Most of the challenges people bring to counselling arise not because people are dysfunctional, but rather out of the confusion, difficulty, and pain that comes with being human. Life is hard. We face constant challenges, and we create further ones in response. We don’t understand ourselves very well. But as difficult as our problems can be, they can also be occasions for insight and growth. Such challenges tear through our comfortable illusions and invite us to look more deeply. And live more deeply.
Struggle and suffering does not automatically make us wiser or stronger, but the way we respond to it can lead to greater wisdom and strength. Albert Camus wrote, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” Existential therapy according to The British School aims to help us to find the clarity, insight and strength we need to face our troubles. It helps us develop richer, more meaningful lives. This is the school to which I am most oriented in my existential work, and I owe much to its leading exponent, Emmy van Deurzen.
Existential therapy is actually one of the oldest forms of psychotherapy, originating with colleagues of Freud who preferred to understand our problems as "challenges in living," rather than through the lens of the psycho-sexual theories of psychoanalysis. Hence it takes a philosophical approach. There are a variety of approaches and outlooks which go under the title, and some of the leading representatives include Irvin Yalom, Viktor Frankl, and Emmy van Deurzen. I want to focus on van Deurzen and the tradition she represents, known as "the British school of existential therapy." While other schools tend to maintain a reliance on psychiatry and similar disciplines, in the hands of van Deurzen existential therapy is a decidedly philosophical approach, not only in outlook and concepts, but importantly, in method too.
I should add that some therapists in the British school draw on the whole history of philosophy and not just the 20th century movement known as existentialism. They pay attention to philosophy from any era which addresses the human condition and its concrete concerns - which addresses what van Deurzen calls our "everyday mysteries." Reminiscent of Camus, the aim of this therapy is to help people face up to their realities, in through doing so with a therapeutic ally, to find their way to becoming wiser and stronger, and to create a life of greater meaning and value.
Emmy van Deurzen (pictured)
Existential therapy aims to be non-dogmatic and critically open-minded. Some forms of counselling and psychotherapy, such as CBT, teach people perspectives and practices to solve problems. That is fine - every approach has its virtues and limits. Existential therapy is less about teaching than drawing out. This is what Socrates aimed at, which is why he referred to himself as "a midwife" - aiding in the birth of the wisdom that is already in you. And this is why existential therapy, like the philosophy of the same name, emphasises a phenomenological approach.
Phenomenology is a descriptive method which attends to the details of a person’s experience and way of being. Ernesto Spinelli, another leading light of the British School, places it at the heart of his practice. Phenomenology analyses the subjective structure of a person’s world so that what is important, especially what has gone unnoticed, may show itself. People gain direction and ability through coming to see themselves and their world with greater clarity and depth. When you become aware rather than blind, you are able to make decisions, to steer yourself, and to shape yourself. My existential approach is deeply phenomenological for this reason. As well as for other reasons: for example I find that most people are (to a degree) out of touch with their gut sense, and our felt 'gut' sense is the best sense we have. I help people get in touch with that and stay in touch. From there they can guide themselves better, but also come into a more powerful relationship with who they are. But much of my work is this existential-phenomenological practice of looking and reflecting: of really coming to see, and so becoming free and empowered in the ways mentioned.
Image: Ernesto Spinelli
The existential therapist of the British school is educated broadly - both formally and informally - in philosophy, psychotherapy, literature, psychology, anthropology, sociology, the classics and so on. They are also fellow human being who struggle with life – with its big questions and with their own challenges – just like everybody else - but who see it as their vocation to use these experiences to learn and to grow, not only for their own sake but in order to help others. They view the role of philosopher-therapist as a vocation rather than just as a profession. Mick Cooper in his book Existential Therapies sets out some of the aims for Emmy van Deurzen’s therapy. They both sum up her approach, and show the ennobling face of this work:
"[Existential therapy] can help [people] get back on top of their lives, take control, and have a sense of mastering their world rather than being at its mercy. Second, it can help them realise that they are able to take much hardship, and that they are stronger than they think. Third, it can help them to welcome, rather than fear, life’s challenges: to take life’s ups-and-downs more in their stride. Fourth, it can help them to respond to life’s challenges as constructively as possible: summoning and harnessing all their resources to find the most satisfactory ways forward. Fifth, it can help clients to experience the whole spectrum of their ways of being, rather than being stuck in rigid patterns of behaviour. Sixth, it can help them re-discover a passion for life: an aliveness, enthusiasm and sense of adventure that comes from fully engaging with the world, and meeting the challenges of life. Finally, then, for van Deurzen, existential therapy can help clients move beyond a fear of life, to a discovery that life is full of promise and ultimately worth living."
