“He cleans all the stupid fish. I clean the smart ones. Fortunately the smart ones don’t get caught. That’s why they swim in schools! HAHA” From On Golden Pond.
I love that film. Makes me cry. Norman and Ellen – silly old poops… silly old me.
I promise I will always love you.
I promise I didn’t do it.
I promise I will change .
I promise I never meant it.
I promise I didn’t know what I was doing.
I promise, I promise.
It has been years now since I sang in the bass (really I’m a baritone) section of a community choir. We’d got together from very small beginnings , a few folks in a room of a community health project that thought and knew that we felt better when we sang. Not great singing, just enough to suggest to the passing ear that we could ‘ hold a tune’.
The well-being dimensions of the all-ages choir were multiple – regular rehearsals with like-minded souls gave structure to my weeks, the rhythm of rehearsals and concerts (yes , we performed) scaffolded the year. The social elements of the choir brought new friends into my life and a commitment to put something back into the local community meant that we all did more than ‘ just sing’. We turned up at community events, sang at weddings of members and friends… funerals too sadly. We joined up with like-minded choirs across the country and beyond.
Learning new and unfamiliar tunes and styles challenged the voice and the mind, and instilled confidence when , after hours of slogging it out and bashing through the notes, it came together.
But soon it became clear that for many it had became a life-line, a way of connecting with self and others that was truly unique and effective. Most of us could tell in some way of the way it enhanced our lives.
I was pleased and interested to read then of a recent research project at Edinburgh University.
It has been exploring how singing together improves mental health. And it has proven such a hit that its participants are continuing to rehearse and perform even though the research has been completed.
In the summer of 2016, HarmonyChoir recruited around 50 singers, half of whom have experienced mental health symptoms. During eight rehearsals, singers were asked to rate various aspects of their state of mind, such as their sense of well-being, how much they were enjoying themselves, their “connectedness” and their ability to concentrate. They also completed more in-depth surveys at the beginning and end of the series of rehearsals.
The project culminated in a performance at Edinburgh’s Just Festival at the end of August, and singers also performed a flashmob at the Meadows during the Festival Fringe.
Findings from the research are currently being formalised, but there is clear evidence that the experience was positive for the singers: the choir has fresh performances planned for the autumn and winter, and aims to continue into next year.
There’s a huge attraction in being ‘ other ‘ than we are. Who wouldn’t, and doesn’t, want to pretend and step away sometimes from the limitations of the self we create and maintain in our lives.
But in the therapy room I believe that my invitation to the client is to be ‘real’, to risk the unfamiliar and to experience her/him self as fully as they are able to in the presence of another.
What of me in that ? How ‘real ‘am I? The task of therapy I am engaged in is often an uncovering of reality and the discovery by the client ( one hopes) of new ways of living, confronting long-held disguises or unleashing hidden assets that can be re-awakened for the good. Sometimes that can be a challenging route not only for the client but for the therapist. My job entails being aware of what of my ‘stuff’can get in the way of being fully there for the client. At times that can be tough to notice until you’re in it !
It is said that Freud apparently made some remark about having his patients lie down on a couch so that he wouldn’t have to be stared at for hours on end. I certainly see the value of the couch for some clients who would prefer to lie down and not see me. At times, what is being spoken of can be done only out of clear sight ( even the client sitting can choose to look at the ceiling or become fixated by that so enthralling mark on the carpet.). He/she may wish to pretend that I can’t see or hear them.
I see a parallel too with the trap that easily lures therapists when the going is tough. I recognised some time back that often when I feel implacably drawn to use some formulaic or neat exercise to demonstrate the ‘ diagnosis’ and ‘solve’ the issue , I’m probably avoiding the difficult reality of what is happening between me and the client at that point. Not always of course … sometimes the theoretical expertise is usefully employed. But I know that the danger is always there that I too can pretend that we have it worked out.
Rollo May in ‘ The Discovery of Being ‘ described this beautifully;
The creative process, which should absorb him, transcending the subject-object split, has become temporarily broken; he is now dealing with objects and himself as a manipulator of objects. (1983, p.162, pub W.W. Norton)
My grandfather used to have a saying that went’ if you can’t afford a holiday, change your baker ‘. He had a cheering ability to make the best of a bad lot !
I suppose in these days of austerity ‘staycations’ for many, the reality is that we can discover new things closer to home. Not sure , mind you , if changing your baker works today in the mass-produced world of our daily loaf.
Experiencing the familiar in the unfamiliar, can of course be comforting as well as a smidgeon disappointing. Change is often burdened with unfulfillable expectations, born out of the rhythm of our routine; the internal voice pleads”Please let there be something more out there “.
Clients come into therapy, rightly often, expecting change. “So how would you like to be different, by coming to therapy ?”, posed by the therapist with an air of gentle enquiry, that masks how impossibly difficult that it may be to put in words. Sometimes, of course , it ( that change) can be stated, defined, practically put, worked towards, achieved and understood.
