Monday, December 31, 2007

The Tao of Things 2

I return again and again to my translation of the Tao Te Ching by Stephen Mitchell which is beautifully illustrated by many artists.  Like Blake's illustrations the pictures and drawings are themselves contemplative.  Each line in each stanza has a Zen-like quality which draws one ever deeper.  Stanza 10 has just caught my eye and now my heart.  It is worth quoting in full here:


Can you coax your mind from its wandering

and keep the original oneness?

Can you let your body become

supple as a newborn child's?

Can you cleanse your inner vision

until you see nothing but the light?

Can you love people and lead them

without imposing your will?

Can you deal with the most vital matters

by letting events take their course?

Can you step back from your own mind

and thus understand all things?

Giving birth and nourishing,

having without possessing,

acting with no expectations,

leading and not trying to control:

this is the supreme virtue.

There us a lot of meaty "stuff" to contemplate here.  Twice in the above stanza, the writer refers to power and control.  In many other stanzas throughout the Tao Te Ching the author returns again and again to this factor.  From my own 50 years experience of life the "will to power" or the "desire to control" - call it what you will - is a central drive in most human beings.  It's probably there residing in our ancient brain, a primal desire going back to the caveman or cavewoman in us!  I have no doubt about this as I observe my colleagues at work and how they play games of control with each other.  I have also seen it in use in several families whom I know very well indeed.  This drive is deeply rooted in us like all those other drives alluded to by Freud and the host of psychiatrists and psychologists with all their varying schools that followed in the great master's wake.

And so let me ask of myself this instant with Lao Tzu: "Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will?" Only the person to whom the question is directed can answer that!  I hope so.  I dearly hope so.  I also ask myself, again with Lao Tzu: "Can you act with no expectations, lead and not try to control?"  Leadership is always difficult.  Oftentimes it's a lonely place to be as you have to make decisions which will be pleasing to some and unpleasing to others.  It's very hard to change people - indeed, it's probably impossible.  However, the leader can change his own "modus operandi"; he or she can lead by example and encouragement rather than imposing his or her will which will be seen as autocratic and authoritarian and while it may effect a temporary change, it certainly won't bring about long-term change at all.

What Lao Tzu terms "the original oneness" has always intrigued and inspired me ever since I started to study philosophy and theology way back in 1976.  I have come across so many terms for this concept - The Unity of the Godhead, The One behind the Many, The Unity behind the Multeity (S.T. Coleridge), The Ground of Being, The Ultimate Being, The Holy,  The Ultimate Concern, The Good, The Truth, The Ultimate Horizon, the Ultimate Mystery, The Mystical Unity etc.  There are many terms for the "original oneness" which all spiritual traditions say is the aspiration of their adherents.  In this connection several traditions refer to a "mystical union" with this Godhead or Ultimate Concern etc. I suppose more agnostic or "polytheistic" or "eclectic", and even atheistic, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, analysts and psychologists might call this by such terms as "individuation" (C.G. Jung); "integration of the personality" (Anthony Storr); "Making the unconscious conscious" (Freud); "Self-realization" (Carl R. Rogers).  Anyway whatever we call it, I believe and feel that the phrase "mystical union with the Ultimate Good or God" is a religious metaphor for these last terms used by these psychologists.  I'm not decrying religion or any spiritual tradition.  I recognize the validity of all paths to wholeness whether that be devout religious, monotheistic or polytheistic, Gnostic, agnostic or even atheistic.  All humans who are on the path to wholeness are life-givers and are life-enhancers and will be healers and of others and builders of community wherever they are.  Okay, so I may be a bit of a relativist or pluralist or a perspectivist at least.  I abhor any system or persons within any system who seek to control both the beliefs and the behaviours of others.  I abhor the strangle-hold of fundamentalism whether religious or scientific, whether theistic or atheistic.  Let us be open to all that enhances and builds up human life and human community.  Let's go further still and build up all life - animal and vegetable.  Let's even be green or even greener than green.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of a stained glass window in St Cronin's Church Roscrea last February 2007. Stained glass I find very mystical indeed!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Still Searching After All These Years 3

Putting The Jigsaw Together

I remember many years ago attending a dynamic group workshop loosely based around a spirituality/self-development theme.  Initially we were broken into groups by the facilitators as is the way with such workshops and asked firstly to come up with a name for our individual groups.  This proved to be a very interesting exercise indeed.  As far as I recall from this distance in time our group called itself "The Searchers."  Another called itself "The Explorers", another "The Pilgrims" while still another called itself "The Sunflowers."  There were at least seven or so groups - I've forgotten the other names.  The ensuing discussion/open forum about this exercise revealed a lot.  The word "Searchers" seemed to imply a task, indeed hard work while at the same time it implied something of value or someone being lost.  "Explorers" suggested something freer and more liberating, a freedom to find anything one wished on the landscape being explored and, I suppose, many different possible routes to get anywhere or somewhere on the journey.  "Pilgrims" obviously carried many deep religious and spiritual resonances - one is reminded of such medieval pilgrimages as that to Canterbury as we have recounted for us in The Canterbury Tales  by Chaucer or that still famous camino to Santiago de Compostela which modern pilgrims still make right up to this day.  We Irish may be reminded of other more Celtic pilgrimages to the top of Cruach Phádraig or Croke Patrick in Co. Mayo or possibly St Patrick's Purgatory on Lough Derg in Co. Donegal. Anyway, such pilgrimages require renunciation of self - so the work "Pilgrims" suggested something ascetic, forbidding, self-denying and somehow weighed down with centuries of religious struggle through sin and guilt - at least to me at the time and still now today.  Anyway, the discussion around the chosen group title "The Sunflowers" was very liberating indeed.  This group saw themselves as responding to a source of power, a source of energy, a source of enlightenment outside themselves.  Also they were moving in response to this outside power or force or energy.    While there may be a passivity of approach to this spiritual view of life, yet there was something refreshing in it also.  Nor was it totally indolent or lazy in approach - after all there was growth and movement (the flower head turns to follow the sun) involved and this requires a receptivity to light and water and a working with these sources of energy to grow.

Perhaps, in a way there is some of all these possible designations in all of us - we are at one and the same time searchers, explorers, pilgrims and sunflowers.  Maybe there are other possible names we could give our human quest for meaning in this world - perhaps "Divers for Pearls," "Climbers" or "Voyagers" or "Eternal Students."  I don't think any group would set itself up as "Guides" or "Pilots" or "Leaders" or "Mystics" or "Gurus" or would they.  At least, we had no such designated groups.  Perhaps we were all too humble.

I have alluded in these pages many times to the growing anger in society and especially among our younger adults.  We only have to read the papers and listen to the daily news on any TV channel to be aware of this if we have not been unlucky enough to have encountered such anger or violence in our own lives.  There is obviously a lack of constraints on people in today's society.  Why?  Well, my friends and I believe that as regards Ireland in the past twenty years the strangle hold of the Church is decidedly gone.  When we were growing up the Church still had power over us youngsters as there were still enough religious in our schools and parishes to preach and enforce these rules.  The Church had a moral authority and a consequent fairly effective moral control of its people.  Those times were indeed authoritarian and perhaps we were far too obedient and dependent. However, in a poor, underdeveloped and practically rural or provincial country not much short of dependence was possible.

The Church today in Ireland is an emasculated wreck of itself in terms of what it was from the fifties through to the eighties of the last century.  Now it is one voice among many alternatives.  This is no bad thing indeed as it means that people have a wider freedom of choice in their lives.  However, it also unfortunately means that the experience of wide choices means that many find themselves existentially cut adrift on a veritable sea of confusion.  Add into all of that the drug culture of Ecstasy tablets and the modern addiction to Cocaine coupled with that all-pervasive traditional addiction to alcohol and one gets an explosive mixture. 

As a secondary teacher of some 28 years experience in an inner city school in Dublin I find that there is a growing minority of young males who have never had a significant other adult male influence in their lives and this is a major cause of concern.  These kids are ripe for exploitation by all possible sources - from aggressive advertising to drug pushing and all the consequent disharmony or even aggression and/or violence that may ensue.

