Friday, August 10, 2007

A Poem for all about to Graduate

Begin Again

(By Brendan Kennelly)

Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of light at the window,
begin to the roar of summoning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.

Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark determination
and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and the future
old friends passing though with us still.

Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces,
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.

Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.


This is one of my favourite poems by Brendan. Anyone who has ever had the privilege of being addressed or lectured to by Brendan will know that he oozes charm and a simplicity, both of which allow him to carry his rich fund of knowledge, insight and wisdom very lightly indeed. The listener or student will find himself or herself learning much by a process almost as simple as osmosis. Enthusiastic is another epithet that fits Brendan’s style of lecturing and indeed all his writing. Two other words also come to my mind – he is both a passionate and compassionate man, two qualities he shared in abundance with his fellow county man, the late John Moriarty who died some months back. If you read the above poem Brendan’s wisdom and insight into life, again quite Buddhist in spirit, leap off the page. Again, Brendan, who was best part of forty years Professor of Modern English at TCD, wears his learning lightly and loves talking with the commonality like myself. I remember some ten years back I was sitting on a seat watching a cricket match in TCD when Brendan happened to come out for his evening stroll and by chance sat down on the seat beside me. I asked was he looking for inspiration for a poem, to which he replied, “just takin’ it aisy boy, takin’ it aisy.” I’ve written his comments phonetically to catch his marvellous Kerry accent. That’s the kind of man he is – absolutely no pretensions at all. He does not need to play the professor when not “at work” or “in role.”

Beginning and ending are if you like two metaphors for living (being born) and dying (the ending of this mortal life). In a way every beginning is an ending insofar as when one graduates from school one also leaves adolescence behind; when one graduates from college one leaves one’s young student days behind; getting a job is another transitional phase made up of this ending-beginning paradox; marriage also; then we have the midlife crisis; promotion is another example; being stricken by an illness; a bereavement; a new relationship; old age and then finally dying all share in this ending-beginning motif. That’s what rites of passage are all about, moving on, because we cannot stay in the same place always.

And so graduations like marriages are somewhat bitter-sweet occasions because they are transitional. Life itself is transitional by its very nature. That is the very meaning of mortality. But something inside us drives us ahead, wants us to keep moving onwards…, that is, until we breathe our very last breath. And so we will read the last stanza of this beautiful poem again:

Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

Above I have pasted a picture of some trees I took at Newbridge House three years ago. They are in their winter beauty, but come spring they will have to begin all over again!

Always Begin Again

Of New Beginnings and Commencements

In our colleges all around the globe our graduands, or graduates to be, have been informed of their results. They have arrived at a significant stage in their lives, a goal achieved, or better still a significant milestone on a journey that may lead to further academic or life achievement. For modern humankind graduation ceremonies or commencements have become a singular rite of passage, a particular acknowledgement of progress, a statement of “Well done young man, or young lady, you are growing up and becoming an important key to the progress of our modern society.” When I was at college many years ago I was chosen to give the address on behalf of the graduating students in response to the speech of the then Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Dermot Ryan. It was a particular honour and privilege for me to do so. I have always loved public speaking since then and have done quite a bit of it in the meantime – it’s a skill in itself that is learnt very much in practice and by listening to others.

Anyway, why am I reminded of this? Well, a good number of my past pupils graduate each year and it brings my mind back to commencement speeches. Also I was reading lately a little about that great entrepreneur Steve Jobs who is the founder and CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios. Not that I was ever a computer head mind you, rather I look on my p.c. as I do my car merely a means to an end. Also I have a dislike of Macs as I’m too p.c. oriented and find them a little awkward to use though Darren Wogan (a past pupil) and I managed to conquer Quark 4.1 on an iMac for publishing our School Yearbook two years back. I swore I’d never touch a Mac again. Apologies to all you Mac users out there, and indeed to Steve Jobs, and to all you graphics people - it’s my own ignorance I know! What caught my attention with respect to Steve Jobs was his persistence in the face of complete failure, his refusal to give into such failure and his starting anew from scratch to become a millionaire, or billionaire rather, for the second time. Also what riveted my attention was his rather Buddhist take on life, an appreciation of life that is close to my own heart.

Steve Jobs was chosen to give the Commencement address at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California USA on June 12, 2005. His marvellous speech is on the internet, the theme being quite simply “Find what you love” and take it from there. This is excellent advice for all you graduands out there. Here is a brilliant quote from Steve’s commencement speech:

“Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

This is exactly what the Buddhists mean by acknowledging Death or making friends with death. It is far from being morbid. Once one acknowledges death as part of life, not as the end of life – rather part and parcel of living only then do you begin to embrace life and to live it to the full. Steve went on in this speech to tell about how he had been diagnosed with cancer and how he fought back and is now fully recovered.

