Nature or Nurture

My previous blog post, Schism, got me thinking about human behaviour. You know, just for a change. In particular how we tend to use blanket terminology to describe behaviour that often we don’t fully comprehend in people. In particular the term, “human nature”. It got me thinking about what exactly is natural within a human? How much of our behaviour is written into our genetic code, and how much is written in through our life’s learning through experience? Strictly speaking, can that learning through experience really be considered natural, or should it be considered as something else such as the nurturing or shaping of personality via external factors?

I got to thinking about babies, and how pretty well researched their behaviour is; even pre birth. We’ve learned a lot about how they develop and of how that development can be affected, both positively and negatively. We’ve learned how important the first few years of life can be for the development of mind and personality.

When I first began to consider the method of personal development I wanted to do, way back in the late 1960s, I decided to look into where it had come from. Information was harder to come by back then, (now we just Google it!) and it was even harder to verify it’s sources.

One thing that cropped up a lot was something of an urban legend that circulated through the groups and classes. A story of how someone was asked to take in and look after a person who had had some sort of a breakdown. A breakdown that had resulted in them being quite shut down and uncommunicative. As they had taken them into their home, they were able to observe their behaviour close up. One of the first things they noticed was that they could burst into tears quite randomly for apparently no reason that anyone could fathom. Over time though, they also noticed that the tearfulness episodes became fewer and further apart and that their general demeanour and behaviour seemed to improve.

This person eventually got to the point where they were well enough that they were able to leave and get on with their life. The people who looked after them became curious about what was going on here. Was what they had witnessed some sort of healing process for the individual? Could this be replicated in some way; so that they could learn more about it? A decision was made to do further research, using themselves as guinea pigs. Eventually, over a number of years, enough observational data was collected for them to arrive at some conclusions about the true difference between nature and nurture in humans.

A key conclusion was that the innate nature of people, the one they were born with, was pretty good. That individuals were cooperative, creative, intelligent, loving and caring. These traits were assumed to be written into human DNA. Where things went wrong, it was concluded, was in the nurture side of human development; particularly after birth. Now the word nurture is something of a loaded one. It’s meaning is expressed as something positive. But if it is used as an expression of assisting development, then it’s useful to keep in mind that some aspects of development can also have a negative affect.

The theory put forward was, that although the innate nature of people was deemed to be fundamentally good, that nature was vulnerable to damage post birth. Put simply, we can be hurt. We can not only be hurt physically, but also emotionally and psychologically. These hurts can be installed by accident or by some form of social contagion. The good news was, that just as our body can heal physically, we also had the ability to heal emotionally and psychologically. Given the opportunity, this healing process would happen spontaneously. The outward sign of this healing was the release of painful feelings; what we observe as crying (for grief), raging (for anger) and shaking or trembling (for fear).

So it seems to me that schism in human groups, in this theoretical model, has little to do with the true nature of humans; since that loving cooperative stuff in our DNA would cancel it out. Solutions for better communication and understanding would be found. Schism must arise from the damage laid in over individual life spans. Damage that distorts and blocks rational thinking and preventing the individual from seeing the options for cooperation at their disposal.

Now this raises another question for me. Which is, how come the two groups mentioned in my previous blog post on Schism, who each had the same skill base for resolving conflict, did not apply that skill base to resolving their differences? I’m wondering if each group shares a common blind spot that prevents them from seeing not only where their own thinking is blocked, but where the other group may be struggling also.

Birth

My mother once told me that I didn’t want to be born. Which I thought was a curious thing to come out with. I’ve always assumed that she meant I was a prolonged labour for her. Considering she’d had five children before me I’m guessing that the process of giving birth is supposed to be quicker and more straightforward. But then, I’m Male, so what do I know.

But that statement, “you didn’t want to be born,” got me thinking. What if that was actually the case? After all, being a foetus is a pretty cushy number when you think about it. Inside the womb it’s warm, safe and very cosy. Sustenance comes automatically as and when required. Nothing is demanded of you at all. There’s time to think and dream. Why would you want to leave?

It has been said, that a foetus is effectively a parasite; with the mother being the host. It may well be an active parasite, in the sense that it can take over it’s host in order to be sure that it’s own needs are met; affecting it’s hosts behaviour and to some extent controlling the behaviour of the host to ensure its own needs are catered for. You may think that eating lumps of charcoal or jar after jar of peanut butter is an odd thing to do, but maybe baby knows best.