How do we try to improve this situation with all its concomitant woes? Well, I suppose outside religious gurus and organizations like the great The Elders alluded to in the last post, there exist all the helping professions like Doctors, Nurses, Police Officers, Fire Officers, Ambulance Crews, Teachers, Special Needs Assistants, Care Workers etc who seek to bring a little healing to this broken world.  Beyond these helping professions there are legions of charitable organizations from the Samaritans and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to the Simon Community, most of whose workers bring love and care to others without any payment besides the pleasure and privilege of doing charitable acts.  I myself am inspired by and drawn to the Counselling/psychotherapeutic profession which deals with the healing of the human soul.  Perhaps with a change in career in the offing I will be further drawn in that direction. 

Recently I have been reading the books of a favourite psychiatrist and psychotherapist called Irvin Yalom - whose books I have listed among my favourites in the column on the right of this blog.  He gave a wonderful speech on being awarded the Oscar Pfister prize (for important contributions to religion and psychiatry) in the year 2000 by The American Psychiatric Association. Yalom writes like an angel even though he is a self-professed atheist like Sigmund Freud before him, but he agreed to accept this award because of certain convergences between religious and spiritual goals and those of psychiatry/psychotherapy.  In fact he states that Sigmund Freud is one of his heroes. I'll quote a little here from his wonderful acceptance speech.

"I'll also sketch out some comparisons between existential psychotherapy and religious consolation. I believe these two approaches have a complex, strained relationship. In a sense, they are cousins with the same ancestors and concerns: they share the common mission of ministering to the intrinsic despair of the human condition. Sometimes they share common methods – the one to one relationship, the mode of confession, of inner scrutiny, of forgiveness of others and self. In fact, more and more as I've grown older, I consider psychotherapy as a calling, not as a profession. And yet, still, it is true that the core beliefs and basic practical approaches of psychotherapy and religious consolation are often antipodal."

I have deliberately highlighted one sentence in bold italics above because this, while overtly and patently a negative sentence, contains considerable realism and a not a little truth.  I am reminded of the words of the contemporary famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking which I am paraphrasing here because I cannot remember the exact words:  "There's no use bemoaning our station in  life or our state of health because life is all a matter of luck.  You accept the hand of cards you are given and play the best game you can with that!"  There's a lot of realism, common sense or wisdom in that indeed, and this from a great mind locked in a body crippled with motor neurone disease.  However, look at the imaginative and intellectual heights to which the genius Stephen Hawking soared.  All limitations can be transcended in many significant ways if only we have the vision to see it. 

Acceptance to my mind must always precede understanding.  This acceptance then leads to an openness to welcoming help or procuring help or developing coping skills.  Being able to learn how to cope with whatever life throws at us is the most essential way to doing something about (note that I did not say solving) whatever problem is besetting us. Yalom, again in this talk and passim in his books has this to say about existential therapy, which has these four points in common with all religions (Yalom has read the liberal Protestant theologian Paul Tillich  and refers to his category of "ultimate concerns.") which I feel is worth quoting here:

"Four ultimate concerns, to my view, are highly germane to psychotherapy: death, isolation, meaning in life, and freedom. These four themes form the spine of my textbook and I shall elaborate upon them as I proceed today."

I loved this speech as I loved those of Yalom's books which I have read because they are so rooted in the very "stuff" of life - real existence with its all-too-real problems.  Don't read Yalom if you cannot face life and death head on.  To read him is akin to reading the wonderful spiritual classic The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by the equally wonderful human being and spiritual master Sogyal Rinpoche.  When you read either of them you are left with the thought and the feeling - we're all in this boat ( = life) together; there's no getting out of it alive; the wisest person will perish like the dumbest; not one single soul is immune to it's tragedies.  As well as that you get the thought and the feeling that there is someone there who can help me; there is someone there who has some grasp on reality; there is someone there who has developed ways of coping with the existential problems life throws at us all too frequently.  And that someone can be another person or indeed even myself or both! Acceptance as I've said must come before understanding.  This acceptance will lead to openness and to a humility to learn to accept help and to give it when called upon.

Above I have enumerated the problems that beset modern humankind.  Perhaps there is little any of us can do about the real problems of the world on a global level or even about the real problems of our own country or city or town at a micro level.  However, there is much I can do on a personal level to get to know myself; to work on improving my strengths and decreasing my weaknesses; to care for my Self on a spiritual or psychological level; to develop coping skills to handle my own problems.  We will find that once we really begin to care for our inner being or Self that it's then that we are liberated most especially to care for others; to offer others real and practical and useful help in living with and coping with, and hopefully transforming, what I think and feel that Yalom expresses realistically, if a little too pessimistically above as "the intrinsic despair of the human condition."

Above I have placed a picture I took of St Cronin's Church, Roscrea where I was baptized in 1958. It is a splendid architectural feat!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Still Searching After All These Years 2

A Vision for Humanity 1

That great and wise beings have trodden and still do tread on this earth is obviously beyond doubt. That they were and still are in a very small minority is also beyond gainsaying. We need only call to mind such great and wonderful human beings like Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, Siddartha Gautama or the Buddha, also known as Shakyamuni Buddha, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Anwar Sadat or Oscar Romero to mention several from the annals of human history to illustrate this point. That some of these mentioned above have been sanitized or otherwise raised to transcendent heights is beyond denial, but this fact is irrelevant to my present comments. I am merely alluding to their ability to plumb the depths and to scale the heights of what it means to be human; to advance either by active engagement with the world or by written or recalled reflection possible meanings for life and living and their ability to envision projects that would enhance humanity and the world of which it is a seminal part. To a great extent these individuals, therefore, have become great symbols of wisdom.

There are, thankfully, still a small but significant number of these leading individuals in this much suffering and oh so unequal world. Other luminaries of wisdom still living thankfully that come to my mind randomly as I type these words are the wonderfully brave Aung San Suu Kyi who is a pro-democracy activist and leader of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar (formerly Burma), and a noted prisoner of conscience (who has been under house arrest for years now) and a marvellous advocate of nonviolent resistance in concord with her Buddhist beliefs, and then the retired and venerable politician and wonderful human being Nelson Mandela. Consequently, one of the links on this blog is to a wonderful group of such contemporary visionaries and symbols of hope in this often despairing world, viz., The Elders, which grouping comprises these wonderful souls: Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, our own Mary Robinson, Kofi Annan, Graça Machel, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Fernando H Cardoso, Li Zhaoxing, Muhammad Yunus and Aung San Suu Kyi. Like me, you will probably not know most of these wonderful people, but click on the link for The Elders on the right side of my page among the given links and you will learn all about them and their wonderful vision for the future of humankind.

Above I have placed a picture I took of an Italian crib in the Procathedral Dublin last Christmas, Christmas 2006

Still Searching After All These Years

Seasonal Reflections

I always find, as no doubt does the greater part of humankind, that any extended period away from one’s daily routine of work, is good for the spirit. It allows one to reflect on where one is going in life; to take things with greater ease; to indulge in pastimes, energetic or otherwise; to relax in good company; to read, to write, to paint. Christmas is one such period allowing us the space to put our otherwise fraught existence into some perspective. The central myth of Christianity – namely that of a God or what Christians call the One true God, or a least the Son of God, being born in the form of a human infant – helps to create an ideal period for such timely and seasonal reflection. This doctrine, needles to say, is called the Incarnation and it is a central tenet of orthodox Christianity.

For children there is a magic and mystery ready to be experienced that we adults, if fortunate, may share. Those of you lucky enough to have children can so easily taste of this special magic and mystery, while those of us who are either single or childless may simply hope to share in it by visiting our nieces, nephews or godchildren or helping out in the local school or in a children’s charity. However, childless or otherwise, we may with just a little willingness and a little determination share in the magic and mystery.

As I write these few words for today’s reflection I am mindful of a wonderfully magical experience I had just before we broke up from school. Our primary school principal asked me to play Santa for the second class pupils and for a special group of 8 underprivileged kids in his national school. I was delighted to accept the offer. I suppose I’ve always been something of an actor anyway. I always love performing. Anyway, the experience was magical – for the kids and indeed for me, big child that I am. I have for the last 15 years or more been convinced of the importance of each person needing to nurture the inner child. Christmas, then, is a very special time for everyone, allowing us to care for in a unique way the little boy or little girl within us.

