Sunday, 27 November 2011

It is not you, it is me

On what level can I know you?

Some people would say that it depends on what I mean by "I' and "You" and "Know'.  That would be a long exposition, including contradictory and often controversial theories and that is not my problem.  If you wish to explore that problem you might start with, "Conversations on Consciousness" by Susan Blackmore.

The problem I wish to explore is the problem of otherness, and in order to do so I wish to start with my own simplistic view of you and me.  I begin by accepting that I exist to myself as a bundle of sensations and experiences contained in a body, and operated by a brain, and that I think of all this together as "me".  All this is what I mean when I say, "I'.  Equally I accept that you exist to yourself as your own bundle of sensations and experiences, operated by your own brain and that you call all this together "me" and "I" also.  I accept that I view the world through my eyes and perceptions and that you view the world through your eyes and perceptions.  This give rise to my problem : how much can I ever know about another person, even if that other person is my dearest intimate?  A second problem might be that on some level it is easier to know enough about a person with whom one is not intimate.

Take the sentence "I love you".  It is so much easier to know what is meant by "I love your hat."  Even if both statements are true in so far as the utterer believes them, in the second case the emotion is likely to be on the level of admiration or envy and would be recognised as such by both parties.  In the first case the emotion might be desire, tenderness, empathy, need, possessiveness or affection, or all or none of these.

In our language we accept conventions of meaning.  We understand the extent of dislike when someone says, "I loathe that person". We understand also that loathing involves finding the other person repellent in some way.  If someone says, "I hate that person" we accept that a passion is felt, the nature of which we cannot know, and we cannot know whether this is a momentary passion towards someone more generally liked.

Trouble arises when we bring our own perceptions to what other people are saying.  

I might not even pay attention to what you are saying if I do not like your clothes or your accent, your car or the company you keep.  I might pre-judge your opinions negatively because of the tone of your voice, your facial expression, your gender, your manners or your political affiliation.

"Charming" and "smarmy" might be used by different people to describe the same person, while those who know him more intimately might describe him as generous or mean, affectionate or reserved, hard working or lazy, intelligent or stupid, calm or tempestuous, thoughtful or shallow, clever or cunning, impetuous or cautious, principled or stubborn.   

The psychologist George Kelly claimed that we "construct" a person from our observations of how much they display the qualities that matter to us, both negative and positive.  If I value honesty I will be looking for it in the people I see and I might use the flimsiest of evidence to support my theory about their honesty or lack of it.

It is almost as if we are doomed to misunderstand or misread the people we meet.  This is only a problem when it matters.

If I feel disappointed or let down by a friend it is most likely my perception of friendship that has let me down.  My mother used to say, "Expect nothing and you will be surprised by what you get".  This leads me to think that it is more important to be a friend than to lay expectations of friendship upon others.

Perhaps it is expectations that are the real problem.  If I do not expect you to think like me, to value what I value, to give what I am prepared to give, to mean what I mean, then I stand a chance of getting to know something of what you do think, what you do value, what you are prepared to give and what you mean by what you say.

When it comes to love and friendship I have a better chance of knowing another person when I listen to what they think and feel and believe, and to their story about how how it is in their world.

David Hume tells us that we can know enough about another person by how they behave in aspects of family, business, and society.  He tells us that we can think of him as a good man if he provides for his family, is kind to his servants, deals fairly in business and is affable with his neighbours.

That is not enough for me.  If I am to know you at all I must meet you on a level of understanding not only who are but also what matters to you.  It requires an open mind and an open heart on both our parts.  If you deceive me then "It is not me, it is you."  If I fail to understand you then, "It is not you, it is me."

Monday, 31 October 2011

The Grand Panjandrum*

I awake. The eyes that see are my eyes, and the room I see is my room. The sound of rain is heard by my ears, and the thought, "Good. It does not matter that I forgot to water the plants last night", is my thought. The neck that turns to look at the clock is my neck. The feeling of stiffness in that neck is my feeling. The decision on whether to get up or to lie there a little longer is my decision.

I am the subject of my life. I am The Grand Panjandrum in my life.

Disregarding completely any philosophical argument about the existence of a soul, I am going to reflect here upon the problems that arise just because each of is the one subject of one life : our own.

