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In the woods – fear, love and the erotic

Preamble

I felt compelled to give this piece about fear an introduction, to explain it, but it is not an apologia. I wrote some time ago about honouring depression, about allowing depression to live rather than further depressing the psyche by talking to it with the voice of reason (there’s more here) and the irony in writing this introduction, and thereby placing the piece that follows in quotation marks, does not escape me.

My purpose in writing this blog has always been twofold: firstly, to work towards (as far as I am able) a different type of therapy – an approach to depression, distress and anxiety that is engaged with the world rather than distant from it. The second purpose is to model this approach, develop it, ride the waves of instinct, and to work through my own material. If I succeed in keeping myself in the world, then that will support my method. If not – well, that’s information too. Carl Jung, in the letter I quoted in the first piece linked above, reminds the reader that his method works for him and him alone, that he cannot speak for what others would do. But if what I write here is of value to only one other person, then that is good enough.

So no apologies: my desire is to bring back the instinctual as an equal partner to the intellectual. I love both, but they have been split in our culture, the instinctual held in contempt. Positive psychology is in charge: the broken, sick and vulnerable parts of ourselves are sanctioned, criminalised, marginalised and feared. I do not apologise for defending them, for pleading their case, for insisting on their legitimacy or for demanding that other voices are heard. Allowing the instinctual is not done through the tyranny of well-being, or from the deep listening and mindful focus that many cannot achieve, but from acknowledging the parts of our sickness that is created by the culture and by working through what remains.

Love creates change

Above all else, change is catalysed through love. I write often of the erotic: it contains sexual love but it is much greater, it is our connection to the world, it is in everything. Sometimes we are blessed enough to hear ‘I love you’, said with both humility and honesty, and an extraordinary thrill plays through the body to cock or cunt. Those are the words that bring the spring in the step, the cheery greeting, the glow and the poise of knowing – yes, knowing – that moment of acceptance in our bodies, whether it lasts a day or ten years.

But the erotic is also the bird singing in the tree and the flower pushing between the paving stones. It is the force that drives the dolphin into the air, that lights the promontory (where Oberon heard ‘a sea maid utter such dulcet and harmonious breath’), it is the quartz glittering in the rock, it is the extraordinary courage of people who risk everything for a felt sense of injustice, it is the elderly and infirm who protest against cuts, it is life itself. There are so many images one might use to illustrate the erotic, but my search brought me this fragment of a mural from Pompeii. It is literal, but I liked its energy and humanity. Sometimes the erotic is hard to find or nearly absent (for example, in some drear neoliberal monolith) and often fear blocks the path, hinders the flow. I hope that what follows works with that.

Sexual scene on a Pompeian mural

Amble

The first truly sunny, warm, day of the year and the sea calls me. I think of Shoreham, the blinding silver mirror of the sea, and of the dark crinkly purple shoots of sea kale that will have started to poke through the shingle. But this is Saturday and I have a vile cold (again) so, my immune system compromised, I decide against it. As soon as I get to the station I realise I have made the right choice. People are everywhere, with bicycles, backpacks and walking poles, as if on a trek through Nepal rather than a destination in Surrey or Hampshire. My stomach burns and I ask myself what I resent. Surely it is unreasonable to feel pleasure in spring bird song, the emergence of fat bumblebees and the acid green of new leaves, but to be angry with people for coming out too. I reflect on undeveloped consciousness (“I had not thought death had undone so many”) and the enjoyment of warmth limited to the removal of clothes. Unreasonably, it is this that angers me.

I am that sort of person despised as a miserablist, my enjoyment of a sunny day spoiled by thoughts of climate change. This is a snapshot and only one part, but my mood is one of mourning, as much for the missing parts of myself (the powerful, the zany, the childlike) as anything else. I will be walking and I am apprehensive of cyclists dinging their bells behind me so that I have to jump out of their way. If I want to pass someone in front of me I’ll say: “Morning” or “Excuse me”. Walkers don’t have personal bells to ping at people who walk more slowly, so why, I ask myself, should the power of speech abandon cyclists? I also acknowledge that I’m not feeling very well physically, my chest hurts, my legs ache, I’m tired, so I shall not be too self-critical. Only later in the walk, after I’m committed, do I discover that it is six miles – not far normally, but a lot when I’m sick.

