Friday, 30 November 2012

What a Wonderful World

All day I have been humming that song and singing the few snatches that I remember.

It has been sunny and crisply cold today.  The sky has had much more than "enough blue to make a sailor a pair of britches" (as my mother used to say), after days of darkness and rain.  In the shops people have been taking their time and pondering the bright stacks of Christmas goods, knowing that there is plenty of time still to prepare for Christmas.  I was pleased that we did not have premature carols or Christmas songs to accompany us along the aisles, plenty of time for that too.  In the butchers we had time for a joke and in the charity shop I handed over my parcel gratefully and then bought a pretty crystal glass.

This evening the young teenagers who gather at the bus stop have gone home early because it is so cold. Although I enjoy their skittishness as they tease and chase each other, laughing and shrieking, I also enjoy the quiet.  The moon is bright in a clear sky.  Hopefully it will be another clear cold day tomorrow, giving us an opportunity to look around us and to enjoy the world and its people.

On the radio this morning I heard a politician speaking about the drains on the NHS and saying that people should be more stoical.  Yes I agree.  We should be prepared to face what life brings us with courage, dignity and acceptance.  That philosophy, sound as it is, is not an excuse for a national health service to fail in its duty to care for all of the people all of the time.  If the NHS needs more money, as of course it does, then careful thought should be given to the allocation of all our national resources and to prioritising the spending.  While vast amounts of money are being spent on remedying the effects of unsuitable contracts awarded to unproven and inefficient firms and on long investigations into bad practice, corruption and cover-ups, it ill behoves politicians to criticise the sick and depressed.

Another philosophy that might help those who ill and upset and depressed and help them to get better is that of Epicurus. According to Anthony Kenny in "Ancient Philosophy", which is the first volume in "A New History Of Western Philosophy":

"The aim of Epicurus' philosophy is to make happiness possible by removing the fear of death, which is the greatest obstacle to tranquillity.  Men struggle for wealth and power so as to postpone death; they throw themselves into frenzied activity so that they can forget its inevitability."

I take this to mean that if we stop allowing the fear of death to cast a shadow over our days then we can enjoy what each day brings. In accepting the inevitable future we can appreciate the present in tranquillity.  I consider that this holds true for all fears of what the future might bring. If we stop the frenzied struggle to avoid what we fear, or to try to bring about what we feel life should be like, then we can appreciate life as it is.  In this way we can savour what life offers, rather than wishing for something more, something better, something different.  

Kenny tells us that for Epicurus, pleasure is the beginning and end of a happy life.  Not the pleasures of hedonism or the satisfaction of desires, but the quiet pleasures of friendship and a simple meal:

"His life and that of his followers was far from luxurious: a good piece of cheese, he said, was as good as a feast."

If your parents like mine said, "enough is as good as a feast", I doubt that they were conscious of staying close to the philosophy of Epicurus.  Mine also said, "Look up and look around you, smile at people, don't sulk and look down at the ground."  Sulking, wanting more, busying ourselves buying more and more material goods and generally being dissatisfied by the life we have is a recipe for unhappiness and ultimately ill health.

Whether it rains or shines tomorrow it is a wonderful world.  There is a cornucopia of goods in the shops but we do not need them all.  In the days leading up to Christmas try to enjoy the pleasure of finding food and gifts for the people you love and the people whose friendship you value.  It is not a race or a competition so take your time and enjoy the choosing.  Whether you buy cheese or china, one good piece is as good as a feast and when it chosen with care and love it is priceless.  

Before I sat down to write this I listened to Louis Armstrong singing "What A Wonderful World" on U tube.  It brought tears to my eyes.  Why not listen too and see how you feel?

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Perhaps you remember having an experience of being overcome by happiness, such as that described by W.B. Yeats in "Vacillation":

"While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes, more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless."

