Saturday, January 27, 2007

Raw Emotions and Good Ethics

Raw Emotions and Good Ethics

Quite recently there was a case reported widely in the Irish media about a family who were awarded a not insubstantial sum by the courts against the State when the local Garda Síochána were judged to have been wrong and unjust in informing people that a convicted rapist, who had served his term in prison, was living in their locality. The judge found that the family in question had been subjected to considerable abuse and intimidation which necessitated their eventual leaving of this rural area for Dublin. To make matters worse this family were in fact being considerate or “Christian” if you like in so far as they offered their nephew (the guilty party) a respite until he got his own accommodation. In fact the mother of the family in question was against accepting her nephew at all, but finally agreed after some debate. This family was only doing its best and acting very morally indeed – certainly in Christian terms.

However, what inspired these few lines here was the sheer emotional strength – almost of tornado or whirlwind variety – of the responses elicited among certain members of the listening public to Joe Duffy’s Live Line programme on RTE 1 recently. Some respondents had the poor host family demonised, not just the criminal himself!

Civilized and democratic societies have long believed in “due process” for these very obvious reasons. Raw emotions – hurt, anger and sheer hatred – don’t make good justice or good law. It is not all right to victimize and intimidate an innocent family. None of us is guilty by association. I have taught many thousands of children over my 27 years teaching, some of them have ended up criminals and indeed a very small number of them have been imprisoned for murder. I am sure there are many others of them who have come before the courts for one misdemeanour or another about which neither I nor my colleagues are aware nor should even wish to be aware. As an educator, I teach all those before me. It is the same for a doctor - he/she treats the patient in front of them and makes no moral judgement. I can make no moral judgement either. No teacher worth his or her salt would say, "that child is a son of a criminal or rapist or whatever, and I won't teach him." Or worst still no teacher worth his salt would say, "that child's father is a rapist, i'll treat him like shit!" What rational democrat would stand over such behaviour? That's why the raw hatred I heard on Joe Duffy's Live Line revolted and shook me not a little.

As a child I often remember looking at movies from the Old West about lynchings of innocent as well as guilty people. We have long been educated in the principles of justice and democracy. We have all been taught that we cannot take the law into our own hands. Why? Obviously, our gut reactions are just that, reactions from the gut only, reactions which have at no stage engaged the reasons of the brain or the considered judgements of the mind.

I understand anger. After living in this world for 49 years I appreciate that all our emotions – the whole gamut of them – must be given appropriate expression. The key word here is “appropriate”. It is good to be angry, but not good at all if in expressing that anger I injure another- be he or she guilty or innocent! That’s what I have been attempting for the past three weeks in my fifth year class – to attempt to come to grips with anger and with strategies for the appropriate expression of that anger. I was always taken with what I learned many years ago at college during psychology classes – emotions are neither good or bad, they just are. It’s their wrongful expression that can be bad. This is good psychology and indeed morality.

Raw emotions don’t make for good ethics or good morality. Raw emotions would lead to criminals being strung up from the lamp posts of our towns and cities. Couldn’t you just imagine it now – a corpse here and there with a cardboard sign around its neck with “rapist,” “paedophile”, “murderer” etc printed in red on it! Mob rule is no rule. Mob rule is anarchy. Due process is slow by its very nature as it gives to all, victim and criminal, a fair hearing and a fair trial. Needless to say, I’m not allowing here for the possible and distinct corruption of the police force, the stitching up of the accused, the possibly better equipped law teams of the likes of the OJ Simpsons of this world and the other inequities of our law system. Whatever the down side of our legal system may be, due process is a fairer and more equitable system than lynchings and mob rule.

In the end of the day I suppose the importance of shows like Live Line is that it affords people an avenue to express these raw emotions, and that hopefully in so doing they help dissipate the rawness of the reaction thereby allowing for a more rational consideration of the albeit disturbing case being discussed. If this is the role of such shows then they serve a good legitimate function. However, I also fear that such shows can whip up emotions rather than quell or calm them.

What we all need is space to be at peace. The above photograph is one I took in Summer 2003 in St Stephens Green Dublin. A lovely peaceful scene no?

Friday, January 26, 2007

"Shifts" in the Irish Identity

A Question of Identity

Today, the 26th of January 2007, is the centenary of the Abbey riots during the production of Jonathan Millington Synge’s famous play The Playboy of the Western World. These thoughts are inspired by having attended a free public lecture in the Abbey Theatre to mark this important centenary.