Then he made the following profoundly meaningful comments, also Buddhist in tone:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

I don’t normally quote at such length in these pages, but aren’t the two paragraphs above mind-blowing? Of all the books I have on meditation my favourite is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Rider, 1992) by Sogyal Rinpoche whom it was my privilege to hear speak on meditation and Buddhism at DCU in early summer 2006 about which I wrote in these pages around that time. It appears to me that Steve Jobs has swallowed whole Rinpoche’s wisdom, the wisdom of beautiful Tibetan Buddhism. You will find Steve Jobs’ speech along with many other commencement addresses at Humanity

Above is a picture of Steve Jobs giving the commencement address at Standford University, 2005

Quo Vadis?

That Happiest and Most Frustrating of Curses – Dilettantism

Dilettantism is mostly used in a pejorative and dismissive sense, namely that the dilettante is an amateur, a dabbler and even a trifler. Indeed, Carl Gustave Jung who was an amazing genius capable of going into depth in widely diverse subjects such as mythology, history, philology, philosophy, theology, psychiatry, psychology, modern and classical languages, the sciences and of course, alchemy was accused of being “the most cursed dilettante.” (cf. the marvellous introduction of Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology, by Dr. Sonu Shamdasani, Cambridge University Press, 2003 for a summary of Jung’s encyclopaedic interests and the depths of his studies where this shallow criticism is cited.)

Years ago I remember sitting beside Dr Gabriel Daly, O.S.A., lecturer in theology at T.C.D. As a young student in the Augustinian Order of Priests for some three years of my life I had the privilege of living in the House of Studies at Ballyboden here in Dublin where also another learned man resided namely the late Wood Quay man F.X. Martin, O.S.A. who was then Professor of Medieval History at UCD. So meal times were always stimulating especially when Gabriel and Xavier were present. The repartee was learned to say the least. Both had done their primary degrees in history at Oxbridge – Gabriel at Oxford and F.X. at Cambridge and had followed them up with Doctorates not too long after. This was quite unusual at the time for two Irish priests, but the provincial knew he had two exceptional scholars in these two men. Both have written many books, F. X. on history needless to say while Gabriel wrote much on historical theology and especially on modernism. Unfortunately F.X. is dead a number of years while Gabriel is still alive and still writing. I visited F.X.’s grave and those of other former confreres recently in Glasnevin Cemetery. One poor man, Paddy Mullery I see died at 39. I remember his bringing me for a drive in the Comeragh Mountains when I was a student.

I recall one conversation I had with Gabriel when we were talking about some scholar or other and Gabriel’s assessment was that “unfortunately like a rather poor general A deployed his forces on too broad a front to make any appreciable impression on the enemy.” Good metaphor for a dilettante I should think. I learnt a lot from Gabriel – he wrote and spoke like an Oxford don and needless to say still does. I have not met him since I left religion way back in 1986. I learnt the cut and thrust of debate from him and a delight in the use of proper language.

Another of my teachers at college was the late great John Devitt who taught me English literature at Mater Dei in the late 70s of the last century. Unfortunately, John died this May gone and I luckily got to his funeral. Anyway, one day John told me that I was absolutely mad. Why? Well in 1979 at 21 I was recommended by the Head of the Education Department for an M.Ed. in T.C.D., but I had to turn it down as unfortunately my family had no money and they needed me to go to work to bring in some money. When John heard I was heading to teach in O’Connell’s and had planned to do a B.A. by night in Mathematics and Irish he blew a gasket and said, “Huh, a waste of time and money. It’s way more profitable always to go ahead and do postgraduate studies. What’s the point in going sideways?” Logically, he was right. I have spent my life going sideways, picking up bits and pieces of degrees and diplomas here and there without ever going ahead as it were. All my qualifications are divergent, indeed and my subjects are Theology, Philosophy, Education, English, Irish, Maths, History and Italian, all of which I’m qualified to teach to Leaving Certificate level with the exception of History. I can teach both Theology and Philosophy at College level having a License to teach these subjects in a seminary or college. Obviously the STL is a Pontifical or Roman degree and is recognised as being of Master’s level. It is my one regret I never pursue my studies to Doctoral level, though I had lost all my interest in theology in my late thirties. I’m now more interested in Philosophy and Psychology and read a lot in these two areas.

So I am a dilettante, and it is at one and the same time the happiest and most frustrating of curses. You always feel you have never gone far enough into anything. Maybe I have a low boredom threshold. Maybe it’s because I find so many things interesting. Gabriel was right. I am that general who deployed his forces on too broad a front and indeed I never did manage to breach the enemy’s front line. Now, pushing 50, I feel that I have not achieved all the things I could have achieved in life. Now psychology has caught my interest and I have enrolled in a psychotherapy degree for the coming October 2007 which I hope to follow with an M.Phil in psychoanalysis at TCD in 2008-9. I don’t know where this will all lead, but there I go. As a Buddhist friend of mine puts it:”wherever you go there you are!”