The first category of problems that comes to mind are social ones. Learning to live as part of a family, part of a neighbourhood, part of a school and part of the wider society is at its best a gentle process of adaptation and adjustment. We learn to curb our passions and to share; to take turns and to defer gratification. As we make efforts to gain mastery of our behaviour and to make sense of our world, Plato and Freud would be proud of us. Aristotle would appreciate the times in which we apply reason in order to balance our own needs and desires against the needs and desires of others.

At its worst a child's early experience of society might be abusive, neglectful, conflicting, confusing and full of fear. How then does a child learn to adapt to the norms of a world so different in character from the one he knows? He might begin to expect everyone else to play The Grand Panjandrum against him, and thus determine to get his defence in first. He might defend himself by inflating his own ego so much that he sees himself as The Grand Panjandrum over all others. That we label people who exhibit such tendencies beyond infancy as thugs, hoodlums or sociopaths is not helpful in terms of political efforts to build a just and secure society.

To be just in government a society needs to be able to deal humanely with those who challenge the established norms. If we allow any sense that such people are in some way "other" or "beyond the pale" we not only deny our own humanity but we also might be inclined to play The Grand Panjandrum with real people's lives.

The second category of problems are ethical ones. My Grand Panjandrum is kind, caring, generous and honest. Or so I believe, because my Grand Panjandrum is me. Socrates claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living. I would agree. But how do I know that the conclusions to which my examination leads me are the right ones? Socrates would tell us that by dialogue we are best able to reach a consensus of opinion about the best way forward. But what if my dialogue is only with people who are like me? And if my dialogue is only with myself I am doomed to put forward the same old arguments. As Francis Bacon said,

"For what a man would like to be true, that he more readily believes."

If there is no external authority like a god to tell me what to do then my Grand Panjandrum and I have to do the best we can. I weigh the money I send to Charity X against the knowledge that it is a drop in the ocean by consoling myself that something is better than nothing. I restrain myself from crowding around an accident victim because I respect the person's dignity. But if the person was wounded and alone and drunk and vomiting and swearing would I put my coat under his head and hold his hand until the ambulance I called arrived? I do hope so, but I suspect that my Grand Panjandrum and I are cowards "full of sound and fury and signifying nothing". (Shakespeare. 'Macbeth')

So where does that leave me? It leaves me wanting every child to grow up sure of itself and its own Grand Panjandrum. It leaves me wanting suitable housing in which to bring up those children, for all families. It leaves me wanting employment opportunities in real jobs for young people. It leaves me wanting better ways of dealing with crime or anti-social behaviour than just locking people up. It leaves me wanting a culture of mutual respect between all classes, creeds and post codes in our society. It leaves me wanting to be braver, and bolder.

So what must I do? I must speak up on these issues at every opportunity. I must write letters to MPs and consider carefully how to use my vote. I must hold those banks with whom I hold savings to account, and make a nuisance of myself demanding answers to the questions they would rather were not asked. I must learn to live not with what I want but with what I need, and give as much as I can to the groups in my community that do good work. I must learn to smile and to encourage and to thank those whom I encounter. I must be happy to pay my taxes. I must learn to keep my mobile phone charged and a battery in my torch and a blanket in my car. I must learn basic first aid.

These things will do for starters.

How about you?

* The Grand Panjandrum
Late 19th century. From 'Farrago' a nonsense verse composed by Samuel Foote to test the memory of the actor Charles Macklin.
Used to denote a figure of power or authority.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Truth, Integrity and Justice

I see truth and justice as inextricably linked, and not only in a court of law.  Let me explain : if I lie or withhold the truth I perpetrate an injustice of some kind.  The injustice might be only to myself, to my own integrity, but it could be an injustice towards another person in the form of misrepresentation, betrayal or denial.  

To start with a seemingly trivial example, the detective story.  We are encouraged to follow clues in order to seek out the facts (or the"evidence") and the "motive".  Where a denouement comes as a surprise it is usually because we have missed the clues, and we admire the writer's skill.  If the facts or the motive have been withheld until the last chapter we often feel cheated.  Although it is "only a story" we seem to have some expectation of the integrity of the contract between reader and writer: "I agree to suspend my disbelief if you agree to puzzle me but neither to deceive me nor to withhold information".  I expect the puzzle to be solvable by me, even if I cannot solve it.