The blurb on theatre promotional material for this public talk states: “The Unmentionable Shift: The Abbey Theatre and the Playboy Riots: On 26 January 1907 Synge’s The Playboy of The Western World premiered at the Abbey to a howl of protest. Will the ghosts of Irish theatre be present one hundred years later as Dr Eibhear Walshe examines what made the audience furious?” It was at the mention of this then very provocative word “shift” meaning lady’s undergarment or chemise that provoked paroxysms of protest from the audience, and then eventual “riots.” A few contemporary quotations from the papers of the day are worth recalling:

• A vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language.
Arthur Griffith, The United Irishman, 1907

• People stood up in their seats and demanded the withdrawal of the play [The Playboy of the Western World], and when it became clear that the cast was determined to see the thing out to the end, tempers began to fray.
The Splendid Years: Recollections of Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh, 1955

• An unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and, worse still, upon Irish peasant girlhood.
The Freeman’s Journal, 1907

• It was not for the purpose of lessening Ireland's self-respect and holding her people up to the ridicule of the world that the 'National Theatre' was established.
Irish Independent, 1909

Dr Walshe’s talk was informative and entertaining and he had it well illustrated with marvelous pictures of Synge, Yeats and Lady Gregory as well as contemporary cartoons from the newspapers. He also quoted at length letters to various papers about the so called riots. The lecture was delivered with humour and erudition.

What remains with me from this talk? Well, the question that caught my interest was the whole thorny issue of national identity. The Playboy obviously touched a very sensitive nerve with the audience. As one of my companions at the theatre remarked “Don’t forget that Ireland at the time was barely on her knees after the huge set-backs of famine, deaths and emigration in hundreds of thousands.” “Tom, I said, “you are correct in that observation.” Tom’s point was that most of the audience would have been people just about coming around to some little pride in themselves as a nation. They needed traditional heroes not antiheroes like Mike Daneen O Shay.

Also I was quite taken with the point that Lady Augusta Gregory, W.B. Yeats and Jonathon Millington Synge belonged to the Irish “aristocracy” or more properly termed the “ascendancy” or “Anglo-Irish classes” classes sending the Irish peasantry up. Here you had the ascendancy portraying the peasant life as anything but heroic, where patricide or even attempted patricide is somehow a gallant act of manhood.

I like what the great scholar and critic Martin Esslin says by way of defining theatre as a nation thinking about itself in public. Hence these riots bear witness to a great turbulence in our early sense of identity as a nation. If the search for identity in an individual’s life is turbulent how much more so must the forging of an identity by a whole nation. There will be purists and conservatives, those with mythic and heroic visions of the sanctity and purity of the nation’s manhood and womanhood – traditional Roman Catholics and nationalists - at the one pole; in the centre will be the matter-of-fact realists both of a religious and agnostic view who are open to debate while at the other pole will be the free thinkers, atheists, stirrers of debate, radical questioners, revolutionaries and subversives. I suppose J.M. Synge belonged to this last more extreme pole. His play endures because it subverted traditional conservative views of nationhood. It questioned the position of the hero in Irish society. In short it is a challenging, provocative, questioning and subversive play. We need dramatists to provoke a debate, to stir the conscience of the nation, to knock us out of our complacent slumber, to send us home disturbed (now and again) as well as entertained. This Synge does in large measure.

Another criticism which I’m inclined to agree with, voiced by another of my companions, is that Synge’s language is totally stage Irish and that it is in no way representative of a so called “peasant’s” natural use of the English language. Róisín who is almost 70 grew up in Mayo in the West of Ireland and never heard such a strange unnatural dialect as Synge has his characters utter. I have been speaking Irish now for the best part of 50 years and a lot of the dialogue in “The Playboy” grates on my ears somewhat. How much real Gaeilge J.M. Synge learned I really have to question! His language does not really reflect the Hiberno-English as we have it recounted in the works of Dwyer Joyce or in Terry Dolan’s marvelously learned books, dictionaries and internet site on the subject.

Another point Dr Walshe made was about the presence of drunken students from Trinity College at some of the performances. Like all young students, they were out not alone for entertainment but for fun and even a little trouble. What’s new in that? Student and college life is full of such antics. I wish I could have been present at those performances where there was more action in the pit than on the stage, where Yeats would have got up to lecture the audience on their behaviour, which indeed, he had to repeat in 1926 at the staging of Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars by telling the audience that 'You have disgraced yourselves again.' This was a reference to the 1907 riots obviously. Yeats wished that the audience would give the play a fair viewing or hearing, and having done so then debate the whole question of what nationhood means for the Irish.

