Regarding my chapter 'The Comforts of Reason' in Living Together edited by David Kennard and Neil Small, Quartet Books, 1997

Wednesday, 31 August 2011 13:36

Regarding my chapter 'The Comforts of Unreason' in Living Together edited by David Kennard and Neil Small, Quartet Books, 1997.

The editors of Living Together invited a number of psychologists and therapists to contribute a chapter in response to their question, 'Could the knowledge and understanding gained through nearly a century of psychoanalytically informed work with individuals, families, groups and organisations be used to contribute to a practical agenda for social change that would increase our emotional health and well-being?'

The editors' introduction to the book opened with,

We live together in a world that is going through unprecedented changes. Families break up and regroup. Parents no longer have the certainties of what's right and what's wrong to tell their children. Almost anything goes, it seems. Employers can no longer be expected to look after their workers. The fat cats cream off quick profits while the workforce is restructured. Few, it seems, are safe from the scrap heap. The images of pleasure and success that surround us and invite us to join their make-believe world surely only make it harder for us to work at making ordinary life a success – so unexciting, complicated and frustrating by comparison. And as if all this were not enough, we have to learn to live within the limits imposed by what we now know about the earth's finite resources.

This was written in 1996 and it is a good description of what life in the UK was like then. Curiously, the editors do not name any of the people who were responsible for this state of affairs. Perhaps they felt that this was unnecessary because we all knew who the guilty were, or perhaps they were taking account of the views of those people who set the tone of the British Psychological Society. These august psychologists believed that anything to do with politics was vulgar. When in 1968 I first encountered the BPS and discovered their views about politics I was shocked. Back in Sydney my colleagues were involved not just in politics but in protest. Australian troops were fighting beside American forces in Vietnam. The Australian government had introduced a form of conscription that meant that the brightest young men were being sent to fight in a war that was clearly unjust. How could a psychologist not be involved? In the years that followed my arrival in the UK I met many British psychologists who were very interested in politics, but their views were not reflected in our professional journal The Psychologist.

In 1996 John Major was coming to the end of his time as Prime Minister. He had tried to continue the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher but, while Rupert Murdoch had always supported Thatcher, he had no time for Major. Instead he had given his support to the up and coming young leader of New Labour, Tony Blair. Murdoch's newspapers, the Sun, the News of the World, the Times and the Sunday Times, attacked Major and revealed salacious stories about his cabinet members. However, Major did manage to break up and sell off British Rail to a number of buyers. The historian Tony Judt wrote, 'Thatcherized . . . . society suffered a meltdown, with catastrophic results. By disdaining and dismantling all collectively-held resources, by vociferously insisting upon an individualistic ethic that discounted unquantifiable assets, Margaret Thatcher did serious harm to the fabric of British public life.' (1)

By removing the rules that kept the money men in the City from wild excesses (2) Thatcher set in train the series of events that led to the global economic crisis of 2008 from which we have not yet recovered. A great many people were suffering from the effects of Thatcher's policies, but how could therapists contribute to a practical agenda for social change that would increase our emotional health and well-being? I remembered how in the Thatcher-inspired recession of 1980 I had spent a good deal of time teaching current politics to my depressed and anxious clients who were blaming themselves for the fact that the factory or firm they worked for had closed. However, I do not think that this is what the editors of this book had in mind.

Instead I wrote about how I thought the editors were mistaken in thinking that there was a group of psychoanalytically minded therapists who had similar ideas and methods of working. There were many therapists who were not interested in science and certainly did not base their work on what science had shown about how we operate as human beings. By 1996 neuroscientists had considerable evidence that showed that Epictetus was right when he said, 'It is not things in themselves that trouble us but our opinions of things.' In other words, what determines our behaviour is not what happens to us but how we interpret what happens to us. I knew that a great many of the therapists I worked with took no account of this scientific knowledge at all. They had their own pet theories that had nothing to do with science. Moreover, I had known a number of therapists for a long time and could see how they did not apply to themselves anything they had learned about increasing a person's emotional health and well-being. I did not expect that an experienced therapist would lead a perfectly happy life. After all, by the time you get to be a therapist you have given a lot of hostages to fortune. As truthful therapists will admit, in doing therapy you learn a lot about yourself. For instance, in discussing the mothers of my depressed clients, women who were either angels or witches, never anything in between, my anger with my mother dwindled and instead I felt sorry for her, something that made my life so much easier. But if you cannot increase your own emotional health and well-being, do you have anything of value to give to another person?

The chapter I wrote certainly did not please many of my fellow therapists. However, it is a good summary of what we need to know about ourselves if we want to understand ourselves and other people.

(1) Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 Pimlico 2007, p.543

(2) Dorothy Rowe Why We Lie HarperCollins 2010

Last modified on Wednesday, 31 August 2011 14:24