A serious example is the recent experience of examination candidates who encountered questions that had no solutions and who spent precious time trying to work out the answers.  The response of the students and the schools' representatives showed the disbelief and anger that follows a betrayal of contractual integrity.  Attempts by the examining bodies to make redress by adjusting the marking in no way do justice to those students.  Someone at the exam board should have been more vigilant.  The examination papers were not fit for purpose nor were they true to their claims.  They failed on every practical and moral ground..

"Practical truth" an Aristotlean concept, is examined rigorously by Anthony Kenny in "From Empedocles to Wittengstein".  There is even doubt cast as to whether the idea was Aristotle's at all.  There is much examination of what practical truth means.  I enjoyed reading the chapter but I persist in my child-like and personal interpretation: that my reason will tell me which facts add up and that my need for a morally satisfactory (or ethical) conclusion will help me to reach the best judgement.  "The best judgement" is my interpretation of "practical truth".  If I read Anthony Kenny correctly he seems to interpret practical truth as "the resolution of an inner debate in accordance with the right desire".  In that case I would claim that "the resolution" equals "the best judgement".

So, if practical truth is the best judgement that can be made on the basis of the known facts and on the desire for an outcome that is morally satisfactory, ethical or virtuous (to use Aristotle's own word) then justice will be as well-served as is humanly possible i.e.

Reasoning + Ethics = Best Judgement  (Practical Truth) -> Practical Justice.

I use the term "practical justice" rather than "justice according to the law" because the law does not embody all the facts of life in the world today and the law is open to interpretation.  (This is not an argument for rapid changes in the law, as the rapidity often leads to a violation of both the reasoning and the ethical parts of the argument for truth and justice).  Also justice is a not just a legal matter.

Some events force us to examine concepts of truth and justice and integrity.  Some people say, "9/11 changed the world". Certainly our perception of the world as we know it has had to accommodate these events. Also we have had to accommodate into our awareness events such as the imprisoning of people without trial at Guantanamo Bay and the phenomenon of "Extraordinary Rendition".

I am sickened by arguments about where and when Human Rights Law or The Geneva Convention applies, which arguments are used to fudge the issues of detention and rendition.  I am sickened by arguments about the meaning of the word "torture" or of the phrase "cruel or unusual punishment" which are used to fudge the issue of maltreatment of prisoners.  Yet, in this volatile world, we must have these arguments and we must have them out in the open in order to establish a practical truth, to make the best judgements, to maintain the integrity of the law and to achieve justice.

We must not be squeamish and turn away.  We must not settle for less than the best.  We must hold people to account.  We must be vigilant.  We must try to make the best judgements.  We must speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2011


My late husband sometimes used to introduce me as, "My first wife."  This caused amusement to people who knew us and disconcerted those who did not.  He was witty, sociable and loved to play with language and ideas.

T's teasing introduction is philosophically similar to 'Ishmael's problem', as quoted by Simon Blackburn in his book, "Truth a guide for the perplexed".  At the end of "Moby Dick" Ishmael says, 'I alone escaped to tell the tale', which would be impossible if his account of the sinking of the ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean is true.  For my husband's statement to be true in so far as the accepted meaning of 'First wife' he would have needed at least a second wife which, is not the case,so far as I know.

'So far as I know', or 'to the best of my belief',  are caveats to the truth that are fundamental to the smooth running of society.  We sign legal documents and declare our good faith with such phrases.

Does this mean that truth is relative or that ultimate truth is unknowable?

Right away, I must say that, although I find it easy to accept that ultimate truth is unknowable, I do not believe that truth is relative.  I do not believe that what is essentially true in one context will not be essentially true in another.  If I lie I lie.  It does not matter where or when, in front of whom I lie, or why I lie.  I lie if I do not believe that what I am saying is the truth.  This is an entirely separate issue from whether my lying might save my skin, or 'serve a greater good'.  I do not see 'Truth' as a moral issue so much as a philosophical one.  It is what happens to the truth that is the moral issue for me.  The crucial fact for me is that I know whether I am lying or not.  If I believe the words that I say then I am not lying and I am telling the truth as I know it.