The dismal café

I arrive at Leatherhead, a surprisingly unpleasant place, with a nasty shopping mall. The café I stop at serves the kind of coffee and pastry I might have expected to get thirty years ago. As I walk through the high street I am aware of my judgements and thoughts dinging like the bells of an army of cyclists.  Here are two young women, office workers, comparing the logistics of their narrow ambitions in voices too loud, too overlapping, for either of them to listen.

There’s the family eating outside a branch of Subway, the parents and children disturbingly obese, physically carrying the shame and disapproval of the coulture. Subway reminds me of the American comedy drama ‘Chuck’, which it sponsored, in which the main protagonists (all members of various US security services) regularly refer to, and accept without question, the existence of rendition, black sites and regime change. I watched every episode, supping deep of the amiability, the escapism, the ‘nerd becomes hero’ mythos, barely conscious of how the series normalised the unacceptable until I was free of its trance.

Grumbling and mumbling to myself, and conscious of looks, I keep going. Oh yes, ‘looks’ – I think of that offensive advertisement for a cold remedy that carries the strapline ‘colds are never a good look’. Clearly illness renders one unwell. Sometimes, certainly not always, one also looks unwell. This odious advertising suggests that looking well is so important that we cannot risk a cold because we cannot be seen to be human and vulnerable. I think of a term I have just learned – the precariat – and how the most vulnerable worker is compelled to appear cheerful and employable.

A short walk and I leave this behind to find myself walking beside the River Mole, cloudy with chalk. I hope for a kingfisher, but I’m unlucky. There’s a Brimstone butterfly, newly emerged from hibernation. I count six more on my walk, all far enough apart to be separate insects, though taking a photo proves impossible. Perhaps the source of ‘butter fly’, they dance and flutter like scraps of pretty paper in the air, sometimes resting for a moment before darting into the breeze again, lit by the sunlight, and their free movement and restless energy fills me with momentary appreciation and contentment.

Brimstone butterfly

Lost

Before long I’m in Norbury Park and lost. I missed a turn and I wander around foolishly, confounded by similar paths and tracks. Occasional signs are for Public Bridleways or Permissive Bridleways, no destination suggested. I start to feel anxious. Aren’t we vulnerable animals? I wonder what it would be like if there were only animal tracks, if I couldn’t hear the angry whine of distant motorbikes (the background noise of the countryside in these parts). There is no GPS signal and my map isn’t good enough, but obstinacy stops me from asking the way of the one or two people I meet. I reflect on the difficulty of asking for help. More often than not the directions we receive are misleading or given unwillingly. Worst of all, there is misdirection.

Of course my obstinacy stems from my fear of being seen not to know, or to be unable to intuit, my way through the woods. I learned from my father that the price of instruction was disparagement. I try to will myself to enjoy my surroundings but find it almost impossible. The printed directions don’t help, a picnic site is not the right picnic site (one of the picnic tables invites me to ‘explore – experience – create – connect’ and I take up the challenge). The legion of kissing gates through which I am supposed to pass have disappeared. I think of kissing. I think of having company in the woods, to be lost together and how that would be nice, then I could pretend to take charge (and the lichen grows in this direction, and the sun sets over there, so we need to go here).