Anyway, whatever the future may hold I don’t know. The struggle is to live for now and in the now. That’s what all the schools of philosophy and psychology and all the great spiritualities of the Great Religions advise. Anyone who has read these pages before will know that I am enamoured with the academic world, but I count academic qualifications all as straws in the wind and a poor second to happiness in life. I was speaking to a young Romanian Dublin Bus driver this afternoon. He likes his job, but is a fully qualified music teacher at home. He’s able to give some private classes to keep his musical interests up and keeps happy that way. One of my favourite uncles on my mother’s side was James Brophy who died in 2002 aged 90 and he was one of the happiest men I had the privilege to know. He was a gardener all his life both in Stephen’s Green and Leinster Lawn which is now the car park for the T.D.s. Very few of my relatives have degrees – most of them are tradesmen and civil servants. All of them are happy without degrees. That’s okay with me because having a degree is like having a trade, just another way of earning a living. I’ll die a dilettante, but I’m happy.

I thought I'd upload an old picture of me as a monk. This picture was taken when I was 28, a few months before I left the "brotherhood." I spent three years from time I was 25 until I was 28 with the Augustinians. They were good times as I studied a lot and got to work with alcoholics, drug addicts, the elderly and the dying. It was an eye-opener to say the least!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Personality 4

I have just finished reading a lovely and lively introduction to Jungian Psychology called Jung and the Human Psyche by Dr. Mary Ann Mattoon (Routledge, 2005) I won’t say much about the book or indeed quote from it. I read it to get some ideas for this post, for adding to my thoughts on what exactly the human personality is; to get some insights into my own on-going personal development, or individuation as Jung himself described everyone’s personal growth.

I loved a quotation from a poem which begins Chapter 2 as it points out in a clear and poetic way (if this is not a contradiction in terms?) what we all experience as we grow up especially in our late teens and early twenties, i.e., a plurality and confusion of images of who exactly we are at all. The poem says it all – I’ll quote just a few lines to give you the flavour:

Within my earthly temple there’s a crowd.
There’s one of us that’s humble; one’s that’s proud.
There’s one that’s broken-hearted for his sins.
And one who’s unrepentant, sits and grins.
There’s one who loves his neighbour as himself,
And one who cares for naught but fame and pelp.
From such corroding care would I be free
If once I could determine which is Me?

(Edward Sandford Martin, op.cit., quoted p. 17)

Have you ever wondered – Would the real me ever stand up? It’s not just a question of “Who am I?” Often it’s a question of “Who are we?” Obviously if I am to have any good and valuable and integrated self-concept I have to get beyond plurality to unity. I cannot live in a state of ambiguous plurality. Okay, it’s obvious that we all have to have masks to protect ourselves, but we also have to realise that they are not the “real me” which it is the job of my personal development, or of my unique individuation process to shape and form or even “discover.”

Okay, I’m a teacher and it’s a very distinct role. It still is an honourable role in society but one which has lessened in kudos in more recent years. It’s a role that brings power with it, and here I’m alluding to the power of knowledge, simply because it is a truism to state that “knowledge is power.” Without knowledge you can get nowhere in the world. When I was 7 years of age I said to my mam and dad that I wanted to become a teacher. I was transfixed by the power of knowledge and then the power of imparting that knowledge. However, I’m aware it’s only a role, a mask. I cannot be “teacher” with my friends, brothers, nephews etc. I have to exercise another role namely that of “friend”, “brother” or “uncle” etc. The more mature and more integrated person can go with ease from one role to another because quite simple he knows that each one is a role or a mask he is wearing to make life liveable, comfortable and indeed workable. We all want our policemen to be policemen and firemen to be firemen when there is an accident or crisis. We want our teachers to be teachers, lecturers to be lecturers, plumbers to be plumbers, engineers to be engineers etc. It’s okay, though, and very human indeed for these people to come out of role from time to time. A doctor or a nurse or a teacher or a policeman is allowed to make human statements, too, showing their human concern, frustrations with others etc. This is all very human, and as long as it does not interfere with their job, it is most acceptable. No one likes dealing with an automaton. And, indeed, 99.999% of the time this above described human behaviour is the way we humans function.

Over the years I have attending countless book launches and poetry readings and one theme that comes up again and again, almost ad nauseam, is that of “finding one’s voice.” This latter phrase has become a veritable cliché in poetry and literary circles. A maker of poems, who might not be adjudged to be that good, could be said not to have “found his voice yet!” This last comment has been made at least once of my own poor efforts. I remember being hurt the first time this was said, but I’m rather indifferent to this comment now since Brendan Kennelly, creative writer, poet, scholar and Professor Emeritus of English at TCD, a mentor of mine through having attended many of his workshops over the years, said once that every writer has many voices. Brilliant, I thought, I’m not going to listen to that cliché again about finding “my voice.”

