CCYP (March 2007)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:50

A Whirlpool in a Stream

This was a talk by Dorothy Rowe at the BACP’s conference on Counselling Children and Young People in November 2006, which was subsequently published in the CCYP Journal (March 2007)

‘Man is the same in Pall Mall as in the wilderness of New South Wales.’

These were the words of Captain-Lieutenant Watkin Tench, one of the officers of the First Fleet sent to Botany Bay to found a penal settlement. Two hundred years later the Australian biologist Tim Flannery wrote,

The two peoples who met on that day in 1788 – the Aborigines and the Europeans – had been separated from each other for longer than any other human cultures on our planet. For 60,000 years – perhaps half the span of our species’ tenure on earth – they had been cut off from each other, living on isolated and very different land masses at opposite ends of the globe. They had developed separate languages and cultures, different skin colour, gene frequencies and facial features. But despite it all, recognition and understanding were immediate, for so strong is our common bond that 60,000 years of separation melted away in a moment. A smile was a smile. An uncertain glance, an act of friendship, a shout of hostility or fear, a sexual overture – all were instantly comprehended.[i] 

Across the gap of time, language and culture, gestures and facial expressions are comprehended because they are based on the basic needs which all human beings strive to fulfil. Every individual has a sense of being a person. We need other people to recognise us as such. We need to feel that our life has significance. We need to have satisfactory relationships with other people. We need to have a place in our society.

All these needs develop from our sense of being a person who makes decisions and acts on the world. This sense of being a person comes into being very early in our life. Some psychologists argue that self-consciousness does not develop until a child is in his fourth year, but it is impossible to look at the photographic studies which the developmental psychologist Colwyn Trevarthen has made of the conversations between infants and their mothers without being convinced that small babies and toddlers have a sense of being a person who derives pleasure from acting effectively upon the world, who responds warmly to affection, sadly to rejection, and is confused and then despairing when persistently ignored.

What is this sense of being a person? Throughout history people have believed that our body is inhabited by a soul or spirit which continues on after the body dies. Yet, though scientists have discovered many extraordinary things about the brain, they have not found the seat of the soul. You think and feel, but there is no little you sitting in your brain thinking and feeling. Nevertheless, each of us has a strong sense of being a person. How can this be explained?

There is an on-going argument between the scientists who study Artificial Intelligence (AI) and philosophers such as John Searle who believe that, in order for thinking to happen, there must be a thinking agent. The computer scientist Marvin Minsky calls Searle’s way of thinking ‘prescientific’. AI scientists insist that ‘thought does not need a unitary agent who thinks.’[ii] 

It seems to me that both the AI scientists and the philosophers are right. Our sense of being a person is a unit, but this unit is part of a process which is in constant movement and change. This process is the means by which we live in the world, interact with the world, and try to make sense of the world. It is the process of creating meaning which is what human beings are engaged in all the time. The process could be likened to a swiftly flowing stream of water with its constant movement and change. As the stream flows it forms a whirlpool. We can see the whirlpool and talk about it as if it is a thing. We can say to someone, ‘Look, there is a whirlpool.’ However, we can’t bend down and lift the whirlpool out of the stream because the whirlpool and the stream are one. If a large rock is thrown into the stream or the stream dries up, the whirlpool disappears. In a similar way the process of living in the world, acting on the world and trying to make sense of the world, which begins to develop at some as yet unknown time after conception, is in constant movement and change. At some point early in life the process develops its own whirlpool which becomes the individual’s sense of being a person. This sense includes but is far more than consciousness because it includes the memory which is an essential part of our sense of being a person. Memory shows us to be in constant change yet it gives a sense of being a person passing through time.

