less flustered about things, because I will feel less that I am imposing, because I am not basing my decision on my desires versus those of others, but rather on what I think is good behaviour for a person in my shoes?”
“Yes. It also frees you from the tyranny of consequences – you accept that you cannot control other people’s responses, that what matters is simply doing right. So you are doubly less flustered.”
“Okay! I do what is right, prudently, and if they react badly, well that is out of my control! I don’t have to feel so responsible for something which, in reality, I can't be responsible for.”
"Wanting to bring something about, and actually bringing it about, are two different things. But there's more to this - it goes further, beyond dealing with anxiety and freeing yourself to act. Cultivating your intention, which is in your control, transforms you as an individual: when you always intend to do good, to do what is right, just, loving and so on, then as I hinted a moment ago, you are expressing what is best in you as a human being. Over time this effort becomes more and more natural, such that you transform your character.”
“I get it, and I love it. I haven’t seen things this way before."
"Well then, go forth!"
We laughed, and sat with these ideas for a minute. Then Klara continued.
"But as you speak I have a nagging concern."
"It seems to me that things are more complicated than this distinction between things in my control and things out of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Often, looking back at myself, I don’t know whether I acted through choice or whether I had no choice: whether I am determined, say through psychological forces, and so less free than I would like to believe.”
“I think I see what you are saying.”
“So your theory might not apply, for I might have no control, in which case I am back to square one.”
“If I understand you then I too share your theoretical question. But be wary! I think you've wandered to the edge of a philosophical marshlands, where many people who reflect on this a bit, but not hard enough, or in imbalanced ways, drown."
"What do you mean?"
"Many people demand a perfect theory before they can act. I have seen numerous past students of philosophy in counselling, whose practical lives have been paralysed by what I like to call the demandingness tremens: an addiction to pure reason, or to extreme theories."
"Just because they are extreme, or have extreme consequences, does not mean they are false."
"I agree. The picture I have been suggesting is a half-truth. And yet it is a really important one. (Though I think it might be a three-quarters truth, or even a five sixths, but that does not matter!) The thing is, we need clear pictures that enable us to move forward, to navigate our difficulties, and to become better, happier people. These pictures may have gaps and flaws, but they need to be largely true and good. Even beautiful. These pictures need to take account of reality – they can’t be mere fantasies which make things seem more simple or certain than they are - they cannot be mere defence mechanisms, as so many people's pictures of life are. I think that the picture I am proposing, which expresses the insights of many ancient philosophers, meets such criteria. At the same time we should be always ready to question it, to notice its gaps, flaws and limits - to keep a creative and critical eye on it. But take care to keep a critical eye on the practice of criticism!"
"People forget to do that, and so lose all practical wisdom. Where is a theory rooted? What gives reason its sense and value?"
"Life! Don’t let critical thinking paralyse you - it is not wisdom on its own. Wisdom is embodied, lived, and the needs of life have authority. The picture I am proposing gives you a way of being good toward others, toward ourselves, of improving ourselves, of freeing ourselves from useless anxiety. And based on our discussion it seems sound, it seems to hold much truth, to picture things more truly than the options we've explored...even if you can pose abstract objections to it based on speculative questions about free will and determinism.”
“I’ll have to think about that.”
“Yes, and I gave a bit of a speech there, sorry. What I am proposing is what Aristotle called practical wisdom. The disembodied critic is a sickly being: be careful not to catch her illness."
“I hear you. And I see that we are running out of time, so to get clear on what you’ve been saying, my picture of human interaction involves a confusion between what is in my control and what is out of it. And my confused picture is leading to confused, distressed emotions?”
“Yes. And that leads to your conflation between doing good to others, versus making them feel good.”
“So if I can distinguish these things whenever I am faced with the sorts of situations I have described, this will help me?”
“Give it a go. I strongly suspect it will.”
I looked up at the clock and also noticed that our time was over for the day.
You can see that the conversation moved through an examination of several concepts, and dug down into important issues which it turns out were at play in Klara’s way of being and experience of life. This dialogue is an example of philosophical counselling and therapy. A psychological analysis alone may not have made these distinctly philosophical issues so central, or have dealt with them with the required depth and sophistication that the study of philosophy affords, for psychology's strengths and points of focus are very different. People fall into holes in life by means of holes in their philosophy, and are raised out and upward by philosophical reflection. This is where we have the ability to change things, this is the location of our humanity: in our head and our heart, in our reflective intention. Philosophical pictures and ethical perspectives need an analysis that goes beyond psychological mechanisms and which, rather, has its eye on meaning and value as the realities we need to think well about. These are the matters that go to the heart of people's lives and their struggles. This new, but actually very old, form of counselling and consultation is ultimately the art of manifesting the best in our humanity, through our struggle with the particular challenges we face as individuals. An examination of the philosophical roots of Klara's problems led us to explore what it is to be human, and what she might become as a human being.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Emily Balivet
The human psyche is like an iceberg: we only see the top. This is why ships sink on their icebergs. And people too. We might see only the surface of something that goes much deeper, which we misunderstand, and which can fracture our life. Or the lives of those we love. This is why ships need instruments, and we need vision.
I speak a lot about vision. A Jewish friend recently criticised that to me, pointing out that it is a very Greek and Roman notion, compared to the emphasis on listening in mystical Judaism. I was sympathetic to his thoughts. We also need to listen. My mind turns at this moment to music.
Consider "call and response" in traditional jazz. The leader calls - he plays a line on his trumpet - and the chorus hears and responds. Sometimes that response is an imitation of the call. At the very least it is a variation which is still a repetition. The response is subject to the call even if, superficially, it looks different.