However, there is a sense, of course, where all these voices, (another metaphor for all those masks), have to be orchestrated as it were, or brought into some harmony – otherwise you have chaos and confusion and sheer breakdown in identity. So, other metaphors for the growth and integration of personality can be used. If we experience confusion as to who we are we must learn to accept all the different masks and learn how to change them with ease; we must learn to be a conductor of the different voices with which we speak; we must learn to conduct an overall orchestra and get a symphony of Self playing soulfully as it were.

So, okay, my many masks are: friend, brother, teacher, uncle, writer, poet, searcher, scholar (in the traditional sense of one who likes to study), graduate and postgraduate. I’m sure there are others. None of these is the real me, yet each of them is part of the symphony that my personality is, part of the One Self that I am, the Real Me, underneath that wishes to sing soulfully through each mask or voice.

And so growing up is never easy. There is much frustration and not a little hurt along the way, as well, of course, as all the good experiences like eating ice cream and making love and drinking a good bottle of wine. However, all the “ups and downs”, all the “ins and outs”, all the “overs and abouts” have to be integrated into a whole or into a unit that I can call me. Freud spoke about “making the unconscious conscious.” Jung spoke about the process of Individuation. Carl Rogers spoke about Self-actualization. Another psychiatrist or psychotherapist spoke about “Self-Realization,” (I cannot remember who at the moment used this precise term) while my hero psychiatrist, whom I would dearly have loved to have met, Anthony Storr referred to the “integrity of the personality.” However, while these terms have their own small variations and nuances, they are in fact all terms for the same goal – namely the self-development of the personality, which, all agree is the very goal and meaning of our life’s project or task.

Another metaphor, one of my favourites, with which I’ll finish this post is a very famous and astute one, and widely quoted, namely: “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” In this context the whole is the Real Me, the Self, the Soul, Call-It-What-You-Like, while the distinct parts are if you like the many voices, the many instruments, the many masks which we use from day to day to survive. Hence, we have that marvellous word, well-used in Jungian circles and indeed in all the Humanistic theories and practices of psychotherapy, namely, holism. We have Jung to thank for this powerful emphasis in contemporary psychology and psychiatry.

The above picture is one I took of a section of the Garravogue River, Sligo town, Septemeb 2006. I am using this picture as my screensaver at the moment because I feel this picture is very meditative and Buddhist - Just look at the delicate flowers like the lotus blossom pushing up from that great amorphous black unconscious deep!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Stream of Consciousness

Stream of Consciousness

(A piece of automatic uncensored writing a la James Joyce. This is the type of exercise the writer and poet Pat Boran taught me when I attended a creative writing course some 15 years ago. Take pen in hand and write and let what comes come. Why not try it yourself. i have pages of it. What you do when finished is pick out the good sentences or the good thoughts or the lovely combinations of words here and there and use them as a basis for a poem or whatever.)