Anyway, back to my narrative. I felt like a type of priest as I “vested” in my Santa robes. I really enjoyed the experience for the children’s sake as well as for my own. The heart of method acting I suppose is where one becomes as really and truly as possible the character in question in an attempt to bring the whole thing off. The second class pupils – around 30 of them - were all awe-struck with the arrival of Santa. The incredulity, mystery, magic, excitement, call it what you will, written on their little faces, was a simple delight to behold. One little fellow, so taken aback to be asked a question by Santa, blurted out that he could not remember where he lived. Another little one said that he did not know. All of the others knew where they lived. Then, there was the great fun of asking them what they were getting for Christmas, coupled with what they would leave on the table for Santa on Christmas Eve after he had clambered down the chimney. One little fellow said “a glass of milk.” At this stage the little lad who had said he could not remember where he lived put up his hand and said, “Santa, I remember where I live. It’s …”

Then the meeting with the special class of underprivileged children was entirely special. The principal had bought a special present for each and had ordered a meal for them from the local take-away. Christmas is indeed a special time for giving. One young boy – I’d say he was probably about 9 or 10 and who looked very pale and neglected – kept saying, “you’re not really Santa, I can see your face underneath your beard” and delighted in trying to pull off my false beard. However, their delight in getting their presents outweighed the obvious truth that this was only a rather well-rounded pot-bellied character dressed in a funny red uniform.

Ah yes, I walked back to the secondary school with a lighter step, having been the receiver of something special and beautiful in life – the wonderful experience of being involved in helping others, in the very joy of giving; the appreciation of the very truth of the matter that to give is really to receive a hundred times over. I walked with the lightness of a newly converted Ebenezer Scrooge as he had awoken to the real truth of Christmas, that to give is the ultimate experience of love. I, no doubt, had a tear in my eye.

Whatever the myths that we humans subscribe to – be they religious ones like Christmas or more humanistic ones like “Santa Claus” – one thing is certain and that is that we need them to give some meaning to our little lives. Surely, it matters not a jot what we believe in – once those beliefs do not hurt others or cause others to be hurt; once those beliefs enhance the dignity of all human life and promote love and kindness among all races. Whether they are true literally or not is also, to my mind, inconsequential. We need life-enhancing myths to keep us going. That’s why fundamentalist believers of all kinds annoy me with the literalness of their beliefs – a literalness that often leads to hate and bloodshed. That’s also why fundamentalist atheists of all kinds annoy me too, because fundamentally they have the same evangelical outlook about their own scientific beliefs that fundamentalist religious believers have of their religious convictions. Both these groups are sure and certain of the validity of their stances and of the sure and certain invalidity of the stances of their opponents. Also both these groups want to convert you and me and every reasonable matter-of-fact human being to the validity of their stances. Not alone are they sure that they are right, but they are doubly sure that we less knowledgeable and oh so ignorant ones need to be disabused of our false beliefs and converted to the real truth their own stance! (Indeed, as every philosopher worth his or her salt, or any reasonably intelligent questioning human being knows, whatever truth is or more correctly whatever truths are, they are never as simple or as cut and dried as fundamentalists of all hues would have us believe.)

What both groups need is to taste a little more of the magic and mystery of life. Both need also to take themselves with a cartload of salt; to take themselves less seriously and to be more open and just a little less sure. They need to bone up on the real meaning of myth. They need to examine the language of their beliefs; to question their own presuppositions a little more sceptically from time to time. They need a greater sense of humour. Let them go out to the cinema or theatre. Let them go out and listen to opposing viewpoints. Let them come out of their ivory towers and walk among real people. Let them go to the iconoclastic comedians of this world and begin to laugh at themselves!

Above I have placed a picture I took with my mobile phone of the Christmas Tree in my mother's ward at St Mary's Hospital, Phoenix Par, Dublin, a few days ago.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

In Search of Meaning

Certainty Versus Uncertainty

As I grow older I get progressively less certain about things. The certitudes I once embraced as a young man have receded far into the background of my consciousness. The ground underneath my feet seems not to be as solid as I once thought. When I look out into the horizon across the waters that bathe this small island it’s hard to see the whole vista with one hundred per cent clarity. Not everything is crystal clear. Wherever 100% clarity exists, it certainly does not exist in my mind or even in my own perceptions. I’m not even sure as to whether the world of things is as I perceive it. Then, when it comes to the world of the mind itself, the solid ground I once presumed I walked upon is now no longer that secure or solid at all. Certainties are vanishing for me like smoke in the wind.

Honesty is refreshing and freeing. In intellectual honesty we are no longer slaves to set ideas, dogmas of any kind or indeed our own presumptions and biases. Intellectual honesty, as well as emotional honesty, is a hard virtue to practise. Those who are both emotionally and intellectually honest have done a lot of deep soul searching, and that often at a cost to either their personal or professional lives. These thoughts are occasioned both by the reflectivity that descends upon me at this particular season of the year – Christmastide – and also by other constraining realities like the deaths of acquaintances, my mother’s dementia, the fact that her younger brother, Ted, 75 is dying of cancer and also by the fact that I’m at that juncture in my life where I need a change of job for my own sanity and well-being. This latter fact has led me to take the risk of pursuing a career break at my own expense. Deep down I feel good, but I am also concerned about how I shall eventually earn some money should I choose not to go back to teaching. So many certainties have died for me. I am at a crossroads physically (50 years old just with high B.P., endogenous depression and high cholesterol); professionally I’m feeling burnt-out and know it and so I’m searching deep inside for meaning. That’s what Jung said after all - his sixth task of ageing, “determining the meaning of one’s life,” is about gaining conscious awareness of one’s purpose for being. It is a profound dimension of human behaviour, and the second half of human life is where it finds its most essential expression.

I have been dipping into a wonderful book today called The Irish Soul in Dialogue (The Liffey Press, 2002) edited by Stephen J. Costello, a philosopher in UCD. I began to re-read certain of his interviews with “great” or at least ”well-known” contemporary Irish figures. Two interviews I re-read provide a marvellous contrast and a wonderful background for my personal ruminations. I refer to the conversations Stephen had with the erstwhile Professor of Psychiatry, UCD, Dr. Ivor Browne and the one with Cardinal Desmond Connell, emeritus Professor of Metaphysics at the same educational establishment..

Cardinal Connell comes across as a genial person who is conservative and Thomistic to a fault. He simply loves traditional metaphysics and talks with animation and conviction about angels, archangels and guardian angels. Without a doubt he is an intellectual and knows his “stuff” inside out. However, it is ivory tower “stuff,” totally unrelated to real lived life. One wonders how the Pope appointed a total “airy-fairy” academic to a pastoral role in the Church when the man was reaching retirement age as Professor of Metaphysics in UCD. One gets the feeling that one is in the presence of a dinosaur when reading this rather strange and arcane interview.

Connell is a proud man who is rather easily offended, e.g., here is an account of one such offence taken in his own words: “When Trinity celebrated the third centenary of Berkeley, and Berkeley was heavily influenced by Malebranche (Connell’s doctoral area), I was informed that I was not invited to give a talk there, though I was invited to give a few quid, but I got great satisfaction from one of the lecturers referring to my work.” (op. cit., p. 53) Of the famous mediaeval German mystic Eckhart, this is what the Cardinal says: “Needless to say, Eckhart has led to all kinds of nonsense, including that man who left the Dominicans – what’s his name?” He brushes aside psychology – such as the transpersonal psychology of Jung as “psychologizing” and that “the trouble is that they are trying to appreciate all that at a purely phenomenological level, and the phenomenological level is insufficient. The phenomenological level is the level of experience. But you have to reflect on the deeper conditions of experience at the metaphysical level.” (ibid. p58) Then he talks with complete certainty, and undoubtedly deep conviction, about the nature of angels as pure spirit. Everything he says reads like the catechism, but as he is a deep believer and a Cardinal of the Church we can at least expect as much.

Dr. Connell has not much time for theology qua theology, that is for pure theology or what he terms as “pure theological positivism.” The following makes interesting partisan and doctrinaire reading: “A theology that is not nurtured by philosophy becomes a pure theological positivism. All you can do is keep repeating what has been said, but there’s no penetration, no deeper understanding. The truths of the faith call for reflection… Protestants very often go in for a very positivistic theology. Since Vatican II we have been tending in that direction. What’s interesting about the Second Vatican Council is that all the great figures of the Council were brought up on the Thomistic revival and they had metaphysics. It was said that the bishops sang “Should auld Aquinas be forgot!” Ratzinger, of course, is a poacher turned gamekeeper! He was one of the liberals of the Second Vatican Council. Ratzinger was always an excellent theologian. I am not for any moment suggesting that he was heterodox.” (ibid. p.64.) This says a lot about doctrinaire, dogmatic and almost fascist positions as regards the certainty of one’s own beliefs. However, to be fair to the man, he is a sincere believer and a cardinal after all – the whole thing is part of the scheme of things to which he signed up as a priest and later as a cardinal. Not to defend it could be construed as the height of dishonesty and hypocrisy.