We spend our lives trying to be good, clever, insightful, but in some ultimate way it doesn't work. Why? Our behaviour is a response to a call, to the leader. In other words it is driven by something more powerful. Deeper down, near our core, many people experience themselves as fundamentally unlovable. This is shame. It has a great power over how we live, but normally we don't see it. We may deny it until, in therapy, or during some shattering of our life, it becomes all too evident. Maybe it shows itself in our dreams. That is the moment when we see that being a good person, as a form of defense against shame, is inadequate. It is inadequate because it is merely a repetition by variation. We have striven to be good or clever as a reaction to the feeling of fundamental ugliness or badness. We feel radically unlovable and have tried to make ourselves lovable by our surface qualities. We are trying to liberate ourselves from our oppressor by using his logic, which is a fatal mistake. Goodness here is merely the chorus playing a repetition by variation of the band leaders call.
So what can we do? Give up on trying to be good? Give up altogether on life? When somebody sees this darker vision of themselves it can feel like too much, like we are saying to them, "You have to hold a car above your head for the rest of your life." Despairing, they simply respond, "I cannot." The answer lies, yes, in goodness, but in a different way.
Although the answer does not lie in a repetition of the master's logic, yet perhaps it is contained in the material of that situation. Our metaphor is that of a call and response in music, and perhaps while playing the master's tune we have forgotten that we are a musicians? A true musician does not make music, they let it flow through them. It comes from something deeper within. Those qualities we have cultivated in life are indeed good, but we have treated them like objects, like things we can hold. We have cultivated them as armour, as weapons to defend ourselves. We forgot what Plato meant when he said that real love is poverty, that lovers are empty-handed, that so long as they remain true lovers they will never genuinely grasp their object. Instead they must labour in the service to what they love, dressed in rags and pathetic to an outside gaze. Lovers are ultimately vulnerable. Those who truly do good are vulnerable. Goodness is not a defense, because in its true form it is not a transaction with others or the universe. True goodness is done for its own sake, for the sake of love. When we are shattered we discover how much we have gambled on false transactions, on this wrong use of goodness, in the belief that we could make such deals with reality. We discover this because we experience the inability of goodness to shield us from our vulnerability. The good news is that we also failed to see that in its true form goodness can nourish us even when we suffer. Genuine values - compassion, truthfulness - lead us to something deeper within, which moves through us, and moves us through life.
There is no work you can do that will save you. True life is not a talent show, or a consequence of the esteem that you have earned. The outside gaze of a such a show is deaf and blind; it cannot see the inner transformation which is a gift, a grace, a flowing through. Inside you something deeper calls, and you need to listen to it, to heed its voice, beyond the din of the band leader.
Author: Matthew Bishop
"The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing... not healing, not curing... that is a friend who cares."
Nouwen's words inspire today's reflection. They came to mind not long ago while speaking with a woman whose husband had recently suicided. The temptation is always there, when in the presence of suffering, to offer something tangible - knowledge, consolation, a cure. We recoil from pain, including the pain of others, and find subtle ways to defend against it. We try to delude ourselves that we are not helpless, that we can change things. But such ‘helpfulness’ merely serves us and our fears while denying the other what they most need from us. It is hard to stand there, empty-handed, and simply pay attention to the other in their suffering. However attention, defined by Iris Murdoch as “a just and loving gaze”, can be as Nouwen suggests the other’s greatest need and our best gift. Words and deeds may pale by comparison.
Murdoch's concept of attention was inspired by another philosopher, Simone Weil. Weil wrote, “At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of all crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.” The core of suffering is the experience of the absence of goodness. It is the negation of myself and others as valuable. It is this absence, or denial, or violation of the need for “good and not evil”, which is the greatest source of the pain. (I am reminded of a woman who had left an abusive marriage and who said to me, "I wish he had just hit me." She meant that she felt it was his devaluing words which did her the most damage.)
Freud’s Law: those who cannot represent their suffering to themselves are bound to repeat it. When we cannot adequately hold our suffering – bear with it, perhaps transform it – then we pass it on to others. By a mechanical reactivity of the soul we want to replicate in them our pain, as though this will diminish it in us. Mostly this action is instinctive and unreflective. Weil wrote in her notebooks, “Human mechanics. Whoever suffers tries to communicate his suffering (either by ill-treating someone or calling forth their pity) in order to reduce it, and he really does reduce it in this way. In the case of a man in the uttermost depths, whom no one pities, who is without power to ill-treat anyone (if he has no child or being who loves him), the suffering remains within and poisons him.”
The question must be asked: can we do things differently? How?
Weil speaks of “communicating” suffering, and suggests that passing it on is not the only option. She refers to the another possibility: calling forth pity. A person communicates (says, shows) their suffering to another, and the other attends. Such attention takes the form of a loving, just, truthful gaze. If the one who suffers is able to experience that gaze (they may not) then their experience of suffering is changed in some important way. An aspect of it undergoes a transformation. When Christina Noble (who went on famously to work with homeless children in Vietnam) was a teenager living on the streets of Dublin, she was raped one night by two men. After they threw her back onto the street she “was struck by the horrible realization that there was nobody for me to go to. I needed just one person who would not see me as dust, or barely more than an animal.”
The loving attention of another is the most vital ingredient in the salve that heals our wounds. It tells us that the void within us is not an absolute truth. It is not true that we are dust. For such attention reveals that the pain of the void has the nature of a wound; it is a wound because it is a violation. What is violated is one's value. In the light of the right kind of attention we see ourselves and others, in some basic sense, as unconditionally valuable. Fully deserving of love. That is the final truth, if only we have eyes to see it. Often we can only see something in the light of another's gaze.
