Skip to content

A short note on our shared humanity


One of the most interesting features of certain writings in philosophy is the inclusion, by their authors, of specific characterisations of humanity. Although this is not their main goal philosophers (perhaps with the help of the research findings from psychology) advance propositions that tell us what people – what we humans – are really like. Geoffrey Warnock, for example, asserts that humans are subject to various limitations – such as limited rationality, limited co-operation and limited sympathy and that the function of ethics is to combat these limitations.

A more general characterisation of humanity is found in Richard Taylor’s wonderful text on ‘Metaphysics.’ I have spent many hours thinking about some of Taylor’s observations and, after referencing some of them, I shall draw a conclusion about something that worries me.

First, Taylor introduces his readers to the branch of philosophy called ‘metaphysics’ by rejecting, point blank, the idea that people in general have any genuine grasp of philosophy or philosophical thinking. He thinks that whilst ‘it is true that all people have opinions, and that some of these – such as views on religion, morals, and the meaning of life – border on philosophy and metaphysics few people have any conception of philosophy, and fewer still have any notion of metaphysics.

Second, through his way of clarifying the nature of metaphysics Taylor leads us to an observation about humanity: he turns to William James who defined metaphysics as ‘nothing but an unusually obstinate effort to think clearly’ and he asserts that not many people think like this, and do so only where ‘their practical interests are involved’; he then moves on to propose a general characterisation of ‘humanity’ by recognising that ‘what first claims the attention of all creatures is the need to survive and, this being reasonably assured, the need to exist as securely as possible. All thought begins there and most of it ends there.

If there is such a thing as a pure ‘anthropology of the psyche’ I imagine that this would be one of its central findings: we worry about a) survival and b) security; and if the idea of security is expanded to include securing our wealth, status, position and power – then it seems plain that these concerns occupy much of our thinking. Taylor goes on to say that ‘we are most at home when thinking of HOW to do this or that.’ I think he is correct. My sense is that, in general, people are most concerned with the practical problems of living – and continually ask questions about how to solve their problems of living. This includes dealing with all the people that they encounter. (And this may be very troublesome!)

In contrast to this most general and characteristic way of thinking, metaphysical thinking is reserved for those relatively ‘rare’ reflective creatures who concern themselves with the ‘whys’ – ‘with questions that it is perfectly easy never to ask in ones whole lifetime.’ These questions consider the most basic problems of existence – such as ‘identity’, the apparent distinction between body and mind, – and  death, with language and thinking, with the possibility of God, with fatalism, with freedom and determinism, time, causality and so on. But by implication, and following William James, Taylor is really saying that metaphysical thinking is not whimsical; like good art, it is sustained hard work.

Third, Taylor asserts that although we are potentially creatures of reason – and that we are distinguished from most other animals through our rational powers we, in the main, do not deploy these powers to anything like their full extent. After noting that metaphysical thinking begins not with things that are proved but with things that are believed he provides a paragraph containing a rather devastating remark in which he reveals a particular and enduring feature of humanity:

He writes;

Now the intellects of people are not as strong a their wills (their wants), and they generally believe whatever they want to believe, particularly when those beliefs reflect upon their own worth among others and the value of their endeavours. Wisdom is thus not what they first seek. they seek instead, justification for what they happen to cherish…

Sadly, I think Taylor is correct. People, as he asserts, ‘generally believe what they want to believe’ – even in the face of facts that might, in principle, contradict or negate their beliefs. And if those beliefs are particularly cherished then the resistance to alternative points of view or to contradictions is even stronger.

This makes for a sobering reflection: as the students of human behaviour, such as Leon Festinger and Gerard Egan, have pointed out, humanity is proportionately more arational than rational.

In the end what worries me is not only my own inclination to ‘hold on’ to certain beliefs that remain un-inspected (or are based on a very inadequate mix of fact and information) but also that most of our information sources are partial and much of what we absorb is biased. Our psychology does not, in the main, equip us for understanding. It helps us solve the practical problems of living but what we believe is not necessarily founded on fact or arrived at through reason.