Author: Matthew Bishop
It is natural to grieve after a relationship ends. And this grief can take a while. But sometimes it takes too long: a person feels that the time has come to move forward with life and yet they cannot. I want to tell the story of Michael*, who struggled with this problem. His relationship with Anna was short-term, and had been over for a year before he came to see me, but his grief was unending. This problem formed a recurring pattern in his life. Michael's story suggests that when one becomes stuck in romantic grief there may be more involved than the sorrow of lost love.
Ludwig Wittgenstein characterised philosophy is an art of paying attention, captured with the words “Don’t think. Look!” The same goes for therapy. In the second session with Michael I asked questions that were designed to take him into his pain so that he could look closer and describe what he saw. Of course I needed these descriptions if I was to understand his problem, but I hoped that Michael might pay better attention to his own experience and come to his own insight with minimal prompting from me. That’s where the real work happens in philosophical therapy. The dialogues below are paraphrases which capture moments from our work together over several months.
ME: So when you imagine her not loving you anymore – say, you imagine her kissing somebody else – you get this pain in your heart?
MICHAEL: Yes, this sadness, as it has done for a year now, just aches all through my chest. That’s the pain that won’t go away.
ME: Just in your chest?
MICHAEL: The pain reaches down into my stomach too, kind of.
ME: In what way – what does it feel like in your stomach?
I expected Michael to say that he experienced a weight or some other sensation that typically goes with loss, but I was surprised.
MICHAEL: It feels like tension. Like churning, boiling.
ME: Really? What else do you feel as you imagine her falling in love with somebody else?
MICHAEL: It’s strange, but I feel like I'm falling backwards.
ME: What is your heart doing?
MICHAEL: It’s really racing!
Often we are so alienated from our own experience that we form misconceptions about it. This was true of Michael.
ME: I wonder whether you’ve got your labels wrong?
MICHAEL: What do you mean?
ME: A racing heart, a churning stomach, a feeling of falling …that doesn’t sound like sadness. Or rather, not in a straightforward way. It sounds more like anxiety.
Michael thought for a moment.
MICHAEL: But it’s over with Anna, there’s no going back, so I’m not anxious about what might happen, but rather I’m sad that nothing more will happen.
ME: Is it sadness you feel? You keep calling it pain.
MICHAEL: Well, yes, it’s very much pain.
ME: And this pain has the physical qualities not of sadness, but of anxiety?
Michael agreed with me, but after a year of telling himself that he was simply sad when he felt this way it was hard for him to interpret his experience differently. Fortunately he was willing to entertain other possibilities.
MICHAEL: Perhaps it is anxiety. If so then what do I do?
ME: I said in our last session that an emotion is like a compass. Why don’t we follow the anxiety where it leads and see what it shows?
We spent the following sessions doing just that, and as we did so Michael's inner life came increasingly into view for him. As a disciplined act of attention therapy performs the function which Kafka ascribed to a good book: it becomes an axe for the frozen sea within. Emotions and feelings show themselves, they are seen, insight happens. Dreams become lucid. This happened with Michael, and sometime later he began a session by reporting a dream.
MICHAEL: You know, it’s rare for me to dream. I only do it a couple of times a year, and now I’ve had four in the last month! But this one really got to me. And I felt like I understood its meaning.
ME: What happened?
MICHAEL: It all took place in one room, in an old, decrepit house. Throughout the dream the house continued to crumble and rain poured in through the roof, soiling the mattresses. Oh yes, the floor was covered in dirty old mattresses. I sat, and slept, on one of them. There was no toilet so I had no choice but to urinate on one of the other mattresses.
ME: What did you feel as you did that?