But even if we can sometimes find the words to describe the ‘change’ we seek, my own experience has often been of too easily anticipating the new thing I want with with a heady unrealism whilst deftly avoiding the impact of the ancient wisdom that ‘there’s nothing new under heaven.’
Jung said :”The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.”
That’s not about existential change; that’s about acceptance. Living in a new accord with the familiar and the not entirely- comfortable, may go against the grain for some, but it may free us also from the illusory search for the change that will bring about the perfect me.
There was something weirdly disconcerting about the way I responded to the recent piece in The Guardian about lifelong friends. It jolted me into a reverie of wistful self-examination. Reading others’ stories of lives-shared reminded me of what I had taken for granted and of missed opportunity .
I didn’t immediately think ‘Yeh, I know what that’s about !’ Instead, I went off down some memory maze searching for the ties that bind, me to thee and vice versa. I caught myself asking ‘ would she count? ‘, ‘ what’s long-enough ?, ‘ is he a first league friend or in the second tier of “acquaintances”?’
Certainly, looking back over the years, it’s easier to identify those who I thought would be around forever, and aren’t. The special ones.The friend whose intimate connection was jealously guarded from others’attention. Then the painful realisation over the years that their universe extended beyond my influence. Oh and the ignominy of being left off the birthday party list and reminded of it the day afterwards.
Of course, I had a hand in the course of events too. It takes two to lose a friendship. Careless neglect as the months and years passed may have been my worst fault. Not noticing that the Christmas card promise.. ” we must meet up in January “, had been offered in successive years… the phrase picked up and trotted out like the yellowing Christmas cards from the back of the drawer.
And I still have a book with the inscription from one friend of 35 years ago, written fondly I still like to imagine ; “There are some friends who are closer than brothers”.
The Hebrew script under the quote reminding me of our cross-cultural/religious meeting. At the time, I read and believed it. We managed to honour the intention for a couple of years perhaps, and then it slowly petered out. Busy-ness, alternative paths, changing focus;any other number of excuses might be proferred. For years I used to regularly pick the book off the shelf and just stare at the bold lettering.
But the truth is, we simply didn’t care enough.
“You’re looking at me !” ,said with real alarm.
“Well yes, I am . Don’t I always ?”.
“No” ,came the answer, ” not like that “.
“Like what ? ”
“Like you see something , that I am , and I don’t see.”
What an “eye opener”. This how she saw me as her therapist. That I could ‘see’ through her, or into her.
“What do you imagine I see?”
Her gaze dropped to the floor, “That I’m nothing .”
The lyrics are powerful. The melody painfully astringent.
I was young
I never needed anyone
And making love was just for fun
Those days are gone
I think of all the friends I’ve known
When I dial the telephone
Driving home after visiting an elderly frail relative, I was unexpectedly impacted by the Eric Carmen song on the radio and the reality that my visit was one of very few, if any other indeed, she’d have that week. Her neighbours and the remaining few relatives, yes they know she’s there, and yes, they probably care in a distantly observant “wouldn’t wish her any ill” way, but that’s the extent of their outreach.
We know, ‘society ‘ knows, that the impact of loneliness can be measured in poor mental and physical health, and that in our increasingly atomised isolating way of treating our elderly, many of our future selves ( oh yes, us too ), will experience the slow diminishing of our visibility, influence, and likely , our sense of being valued.
I feel the anger, the sadness, the questioning of ‘how did it get to this’ in our sophisticated wealthy society, the impetus to fight against the inevitability of it, and somehow make it all ok.
The great writer/theologian Paul Tillich wrote :
Language… has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.
I remember as a child being forcibly told ‘ hold your tongue ! ‘ when speaking out of line, in a Latin class at school. The teacher, cherry red in the face, bellowed at me, eyes flaming, as I blurted out a translation for a fellow pupil who was struggling with the set piece we’d been given as homework. Humiliation. Body froze momentarily and then my response, from somewhere inside, wounded and angry..” I was just helping him !”, unknowingly stoking the teacher’s fire of righteous indignation. Didn’t help – him or me; both of us got punishment exercises.
When to speak and when to hold back ? The moment passes so quickly and the instinctual urge to ‘bite back’ rather than ‘ bite your tongue’ can be easily provoked.
The judge who swore back at the defendant who’d used the C word to her, after being sentenced, may now regret her choice of expletive , or even that she replied at all. Who knows. But for me, the story made me think of my control of my responses when I am enraged or insulted by someone. I can easily move into attack mode, and muster the weapons of sarcasm and insult, or I can sometimes retreat into wounded self-pity and just hide. But neither of these options feels adequate or effective.
It’s a huge challenge to see the other with compassion and empathy. Big ask ! As Brene Brown in ‘Daring Greatly’ suggests, a first step is to let yourself feel the pain of what’s happening , notice it, don’t block it out or feel that you have to respond to it immediately. And in the space that is created, become curious about the other’s pain – their woundedness, anger, and humiliation that may have been at the root of their unkindness to you.
In my best part, I hope to offer them ( and me) a future wish for kindness, understanding and acceptance, or at least to go forward, or part, in mutual respect.