Still it is after the rain’s and dream’s end and I write unmindful of structure uncensored thoughts that come to a cloudless mind like a blue sky screening patterns from God knows where but it is a lovely calm day away from the concerns of more worldly cares and I write to see what the unconscious may throw up haphazard under the touch of plastic keys on a keyboard somewhere at one point one minuscule point irrelevant one dot one jot one iota on the plane of infinity stretching like a figure eight always folding in upon itself uncomplicated unlike those myriad folds in the cortex of the brain that thinks the higher thoughts but why should the higher thoughts be more important that the lower ones why should the higher placed block be more important than the block placed lower down in the building all blocks matter surely all bricks have a part to play in the overall structure and I still type trying to attempting to hoping to reach out and envelop all that is within my consciousness bring it in to those areas of my cognition ah but the words are piling high today driving fast today wanting to play like lion cubs not wanting enforced order and I think of Lear shouting and roaring like a madman before the storms that shook his foundations and there have been so many that have shaken my own foundations and foundations is a lovely word so applicable I want my foundations to be strong though I fear their dissolution their devastation their crumbling into nothing no-thing but in the absence of no-thing there must be some-thing surely and my muscles in my right wrist pains me as I type calling me to another small consciousness of the extension in space of who or what ever of what and who ever it is that I am of what and who ever this consciousness is that types and I search and I yearn for a path for a purpose for a meaning in the myriad pathways that lead ever onward in a wonderfully plural world searching for a unity and I think of big bangs and that infinitely intense singularity that is thought to have been our origins the origins of all matter thinking and unthinking feeling and unfeeling I must think now without commas without semicolons or colons or full stops because matter has its own in-built purpose and structure almost chaotic and there is a chaos theory beautiful chaos oh yes let me ponder the beginning if there was a beginning with all that intensity in one pointed singularity and that bang blast and bits everywhere clouds of smoke and then infinite expansion and everything flying apart apart flying filling the universe and still expanding I could never get my head around time and space bending over one another and then I was brought back to Picasso with his handless clocks bending over branches of lonely trees and lonely is the thinker lonely yes the observer of it all still as the dawn this day the dawn that was some hours before my consciousness came alive and crawled from the sheets of dreams somewhere resting somewhere over the rainbow where there are songs that will lift the spirit and all the time man’s mind woman’s mind want to create want to form something new want to shape stamp order on the chaos and the day is good the sun has begun to shine poke its nose into this attic study into this attic brain into this comfortable place into the sitting room of my mind where I sit astounded at what comes to this blank screen and Joyce was right now I know what he was attempting when he did his stream of consciousness and I understand a little only a little because there is so much that I don’t understand so much so much and I remember bits and pieces of poems and prayers and lines and words that chant in my mind like old litanies of long ago behind a vested figure at a lonely altar and the words rising and rising in a incense smoke in a smoke of incense and the hymns and the latin latin latin latin words like tantum ergo sacramentum and chanting chanting down the corridors of time they come past marble steps and wooden coffins and the water sprinkled on dead bones before we carried the coffin forth for the black hole of death to swallow whole the victim maybe not victim maybe not maybe that was what Aristotle meant when he said that death was just a dreamless sleep a no-thing a no-where a point of no-being a point of non-existence because no consciousness and these thoughts race and God only knows if there is a God but it does not really matter if there isn’t because it is the thinking that matters it is the trying to understand that matters and when the understanding fails breaks down it is then that the slow acceptance ever so slow the bloody acceptance of things that we can do nothing about and that is what I must do learn to accept the things I can do nothing about nothing about and the litanies of words still jam my brain still come bits of words and full words and words that put themselves together like quaint atoms forming molecules of thought and then sometime somewhere somewhere beyond time outside time outside even a where or a place there will be a big crunch and all will fly back again to an intense pulsating singularity beyond plurality and the world is incorrigibly plural as the poet said long ago I’ve forgotten his name but the future will be incorrigibly singular and will it even exist if there’s no one there to notice no one there to observe to be conscious that it exists and why is there something rather than nothing why cannot there be nothing rather than something and how do I explain how do I accept the crumbling into nothing of my mother devastated breaking down as she is mind and personality and body crumbling back to originality back to the dust like all those gravestones through which I walked last week marble and stone and stone and marble and names upon names upon names written neatly and here and there the empty cans of cider and beer and thinking what a place indeed to drink your cares away well maybe the best place to drink your cares away and the world longs for some rest before the final crunch.

(Obviously there is no structure to the above. The creative writer learns first through this exercise to let all that is in his mind run riot on the page. It does bear some similarity to what Sigmund Freud meant by free association. This little method also allows what's in the unconscious to come forth. hence you should not censor what you write. Thankfully nothing crude at all came into my mind when doing the above exercise in stream of consciousness)

Personality 3

Telling our story

In my last post on personality I used three analogies or metaphors in my attempt to get at what shaping my personality might be for me – making a jigsaw, climbing a mountain and launching a ship. In this post I wish to use another analogy or metaphor – namely telling our personal story. I have already referred to this in a previous post. The Irish philosopher Richard Kearney is never too far from my mind when I think of things cultural, personal and philosophical. I have already mentioned his wonderful book On Stories (Routledge, 2002) in these pages and quoted quite a bit therefrom. A brief reference to this book is necessary here again as it is very much ad rem with my subject. In a way what I’ll say here is very much influenced by my reading of this book and my re-reading several times of certain sections of it.

Everyone longs to be able to tell their story because quite simply that defines their identity. Just think for a moment of an adopted child who has never known his/her parents. There have been many heart-rending radio and television programmes made about the often futile searches made by this “abandoned” offspring for their parents. Why? Quite simply because they don’t know the whole story; they are not in possession of the full facts of their origins; they are somehow bereft of a full and complete identity. They dearly want to hear their story from either or both blood parents. They want to listen to the teller, and then perhaps tell that story – their full story – to their children. Even if we are not adopted we all like to learn more about our grandparents and forebears to give us more “rootedness” in our identity.