Then to read Professor Ivor Browne one one finds oneself on different ground altogether. Browne is not an orthodox believer at all. He is a sincere searcher for the truth and follows wherever both his head (intellect) and heart (intuitions, beliefs etc) lead him. His is refreshingly undogmatic stuff. “I refuse,” he says, “to sign up to certainties.” (op.cit., p. 22) The sheer level of intellectual honesty is at times breathtaking. His exchanges and questions are direct, sincere and humble at all times, e.g., “What does he mean by that?”…“I’ve never read him in detail.”… “I don’t like to use the word ‘belief.’ ” … “I would say that I would have a very eclectic view.” When asked about Lacan he says simply and disarmingly “I’ve never understood him.” (ibid., pp 11-29, passim)

About the Celtic Tiger he says rather insightfully: “This Celtic Tiger is quite frightening because the old religion has died and nothing is replacing it. There are no signs of any idealism.” (ibid., p. 26)

And finally, in response to the question as to whether he is happy or not, he replies again disarmingly, “No. I don’t think so… I don’t think it’s particularly important. That’s where we have gone wrong now, that we are searching for it. The need to be happy is an absurd notion.” (ibid., p. 29)

All of this I find riveting and interesting. Of course, Browne is no “atheist”. He’s probably a spiritual agnostic and Christian-Buddhist of sorts like me. In fact I cannot describe my beliefs as I grow older at all, save to say that I am refashioning and re-shaping them continually as I age. I am loathe to discard anything that gives meaning to my life. In like manner, Ivor Browne does, as a Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist, would subscribe to the fact that the meaning in life lies in the very quest for that meaning. Perhaps this is all we need to know. Perhaps also, all we need is the help of our fellow pilgrims on the way.

The above picture is one I took in the town of my birth - Roscrea - where the old is gradually accepting the new. The old ways are changing. A new world has begun for Ireland come of age as a multinational country.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Still Point - The Centre Holds!

For this post, I will begin with some lines from the Tao Te Ching. Stanza 9 is worth quoting in full and runs thus:

Fill your bowl to the brim
And it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
And it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
And your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
And you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

There is much wisdom in the above quoted lines. We are peculiar creatures who are literally tormented by our infinite desires. Enough is not enough at all. The more we have, the more we want. The more we get, the more still we want. We are vice-ridden and desire-tormented. No wonder the Christian tradition talks about the seven deadly sins. Interpreted literally these sins brought in their eventual trail hellfire and damnation. Metaphorically, though, they plumb the depths of our seemingly unquenchable desires. Listed in Latin by both Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th Century AD and later (also in Latin) by Dante Alighieri in his epic poem The Divine Comedy the seven deadly sins are as follows: Luxuria (extravagance, later lust), Gula (gluttony), Avaritia (greed), Acedia (sloth), Ira (wrath), Invidia (envy), and Superbia (pride).

We are animals at base, of course, and we are pretty much instinctual creatures like our fellows of other species in the animal kingdom. Hence the sexual urge or desire is one of the strongest basic urges or instincts within us. Hence Lust, which is uncurbed by the mores of society or the rules and regulations of the Church, is deemed to be a deadly sin leading the believer to hellfire and damnation. Likewise with Gluttony. We cannot get enough of a good thing such as good food and wine – here we are prone to both drink and eat to excess. There, then follows Greed which would seem to be the very basis of Western economy. We cannot seem to get enough money. Then follow in quick succession the vices of Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride. Sloth is not just simple indolence or laziness – it’s more insidious still – it’s the base desire to do absolutely nothing at all. Of the others that are left, I feel that Wrath earns its pride of place to use a rather unfortunate pun, insofar that modern society seems to be shot through with sheer wanton anger which is wont to explode unpredictably anywhere and at any time on both the streets and in the homes of modern society.

The wisdom of the East (desires are seen as afflictions of the psyche which lead to suffering) as well as the wisdom of the West (unbridled desires are vices and deadly sins that lead to eternal punishment) understood this basic psychology at the heart of humankind. Both in their own ways sought to correct this instinctual or animalistic behaviour by various practices like prayer and confession (and other sacraments, sacramentals and devotions) in Roman Catholicism and by asceticism, prayer and meditation in the East. The former, unfortunately oftentimes concentrated too much on fear and even on brutal punishments and death in certain cases while the latter was more often than not gentler and more understanding of the human psyche. Is it any wonder that many contemporary psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists feel at home in Taoism and Buddhism and Eastern prayer and meditation techniques? The Christian tradition has too often been guilt-ridden and guilt-inducing in its methods of controlling its flock. In fact, quite often they saw/see leadership, not as their founder Jesus Christ would have wanted – that is, a shepherd who cares for his flock – but rather in terms of control and consequent punishment for breaking the rules.

The Tao, or rather understanding and accepting its power in our lives, will bring us beyound desires, beyond our cravings, beyond our clinging to things and even clinging to people in relationships, beyond all these lesser things to a more objective position where we see the interconnectedness of things, the deep unity or integrity of things beyond the disparity and the dis-integrity of the many. From the Still Point things hold together. To re-write Yeats, we find that indeed from this newly discovery vantage point “the centre does indeed hold.”

I will finish these musings with another line or two from the Tao Te Ching:

In stanza 11 we read the wonderful paradoxical words:

We join the spokes together in a wheel,
But it is the centre hole
That makes the wagon move.

Above I have appended a picture of our family grave in Roscrea - to bring as it were a realistic if cold perspective on all the above musings.

The Still Point of Being

Trusting the Tao of Things

It’s difficult, oftentimes very difficult, to let go and trust life as we experience it with its entire vicissitudes, that somewhere beneath or above or within us – use whatever preposition you wish – there lies a pattern or a meaning. Let me come straight to the point. Some four weeks back I stood in a large room at the local undertaker’s viewing the body of a brother of a work colleague who had died of cancer. I had met this individual twice or three times through work – an amiable, jovial bon-vivant type of guy. Now here he was, Liam X, laid out in a coffin, just two months before his fiftieth birthday. As I viewed the body I noticed how yellow and shrivelled it was – how lifeless, lifeless, lifeless the cadaver was. In a corner stood his brother with his nephew, both confused and dazed. Liam X was a successful business man who left two beautiful children and a lovely wife, and I’m fairly sure, lots of money. This was a successful man indeed. He once lived life fully. Now he was no more. He was lifeless, lifeless, lifeless.

Why did the death of this man whom I did not know very well – certainly an acquaintance but not a friend – have such an impact on me? Well, I suppose this was a death in which I was not emotionally involved, but rather, almost more significantly, this was a death in which I was philosophically, existentially and by implication of shared years objectively involved. Liam X was exactly 1 month younger than me. I was born January 5th 1958 while he was born in February of that same year. For me, then, Liam X’s death hit me in a deeply conscious, self-enhancing, life-affirming way. It touched roots of being (even non-being) that resided deep within my very core; deep within every single cell of that home I call my body-mind.

Then, there is the coming to terms with my own ageing – what it is like to grow old. I suffer from at least three complaints – high blood pressure, a poor cholesterol level and endogenous depression – for all of which I am on medication. This morning the doctor warned me about my increasing waistline and that my bloods showed an increase in certain sugars which were borderline diabetic. That’s all I need – the possibility of more pills to add to my woes. However, I am not at all upset by these complaints as I will do my best in the New Year to begin exercising and getting my weight down. That way, the doctor advises me I will not be a candidate for diabetes – which, along with high blood pressure, runs in the family. Once again, I found myself observing more objectively than usual what the doctor was saying. Yes, I can do more exercise – definitely I can. Of late, I cannot remember consciously going for any walks. Definitely, there will be New Year resolutions as regards my weight. Also, as I recounted in my last post, I have decided to take at least a year out from teaching. I have decided to inscribe for an M.Phil. in psychoanalysis in TCD. I am beginning to feel that a weight has been taken off my shoulders. I am beginning to feel lighter already as a result of this decision. In like manner, I hope and believe indeed that such decisions will also influence me to make further ones as regards my lifestyle – type of food I consume, as well as the intention to do more physical exercise. If I’ve had the firmness of mind to decide on taking a year out, I can and will exercise the same firmness of mind as regards these other issues.

