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
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.