Sometime ago my colleagues and I used to run those wonderful courses on self-development. Overall, in addition to helping people gain self-awareness and insights concerning their personal being, we also focussed the content of the courses on group dynamics and all the accompanying emotional realities. In our own way we were trying to enable adults to experience the ‘examined life.’ It wasn’t that we felt that the unexamined life ‘wasn’t worth living;’ it was more that we thought an examined life might help to enhance personal and professional effectiveness.
Most of the time we worked with whatever it was that surfaced within the group. And, usually, a great deal did surface – especially the full range of emotions. Most people liked the courses; most emerged with a far better grasp of the processes involved in social interaction: for example, it came as a great surprise to a majority that ‘simple’ interpersonal communication was anything but ‘simple’. Our clients had to learn the basics of active listening – as well as all the other interpersonal skills – such as conflict management. They also acquired a far deeper sense of how they were seen by others.
After working in this way (as a group facilitator) for several years I became more and more exhausted. And life was made infinitely worse by the fact that both the culture of the UK and the institution in which I was working were overtaken by a ‘performance measurement’ and ‘tick box’ ethos – an ethos that had little sympathy for the unpredictable outcomes of self-development …
So, finally, I stopped practising altogether.
I paused and reflected on my work and confronted some big questions about my own values. As I reflected on my past successes and failures I often wished that I had done things differently. (And, I still don’t know whether I was a decent enough person to do the kind of work that I had been doing.)
During that lengthy period of reflection I also came across two remarkable resources – two books – that would have served as terrific supports to the courses that we offered: The first was by the french educationalist and philosopher Luc Ferry and is entitled ‘Learning to live’. Although I did not really like the title of his book, his framework for thinking about how we come to terms with the meaning of life and our attitudes to death seems invaluable. But more specifically I think that all our clients would have benefited from working their way through the case studies described and discussed by Stephen Grosz in his brilliant work, ‘The examined life.’ I was alerted to this book by a young lady who is studying for a diploma in psychotherapy. By chance she had heard me mentioning that one of my aunts (now in her nineties) is suffering from paranoia. The trainee psychotherapist had read Grosz’s remarkable account concerning how feelings of paranoia can ‘avert an even greater crisis’ – in which a person comes to feel that the world is indifferent to them. Paranoid feelings maintain the idea that we are still being noticed – that we still have some significance, that we are still of consequence, that we are not invisible bits of nothingness.
She suggested I read the book.
This I did.
I bought Grosz’s book and studied each of the 31 learning stories.
His very first chapter sets the scene; it has the title, ‘How we can be possessed by a story that cannot be told’. He tells us of a patient, Peter, who did the most extraordinary and sometimes terrible and hurtful things because he, Peter, did not have the words, concepts and narratives with which to make sense of himself. Grosz writes:
‘I believe that all of us try to make sense of our lives by telling our stories, but Peter was possessed by a story that he couldn’t tell. Not having the words he expressed himself by other means. Over time I learned that Peter’s behaviour was the language he used to speak to me. Peter told his story by making me feel what it was like to be him, of the anger confusion and shock that he must have felt as a child.’
And then Stephen Grosz goes on to tell us that:
‘The author Karen Blixen said, ‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story and tell a story about them.’ But what if a person can’t tell a story about his sorrows? What if his story tells him? Experience has taught me that our childhoods leave in us stories like this – stories we never found a way to voice, because no one helped us to find the words.’
And he concludes:
‘When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us – we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.’
His opening account beautifully illustrates the importance of finding the right words and having the right milieu in which to tell our stories. That’s why it would have been so helpful to have Grosz’s work as a companion text to draw from on our original courses.
I’m not surprised that ‘The examined life‘ is a best-seller. I think it would serve as a powerful resource for any course on self-development. I think, too, that one way we ‘tell our stories’ – one way that we communicate to others and to ourselves – is through any manifestations emerging from creative processes. That’s partly why I paint; in a certain way, the portraits I paint, even though they are not of me, are one way of telling my story.
Footnote: The photograph at the top shows two happy people – with stories to tell.