And if, super-added to this, is the tendency of people in general ‘to believe what they wish to believe’ then it may be very unwise to ask a nation’s citizens to make hugely important decisions – especially decisions involving the future of that nation. After reading about the reasons people gave for voting in the 2016 referendum held in the UK (about whether or not to remain in the European Community) it is plain that what counted were their pre-existing beliefs. Yet it is clear that many of these beliefs, many of which were ‘cherished’, reflected limited knowledge of the ‘facts’ as well as the international arrangements constituting the European Community. Worse, most had no idea about the conditions which gave birth to the very idea of a united Europe …

If people are inclined to believe what they want to believe – and if those beliefs incline them to remain blind to the facts – then it is impossible for me to conclude other than that it was a very bad idea to hold such a referendum.



England – A metaphor


The English artist had painted a picture: a haunting powerful image – brilliant, disturbing and charged with emotion.  It was hanging in Bologna’s ‘The Artist’s Space.’ It struck me as a telling metaphor for England; that is, England now: an England pushed to the margins; under pressure; suffering … almost as if subject to abuse.

Divided and adrift. And it’s the deep divisions that continue to matter. Resentment, fractured … something is lost …

Pushing itself to the margins …

And the painting seems to ask: Can’t we do better than this? Can’t we?

[The artist who painted this untitled work is the sometimes enigmatic and always supremely gifted Ian Woodard. At least for the moment, he has abandoned England – for the delights of the Italian city and more, including Sicily. Perhaps Tuscany, too … ]


The photograph above shows a beautiful space in the Municipal Art Collection, located in the Palazzo Comunale, Bologna, Italy – along with two paintings ‘in the English style.’

Learning from the practice of psycho-therapy


Shortly after her last therapy session with Dr. Irwin Yallom, his patient, a 45 year-old woman (called M.), wrote and posted a ‘sad’ letter to him. The letter included the lines:

I always imagined that you might write something about me. I wanted to leave an imprint on your life. I don’t want to be “just another patient.” I wanted to be “special.” I want to be something, anything. I feel like nothing, no one. If I left an imprint on your life, maybe I would be someone, someone you wouldn’t forget. I’d exist then.”

M. had presented Dr. Yallom with a seemingly insurmountable challenge: her life had been a ruin and, in all honesty, it stood every chance of remaining a ruin. As her letter showed, she was still, despite some progress in therapy, on a knife-edge: she remained liable to deep (and suicidal) depression; she might even be moved to end it all…

However, Dr. Yallom did write about her. Her existence did matter to him (and would still matter even if he wasn’t around).

In so doing, he provides us with a vivid and riveting account of what it is like to try and establish an effective therapeutic relationship with a person in such deep distress. His task was enormously difficult because M. was locked within the wreckage of her life; rarely had Dr. Yallom met anyone with so much self-hatred. Things really did look hopeless. She was a ‘misfit’. But this was really ‘her depression talking’. In fact, M. was not only an exceptionally intelligent person but also a creative and highly attractive woman.

In addition to charting the course of his work with M. and describing his testing experiences with her – including a powerful self-induced hypnosis in which M. revealed another powerful yet devastating ‘personality’ – Dr. Yallom also reached certain conclusions about what really matters in psychotherapy. Amongst these conclusions is a very profound learning concerning something at the very heart of the therapist/patient encounter.

He leads us to this major conclusion in the following way:

When I first began as a therapist, I naively believed that the past was fixed and knowable, that if I were perspicacious enough, I could discover the first false turn, that fateful trail that has led to a life gone wrong; and that I could act on this discovery to set things right again. In those days I would have deepened M’s hypnotic state, regressed her in age, asked her to explore early traumas – for example – her father’s sexual abuse [of her]- and urged her to experience and discharge all the attendant feelings, the fear, the arousal, the rage, the betrayal.

