Friday, August 20, 2010

The Inevitability of Change

I have long been a disciple of the importance of history, and have quoted an old teacher and librarian from my secondary school days, one Dr James J Carey, a wonderful English scholar and classicist, as remarking to us when we were his library assistants at school  in the mid 1970s that history was, in fact, the most important subject on the curriculum.  I believed him then and I believe him now.  Every subject under the sun has its history of development.  It's so important (i) to know where we have come from as human beings (ii) as a nation and as a culture.  Then, it is important to try to learn from the mistakes of the past, or at least try to, so that we do not repeat them.  As far as I know it was the Spanish philosopher and novelist George Santayana (1863-1952) who said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, though it has been attributed to many other scholars too.  The sad thing is that from lived experience and from whatever reading I have done we poor foolish humans never really do in a lot of cases.  What father or what teacher has never said of youngsters - "Oh, here we go again, X or Y is repeating the mistake I made when I was their age etc."  It seems that humanity is more often than not destined to repeat its mistakes, at least some of them.

Sometimes change means a certain destruction:  October 2009
However, I am not a cynic, or even a pessimist.  We have, indeed, come a long way and, thank goodness for the inevitability of change.  When I was a teenager I loved Bob Dylan's angst-ridden songs about coming of age, growing up, or even waking up with such numbers as "The Times They are a-changing" and "Blowing in the Wind." and thankfully, thee times still are a-changing.  We have changed immensely in Ireland in the last thirty years.  Thirty years is a watershed number for me as this year 2010 has marked thirty years for me in the teaching profession as a secondary teacher in an inner city Dublin school.

That time for me has marked huge changes.  The most obvious one is in the governance of our schools.  There now are no Christian Brothers on the ground teaching in any of their schools in Ireland and their average age is in the mid-seventies, so in the next ten to twenty years or so they'll have all died off.  They have now handed over the management of their schools to a lay trust called ERST.  They have also handed over millions in Euros and in property to the government as part of the redress scheme for child-abuse which happened during their time in control - as well indeed they ought by any moral or ethical standards.  The Institutional Church in Ireland is firmly in retreat,  and this is no bad thing, as all institutions become bastions of self-preservation which end up choking the life out of the little people who make them up while allowing the bad eggs within them to wreak havok either on poor innocent children or on gullible Joe public as was the case with the Banks.  Indeed, this is where change is happening, and it is so good that it is happening.  Look at it this way - the Institutional Church has fallen.  The Banking Profession is thoroughly discredited.  The Political one is equally discredited with scandal after scandal of corruption hitting the headlines.  Then, the medical profession has had its own scandals - also covered up -  not on the level of the ordinary GPs, hospital doctors or nurses but at consultancy level where maverick doctors were allowed to go unchecked to wreak huge damage on innocent patients, e.g., Lourdes Hospital Drogheda.  I'm sure there are many skeletons in the cupbords of other professions, too.  It is no harm that there has been a practically universal fall from grace on the part of these powerful institutions which sought only their own self-preservation, the covering up of scandals and the duping of the common citiizen.

Hence, it is with some little joy and a lot of hope for the future that I read reports such as the following in today's Irish Times.  Firstly there is a good report from the Merriman Summer School where Fr Kevin Hegarty spoke about the Church's sexual theology being  in 'deep crisis.'  I know Kevin as a very intelligent and sensitive pastor and equally intelligent and sensitive writer.  He published some articles for me over ten years ago in a brilliant magazine from thge fringes which he then edited called Céide.  Kevin was always a maverick, and before that he used to be editor of the official Church monthly called Intercom, but he was sacked from that by Cardinal Connell, the Archbishop of Dublin for being far too outspoken.  A conservative editor was put in immediately.  Kevin, being his liberal, provocative and prophetic self, was saying things the institutional Church did not want to hear so they sacked him and banished him to a small parish in the west of Ireland.  I know some few other priests to whom this has happened too.  The Roman Catholic Church is a centralized and centralizing institution which does not like dissenters from mainline dogma.  A taste of what he said can be had by reading the following excerpt:

Fr Hegarty, who was ordained in 1981 and has ministered in the parish of Kilmore-Erris on the Mullet Peninsula, Co Mayo, for the past 15 years, said he had spent three years as editor of Intercom “before the priests found me out”. It was his greatest experience of disillusionment with the institutional church. For someone shaped by the influences of democracy, free speech and academic dialogue, the church had been a cold house in the past 30 years, he said.“Since the 1980s the church has been in the grip of a restorationist mentality. The ‘glad, confident morning’ that followed the Vatican Council has long faded into the distance. Reform has stalled, and some liberal theologians have been silenced.... In appointments, passive docility to papal teaching in all its aspects is valued way above creative fidelity to the work of ministry in today’s complex world." See this link here: Hegarty
He went on in his talk to call for both married and female priests, a total review of the theology of sexuality and a new openness to the modern world which was called for back in 1960 during Vatican II.  Anyone who has studied theology as I have or who has been a thinking member of the Catholic Church will know that this openness was simply never implemented.  Happily, this has only a little interest for me now as I ceased being a practising Catholic when I was forty years of age.  I had been a student religious in my young days and even possess a first class honours STL which, if one were still a believer, one could possibly lecture with a third level.  Anyway, I have long lost my interest in theology and fill that empty space with reading widely in philosophy now.  However, the academic training was wonderful and challenging, and I must write about it in future posts sometime.

On the very same page in today's Times, the Religious Affairs Correspondent, Patsy McGarry has an interesting article on one octogenarian lady's call - a Mrs Jennifer Sleeman - for Mass to be boycotted on Sunday September 26th in protest at the Vatican's treatment of women.  This lady is a grandmother and one of her sons is a monk in one of our monasteries - the Benedictine Abbey, Glenstal, Co. Limerick.   See this link here McGarry   There is also an interesting article in The Limerick Leader which interviews her son Fr Simon Sleeman, OSB who calls it his mother's gig, but not his, and that he does, of course, support her.  See this link Sleeman

Tracks in the Mud: February 2009
Anyway, my theme for this rather longish post is the inevitability of change.  The great pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus never tired of saying that all was flux and that "one cannot step into the same river twice," that new water was always flowing.  Things, as it were, are always new.  Things and indeed the times "they are a-changing."  I remember reading Professor Alvin Toffler, the famous sociologist, saying way back in the late 1970s  that not alone were things changing, but that change was accelerating at alarming levels.  However, the big thing is to make sure that we change with the times; that we learn all about adjusting to changed circumstances; that we begin to question old certainties; that we seek out new ways of doing things; that we cherish whatever is good in the past while dispensing with whatever was bad; that above all we work on our own self-development.  I mention this last aspect here because it is very hard to come to grips with change in society at large if we cannot cope with development - that is, chnage - in our very selves. 

Perhaps, all the scandals which history has forced upon us in Ireland is no bad thing at all.  The dusting off of old files, the opening of long secret documents to public view is renewing to say the least.  When everything is out in the open at least we can deal with those issues revealed.  When they are brushed under the carpet as the old cliche has it, it's then that things fester and smell or rather stink to high heaven, to use another well-worn cliché.

Now, who said history was unimportant?  Let us learn from our mistakes.  Let's not hide away the ugly things in dark corners.  Doing so will only lead to trouble, to the pollution of vulnerable minds and souls and to the enslavement of generations to poor mental health.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Solitude and its Graces 7

Chapter seven of Dr Anthony Storr's little book Solitude is about the connection of solitude with temperament.  The first time I was introduced to temperament as being either extravert or introvert was some thirty years ago now almost when a former provincial leader of the Irish Christian Brothers, one Timothy Claver Leonard introduced me to the MBTI, in  the administration of which he had qualified somewhere in the United States.  In short the MBTI (or Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator) is an assessment based on a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.  These preferences were extrapolated from the typological theories proposed by Carl Gustav Jung and first published in his 1921 book Psychological Types (English edition, 1923). The original developers of this personality inventory were Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers - hence the provenance of the name of the inventory.