Weil uses the word “sacred” but I reach for secular language and so speak of being ‘unconditionally valuable.’ Unconditionality enters because anybody who can truly see and understand the heart of the person who cries ‘why am I being hurt?’ when (to reverse Weil’s words) evil and not good is being done to them, will find that they must do certain things and cannot do others. Could you walk past this abused teenager tossed onto the Dublin street? It would be impossible for somebody who really saw. This is what some philosophers refer to as ‘ethical impossibility.’ It is only to the degree that we fail in attention that we are capable of doing nothing or, indeed, of inflicting the wound.
It is not only the experience of another's attention which a person needs. The philosopher Raimond Gaita wrote: "People have often asked me how I survived my childhood reasonably sane. Some believe they know the answer. They think it was because my father and Hora loved me deeply and that I never doubted it. That is an important part of the answer, to be sure, but there is another part that is just as important. The fact that I came to see the world in the light that my father's goodness cast upon it prevented the pain of my childhood from becoming bitterness. It is bitterness rather than pain that corrodes the soul, deforms personality and character, and tempts us to misanthropy. My father's goodness enabled me to love my mother without shame or serious resentment. To be enabled to love is as important as to be loved, a fact that we must constantly hold before our minds when we deal with children who have deep psychological and spiritual wounds." We are changed by our capacity to give just, loving attention.
For example, recently I was full of anxiety for days on end over a financial issue. Then a friend with whom I had been having difficulties had a cancer scare. Despite having been angry with them I reassured my friend that they would not be alone, that I would take care of them if needed. Afterwards I reflected that I might lose my savings through such an ordeal and that I might also, after the way this person had treated me, suffer misunderstanding and criticism from others. So I would be in a much worse situation than the threat about which I had been anxious all week. But it did not matter. For I saw all these possibilities, but my attention to the deep fear in my friend, and the suffering they might have to undergo, and my resolution there and then to stand by them, meant that my anxieties for myself dissolved. I could certainly bear with such struggle, I felt. I was moved by a different energy than my previous self-absorbed anxiety. I was re-oriented. In Iris Murdoch’s words, such moments are examples that “love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is true.” Some people feel that the world is full of selfishness, but what I am describing here is an everyday event between people who care for one another. The kind of attention that we give to others transforms our inner-life and the way we are with each other.
I began this reflection with reference to a client whose husband had suicided. I work with a lot of people in that situation, and am often asked how I bear with such heart-rending work. Of course I am not the one going through the loss, and really I am a million miles removed from their pain. But the truth is that it is very, very hard at times. I am often, as I was with this woman, greatly pained by the suffering I witness. Because clients in general often that they are depressed by the suffering they see in the world, I know that I am hardly alone in this. What gives me the energy to sit with such pain is, through witnessing the love that shows itself in those who are bereaved, entering into what it reveals about others and life. Sometimes the one who suicided got to that place through a narcissistic way of being. (Of course, there is no single personality type involved in suicide.) In such situations, as I hear my client’s story sometimes I cannot help but experience negative feelings toward the one who died. But as we speak further, I begin to see them in a different light: in the light of the love that this person sitting before me has for them. Then, regardless of their shoddy actions or behaviour, I come to see them as valuable in a way which cannot be erased by their own deeds. Unconditionally valuable. To witness this is to exist in a very different world to the one that seems bereft of value and goodness, the world of nihilism, or narcissism, or neoliberalism such as I often write about. When we attend to others in the right kind of spirit our inner-life is transformed, as is our way of being with others. The world we inhabit becomes different, coloured by values which are the contrary of despair, and which despite their fragile place in our lives are unconditional. We are nourished and changed by the attention we give, through what we let in which nourishes us. And it is our greatest gift to others.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Finding the right concepts for suffering is important. Without them pain lacks boundaries, it spills over and expands. Without them we are helpless and confused. By finding language for our inchoate suffering we give it a form. This is important, because we can navigate and manage things that have forms. By giving form I do not mean only that we create a conceptual map, I mean that we actually shape the suffering itself. Grief work involves bringing into form a mess of complex suffering. I have worked a lot with people who have lost their partner through death, and this act of finding words and concepts - of finding form - is vital. Today I want to speak about coping with a relationship loss more widely - I am thinking especially of relationship break-downs and divorce. This loose reflection is the first of a few, more specific ones, which I intend to write on this topic.
Many people have a curious habit of dismissing their suffering with respect to both its nature and its depth. I say "curious" because question marks should be placed over the behaviour. Indeed it often seems to me that the person doing this is using it as a defense against pain. To dismiss your pain is to fantasise that it is really that minimal. A consequence of such denial is that the unexamined suffering remains inchoate. Formless. And so the sufferer remains confused and helpless, more readily overwhelmed, and falls more often into crisis.
It sounds simple to say it, but people who are grieving a relationship need to acknowledge what they are doing: that they are grieving. It will help the immensely to grasp the nature of their loss, which is to say, the full spectrum of their experience. For they do not only grieve a person. Contemporary grief theory speaks of “secondary losses.” To lose your partner is to lose a range of things: many aspects of the present life you have created; the future you been creating and which has become a source of fundamental motivation in your daily life; the past, whose meaning is now undermined. Grief is complex in its multiplicity of dimensions. This is why people feel confused and overwhelmed, and why language and form matter.
The upcoming writing that I intend to do about grief after a relationship will show some of its deeper, existential dimensions. But for today I want to keep things simple. The philosopher Wittgenstein suggested that we often fail to see what is right before our eyes. In this reflection I want to avoid getting clever or complex, and note the physical dimension of grief. We are mammals. This directly impacts how we grieve, and what helps in response.