MICHAEL: I was on my own in the room, but it was like I was seeing myself through another’s eyes – I felt dirty, ashamed, humiliated by my act. But I had no choice.
ME: What else happened?
MICHAEL: There was dirt everywhere from the crumbling of the house. I walked over to the fireplace and found a pair of glasses. This is what I remember most; standing there looking at these glasses and knowing that their owner was dead. Long dead. I got the sense that this…intimate possession of theirs should make me feel care for them, or at least interest me or something. But it didn’t. Instead I found the glasses ugly. So I just felt nothing. But this lack of feeling disturbed me and made me sad. I realised that there were other possessions like the glasses in the room, belonging to other dead people. But I felt the same neutral way about them. Again I was saddened by this. Then suddenly there was something horrible – I don’t know what - coming for me down the chimney. I rushed to the other end of the room and put my back to the wall to protect myself, but strange holes materialised behind me like mist and dead spirits within them grabbed at me from behind, trying to drag me backwards into the holes.
What else happened?
MICHAEL: Well there were two other parts to the same dream. One of them took place in the same room, but I don’t know when. I was trying to teach the piano to Anna’s young son. I thought that she would really like this. But his father came and took him away, so it was all a waste of time. In the other part, I was at my old high school in the concert hall, playing an impressive piano solo just like I did when I was young. People liked me because of it. But as strange as this sounds, I was also located elsewhere at the same time. It is hard to describe: my step-father Daniel wanted to video-record the solo, but I had started before he arrived so he was running up a hallway to get to it in time. The perspective in this part of the dream was from that of the video recorder – I was seeing and hearing everything from the perspective of the recorder. The sound of my solo could not be heard because Daniel was still running up the long hallway. He didn’t get to the performance in time. Nothing was recorded, and I had this strong feeling that it would all be forgotten…and, that I would have nothing to show of who I was.
Michael’s dream was striking. One of the things that was so powerful about it was that he awoke not only with a vivid memory of it, but with an immediate interpretation which became more clear as the day wore on.
MICHAEL: Last time you suggested that I was very frightened of death.
MICHAEL: And I disagreed with you. In fact I felt a bit angry with you. But I kept thinking about it and two nights later I had that dream.
ME: You think the dream is about death?
MICHAEL: Yeah. I used to work in the nursing home section of a private hospital. The old people would often soil themselves. The nurses were very busy and could be so cold with them when this happened. I felt like my job was to shove these people around – I soon quit because of that. But while I was there I would make a point of looking these people in the eye whenever I had to do something "to" them. Some of them looked permanently humiliated. I think that peeing on the mattress was symbolic of this, of the fear I now have of old age: of its poverty and humiliation.
ME: And its impending death?
MICHAEL: Yes, that’s the main meaning of the dream. The crumbling house. The dead people’s belongings. The malevolent vague thing coming for me. The dead spirits trying to pull me backwards into the void – into death.
ME: These are striking images, and it appears that you and I interpret them in the same way. What about values in the dream? I sense that value was an important theme.
MICHAEL: Yes, you’ve spoken about my need to feel special. To rescue others such as Anna, even after she and I split. So I thought about that too. Nobody cared for the dead person who owned those glasses. It made me sad. It will be like that with me one day; nobody will remember - or care about - me. My possessions, the ones that mean a lot, and even my clothes which have accompanied my life and which smell of me, these will all be thrown away without care or even in disgust. I tried to be special to people with my piano solo but nobody heard it – it was lost, as though it never happened. As though I never happened.
ME: Being special won’t save you from annihilation?
Michael paused and was thoughtful.
MICHAEL: No…it seems not.
We paused some more. I don’t know what Michael was thinking, but he was absorbed and I did not need to know - it was more important that he do his own work. I sat quietly and privately with my own impressions of the dream. After a time Michael came back to the present and we continued the conversation.
MICHAEL: So that's my dream.
ME: And what about the part with Anna’s son?
MICHAEL: I don’t know.
ME: It sounds like you tried to make yourself valuable to Anna through teaching him, but it did not work. He was taken away by his father and you were left alone in the decaying room, so the love of Anna did not come and save you from dying and being forgotten.