Jung tells us that he came up with his theory of temperament while he was trying to understand the alternative interpretations of human nature advanced  by Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. Jung described Freud's basic attitude towards things as what he calls extraverted.  By this Jung meant that Freud conceived the subject as primarily in search of, and moving towards, objects.  Adler, Jung argued, on the other hand, takes the introverted attitude as "conceiving the subject as primarily needing to establish autonomy and independence, and hence moving away from objects." (Solitude, p. 87)

When I was studying and administering the MBTI with Br. Tim Leonard, the way we differentiated between the extraverted (E) character and the introverted character (I) was by saying that E temperament persons get their energy from outside themselves, from engaging with the world, while I temperament persons get their energy from inside themselves, from being alone and in solitude..  Let us return to Storr's words here for their lucidity of explanation:

Jung thought of extraversion and introversion as temperamental factors operating from the beginning of life, and as co-existing in everyone, although in varying measure.  No doubt the ideal person would reveal both attitudes in balanced fashion, but in practice one or other attitude generally predominated. (ibid., p. 87)

Like with everything else under the sun, there then enters that ideal state of balance.  I believe that growing in self-knowledge or any type of personal development is all about balancing the extremes that are at play.  It is unsurprising then, that Jung should have argued that neurosis followed if either pole of this divide - either extraversion or introversion - became exaggerated.  Extreme extraversion leads to the individual losing his or her own identity to that of the mob as it were, while extreme introversion would lead to to self-preoccupation and lack of contact with the real world.  Jung reminds us that already in history many literary giants the likes of Goethe had already become aware of these two opposing tendencies in different individuals and that this latter German writer and polymath had described these characteristics as diastole (E) and systole (I). Then, he points out that the art historian Wilhelm Worringer had referred to these poles as Abstraction (I) and Empathy (E).  Similarly he referes to the late great contemporary psychologist Liam Hudson (1933 - 2005) who made a similar distiction between Divergers and Convergers where Divergence corresponds to E while Convergence corresponds to the I category.  Howard Gardner adverts to Patterners and Dramatists when he studied the drawings of children.  Once again the Patterners would correspond to I while the Dramatists would loosely correspond to E. (In all of these examples mentioned by Storr, we should bear in mind these two words "loosely correspond," because we are in a highly nuanced and mercurial area indeed.)

Undoubtedly, we need a balance of both, but in everyone one particular pole of the continuum is preferred, or, in other words, we each tend towards one pole while we balance it with some of the other.  There is indeed the Adlerian need, an introverted need, to establish distance from the object, independence, and where possible, indeed, control.  To be objective means I do have to withdraw as it were and observe from a distance.  As John Henry Cardinal Newman was fond of saying way back in the 1840s that when one was lost in any terrain one had to "mount upon an eminence" if my recollection of his Victorian vocabulary serves my memory well, or in more contemporary terms, "climb up a hill" to view where one is, get one's bearings and then see how one will progress from there.  So abstraction is very important to our self-preservation.

However, once again no one is all E or all I.  In suggesting these two basic attitudes or general tendencies, of course, Jung was generalising from extremes which, of course, it is necessary to do if we are to come up with any theory in the first place.  However, Jung, like all good scholars, realized that he was doing this, and that there was a continuum at play in all humans, that is we all share some of both traits to a lesser or greater degree.  When I first did the MBTI, which has some 16 character types, I came out as ISFJ and have come out the same again and again with very slight fluctuations on S-N or F-T scales over the years.  However, on the E-I continuum I have always come out as decidedly I.  However, over the years through much personal development, natural growth and indeed, therapy, I have developed great extraversion skills.  One has to if one wishes to simply survive.  I am a teacher and I have to extravert myself in class.  I also do a certain amount of public speaking and this certainly necessitates being extravert.  As Dr Storr puts it very succinctly: "Even the most introverted persons need some human relationships; even the most extraverted persons need some pattern and order in their lives." (Ibid., p. 93)