This is an easier matter if the question is, 'Were you there?'  Unless I was unconscious or otherwise unaware or have forgotten over time, I would expect to know where I have been.  I should be able to give a truthful answer.  It is whether I would choose to or not that is the moral issue.

If the question is, 'What did you see?' the truth becomes more difficult.  In this case perception muddies the waters.  I might see someone who reminds me of my father, so I would probably cast him in a kindly light in my description. I might even remember the individual as having some of the physical characteristics of my father, and not even noticed those characteristics in which he differed from him, such as having a moustache or wearing glasses.

This is one reason why witness statements can prove to be unreliable under questioning.  Having been at the scene of an accident and wanting to give a truthful account I was not able to give much eye-witness information to the police.  When asked, 'What drew your attention to the accident?' I was able to say, 'The sound of the brakes.'  I had not seen whether the lady stepped off the curb in front of the bus, nor was I able to offer any information about the speed of the bus, I had only heard the driver trying to stop the bus. Had the lady reminded me of my granny, or the driver reminded me of someone I did not like, I might have perceived things differently and thus my account might have been been less judicial.

Just as it is hard to be sure of the truth of our perceptions, it would be hard to be certain of our intentions. Elizabeth Anscombe told us that we cannot know intention.  It would thus be hard to be truthful about our intentions.  But I do not think that it is hard to know what we believe.  I think it is hard to deceive ourselves about the truth for that reason.  It might be hard to know the whole truth but it is not hard to know the essential truth of what we think, of what we say, of what we do, of what we feel and of what we believe.

Socrates said that knowledge is virtue.  Aristotle said virtue is happiness.  I say that if we are not true to our own beliefs, if we deceive ourselves we cannot be happy.  Virtue we can argue about.  Meaning we can argue about.  We can have fun with words and phrases and enjoy teasing each other.  We can explore the limits of knowledge and the nature of morality.  But if we are incongruent  and say what we do not believe to be true we deny ourselves.   

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Time 2

It is July.  The children are on holiday from school.  I hear them laughing at the bus stop.  I hear the creaking of the hinges on the swings in the park.  I see a line of teenagers perched on the church wall, waiting for something to happen. I envy them that they have time to play, time to waste, time to be bored, time to make wishes, time to be discontented. 

Yet is such "divine discontent and longing" the privilege only of the young?

While the education pundits are worrying about "learning loss" in the summer holidays, ought they perhaps to be taking lessons from the young?  We talk about "down time", "me time", "spare time", "time out" and "time off" without perhaps considering what we mean.  I prefer to think of what I have called "fallow time".

When a field lies fallow it is resting from the effects of the ploughing, from the planting, from the fertilizing and the harvesting of crops.  The fallow field is open to stray seeds, of the type we often call weeds, and it becomes a home for a variety of insects and small mammals.   Some of the seeds grow into plants that nourish the soil, some are far less desirable.  Some of the insects are beneficial and others are destructive.  Some of the mammals help to keep down the more pestiferous creatures and others are damaging and dangerous.  

Some people believe that when a field is left fallow a "balance of nature" returns and fertility is restored to the soil.  Other people worry about the seeds of weeds blowing to other, cultivated, fields and about the proliferation of troublesome insects and animals. It depends on how you view life.  

Philosophy comes into everything.

Is life a blessing and a gift to be cherished and savoured and lived with enjoyment?  Or is life a matter of duty and hard work?  Is learning a matter of being taught and working hard to absorb the lessons?  Or is learning a matter of observation and experience?  Is thinking a matter of quiet contemplation?  Or is thinking a matter of dialogue with colleagues and friends and strangers? Is recognising what is good a matter of studying a holy book and listening to preachers?  Or is recognising what is good a matter of observation and reason, emotion and experience?

I would say that life and learning are all of the above and more.  

Time to live and time to learn must include time to be fallow: to see what comes into the mind, to watch and wait and to experience the world we live in; to appreciate the company of the people and the creatures around us; to rest and to restore our energies.  Of course living and learning also includes time to strive, time to be active and time to slog away until a job is done.  The emotional experiences of living and learning include achievement and failure, pride and disappointment, celebration and consolation, joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, intimacy and isolation.

