Saturday, February 03, 2007

Growing Older – Acceptance and Denial

As we get older we become more aware of our bodies either through the various illnesses that humankind is prone to or through the gradual restrictions physically forced upon us by the given fact of the process of ageing. This is something we can do nothing about, of course, though we can exercise and take good care of our bodies to prolong both our fitness and the length of our lives. Outside this we can do something more powerful still – we can change our attitude to ageing, we can cease denial and come to a position of generous acceptance of the natural processes that the human body is prone to.

William Butler Yeats, our very own first Nobel Prize for Poetry, truthfully expresses his anguish about growing old in his poems. Yeats was not too happy with this fact. Who is? I remember an old friend of mine (now in his mid-eighties and in a nursing home) remarking about another man, (a former teacher of mine) that we both knew that “he had not learnt to grow old gracefully.” I’ve never forgotten that observation. Tim Leonard has learnt to grow old gracefully. My own father did, but it took my mother a little longer. I hope that I’ll have the necessary acceptance to learn to do so when my time inexorably comes.

We Irish are all acquainted with these famous lines from our greatest national poet: “This is no country for old men” the beginning words of his marvellously rich and deep poem which we had to plough through as 17 year olds in school. Yeats was preoccupied with old age and his failing physical abilities. The predicament facing Yeats was what he perceived to be a growing dichotomy between his ageing body and his still youthful mind or intellect. These words that follow later in the same poem (the second stanza to be precise) have always haunted me and show Yeats’ contempt and lack of acceptance for growing old:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For ever tatter in its mortal dress

Also these sad words from stanza three come to mind: Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is…

And somewhere else in his poems I read (I cannot recall where) that “Love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement.”
These lines remind me of what it truly means to look at life and death as a whole, to come to grips with the “shittiness” of life as well as the “gold filigree” as it were to sustain a rather extreme contrasting image. I am also reminded of the ancient phrase from St Augustine of Hippo, who knew the temptations of the flesh, ‘inter urinas et faeces nascimur’ (‘We are born between piss and shit’). That’s putting it plain and simple alright! I must point out that there is a lot of good in both piss and shit. The latter can be put on the roses and the former can help maintain the nitrogen cycle.

I am not attempting to be in anyway lurid here. I am, in fact, attempting to be fully human or whole. My opening words were that as we become older we become more aware of our bodies. What lives in my mind is the time when my poor mother got a slight stroke at 84 which took out most of her more recent memories. She was at home after that for a year or so being looked after by home help people – marvellous human beings – and the community nurse. Once when I called in, well after both home help and nurse had long gone to find that she had soiled herself. My older brother and I had no option but to clean her up just like one would a little baby. At first we were revolted by this act, but as we set to our task we were more accepting. After all the Irish tradition talks of “the second childhood” that is dementia. With this wonderful outlook on life there is little difference between changing a child’s or an adult’s nappy in effect. Looking back I feel I was ennobled by this act.

I feel that we tend to sanitize our world too much. In striving for excellence, which we must if we believe in progress, let us not swallow whole the myth of perfection. There is no such thing as perfection. Things break, machines grind to a halt, vegetation decays, and humankind grows older and dies. What coming to terms with life involves is accepting its wholeness – the cycles of the seasons, the birth, growth and death of all living sentient creatures among whose numbers we humans are counted. Yes, there will be ups and downs, the “shittiness” and the “gold filigree”, pain and suffering, joys and elations of various descriptions but there never will be perfection. There will only be wholeness and all that this implies – both the pursuit of excellence on the one hand and the acceptance of death on the other.

St Augustine was a wonderfully bright fellow who before he became a Christian lived a full life which included all the ways of the flesh including sex. He had a son called Adeodatus (“Gift of God” literally). However, after his conversion to Christianity, he grew to scorn the body as rather evil. We can trace back to St Augustine and others the whole traditional Christian and Catholic contempt for the body and sex which I grew up with and certainly the many generations before my era. The body and all its desires, especially sexual, were “air brushed” as it were out of the picture, condemned as evil, nasty, and of the devil. The human being was sanitized, almost disembodied in the sense that we became merely souls living in a husk called a body which is perishable and evil. The soul being eternal lived on. The duty of the soul was to control the lusts of the body. This was a very schizophrenic approach indeed to the whole question of what being human really meant. Human essence, whatever that is, became almost “too spiritualized.” When I was studying spirituality in the mid-eighties a Doctor of the Theology, a woman and nun, used always repeat to us the wonderfully enlightened phrase “nothing human is foreign to spirituality.” This would be accepted by all modern takes on spirituality by all the various Christian churches at least. That means that sexuality, indeed the various orientations within that, are part and parcel of spirituality. Likewise growing old, ageing, the “piss and shit” of life and our eventual death are all part of a good strong vibrant healthy and accepting spirituality.