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Imagination and Michael Murphy

1. Prolegomenon

The Healing Power of the Imagination

I am firmly convinced that the power of our imagination is crucial to our survival in this world.  As imaginative creatures we are never victims of our immediate situation - we can always imagine an alternative if we train ourselves to do so.  I am not arguing for a total "suspension of disbelief" here, though.  I am talking about the ability to imagine fairly realistic alternatives and the avoidance of being overwhelmed by sheer disempowering depression or paranoia or anything else that disempowers us as we engage with real everyday life occurrences.  I will briefly recall here what Dr Anthony Storr calls humankind's great ability to adapt over its evolution and he attributes this ability to its marvellous powers of imagination.  Because we can imagine things to be different we can become creative to make that happen.  Quite simply, that's why we have survived as a species - we used our imagination, which is obviously our superior intelligence at work, to live in community, wear clothes, grow crops, hunt better etc.  See this post in this blog at this link: Storr

I also contended in that post, and it is important to re-iterate it here that it takes imagination also simply to pass the time and to make sense of our lives on this earth. For instance the power of the imagination will prevent us from getting very bored, and boredom is a modern pervasive malaise of which youngsters keep reminding us parents and teachers.  The failure to engage the imagination, then, often leads to all kinds of depredation such as vandalism and violence against other persons.   Anyone gifted with a vivid imagination will never get bored, I believe, and hence will not be perpetrators of anything they might regret doing.  Then it also takes imagination to show empathy with others, to try to see if I can put myself in this or that person's situation as best as I can. Without imagination I could never show empathy or even sympathy for another.

However, the human imagination can also heal the soul and lead one's psyche to a state of greater integration.  I speak here from personal experience.  As I have mentioned many times in these posts I have experienced one major breakdown in my life which happened, typically enough at 40 years of age - the equally typical mid-life crisis.  My recovery from this required both psychopharmacological and more humanistic/spiritual interventions like talk-therapy, music therapy, writing therapy and art therapy.  Luckily enough the hospital I was in had all the best facilities as I was well insured.  Had I not been, I dread what the conditions would have been like.  However, what I am getting at here is that I had always been highly imaginative and had always written a lot.  Therefore, engaging with all the other creative therapies was an easy step for me.  I continue to meditate and a couple of years after leaving hospital where I spent seven very restful and healing weeks, I managed to write and publish a book.  I continue to this day to write, to keep accounts of my dreams in special dreambooks I buy for the purpose and to engage in meditation, and I often use visualizations which I write for myself and use while meditating.  All of this is simply about healing my soul and arriving at a higher and more holistic integration of my psyche or soul or personality or self - call it what you like. I have written a further book of visualizations geared to healing our somewhat broken and unintegrated psyche or soul.  I have not of yet found a publisher for this book, but I am currently working on that.

II  Review

Bearing in mind what I have said above about the healing and integrative powers of the imagination,  I should like here to write a short review of an absolutely brilliant book that I read over the course of the day this Saturday just gone -  it is Michael Murphy's wonderful memoir called At Five In The Afternoon: My Battle with Male Cancer (Brandon, Ireland, 2009).  This is essentially a book about the healing power of the imagination, about the healing power of psychotherapy, in this specific case the healing and integrative power of psychoanalysis.  A fellow Mayo person, the former Uachtarán na hÉireann, Mary Robinson, writes an equally wonderful introduction.

What would I call this book?  I'd call it a memoir of one man's life interwoven finely and creatively with his struggle with cancer.  Anyone engaged with therapy of any kind will be most aware that one can boil all therapy down - through the crucible of the various complaints, sufferings and issues with which clients present their therapists of whatever school - into the underlying, all-pervasive and over-arching problem of mortality, that is, namely dealing with our very own death.  Behind whatever problems we come with to therapy this is the shadow that lies all too often unseen, but never unfelt, in the therapy room.  Here I speak from experience.  In this wonderful memoir, then, Murphy manages to interweave his struggle with making sense of life - all his life - with making sense of his death as starkly portrayed throughout the text as the Grim Reaper ready at all times, not alone to wield his knife, but to stick it in.  Indeed, the grim reaper is present in every line of this superb and  masterly book.