Like the whirlpool, our sense of being a person is a construction which is in constant change. (The Buddha knew this and called the sense of being a person a fiction. Knowing and accepting this is an essential part of becoming enlightened.) Moreover, just as a whirlpool can be destroyed by a rock being thrown into it, so the sense of being a person can be threatened with destruction by events in the environment. Since the process is the process of living, and the purpose of life is to live, the process strives to maintain the integrity of the sense of being a person by constantly monitoring its degree of safety from external assault by aspects of the environment. This monitoring is a stream of interpretations by the process of what is happening. It is a stream of messages along the lines of ‘safe, safe, danger, DANGER, safe, danger, safe’ and so on. We don’t hear the process sending us these messages. What we experience is the creation of those interpretations which we call emotions.

Alll emotions relate to our sense of being a person. Emotions are the meanings we create which concern the degree of safety or danger to our sense of being a person. The positive emotions relate to safety: the negative emotions relate to danger. Feeling happy is the interpretation ‘Right now everything is the way I want it to be.’ Feeling angry is the interpretation ‘How dare everything not be the way I want it to be.’ The neural basis of the primary emotions of fear and anger develops very early in a baby’s life, while the more complex emotions like jealousy (‘How dare that person have something which is rightly mine’) require a fully functioning cortex.

List the positive and negative emotions and it is immediately apparent that there are many more negative emotions than positive ones. Danger is seen and recognised in all its various possibilities. The sense of being a person is fragile and needs to be protected at all times. We do this because we know how terrible it is when our sense of being a person falls apart.

This happens to all of us when we are small children. We don’t understand what is happening around us, and so our predictions of what will happen can be seriously wrong. For fortunate children these are simply occasions when a desire is left unfulfilled by an adult or tiredness makes trying to hold everything together just too hard to do. For unfortunate children these are major disasters. They find themselves in situations which are beyond their comprehension and in which they are being punished, neglected or abandoned. When their developing sense of being a person falls apart, the intense fear experienced and the difficulty in putting themselves together again leaves them with an expectation of more disasters coupled with a sense of inadequacy and helplessness in meeting such a disaster again. These feelings of fear, inadequacy and helplessness can remain with them for the rest of their lives.

When people talk about their experiences of being annihilated as a person they describe it in one of two ways, as being shattered or as disappearing. In her lecture Margot Sunderland showed a photograph of an arrangement which a young boy had created in a sandtray. It was a skeleton, not intact, but with the various bones separated by random gaps with parts of toys scattered around the bones. The boy had explained, ‘When Mummy died I was in bits.’ In her book the Best of Times, the Worst of Times, a book about her battle to survive manic depression, Penelope Rowe described growing up in a family where she was subjected to constant cruel criticism and rejection. She wrote, ‘Sometimes we would be gathered in the sitting room and the sound of voices or a whimpering baby or the cricket commentary or the ABC news seemed to fade away into an indistinct murmur and I would feel myself fading away as well. I was no longer with them. I was somehow on the mantelpiece above the fireplace or atop the bookshelves or floating on the ceiling, disembodied, weightless, invisible.’[iii]

The fact that we can report the shattering and disappearing means that our sense of being a person does not disintegrate entirely. Just as a whirlpool consists of water so a sense of being a person consists of interpretations or meanings created as the individual interacts with the environment. These meanings are guesses or theories about what is going on around us. From these interpretations we create predictions about what will happen. When these predictions prove to be relatively accurate we feel safe. Even when we predict doom and disaster and these occur just as we predicted we enjoy a certain sense of satisfaction in knowing that we were right. But when our predictions prove to be wrong we feel in danger.

The sense of being in danger can be as mild as the anxiety we feel when we can’t find our house keys which we were sure were on the kitchen table. When we discover the keys hiding in our bag, our anxiety abates. However, when we discover that one of our most dearly held ideas, an idea on which the structure of our life depends, is wrong, the fear of being annihilated as a person becomes overwhelming. When Penelope Rowe was a first year student at Sydney University she was forced by a markedly unjust and unbending university Senate to repeat the year in all her subjects, even though she had passed brilliantly in all her subjects except one. She wrote,