The feeling of aloneness can be deeply physical, for our world is an embodied world, and meaning and attachment is profoundly physical in us. Indeed we emerge from the womb, from loving arms, feeding off the substance of our mother, and we live our lives in the shadow of this fact. And so the physical desire to get back to our partner can be incredibly powerful. It can be like the desire of an addict for their drug. I say that literally, for neuroscience shows us that love has chemical elements on which we become dependent. In a sense romantic love functions like a drug. I think it is mistaken to reduce love to its chemical dimensions (there's a difference between a correlation and a cause), but as I say we should acknowledge the mammal in us and the way this shapes our desire and experience. Losing love involves a chemical withdrawal. No doubt this is one of the reasons why people experience nausea, physical anxiety, pain and depression when they lose their loved one. In rare cases people - especially those who are elderly - can die of a broken heart.
It is no surprise then that people do foolish things in this situation. They are driven by complex factors within themselves, which includes physical and chemical dimensions. Those who do things which, in hindsight, make them ashamed, should keep this in mind. I am not proposing that people abdicate responsibility for themselves or make excuses for shabby behaviour, but that they find compassion for themselves. The simple point I want to make today, before writing in future about grief from a philosophical and existential perspective, is that a person needs to tend to themselves as to a wounded mammal when they are going through this situation. They need to use their intelligence to recognise the form(s) of their own experience, and to respond accordingly. The concept of self-care becomes important at this point. Doing things that provide safety and comfort are necessary, whether they be massages, seeking out social support, giving more time to contemplation or meditation or prayer, and whatever else the individual does that helps them find their centre in the midst of strife. Many of the people who are attracted to my philosophical therapy are the sort who make their way through the world by means of their intelligence. This is a strength. But it means that they often overlook the kinds of care for the self that they need as bodies, as mammals, as social animals. Aristotle suggested that a life of contemplation requires a certain level of material comfort and freedom. We need to attend to the basic things first of all, in order to fully use our minds to find a way forward.
Human resilience diminishes under stress, and we need to take extra care of our selves if we are to cope well. Self-care that is mindful of grief's power and complexity is important at such a time. As I say, concepts and words become important because of the orientation they provide and because of the way that they, in turn, shape experience. However just as people often dismiss their grief, so they often dismiss the need to take extra care of themselves when they are suffering. I think that this, also, is a defense mechanism: people want to believe that they are resilient and clever enough not to need extra self-care. To admit their need for such care is to admit their weakness. But we are all weak, as well as strong, and our weaknesses and strengths are both finite. The failure to see this can cost us in many ways.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Fiona Byrne
At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this which is above all sacred in every human being.
It is this which is sacred in us.
And it is this which makes us suffer.
It is also this which gives our lives meaning and value.
Those opening words are Simone Weil’s. I think they are among the truest ever written in philosophy. At the core of every human being is a desire - a hope, longing, expectation, need - for goodness. It is the centre around which our lives are woven. As Weil writes elsewhere: “All human beings are absolutely identical in so far as they can be thought of as consisting of a centre, which is an unquenchable desire for good, surrounded by an accretion of psychical and bodily matter.” I want to reflect on this definition of human nature as desire for the good. I want to consider how it is a source of both suffering and joy, of despair and meaning.
To speak of “the good” is to speak of good things, and of goodness. However before we even begin we encounter a problem. Plato expressed it when in essence he asked, do we desire something because it is good, or is it called good because we desire it? No doubt sometimes the first and sometimes the second is true, and usually it is a mixture of both. Today’s reflection emphasises the first possibility in Plato's question, but the question itself reminds us that we can desire something as good and be mistaken. indeed, as we age we become aquainted with the repeated experience of realising how blind we were about the meaning or value of certain things in life.
I write this reflection as a philosopher and therapist, an important part of whose profession is to help people contend with suffering. I began by suggesting that our desire for the good is the means by which we suffer. How is that so? Weil answers that when desire is frustrated then we suffer. Thwarted desire is the essence of suffering. Frustration of desire and the suffering it elicits is often banal, such as when I am in a bad mood over a petty problem, or when a child (or childish adult) throws a tantrum, but suffering can also obviously be profound. When Weil points to the depth that desire has in us - that it is the centre of our being, and that much that we take as our essential self is merely an "accretion" surrounding this core, then she points to how it is that suffering can wound us in the very depths of our being. For this reason I suppose the word “frustrated” is inadequate because it possesses a hint of pettiness for many readers. Weil is using it in a technical manner, but poetically it points in the wrong direction.
Another way of putting things is to say that when the good we desire is lost or violated, then we suffer. This phenomenon shows itself in every distress brought to therapy. Consider grief, depression, and anxiety. Grief is pain over loss, and what is lost is a good thing which I desire - which I need or love - for example my child who has died. Depression is a special form of grief, where we grieve and yet cannot see what is lost (a "frustrated" grief indeed, where the griever recognises neither the nature nor the object of their affliction. Freud’s classic essay on depression gives this away in the title: Mourning and Melancholia). Anxiety is often anticipatory suffering over a future loss or violation. In all these cases suffering happens because there is desire for the good but the good is lost or violated, whether that loss is actual, perceived, or anticipated.
Sometimes the loss of the good is experienced as an absence, as when somebody is no longer there. Sometimes it is experienced as a presence, as when I am assaulted or tyrannised. It seems natural to speak of loss in the first case, in contrast with violation in the second, but violation is perhaps reducible to loss: the violation of a good is (in some way) the loss of that good. For example rape as violation is, among other things, for the victim an experience of loss (in the form of violent denial) of the meaning (or certain dimensions of meaning) of their sexuality, and thereby of themselves as individuals (a fact which is missed when rape is reduced to a 'denial of autonomy'). Speaking generally again, it is sometimes more true to call the loss an actual loss, to speak in more objective terms, and sometimes it to speak of an experience of loss, to emphasise the subjective. In the example of rape, the victim experiences a loss of meaning which, in itself, remains despite the rapist's denial of it and the victim's sense of its loss. The meaning gets lost to experience, but it is still there. Both actual loss and the sense of loss serve to create suffering.