But over the years I’ve learned that the therapist’s venture is not to engage the patient in a joint archeological dig. If any patients have ever been helped in that fashion, it wasn’t because of the search and the finding of a false trail … No, a therapist helps a patient not by sifting through the past but by being lovingly present with that person; by being trustworthy, interested: and by believing that their joint activity will ultimately be redemptive and healing. The drama of age regression and incest recapitulation (or for that matter any therapeutic cathartic or intellectual project) is healing only because it provides therapist and patient with some interesting shared activity while the real therapeutic force – the relationship – is ripening on the tree.”

And so Dr. Yallom devoted himself to being ‘present’ and faithful to M. In other words, he  rejected the ‘false’ personalties of M. – even though they could be beguiling – and he did his best to help M. do some sort of justice to the deep and enduring aspects of herself.

Irwin Yallom’s discussion of M., the individual therapeutic process and the therapeutic relationship is presented in a chapter entitled ‘Therapeutic monogamy’ in his book ‘Love’s executioner.’ I was given the chapter to read by a student in London who is currently exploring integrative and psychodynamic approaches to counselling and psychotherapy. I think it a frank, sometimes tragic, always sobering and very perceptive account.

Just a few people to love


The narrator, who has two daughters, tells it like this:

There are so few people given us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love, it is important, even at nineteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, count the people you love on one hand, you will not, at forty have run out of fingers on the other. There are so few people given us to love and they all stick.

I think the author of this text, Anne Enright, is right. Quite seriously, circumstances are presented to us in such a way that, really, there are not that many people ‘to love.’

And now, for some reason, I can hear the wonderful Gracie Slick of Jefferson Airplane singing ‘Somebody to love’ …

Footnote: The photograph of the lone tree was taken on the west coast of France near to La Rochelle, May 2017.

The quote is from Anne Enright’s brilliant work: ‘The Gathering‘.


Time – and the Classics – and Juliet



Juliet knew that, to many people, she might seem to be odd and solitary – and so, in a way, she was. But she had also had the experience, for much of her life, of feeling surrounded by people who wanted to drain away her attention and her time and her soul. And she usually let them.

Be available, be friendly (especially if you are not popular) – that is what you learned in a small town …

Perhaps, too, in the big towns; perhaps in the cities, perhaps, even in the deserts …

Who is Juliet?

Well, Juliet first appears in Alice Munro’s powerful short story entitled ‘Chance’. It’s the kind of teaching story that would work in schools at least as well as a three-minute record – a record like ‘Don’t think twice, it’s alright’ or ‘San Diego serenade’ or ‘Comfortably numb’.

Alice Munro introduces her as follows:

Juliet was twenty one years old and already the possessor of a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She was working on her Ph.D thesis but had taken time out to teach Latin at a girls’ private school in Vancouver. She had no training as a teacher, but an unexpected vacancy at half-term had made the school willing to hire her. Probably no one else had answered the ad. …

She was a tall girl, fair-skinned and fine-boned, with light brown hair that even when sprayed did not retain a bouffant style. She had the look of an alert schoolgirl. Head held high, a neat rounded chin, wide thin-lipped mouth, snub nose, bright eyes, and a forehead that was often flushed with effort or appreciation.

And now Alice Munro gets a little bit more serious, a little closer to the grain:

Her professors were delighted with her – they were grateful these days for anybody who took up ancient languages, and particularly for someone so gifted – but they were worried as well. The problem was that she was a girl. If she got married – which might happen, as she was not bad-looking for a scholarship girl, she was not bad looking at all – she would waste all her hard work and theirs, and if she did not get married she would probably become bleak and isolated, losing out on promotions to men (who needed them more, as they had to support families).

Then she turns the existential knife even further:

And she would not be able to defend the oddity of her choice of Classics, to accept what people would see as its irrelevance, or dreariness, to slough that off the way a man could. Odd choices were simply easier for men, most of whom would find women glad to marry them, Not so the other way round.

I imagine that she is correct: ‘Odd choices’ are probably easier for men. But, odd as it may seem, I think it’s still a good idea to read at least some of the classics …


My reference to the idea of learning from a ‘three-minute record’ is a direct quote from Bruce Springsteen’s song, ‘Bobby Jean’.

Alice Munro published her collection of short stories ‘Runaway‘ in 2004

It’s life and life only: Anne Enright and ‘The Green Road’


It was the darkness of sleep just before the dream.