I am reminded of an old story I heard many years ago at college. This story told about the sad affair of the boy who had no story to tell at the “rambling house” or “teach airneáil” (i.e., a well-known and popular local house where neighbours would gather to tell stories and sing songs.) This boy went home crestfallen as he had failed in connecting with the local community through story or song. The brilliant and famous Irish novelist and short story writer, Bryan MacMahon believed that story was one of the most effective ways to teach a class. Any subject, he felt, could be taught creatively through its medium. Admittedly, the teacher had to do his lesson planning and homework. Bryan was a brilliant teacher and stayed teaching all his working life, never tiring of opening young minds to the mystery and wonder of life. One only has to read his brilliant short story “The Windows of Wonder” which was one of the stories on my Intermediate Certificate course in secondary school to realise his commitment to the imagination. This beautifully crafted story tells of a young teacher who arrives in a valley “that had let imagination die.” She brings back stories, but is frowned upon by the other teachers, and the principal. I won’t spoil the story for anyone who has never read it, but it states in narrative form MacMahon’s philosophy of imagination or of story.

How often have we heard the fact that the experience of humans in the modern world is that of fragmentation? The students I teach today lead more fragmented lives than that of their counterparts 25 years ago when I was already 2 years teaching. Why? Well the structures both of society and family have changed radically. Not alone has the formative structure of the extended family broken down but so too has that of the nuclear family. There are so many absent dads today. Students talk openly and in an unembarrassed manner about their “ma’s boyfriend” or their “da’s partner” – as indeed they should. I am making no value judgements here, merely adverting to hard facts. More often than not, we teachers find that we have to deal with a growing number of grandparents who are rearing the children their own offspring have abandoned for one reason or another.

Coupled with this sense of the fragmentation of family, there is the exponential growth of information, the sheer volume of which is mind-boggling if one has not got the proper education to be able to access that which is of relevance to your own life. Then there’s the whole commercialisation of existence – you’re not a success (indeed you’re a nobody really) if you have not got X, Y or Z. Young girls are led to believe that if they have not got the figure of the latest model to hit our TV or cinema screens then they are ugly and useless. Growing up was never easy; becoming an adult was always a hard task. Yet add all of the implications of the last two paragraphs into the mix and you get confusion and fragmentation as regards identity.

This is where the role of story comes in. As Richard Kearney puts it: “In this way storytelling may be said to humanise time by transforming it from an impersonal passing of fragmented moments, into a pattern, a plot, a mythos.” (op. cit., p. 4) It has been recognised from time immemorial that the need for stories is an indispensable ingredient of any meaningful society. Likewise, I believe strongly with Kearney, that the need for story is also an indispensable element in any meaningful individual life. Hence teachers and counsellors much be equipped both to encourage children to tell their story (creatively and authentically in a classroom situation but not in any way that would breach privacy or hurt the child’s sensitivities obviously) and to listen sympathetically to that story and by so doing authenticate the young student in the integrity of their story.

In such a way, then, all adults help young people and indeed other adults to put the pieces of the jigsaw together, to climb the mountain or set the ship of identity afloat or by using the current analogy, to tell their story which is both a practical activity as well as a metaphor. The growing individual begins, then, to put all the apparently disparate experiences, all the little significant and even insignificant events, all the ups and downs, all “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, all the good things and the bad, all the smaller stories into a bigger story which shapes and forms their own identity. The story exists not alone in the teller’s mind, or even in the listener’s mind or even in the characters and events related, but somewhere dynamically in the interplay of all three. By listening to the story we authenticate the person and they us. In such a manner with Kearney I aver that “the untold life is not worth living.” (op.cit., p. 156)

Above I have pasted the most recent picture I have of my beautiful demented ninety year old mother. The cuddly toy is a lion which she occasionally calls by her sons' names. She is happy in her demented, dissociated, broken world. And that surely is all that matters - being happy in yourself! This picture was taken two weeks ago.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Personality 2

Putting The Pieces Together

Looking back over the last 49 and a half years I have spent on this wonderful, if at times most painful, planet it seems to me that I have as it were been involved in shaping some character who is turning into “me.” We are made up, I contend, of all the encounters we have had with other beings, both human and animal; our struggles with the material world; the education we have received both formally and informally; our struggle to succeed; the accidents that have befallen us and how we have coped with these; how we have integrated all the foregoing with our innate abilities and capabilities and how in the very end we accept the picture or pattern or integrity of the person it has been our overriding task to shape and to form.

An analogy (analogy 1) I think would be that of doing a rather complex jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces are there as outlined in words above. Our project for life is to put the picture together. Working with this analogy, I think many of us only succeed to a limited extent in getting a full picture of who we are or of what our project in life is. I suppose the more mentally ill among us, or the less mentally whole or the less mentally integrated among us have the pieces scattered all over the place. I believe also, that it should be axiomatic that no one ever gets the whole jigsaw done as that implies complete integration.