Fundamentally what I have said is that to desire the good is to be vulnerable to suffering. Our desire for the good is the means by which we suffer. Happily however, there is more to this picture: our desire for the good is also itself the presence of goodness in our lives. This idea is an old one in philosophy, so to understand it let us go back two and a half thousand years. Plato’s Symposium, a philosophical work written in the form of a dialogue, takes place at a feast in ancient Athens. The guests take turns making speeches in praise of love. When it comes to Socrates he begins by defining love. He says that it is, in essence, desire. He is speaking of the same desire we are speaking of. Socrates then defines desire: it is a form of poverty, for to desire is to lack the object of desire; we do not desire that which we possess, and so we desire the good because we do not possess it. Now I must admit that when I first read the Symposium I thought Socrates wrong on this point, for often people do possess what they desire. I desire my motorcycle, and I possess it. I desire my partner and, in a manner of speaking, I possess her. But on further reflection Socrates was right and I was wrong. Socrates was an ancient Athenian and he attended Athens' yearly festival of tragic theatre. He had, so to speak, read his Greek tragedy. More importantly he had his eyes open to life. Socrates knew that we mortals never fully possess anything. He knew what a difference a day can make, that we can lose anything and in everything, even as we appeared yesterday to possess it. Things are not as fixed as we like to imagine. There is, as Simone Weil put it, “a void” at our core, an emptiness underlying our being. Death is the final reality and proof of this. The human condition is one of want, of ontological, existential poverty. But as Socrates shows, another word for this absence, this void, this want, this desire...is love. Love, with all the depth and resonance which that word has for us.
So the desire at our core is the source of both our suffering and our joy. We love the good, which is to say that we love good things, such as other people, and we love goodness. Love constitutes our ability to make contact with these things, placing us in a relationship with them and enabling us to be nourished by them. So our desire, as love, is itself the presence of goodness in our lives, for it is the presence of such relationships. Furthermore, love in itself is the greatest good we know. It gives meaning and happiness to our own lives and to the lives of those around us, both through the love in us and the love within others for us. Love is itself goodness, and so our desire for the good is, to the degree that the object is genuinely good and the love purified thereby, itself the presence of goodness in us.
Our desire for goodness is the greatest good in our lives. We need to be careful of course not lose ourselves, like those guests at the symposium, to intoxicated paeans to love, which forget its quotidian, difficult nature. It is after all poverty, and poverty is in its reality is not romantic. Love is the source not only of joy but also of suffering. It is the source of depth and meaning, but also of superficiality and despair. Let us not forget Plato’s question at the beginning of this reflection: if we may often consider something good simply because we desire it, and if we can be terribly mistaken about that, then we must take care and learn how to direct our love, if it is not to poison or shipwreck our lives. The question is not how to cultivate love, for love, which is desire, is always in us, imperious as hunger. The question is how to direct love so that our desire for good may be turned toward real goodness, which means also that our love itself becomes good, rather than our love and its object being a source of ill. An example? The mythic hero Narcissus fell in love with his own image and this led to cruelty and death. And so it is with us. Love makes us vulnerable not only because to love deeply is potentially to suffer deeply, but because we can love badly. We can love in bad ways, and we can love bad things - the wrong things. It is a question of the object of love, but this is also of the quality of that love.
Our love may be directed in many ways toward many objects. Love is shaped by its object. When it is directed to a genuine good then it is shaped by that, the love being transformed into a corresponding form of goodness. As poetry, myth, and spiritual traditions have done for years, and as Psychoanalysis now reminds us, we do not always realise what exactly it is that we love when we love something. The work of love is ongoing, it has depth, it has dangers, it requires a critical language which shines a light on how it goes wrong, and it demands a constant effort of attention. In this connection a key form of love as goodness is love when it takes the form of compassion.
Compassion is love expanded by means of analogy: it is the recognition of my own misery in others, that they too are at core a desire for the good. The reality of this urgent need for the good is felt first in myself, but I am able, if I truly look, to recognise it in another. This love that recognises the desire and need for good in another is compassion. This is what we usually mean by love when we assume it is good rather than neutral, as per Plato's question: love as compassion is not good because we desire it, rather we desire it because it is good.
This reflection could go on, exploring different dimensions and avenues of this insight that at our core we are desire for the good, and that this is the source of both suffering and goodness in our lives. I want to finish however with a further remark about compassion, one which is particularly relevant to my therapeutic work. Most people readily accept the importance of compassion and strive to embody it, but there is a problem. Lacan said that the Christian injunction to “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” must be ironic, for people hate themselves. And this is true, even if they also love themselves (narcissism, which is simply an extreme version of th egotism in all of us, is often an inflated self-love as a defense against deep self-hate. Emotions, like much in our lives, exist in contrasting pairs and polarities). Genuine love is a healing power of goodness in our lives not only for others but also for ourselves, but only when it is properly directed toward the self. When it is badly directed it is poisonous, as it was for the mythic hero Narcissus, whose name is the source of our word 'narcissism'. There is a difference between somebody who loves themselves justly and compassionately, who loves themselves with the same love that is considered true compassion when directed outwards, compared to the narcissist who loves themselves as special and different (read superior) to others, and who lacks compassion for others or whose compassion is not really compassion but the appearance of it for a self-serving end such as being well-regarded. Narcissistic love for the self creates a divide between self and other, and so it is a bad love even for the self. Truly good love for the self places oneself into the community of others, all of whom have value, in a community of lives that are all sacred as distinct centres of desire for the good. When our desire for the good is purified by deepened attention to genuine objects and forms of goodness, that love becomes purified by its object, and this is a profoundly nourishing form of love that we can turn on others, as much as on ourselves, as compassion. It is what Simone Weil calls "a just and loving gaze." This is wise love, which takes account of our poverty-stricken human condition with all its weakness, foolishness, and corruption, and as wisdom is able to love rather than hate ourselves and others, sometimes despite, and sometimes because of this condition. It is the source of the power of that simple little question which I so often find it important to ask when people show hints of that hate for self which is universal: if your friend were in your situation, and responding as you are, what would you say of them?