The corners of Michael’s eyes were wet. These things hurt, but precisely for this reason we had to push on. As I said before, an emotion is a compass.
ME: You resisted my suggestion last week that you are deeply afraid of death. Actually I spoke of a tangle of death, aloneness, and meaninglessness. You say that you felt angry at the suggestion. I could tell this at the time and it did not surprise me – you were angry when I pointed out such fears because you work hard at avoiding your own awareness of them. You try push them out of consciousness, and when they rise as physical sensations then you try a second strategy: you deceive yourself about their nature. What I mean is that when you first came to me you said you were grieving endlessly for lost love, but it seems to me that you are not suffering from sadness alone but also, very much, you are suffering from anxiety. From what some people call existential anxiety.
MICHAEL: Anxiety over death, loneliness, and meaninglessness?
ME: Yes. Each of us has this fate: we live for a time and then we die. That is the human condition. We hope that our lives have meaning but secretly we fear they might not, especially in the face of death. This secretly terrifies us and so we try to keep it secret even from ourselves.
MICHAEL: So I’m not grieving Anna? Instead I'm using grief to avoid the true nature of my pain – my anxiety about my own death, about not mattering to anyone.
ME: Perhaps grief is less dangerous for you than such anxiety, and so you apply the wrong label to your anxiety, pretending that it is grief. Your grief over Anna is real, wouldn't you say, but it also seems to function as a self-protective distraction. In this sense, perhaps it’s wrong of you to say that you cannot get free of your grief; rather it is something you refuse to let go of.
MICHAEL: Yes, perhaps I am scared of dying. I’m certainly scared of being unloved, of not mattering to anybody. Of getting old that way. Of being dead and forgotten that way.
Although the above words were spoken slowly, with pauses between each point so that we might digest their meaning, we had said a lot. We sat in silence for a time, and then Michael spoke.
MICHAEL: How does a person deal with this?
The rest of the conversation is a topic for another day.
Socrates said that to do philosophy is to prepare for death. This is because to do philosophy is to strive to live well. If we can face death as the fundamental limit of our life then we may find the courage to live a life of meaning rather than of mere self-protection during this short time that we have. On the other hand when we simply run from anxiety over death then we also lose out on living. Such running also affects our way of being with or toward others: we reduce them to performing the function of defending us against our fears. This was the lesson that Michael learnt, and the substance of our work aimed at helping him face his anxiety rather than him trading the quality of his life for respite from his fears. My purpose was not to convince Michael of a philosophical thesis about himself. I used the notion of "a tangle of death, aloneness and meaninglessness" because I wanted to point in the direction of his fundamental fears rather than specify their exact nature. These fears showed themselves through careful exploration. Irvin Yalom wrote that the physical fact of death destroys, but the idea of death can save us, and this was the case for Michael when he finally came to terms with it.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Max Klinger, Isle of the Dead
*'Michael' is a pseudonym. This story is of a true experience, but all identifying details have been changed to ensure anonymity.
What does it tell you when it tells you now you grow up?
What does it tell you when it tells you now you be a man?
Tidy your thinking up, finish your drinking up?
Be the Tom, be the Jack, beat the beaten track,
Die the slow death your forefathers died, in fact
Be ever lonely and angry inside of that
Maze of rage and inchoate affection.
Those words are from Melbourne band Augie March. The song ends with: “After the fall, after the crack up, Nothing then? Nothing then.” Nothing, it is true. There is no reward for going through shattering and hell. Not that it is nothing to go through it - it can be all-consuming - but the experience itself is a negation, a destruction. One which exposes a nothingness in us. So what then?
“Emotional breakdown.” That’s not a technical term, but I am writing of an experience, not a diagnosis. I want to speak of its inside, of the fear, the desperation. Many people will suffer a point – or several – in their life where they come apart at the seams. All of us are prone to this, and it is a matter of luck whether the crack up comes to you or not. Perhaps the more emotionally alive we are, the more we are at risk.