Being young involves the pressure to learn how to learn, to learn how to live and to learn how balance emotion and reason and to decide what is good.  No wonder they need time play, time to sit on a wall and time to "hang out".  Give the children a break you pundits.  Just as a fallow field needs to be prepared again for cultivation so the first week back at school is a time of revision and getting back to formal learning.  Rather than looking at "learning loss" look at how much the children have grown, and how pleased they are to be back at school.

Of course not every child enjoys the long holiday.  The answer is not to cut the holiday short but to provide activities and learning opportunities for those who want to make use of them.  We need more positive input from the educationalists, more resources, more people involved; more musicians, sports people, artists, writers, dancers, actors, technicians and engineers, scientists and mathematicians, who are willing to invest their time in inspiring and educating our children.  

Yes this means cash not cuts, and the question then is what kind of a society do we want to live in?  What are our values?  What are our priorities? What do we deem to be worth investment?  What are the consequences of not investing extra effort and resources in our children and young people?

While you ponder these question I am going to sit on a wall and watch the world go by.  I am learning from the young.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011


In language the word "time" has commonly accepted usages.  We speak of "spending time", "using time", "biding time", "wasting time", as if time were a commodity.  We "measure" time by the clock and the calendar, as in "waiting times", "delivery times", "arrival and departure times", "timetables", "time zones" and "life time".

A 'life time" was brought powerfully into my mind yesterday as I attended the funeral of a ninety-seven year old lady.  I use the term "lady" because women of that generation were generally more accustomed to that term than to being described as a "woman".  Here was a life measured in almost a century.  A century of great change: of two world wars, the holocaust, the atom bomb, universal sufferage, economic crises and times of mass unemployment, of increased travel abroad, of the formation of the National Health Service, of improved educational opportunities,  of scientific invention and technological change, and of the development of the internet. 

Kathleen's life time also had a personal and a domestic span: as a girl, a young woman, a wife, a mother, aunt and grandmother. She was a person of our time.      

The words from Ecclesiastes were read:

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away;
A time to rend and a time to sew; a time to keep silence and a time to speak;
A time to love and a time to hate; a time of war and a time of peace."

Another philosophical view of a life time is to be seen in the British Museum Afghan exhibition: the words of Clearchus of Soli, of Aristotle's peripatetic school.  On a funeral monument of about 300-250 BC are the words translated as:

"As a child, learn courtesy,
As a young man, learn to control the passions
In middle age, be just
In old age, give good advice
Then die, without regret."

I am grateful to Sue for drawing my attention to these wise words.

What then about time?  For me "time" is just a word we use to help us to understand and to accommodate into our daily living the phenomenon of change, and of movement from one state to another.  It is the change and the movement and how we deal with the phenomena that fascinates me.  I am open to all ideas and all wise words on the subject.

Two further philosophical utterances that I find especially useful in helping to guide me in my time on earth are:

"A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life." 
Charles Darwin

"Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment."

How about you?  What do you think?

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Non-rational Mind?

I have just ordered "The Social Animal" by David Brooks, having had quite a strong negative reaction to his views, as represented in The Guardian on 19th May.  Reading Stuart Jeffries' report of an interview with Brooks I felt my hackles rise in response to what seemed to be a mish mash of half-digested ideas from selected philosophers of the enlightenment age.  He seemed to praise intuitive, and unconscious responses as a guide to decision making, and poses an "anti-rationalist" stance. The author came across as not only lacking in rigour but as very right wing.  I am worried that politicians will seize upon his ideas as having the answer to all our social problems, instead of as an argument in context that gives one possible approach to problems that have been for ages insoluble. 

Because I am a rational being and because I believe in working from the source material I thought that I had better read the book.  I might give my considered opinion of the book, and of Brooks' emphasis on "unconscious choices" at a later date.  I bet you can't wait.

I did start wondering, though, about my own rational and non-rational mind, and about the unconscious mind.  If you are thinking, "That way lies madness", please bear with me.

I am fairly familiar with what have come to be known as "unconscious processes".  In my counselling work I aim to help people to discover and to understand the "hidden" fears and desires that have created anxiety and self-doubt in their present lives.  Of course once a fear or a desire is no longer hidden (by denial or repression or sublimation or any of the other unconscious defences) it becomes part of our conscious mind and open to rational thinking.  Once we are able to look at our fears they become either issues to confront or ghostly will-o-the whisps that are irrelevant to our current lives. 