To finish I’d like to quote Lady Gregory with respect to what she felt the role of a national theatre was. In Our Irish Theatre (1913) she stated: ‘we went on giving what we thought was good until it became popular’. In other words, the original policy was never to pander to public taste but rather to mould it.

Above I have placed a picture of The Irish Famine Monument Boston, USA. This monument represents part of our cultural identity as Irish and obviously as Irish Americans. I took it on a holiday to Boston to see my cousin Paul in March 2002

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Great Book or Classic?

What makes a great book or classic? If I were asked this question I’d answer that what makes such a book would be (i) its sense of timelessness – that it has as much relevance today as to the time it was written, (ii) that its story is universal and can be understood anywhere in the world, (iii) that its characters evoke passions in us – whether love or hate and (iv) that the way it’s written could not be improved upon, i.e., that the quality of the written word is superb. That’s my take on what a classic is, or indeed should be. I’m not so sure how many would agree with my parameters as to what makes a classic, but that the topic is of interest to the reading public is surely undeniable.

These thoughts were inspired by my reading an article by author Tom Wolfe on this very topic. He was reviewing a book called “The Top Ten Writers Pick Their Favourite Books” on the Time Magazine. See the two links at the end of this post.

To make a long story short the books were picked by the following acclaimed writers: Norman Mailer, Annie Proulx, Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, Margaret Drabble, Michael Chabon and Peter Carey and I’ve only heard of four out of these 8, so I obviously don’t read widely enough. The following are their top 10 books.

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
7. The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
10. Middlemarch by George Eliot

Again of these 10 I notice that I have read numbers 1, 3, 6, 7 and 10 – 5 out of 10. Now I’m not too unhappy with this fact. Hamlet and The Great Gatsby were on our Leaving Certificate course in 1976. I loved both immediately and they have long remained firm favourites with me. When I got to college I was introduced to Russian literature by an excellent teacher of Philosophy Rev Patrick Carmody, M.A., M.Phil. As a result of Paddy’s influence I read as much of Dostoyevsky as I could get my hands on – the Russian novel of the late nineteenth century was a highly philosophical pursuit in many ways. Dostoyevsky led me to read Leo Tolstoy who also became a firm favourite author. Therefore, I had read War and Peace, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Anna Karenina in my early twenties. I loved the philosophical take on literature of these Russian writers as philosophy had long been a passion of mine. As I did English literature as well as theology and philosophy during my first college course I had to read George Eliot’s great masterpiece Middlemarch. It was and is a tome of a book with marvelously well painted characters. This also was a wonderful find as it deals with deep emotions linked with exceptional human intelligence. Consequently, this novel, too, had a philosophical as well as a literary appeal for me. Therefore, I find that I have read five of the so called 10 greats of Literature. Strangely enough I have most of the others except The Stories of Anton Chekhov on my bookshelves, still waiting to be read. This list or listing may possibly lure me into reading the other 5 on this particular list. Maybe in a future post I’ll get around to naming my ten classics or my ten favourites at least. This might not be an unrewarding task at all!

The above photograph shows one corner of my study.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Questioning Certainty


Now, there’s one thing I’m not that certain about – and that’s certainty. I’m not certain about certainty, in other words I’m not too certain if certainty about anything is a good thing in itself. I came across a site just a minute ago called “Answers to Difficult Questions” when I googled the word “questions.” You’ve probably already guessed that this is a fundamentalist Biblical site. They have got all the answers and their mission is to share them with anyone who will listen.

I’m always more than a little sceptical of any man or woman who believes that they have all the answers, or even most of the answers. Why? Well, it would seem to be that they have somehow stopped questioning. Call to mind any of your acquaintances who might be all too ready to offer advice or to proffer the ideal solution to any problem and what type of person comes before your mind’s eye? A person settled in their positions perhaps? A person of more rigid views? A person who is somewhat closed? Or again what is commonly termed a “know all.” Such persons, even if likeable in other ways, do tend to annoy us. Instinctively we’re not too sure of such bold certainty. Instinctively we feel that the world is more complex than they paint it.

I remember reading once that those clients or patients who come to therapy with all the answers are those least likely to make any progress in solving their problems. I think I learned this piece of interesting information in Dr Eugene Gendlin’s wonderful book called Focusing which is a form of therapy which is extremely holistic, and is based on a theory/practice that the body knows best. This does not surprise us, because the client who has not got all the answers is open to learning, open to new experiences; open to new ways of doing things; open to complementary or supplementary therapies rather than narrow alternative ones. This type of person rules nothing in or out, but is open to all that is healing. Hence for many reasons I’m not too certain about the value of being certain about anything!

