Monday, August 23, 2010

Solitude and its Graces 8

At a time when psychological well-being is increasingly measured by the success of our relationships with others, the late great British psychiatrist Dr Anthony Storr offers us a welcome reminder that true health and happiness are ultimately based upon an individual's ability to live in peace with himself.  As a former retired colleague once remarked to me in conversation, no matter what action one took in life it was important to be able to live with oneself in its wake.  How right and how wise this man was.  To ability to live at peace with oneself is surely the mark of profound self-knowledge and integration.  Of course, this could also be the mark of extreme innocence or naivete too, but here I am assumimg that we are all adults of experience and discernment.

In chapter 8 Storr talks about how isolation or separation of a child from either parent, especially the mother, at a young age can often spur on the growth of the imagination.  Once again our learned psychiatrist adduces case studies of litrerary figures from the past.  He is on interesting ground here as far as I am concerned as I am steeped in literature myself.  However, perhaps his examples are a little too literary for the ordinary run-of-the-mill reader and, therefore, here I would like to recount a case of an ordinary boy whom I am teaching at school.  Let's call him James (a pseudonym).  Recently I had the occasion to call upon a teacher friend of mine who is principal of the primary school which James attended.  He told me several stories about James' early life, and they were heart-rending to hear.

Mathew's Bookshelves: Paris, Easter  2007
The principal recalled how, when James was about 8 years of age he had occasion to call to the boy's home to find him and his younger sister at home alone.  The father was in prison and the mother had not returned from a night's drinking.  The poor woman was/is an alcoholic.  Needless to say, this boy missed a lot of school when at primary level and is now in need of Learning Support (LS) at second level.  This young boy is constantly disruptive in main stream classes, primarily because he is lost.  Anyway, to cut what could be a long story short, he attended my class in Special Education twice a week last year where he was well behaved, polite and contributed to class, and quite delighted in getting things right.  He is a funny honest little boy who tells things as they are.  All such children are like that - they have precious little else other than their personalities.  How this boy is unembittered and generally cheerful I do not know, but I am convinced it is because of the power of his imagination, the ability to imagine that things can be different.  I really hope he returns to us next year as I have some plans as to what I might be able to teach him.  Anyway, it was the hope of his primary principal that we could keep this lad on our books at least till Leaving Certificate so as to keep him from following in the tracks of his father and brothers into prison.  We both admitted that this was possibly an unrealistic goal and futile hope.

Anyway, as a teacher I am a fervent believer in the power of the imagination to captivate even the weakest and boldest of children and that when they are encouraged to dream and imagine that there are multiple possibilities to what life can offer us, that things don't have to be a sorry repetition  for us of the painful experiences of the past.  However, all this idealism, which at 52 I am still trying to keep alive in me, is hard against the backdrop of the cutbacks (and how these really effect the poorest of the poor most essentially) can be dispiriting for even the most positive and optimistic of teachers.

Candles at St Germain de Pres, Paris, Easter 2007
Anyway back to Storr who tells us in vivid terms the lonely, isolated and somewhat abandoned lives of the follwing authors: Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) who learned to live in his mind almost totally while at school because the other boys did not like him, Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943), writer of childrens's books and early conservationist, the very sad but entertaining Edward Lear (1812 - 1888), author, artist, poet and nonsense writer, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), P.G. Wodehouse (1881 – 1975) the famous novelist and Saki or Hector Hugh Munro (1870 - 1916) a British writer, whose witty and sometimes macabre stories satirised Edwardian society and culture. He is considered a master of the short story and is often compared to O. Henry and Dorothy Parker. Storr recounts their early unhappiness, isolation and, in some cases, abandonment by parents, and how the power of their imagination helped them to survive such deprivation and how in the end their experiences helped them become creatice geniuses.  I will accept all this, but obviously while these authors suffered abandonment and isolation they were in no sense paupers or in any sense grossly abused by their parents and guardians.  They had some money behind them to bring them along in life.  However, we will forgive Dr Anthony Storr here because his brief is the exploration of how solitude helps in the intergration and individuation of self in the life of a human being.  His brief was not a social study of imagination in the lives of deprived and abused children.

Let me now finish with an extended quotation from Storr by way of summary:

The idea that the development of imagination and invention in these writers began as compensation for the absence or severance of intimate attachments carries with it the implication that such development is second best; a poor substitute for the close, loving relationships which they should have enjoyed.  In early childhood this is probably the case.  Nothing can entirely compensate for the absence of intimate attachments in the very young.  However, what began as compensation for deprivation became a rewarding way of life.  All of these writers were successful, in spite of the emotional scars they bore.  (Solitude, p. 122)
What interests me here is that an approach to teaching that embraces the imagination can be life-saving for an abused child.  Of course, we are not social workers or youth workers, but education can be liberating and freeing.  The great Irish short story writer Bryan MacMahon who spent all of his life teaching firmly believed in the educative role of the imagination.  I firmly believe this, too.  With the likes of Dr Anthony Storr and other great psychotherapists and all deeply humane people I, too, believe in the possibilities of the imagination to allow the individual child to believe in him/herself, to believe that they are worthwhile in themselves, that they can make a difference to society or that they, simply, can heal their troubled souls in the embrace of a powerfully loving imagination.  I am a romantic at heart because the modernist and post-modernist imaginations will fail us in  these goals, because the are too pessimistic to suggest the possibility of any change.