This book is a tour de force of personal integration.  As I read it I became quite envious of its author's handle on his subject, that is, his easy and comfortable handle on the meaning and purpose of his own life.  He has been through the wringer, not alone through the emotional setbacks of childhood, which all of us experience to a greater or lesser extent, the pressures and stresses of the workaday world, and then the stab of the Grim Reaper's knife in the form of Prostate Cancer.  This assault of cancer on his very being - what I have called the Body-Soul in these posts because I could never subscribe to the Cartesian dualism which separated both - is handled in realistic terms and graphically expressed.  One call feel the knife not alone cut into the body but also into the very quick of one's own being.  The author's being, his manhood, his inability now to have "lead in his pencil" or "to get it up" are all there on the line.  However, it is presented in a realistic, sincere and authentic and truthful way.

This book is a tour de force in scholarship as well as one of personal integration also, as Murphy is a highly educated, learned and wise man who carries his learning and his widom lightly as one would expect from a highly integrated or individuated human being.  Personally, I loved the quotations from Irish, French, Spanish and Latin as these are languages with which I am familiar myself.  Again, I should like to point out, that they are never self-obviously spoiling of the text as they are so finely interwoven with the overall meaning and purpose of the same.  Murphy weaves a beautifully rich tapestry of meaning garnered from every experience he has had in life - from all the wounds that life has inflicted on him, and also from all the good things that have smiled like the sun on him, from all the nourishing relationships - he recounts the help of three very strong women friends also suffering from cancer - that have sustained him, especially the one with his partner - Terry. 

The blurb calls this a "beautifully layered book" and that it is indeed.  I found myself re-reading many sections and many passages because they read so well as the words are so enchanting and so alluring.  Every paragraph has distinct layers all right and the more you read them, like a good poem, the more they yield up further depths of meaning.  Murphy writes like an angel - his prose has the quality and texture of good poetry, so it is no surprise to learn that he studied literature - both English and French - at college and has written several books on the poetry of the Irish poet Desmond Egan.. The title is a reference to the time of the bullfight in his beloved Spain - a las cinco de la tarde - which he uses as an allegory for his own battle. But what one expects to be a rumination on death and dying or even how to cope with these issues opens out into a celebration of his rich and eventful life which was always in search of meaning.  The book, rather, gives an impressionistic account of the trials and tribulations that have made him the man he is and all this is finely and lovingly interwoven with his love of his hometown, Castlebar, of his family‘s historical roots in the area and with the very joys of living.

In summary, then, this present writer was fairly bowled over by this wonderfully multi-layered text which often reads like pure poetry which is both a tour de force of personal integration and of scholarship.  This book is esential reading for anyone involved in therapy whether as a client or a therapist.  It is also required reading for anyone who seeks to go on the journey to further self-integration or individuation or simply to find some meaning in their lives.  This is a wonderful book which puts male cancer firmly on the agenda up there with female cancer and is a fitting tribute to the integrity of both the psychotherapeutic profession and also of one exceptionally brave and wonderful human being - Michael Murphy.  I'll finish this post with the final words from this very fine book:

I have told it like it is, what I have seen and what I have heard.  I have said it, and my saying is true.  Because of the cancer there's no longer any space available to hide in; neither is there any time left over for being silent.  I have told the truth to save my life.(Op. Cit., p. 270) 

And, then, like the true psychoanalyst that he is, Murphy turns his attention to the state of the reader's soul or psyche after his/her reading of this memoir. He asks us simply, "And how're you now?" Indeed, how am I now? I am richer, so much richer; wiser, so much wiser, having made the acquaintance in words of one very fine human being. For this, I am very thankful indeed!

Michael Murphy's website can be accessed at this link here: Michael Murphy.