Sunday, October 20, 2013

Journal of a Soul 37


I am on the left above, about 4 years of age.
A colleague at work says he does not mind growing old, quite simply because once you're ageing at least you are still alive.  I recall the great jazz musician, artist and art critic, George Melly (1926-2007) once stating that he took a certain satisfaction from visiting graveyards and looking at the headstones and breathing a sigh of relief that he had managed to outlive so many.  I remember another friend of mine, an old Christian Brother, who had been Provincial Leader of the Northern Province of Irish Christian Brothers for some time remarking that the older brothers used always opine that as one aged it was "either the legs or the head which go first."  Presumably, they were referring to either the loss of bodily motion in the first case and the onset of senility or dementia in the second.  I also remember his remarking that a certain Brother simply "had not grown old gracefully."  

I recall also my Aunt Noreen, who had spent nearly forty years nursing and is still hail and hearty (and playing golf) remarking to me that old age is "a cross we will all have to bear, and a heavy one at that." And indeed, growing old is not nearly so easy a task as one might think. Readers of this wee blog will know that my own mother passed away during the summer just gone at the grand old age of 96.  However, while she lived to such a good age, she had spent the last 11 years of her long life in a nursing home just gradually fading away into a world of very little recognition of anyone around her.  However, her doctors and nurses described her last years as being happily demented, thankfully, as many demented people can become quite angry and agitated.

A colleague of mine, referring to another female colleague, who spends a lot of money on appearing "young", says that this particular person will certainly not grow older or old in a graceful or easy manner.  It is widely believed that this person uses Botox.  However, be that as it may, what is at issue here is humankind's propensity to deny growing our detriment indeed as denial is surely destructive of the inner being.  To deny any truth is to sow the seeds of disillusionment, depression, and even despair.

Me an my brother.  I'm on the right, about 13 years.

Acceptance is hard task.  Oftentimes we seek to understand what life has thrown at us and what it is doing to us and we drive ourselves to near distraction in trying to come to grips intellectually with it.  However, oftentimes it is the ability to accept what life does to us that may help us through a period of disturbance and turmoil, or through a period of either physical or mental pain.  Now, I am not arguing for blind acceptance here.  To my mind, blind acceptance is useless, as it is a mere fatalism which will simply take no action and let everything happen without any striving to help oneself.  No, what I mean here is that acceptance which acknowledges whatever calamity has befallen us, accepts it as having happened, but which then positively and courageously embraces a future that does not give up on one's inner potential no matter how deeply one has suffered.  The type of acceptance I have in mind is a sort of realism coupled with a large dose of optimism and indeed hope.  I am certainly not arguing for the acceptance shown by Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's wonderful tragedy of a family bedevilled by addiction in its many forms - the opium addiction of Mary and the alcoholic addiction of her son Edmund, if my memory serves me correctly here.  Mary's acceptance is nothing short of fatalism and a passive giving into what life throws at us.  Her lines run: 
"James! We’ve loved each other! We always will! Let’s remember only that, and not try to understand what we cannot understand, or help things that cannot be helped - the things life has done to us we cannot excuse or explain.”  
There is much fatalism and absolutely no sort of realism coupled with the optimism and hope I have alluded to above.  For me, acceptance is like a diving board from which I have to have the courage to launch off into the unknown deep (future).  (See both these posts by two different bloggers on this play and on Mary's character and her addiction: Seven Pillars and Still Point).