What makes Anne Enright’s novel ‘The Green Road’ so good? I think it’s to do with the strange and very personal form of companionship that it provides: by getting inside her characters’ minds she touches the ebb and flow of her reader’s mind. (Or at least, my mind.) But it’s also to do with the fact that her brilliant perception exceeds whatever a social scientist might achieve. She brings to life the intimate worlds of people located in space, time and culture. Always strikingly clever, she is often very very funny; she’s a devastating realist. So, for these qualities alone her work is remarkable.

The Green Road’ tells us about five characters (along with a number of others) who emerge from a family home on the west and Atlantic coast of Ireland – and who find themselves grappling with the extraordinary transitions of late twentieth-century Irish society. We begin by learning about Hanna, a young girl living in the family home in County Clare (1980), then her brother, the beautiful Dan – who ends up surprising and surpassing himself in the Gay culture of New York City (1991), next, his sister Constance – now a working mother – in Limerick (1997) and, finally, the fourth of the siblings, Emmet, who is working as an aid worker in Mali (2002). And then we dwell in the company of their semi-impossible mother, the cultured Rosaleen, who continues to wreak psychological havoc – especially upon her daughters. Rosaleen, a widow, continues to live in the memory-laden southern Irish family home.

In its way, ‘The Green Road’ might be read as a distinctly feminist text: the women continue to be bogged down by their responsibilities and the wretched fall-out from the prevailing social norms. Constance, for example, is left not only to cope with the traumas of breast-cancer screening – which her husband blithely ignores – but also with the ghastly task of doing a huge Christmas shopping for a last family re-union. She spends a fortune and yet still forgets the Brussels sprouts; she then realises she’s forgotten a number of other de rigeur yet stupid excesses of the late-modern western Christmas. It’s laced with bitter-sweet humour; it’s all very tragic and desperately typical. (And, of course, the Brussels sprouts get burned, charred, carbonised.)

More generally, modern life, as Anne Enright, shows, has gone slightly round the bend…

One of the reasons this is such a terrific book is that its author successfully identifies the fact that only certain words get said, and that contemporary characters are drenched in contradictions. Their private thoughts, their private truths, are often hidden – and at the same time, these private thoughts turn out to be temporary positions only to be unseated by counter positions. In fact, this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of her expressive portrayal of character: nothing is overly resolved. She also provides great insights into love and whether or not some people can ever achieve ‘love’. There’s a sustained and frank depiction of sexual activity – which lies, mysteriously, somewhere between the loins and the mind. (Or one and then the other.) The descriptions are vividly secretional and always tinged with failure, the failure to find the ideal or to find perfection.

When the family members finally re-convene for a last Christmas in the original family home – the encounters are scarcely bearable as each one of them tries to cope with deep psychogical distresses and the torments of values and beliefs in conflict. Rosaleen, the mother, for example, bates Hanna (who is now an aspiring actress but who has hardly ever been able to get any work) with the insouciant yet needling remark:

You have a heart-shaped face, I always thought. An old-fashioned face. You were born to play Viola.

Yeah, Well.’ said Hanna.


Sure,’ said Hanna.

Well you are an actress,’ Constance said, trying to keep the inverted commas out of her voice.‘

Yes I am an actress,’ said Hanna. ‘Yes, that is what I am.’

Well then,’ said Rosaleen, in a soothing tone.

I just don’t,’ said Hanna, ‘I don’t.

Work?’ said Emmet …

Jesus Christ,’ said Hanna losing it. ‘I Just Don’t Want To Play Viola.’

I don’t know how you can say that,’ said her mother, Rosaleen, sadly.

And so on – and so on – as the family drives itself nuts.

Later Anne Enright tells us that:

Rosaleen was impossible to please: The world was queuing up to satisfy her, and the world always failed.

The extraordinary anti-psychiatrist R. D. Laing once published a marvellous book entitled ‘Knots’ which was all about the way most of us, particularly in families, get caught up in webs of psychological tension and which cause us terrible pain. And this almost perfect novel provides a beguiling and affectionate example of these awful and excruciating familial ‘knots.’

