Saturday, February 8, 2014

Journal of a Soul 43

The Mess of Things

Winter scene of Dublin Bay from Clontarf
We learn lessons almost as soon as we are thrust forth from our mother's womb.  In the terms coined by the father of psychoanalysis the child learns early that there is a clash between the "pleasure principle" and the "reality principle," and it is somewhere in the clash of those two that the reality of life lies.* 

I can recall as a young boy when I first became aware that things broke, that plants decayed and that animals died, and finally that human beings also broke and died.  The lessons of mortality are soon learnt indeed by the growing child.  I vividly recall following a wind-up toy around the floor as a young boy and then my dismay when it ceased functioning consequent on my having wound it up too tightly.  Or when my father got sick when I was just three years of age - he lost the use of his right arm to polio and spent the rest of his life depending on his left arm only.  Or my grandmother Mary Phoebe Brophy laid out on her deathbed in the front room of the Crumlin home.  Life is messy and we learn to acknowledge its mess early. Admittedly, for some, life can be a whole lot more messy than for others.

Types of Mess

In the past few weeks I have dealt with various types of mess, mostly in the life of others, and I suppose any mess I might have experienced would be my ability or rather inability to be of help or my inability to deal with theirs at a personal level.  However, thankfully, I manage to forget about their mess as soon as work ends and I go home.  Otherwise, I would be no good to any of them. (When I was a very young teacher, I was not quite so good at doing that).  In those past few weeks I have dealt with one young lad who suffers from anger issues and shouts and roars at his dad mostly.  They have exchanged blows at times.  I have listened to another who told me that his mother (a recovering drug addict on metadone treatment) and her partner attacked him one morning and that he had rung the police. (We duly reported this to the social services, of course) I listened to another boy who is suffering from depression, and another who exhibited schizoid or schizophrenic traits and told me that the group he was founding was going to take over the world starting with Africa. Somewhere in the midst of all his outpourings he talked about exterminating those in the human race that were useless, and when he found me to be listening only and not reacting that perhaps he was playing mind games and how he didn't like anyone trying to get into his mind. (Some few Asperger boys exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia and that is a clinical fact)** I mention these instances here not to impress the reader with my psycho-therapeutic prowess or my empathy with others.  I do so to illustrate the various messes we humans find ourselves in.

Life is Unfair

I have always found that the simple statement "life is unfair" as the most basic of philosophical foundations on which to base one's life.  I remember reading it in a biography of Steven Hawking, a book co-authored by two of his postgraduate students about twenty years ago.  They had asked him whether he was angry with life for being confined to a wheelchair, indeed to be rendered speechless and motionless almost by Motor Neuron disease.  He replied in words akin to the following: "Why should I?  As a physicist I know that life is all about chance and luck -Evolution has nothing to do with fairness or justice." Obviously these are my words and are a mere paraphrase of what this world-renowned physicist said all those years ago and are rendered here through the mists of memory. However, they capture the substance of what Hawking said.

Acceptance and the Onward Thrust of Life

Sometimes the desire to understand things can frustrate us, especially our desire to understand and make sense of life.  I see this almost all the time with the Asperger boys with whom I work.  I teach them Mathematics, Life Skills, Communication Skills and Social Interaction.  One obstacle to tackling mathematical problems (in the less mathematical student) is their utter obsession with understanding everything and not being able to accept this or that method on trust to such an extent that they down tools in despair and say simply "I can't understand that!" I tell them that we are all simply finite beings.  We are not all superhuman, nor could we ever be.  There are many things which we should take on trust.  I tell them that I love technology, computers, iPads and cars and airplanes and so on.  I don't understand everything about my computer or the engine of my car but that I can drive both. The rest I can take on trust.