Author: Matthew Bishop
If you believe that the world is meaningful in an intellectual way, but you don't love, then you will experience it as meaningless. Conversely, if you believe that the world is meaningless, but you love, you will experience it as meaningful. Love changes our experience. It is a way of reading life.
This is why true therapy and philosophy is less about solutions to our problems, so much as a different way of being. It is here that Plato and Freud meet. For Plato - the philosopher - we fail to really see each other, and this blindness enables us to do evil, to cause pain. For Freud - the psychologist - we are blinded by our distorted attempts to survive emotionally. In both cases a failure to see is an obstruction of genuine love. When I talk of love I am speaking as a philosopher: it is more than romantic desire, it is an ethical gaze. The meaning of the other becomes apparent in love, as does the meaning of our actions. We find that we cannot do certain things, and should (or must) do others. We move beyond blindness, beyond fantasy, and become obedient to reality beyond us.
So to genuinely love is to have your eyes open. Plato. When we are in survival mode our eyes are often closed. Freud. Then we may do whatever it takes to make ourselves feel safe or whole again, and in so doing we often pass our pain onto another, while remaining trapped in our own dark cycle.
To love is to look. It is a form of reading, and a part of reading is to decipher meaning. As an example from therapy, consider speaking with somebody who is in deep pain, incomprehensibly hurt, and who struggles to find words. That which cannot be said instead shows itself. Their actions are ways of speaking the pain, or the meaning behind the pain. They need help to interpret. And not necessarily into words, yet. And sometimes words will never come; we may have to live with speechlessness, and find other symbols capable of speaking the meaning. One thing is certain, when a person cannot speak their suffering, nonetheless they must be heard. Listened to. Our survival instinct is to look away, perhaps with self-protective contempt. To blind ourselves. But their suffering is a crying out, a showing what cannot be said, and a hearing has to take place, which means that reality needs to be read.
This does not apply only to suffering.
In Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line the narrator asks, “This great evil, where does it come from? How did it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who is doing this? Who is killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might have known?” We might ask a similar question: This light that is love in our lives, where does it come from? How does it enter the world? How does it take root in the human heart? What is it? Bringing life, creating us, making us what we are and showing us who we can be? We often fail to see what my imaginary narrator is pointing to. Our hands are those of the universe, holding itself. Our eyes are those of this mystery, looking on itself. Our hearts are the possibility of something more than stones. We stare out of our lack, while trying to run from it, and so we fail to read. We miss the meaning. That it might have the form of a question. Might contain deeper possibilities. In our dark hour, a call: What is this mystery asking me? What is the message in the pain? What is it calling on me to become. To whom? What does it want to see with my eyes? The answer is slow, given in time, perhaps remade at points. It is unfolding.
"Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not."
We grieve. We grieve those we have lost. We suffer the lack - we grieve what we never had. At times in life grief is a torment and you are transfixed by pain, grasping at your chest which feels like it will burst. At other times it is a softer quality which may, to use Helen Garner's phrase, permeate like "an unassuageable longing."
Speaking personally, for all my faults I have always felt this deep calling and obligation to stand by people no matter what - even in strife, and especially at certain profound moments in strife, when the curtain in pulled back the other is seen, just like me, speaking out their pain. It is when we are most shattered that something greater shows itself: in my experience a deep love, compassion, and fidelity come to us. We see the mystery and preciousness of the other. Sometimes we have to wrestle hard with the pain if we are to keep our eyes open to this. It is the same of course in grief, but in a different way. It is hard to keep our eyes open. I have always tried to listen to my own grief and to be well with it and to learn from it. Sometimes I have failed miserably. That is the nature of being human - we all become overwhlemed, though we all show it in very different ways. I know that loss simply is loss - whatever is gained does not undo it, but I also see sorrow as a friend. It softens my heart, makes me more generous, able to listen, to see the heart of the other. To be haunted by sadness, as a quiet insight into our finitude and preciousness, might be painful but it is an important teacher.
I wrote this reflection after re-reading David Malouf's beautiful novel The Great World. It opens with the sentence, “People are not always kind, but the kind thing to say of Jenny was that she was simple.” Jenny is an intellectually disabled woman whose life we witness as the story shifts back and forth in time. Time is an important theme in the book. Another is our attempt to hold that which we love; an attempt which always fails because all is subject to time and so to passing. Those we love slip through our fingers and we are left helpless and in pain. In the case of this disabled woman Jenny, Malouf's use of her child-like language invites a loving attention to her inner-life. The way Jenny is revealed as one of us is a wonderful achievement of the novel, given that in daily life the inner depths of such people are often unseen and dismissed. But the cost of Malouf's clear vision is that we are pained to see Jenny lose too, like us, and in profound ways - we feel the depths of her loss. Without Malouf's lens our humane condescension might shield us from her pain.
Malouf's narrative reaches a height toward the end of the novel when Jenny finds a man, whom she has always disliked and distrusted, sprawled on the ground and dying of a stroke. She takes him awkwardly in her arms.