Naked fear

I also think about support, as I lean against a warm rough trunk. My life, never an easy one, has entered its bleakest trajectory, and my support is isolated and infrequent as I struggle to resist total annihilation. Being open to instinct means listening for clues, finding the art and literature that speaks to one’s personal difficulties. The day after my walk I found this from the psychoanalyst Robert Stein, writing as if for me alone:

The distrust that men feel about a woman’s love, nowadays, is generally valid. This is primarily because so many modern women feel shattered by the slightest rejection from the man they love, even when they have done something to provoke his anger. Because they are so dependent on the man’s lovingness to keep up their illusion of their own lovingness, they tend to crumble and feel worthless when the man feels negatively towards them. Of course, this give the man an enormous power, but the woman counteracts this with an even greater power: her capacity to paralyze the man with guilt, which is her only defense against the brute force of masculine impersonality and cruelty. It is a dirty tool to use this instinctual power against a man when it is really her own feeling of inadequacy that is undermining her. But she is generally unable to face this; instead, she expresses a deep hurt and self-righteous reproachment to the man. The man is made to feel inhumanly cold and cruel, while in reality he has only been humanly angry. This evokes a deep anger in the man because it gives him no possibility of being and expressing himself with her, and it places the entire burden of maintaining the love connection on him. In addition, out of the shattered self of the woman an enormous wrath often emerges. A man rightfully fears the damage and destruction which she is capable of inflicting on others or herself when she is fragmented. How can a man trust a woman’s love when she may destroy him or herself if the honest expression of his feelings may hurt her?

Robert Stein, Incest and Human Love, 1973

That quotation needs balance:

Still another side to the modern love problem is a man’s desperate need for a loving woman and the demand she places upon the woman to fulfill the archetypal image. He gets at the woman where she feels most inadequate, yet she must resist becoming this image for him if she is to realize herself. Because of this demand, she becomes even less loving than she is. The legitimate resentment of the woman at being forced into an archetypal role is thus piled upon the man’s legitimate resentment of the woman’s lack of lovingness. Only if the man can remove his demand for the archetypal feminine from the woman and find it within himself; and only if the woman can free herself of her dependency on the man’s love as a way of finding her connection to her own love, is there any hope of breaking up this destructive pattern in the modern male-female relationship.

Robert Stein, ibid., 1973

The woods are still, with many beech trees, the last to show green, and hazel coppice. I don’t hear many birds in this wood, just once a group of squabbling jackdaws, otherwise only my struggling breath as I climb. Does this vulnerability explain our hubris, our need to build monumental structures, to pursue our ecocidal policies? Does the naked fear that starts to rise, the prickling sweaty horror, ensure that forests are over-managed and signposted at best, cut down and built over at worst? I see signs for Druids Grove and balk at what I imagine to be an unrewarding visit to another picnic site, mostly because I am still anxious to find my way. Later I discover that this is a grove of yews, some of the oldest trees in the country, and I feel ashamed (and I vow to return).

The magical garden

The trees and paths seem indistinguishable, the silence deafening, because the only voice I can hear is the self-critical voice, which becomes more strident by the minute: why are you afraid? This is Surrey not the Gobi desert, get a grip on yourself. I stop to breath, realising that I am close to panic. And it as that point, when I have allowed my breath, that I become aware of the most fantastic garden of moss all around me.

Fallen trunks are carpeted in spongy green carpets. Living trees and stands of tiny saplings bear mossy skirts. Small wonder that this forest is so quiet, sounds are muffled in the moss. Enchanted I stop to touch the springy softness and immediately I feel the release as my anxiety subsides. The reasonable thought emerges, that I’m walking in the right direction and soon I’ll find my way out, but to allow the reasonable I first had to allow the magic and immediacy of my surroundings.

Out of the valley

Finally I leave the wood behind, and as I walk into Westhumble, there’s the buzz of a light aircraft. I want to describe it as a monoplane, as if there might be some doubt. I recognise that I have entered a sequestered world of riches, the only sound to disrupt the quiet that of small aeroplanes and hedge trimmers. This is the England of P.G. Wodehouse and Dennis Wheatley. It comes as no surprise when a sign announces the Royal School of Church Music. Only a red faced organist hurrying in with a sheaf of scores is missing, and I remember singing in the church choir as a boy, having to compete even then for various medallions indicative of merit. The houses are called cottages even if they are mansions, and even here among the sentimental names, the camellias past their best, and the prominent alarm systems, there is resonance. Always a name, a connection, an echo: Mulberry Cottage, Wild Berry Lodge, The White House.