Stories of giants, witches, monsters, impenetrable forests, castles, trolls and princes help children to learn to confront fear in a safe and cathartic way.  Parents whose children have nightmares might not at first agree with this point, but the memory of a parent's comfort and solid reassurance sustains many of us through difficult times in our adult lives. The case for reading such stories to our children is made best by Bruno Bettelheim in "The Uses of Enchantment". 

Perhaps the "unconscious choices", that the increasing number of anti-rationalists would have us make, are not so much those based on fear and doubt as those better described as "intuitive" or "instinctive".  I find instinctive choices easier to understand and so I shall deal with them first.

If we are any kind of animal it is because of what we have in common with other animals on the planet: life and death, mating, breeding, feeding, pain and some other sorts of sensory experience.  It makes sense therefore that many of our choices are based either on avoidance of pain or on attraction, and on the preservation of our own lives.  Good food gives me pleasure and I hope that like most animals I know when to stop eating.  Like most animals I am revolted by the smell of food gone bad or by other signs of decay and steer clear of them as signs of danger.  The evidence of my senses is a reliable guide and I won't go so far as to say that when I sniff the air in a meeting I know whether people will agree with me, but if the air is clean and cool and I see smiling faces and relaxed bodies and hear calm voices accompanying warm handshakes I am more inclined to trust that my points will be heard fairly.  I would go further and say I that I can usually spot the posture or expression of the person who is going to disagree with me. Reading such "signs" seems to be part of our instinctive animal nature.

But in my view, instinctive choices only go so far.  I avoid pain but go, however reluctantly, to the dentist.  In such cases the rational mind overpowers instinctive avoidance.  On first encountering someone I might get an instinctive "I like this person", or "I do not like this person" based on some prejudice of which I am not even aware, but I know full well that  longer acquaintance has proved me wrong as often as it has proved me right.  It would be folly for me to rely on my instinct in every circumstance.  It would be equal folly to ignore my instinct.  I need to use my instinct but not to allow myself to be its creature.

Intuition is more difficult, because it is harder to define.  Sometimes intuition is referred to as a sixth sense.  In that case it would be part of our instinctive, inherent capacities.  One dictionary describes it as "direct perception". I see it as a working together of that which we have observed with our senses and that which we have learned about people and the environment.  "Sniffing the air", noting subtle changes in posture or expression or mood or noting silence and stillness and "Knowing" what is to happen might be called intuition.  To me it is what we get when we ally our instinctive knowledge with our rational observation, but done so fast that we are not aware of the complex computations.  I often think that my brain is cleverer than I am.

Other ways of thinking that have been praised in recent decision-making trends are daydreaming, speculating, imagining, and creating. They are all functions of our rational mind, in my view.  They are all about the mind processing ideas in some form.  I do not believe that they come from our unconscious mind just because they come from beyond a level of immediate awareness.  When I am physically relaxed I become aware of the softest warm breeze on my skin.  When I am mentally relaxed I become aware of ideas I did not know I had.  I am no Archimedes but I understand how the mind can bring the best ideas to awareness when in a state of idleness.  I do not see anything either mystical or unconscious in this process.  It is for me evidence of the complexity of human levels of thought. I like the fact that my mind is playful and creative, even though some of its brews are unusable.

While I read John Brooks and his ideas about the "Social Animal", you could read the works of Carl Jung and especially his model that claims that we have four polarities: Rational, Emotional, Sensate and Intuitive.  The best position to be in is to have access to all these areas and not to make judgements based on one sort of habitual response from our own little corner.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Change 2

Why is Change sometimes so difficult and how can we help ourselves to cope with change?

Whether or not change is difficult is dependent upon the meaning of that change to us.  If change occurs suddenly and catastrophically, such as being involved in a serious accident and subsequently disabled; or suffering the loss of a loved one and becoming orphaned or widowed; or suffering sudden attack and being injured; or being caught in a natural disaster and losing one's home and possibly one's family; then those changes mean that life will never be the same again.

The suddenness of the change and the impact of the change upon one's daily life are predispositions of change being difficult.  This explains why winners of the Lottery often find it difficult to cope with the change in their lives even though, on the face of it, such change might seem to be positive rather than negative.