We feel blessed indeed to have felt such happiness, and remembering that feeling helps us at times of sorrow or distress.  Happiness and sorrow are natural landing stages on our human journey.  It is also natural to desire to stay with happiness, and to attempt to avoid sorrow.  Yet wisdom tells us that the current of life flows irrespective of our desires.  However masterfully we steer our craft we cannot change the tides of human experience.  William Blake expresses it thus:

"Man was made for Joy and Woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the World we safely go,
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine."

Such language the poets use!  "Blessed", and "soul divine" indicate the spiritual qualities of happiness and sorrow, of joy and woe.  We are touched by these feelings; we cannot manufacture them.  We must take care of them and respect them.

It is unrealistic to expect to be happy all the time and, thankfully, it is the same with sorrow.  We need to apply reason to these emotions and to accept them for what they are. The most poignant feelings are those where happiness and sorrow are so finely woven as to be inseparable.  Many happy family celebrations are made poignant by the sorrow that beloved members are no longer there.  It is a paradox that one can feel a complete happiness and a complete sadness at the same time.  It is because each state has its own integrity. Equally we cannot choose to enjoy one and deny the other without putting our emotional health at risk.

Another unrealistic and dangerous situation lies in allowing woe to degenerate into despair; or in allowing joy to balloon into euphoria. These states of mind can arise from our inability at times to face the inevitable ups and downs of life.

Aristotle stated that we should train children to face life realistically and to apply reason to even the most troublesome situations.  He believed that happiness came from the wisdom of living a life of reason, virtue and moderation.

Nowadays the most common lack of wisdom, amounting to self-deception, seems to lie in depending on other people for one's own happiness.  A lover, partner or spouse cannot make us happy.  If we feel happy to be with them that is a blessing.  It is even more blessed if they are happy to be with us too.  Thus do many marriages begin.  The joy in a happy marriage lies as much in pulling together and supporting each other through the trials and tribulations of life as it does in celebrating married love and the precious milestones of family life.  To say to someone, "You make me happy," or "You no longer make me happy", is to abdicate responsibility for one's feelings.  It is more honest to say, "I am happy being with you," or "I am no longer happy being with you."

A relatively new phenomenon seems to be the joint illusion amongst citizens and governments in the modern world that happiness is one of the common goods for which government is responsible.  We might blame a misunderstanding of the principle expressed by Jeremy Bentham:

"The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation."

This is not happiness as I have been looking at it here.  The modern utilitarian principles are more about equality and justice and access to the common goods such as education, health care and housing.  Instead of "the greatest happiness" we might substitute "the greatest well-being of the greatest number", as a suitable concern of government.  John Stuart Mill himself said,

"Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."

Maybe we need to learn to distinguish between well-being, contentment and happiness.  Happiness is closely linked with joy, and neither emotion can we command at will; it comes upon us and blesses us.  Contentment is a pleasant state that comes from a general sense of satisfaction with life.  Sometimes we can bring this about by hard work and saving but generally it requires us to have a nature that finds most of life agreeable.  Well-being is when we are physically, emotionally and spiritually well.  We do not have well-being if we are sick, hungry, homeless, ill-treated, discriminated against, afraid or in danger.  These wrongs are rightly the concern of government.

But one's own happiness is a matter of being open to being happy, appreciating it while it lasts and carrying the warmth of that happiness around with us even when we are sorrowing.  Aristotle said that we can also find happiness in the happiness of others.  Equally in having happiness in our lives we might also be more able to bring some happiness to others, as Yeats said, "I was blessed and could bless."

Sunday, 30 September 2012

I and Thou

I wish I had known my Grandad as a young man.  That sort of feeling has brought about television programmes like "Who do you think you are?", and a surge of interest in family history, which has become "Ancestory".  The story of our family is part of the story of ourselves.  Sometimes people search for answers to family secrets with a greater or lesser degree of success, and a greater or lesser degree of satisfaction with the outcome.