All of these things listed above, plus all the other existential concerns we experience as we go through life make up what I have called in my title above, “The Tao of Things.” They are the Tao of Things for me right now. I must trust the body sense of all that I am experiencing here and now. The language I am using here in these last few sentences is rooted in the therapy of “focusing” propounded and established by the great psychiatrist, Eugene Gendlin, M.D., and to which I was introduced some years back by a friend of mine. Oftentimes, our bodies know best, and it’s the best of wisdom to listen to its complaints and to take action thereupon.

Lao Tsu (Lao Tzu, Lao Zi) taught that the wisest approach was a way of ‘non struggle action’ ("Wuwei"or "wu wei") – not inaction but rather a harmonisation of one’s personal will with the natural harmony and justice of Nature. ‘The World is ruled by letting things take their natural course. It cannot be ruled by going against nature or arrogance.’ According to Chinese tradition,Laozi lived in the 6th century BC. Historians contend that Laozi actually lived in the 4th century BC, concurrent with the Hundred Schools of Thought and Warring States Period, that he is a synthesis of multiple historical figures or that he is a mythical figure. However, these facts are quite irrelevant to the importance of the teaching contained in that body of wisdom called The Tao or in the religious tenets of the religion called Taoism.

There are many names for Tao, e.g., The Eternal Tao; the Great Tao; the Primal Unity; the Source; the Cosmic Mother; the Infinite and Ineffable Principle of Life; the One; let’s even use that greener than green term Gaia; God; “the Unmoved Mover” (Aristotle); the Moral Order; the Right; the Principle; the Nature of Life’s forces; the Method; the Way; “the Unity behind the Multeity” (Coleridge) - in many ways the concept of Tao resembles the Greek concept of Logos. In fact, in modern translations of the New Testament into Chinese, logos is translated by the word “Tao”. We could add further names to this list of synonyms. Let the reader add his or her own!

I’ll finish this post with a few quotations from the Tao which appeal to me:

Free from desire, you realise the mystery/ Caught in Desire, you see only the manifestations. (Tao 1)

Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place. (Tao 3)

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself
And don’t compare and compete,
Everybody will respect you. (Tao 8)

I have taken all my quotations from the lovely edition of the Tao called Tao Te Ching: an Illustrated Journey (Translated by Stephen Mitchell, a Frances Lincoln Publication, 1999).

The picture I have pasted above is one I shot up through the trees from a supine position on the grass in July 2006 in a small park in Pistoia in Tuscany. In a way it expresses the Still Point of Being or the Tao.

Friday, December 21, 2007



I use this word in the plural for a simple and precise reason not related at all to any sophisticated nuances of that same word. The plural is in my mind because my father used the phrase “communications down” when he had a mild stoke just three weeks before he died in 1993. I can remember standing in the hallway of our then home in Artane and his refusing to talk to our Uncle Jimmy who rang frequently for a chat. This was very unlike my father who simply loved people and always used the phone to keep in touch with them. When verbal communications go down humans we can be stranded. My father was stranded. For the first time in my life I saw my father totally lost and confused, and most essentially frightened.

”Communication” is a much used and indeed abused word whether it is used in the singular or in the plural. Here, for the purposes of this post I shall use the singular and plural forms of this word interchangeably as meaning how human beings communicate with each other. For me at any rate, I see communication as happening at a variety of different levels from the surface level on down to the depth level – from the superficial to the profound respectively. It would also seem that there are many other degrees of communication in between these two extremes.

Obviously when you ride on the bus or the tram your relationship to the driver is particularly superficial – perhaps functional would be a better word to describe such relationships. By their very nature, or very obvious function, such relationships must of necessity be shallow or superficial. Our relationships with many other humans is on this functional level – the shop assistant, the waiter or waitress, the washing machine repair man, the mechanic, the electrician or the boiler repair man or plumber all belong to this category.

However, the length of time we spend in the company of these people will also alter the level of communication. What may have started out at a superficial level may be brought deeper by sheer chance or circumstance. Recently, having witnessed an accident that held up traffic on our local main road, I began to hold a conversation with one of the bus drivers of the several buses, which were held up for over an hour. I learned that he was Romanian by nationality, had a degree in music and that bus driving was the only job he could manage to get to keep himself, his wife and family with a rather average standard of living. In other words a functional relationship can be brought deeper by circumstances and by the sheer amount of time we have to spend or do spend in one another’s company.

As a teacher “communication” of content is important. However, as we commendably learned at college many years ago during our teacher education, teaching is so much more that “filling information into empty jugs or vessels.” There is a dynamism in the process of communication that is so much more than content. Indeed, many years later when I was involved in adult education, I learnt that the “process” is more important than the “content” for adult learning. I think and feel that the same applies to teaching young people also – perhaps not with the same intensity. There is also the implicit and explicit attitude of care and respect that the teacher has for the pupil as well as his or her understanding and acceptance of the children with all their various educational abilities or lack of it. When the relationship between teacher and class is good real communication exists. Where good communication exists real teaching and real learning take place.

Obviously there will be different levels of communication going on in different classes. Exploring and discussing a poem may bring a teacher and class far deeper than say working out either chemical formulae or algebraic equations. Likewise a class in life skills or SPHE may bring both class and teacher to depths of understanding and acceptance not reached in other classes. However, here again let me emphasise that each level from superficial to deep or profound is of equal importance. I’m not arguing here for an hierarchy of importance – merely pointing out that there are distinct levels of communication available to us as human beings. The real skill in both living and in doing any job, teaching and learning included, is to be able to skilfully go with ease from level to level as each is called for to do proper justice to the subject or situation at hand.

A skilled communicator can relate to any other in an “I-Thou” way with practice. An “I-It” relationship is purely functional and does have its place in the scheme of things. However, when and if we treat others consistently like objects or things they will justly feel dehumanised and we ourselves are reduced, not alone in their eyes, but with respect to our own sense of dignity and integrity. When we dehumanise others we dehumanise ourselves. When we communicate with others in a dignified and dignifying way we are saying yes to the spirit of life and the light of inspiration that dwells both in the speaker and in the listener. We consequently embrace a shared space and presence that enhances all.

Above I have pasted another picture of our christmas party for the old folks. Again it was taken with my mobile phone. Real commincation takes place so naturally really!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

New Horizons

Free Spirits and New Directions

Free spirits walk lightly on the face of this earth. I have met some of them in my time on my journey through my life thus far. They are an enviable lot. They simply do not let the world tie them down. They seem to embrace risk. I also love being in their company, as the ties that society throws over the rest of us do not shackle them. They simply do not swallow the “lies” that this same society wants its members to swallow whole. They refuse to be enslaved by jobs or ideas, or worse still ideologies. An image I have of such free souls is that of the silhouette of a walker or climber setting out up a hill or small mountain with his coat slung over his shoulder. Another image is that of the dancer. I am reminded of a beautiful scene from that wonderful novel by Sebastian Barry - The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty - where the young Eneas’s mother dances in the hearth to cheer up both herself and her young son. She, like my imaginary walker, is a free spirit – a wonderful soul who is true to her very nature.

Free spirits are not slaves of money. They do not ape the ways of the so-called successful yuppies, such as, desiring and driving the latest four-wheel-drive jeep, bigger and better houses, better and more lucrative jobs, power by any means possible etc. Promotion at work is often something that does not even enter their consciousness. They are relatively happy with their lot. Please note that I’m being realistic here insofar as I’ve used the word “relatively” to qualify my contention. No one is ever truly and fully happy in his or her lot. We are all subject to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet so succinctly put it. However, the free spirit knows when things are too stressful or too spirit-crushingly smothering. They simply refuse to be downtrodden by a job or task. They will simply move on to greener pastures. They seem to me to move with an enviable ease and lightness through this oftentimes painful and stressful world.