Unreal rewards

One lukewarm sausage sandwich and a pint of fizz later, I pass a mock Elizabethan pile as the owner emerges from one of his three chariots. He regards me with a thin lipped look of disdain, patrician nose slightly up as if detecting an odour of sweat. The truth is that I envy him. Not his cars, his dreadful pile of a house or his awful work, but his certainty and his comfort. Those are things he shares with the young women in the throwback café, content with climbing the ladders of accomplishment. The rewards are tangible, whether the log fire of the rentier or the new build of the office worker, rewards that seem more remote to me than ever.

I walk through an extensive vineyard, the serried vines separated with grass lanes but little other evidence of life, so I’m glad when a woolly brown dog keeps me company for a while. We ignore each other but as he falls back to snuffle and root at the interesting smells, then races forward, he feels like the company I need today. From far away his owner calls him back but he ignores her, to my secret satisfaction.

Vineyard near Dorking

Turning a corner I hear the first siren for hours, announcing my return to the ‘normal’. I had hoped for a tea room at Dorking, but there’s nothing near the station except dual carriageway. An idiot in a shell suit accelerates his bike and does a wheelie escaping from the lights, the ambient noise I had noticed before transformed into a deafening screech that reverberates in my head.

As soon as I get back to London I start to feel awful again. Out in the air, even the air of Surrey, the sneezing and runny nose stopped almost completely. But now the madness descends again. I am transfixed, rooted to the spot in the supermarket as I see blackberries from Mexico, raspberries from South Africa, and blueberries from Chile. It is not as if this profligacy was new to me, it is that once one has been anywhere authentic, the opposite becomes even more glaringly apparent.

What am I to make of the day? I took a path into the woods and got lost. The path I found out was not the one that I had planned to take. I nearly panicked, but Pan is not to be reasoned with. He is a god, and he demands respect and fealty. Pan of course was the god who died1, and this marked the ascendancy of Christianity and reason. As Jung famously opined ‘The gods have become our diseases’, so the death and reappearance of Pan as panic and anxiety remind us of our failure to tend his altar.

Finding energy

I have seen that there are routes other than the ones imperfectly marked on the map. And the mistakes made in map reading can be corrected as the place is revisited. I will go again, visit the grove of yews and offer something, find the suggested route, see how it feels, but I am sure that in many ways the route I took yesterday was the right one. At some level I needed the panic, the powerlessness, so that I could ‘explore – experience – create – connect’. On my return I found the writing I needed to find, to give context to some of my present difficulties and to help me withdraw my anima projections (more about those here).

The other day a colleague spoke of a workshop she had attended in which the facilitator (another woman) had talked about the importance of ‘cock energy’. This is such a good expression. All of us, both men and women, need to sometimes find cock energy, to thrust ourselves into life. But the abiding image of my walk was the Brimstones: I thought of the coloured paper we used to tear up for mosaics at primary school, how each torn piece was like a butterfly. As I try to break the shackles of fear, as I hunt for what remains of thrust and momentum, the lightness of the Brimstones will stay with me.

Footnotes

1. Or did he? From Wikipedia:
Robert Graves (The Greek Myths) reported a suggestion that the hearers aboard the ship, including a supposed Egyptian, Thamus, apparently misheard Thamus Panmegas tethneke ‘the all-great Tammuz is dead’ for ‘Thamus, Great Pan is dead!’, Thamous, Pan ho megas tethneke. “In its true form the phrase would have probably carried no meaning to those on board who must have been unfamiliar with the worship of Tammuz which was a transplanted, and for those parts, therefore, an exotic custom.”