Such a breaking down is usually a combination of two things: internal and external stresses. Relationship catastrophes, bullying, job loss, traumatic experiences, these are the external contexts of a breakdown. But not everybody reacts in the same way to the same events, and here is where the internal dimension comes in. Different people possess different psychological structures, and walk in varying worlds of meaning. We possess different architectures, with different strengths and pressure points and can weather different kinds of storms. One person handles relationship break-up well but goes to pieces when they lose their job, and for another it is the opposite. Certain events at certain times will come together like a “perfect storm” for an individual. Certain events constitute psychological bombs for certain people. This explains suicides, but also breakdowns. Many people will not recognise their bomb before it hits. It is only after being shattered that we can look back and begin to make sense. To imagine that you are strong and so free of this danger is to be deluded and arrogant.
To break down is traumatic. To experience one's being succumbing to pressures that break it apart is immensly frightening. To feel that you cannot hold your mind or your life together is terrifying. First you fear for your material survival. Will I lose my job? My home? And perhaps even, will I take my life? Secondly you fear you may lose love and esteem. For human beings secretly hate the sick or broken, even though they deny this to themselves. (The hate is a defence; people want to believe they will not suffer the same fate as others, and so they unconsciously locate the source of the problem in the sufferer, blaming the individual rather than our shared, vulnerable condition as human beings.) Of course human beings are divided souls, and so we are also compassionate. For this reason we disavow our secret contempt, because we would be ashamed to admit it to ourselves. Nonetheless the afflicted can perceive it. To break down is humiliating. And because every person has a degree of that secret contempt in them, and the broken one is guilty of exercising it toward others in the past, they turn it on themselves when they come apart. They hate themselves. Such a person may recognise that they are doing this to themselves, or they might imagine that it is coming purely from others. They feel rejected by the tribe. They fear they may never again function or be loved or respected as they were. They may fear becoming a loathed, broken object. And that takes us to the devastating core of a breakdown with respect to the issue of love and esteem. You may feel ugly as a person. Fundamentally bad. Like an utter failure.
What people need most at all times, but especially when they are coming apart, is others who will help hold them together. A person can repair themselves with the help of others, but the container for that healing is the love and esteem and reassurance which they are temporarily unable to find for themselves. Love is the contrary of the negation. After the crack up? We lay our hands on one another. "You are not alone."
This reflection is based on a paper which I presented at a conference yesterday. The main theme of the conference was evidence-based practice in counselling, with a sub-theme being recent changes to psychiatry’s diagnostic manual. I began with some words from Australian philosopher, Raimond Gaita:
"Our sense of the preciousness of other people is connected with their power to affect us in ways we cannot fathom and in ways against which we can protect ourselves only at the cost of becoming shallow. There is nothing reasonable in the fact that another person's absence can make our lives seem empty. The power of human beings to affect one another in ways beyond reason and beyond merit has offended rationalists and moralists since the dawn of thought, but it is partly what yields to us that sense of human individuality which we express when we say that human beings are unique and irreplaceable. Such attachments, and the joy and the grief which they may cause, condition our sense of the preciousness of human beings."
Previous editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, have included a "bereavement exclusion" in the case of depression. This was a direction in the manual that when diagnosing a possible case of major depression, if the symptoms can be properly interpreted instead as a case of bereavement, then bereavement rather than depression should be the diagnosis. This is because depression and bereavement can look like one another in certain aspects, but they are different in important ways and it is inappropriate to treat bereavement as a mental illness.
It was proposed that this bereavement exclusion be removed from the new DSM-5. As a result a debate emerged while the new edition was being drafted based on the concern that this removal would lead to grief being increasingly viewed as a mental illness. It seemed to me that there were no meta-analyses of the controversy which adequately surveyed the arguments pro and contra the removal, so as a philosopher and counsellor I engaged in this analysis.
The key argument against the removal of the bereavement exclusion was that it would likely lead to "the pathologisation of grief". That is, grief and bereavement – a natural, meaningful experience – would become re-described in our cultural practices as a medical problem, something to be treated by GPs and psychiatrists and drugs. Beyond the obvious problem that some clinicians see everything in medical terms and will be very happy to prescribe antidepressants for grief, it was also suggested that many more time-pressured clinicians would opt to treat bereavement as depression out of compassion - misguided compassion - as a means of increasing client access to psychological help and dulling their pain. It was noted that profiteering pharmaceutical companies would probably become very active in ‘raising awareness’ of the supposed biological roots of our bereavement and how their products can treat it.