I have always been a follower of the wonderful Socrates and his Socratic method. Socrates’ starting point was always that of the admission of his own ignorance. As a young student of philosophy many years ago in a college called Mater Dei I was enthralled by this honest, pure and unbiased starting point. How could one possibly get a more authentic starting point for any debate? When Socrates returned to Athens from his military service at Potidiae, one of the first things he did was to enquire into what had been happening in philosophy while he had been away. According to Plato’s Apology, when Socrates returned from this battle at the age of thirty-five (in 435 bce) the Delphic Oracle, questioned by Chaerephon, pronounced him the wisest of men. Socrates himself professed to find the pronouncement ironic, indicating that the wisest of men were those who, like himself, professed to know nothing. This is what brought the contemporary wonderful teacher and writer A. C. Grayling to the study of this subject – Socrates’ persistence in asking questions, simply questions and hard questions, pertinent and even impertinent ones. Grayling sees this process of questioning as one of the most importance aspects of the philosophical quest or indeed method! Indeed, perhaps philosophy is more a method or a way of thinking than a subject with subject matter in itself!

Though our sources may exaggerate, Socrates was notoriously ugly, with a pot belly, pug nose, pop eyes and ‘pelican gait’, and he made a joke of his appearance. It is said that he had a nervous malady or disposition. Coupled with this his ugliness (in a culture that greatly valued male beauty) may have taken their toll on his character, which, though noble, sensitive, kindly, sociable, and passionate, was also guarded and reserved. An ugly questioner in a culture of beauty made him as welcome in some quarters as flies on a very hot day. What really impresses me about Socrates is that he was slow to give answers, but quick to ask questions. How contrary to this wisdom are the ways of fundamentalists who are quick to give answers and slow to ask questions! They seem to be actually placing the cart before the horse.

Socrates attached the utmost importance to his hearers coming to the truth of their own accord. He would discuss important matters with them, searching out objections to their views, and he would insist that they hazard conjectures on these matters and try to work out the truth, but he would not tell them what to think, and this often meant that he could not tell them what he himself thought, at least not in any straightforward manner. In other words Socrates was a true “educator” which we learned at college to mean “to educe or lead forth the information from the student.” In the end, Socrates is convinced that only the self-taught ever learn. The conviction that people have to think things out for themselves is a wonderful one to my mind. That’s why I love the ugly little Athenian who asked hard questions of the young and so called beautiful young men of Athens.

I also love the famous quotation from the Apology which goes: “ let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and... life without this sort of examination is not worth living...” (Plato, Apology 38a.). The last few words about the unexamined or unquestioned life as being not worth living have been often quoted.

The provenance of the wonderful piece of clipart I fail to remember unfortunately so I cannot acknowledge its author!

Accepting what cannot be Explained


These brief thoughts are my reflections on today’s brief listening session I had with my fifth year class on Anger and strategies to cope with it. There were only three 17 year old boys present. The other five or six students were training for a semi-final in Gaelic football to be played later this week.

However, with such a small group the sharing and the listening were both optimal. One boy especially, a lad who suffers from fibrosis of the kidneys gave free and vivid accounts of his anger. The others listened carefully and respectfully and added in their feelings on how they cope with their anger. Needless to say no judgements were made. No one is allowed to make any value judgements of others – standard ethical practice. One boy said he was happy in that he was listened to.

I wish here to say something about acceptance. One of my favourite plays of all time is Eugene O’Neill’s famous Long Day’s Journey into Night which tells the story of a/the classic dysfunctional family. I remember studying it at college and being deeply moved. One again it was my great former lecturer John Devitt who opened this wonderful play to my eyes and ears. I then remember being enthralled by the famous portrayal of this wonderful play on the screen, namely the 1962 film of the same name directed by Sidney Lumet which starred the marvellous Katherine Hepburn as the leading lady Mary Tyrone. Later I was to see a schoolteacher colleague of mine play the role the younger brother Edmund Tyrone. I digress too much. Words and lines and deep emotions evoked by this play still run around in my unconscious, along with the very famous and important quotation from Mary Tyrone, viz, “Let’s not try to understand what we cannot understand. Let us try to accept it…” These words might not be verbatim as it is years since I either saw or was at this play – nearly 30 years – but the reader will get the gist. The real rub in life is acceptance. Can I accept who I am? Can I really be true to Self? Can I be a really authentic human being? (Humanistic/Existential schools of therapy) Can I be congruent with my Self? (Rogers) Can I listen without value judgements? Can I listen without commenting in the negative?