It is not secrets that I want to explore with my Grandad.  Although he would never talk about his experiences in the First World War, we observed the tender care that he showed to a neighbour who had been through it with him, and we became aware of bonds forged through danger and suffering.  Neither would he talk about his experiences as a young blade in America after the war.   My Grandad lived in the present not the past. 

The studio photograph in front of me shows my mother and her sister as young children with Grandma and Grandad.  My aunt poses prettily for the photograph, perched on her mother's knee.  My mother, a delicate child, leans back on Pop, her stepfather.  Pop, as everyone called him, was in his late thirties when he married the young widow, and he cared for her and her children and her children's children until he died forty years later.  He seemed contented with his life.  He had many friends and liked to sing old songs, the words of which I incompletely remembered as I sang them to my children.  He was patient with my sister and me, and would let me "style" his sparse hair and answer hundreds of questions, as he cut his tobacco and then puffed on his pipe.  He also knew when a child was tired and out of sorts and would say, "That child should be in bed".  I said it when my children were young and still say it today about my grandchildren.

The reason I wish I had known Pop as a young man is because of his use of a word.  He was the only person I have ever known who used the word "Thou".  He would use it in this way: if I sat on the stool beside his chair and fidgeted or sulked or just looked droopy he would quietly ask, "What dost thou want?"  When it all came pouring out he would not offer solutions but would ask questions about what I felt and what I wanted to do. Pop only used "Thou" when someone turned to him in need. Even as a child I must have understood that Pop’s use of “thou” demonstrated that he was giving attention to me as a singular and particular individual.

Years later when I studied psychotherapeutic techniques I was well aware that it was the relationship between the two people, the 'client' and the 'therapist', that provided the conditions for the therapeutic encounter.   In 1984 I bought a copy of Mario Jacoby's book "The Analytic Encounter".  His description of the necessary relationship between the therapist and client seems to sum up exactly what I heard in Pop’s use of “thou”:  

"The I - Thou attitude would involve a relation to the genuine otherness of the other person.  It would mean that I in my own totality am relating to Thou in his or her own totality”.

Jacoby states that these ideas are based on Martin Buber's book, "I and Thou" published in 1922.  Ah!  A man who lived through the times Pop lived through.  Buber and Jacoby wrote and spread their ideas.  Pop lived his.   Not a library of techniques or a wall full of certificates could create the healing power of a gentle voice asking, "What dost thou want?" 

What I got from Pop was a model of compassion and understanding; unconditional regard, coupled with responsibility for one's own actions; cheerfulness and contentment;  and practical everyday patience and kindness.  Most of all what I got when I needed it was his complete attention.

How I wish I had known him as a young man, as a young blade, as an adventurer and traveller.  Would we have talked about the meaning of life over a glass of bourbon in some American state?  I doubt it.  He was a man of action then.  The legend goes that he saved a young woman from a factory fire.  I don't care if the legend is true or not.  I do not idealize him. I would just like to have known him then and talked to him.  I would like to know how he knew about the power of "Thou".  It might have grown out of staring death in the face in the trenches.  I think that can only be part of it.  He was his own person.  He helped me to be mine.

In English we no longer use a word to differentiate between you in general, and you in particular, as an individual with his or her own outlook, feelings, thoughts and needs. But when relating to another person, we need to be mindful of regarding them not as a generic  “other” - the general “you” defined simply by not being “me” - but as a specific and unique individual. 

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Where is Socrates when you need him?

Mole in "Wind in the Willows" had a feeling of "divine discontent and longing".  Well my longing is not divine, for there is no divine being in my understanding; it is not an adventure I am seeking; and a water rat is the last creature that I should choose as a friend (even though Ratty does do great picnics).

Seriously, I long to know Socrates.  I long to engage in dialogue with him about justice and truth; how to live a good life, and how to be true to oneself in a world so conflicted.  Yes I can read what Plato wrote about him.  I can look to the example he set in his life, of seeking better and better answers.  I can look to the integrity of his dying.  I can even imagine conversations with him in my head.  But the trouble with all this hearsay and imagination is that the man himself is not there.

