Wednesday 31 October 2007

Tuesday 30 October 2007


I’ve been thinking about empathy. It’s something I’m not short of, I think – short as I am of so much that is useful for life in the 21st century
:-) - and this is both a blessing and a curse. Partly it’s innate, a matter of temperament, goes with being quiet, introspective, imaginative; partly, I think, the result of growing up the held-close only child of a mother who craved understanding and sympathy and cast me in the role of providing them.

Of course, a capacity for empathy is important, desirable and essential to decent, caring co-existence on any scale from the familial to the global. Of course, to a certain level, it’s entirely to be approved of and encouraged. But perhaps you can have too much. It can paralyse. It can make life too hard.

I can’t imagine being a nurse or doctor. Not because I’m squeamish about blood and entrails – on the contrary, a certain creepy fascination there. More because I feel I would absorb everyone’s pain and be incapacitated by horror and sadness. Perhaps this is not entirely true, and I could become accustomed. I suspect I could not become sufficiently accustomed. So it’s clearly a very, very good thing not everyone has the same temperament and susceptibilities. I know a woman who is a nurse on an acute psychiatric ward. She’s gentle and patient, but about as lacking in empathy as anyone I’ve ever known, seemingly without any capacity to imagine or curiosity to know what it is like to be another. I rather think this is part of what makes her good at the job, able to be there day after day, kind and present and gently interested and only occasionally overwhelmed.

I speak in extremes, of course, where there are only subtle gradations. I know that not all nurses and doctors, and others who live and work daily with extremes of suffering, are like that woman, that some, perhaps the best, do have enormous empathy, but have learned a difficult, blessed skill of standing aside from it when that’s what needed. I absolutely do NOT mean to say: I cannot do this because, oh, I am so sensitive! it’s harder for me than it is for someone else! How can I ever know (I’m not THAT empathetic) how anything feels for someone else?

I speak in extremes because I know why I seek empathy in others and value it – no question there - but need to focus on what is problematic about it.

Someone I care about had some terrible news recently, you see. I feel for them. Their face, their fear, are in my mind and heart all the time. So much that I am paralysed by my feelings, sliding away from them into depression, and scarcely able to function. This is hardly a state where I can be there for a dear friend just at the time they may need it most, is it? So my empathy, my sensitivity - which on the whole I do value, although they make life difficult – have been feeling like something I need to get a different handle on, in order to deal with this tough stuff, the kind of tough stuff that happens to all of us sooner or later.

I don’t want to be unfeeling. I don’t really want to be different from who I am – what a fruitless desire that would be, anyway. But to have a different relationship to these strong feelings of empathy, connection. My Buddhist teachers would speak, I think, of experiencing them in a broader context, a deeper container; that resonates, certainly, but I think I have grasped it only intellectually, not experientially.

There’s an oft-repeated story about the Dalai Lama that both moves me and makes me cringe. It is said that he once attended a peace conference in Northern Ireland; that, while the bereaved and maimed and the repentant gave their testimonies, he was seen to lay his head on the shoulder of an aide and weep continuously; that shortly afterwards, at a press call, sandwiched between two grave, white-bearded bishops, he laughed delightedly, reached up and tweaked their beards. No one who knows him thinks him superficial; that his tears, because they dissolve so fast, come too easily and mean nothing. Somehow he is able to hold both intense suffering and… well, and everything else along with it, so there is not just the suffering. This is so difficult, so foreign to anything I've ever experienced – I think that is why I cringe.

I cringe too, though, at my own inability to keep living in the knowledge of something hard and sad and terrible, except by numbing myself. I don’t want to numb myself. But I do want, and need, to keep living, not to only be in pain in sympathy with someone else’s pain. How did I get to such an advanced age with so little idea about this? Is it too late to learn another way?

Friday 26 October 2007

Public space and the body

"I don’t agree with Louise Bourgeois's famous saying that art is a guarantee of sanity. For me it’s much more a sharing of anxiety than anything to do with catharsis. It doesn’t relieve, but amplifies and shares anxiety. By making objects that carry my uncertainty, I learn to hold it, as a vehicle for sensitivity.