I write these few lines as I have come to a decision in my life to take a career break from teaching; to refuse to be enslaved by a job that has become spirit crushing and soul destroying for me at this juncture in my career; to pursue my first love – academic study – this time an M.Phil. in psychoanalysis. And after that, who knows what the future will hold for me? I feel lighter already. I have thrown off my shoulders a spiritual and existential weight. Already I am breathing more freely and am walking ever lighter on this earth.

Above is a picture I took of the Abbé at Rouen, June 2006. The architects of such churches certainly had different horizons in mind than we do today.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Festive Interlude

The Spirit of Christmas

The wake of the Celtic Tiger is indeed a dusty, dry, and oftentimes spiritless one. Its dust cloud blurs the vision of communities and chokes the enthusiasm of many for the higher virtues such as the service of others done on a voluntary basis. However, sometimes, when the dust settles, some few good souls come out and attempt to serve even a small libation to those less fortunate who thirst for simple company in a lonely all-too-bleak world.

Once again, I, like many others of my generation, am growing tired of the inevitable round of Christmas parties that pander to appetites of excess whether of food or drink. However, it’s not all naked acquisitiveness and sheer greed. There are the odd few generous and giving souls. In short, these few words were inspired by the generosity and giving of our students at school. While our kids may be rough and oftentimes uncouth and unruly, they are generous to a fault with whatever little they have. This is the festive season, and we teachers and a band of loyal senior students raise money and organize a Christmas party for the old folks or senior citizens of the surrounding area. This is a heart-warming and spirit-lifting enterprise.

Young people do care about the elderly and the less fortunate. This was evidenced by the willingness to help and the cheerful giving of our boys as they raised funds, collected spot prizes, organized caterers, set up the room and decorated it brilliantly, danced with the old folk, sang some songs, served the food and talked to the invited guests in such a caring manner. Such natural goodness is a joy to behold and brings an occasional tear to my eye. St Augustine of Hippo used to say, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Well, there were plenty of cheerful givers last Saturday night at our annual Christmas Party at St Joseph’s from teachers to pupils to parents. Goodness and kindness can be infectious. It has also been said that to give is to receive a thousand times; only when one gives does one appreciate how the good energy or karma of such acts rebounds to the good of the giver in manifold ways, not the least of which is what we may term a very important “feel-good-factor.”

Likewise a timely re-reading of Charles Dickens’s wonderful little seasonal novel A Christmas Carol (1843) is a salutary reminder of the life-strangling and spirit-crushing character of selfishness and meanness. Happily, it’s central character, Ebenezer Scrooge learns before it is too late this salutary lesson when The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present and The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come visit him. In the end, he is converted by the impact of these visions to appreciate the true spirit of Christmas as one of giving, caring and sharing. In short, he has been given an opportunity to repent. Scrooge does so and becomes a model of generosity and kindness. "Many laughed to see this alteration in him, but he let them laugh and little heeded them. His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him. And it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge."

Above I have uploaded a few pictures taken on my mobile phone at our Christmas party

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Ethics and Psychology

Giving Ethics an Empirical Dimension

I owe my title once again to an author I’m reading. It comes from one of the stated aims of Jonathan Glover in writing his magisterial Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. He expresses this aim on page xii of his introduction et passim. In my last post I referred to the theoretical and academic, which at least is pretty dry and somewhat meaningless to the rest of us when uncoupled from practical experience. On a practical level, theoretical physics needs to be complemented by applied physics to give it clothes as it were. (Needless to say the latter needs the former even to do its calculations) Likewise, discussing ethical issues from the comfort of our armchairs, hotels, salons or lecture halls is a singularly dry and somewhat meaningless pursuit when unhinged from practical and pragmatic experiences.

In the first chapter Glover pointedly adverts to this fact by underscoring the importance of real experience and how this gives edge to our thoughts and reflections. A classroom teacher can bring much practical experience to the educational debate, while the theorist can bring the findings of academic research. Both are needed. One without the other is a “lame duck.” I also referred in my last post to how classroom experience keeps the teacher “real.” Likewise, from Glover’s point of view in discussing the ethics of war, practical experience, or at least dialogue with those who were involved in real live combat and even atrocities and reflection on those experiences all have an influencing effect on developing the study of ethics.

I also liked very much another of Glover’s stated aims in this wonderful book mentioned above, namely the idea of bringing “psychology and ethics closer together.” (op.cit., p. 6)

I will close this post with a fuller quotation from Glover, which we could all do well to contemplate from time to time:

“Some intellectual disciplines are highly abstract, and perhaps understanding people is unimportant in those fields, but ethics is not one of them. I hope this book will help bring closer to the centre of ethics some questions about people and what they are like. The prospect of bringing ethics and psychology closer involves thinking about some of the things we now know civilized people are capable of doing to each other.” (ibid., p. 6)

This quotation brings me back to my Leaving Certificate English class of 1976 when, under the tutelage of one very erudite and gentlemanly scholar called Michael McLoughlain, we were discussing Hamlet. I will always remember Michael, with whom I had the pleasure of teaching many years later as a fellow staff member, saying to us that anyone of us was capable of murder given the right circumstances, that we, too, were each Hamlets or could be Hamlets or even worse. I remember being quite enthralled and somewhat taken aback by Michael’s contention. Now, I just accept it as a self-evident truth.

Was an ethical stance perceived as being possible during Nazi times? Would we have been brave enough to stand against the tide?

Friday, December 07, 2007

Humanity, Sanity and Insanity

Ideas Versus Humanity

Trinity College Dublin, which notably was founded by the great Virgin Queen Bess I in 1592 and is the oldest college in Ireland, remains a veritable academic, if not spiritual oasis, at the heart of our busy city. It is in the news today, that is, The Irish Times, Friday 07/12/2007, page 11. The headline on this rather heartening story runs: “President leads fond memories in Trinity College of “Matt the Jap” – a truly atrocious and un-stylistic headline. However, the piece underneath, is truly touchingly written, bringing us a “feel-good”, “touchy-feely” story to warm our hearts for these dark days on the run up to the Christmas season.

However, I must heap praise on the head of the assistant junior dean of TCD, one Dr. Joseph O’Gorman, who delivered a truly touching eulogy on the late Matteo Matubara, more fondly called “Matt the Jap” who, since graduating from this hallowed academe with an MLitt in 1987, had apparently hung around in the interim up until his death making a likeable nuisance of himself – a sort of a quixotic eccentric who could speak and write some seven languages. Some of us can only make fools of ourselves in one or possibly two languages. I envy the late Matt’s greater scope for tom-foolery.

However, I must get to the heart of the matter before getting a little too drunk on my words. Therefore, let me get back to the words of the erudite Dr. Joseph O’Gorman. I think and feel that his words, which are quoted in today’s article, are deserving of acknowledgement for their wisdom and profundity. In short, here is what he had to say: “Matt has, for generations of staff, students, lecturers, personified a link back to Trinity in a very real way that has been for many of us more tangible than any number of degrees and diplomas. For is our humanity not better comprehended by understanding humans rather than ideas?”

Is not this last sentence worth pondering? It’s brilliant really, and that this sentiment was enunciated by a learned don in the very heart of the academy is even more important. It’s good to see that our academics are not living in ivory towers. We all need to stay real.

I teach in an inner city school where the anger levels are getting higher and higher. A growing minority of students are positively explosive. Teachers are getting pens and other articles hurled at them of late by boys who need professional help. Add to this the fact that we have recently had a WSE or Whole School Evaluation, which we are told, went very well. Here, you get inspectors, five or six in all, who come to "live within" the school community for a week to evaluate what is happening on the ground. They have ideas, lofty enough methinks; somewhat impractical methinks, too and, they do seem to live in ivory towers, methinks, also. I wonder could they suggest how to handle the stress of meeting naked aggression. Would they tell the teacher to reflect on the incident, write a report, consult the discipline policy document, refer the poor boy to the school counsellor or psychologist if only there were one? Maybe, simpling ducking the thrown object is all one can do before reporting to the principal? Who will be our first staff member to be punched in anger, methinks betimes? Anyway, what I’m getting at with this rather tangential digression is that the real world is always there, no matter how much we wish to flee off to our academic, imaginary or ideal one. These young kids are keeping us real.