I am well aware that for people of religion their God or their Prophet is the one to whom they would turn for answers.  They might go to their priest or imam, their guru or spiritual guide.  For people like me there is no living guide.  I see other philosophers as just human beings like myself.  They too are seeking.  Many come up with answers with which I do not agree.  Others come up with ideas that I find helpful in that they make me stop and think.

This is the nearest I get to Socrates.  So what am I to do?

I look around at parents teaching their children to share, to consider other people and to wait their turn, and I see justice and equality instead of self-interest.  Instead of feeling despair at the daily revelations connected to the Leveson inquiry, I listen regularly to people examining their own motivations, and I hear honesty.  I know people whose days are devoted to helping others in hundreds of small ways, and I have experienced their altruism myself.  I know people who have suffered injury, illness or loss with quiet courage.  All around me are people trying to live a good life.

The people who do not seem to be trying so hard: who seem selfish, greedy, lying, cruel or neglectful.  Should I condemn them?  Should I let them affect the way I see the world?

Socrates said, "Virtue is knowledge", or was it "Knowledge is virtue"?  Either way, to me it means that any person who behaves badly, or who seems to lack integrity or compassion, just does not know how to do better at that time.  All I can do is hope that some day they learn to do better.   I do not believe that some people are like the weasels in "Wind in the Willows" and behave that way just because that's what weasels do.  We are all humans not gods or animals, and we have human failings.

What I am left with is the knowledge that we need to keep on trying.  We need to keep on seeking better answers.  We need to feel happy when we experience kindness; to appreciate the teachers and parents who guide the next generation in the best ways that they can; to honour courage; to celebrate achievement; to support those in need; and also to rest awhile in order to enjoy the beauty of the world around us and the pleasures of friendship.

I still long for Socrates, but no symposium is planned in which I could meet him.  In any case, those ancient Greek symposia were attended by men only.  So, fair enough, I shall be glad that I live in these times, troublesome though they are, and just carry on the dialogues in my head.
How about you?

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Pull Yourself Together

Imagine that Jill is in a bit of a "state".  She has failed her driving test when so much depended on passing: her independence, her job prospects, her status with her peers and her self-esteem.  She is inconsolable.  After assuring her that she's sure to pass next time her parents say, "Come on now, pull yourself together."

Imagine that Tim has been badly injured in a training accident and he is no longer fit for active service.  He turns his face to the wall.  He is bereft.  Tim's friends will be moving on without him.  Not only is he no longer fit, he no longer fits in. He refuses a visit from his girlfriend.  The doctor tells him he is lucky because it could have been worse and says, "So come on man, pull yourself together."

Imagine Sylvia.  She has been widowed days before her Golden Wedding Anniversary.  It was not exactly unexpected, as Fred's illness had taken a sudden turn for the worse.  He had rallied before.  This time he did not.  Friends and family have been very supportive but have begun to seem a little anxious about her.  Sylvia notices their concern and tells herself that she has no choice but to carry on without Fred.  "I must pull myself together," she says.

What is it that Jill and Tim and Sylvia must do in order to pull themselves together?

In cartoons a body (often a cat) can be exploded and then put together again.  A puppet with the strings loosened can be made to dance with all the parts separate.  But what has to happen in real life for people to be able to "Pull themselves together"?

The stoic view is : 
to accept what has happened 
to withdraw emotional energy and thoughts from the past  
to use one's reason in order to live in the present (as Jill's parents reasoned about her trying again)  
to be thankful that the worst has not happened (as Tim's doctor said)
when the worst has happened, to be resolute in carrying on (as Sylvia told herself).

Seneca claimed that reason is our best weapon against grief because:

 "..unless reason puts an end to our tears fortune will not do so".