“He had his face down between her breasts. She could feel a wetness. She began to weep. She could feel his mouth down there and wished, if that's what he wanted, that she could feed him, but she had no milk. She had had no milk now for more than forty years. They had pumped it out of her with a machine. She had begged and begged them, those nuns, not to take it, and all that night had dreamt of mouths pulling at her, and she didn't care in the end what they were, babies or poddy calves or little lambs or what, that were feeding off the rich stuff her body had stored up, which had been meant to feed a creature, not to be squeezed out with a machine. And all the time, out there somewhere, her own little baby was going hungry; or if it wasn't, it was being fed some other milk, not the one that had been made for it special in all the world; and for the whole of its life, poor thing, it would know that and feel the loss – that the world had stolen something from it that it would never have. She had looked around wherever she went after that, believing she would recognise the face of that little kid she had had the milk for, and who might be looking for it still.”
The world steals from us – things we have lost, things we never had - and in both cases we cry out.
Malouf's novel constitutes a study in how the different characters respond to loss. Jenny's mother fantasises a heaven where every material good she has stored up is present, where her adult children are young again and sit around the table happily. That image is in radical contrast to the human beings she has raised. Jenny's mother will not accept nor find a way to love them in their reality, for she cannot stand reality itself and so retreats into a fantasy. She does not understand the magic of life. In the traditional magic trick - the disappearance and return of the coin - what you receive at the end, is never quite what was made to disappear. The magician takes from us an object that is precious to us. Then they make it disappear - we lose the thing we want or need so much, the object of our love. Then they return it to us and we think it is the same but it is something else. It takes time to discern the difference. The magic was never in the object, but in the relationship between us and the wonder that was invoked. We walk away from the original object without even realising the change, without seeing the true magic of the trick
Certain others in the book are hardened by loss, they become cynical, bitter, contemptuous. These are forms of self-protection, an anaesthetical turning-away of attention and consolation through distortion of vision. Yet others refuse to do this and remain lucid. Digger and his friend are an example of this contrast. Mid-way through the novel Jenny's brother Digger returns from the Second World War where he was a prisoner on the Burmese Railway, tasked with burning the corpses of his fellow prisoners. A friend asks Digger what he is doing in King's Cross, “hangin' about with this sorta rubbish?”
“It was the word he had used, rubbish, that Digger wanted to go back to. What came back to him at times, and too clearly, was that break in the forest and the fires he had tended there. It had given him such an awareness of just what it is that life throws up, and when it has no more use for it, throws off again. Not just ashes and bones, but the immense pile of debris that any one life might make if you were to gather up and look at the whole of it: all that it had worn out, used up, mislaid, pawned, forgotten, and carried out each morning to be tipped into a bin. Think of it. Then think of it multiplied by millions.
“What he would have wanted, given the power, was to take it all back again, down to the last razor blade and button off a baby's bootee, and see it restored. Impossible, of course.
“He wanted nothing to be forgotten and cast into the flames. Not a soul. Not a pin.”
As Digger admits, this is impossible. Malouf recognises the tragedy of the human condition: the contradiction between the preciousness of others, and the impermanence of all things, eaten away by the flames time, destroyed by the world. Through intimate objects Malouf turns our attention to the painful meaning of this continuous passing away: a razor blade for the husband's morning ritual, making his flesh smooth to the touch, a button from a baby's bootee. This is loving, maternal imagery brings us into a different relationship with life than the contempt displayed by Digger's friend. Digger sees with love, but of course that renders him vulnerable. It means the acceptance of the pain. Digger's friend refuses to accept the pain and attempts to pass it on disguised as hate. Digger accepts pain for the sake of love, and so he must suffer.
Yesterday I attended the funeral of a dear friend, who died young. I was a pall bearer. Her coffin was made of wicker cane, and as I carried her I could see and smell her through the gaps. To lift her down the steps of the church a steel handle was unfolded on the trolley. Juxtaposed with her lying there, the chrome machinery seemed cold, hard and mechanical. I was carrying her to a hearse which would drive her to a brick building where she would be burned. I had such an urge to rescue her, to open the coffin and lift her out. I felt broken inside. Of course I know that death is natural, a universal consequence of life, but it felt like an utter injustice – something wrong, something impossible to comprehend.
My friend was a talented philosopher academically, and more importantly in spirit. During the last week I have had imaginary conversations with her about death. These led to various reflections which consoled me and helped me accept her loss. But yesterday the physical reality of her body at her funeral shattered that. I came to view those consoling insights as evasions, protections against the sorrow, against being broken. I had defended myself against the horror and pain of her loss by reasoning and consoling the hurt away. Or so it seemed as I sat there sobbing before her coffin, with brokeness in my body. Today however, my body still aching, I realise that this last weeks' thoughts were also true.
I had to struggle before and during the funeral not to dissociate from the pain, and at times I had to give into that temptation a little - to let a fog overtake me as the only way of pulling myself together when my body felt like it was spasoming with grief. After all I was among others and the attention was due to her. I think however that had I not let the wrenching truth of what had happened enter into me as best I could, then I might have given over to avoidant consolations, clever insights serving as shields against the pain and so the truth. That would be a refusal to pay attention to the truth of my friend's death, to pay attention to her. And yet, as a consequence of facing this truth, I feel that I have reached a more lucid, genuine form of those initial consoling insights: truths about the naturalness of death; about the wonderful gift of living which demands an acceptable price, paid in mourning; and how anticipation of my own death is now forever transformed by a sense of following her to where she is (even if this notion of ‘being somewhere’ is purely poetical). The temptation to evasion by blindness, whether through hardening, or by clever insights, is always there for all of us. Loss and the grief can be teachers, but accepting the pain is a condition for being true to those (or that) which we have lost.