"The negotiation of gazes in the city.

"Finding our places in the context of looking and being looked at.

"It’s reality gazing back at you. They make me uneasy. They create a story. They express a prohibited anxiety, a search for certainty.

"The figures are not me, but places where I once was.

"They’re not statues, since they represent nothing and no one in particular. They are… declaratory vehicles, a reinforcement of a form of objectness.

"To what extent do we own our bodies? To what extent are we just passengers?

"The body declares its redundancy. It is a trap for our empathy.

"Their lack, their stillness, call on our feeling.

"They suggest the possibility that our bodies are deeply embraceable.

"To collapse uncertainties about insideness and outsideness.

"Is anxiety negative? Can it be positive? A way into choice? Yes. And also neither positive nor negative, but our condition, a sharpener of our perceptions.

"To approach an almost unbearable anxiety may be what we need and gravitate towards.

"Perhaps it takes age to experience being this raw and not flee it.

"The picture that looks back at you in an expected way is part of the prevailing symbolic order. Here he’s concerned not to reinforce the prevalent representational order… art as a space where we can familiarise ourselves with the unknowable, escape from the prevailing symbolic order.

"I am trying less to deal with personal responsibility than with where human imagination fits into a space/time/cosmic context.

"The isolated perilous figures on rooftops evoke empathy, concern and intense feeling. They evoke perhaps the common enhancement of feeling when in a perilous place.

The horizon as a limit of humanness – only imagination can transcend it."

Roughly, inadequately culled fragments from a discussion: Antony Gormley with Renata Salecl, Susie Orbach and Darian Leader.
But how wonderful - there's a podcast!

Monday 22 October 2007

Green Park in black and white


Where are you now?
Where are you now?
Come back
Come back
Right now
And call me
When you’re near
When you’re nearly here

~ ~ ~

Where are you now?

Friday 19 October 2007

Hyperlink - Gallery

Photo taken at the Frith Street Gallery, visited on the recommendation of Planethalder, whose enthusiastic, discriminating consumption of a wide range and huge number of our city's cultural and culinary attractions daunts me, and sends me to seek out some lovely things. This lovely thing was an exhibition of work by Tacita Dean, impressive and beautiful wall-size photomontages of trees and a couple of works on film - her usual form in recent years, and most especially her film of poet Michael Hamburger in his East Anglian domain, as visited by the narrator of W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn.

This, and still below of Michael Hamburger, from Tacita Dean's film

It is a haunting, meditative evocation of the old poet, who died a few months after he was filmed, the light and the wind through his house, garden and beloved apple trees. I sometimes wonder, in my literal way, what makes a film a piece of visual art rather than a work of cinema, but not in this case. Lacking any narrative arc, it's edited to play as a seamless loop. You only know you're back at the point where you parted the heavy black curtain and groped your way into the viewing room when you recognise an image already seen - a long shot of an old-fashioned lamp in silhouette that slowly impinged as I shuffled towards a chair.

A slow-keeps-coming-at-you-on-a-meandering-loop-that-you-can-enter-anywhere, like Sebald's writing.

Standing out against the quiet: the strong, declarative tones of the poet, reading a poem he wrote for his friend Ted Hughes not long after his death, which evokes the tree he grew from the pips of an apple from Hughes' garden. A link with a friend now gone. He strokes the apple, reaches for the book to read... achingly present, and now he too is gone.

So glad I saw this, followed a link and liked what I saw and went to see. The online world of endless hyperlinks, the time you end up wasting by following just one more: it's frightening and depressing, but also often leads to unsuspected riches. And the habit of persistence in following just one more link overflows into off-line life. To find the gallery - so tastefully minimalist that its name is only to be seen carved in the wall, well above eye level -
took two turns and more around the square, then entering a cafe and asking.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

Tuesday 16 October 2007

(Late for) World Mental Health Day

It was last week. How time races on. Anyway, I'm never sure if the idea of a World Mental Health Day, like days for women, peace, the eradication of poverty or disease, is a good idea, a 'can't hurt', or an insult.