There is always some adaptation to be made when change occurs.  Even longed-for events such as going to university, or a wedding, or getting a job, or buying a house, require adjustment to the strangeness of the new state and status.  The gains are accompanied always by some losses.

It would be too simple to say that one way of handling change is to try to minimise the losses and to maximise the gains.  This is because some losses are so huge that it is insulting to suggest that they can be minimised.  In these cases the acceptance of, and adaptation to the change and the loss, is greatly helped by having a good social network.  Friends and family who are prepared to remain in more frequent and more regular contact for at least two years are a blessing at times of bereavement, life threatening illness, traumatic accident and disablement.  Someone to talk to outside the situation, such as a doctor, counsellor, or priest, who will remain non-judgemental and confidential, is helpful in giving the opportunity to express those things that friends and family might find distressing or hurtful.

A philosophy that allows for change is helpful in both sudden and dramatic change and in the normal changes of life.  W. Somerset Maugham wrote in "The Razor's Edge" (1943):

"Nothing in the world is permanent, and we're foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we're still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.  If change is the essence of our existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy."

So what can we do to help ourselves to cope with any kind of change?

1. Cultivate friendships that last and that are mutually supportive.  Parents, encourage your children from an early age to take part in a range of activities with a range of different groups of friends and to stay in touch with these friends.

2. Cultivate a stoic acceptance of occasional difficulty and disappointment.  Change is often harder when we expected it to be easy.  At the same time don't assume that you can cope with several changes at once.  The effect of many small and continuous changes can be as powerful as one devastating change.

3. Understand that the psychological impact of change and transition involves some challenge to one's self esteem.  It is necessary therefore to remind oneself that one is capable of handling the change and that one is not uniquely stupid or crazy or a fraud.

4. Recognize another way in which one's perceptions can become flawed, as in: "Why me?"  "I don't deserve this."  "I can't bear this." "If only ...."  Good friends are able to point out gently that loss and disappointment are not uniquely personal to you, that sometimes "bearing it" is all there is to do and that a thousand "If only”s will not change the situation and will keep you from facing reality.

5. Where possible prepare for coming change by gathering information, training and experience, and by making contact with people already in that situation. When change also involves moving to a new area, make contact with with groups involved in the activities you enjoy, such as sport, singing or playing a musical instrument, painting, photography or dramatic art.  Remember that you were once the new person at your old group and you managed fine.

6. Change is easier to cope with the more other things remain the same. If one is in unfamiliar surroundings one can have familiar objects around (these work as transitional objects, like a child's security blanket).  One can maintain familiar routines and activities and keep contact with familiar people.  Even the same voices on the radio are a comfort at times of change.

7. Recognize the things you can control and get to work on them.  Recognize the things that are out of your control and withdraw your energy from worrying about them.

8. Be gentle with yourself as you would be with a friend.  Be honest with yourself, as you would be with a friend, if you are in danger of becoming self-indulgent or of thinking that everything is about you.  Accept yourself and your limitations and just keep on trying to do the best you can and to be the best person you can be.

9. Remember that not all change need be permanent.  Sometimes it is a good idea to have a "taster" experience before committing oneself to something life-changing.

10. Cultivate joy in the things around you, such as a beautiful sunset, a child's laughter, a bird's song, a butterfly's wing, a line of poetry, the smooth curve of a bowl, the colour of a flower, the scent of linen dried in the sun, the taste of a strawberry, the sound of a loved one's footsteps.  These things will sustain you at times of change, even when their poignancy brings tears.

So be of good courage, expect and accept change as the Stoics did, and at the same time let us do what we can to help ourselves and others to maintain our balance as we face "the ever-whirling wheel of Change" (Edmund Spenser).

Friday, 25 March 2011


 Heraclitus of Ephesus is credited with saying "You can never step into the same river twice". This intriguing statement shows why Heraclitus was nicknamed "The Enigmatic One" and "Heraclitus the Obscure", as Anthony Kenny  tells us.  Heraclitus also proclaimed that the world is constantly changing and full of conflict.  This might lead us believe that in his theory change and conflict are all there is.  What intrigues me is that he claims, also, that there is an underlying unity and consistency in the universe.