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Love in the Ruins – why service heals guilt

He registered a dizzy 7.6 mmv over Brodmann 32, the area of abstractive activity. Since that time I have learned that a reading over 6 generally means that a person has so abstracted himself from himself and from the world around him, seeing things as theories and himself as a shadow, that he cannot, so to speak, reenter the lovely ordinary world. Such a person, and there are millions, is destined to haunt the human condition like the Flying Dutchman.

Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins, 1971

The more I think about love, the more I think about service and devotion. Here in the West we have nothing left to believe in with any passion, and so in this piece I briefly explore the meaning and origins of love, and I suggest that love be re-visioned, re-imagined perhaps, so that it can include the world again as it once did in the distant past.

Throw it in the world-bin

It seems like only yesterday that I first learned of the terrifying prospect of a mass bleaching event of the world’s corals and the wholesale loss of species that would accompany such an event. This news is just another of the many awful consequences of our failure to love ourselves as human beings, as animals in the larger world. It’s difficult to find any one image to illustrate this, I’m sure you will have your own, but let this picture suffice for now.

a tide of destruction

It’s not a dramatic picture, there is no overt terror, no screaming or blood. It shows a tiny part of the world, a fractional space between the Thames embankment at Battersea and a houseboat, and yet (to me at least) it shows vividly the absolute misery of our human condition. Here, mingled with the organic refuse – the branches and timber we might expect to see in a river – are discarded coffee cups, burger cartons, aerosols and a general swill of plastic waste. It says, ‘I don’t care, someone else can clean it up. I don’t even care much about myself.’

People do clean up the foreshore here, occasionally, in their free time. A day later and the flotsam is back, the toxic aggregate of what is described as ‘thoughtless behaviour’, against which we are urged, as if by parents, to be ‘mindful’. But I see in this the consequence of two thousand years of dualist indoctrination: there is a barely acknowledged part of us that believes this earth is bad and that a better world awaits us. It doesn’t matter we are atheist, Buddhist or pagan: in the West we are Christianists whether we like it or not.

The origins of Romance

Saint Dominic presiding over an auto-da-fé
Saint Dominic presiding over an auto-da-fé, (Pedro Berruguete ca. 1495)

So let’s talk about love. But first religion – because love and religion are deeply linked. Most of the religious people of the world believe in salvation or transcendence from life on earth, with or without reincarnation. According to the Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson, our modern Western infatuation with romance sprang from chivalric love, the medieval courtly love in which a knight would project his feminine self, his anima, on to a woman. In his book We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, Johnson traces the origins of this behaviour to the 13th century cult of Catharism, the ‘Albigensian heresy’, in which the so-called Good Men eschewed the corruption of the Catholic Church and its priesthood. Catharism was dualist, adherents believed that God created the spiritual realm but that all matter and flesh were creations of Satan. They believed that human spirits were trapped angels who would be eternally reincarnated until the spirit had achieved salvation. The similarity to Buddhism is striking: for more information these pages delve further into the history and legacy of this extraordinary movement1.

Unable to reform the teaching of the Cathars, and terrified with their growing popularity, the established church began to exterminate them in the Albigensian Crusade that began in 1208. The leader of the crusade, Arnaud Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux, was responsible for the massacre at Béziers, and also infamous for the words “Kill them all. God will know his own”, a thought that has been unconsciously perpetuated in politics ever since. Subsequent to the crusade, an Inquisition was set up to find the remaining adherents and to torture and burn them, but Johnson contends that, such was the popularity of the sect, it went underground to emerge as chivalric love. He writes:

To outsiders it looked like a new and elegant way to make love, to woo and flatter pretty damsels, but for the insider who knew the “code”, it was an allegorical practice of Catharist ideals.

Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, 1983

The need for transcendent experience

Johnson’s thesis (which he elaborates with his analysis of the story of Tristan and Iseult that I alluded to in my piece about depression) is that men unconsciously project their spiritual feminine onto women just as the Cathars were doing eight hundred years ago, an act that prevents both men and women from relating as humans, splitting men’s spirituality and sentencing women to fail to live up to the projection. It is perhaps surprising that there is academic controversy over whether or not courtly love actually existed: to me the question seems redundant given that we are still so enmeshed in the projection.Courtly love How many of our relationships begin with a rose, followed shortly with by the sprinkling of rose petals, real or otherwise? A few short years later (Robert A. Johnson points out that the incomplete number is always three, ceaselessly searching for the fourth) the roses are withered and the blissful feelings are replaced with anger and resentment.

And this is not just a male problem, a woman too can project her inner masculine, her animus, so that the man in the relationship never has a sense of being good enough. He can work 18 hour days, look after the children round the clock, never forget anniversaries… but he will never be able to do enough until the woman withdraws her projection. The power of these unconscious impulses is profound: Johnson argues that they spring from our need for religious experience, the transcendent, the numinous. The Cathars, as with many other religious movements, wanted to perfect spirituality (their adepts were called parfaits/parfaites). They looked around at the corruption of the established church and reacted against it, seeking purity and simplicity. The shadow of such a reaction, the inevitable consequence, is fundamentalism and fanaticism.

Established Catholic doctrine was that God created everything, including the earth, but the Church was forced to accommodate some of the most popular Cathar beliefs, for example to create orders that looked as poor as the Cathars they helped to exterminate (the Dominicans and Franciscans). However, duality has been bound up in Christianity from its origins. Here’s an example from the Gospel of John:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.
And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.

John 2:15–17

And another from the Gospel of James:

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.

James 3:13-18

Perhaps this is a human trait, the need to make corrective measures. For many years we in the UK have writhed under the rule of various vile political elites that, as the journalist Polly Toynbee tells us here, are busy dismantling the welfare state that took such courage and determination to build. Much of the opposition to these policies feels ‘corrective’, a flip-flop reversal. I have this myself, an anger bordering on hatred that feels fanatical.

To avoid the obsessive it might be useful just to say ‘no’. James Hillman reminds us of the Hindu meditation neti, neti, meaning ‘not this, not that’, and the Christian concept of kenosis, Christ’s emptying out of his divine power, his unity with God, in order to be on the earth as a man. Above all else, we need to say ‘no’ to the acts that continue to create inequality, that ravage the earth. Here’s Hillman writing about politics in the United States over twenty years ago, since when everything has indeed got worse:

Kenosis puts the emptiness in a new light. It values the emptiness. It says “empty protest” is a via negativa, a non-positivist way of entering the political arena. You take your outrage seriously, but you don’t force yourself to have answers. Trust your nose. You know what stinks. Don’t try to replace the helpless frustration you feel, the powerless victimization, by working out a rational answer. The answers will come, to you, to others, but don’t fill in the emptiness of the protest with positive suggestions before their time. First, protest! I don’t know what should be done about most of the political dilemmas, but my gut (my soul, my heart, my skin, my eyes) sinks, creeps, crawls, weeps, cringes, shakes. It’s wrong, simply wrong, what’s going on here.

We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse, James Hillman and Michael Ventura, 1993

Service as a way to love the world

Our failure to attend to our actions has brought us to this place: the end times (whether of twenty or a hundred years is scarcely important except to the very greedy). The rest of us try to forget, or become angry with each other, and finding and apportioning blame becomes the defence against guilt and grief. The terrible pain of keeping ones eyes open to the destruction that we have wrought in the world cannot, and should not, be masked in positivism.