I have referred to my favourite psychiatrist in these pages before – that is, Anthony Storr. I probably should have added him as one of the characters I should like to meet in my last post, but as I said there I think if I were to mention all the deceased people that have impacted upon me over the years I should never have done writing. Anyway, one of my favourite books by Storr is The Integrity of the Personality. When I read this book it really blew my mind away, if I may be permitted a rather stupid pun, as to what personality really is and as to how it is shaped. It confirmed most of my own beliefs, consolidated old facts, enlightened me of new ones, but most of all gave me a handle on my goal as a person. My goal as a person is to integrate as far as possible all those shadowy aspects of my unconscious, all those complexes which Jung alluded to or, if you like, all those sub-personalities into a whole integrated unity of a being called me. I will return to the lessons learnt from this marvellous gem of a book later if I get the time. However, his overriding idea is, for my purposes here, in keeping with my analogy of jigsaw making. Remember, it’s only an analogy, only a metaphor (I count similes as metaphor in the strict philosophical sense of the type of language used) – hence there is no fundamentalism allowed!

When we look back on our lives we are rather like hikers or mountaineers (analogy 2) who are now looking back on our rather interesting if arduous ascent to where we are at on the mountain (= in our live) at this moment in time. We can now, from our vantage point, discern a path or a pattern in what to a great extent has been a mixture of chance with some free choice. Human beings love patterns – we see patterns in our past and indeed patterns in our future. Whether these patterns are there objectively or not is beside the point. Philosophically we see things as we are, rather than as they are phenomenologically in themselves. Anyway, we see a shape, a form, a pattern, a plan and then we make others to continue on from these perceived patterns. Early in life, our plans may be something like: be a great civil engineer, having been captivated by those wonderful suspension bridges; be a teacher because you are enthralled by the beauty of sharing knowledge; be an artist because of the beauty of those paintings by van Gogh; be a bus driver because of your fascination with buses and means of transport, or be a carpenter or plumber to make and shape things that are useful in daily living. And so we plan and shape our little lives.

Later we add other more human and spiritual aspects to our plan like spouse and family and service to the local community. Others add more lofty cultural and ethical aspects to their project – they become workers for international peace and justice and fight for human rights under the umbrella of some organization or other. The bolder among us found our own organizations like John O’ Shea of Goal.

Along the way we meet obstacles which buffet and sometimes even wreck the small brittle ship of self (analogy 3) we have been laboriously building. There will have been accidents, illnesses, arguments, petty jealousies, failures and deaths and all of these have the capacity to run our little ship aground and even for some wreck it on the jagged rocks of calamity. We have to, if we are to survive with some authenticity and equanimity, assimilate all these things into our character and personality. This takes courage and strength and a willingness to accept help from others in our hour of need.

And then, there are those awful dreams and nightmares that hit us from time to time; old problems and even traumas that we have never coped successfully with, that we had suppressed into our unconscious because we could not deal with them when we were younger; the more disliked aspects of the self that we could not accept years earlier; our faults and failings, even our sheer greed and selfishness – maybe even our disloyalty to a friend or partner; or our sheer infidelity – all of these have to be integrated if we are to be whole. Otherwise, we are shattered or dis-integated or even de-vast-ated – scattered to the four winds and have lost any centre of gravity that would make us an integrated unity or personality.

As I look on my beautiful demented, disintegrating and de-vast-ated mother I look on the breakdown of her wholeness and unity. I look on the scattering of the pieces of jigsaw that she so laboriously constructed. But that is all right, too, because that is nature’s way. She has had a long life and has had the opportunity to construct her jigsaw as she saw fit unlike so many poor others that either don’t get or don’t take the chance.

The beauty of life is in the constructing of the personality, the shaping of it, the painstaking putting together and shaping of it. Indeed, I believe therein lies life’s very meaning if it has any. We need our dreams. We need to construct our very own unique, if brittle ship, to sail the seas of destiny. We cannot afford to believe in chaos or nihilism because within that scheme or lack of scheme of things no dream ship of individuality can hope to be launched onto the seas of fate.

Sometimes after all that thinking you just need to forget and enjoy a good and delicious cocktail. The Gin Palace, Dublin, July 2007, The Oldest Swinger in Town!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Imagine, no imagination, Imagine

Imagine there’s a Heaven…

Well if John Lennon could get away with imagining there was no Heaven, perhaps I’ll get away with imagining there is a Heaven. So, friends, let’s pretend such a place as Heaven exists…

Some months back I read two books by Mitch Albom which I reviewed in these pages. They were by no means brilliant in my opinion, but were good, maybe six or seven out of ten or thereabouts. However, I allude to Albom because one of these books was called The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Well, I should like to list here with a few reasons all the people I should like to meet in Heaven if such a place existed.

I should like to meet

1. My "bigger" brother Thomas who died some weeks after birth in 1955 or so. I should love to get to know the person he would have grown up to be.

2. My grandfather Thomas on my father’s side because my dad was so devoted to him. He died at 40 or so from T.B.

3. My maternal grandmother who ran away with my grandfather when she was 17 years old. She was called Phoebe St Ledger, daughter of a Protestant gentleman farmer, and she later changed her name to Mary Brophy, this latter being my grandfather’s surname. He was a poor Catholic ploughman on the farm. I would love to hear her tell her story.