Of course the work of finding true consolation is always flawed, an ideal from which we constantly fall short. And yet it is something toward which we can make progress. It is human to delude oneself, to try to sweeten a bitter drink. Sometimes, for a time, pain is too much to bear. Nietzsche's claim that what doesn't kill us only makes us stronger is too often mere romanticism. Life can break people. More often its cruelty weakens us, at least for a time. But often we can become wiser, gentler, more loving, in the face of it, given time and a willingness to let suffering and love dwell together.
In honour of Georgie Smith, 1968 - 2014.
Image: Maria Kreyn, Alone Together
Human beings seek value. It is the very essence of us. We ask what matters, try to do valuable things, and value others. We also want to be valuable. This desire can give us meaning, but it makes us deeply vulnerable. We need the esteem of people who matter, and when we get it we feel good. And sometimes wonderful. When we don’t, conversely, we may feel wounded and worthless.
We may fear we will be shamed by others, like a fraud who will be unmasked. This is less a sense of guilt and more a fear of being seen as bad or defective or useless or ugly or weak and ultimately worthless. It is about the self as a whole, rather than something we've done. And so we fear the opinion of others and (our sense of) its power to destroy us. Perhaps we recognise the presence of this fear within, though we may just as likely deny it.
In this state we may become envious of others who, we imagine, feel worthy. "They are so confident. How they do it?" We may compare ourselves to them and feel we are lacking. This can leave us feeling depressed. We may in turn attempt instinctively to overcome that depression by feeling angry, for anger is a powerful sensation rather than a deflated one. When we are angry we are no longer ‘below’, but ‘above.’ Instead of feeling deflated when we compare ourselves to others, a person may now have contempt for their "fake superiority." "They think they are so good, but I see what idiots they are." We try to lower others by means of our scorn and criticism, so that we may be raised. Anger is strategic, albeit the strategy is instinctual rather than reflective: it achieves a feeling of righteousness.
If we could recognise our shame then we could, if we try, begin to free ourselves of it. There is a world of difference between those who are sensitive to their shame and those who have vigorously walled it off. (Never fully trust the latter character.) Through such recognition we might become more free to relate to others in a different way, as a much less judgemental person, but rather one who is more wisely compassionate, and therefore one who is much less lonely. We might ask critical questions of our shame, questions that arise from a deeper hope about what life might offer. We might admit our shame to others who are capable of holding us in their esteem regardless, and of helping us to see through our confusion and defensiveness. Acknowledgement of our shame requires our facing it. This is hard, for to be accused is to feel guilty. If something is repeated often enough then it takes on the aura of truth. And we have been repeating this story about ourselves for a very long time.
So we lose ourselves in the defensive fantasy of our superiority (and the superiority of those who esteem us) and the correlating inferiority of others. In order to believe in our superiority we hold ourselves to perfectionist standards. If we think we have achieved these standards then we feel important and elated. If we think we have failed then, rather than see ourselves as simply human, we feel depressed and worthless. We might go to counselling for this, but with the assumption that it will help us improve and eventually perfect ourselves. This can lead to an initial frustration, because a good counsellor wants instead to help us become wiser and to accept our flawed humanity, to become more compassionate toward ourselves and others, and to experience the beauty of our apparently mediocre lives. It is only from there that we can have a solid basis for any excellence in our lives, to achieve highly and be happy at the same time. How hard it can be to gain such wisdom at a felt level. We want the guarantees that, we imagine, would come from being perfect, or at least from being esteemed by and dwelling among the superior people. Without such guarantees we fear we may fall apart.
My first career was as a musician, a jazz drummer. Growing up in a small country town before moving to Melbourne at 17, I was often asked the same question about my musical aspirations: “What’s the use of that?” The question was usually posed in a tone dismissal and even scorn. It was a statement rather than a question: "Your passion has no use, so it has no worth." If I were asked that question now I would respond, “What's the use of your life?” This would not be a clever retort but rather a serious invitation to pay attention to what has value and how. For many of the things we value most, serve no use. Sure, they may have secondary values, secondary uses they serve, but their fundamental value is not functional, it does not primarily serve a purpose beyond itself. Life, beauty, goodness, truth, humanity, at their best these values do not serve a function, they are valued in their own right. As Kant would put it, they are ends in themselves, and other things gain value as means to realising these ends.
The problem with the questions those dismissive people asked me is that they were not questions, they were statements. They were expressions of certitude. Matters were already decided and they were not open to discovering something new. Philosophy is an ancient Greek word meaning 'love of wisdom.' Plato and Aristotle said that this love of wisdom "begins in wonder." Without an open space, a space of wonder and contemplation rather than pre-preemptive decision, we are blind. As Socrates spent his time showing the citizens of Athens, when we approach life with certainty we are not only ignorant, but we are ignorant of our ignorance. Socrates' fellow citizens thanked him for the lesson by putting him to death. They had made a fundamental mistake about their value, and when they perceived themselves to have been unmasked, they became angry, to the point of murder.
Without wonder and contemplation of what lies beyond our certainties we are trapped in our ignorance. People often make this very point while maintaining a closed mind. Some think that the cleverness of their mind equates automatically to such openness, but as Simone Weil wrote, "The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell." Values which are ends in themselves are things to wonder at. Our lives are valuable in this way. This shows itself in that we would sacrifice our self for the life of another whom we love. Or even for strangers, when our eyes are open to this form of value. (Certainly we might do so out of instinct, but to reduce the matter to one of instinct ignores the fact that many of us would also do so after reflection, as a choice in consequence of the value that we perceive in others simply as human beings.) In the realm of close relationships this perception of value shows itself most. We love people unconditionally because we experience them as unconditionally valuable. The logic is circular, because the value is intrinsic. When we encounter this level of value we can dig no deeper for an explanation. Instead we are invited to wonder at what we see and to become ever more attuned to it and shaped by it.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Liza Hirst