William Irvine in "A Guide to the Good Life, the ancient art of stoic joy" describes Seneca telling Marcia, who is grieving the loss of her son, to think how much worse it would have been if her son had never lived, and so she should be happy for his life.

The stoics also used diversion of thought, or thought experiments, as an aid to equilibrium.  They used "negative visualisation" to imagine the worst happening, so that when things were bad they were prepared.  They would practice giving attention to all aspects of the present, what we now call 'mindfulness', to keep their thoughts away from sadness or worry.  They would use the trick of imagining themselves in the time before they knew the person who had died, to save themselves from grief in the present time.    

Montaigne might have used all of these techniques when he tried to cope with the loss of his dearest friend La Boetie and of several children, and when he faced his own death.  He also gave us the idea of "a back shop all our own"; a place in our minds that was entirely sufficient in itself with no thought of family or friends:

"..and so when the time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new to us to do without them".

Cicero, though, for all his wisdom and courage, grieved so fiercely the loss of his daughter that nowadays we might say he "went to pieces".  He could not, for a while, "pull himself together".  He was distraught.

What do we do, then to "pull ourselves together"?

I see the process as a gradual gathering to ourselves of all our strengths of mind, body and spirit.  How do we go about it?

First we might draw strength from the support of friends until we find our own strengths again.

We might then find the strength to accept what has happened without allowing thoughts of, "Why me?" or "What did I do wrong in order to deserve this?" or "Who is to blame for this?" or "I cannot bear this".  The very randomness of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or of meeting the wrong person, or of being stricken by illness is sometimes hard to accept.  But guilt or blame or despair will only hold us back from recovery.  

We might try to console ourselves, whether through memories, through prayer, through philosophy, by reading or by thinking of comforting words people have said.

We might gather our wits together in order to see what needs to be done in order to carry on.  Planning for the next step is using our reason to support our emotions and gives us release from a feeling of helplessness.

We might try to cultivate a stoic attitude and to develop "ataraxia", a tranquil mind, free from upset.  I guess this takes time and courage and self-control.  We should not expect this to come without practice, or to happen immediately after a shock.

We might try to "view life through the eye of eternity" as Spinoza said, and accept that we are but short-lived specks of humanity, and we might tell ourselves, "This too will pass."

We might try to take a perspective that we are not the first person, and will not be the last person, to whom this has happened. What has happened to us is not a unique tragedy.

We might practice "mindfulness", looking at the world around us and listening to the sounds of "normal life", noticing that ordinary life still has a place for us.  We might then take time to smell and taste our food and to appreciate clean clothes and fresh air.
We might determine to keep up normal routines, in order to keep ourselves busy and to keep up a pride in ourselves.

We might walk if we can, or exercise as many muscles as we can to preserve our physical capacity.

At first when we do these things we might take no pleasure in them but the discipline of exercising mind, body and spirit is the beginning of the process of "pulling ourselves together".  We must also discipline ourselves to take an interest in other people and their welfare.  It might be a chore to write a letter, or make a telephone call, when one is exhausted by the effort of just living, but it is part of gathering up the fragments of life and reassembling them.

When we pull ourselves together are we the same as before?

No.  Because we have been through this experience we are stronger, wiser and capable of doing it all again. 

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Promise of Politics

Have you ever felt frustrated because you cannot put into words a feeling that you have about what is happening in the world today?  It happens to me all the time, and I turn to the philosophers and literature for help in framing my thoughts.

Seeing on my television screen the events that became labelled "The Arab Spring" filled me with hope for the decline of totalitarianism; for a new world understanding of the human condition.   More recent events have dulled that hope, but not distinguished it.  Hope remains alive in me because there are people like Marie Colvin who are prepared to live and die in the cause of accurate reporting from war zones.  There are many more thousands who live and die for their causes, who will not give up, who are not prepared to live in the hopeless, isolated conditions that Hannah Arendt describes as "desert".