These arguments certainly resonate with the widespread criticism that we currently pathologise many forms of anguish, visiting physicians and popping pills rather than looking at the real roots of our despair and anxiety. Psychological technologies often serve as culturally approved yet nonetheless superficial evasions of life's deeper challenges. This has already happened in the case of anxiety and melancholia, and with the latest edition of the DSM it appears that this distortion is spreading to grief and bereavement.
Grief – a pained response to a significant loss - can be terrible, but it is also a vital good in our lives. It is a condition for experiencing others as valuable. The value we can have in each other's lives means that death can occasion profound suffering - our suffering is an expression of that value. It is not a medical condition.A reduction of grief and bereavement to a medical pathology would surely obscure and threaten its vital, meaning-filled - and meaning-bestowing - place in our lives. I am reminded of Gaita's words above about rationalists and moralists - this time around of the medical sort. I am reminded of what he says in the second part of that sentence. The pathologisation of grief may reduce our pain, but it will rob us of our sense of the profound meaning and value that we have in one another's lives. And that is too great a cost.
To be human is to be lonely. I am speaking of a loneliness which exists even when we are surrounded by others. It is rooted in the anxiety we feel in the face of our vulnerability. It is rooted in our secret shame – a sense of being bad, flawed, or worthless. It may follow from a being unseen or misunderstood. It may be there when we feel assaulted by the world. Ultimately then our loneliness, whatever its particulars, is rooted in our human condition. Some philosophers have romanticised this problem, painting life as unquestionably bleak and recommending a heroic posture in the face of despair. Alternatively hedonistic outlooks seek to sooth the pain with pleasure or comfort or the image of security. But these answers simply reflect and reinforce the problem. They themselves are bleak. There is another way which is good, which is meaningful, but which is also more demanding. I am reminded of Flaubert’s words: “The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life.”
It is tempting to rush for a solution to loneliness because we want to protect ourselves from its pain. This tendency is almost mechanical; we all have psychological defences by which we distract, dull, or blind ourselves in an attempt at self-protection. But the trouble with blinding or numbing defences is they make us blind or numb to other things also. For example, to the full reality of others. Then, in our understandable cowardice and desperation, we reduce others to tools which serve to distract us or make us feel good. When others fail to serve this function we may imagine that they have wronged us or let us down, and so we experience a doubling of loneliness. In rushing from loneliness as quickly and mindlessly as possible we have become even more isolated from others and from a good life.
The motivation for today’s reflection is the thought that loneliness, despite its pain, has valuable meanings that we can decipher. I called loneliness a gift because, by turning inwards with courage and patience, we can discover something more to life by means of it. If in that moment when we would usually become defensive, we choose instead to maintain a steady gaze, then we become more free. More free to see ourselves and others as they are. More free to find meaning. Meaning is not rigid. It is the consequence of discovery and creation; of effortful attention which discerns possibilities. In the case of loneliness we are talking about a problem of isolation from others, where to run from vulnerability is to withdraw even deeper into the self. Such behaviour reduces us to somebody who, in their pain, is different to others. Feelings like envy and bitterness ensue. But when we look into the heart of our loneliness we can come, alternatively, to see that it is a shared condition. It is the human condition. Now we experience our pain in a different way.
When we experience our pain as the pain of being human, we transform our vision of who we are and what matters. A sense of solidarity ensues, as I come to recognise my struggles as ultimately shared with all human beings. If I say yes to this insight, then I now struggle not only for myself, but also alongside, and on behalf of, all others. This is not some theoretical idea but rather something we feel in our bones when we consent to this path. We feel a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with our fellow vulnerable members of the human family. According to this vision, what is deepest and most inward in me is at the same time universal. It connects me with all others. Our painful loneliness becomes a paradoxical gift.
"Attention," writes Simone Weil, "is the rarest and purest form of generosity." I am suggesting that it is not only generosity for the other, but also that our giving is a gift that returns immediately to us. The distance between ourselves and others diminishes. Such love transcends our individuality and so lifts us above our painful isolation.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Nigel Van Wieck
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