Although never diagnosed with anything in particular, I've always thought of myself as someone with fragile mental health. When I was 6 or 7, my parents took me to a doctor to ask if I perhaps was mad. I wasn't very happy and responded to discipline by yelling a lot. The doctor said no: maddening perhaps, but not mad. But the question had been planted and didn't leave.

Recent weeks have brought some difficult states of mind - intense, bleak disappointment in myself for... well, for being me. Sad realisations from which - as always with the toughest stuff, be it self-inflicted or inflicted by another or by fate - there is no escape, for which there is no comfort except: "well, it hasn't killed you." or "well, this is not all there is."

If you tend to be depressive, this kind of experience is always a reminder of... how to express it? a reminder that the default state is paralysis and that motivation for living is something that has constantly to be cultivated. It breaks the habitual rhythms, the chugging along, hopefully without too much self-questioning. The power of habit is huge - as huge, I think, as the power of deeply internalised beliefs, and mental health is inextricably tied up with both.

Sadly this seems not to be the prevailing view in these parts, where WMHD was marked by a proud UK governmental announcement of new funds for the training of Cognitive Behavioural Therapists. Everyone who goes to their doctor feeling depressed or behaving oddly is to be offered a few sessions of CBT, and Bob's your uncle! It's cheaper in the long term than drugs and just as effective, research is claimed to show.

Excuse me, er, we're all the same, then? You have human nature cracked? This is going to work for everyone? Mental illness has nothing to do ever with life experiences, past or present, or with heredity in all its nature-nurture complexity? Gee.

This initiative has been in the pipeline for a while. Ms Melancholy, on her blog Confessions of a Psychotherapist, wrote informatively and movingly about it here, here and here, while blog-friend Stray contributed with equal knowledge and eloquence from the client's viewpoint.

One sentence of Stray's, I think, strikes to the heart of therapeutic wisdom and why neither CBT nor anything else is a quick fix: "There is no 'solution' - simply a (very) slow growth in tolerance of emotional discomfort."

That slow - slow, slow, tiny, tiny, but oh-so-signficant - growth of tolerance has certainly been my experience. So I find this book, and the kind of practice - now slowly finding its way into the mainstream health service - of which it is part,
though emphatically not a panacea and not claiming to be one, a more hopeful sign in a climate scarily typified by the blanket CBT initiative.

Monday 8 October 2007

Revolving doors

Hmm. Endless visual effects and bottomless metaphor. This could run and run - round and round, of course.

Thursday 4 October 2007

One word

We went to see John Berger 'in conversation' after a showing of Pasolini's film, La Rabbia, which is the subject of one of the essays in his recent book, 'Hold Everything Dear'.

rr took an excellent photo.

He seems strong and vigorous, seems a very old man only in that he is supremely himself and unconcerned with impression-management - in a way it takes a very long lifetime to become.

He sighed and clutched his head in his hands for long moments before answering questions, and then brought out gentle, considered words that I greedily wished I could scoop up and carry home to hoard. I took away with me just one word, in the end, but it summed up all the rest: acknowledgement. That human experience, suffering, most demands acknowledgement. It's a synonym for 'hold everything dear', isn't it? It was the message, he felt, of the film.

Such an important word: acknowledgement of the effects of war, pain, fear, oppression. And I think of the word's significance on a daily, less dramatic scale. Why is it draining and maddening to live in our society of cliched slogans, automatic voices and call-centre operatives reading from a script? Because they deny the most basic need for interaction with other human beings who acknowledge us as their fellows.

Acknowledgement. Bearing witness. Sufficient motive for living, speaking, writing, for everything that I 'hold dear'. One word I'm grateful for. One smile, one mind, one body of work I'm grateful for.
He could whisper to people softly about the worst that could happen to them, and they somehow suffered a little less!

Berger on Pasolini