If we think about his statement about the river one might imagine standing by a flowing river, and it is easy to see that the water at any spot would be constantly changing.  We might ask, "Is it the same river at this moment as it was a moment ago?"  What interests me most about this idea is that the water moves and therefore different water reaches the spot, but what we perceive as the river would seem to be the same river.  One might then ask, "Is it the same river when it is in flood as it is in time of drought?"  It would seem that you need both water and a recognisable course for the water, for there to be a river. The dynamic tension between water and river is perhaps an example of the conflict to which Heraclitus refers.  There would also seem to be an underlying unity between water and river that survives change and conflict, but then when a person steps into the river it would seem that the dynamic changes again, because a third element is introduced.

One could have a whole debate about whether the man changes the river, or whether the man is changed by stepping into the river, or whether there is just a little displacement and some wetness, and that the moment is what changes.

We make what we can of the pronouncements of Heraclitus.  Anthony Kenny tells us that "many philosophers in later centuries who have admired Heraclitus have been able to give their own colouring to his paradoxical, chameleon-like dicta."  For me the fascination lies in considering the relationship between change and that which is constant.

How can relate this theme to our daily living?

As I write, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced his Budget and pundits are expounding their theories about the affects of the changes he has proposed.  For some philosophers the interesting point is not the number of and extent of the changes but the fact that the changes are limited by the nature of the fiscal "pie", for the distribution of which he is is responsible.   It is as if the "Gross National Product" is the river and the Chancellor is the person stepping into the river.

Change is seldom as revolutionary as we would like to believe.  Most change is of an evolutionary kind: an adaptation to the circumstance in which we find ourselves.  A young man's voice breaking is part of a process set in motion before his birth.  Similarly the timing of young woman's menarche will depend upon her maternal history and genetic make up, as well as upon her nutritional state and general health.  Celebrations, rituals, religious ceremonies and rites of passage attend these events. All over the world, whether or not overt acknowledgement is made of a boy becoming a man, or a girl becoming a woman, it is a significant change in the development of the individual.  It is one of those times, like becoming a parent or losing a loved one, when the world will never be the same again.  The world did not change but the individual's experience of the world did.  In some societies the individual is separated from the group at such a time of change.  This could be in order for the individual to be able to adjust to the change, or because of a fear of that a change in the individual might bring more change within the group.  This superstitious response can found in the most sophisticated societies, when someone crosses a road in order not to have to speak to someone who is ill, or bereaved or has suffered some other life-changing event.

Revolutions happen, governments are overthrown, new governments are established. But these new governments are in their turn subject to opposition and potential coups d'etat.  Hegel, who was an admirer of Heraclitus, according to Anthony Kenny, outlined this process in his explication of thesis, antithesis, synthesis and the birth of a new hypothethis.
He called this the  "Dialectical process", in which every new idea meets an opposing idea, and the resulting conflict leads to a synthesis from which  a new idea is created.  In this way change is presented as part of an ongoing and predictable, even inevitable, process.

We might say, "So what's new?"  or,  "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose?"

Or we might ask, "Is anything free from change?".  "Is anything fixed and unchangeable?"

Shakespeare thought so, when he wrote:
........................."Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove :
Oh no! it is an ever-fixed mark".

Is it possible that anything can be so fixed, so immutable, so unchanging?  Is this ideal of love a romantic illusion?  Is love transcendent of change?

What happens to love when changes occur?  My own favourite poet, Milton, wrote:
"But O the heavy change when thou art gone ,
Now thou art gone and never must return."

We feel the impact of change, and we cope with it to a greater or lesser degree.  Change is a reality to those of us who have experienced changes in circumstance, in health, in wealth, in family and in expectations.  Change is welcome when it brings increased opportunity for happiness, and is unwelcome when it brings loss, devastation and distress.  Yet a tsunami, for instance, is a natural phenomenon: it is not malign in intent or designed for destruction.  It is a result of a balancing effect in the ocean, following an earthquake.

My own conclusion to is that change is neutral.  It is indiscriminate.  It is inexorable.  It is inescapable.

Next week I shall look at why change is sometimes so hard to bear or to contemplate, and at what we can do to help ourselves to cope with change.