Therapy Work

Me, in more recent times, enjoying my favourite beverage!
I do a little counselling at work as I have done several courses in that area.  I am sufficiently well-trained  to know when to recommend students to see professional counsellors or more specialist psychotherapists.  I also have developed good listening skills over years of practice both at training courses and in my line of work as a Resource Teacher.  One pupil came to me once in a state of complete nervous agitation and with a very troubled sleeping pattern.  I got him to list all the feelings he had over the particular incident with the particular person.  I got him to see how each of these feelings were linked with specific thoughts about both, and how such feelings were quite natural.  Then he wrote the following: "I hate myself!"  I explored this feeling with him and what it meant.  Then we went to the situation and the other person who was involved in the situation and I asked him was that feeling really based on a very acceptable thought.  He agreed that it was based on a very irrational thought: "I should be hated!"  "Why should you hate yourself based on what happened or continues to happen?  I see why you are angry, frustrated, annoyed etc etc and these are all reasonable feelings in the circumstances, but hating yourself, what basis has it at all in the situation you find yourself in?"  This type of clarification of his thoughts and feelings worked as the boy came back to me the following day and stated: "My situation has not changed one bit, but I feel a little better!"  In other words, I will work with him by listening to him when he comes to me for help.  I will attempt to help him accept certain facts that he can do nothing about. However, I will help him to see that he can choose how to respond to any situation he finds himself in.  I will empower him insofar as possible to see that sometimes (possibly not in every situation as that would, I think, be unrealistic and would set the client up for a fall) he can choose to decide how he feels about X, Y or Z.  One thing, I never do, nor would any counsellor worth his/her salt, is to offer any type of "ideal" or definite solution to the problems brought.  I merely listen and say that what we will try to do together is to understand as best as we can what is going on in the situation and to see if there are any ways we may possibly improve the situation.  I normally point out, because it is not always obvious to the client, that there are certain things about the presenting problem which one will not be able to change.  I normally ask a question like, "Is there anything you can change at the moment?"

Proactive Acceptance

Let me name here what I attempt to do with my students in the above situations as "proactive acceptance."  I started this post talking about ageing, and indeed all of the above is really about that even if it seemed that I went off the point somewhat in talking about acceptance in general. There are indeed many good things about growing old: growth in knowledge of all types, growth in wisdom; a certain peace of mind that you have worked hard to earn all that you have achieved to date, and a great pride wells up in one insofar as one has earned all that by the sweat of one's own brow.  There are times when I say to myself some such understandable nonsense like: "Jesus, I wish I could go back to 1980 and start teaching again with all that I know now!"  Of course, I know that this an utterly ridiculous wish, though thoroughly understandable.  Age is the price we pay for experience; the price we pay for wisdom; the price we pay for whatever success we have eked out of life over the duration of our so far allotted years.

And so there are many times I moan about the stiffness of my arthritic bones and joints in the morning as my two alarm clocks rattle me awake from dreamland.  Yes, there are times one wishes one could lie longer in bed/  Yes, there are times one feels like throwing in the towel.  I have mentioned in this and other blogs that I suffer from clinical depression and have been on a relatively low strength antidepressant for the past 15 years.  However, in all that time I think I may have missed one or two days at most from work.  What I have learned is to be good to myself, to rest as much as possible, never to take on tasks that drain me and which I hate, to say "no" at least as often as I say "yes", to exercise regularly, to eat well, to think positive thoughts, to meditate, to engage in activities that I enjoy, to read and to write and to do as much soul work as I possibly can.  All of this can be called my "proactive acceptance" of my mental health situation.  I never let any debilitating self-pity creep in as that is simply soul-destroying.

The Truth That Sets Us Free  

If one studies any of the great religious traditions of the world and strip away the more denominational attire one will arrive at a very positive psychology. (Admittedly, you will have to prune the likes of the Old Testament and the Koran with a strong secateurs, but the task is worth doing.)  Basically, they are all about being true to the self (or soul).  Let's call all the religious language mere metaphor and simile.  There can be no self-acceptance without facing the bare truth about the naked self, that is the self stripped of its many masks and the uniforms of its different societal roles.  As an old friend said to me once about making any important decision in life: "If you can live with your SELF after that decision, then it is a good one."  

As I mentioned the great play Long Day's Journey into Night above, let me finish with an ad rem longer quotation from it in conclusion: Once again it is Mary Tyrone who is speaking:
I don't blame you. How could you believe me – when I can't believe myself? I've become such a liar. I never lied about anything once upon a time. Now I have to lie, especially to myself. But how can you understand, when I don't myself. I've never understood anything about it, except that one day long ago I found I could no longer call my soul my own. (2.2.132)

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