Here’s a bit of cynicism to “put in your pipe and smoke it” as it were. An erstwhile erudite vice-principal of St Joseph’s, who spent some forty years of his working life in our classrooms and corridors, made this rather cynical comment as his career drew to its timely conclusion: “Ah forty years of casting imaginary pearls before real swine!” Heresy, I hear you cry. How dared he betray our lofty pedagogical ideals and principles? While his comment is all too bitter, sarcastic and downright cynical, it does contain elements of the truth. After all, heresies are not lies or falsehoods but rather twisted truths or truths not fully understood! We humans grow tired of the struggle to survive and as we age we do tend to get more realistic if not a touch cynical. Ideals are fine and dandy, and they do have their place, but alas and alack humanity has a way like the proverbial weeds of pushing up through the cracks in our concrete jungles of thoughts and ideals. Kids keep us real. Adults keep us real, too, if we let them. In other words, Dr. Joseph O’Gorman’s words must set our minds thinking and our souls singing for truly we can all say with him “For is our humanity not better comprehended by understanding humans rather than ideas?” It would seem that “Matt the Jap” kept Trinity real. Is the Virgin Queen Bess smiling down from her lofty quarters in the heavenly quadrangle mewonders? Sanity and insanity are not too finely demarkated methinks, methinks, betimes, betimes...

Above I have placed a picture I took in TCD this summer!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Ethics, Psychology and the Insanity of War

History and Ethics

Sometimes we think and talk as if the twentieth century was the century that had a real monopoly on evil. It’s hard to fault us for this mistake, as indeed it was a period that witnessed two major world wars, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and many more examples of horrific attempted genocides apart from the one inflicted on the Jewish race. However, on further reflection, we realise that it is a myth to think that such gross evil is unique to the twentieth century.

I share totally the sentiments of Jonathan Glover (philosopher and ethicist) in his magisterial work Humanity: A Moral History of The Twentieth Century (Pimlico, 2001). These sentiments are worth quoting here: “To talk of twentieth-century atrocities is in one way misleading. It is a myth that barbarism is unique to the twentieth century: the whole of human history includes wars, massacres, and every kind of torture and cruelty: there are grounds for thinking that over much of the world the changes of the last hundred years or so have been towards a psychological climate more humane than at any previous time.” (Op. cit., p. 3)

I have long been of the opinion that our awareness of right and wrong has grown and developed. It seems to me on both an historical and a psychological level that the contention that some abstract essentialist system of right and wrong, objectively out there carved in stone in some mystical heavenly vault is patently wrong. Just as any other body of knowledge has grown over the years, so also has that body of knowledge comprising ethics and morality.

Firstly, let us make a distinction between morality and ethics. Morality has three principal meanings. In the first instance, morality means a code of conduct held to be authoritative in matters of right and wrong, whether by society, philosophy, religion, or individual conscience., Secondly, in a normative and universal, sense, morality refers to an ideal code of conduct, one which would be espoused in preference to alternatives by all rational people, under specified conditions. Thirdly, 'morality' could be said to be synonymous with ethics, the systematic philosophical study of the moral domain. In short, then, morality refers to a code of conduct (practical and pragmatic, to be applied in day-to-day living) while ethics is a systematic and philosophical study of the former.

As our world has passed through history since the beginnings of civilization as we know it, roughly 5000 years B.C., it has grown in knowledge and science, and various cultures have developed that embody these realms of knowledge. It is also evident that rules and regulations have grown to protect these societies and communities as they developed. It can also be argued that the rights of the individual were only recognized and realised very late in that development. In short, both morality and ethics have grown as humankind has grown in awareness and consciousness of who and what it is.

The history of our awareness of the rights of humankind is very recent indeed. Slavery was acceptable in the ancient Roman and Greek worlds, as indeed it was in most, if not all, of the many others. Indeed, slavery was accepted for hundreds of years by the Southern States of America which proclaimed themselves the Confederate States of the United States after secession. They upheld this line right up until the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865) when they were roundly defeated. (In September 1862, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation made ending slavery in the South a war goal, and this was to complicate the Confederacy's manpower shortages.) It is worth reminding ourselves aslo that it is only in our very recent history that William Wilberforce (1759-1833) became one of the greatest voices against the slave trade in England which led to The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. It is interesting also to note that Wilberforece, the ultimate philantropist,was one of the founding members of The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in 1824.

Likewise, humankind’s growing awareness of Human Rights can be seen in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Note: the original hand-written text ended on the phrase "the pursuit of property" rather than "the pursuit of Happiness" but the phrase was changed in subsequent copies in part because it was broader. The latter phrase is used today). (July 4, 1776). These lofty sentiments are indeed admirable aspirations and were recognised immediately as such. However, aspirations are all too often a long way indeed from the reality of the situation. Journalists and commentators in England were not long in pointing out the inconsistencies and seeming hypocrisy in these sentiments, most notably that the existence and acceptance of slavery in America contradicted the lofty ideals espoused.

One can hardly quarrel with the great Abraham Lincoln’s sentiments in his Gettysburg Address: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." (1863) That this great president was instrumental in bringing an end to slavery on an official level is undeniable. That many human beings of whatever colour skin continued to be enslavers and slaves in their minds and in their consequent actions also is sadly undeniable

. In all of this there has been much blindness and lack of awareness on the part of human beings. Nothing was ever said about how settlers had treated the native indigenous Red Indians who originally inhabited the vast plains of America. Likewise the Aboriginal people of Australia was simply airbrushed out of its history. It is almost as if these various indigenous people never existed at all. Somehow morality and ethics simply did not stretch that far at all. How strangely blind we are as humankind?

Then, it took until 1948 for The Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be enacted. At this stage we had been living in civilization for some 7000 years. We are indeed slow learners. Why? Because, I suppose we learn by experience, and experience teaches us very slowly. It took the deaths of 6 million Jews and 6 million others of various “unacceptable” characteristics to be literally done to death by starvation, torture and immolation in the gas ovens of the Nazi concentration camps to bring that declaration about. Yes, we are slow learners. However slowly our learning goes, at least it continues. Our awareness of various evils is growing apace with our growing knowledge.

Today, no human being worthy of the designation will agree with slavery. We all profess the equality of each and every human being in the eyes of national and international law. We all cherish the rights of all equally whether they are indigenous tribes or our very own itinerant or traveller population here in Ireland. Likewise, we abhor the crimes of child abuse in all its forms: physical, sexual and psychological. Again, here we must remind ourselves that the rights of children have also only very recently been recognized. The Declaration of the Rights of the Child was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the UN in the resolution 1386(XIV) of 20 November 1959. The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by the General Assembly of the UN with resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989 for entry into force 2 September 1990, in accordance with article 49. This is very recent indeed.

Likewise, I agree with Jonathan Glover about the fact that the psychological experience of people has sharpened our ethical perception of actions. In the wake of both World Wars (and the many other wars like those of Vietnam – a seemingly endless list) of the twentieth century we have witnessed the explosion of insight into post- traumatic distress and many other psychological and psychiatric disorders consequent on the horrific experience of war. Many ethical issues arise from these experiences. Likewise the personal testimonies of battered wives and husbands, of adults who were abused in all forms as children, the testimonies of children themselves, the accounts given by alcoholics, drug addicts and many others have all helped to sharpen our awareness of ethical issues. In short ethics must take psychology and experience seriously if it is to have any lasting and significant role in the future development of humankind.

War affects children mostly. We adults have a lot to be accountable for. Above is a picture of Iraqi children during the present war!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

War and Insanity 3

The Deer Hunter (1978)

It gets easier as one grows older to accept the foibles, inconsistencies, jealousies and sheer anger and hatred that can lie at the centre of the human heart. On an individual level one grows to accept the weaknesses of oneself and of one’s friends and acquaintances. Then and only then can one learn to rejoice in those superior qualities that we humans can show from time to time: - strength of conviction, loyalty, dignity, honesty, integrity, courage, care and love to name some of the more obvious ones. In this light, it’s when we begin to look at the shadow aspects of our own character and begin to tame and integrate them, and it’s when we begin to observe the shadow aspects of our own tribe and accept them that we can learn to appreciate the brighter aspects of our Self and of our individual nations. When we look at both our nations and ourselves in this holistic sense, only then perhaps can we learn to understand even some little of the very mystery that we ourselves really are.