Dualism in Christianity has altered our thinking (the same can be said of Islam), and this binary behaviour became far worse in the seventeenth century with the mind-body dualism of René Descartes. We are now thoroughly split, our bodies machines, our heads computers (I wrote something about this here), our desire for religious transcendence projected onto our human relationships, in the death agonies of our own destruction. But this can change.
Perhaps Hillman’s kenosis leaves the vacuum of the emptiness unaddressed, and my suggestion for something to fill that void is service. Service to the earth and service to each other. Service is about community; about the neighbour you don’t know; about asking yourself what will really help your partner (and that might be doing the shopping, it might be about space or silence, it might even be leaving your current relationship). Service is about protecting endangered species; it is taking responsibility for pollution; building new homes on brownfield sites; stopping your car before the crossing, not half way into it.

Service satisfies the need to feel of value, the need for transcendent expression, but it does not seek to give answers. To be of service is to stay out of depression (see Jung’s letter about this here). I can say, with a fair degree of certainty, that most of the people I worked with as a therapist expressed a wish to be of service, but they are unable to carry this out because of external conditions. The politics of austerity create only despair and greed.

For having been born elsewhere - Francisco Goya
For having been born elsewhere, (Francisco Goya ca. 1814-1823)

As always, there is something hidden that needs to be made conscious. The psychoanalyst Robert D. Stolorow has something valuable to say here, and I quote:

In some accommodative patterns, serving or performing becomes a way of substituting for a missing sense of inherent value and thereby maintaining a connection with a viewing other.

There is a root in ‘service’ that means slavery. To be of service is not to be a slave, nor is it to seek to address feelings of inferiority. Feeling enslaved makes service impossible, therefore it is imperative that we are able to acknowledge shame and loosen its grip on our hearts. As Stolorow writes in a spirited defence of the piece I linked to above:

True repentance belongs to guilt, not to shame. Repenting out of shame is inauthentic repentance. To repent for being vulnerable, for example, is absurd. We should be much more alarmed by people who are guiltless than by those who are shameless.

Whether shame is public or private, it crushes the spirit that is needed to create change. To feel guilty is to recognise a mistake, to own it, to acknowledge one’s inherent imperfection without being annihilated. It is so difficult to see: I struggle enormously with my own guilt, yet when I heard one of my visitors2 express guilt, my heart opened like a door of leaves. In an article about trauma and empathy Stolorow has this to say:

A new form of human solidarity would also become possible rooted not in shared resurrective grandiosity but in shared recognition and respect for our common human finiteness. If we can help one another bear the darkness rather than evade it, perhaps one day we will be able to see the light.

Perhaps I could offer an alternative version that avoids the duality:”A new form of solidarity (that includes the human and the other than human) would become possible rooted not in projected shame and religious feeling, but in an understanding and praxis of service that acknowledges our shared vulnerability. If we can help one another, perhaps we will at last be able to love the colours of the night.”

Footnotes

1. The Catholic church used extensive propaganda against the Cathars, accusing them of multiple ‘sins’, including sodomy: the English pejorative ‘bugger’ comes from the French ‘bougre’ meaning ‘heretic’, which in turn came from ‘Bulgres’, meaning Bulgarians (Cathar beliefs spread from those of the Bulgarian Bogomils). All this notwithstanding the extensive enjoyment of anal sex amongst Catholics, either within the priesthood or as a method of birth control.
2. The issue of what to call the people therapists work with is still vexatious. I referred to the people I worked with as ‘visitors’, a word with its origins in the Latin videre, meaning “to see, notice, observe”. ‘Patient’, a word that accurately includes the sense of a person in therapy having to be patient, connects to the medical model and is much in use by psychoanalysts . I didn’t like the word ‘client’ either, both because of its sense of someone being dependent and also because of its connection to the business model. The use of this word ‘client’ is a clear indication that therapy in the West has lost its way. You will hear therapists refer to their ‘client base’; these therapists need to ‘attract’ clients through targeted advertising; the online directories of therapists resemble dating sites, each mugshot with its profile and qualities, and you pay extra to stand out of the crowd. When we become agencies with ‘clients’, our ability to sit with pain, to accept distress and to make our work revolutionary and radical, becomes hugely compromised.

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