And so acceptance of our finitude means also accepting all the things we cannot understand and trusting others who understand some of those things.  Acceptance means going with the flow, swimming with and not against the current.  Now, I hasten to point out here that swimming with the current means just that - swimming, that is doing something, not just abandoning oneself to fate.  I stress again - acceptance is never blind fatalism.  Acceptance is an attitude that accepts things in a way somewhat similar to the following manner: "Okay, there is no use denying the obvious, I have high blood pressure, suffer from endogenous depression, am borderline obese and borderline type 2 diabetic.  Now I have the first two regulated by medication and meditation and by looking after my mental health.  I admit I must take more exercise and eat much more healthy foods so that I can control the type 2 diabetes that threatens by my diet.   I know this is possible with determination. Yes, this is something, I, Tim Quinlan must get on top of as a fifty six year old man."  Okay, all of the last several lines are true as they are an account of my medical condition.  I will do my very best to get down my weight over the next few months.  I need to drop 1 stone and I'll be fine apparently - well, as fine as any 56 year old can be.  I am a member of the local gym and do my best to take exercise and keep my weight under control.  All of that is the onward thrust of life, built on the acceptance of the reality of me and my state of health now in February 2014.

Shit Happens but Shit also Grows the Roses

The Autumn leaves in Fairview Park, Dublin, 3
We all need to accept the mess that life is or can be, and develop coping skills to guide us safely through that mess.  Life will throw many messes at us, and our task is to deal as best we can with the shit it throws at us.  That's why the Self-Help sections of bookshops and online book sellers are so well frequented.  That is also why complementary medicines and therapies are becoming so commonplace in these modern times.  Please notice I have said complementary, not alternative.  Listening to Professor Richard Kearney recently on the radio, I noticed that he spoke about dealing with his depression by the use of both medication (antidepressants) and psychotherapy and meditation, and that the treatment of mental illness needed a both/and approach, not an either/or.  As a sufferer from endogenous depression for the last twenty years I have believed this right from the start of my getting to grips with my illness, and more or less overcoming its severe debilitation. 

After coming to grips with my depression at forty years of age I have travelled more, written more - I wrote some four books, one of which I got published, done more courses, studied more, been involved in more voluntary organisations than I had ever done prior to forty.  In other words while shit happened to me, that same shit also helped grow roses which I never knew could have bloomed in my life.

The Mess of Things Revisited

As I look around me as I write I am aware of the small but significant mess of things about me.  I have a few thousand books I guess and I have spent about an hour trying to put some order on a few hundred of them.  When their authors wrote them, it is my contention that they were trying to put order on some messy ideas they had about life.  I was trying to separate my books into sections so that I'd more easily be able to access them. I also have a lot of washed clothing awaiting the pressing of my iron, some breakfast things that need to be washed and put away, documents that need to be sorted, bills that need to be paid, forms that need to be filled in and returned to this or that government department and finally, my own lack of inclination to engage with some if not all of this stuff is also part of the mess.  As I look around me I see this little mess that my life is now.  However, as I write these words I take great delight in the order that I am putting on the mess that is my existential being here and now in and through the task of making words and thoughts behave upon a page.  It is in the struggle for order, pattern and control versus the mess of disorder, lack of pattern and chaos that essentially the human (if not divine) dwells.


*Freud argued that the young baby realises early the importance of the pleasure principle. If the little child cries and is fed quite often when it does so it begins to realise that its needs can be met, its hunger and thirst satisfied and that such leads to real pleasure and gratification. Simply put, this is the “pleasure principle.” Now, it would be great if we lived in an "ideal world" where all our needs, wants and desires were satisfied. But such is not the real world. Instant gratification is not the way of life. Everything comes at a price. The child also learns very early on that sometimes when he/she cries their needs are not met immediately. In other words that child is beginning to learn that harsh reality is just that - harsh! It is almost superfluous to state that Freud called this meeting with harsh reality the "reality principle." The child now embarks upon a more balanced take on life – fine, it is well and good that one’s desires, needs and wants are met, but such does not happen all of the time. The young child quickly learns to balance the "pleasure principle" with the "reality principle."

** see this link for information about a possible link between Autism and Schizophrenia:  Here

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