Farnham, Surrey – with love from Woodstock, Alabama


Well, I’ve finished listening to the absorbing and egregiously brilliant podcast ‘Shit Town’. I’m told that it’s been an enormous success in the USA; it’s received very good reviews in the UK too. I’m not surprised. It’s one of the most intelligent forms of social-psychological inquiry I’ve heard.

The podcast tells an extended story about people and personality in the small town of Woodstock (i.e. Shit Town), Alabama. Except it does much more than that: it presents a meditation on time, meaning, sexuality and values. We learn something about the power of a particular social milieu. We hear the deeply personal stories that people come to disclose – if ever they have the chance so to do. (Most of us don’t get that chance.) The characters are fascinating – and they have wonderful names – like Boozer and Shyler and Olin. It’s also an insight into local Alabamian culture as well as suggesting major themes in the national culture of the USA. Central to Shit Town is the art of horology – and the account makes use of the horologist’s understanding and craft in two ways: first, just as a clock can be marked, over time, for good or ill, so might a person be left scarred or might flourish over the course of their lives; one moral of the story is simply to highlight the damage that we can do to people through carelessness or downright abuse. A second reading takes the broken clock as a symbol of America. The once great achievement of the USA is now, in a sense, broken. And the question is how to fix it rather than ruin it completely.

Shit Town is a delight to hear: often the dialogues are just plain hilarious. Sometimes the accounts are poignant or tragic or heart-rending. Many of the people who are interviewed in the podcast speak eloquently and with charming clarity. I have the feeling that American english is beginning to outstrip all other forms of english …

However, It got me thinking about the town in which I live. That town is Farnham in Surrey, England. It’s supposed to be one of the better towns in the south of England.

BUT I came to the conclusion that Farnham is a ‘Semi-shit town’.

Why is that? Well, it’s something to do with the old hop fields at the back of where I live. They’re adjacent to me – and run up against my garden. (The original hops still grow on the margins and even creep into and over my hedge. I like to collect the ripening hops at the end of the summer. The hops want to keep on growing. They are important moments of history.) The town could have decided to do something worthwhile with these ancient fields. But no. The fields are going to be built on; there will be a high-density housing development. On paper it all looks very nice. BUT they certainly do not need to stuff more houses into a town that is already well on the way to becoming a well-heeled version of Shit Town, Alabama. The demise of the hop fields is perfectly emblematic of everything that is going wrong with Farnham, Surrey.

This is just one example. There are many many more. But one will do.

Farnham is becoming visibly degraded despite it’s image of being a ‘craft town’ or an ‘historic market town.’ It’s becoming over-developed, clogged with traffic, polluted and crude. It’s shabby and incoherent. What a pitiful piece of town management it represents. What a complete lack of imagination …

Farnham, Surrey nicely sums up the prevailing south-of-England culture: It’s a culture dominated by ROI – by return on investment – of setting upon things as if they were mines or resources ready to yield something – anything – that is profitable. (Just as Heidegger foresaw.) It’s a culture dominated by the pleasure principle. Consume or die.

There are practical models of sustainable development – but it’s hard to see any evidence of their realisation in Farnham, Surrey. There must be ways of developing towns that are fit to house the human spirit; I wish Farnham could be one of them.

P.S. John B. McLemore, the central figure in Shit Town Alabama, around which the whole series constellated, was despairing because he saw that the world was going to hell-in-a-hand-basket and that very few people were ready to do anything about it. Impossible as he may have been, he remains an inspirational figure.

At the conclusion of Shit Town its producers publish some of the details contained in a final text left by John B. McLemore. He writes:

I’ve spent time in idle palaver, with violets, lyer leaf sage, heliopsis, and monkshood, and marveled at the mystery of monotropa uniflora. I have audited the discourse of the hickories, oaks, and pines, even when no wind was present. I have peregrinated the woods in winter under the watchful guard of vigilant dogs, and spent hours entranced by the exquisiteness and delicacy of tiny mosses and molds, entire forests, within a few square inches. I have also run thrashing and flailing from yellow jackets.