It is to Hannah Arendt that I turned to help to sort out my muddled thoughts about politics, about action and about the human condition. She was writing at the time of the Cold War and trying to encourage people and nations to offer understanding and common humanity to each other.

In the introduction to the 2005 edition of "The Promise of Politics" Jerome Kohn writes:
".. [Arendt's] writings are even more demanding of attention today than when they were written or in 1968.  Politically speaking, the Cold War dominated the 1950s and 1960s, but our current "war on terror" is not cold at all."

I remember the Cold War.  I began teaching at a time when we worried about how to look after the children if the "four minute warning" sounded.  The protocol included an orderly movement to the cellars, rather like a more serious fire alarm.  Looking back to the days when the older pupils were only four years or so younger than myself, and the daily lessons continued just the same, it is hard to remember the fatalism that attended the possibility of us all dying in the most horrific way.  In those uncertain times the only thing I was sure of was my duty to put the pupils first.  Raymond Briggs' book "When the Wind Blew" reinforced those feelings that no cellar, garden shelter or indoor cubbyhole could ultimately alter our fate.

At that time the worst did not happen to us.  But the worst has happened in so many ways to so many people over time, and is still happening.  

One could become so disillusioned with politics with so much at stake.  Politicians strut about the national and international stages, making promises, making alliances, making digs at each other and at the countries they represent, giving interviews to the media, and generally acting as if they have the answers, or at least as if they know what they are doing.  I have some sympathy with their condition.  It is similar to the condition in which I found myself in the 1960s.  Except that I hope that I did not make digs at my colleagues, or at teachers in other countries who had their own pupils to look after as well as their own hopes and fears.

Life must go on.  Education, The National Health Service, and the Welfare System must all be funded, as well as defence, overseas aid, and so much more.  Taxes must be collected.  Benefits must be given.  Standards must be kept up.  Satisfactory progress will not do.
It all makes me think of the stuff that was piled onto the horse of the White Knight in "Alice through The Looking Glass".

I think we are all White Knights in a way.  We are mostly well-intentioned, woefully ill-equipped for the hazards we face, less than skillful riders, desperately trying to keep our balance.  Yet we hope against hope.  We try do our best.

The way Hannah Arendt describes "action" is the human capacity to begin anew.  In being born we are in ourselves a new beginning, and we are able to make many beginnings.  She disapproves of adjusting, or settling into the conditions as we find them, into "wasteland" or "desert", where there is space between us and other humankind.  If I read her correctly, we are both human and political because we have speech; because we have the capacity to endure the passions of living under desert or storm (totalitarian) conditions and the capacity to "summon up the courage" that lies at the root of action.  The meaning of action being:

".. venturing forth in speech and deed in the company of one's peers, beginning something new whose end cannot be known in advance, founding a public realm, promising and forgiving others...."

By this token, politicians are not political if they are just "adjusters" of the status quo, or followers of political theory.  Any person who has the courage to speak out, to reach out to others in order to understand them, who creates "oases" of friendship, love and beauty, or is involved in community projects, is political.  

Kohn, in his introduction, says of Arendt's view of the meaning of political experience:

"If human courage, dignity and freedom are integral to that meaning, then we might decide that it is not politics per se but its prejudices and prejudgments that we should be free of.  After so many centuries, however, such freedom probably can be attained only by judging afresh each new possibility of action the world presents."  

Arendt says in her epilogue:

"If they who must spend their lives in the desert, trying to do this or that, constantly worrying about its conditions, do not know how to use its oases, they will become desert inhabitants..."  

She goes on to quote Hamlet:

"The time is out of joint, O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right."

It is easy to recognise that sense of things being in such a mess that it is too big a task to sort it all out, and of wanting someone else to take the responsibility.  For Arendt, though, the promise of politics seems to lie in her words,

"The world is always a desert waiting for new inhabitants to begin it anew."

Perhaps those of us here already could begin to think, speak, act, and relate to each other with new courage and dignity, in friendship and in common humanity.  Everything begins somewhere.