Now I wish to finish this little post with the words of Jalaluddin Rumi, the 12th century mystic and poet. His words are always inspiring:

Pain only exists in resistance,
Joy exists only in acceptance.
Painful situations which you heartily accept become joyful.
Joyful situations which you do not accept become painful.
There is no such thing as a bad experience.
Bad experiences are simply the creations of your resistance to what is.

The above photo is one I took of my mother yesterday, Sunday 21 January 2007. She is now 89 and quite demented. She can sometimes remember my name and is very happy playing with her cuddly toy or teddy bear. Acceptance is a virtue I am constantly working towards!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Handling Anger


I wish to write a little about my experience of anger in the school classroom in this little post as I intend doing a small group session on this with my fifth years – about 7 or 8 students at the most. Luckily we have been gifted with a young student teacher for some three weeks which allowed another teacher and me to split our group into three. I have experience of working in and with small groups for over 10 years now and my two years spent on a course in counselling skills equips me to deal with individuals in groups, that is being sensitive to the “process”, being aware of vulnerable students in the group, and not allowing students to reveal what they might not be comfortable with, or indeed the group for that matter. I also have the back-up of a fellow teacher who is a fully trained psychotherapist, just in case I might judge someone to be “unable to cope.” That’s my good friend, colleague and fellow-counsellor, Mairéad Martin, who was appointed Careers Guidance Counsellor at the beginning of this year after 12 years teaching Religion and History with us. So I hasten to add that no teacher should undertake anything like this without training! We both, along with our new Home School Community Liaison Teacher, the Principal, and our Special Needs Teacher make up our pastoral council. So we know what we are doing!

My experience of this particular year is that they are troublesome and disruptive for a good proportion of the staff. A good number of them have left since fourth year, either voluntarily or encouraged to do so as the result of misbehaviour and disruption. These young boys/men (16/17 years of age) are liable to explode at each other or at their teacher at the least provocation. That’s just the way things are with this group. They are not the brightest of years, but they are all individually relatively good human beings like the rest of us. It’s just that their background does not allow for sophisticated reasoning – rather they understand the power of the punch or of the fist rather than of the mollifying word.

I’m reading a section on anger in Michael Hardiman’s wonderful book, Healing Life’s Hurts (Gill & Macmillan, 2001) as I type these words. Hardiman refers to what he terms dysfunctional schooling which he asserts was to one extent or another a characteristic of all Irish schooling up to the late fifties. My era, and I am now 49, came at the tail end of that darker and forbidding period in Irish social life. Indeed I certainly remember a few brutes or sadists among the many fine teachers who taught me. Thankfully they were in the minority, but if a class were unlucky enough to have one of these dysfunctional teachers the whole lot of the boys suffered. No wonder these middle aged and older adults have problems with anger, which needless to say they passed on to their offspring, and so on and so forth. Hardiman states that for those educated before the 1980s there is a legacy of emotional damage to be confronted. (I should point out that corporal punishment was outlawed in Irish schools in 1981.)

I will quote directly from Hardiman here: “This legacy comprises the following endemic characteristics of education for most of the last two centuries: 1. child abuse by teachers; 2. uncontrolled bullying; 3. preferential treatment based on ability and social class; 4. the cultivation of inferiority among those less gifted. All of these have been characteristic, to a greater or lesser extent, of the schooling received by a majority of people who are now over thirty years old.” (Opus citatum, 49-50).

My point here is that my pupils are sons of these latter pupils referred to in the immediately preceding paragraph. No wonder they are angry – after all they are most probably sons of angry fathers. One of the goals of education it would seem to me to be the identification of this anger early in students. It is only recently that the Department of Education and Science is recognising the need for trained counsellors and therapists in our schools. However, they are only available on a hit and miss basis and are not paid directly by the DES but rather by funding which the individual school can manage to raise from one quarter or another. Wherever such counsellors exist they are part-time and badly paid.

Hence it’s the likes of me and my colleagues on our Pastoral Team who attempt to do our best to help our pupils – the needy ones – mostly in our own time after lessons. We have also trained ourselves in psychotherapy and counselling skills at our own expense. I will write further on this theme in later posts. I intend beginning my session with a song on anger and hope to progress from there to how they each express their anger, constructive and destructive expressions included, suggesting constructing strategies, the use of I rather than You statements etc. That’s the plan at any rate.

The photograph I have placed above is one of O'Connell School where I was educated as a boy myself. This marvellous school was founded by Blessed Edmund Rice in 1828 and the foundation stone was laid by Daniel O'Connell himself in that very same year.