Before I could commence this discourse [i.e. the final note], I spent a few hours out under the night sky, re-acquainting myself with the constellations like old friends. Sometimes I just spent hours playing my records. Sometimes I took my record players and CD players apart just to peek inside and admire the engineering of their incongruous entrails. Sometimes I watched Laverne & Shirley or old movies or Star Trek. Sometimes I sat in the dark and listened to the creaking of the old house.

I have lived on this blue orb now for about 17,600 days, and when I look around me and see the leaden dispiritedness that envelops so many persons, both young and old, I know that if I die tonight, my life has been inestimably better than that of most of my compatriots. Additionally, my absence makes room and leaves some resources for others who deserve no less than I have enjoyed.

Footnote: The reason that I think American english is beginning to outstrip the forms of english spoken in the UK is because of the richness of its new metaphors and similes – as well as its sheer inventiveness and evocative power.

The givens of existence


In 1989 Irwin Yalom’s book, ‘Love’s executioner – and other tales of psychotherapy’ was published. It’s an excellent book and essential reading for people working in the helping professions. In this brief note I shall focus simply upon some of the content of Yalom’s ‘prologue’, a prologue which sets the scene for the ten fascinating psychotherapeutic case studies that he subsequently presents.

In the prologue he outlines the basis of his theory and practice of psychotherapy. He does this by focusing on a contemporary reality of the human condition: he reflects on the fact that if people are asked, over and over again, ‘what do you want?’ they may be stirred to their depths – and strong emotions may be unleashed – as they come to call out to those who are forever lost. He notes that beneath the surface – beneath ‘the membrane of life’ – lies the pain associated with deep but ‘unattainable’ wants. He points out that:

Many things – a simple group exercise, a few minutes of deep reflection, a work of art, a sermon, a personal crisis, a loss – remind us that our deepest wants can never be fulfilled.

Amongst the unattainable wants, the wants that can never be fulfilled are ‘our wants for youth, for a halt to ageing, for the return of vanished ones, for eternal love, protection, significance, for immortality itself.’ As a result it is difficult to imagine any human life that can be immune to the experience of existential pain, the pain that is inevitably generated by unattainable wants.

Yalom observes that it is when these unattainable wants have come to dominate our life that we turn for help to whatever may alleviate the pain – and perhaps, therefore, to psychotherapy or counselling. Sometimes people turned to Yalom, himself, for psychotherapy. But when they did he found that ‘somehow’ therapy uncovered the deep roots of his patients’ problems – ‘roots stretching down to the bedrock of existence’. He tells us that all his patients suffered from ‘existence pain’ – and ‘existence pain’ derives from the harsh facts of life, the ‘givens’ of existence.’ But what are the harsh facts or life? What are the givens of existence that we all have to experience and face? In a nutshell, Yalom provides us with an answer:

I have found that four givens [of existence] are particularly relevant to psychotherapy:

the inevitability of death for each and all of us and for those we love

the freedom to make our lives as we will

our ultimate aloneness 

the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.

But, he recognises that, however grim these ‘givens’ may seem, they contain the seeds of wisdom and redemption.

He continues:

I hope [in this book] to demonstrate … that it is possible to confront the truths of existence and harness their power in the service of personal at change and growth’ and, after briefly and brilliantly discussing how we confront the four givens of existence, he concludes with the telling statement that since none of us can avoid the harsh facts of life ‘we are all, all of us, in this together.’ We are all, in effect, fellow travellers; and so, in a paradoxical sense, we are not alone.

This is an important book that repays careful study. Yalom’s analysis of the ways we may deny the reality of – or delude ourselves in the face of – the givens of existence is sensitive, informed and masterly.  His text may well help its reader to come to terms with some of the main challenges of our contemporary (and often rather crazy) existence.