Whatever about accepting ourselves and indeed the mystery of evil in which we are so often embroiled on an individual and on a more universal level, it is almost always very difficult indeed to understand it. I suppose understanding must follow upon acceptance in human affairs. Whether we ever really get to understand the mystery of evil and indeed the mystery of life is indeed a moot question. However, the quest to understand is indeed the spiritual journey of us all, indeed possibly our only one real and meaningful journey. It is, if I may appropriate that existential phrase of Jean-Paul Sartre, our very own unique project.

I have been recently viewing some old films on DVD. The Deer Hunter was one, which I viewed last night, and I believe it has a thing or two to say about the mystery of evil at the heart of man. Most of the story occurs in southern Vietnam and in working-class Clairton, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh. It features the friends Michael, Steven, Nick, Stanley, John, and Axel and they are American steel workers of Rusyn ancestry. Mike, Steven and Nick are soon leaving for service in Vietnam with the U.S. Army. Steven gets married before they ship off, and the following morning, all except Steven go on one last deer hunting trip. The film features Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep. Robert deNiro, who plays the hero, Michael, has said this about acting: “One of the best things about being an actor is that it allows you to live other people’s lives without having to pay the price. It’s not that I find myself to be this fascinating personality, one of the things I had to decide on is whether or not to be an actor or a personality.” Indeed, this is where deNero triumphs as a superb and brilliant actor: - he does indeed get into the mind of the character, the very heart of method acting. Here, he gets into the mind of the Vietnam or Nam veteran realising on screen what it means to be a “killer,” to have the “killer instinct” in that widely accepted way, legitimated by human society – I refer to war of course. War and “official killing” are parallelled in this film with deer hunting. In the most famous quote from the film, “One shot. That’s what it’s all about. One shot,” Michael sums up his philosophy of hunting with his group of close friend’s from the steel works. It is also an ominous and hauntingly ironic line that prefigures the horrific theme of Russian roulette that runs through the film. Could there be a worse action than that of Russian roulette to sum up the depths of evil and insanity? In a way it symbolizes the very pointlessness of war and especially of the war in Vietnam.

Another quote that sticks in our minds is that of the returning Green Beret from Vietnam whom the friends encounter in the wedding scene. When they ask him what Vietnam is like he repeats several times like an ominous chorus, “fuck it!” Already we have the ominous sense of impending doom. The second scene in the film brings to the heart of Vietnam and to the very heart of the matter – the sheer horrific nature of evil. Nick, Steven and Mike are imprisoned by drunken evil Viet Cong captors who are making them play Russian roulette. To engineer their escape, Mike bluffs and tricks the drunken Communist jailors to allow him three bullets in the revolver, in place of just one. The jailors are elated at this insanity, and they increase their bets. Both Mike and Nick pull the trigger once - they both survive, even though the gun has three bullets inside. Then, upon Mike's second turn, he quickly fires the pistol at the Viet Cong, and he and Nick overtake their weapons and kill the rest of the Viet Cong. After rescuing Steve and escaping downriver on a floating tree, an American helicopter rescues them, but only Nick succeeds; the weak Steven falls back to the river, with Mike choosing to drop into the river to rescue him. Steven's legs are severely broken in the fall; Mike carries him until they reach friendly lines. It is interesting to note that DeNero and his fellow actor performed their own stunt here!

DeNiro considered his role as Michael the epitome of his career, because therein he explored the general character of the Vietnam vet with a deep understanding of the traumatic effects such experiences have on the human mind. In a way it is an exploration of insanity, too. It asks the question, “How long can a human being remain sane in the horrific situation in which he or she is dropped during the time of war?” Indeed, it could be argued, as some experts in cinema studies have done, that Taxi Driver, in which DeNero also starred as a Vietnam vet, is in a way a psychological sequel to The Deer Hunter, even though it predates it by two years. It’s as if the Michael of the latter was a more purely noble and heroic character and the Travis Bickle of the former was the resulting embittered, psychologically corrupted and evil serial killer into which Michael would undoubtedly be transformed.

In the mid-seventies of the last century there was definitely a malaise and an unwillingness to cope with the after-effects of the Vietnam war. The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) were the first films to portray combat in Vietnam in over a decade after The Green Berets (1968). Instead, the films of the early to mid-seventies, like Coming Home (1978) and Taxi Driver (1976), dealt with the issue of Vietnam rather indirectly, or more metaphorically, as opposed to head-on, like Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now. Because of this, Taxi Driver was able to explore the psychological implications of a mind that has experienced warfare and how that experience actively controls the passions and violent urges of a character like Travis.

I have already adverted to the fact that the game of Russian roulette runs as a motif through this wonderfully disturbing film. In doing so Cimino has managed to capture the sense of insanity and horror and indeed the sheer pointlessness of war. It was a marvellously effective motif to run with. In so doing we the viewers are left very disturbed by a very disturbing film. This is a tragic and depressing film, which we all need to view and to ponder, as it does not spare the tragic consequences of modern warfare and the sheer lostness of little human beings amidst its sheer horror.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

War and Insanity 2

The Death of Innocence and the Restoration of Sanity

I use the word “innocence,” not to denote a person’s lack of guilt before the laws or standards of State, Church or Personal Conscience, but rather to denote that state of being we have all experienced at some time in our lives where we were blissfully positive about the world and all it contains. In short, I refer to that period in our lives that predates our growing awareness of how the world actually is, that blissful period before experience brings us into the real world.

Parents and adults marvel at the innocence of children – as indeed they should. Responsible parents and adults further realise that such innocence is to be cherished, nourished and protected for a certain length of years in the child’s life. Crimes, which forcefully take away a child’s innocence, are consequently adjudged to be most grave, as indeed they should be. Hence society has put in place many laws, rules and indeed organizations and societies to protect such innocence. However, all parents and adults realise that a child must be gradually taught the ways of the world, as he or she grows older. They teach their youngsters about the dangers involved in living in modern society. Gradually, the growing youngster develops layers of experience until they come of age, normally around 18 where they are adjudged to be adult citizens of society.

I believe that William Blake’s wonderful diptych work Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are worth reading again and again by way of reflecting on the polar opposites innocence and experience. Perhaps, with a more psychological hat on, one could say that these antinomies exist on a continuum just like sexuality and other such oppositional realities. However, a perusal of the wonderful Blake’s literary (or indeed artistic) work must wait for another day and another post.

I believe also that sanity is about acquiring experience layer by layer as we grow through life. This is not to deny innocence at all, but rather to cherish it in its allotted time span and then to see it not so much as totally replaced by experience but rather complemented and strengthened by it. Read Blake and ponder and meditate on it. Then do all the personal developmental work about cherishing the child within. All modern therapies refer to this as self-parenting. Having done a fair bit of this myself in the last ten years or so I can say that it has been most enriching and very rewarding. Such work makes one really aware of how Innocence and Experience are dynamically at work in us all through our lives.

Much psychotherapeutic work (be it grief counselling, psychosexual therapy or therapies around abuse in all its forms, self-harm, depression, schizophrenia, the plethora of phobias) finds that working with the inner child is very rewarding. Gradually as the client or patient embraces the inner child they are strengthened and can move forward in their lives. In other words their sanity is strengthened and consolidated.

I have been reading of late Jonathan Glover’s wonderful book Humanity: A Moral History of Twentieth Century (Random House, 2001). This book interrogates our recent history from a moral point of view. It questions deeply humankind’s psychology and motives. It asks the big questions we all ask from time to time: What made possible in our wildest dreams Hiroshima, the Nazi genocide, the Bombing of Dresden, the Gulag, The Chinese Cultural revolution, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and many other atrocities. Glover writes like an angel and paints vivid word pictures of dreadful events. It is a stimulating and thought-provoking book. But more than that it is deeply humane. It deserves to be read by a very wide audience, I feel, because more of us must ask these bigger and harder questions of ourselves, of our politicians whether local, national, European or international. After all, the very survival of humankind is at stake. Anyway Glover’s first chapter is entitled “Never Such Innocence again” and I was bowled over by its passion for experience-enhanced and experience-strengthened innocence, for deeply held human values. Above all I was captivated by his probing analysis of the psychology of evil and his search for a meaningful ethics and a thoughtful morality.

In this chapter he quotes Philip Larkin’s wonderful poem about those queues of men who gathered outside the enlisting offices all around England in 1914 – indeed he takes his title for the chapter from the poem. I’ll quote Larkin’s poem in full here, as I believe it’s well worth reflecting on.


Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day--
And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word--the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again