This duality of body and soul is still with us. In philosophy the soul was equated with the mind and Descartes would be famous for what is called in philosophical circles Cartesian dualism – a complex way of saying that the mind is a separate entity to the body. Most commentators today do not subscribe to these extreme dualities of body and soul or body and mind. We have come a long way from such over-simplifications. However, the Body Soul and Body Mind concepts are of great concern to both theologians and to philosophers and the whole area is fraught with many difficult issues, most of them too complex for me. I may go into them in later posts after long and considered readings of the basic texts. However, such study is beyond my intention in these pages. What I wish to point out is that a holistic approach to life which looks at the human person in his/her totality, that does not attempt to divide the human phenomenon into separate sanitized areas in a clinical way is the modern approach. Our mantra must be “whole”, not “part”.

I’ll finish with a small quotation I came across recently. “The essence of philosophy is the remembrance of death.” (Basil the Great, 4th Century CE)

Above I have placed two pictures to uillustrate ageing. The first is one of my mam taken when she was 16 and one taken when she was 88

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Psychology of Belief

It's All in the Mind or is It?
The great American poet Robert Frost was asked once what he had learnt about life after his many years of living. He replied succinctly, as becomes a poet of his stature: "It goes on!" Brief and to the point. I love his answer as there is no bullshit there. In the end of the day the only thing to do with life is literally "to get on with it" as it were.

These thoughts are occasioned after attending a funeral yesterday evening of a marvellous old lady and grandmother who spent most of her life being helpful and of service to all whom she happened to meet. Her name is/was Marie Brady and she ran the Day Care Centre in East Wall, Dublin, for over twenty years on a voluntary basis. Her two daughters and her grandchildren were in a state of shock at the suddenness of her leavetaking.

The priest, whom I know, is a rather philosophical fellow and can show his sheer humanity at occasions like these. He said that there are two events over which we have absolutely no control in liofe and they are birth and death respectively. It is our duty and responsibility to make some sense of the adventure we call life which is the line as it were joining these two discrete points. It is up to us to find some way of making sense of our adventure. For Marie as for my own mother the Roman Catholic Faith was the structure within which some sense was made of the mystery we call life. For others it will be all the variety of religions that there exist in the world. For others yet again it will be their job, their academic career, their art, their writing, their research. For those who are more materialistic it will, of course, be the gathering of material wealth. Then again for others like me it will be the complementary health movement, the Self Help Movement, the goal of getting to know the depths and heights of the human psyche.

In the end of the day I both think and feel that "making sense" of the project (a concept Jean Paul Sartre used) we call life is the only thing that is worthwhile. How we make sense of it is another matter. There are, of course, so many people in the world who simply fail to make sense of the project. These I should imagine are lost souls among whom we can number murderers, criminals of a psychotic nature, depressives of all kinds, people who for one reason or another are beyond the helping of their fellow humans. Many of these end up as suicides and as homeless poor creatures. Their very living is indeed a living death.

In short, I think and feel, that it all boils down to what each of us an individual beings really need in our lives. I remember once an Oxford don replying to the question of belief with these words or wordssomewhat similar: "Oh yes, I once was a firm believer. I needed to believe when I was younger. Now I don't believe, not because I convinced myself that God did not exist. Rather there came a time in my life when I no longer needed him. You see I grew out of it as it were." His words struck home because this man was not trying to score a point on his listeners or on his questioner. Rather he was being sincere in what he was saying. No more and no less can we ask of any human being.

I have written in these pages many times that my own life project has been similar to a great and large extent. I have studied theology to postgraduate level and did my Masters thesis on the great John Henry Newman's philosophy/theology of belief. I loved his approach which was based on a deep and well argued philosophy of mind, a unique psychology of belief long before psychology was ever discussed in theological circles. At the time I was a firm Christian believer. Newman always was fond of saying that unbelief was not a question of the head - that is intellect - rather it was, he said, a question of the heart. Likewise with me. I have not worked out in any way whether God exists or not. In fact I feel the question for me is unimportant, though not totally irrelevant. What really is important is whether I have some structure for pusuing my own personal spiritual quest of making sense of my project called my life. Readers of these pages will know what these structures are for me. As a practising Catholic I lasted until I was 40 years of age. I am now 49, so the for the last 9 years I have pursued my spiritual quest in group therapy, individual therapy, group work of various kinds and degrees, many personal self-help courses, creativity, poetry, writing and indeed blogging.

