Watching You Watching Me (March 2003)

Friday, 01 April 2011 07:47

OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND

March 2003


Dorothy Rowe

The Metaphysical Poets were a group of seventeenth century poets, including John Donne and George Herbert, who wrote complex, beautiful poems about life, death, God and salvation. In the BBC television drama Wit Emma Thompson played the role of Vivian Bearing, the 50-year-old Professor of Metaphysical Poetry who learns that she has advanced ovarian cancer which her surgeon proposes to treat with a new and ‘aggressive’ procedure.

Vivian is always very calm, very rational, a woman of very few words. No matter how much pain and discomfort she is in, when her doctors ask, ‘How are you?’, she always replies, ‘I’m fine.’ However, she confides in us, the audience, and we see the interweaving of her experience of her progress towards death with her increasing appreciation of the wisdom of the poets whose work she knew so well. We also see her face as she watches the doctors as they assess the progress of the cancer and the effects of their treatment while ignoring her. Just from her face we get a good idea of what she thinks of these men. However, these men are oblivious to the fact that, as they study her body, Vivian studies them.

Medical training has always required doctors to see only bodies and disease, not real, whole people. Nowadays doctors would say that they consider the whole person, but this attitude is certainly not universal. My GP certainly sees people as people, not as walking illnesses, but when I read my latest issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry I see that little has changed in the thirty years I have been reading it. All mention of individual experience is excluded. There are no people but cases, no record of people making decisions and acting but records of ‘behaviour’ which is explained in terms of biochemical changes, genes, and lit up areas of the brain. Objects, not people, are studied.

Objects are very different from people. When scientists study a rock or a collection of cells the rock and the cells are not studying the scientists. Objects move because forces act on them or because their physical make-up contains processes which engender movement, such as the process of internal combustion in a car’s engine or the processes of growth in a living cell. People move because they are active agents. They assess the situation they are in, make decisions and act. They are always engaged in interpreting what is happening and acting on their interpretations.

We fail to understand this at our peril. Yet we often do, chiefly because taking other people’s interpretations into consideration involves so much effort. I act, you interpret what I do, I interpret your interpretation of my interpretation, then you interpret my interpretation of your interpretations, and so on throughout the entirety of our interactions together. No wonder communications between people so often break down.

When we make the effort to understand another person’s interpretations we are treating the other person seriously as an equal. In doing this we reduce our power over the other person. People who want to be powerful cannot afford to treat other people as equals. The ultimate inequality is to treat other people as objects.

It takes courage to be able to acknowledge that our interpretations aren’t the only possible interpretations. People who lack such courage usually defend themselves from their fear of uncertainty by insisting that their way of seeing things is the only right way, and that anyone who doesn’t share their interpretations is either mad or bad. This belief underlies the endless conflicts between people who differ in their nationality, race or religion.

Seeing the people who differ from us in their views as either mad or bad allows us to claim that we know exactly how these other people think. Thus in conflicts such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians both sides can claim that they know for certain that the other side desires nothing but their enemy’s destruction, while a depressed and anxious person can be absolutely certain that everyone she meets despises her.

Understanding other people’s interpretations is difficult because we all use different words and images, yet, if we try to understand others in the way Vivian Bearing tried to understand the metaphysical poets, we’d find how alike we all are, how we all want to love and be loved, and for our life to have significance, and how we struggle to understand the meaning of life and death.

Wit was written by Margaret Edson and broadcast on BBC 2 on December 17, 2002