4. The little boy, whose name I forget, who sat in my class and who was killed in a traffic accident on the North Circular Road in 1968. I wrote a story for him once. I wonder who and what he would have become by now had he lived.

5. Teresa Lynch, an 18 year old student killed in a car accident in December 1979. I remember a few days previously sitting with my arm around Teresa in the lobby of Mater Dei Institute of Education discussing some philosophical inanity or other – Teresa was brilliant at philosophy and was one of the best students in her year. I should love to meet her again to tell her how much I enjoyed listening to her ideas, and how I so much regret never having asked her out.

6. From the world of celebrity I would like to meet Marlyn Monroe who was both beautiful in body and in soul. I always thought that her death was poignantly lonely. In my dreams I used to imagine myself being there to save her from overdosing on her sleeping tablets.

7. From the world of literature I should love to meet William Shakespeare. I’d thank him for the great lines that keep running through my head. Not alone a great poet and dramatist, but a psychologist of considerable insight. He must have listened to so many stories told by others. To be such a great writer one has to be a tremendous listener.

8. Eugene O’Neill, the great Irish-American dramatist for his brilliant play Long Day’s Journey into Night which is so profoundly moving and deeply disturbing. It touches that deep lonely spot in the human psyche. I’d like to say well done and thanks for making us more aware of our frailties.

9. S.T. Coleridge, Romantic poet and philosopher for his wonderful passion for life and his compassion for other human beings; for his total honesty; for his frailty (opium addict); for his wonderful understanding of philosophy and literary criticism; for being such a great entertainer; for his gloriously self-deprecating sense of humour; for his awkwardness in learning to ride a horse; for his calling himself Simon Tomkyn Cumberback, obviously a reference to his bad horsemanship when he ran away from the army. Mostly for his brilliant The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, Frost at Midnight, Kubla Khan and the learned and sui generis Biographia Literaria.

10. William Blake for the power and beauty of his visions both literary and pictorial; for his sweet devotion to his wife; for sitting naked with his wife in his garden (did this happen more than once? I forget.); for his love of nature; for his singing hymns on his deathbed; for his courage to plough such an individual and lonely furrow no matter what anyone else thought of him or his lifestyle. Also for his sheer humanity and for his passion for justice for all, especially chimney sweeps, and for his hatred of snobbery and hypocrisy and indeed for his contempt for organized religion.

11. James Joyce for his Dublin accent; for his complete lack of snobbery and hypocrisy; for his courage to say what came into his mind; for being light years ahead of where practically everyone was politically and culturally and spiritually during his early years; for his sweet tenor voice, second to Count John MacCormack at a Feis Ceoil in Dublin; for his great and wonderful book Ulysses which I listen to on my iPod - for the fun in the language that runs riot in my ears; for the fact that he fell in love with a poor woman, a chambermaid in an hotel, one Nora Barnacle, and remained loyal to her all his life as she did to him; for his intelligence and brilliance and courage and for his loyalty to his native city even if the country did let him down.

12. Johnny Cash for his great song-writing abilities and for his unique singing voice; for his live concerts from various prisons in the USA – Folsom Prison and San Quentin; for his sincerity, integrity and honesty – what we call congruence in counselling theory and practice; for his humility; for his sense of humour and for all the joy he’s given me listening over the years.

13. John Moriarty for his sheer depth of insight into humanity; his insight into the deeper part of the psyche; his plumbing those mysterious depths and for scaling those heights of mysticism; for his sheer brilliance at communicating with others; for his refusal to follow the beaten track; for his uncompromising search for his personal truth; for his non dependence upon the world of the ego; for his power of words; for his books; for his beautiful voice; for all his inspiration over the past ten or so years since I first heard and read his works.

14. Richard P Feynman, the Nobel Prize winner for physics; for his sheer brilliance of mind; for his ability to think along unorthodox lines; for his sheer humility and nobility – he refused honorary doctorates too many times to be counted because he felt they were not earned and trivialized the real ones; for his sheer humanity and love of others – his dedication to his first wife until she died; his simple approach to living; his lack of snobbery and sophistication; for his dining with students in the Grease rather than in the Athenaeum restaurant on the Caltech Campus; for his answering letters from everyone, not just scientists; for his brilliant ability to communicate; for his witty sense of humour which could be so self-deprecating; for his insights into psychology (especially the psychology of creativity) which he said he despised; for being the first person to allow me love not hate physics – the inheritance of having a very bad physics teacher at school; for his sheer enthusiasm for his subject as well as for life.

I’ll leave it there, because this exercise could go on and on. It was just an idea which struck me while out walking today.