Really, I have an aversion to those people whether on the extreme evangelical Christian wing or even the extreme evangelical scientific wing (like Richard Dawkins)who try to convince people that they are wrong in what they believe. This, I think and I feel, is where a good psychology of belief comes in. Whatever we believe in we believe in that because it is fulfilling a felt need for us. My mother had the structure of Mother Church to give her life meaning. In fact, in her later years the local Church provided her with a social outlet and many friends and activities. Trying to argue a person into or out of belief is neither here nor there, because logic has really nothing to do with it. To return once again to my friend J H Newman, logic will not convince us to believe in anything, because quite simply as he said so well in his Apologia, "the whole being moves," not just one aspect of it like logic!

Intellectuals seem to get the idea that belief is only a matter of what is clear to the rational mind. There is so much more to the human psyche - there is that whole non-rational (as distinct from irrational, of course) side to humankind. Belief lies somewhere in a wholeness of approach to life. A firm believer can be just as logical and as rational as an atheist or an agnostic and his/her faith can be just as logical as the scientific stand of the latter. Once one believes, it's just a question of marshalling your arguments as it were. Likewise, once one disbelieves it is also just a matter of marshalling your arguments also. You are not trying to convince another person - you are just trying to convince yourself. In short, then, our stance in life is based on more complex foundations than either evangelicals of either the Christian right wing or of the evangelical scientific right wing will allow if I may use these loaded phrases to describe them.

In the end I think and feel that the whole question of belief/unbelief is in short one of making sense of life in a way that gives meaning and in a way that fulfills the legitimate psychological felt needs of the human person! It is now 11.00 A.M. and I'm sitting in DCU at my computer station waiting for the pupils to come back from their break.

A presto, amici.

The above picture shows musicians on the Pont des Arts, Paris, Summer 2006. Music after all is the language of the soul. It has a meaning that transcends words.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Back to University Again

Thoughts At DCU

It is now precisely 9.42 A.M. and I'm sitting at a computer terminal in Lab number 1 in the Computer Department of DCU. It's amazing how when one changes the environment one almost changes reality. I'm almost in another world. Normally, I should be teaching at this moment, giving instructions to students and imparting knowledge of some sort. Instead I am listening to the rather dull clicks of keys being hit on keyboards of the various computers around me. My students are learning how to construct or write their very own web pages. I am reminded of the famous great Irish Bishop, George Berkeley,(1685-1753) whose famous dictum "esse est percipi" rings in my mind. I've always thought that there was some great and profound truth at a personal experiential level in this contention. This Latin phrase translates as "To be is to be perceived!"
The learned Bishops's theory has been called "subjective idealism" or "immaterialism" in his own words. Berkeley took empiricism to its extreme. I cannot really know whether a thing exists at all in itself, rather I only know that it exists in so far as I can perceive it. Hence, I cannot know that anything exists at all outside my very own ken. In other words, all I can know about any object, say the breakfast that I'm eating, is my very own perception of this breakfast.
Berkeley's thought appeals to me, though I have not studied it at great depth. Rather, its main parameters appeal to me because they resonate with my lived experience and substantiate my understanding of my world, and my love of the works of Carl Gustave Jung, the great psychiatrist, whom I have often alluded to in these pages. Jung says that we see the world not as it is in itself but rather we see the world as we ourselves are. It also reaffirms me in my own personal spiritual approach to life. For example, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said the eye is the organ I see with, and whatever the peculiar characteristics of my eye, that in itself colours my perception of reality. Hence, Coleridge said that every single individual starts out with his very own presuppositions , conscious or unconscious, basic axioms or laws of nature about which he can do very little, before he then makes sense out of the life he finds before him or within him.
I suppose Berkeley implies, if I understand him correctly, that a thing exists if it is perceived, hence the above Latin dictum. The people in this room exist because I see them and hear them, and even smell them. (After all we all do fart! Excuse this rather Joycean interruption but humour, too, is important!) So, if I, the perceiver, am not here do these people in this room exist then? Berkeley's answer is simple. They do, of course, because they exist in a greater mind than my poor finite one, that is, in the mind of God. So Berkeley's theory is quite tight - all the reality that makes up this known world exists because there is a Grand Perceptor or Perceiver Par Excellence namely the Deity or God. Whether this latter be a personal God as it was for Berkeley or the God the deists did not bother our learned Bishop.
The goal of science for Berkeley, the ultimate empiricist, is to strip away the intellectualizations and conceptualizations of human perceptions to reach as close as possible the thing in itself. One probably never gets there, I should imagine, though one approaches nearer and nearer and nearer.
Ronald Knox composed a famous ditty summarising humorously the philosophy of Berkeley. It goes:

There was a young man who said "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."
"Dear Sir, your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the Quad
And that's why this tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God."