The art of insight


A peacock butterfly settles on the sunlit trunk of an oak tree; the white lilac is in flower; it’s Spring – and everywhere, the bright leaves are shining; it’s been warm enough to sit outside; to sit outside, read and think. I’ve been thinking about a book, a very good book …

And so I want to commend Stephen Grosz’s ‘The examined life’; it’s an excellent example of practical and accessible psychoanalysis. It’s also a delightful illustration of the art of insight. Grosz presents 31 case studies or vignettes that are based on his professional experience with a range of clients who had come to see him for psychotherapy. The account he gives is riveting for several reasons; of those, I shall mention three:

First, he describes many of the fascinating modes of conduct and the psychological idiosyncrasies of his clients. I was unexpectedly re-assured by his reminder that there is nothing so strange as people; we come across, for example, Philip, who turns out to be a pathological and spectacular liar. We learn that, from an early age, Philip told lies: at the age of eleven or twelve he claimed to haver been recruited by MI5 as one of its agents; even in his workplace he told far-fetched lies – although rarely would anyone challenge him. Insouciantly, he told Stephen Grosz that, in his line of work (TV production), ‘everyone in the industry lies’ and that it is ‘part of the skill set.’ (I couldn’t help laughing when I read this; I’m told that nowadays a high proportion of people fake their curriculum vitae and that a part of the business of becoming famous entails creating myths or half-truths about the ‘self’.) But why is Philip wedded to lying? Grosz shows us that his lying is a substitute for the way in which he carried on a tacit and private conversation with his late mother. Philip tells lies in order to create a mess. In fact, each of the people we meet in Grosz’s case studies is charming and intriguing, in large part because they either do bizarre and seemingly irrational things or think in highly original ways.

Second, Grosz helps his reader to learn more about some of the most fundamental features of the human condition. He does this by moving from the specific case to propose a more general truth. One example is the case of Matt. Matt is a young man who leads an alarmingly dangerous existence and who has been incautious enough to point a gun at a police officer. Grosz uses his own felt reactions to help unpack the deep psychological character of his patient. After a while we learn that Matt has ‘never acquired a skill that we all need: the ability to make a person worry about us.’ For me, it is this kind of remark that consistently elevates the quality of Grosz’s writing into something profound. We discover that Matt is a character who does not seem to register his emotions. He has silenced them. He remains oblivious to (or heavily defended against) his feelings. In consequence he cannot feel pain – and this is potentially devastating. Grosz tells us that:

The truth of the matter is this: there is a little bit of Matt in each of us. At one time or another we all try to silence painful emotions. But when we succeed in feeling nothing we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts and why.

Third, parts of the text challenge some of the conventional beliefs widely shared in western culture. He rejects the idea that we can (or should) achieve ‘closure’ on things that have deeply upset us. He thinks that whereas for the person who dies there is an end, ‘the person who mourns goes on living and for so long as she or she lives there is always the possibility of feeling grief.’ He concludes his inquiry with the observation that:

Closure is … delusive – it is the false hope that we can deaden our living grief.’

He also examines a cultural tendency to heap praise on youngsters which may end up having negative consequences for their psychological well-being and behavioural habits. Youngsters benefit from praise for effort – and for demonstrating those types of conduct that may help them to do well in life (such as patience) but they do not necessarily do well if they are praised and labelled ‘clever.’ In fact, Grosz underlines the importance of good quality attention. To this extent he restates a central principle of humanistic psychology: the foundation of helping others to do well, to fare well, lies in our ability to be ‘present’ for whomsoever we encounter.

Overall, Stephen Grosz’s book is a terrific source for learning more about one’s self as well as the sensitivities and complexities of others.

But, on a personal note, it (the experience of engaging with the book) also left me feeling angry because I was reminded of the courses that we used to run and of the fact that they were gradually destroyed by people who knew nothing about the height, breadth and depth of the human condition and the enormous value of allowing people the ‘space’ in which to conduct a personal psychological inquiry. We had, for example, spent something like fifteen years learning about how to implement the findings of humanistic psychology. But then a new institutional regime came into being that cared not one jot for our achievements, nor for our learning, nor our values.

So, I can’t help feeling that we have lost something – or that whatever it was that we used to do and value now lies submerged and scarcely animate – in the shadowlands of history.


Telling Stories


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.