This sudden thump that brought me rudely and crassly down to earth precipitated a depression that was to last for the next three years at university. I had experienced one of life’s great lessons – I had foolishly believed until then that life was supposed to be fair. I felt I had nothing to live for. I did not have the maturity to accept that decisions can be taken that are profoundly unjust and can affect a person’s whole life, and you cannot do anything about it. There is no guarantee that after bad luck will come good luck. There is just luck.[iv] 

The discovery that the world is not a Just World where goodness is invariably rewarded and badness punished is, in my experience, the most common disaster which serves to precipitate a person into depression. The people who become depressed have spent their lives striving to be good. To achieve their goal they have sacrificed much, but because they believe in a Just World, they have been able to comfort themselves with the certainty that they will be rewarded for their goodness. People will love and admire them: their hopes of a happy life will be fulfilled. When events reveal that the world is not merely unjust, it is indifferent to our wishes, they fall apart and are overwhelmed by terror.

When we discover that we have made a serious error of judgement and that reality is not what we thought it was, we have a choice of how to deal with the consequences of our error. If we know that all we know are our ideas, and that our ideas are no more than guesses, we can say to ourselves, ‘I got it wrong.’ Then we need to have the courage to endure a period of uncertainty until we can construct another set of ideas which we hope is a closer match to reality. It took Penelope Rowe many years to understand that no amount of goodness prevents disaster. The fact that she continues to experience periods of depression and mania suggests that she has been unable to relinquish the hope that one day she will be rewarded for her goodness.

Many people gain the wisdom which allows them to change their ideas but others refuse to do this because they feel that they cannot cope with the uncertainty while their sense of being a person reconstructs itself. They refuse to change their ideas, and so spend the rest of their life trying to force the world to be what they want it to be. Some of these people develop a way of behaving which psychiatrists call a mental disorder. All mental disorders are both a defence aimed at holding the person together in the face of the fear of annihilation and a weapon aimed at forcing the world to be what the person wants it to be. For instance depression can be seen as a refusal to mourn the loss that the person has suffered. The person may be denying that the loss has occurred, or may be claiming that through the person’s suffering that which is lost will be restored. It is a kind of action replay of, ‘If I get really upset Mummy will give me what I want.’

An alternative to developing a mental disorder in order to bend reality to your wishes is to become very powerful, and, through your power, make the world be what you want it to be. History is full of such people. George Bush wants to force the world to be what he wants it to be, irrespective of what suffering this causes other people.

 Whenever we see a person behaving in bizarre ways, or in ways which cause the person and/or other people great suffering, we are witnessing that person trying to defend himself against the fear of annihilation as a person. No matter how great the differences in time, place, language and culture, the greatest fear of all human beings is the fear of being annihilated as a person. We are the process, and the process needs to keep whole the fragile structure of the sense of being a person. This is not easy to do, and it is even more difficult for children than for adults. Children can be overwhelmed by events which seem ordinary to adults. An adult has learned what to expect while shopping in a supermarket, a toddler has not. Children find it harder than adults to put themselves together after they have fallen apart. An adult can learn from experience and be able to say, ‘I’ve put myself together before and I’ll manage to do so again’, but a child can be confronting a completely new experience. Adults have had more time to learn how to regulate the expression of their emotions than children have had, although there are many adults who have never had the faintest desire to master this task. Confronted by a disaster, an adult has more choices than a powerless child in the care of adults who have not prevented or may have even created the disaster which has overtaken the child.

If we see the child’s behaviour as the child defending himself against the annihilation of his fragile sense of being a person, how we should act becomes obvious. We need to help the child hold himself together, and encourage him to build up his own self-confidence by discovering ways of acting effectively on the world. Children are not some aboriginal species which evolves into another species – adults – once they turn twenty. They are fellow human being just like us.

[i] ‘Beautiful Lies: Population and Environment in Australia’ Quarterly Essays on the Australian Story Griffin Press, Melbourne, 2006.

[ii] Sherry Turkle The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit MIT Press, Cambridge Mass, 2005, p.243.

[iii] Allen and Unwin , Sydney, 2005, p.29.

[iv] ibid p.35


Dorothy Rowe My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend Routledge, London, 2007.