I won't go into Berkeley's primary and secondary qualities of objects except by referring to this famous almost Hallowe'en night activity or experiment. I remember well a lecturer at college talking about his "hands in water experiment." A person (perceiver) puts one hand in a basin of very cold water and the other hand in a basin of fairly hot water. Then he/she places both hands in a basin of luke warm water. The perceiver will get two distinct results - one hand, the hotter one will register cold while the other hand, the colder, will register hot. Hence heat is a secondary and not a primary quality of an object.
Quite simply Berekeley is the father of the turn to the subject or the father of the philosophical school of subjectivity and is acknowledged as such. Another way of putting this is to state that he is one of the founders of idealism.
I also like Berkeley because he was Irish - a home-grown philosopher if you like. Also he was a genial gentleman with an affectionate disposition. I read with appreciation that he did a lot of work while in London on behalf of homeless children or what they then called foundlings. George Berkeley is listed as one of the original governors and patrons of London's Foundling Hospital (1739)

As this post quotes Knox's limerick about Berkeley's philosophy and refers to the perception of a tree I thought that this post should contain a picture of one which I took in 2005 at Newbridge House.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Clientelism gone Mad

My favourite broadcaster beyond doubt is Marian Finnucane precisely because she is easy on the ear, intelligent, understanding, and empathetic and has a marvellously sincere style of questioning her guests. Also she is a brilliant listener. Maybe this is her most important quality. In short she is entertainment and information personified. Enough of the plámás, and now I should get down to the question at issue here.

There I was as is my wont, swaddled in my duvet on Saturday morning last, listening to the redoubtable Marian when she introduced Nora Lynch. Wow! What a marvellously articulate and strong lady this latter is. Tears came to my eyes as I listened to her tragic story. She was only on the airwaves simply because two local politicians had written to the Minister of Justice no less seeking an early release of the murderer of her son. Nora Lynch's son Robert was killed by Christopher Cooney in a stabbing incident in the Banner Arms Pub in Ennis County Clare in 1991. This week it emerged that the Justice Minister was asked to expedite the release of her son's killer in representations from Junior Minister Tony Killeen and also by Clare Fine Gael TD Pat Breen. Nora told Clare FM last week and Marian yesterday that representations made by Junior Minister Tony Killeen and Fine Gael Deputy Pat Breen have brought back the tragic events which took place in the Banner Arms 16 years ago.

Good broadcasting, like good literature, should disturb the comfortable. This show was broadcasting at its best. It disturbed me to the core. It raises questions about our clientelist system with all those TD clinics. That’s the system we have. It is brought about primarily by the small size of our country and its constituencies where politicians know many people in the locality personally, and also by the fact that we have four seat constituencies. If one TD refuses to write a pleading letter on the part of a constituent another from another party will. Then say, if an old woman whose son has served 12 out of a 14 year sentence comes in and bawls her eyes out and would like her son home for Christmas what TD would not write such a letter?

On the other hand, there are the rights of the victims and of the victims’ families to be considered. Nora Lynch had to endure the trauma of revisiting the murder of her son in a public way. Victims can so easily be forgotten. Tony Killeen has apologized to Nora Lynch, and indeed as I type these words listening yet again to Marian Finnucane this bright Sunday morning Tony is in Nora’s house to apologize in person. In fact she is being interviewed by Marian as I type these very words. Once again we have the power of good broadcasting. This surely is Finnucane at her best and RTE at its best. Well done to both. Tony Killeen has undertaken never to write on behave of a prisoner again. Well done, Tony. If this makes politicians more aware of what they are doing; if it makes them more circumspect of signing letters willy nilly then this sad case will have served a good purpose in Irish society.

Again, it raises the question of how important or even unimportant are such letters anyway. Practically all of them end up in the litter bin anyway we are told. Mostly they are ignored. Politicians write them solely to pacify their constituents and look upon them as harmless. Maybe it’s time that we as a nation had done with this silly practice!

However, I am really glad I had the privilege of hearing a woman of such power, sensitivity, articulation, compassion and indeed passion as Nora Lynch on the airwaves. Suffering has strengthened and ennobled this wonderful human being. I’m inclined to sing in the words of Shakespeare: “O brave new world that has such people in it!”

The photograph above depicts winter in Malahide Castle. I took this in Winter 2005.