Solitude and its Graces 2
Bowlby’s magisterial and seminal work in “object-relations theory” called Attachment and Loss which appeared in three volumes and which emanated from his work for the WHO on the mental health of homeless children. Therein he observed that human infants begin to develop attachments to particular significant others around the third quarter of their first year of life. Storr points out that this is the time at which the infant begins to protest if handed to a stranger and tends to cling to the mother or other adults with whom he is familiar. Such a solid base in attachment allows the young child to develop with a reasonable chance of good mental health. If a little baby is deprived of such early important attachment to the mother or a significant other it will go through the phases of protest, despair and finally detachment.
As a teacher of some thirty years’ standing I do not deny the importance of a child’s early upbringing. When confronted with the growing number of disaffected and troublesome teenagers in our city schools it is a commonplace to find that the problems they have spring from their early experiences in dysfunctional families. You would need a standing army of many therapists to get to the root of their problems. It is standard practise in social work - and indeed in education these days, with the presence of too few counsellors in our schools, and many of them untrained as well as the availability of Home School Community Liaison officers, who are also a trained teachers - to consider a child’s capacity to make human relationships to be very high on the agenda indeed.
So relationships and the ability to make them are crucial to the mental health of our community. However, as we argued in our last post, while they are crucial, they are not, to use a rather poor cliché, “the only game in town.” There is more that goes to making a mentally healthy human being, things like work, play, games, interests of all types and hobbies of all kinds. These interests could be writing history, penning poems, composing raps, breeding carrier pigeons (a hobby very common when I was young), speculating in stocks and shares, boating, designing aircraft, being a bus enthusiast, a cyclist, playing the piano, gardening or even writing blogs like this author. All these activities, Storr argue play a “greater part in the economy of human happiness than modern psychoanalysis and their followers allow.” (Solitude, p. xii.) Then he goes on to state, and it is hard to disagree with him that we have placed far too much emphasis on the efficacy of human relationships in bringing about happiness to the exclusion of other activities which also to a greater or lesser extent contribute to humankind’s contentment with life. Storr puts this poetically and his sentence is worth quoting here: “The burden of value with which we are at present loading interpersonal relations is too heavy for those fragile craft to carry.” (ibid., p. xiii)
There are two opposing drives in life, viz., (i) the drive to companionship and (ii) the drive to independence or autonomy. No one wants to dissolve into an intimate union thereby losing his/her identity. Somehow both drives have to be reconciled and we need both intimate companionship and autonomy. Hence some relationships founder on the rock of destruction very quickly if one partner happens to be too controlling. Autonomy cannot survive in an atmosphere of over-control or manipulation. Many marriages and indeed work situations can suffer at the hands of someone who is a “control freak” as we tend to put it these days.
The beauty of Storr’s book is that it puts solitude back on the map, that is a solitude which is healthy and healing and nothing short of creative. Even if you are not a creative writer or musician you, too, need your own space, that space in which you can reflect silently and make sense of your own being, unperturbed and undisturbed by others. I have heard it said many times and also read it very often that a relationship which is entered to get to know oneself is often one which will founder. What makes for good relationships is that each of the two individuals involved therein has already found some self-identity within themselves first. Then they are able to explore the further depths which that relationship will bring to their own individual identities.
In short, anything that reduces the canvass on which humankind paints its identity is to be eschewed. What’s called for is an open approach which accepts that our human identity is an on-going task and one that each individual within each successive generation has to begin over and over again, even though they have the artefacts, books and music and all the paraphernalia of culture handed to them by the preceding generations. Any easy salvation promised either by any religion or even any form of psychotherapy, or indeed psycho-analysis is just that an easy salvation. There are no easy ways or short-cuts to happiness and contentment. Many ways have to be tried and explored and the best bits taken from each, even from religions and psychoanalysis and then elaborated and compounded in the most healthy and healing of ways. This will involve working to improve our intimate relationships for sure, but it will also take account of the silent places within us and our very own need for solitude. I also grant here, in homage both to Pascal and Frost that some of those silent spaces can indeed be frightening.
Above a lone tree at San Andrea