At around the time that my mother came out with her little revelation. I was not in a very good place. So I was fishing for any snippets of information about what was going on in my early years. I was also thinking and writing a lot about my situation at the time of her statement. Given the dark place my head was in it probably wasn’t the best time to begin to speculate, about how I may have experienced my own entrance into the world. But that’s what I did, and I tried to document what the experience of a less than perfect birth might be from the point of view of the baby being born. I think it was a valiant attempt, given that a baby doesn’t possess the language needed to describe its experience of what’s happening.

Of course I have no way of knowing what a baby is feeling or thinking at the time of birth. It may well be that there is some form of natural anaesthesia that kicks in at the time; shielding the infant from distress and pain. So I think that the writing needs to be taken with a largish pinch of salt. It was written in one go, just getting down the thoughts as they came into my head. Reading it now, I find it more than a little embarrassing. However, I’ll leave the reader to make up their own mind about it.

TRANSITION. (13th June 1991)

Claws buried in a body no bigger than a newborn lamb.

Crushing muscle and bone,

Compressing head into chest.

Twisting neck muscles, not yet strong enough to shake the head in protest.

A mind not yet formed enough to know what head shaking means.

A being composed of flesh and feelings and needs.

Thrown into space from it’s liquid sleeping place.

Where it had lain cushioned and supported in warmth and soft light.

The only sensations, safety and nurturance.

Every need catered for automatically by it’s miniature universe.

New sensations, suddenly not safe.

As the universe collapses, crushing flesh, pressing down.

New inexplicable feelings and no knowledge or intellect to make sense of them.

Imminent death?

Sudden recognition of something other than current state.

Fast becoming previous state.

Survive!…Go back!…Hang on!

But no…

First learnings of powerlessness, as crushing forces destroy

The trust of a safe place.

Now coldness and blinding white light, noise.

An alien void, huge, incomprehensible.

And a new sense of beings other than self.

As creature grips flesh with claws, tearing from a safe place.

New learnings of powerlessness, terror and pain.

Schism

Way back in the 1960s there was a flowering of alternatives to the norms of life at that time. In general, the whole of that decade saw a number of revolutionary shifts in society. It seemed to be de rigueur to challenge and turn upside down pretty well anything that had been standard social practice. There were experiments with different lifestyles, religious practices, work patterns and pretty much anything else.

One of the revolutions that was of particular interest to me, was the mental health revolution. Much of the standard treatment within the health service was being challenged. There was a proliferation of different therapeutic models that were presented as being more workable than the treatments offered at that time. Treatments like medication and electro convulsive therapy were considered to be brutal, outdated and ultimately unworkable.

Instead, people began setting up therapeutic communities, encounter groups, primal scream workshops and meditation classes. Some of these ideas and practices came over from America while others came from the Far East. As an impressionable and rather introverted teenager who had been diagnosed as suffering from depression and anxiety and had also become rather disillusioned with my treatment, I began to research some of these alternatives.

I eventually settled on one particular model. I think I was attracted to it at the time because it appeared to be very egalitarian. It didn’t appear to rely on an expert or trained professional. Pretty well anyone could pick up what seemed to be fairly basic skills and put them into practice. The core relationship was a peer one. That is, there was no patient and professional sitting opposite each other. Just two people who had mutually agreed to share time with each other. Put simply, the time was divided equally with one person giving attention, while the other talked and explored their thoughts and feelings for half that time. Then they swapped roles for the other half.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but there was a fair amount of disagreement between the leadership in America and the leadership in the UK. At my grass roots level, I was simply keen to get the theory and skills firmly integrated into my life. So I went along to workshops and met the other beginners in the area. I duly did as I was instructed and set up sessions with the other people in the group and gradually built up the hours of experience required by everyone in order to become fully integrated into the network.

I only became aware of the schism that had come out of the initial disagreements between the American and UK leaders some years down the line. It seems that for some time I had been attending groups from both factions, and very likely had been working with individuals who had been taught in these different groups. At that time in my life I was very quiet and introverted and, I’m guessing here, people didn’t notice that I was moving between the two networks. Now I’m also guessing that quite a few people in those early days were doing the same thing, because the look and feel of the groups was very similar.

The schism, it seems, was more to do with the organisational and structural differences between the UK and the US. The American network was seen as having very much a top down autocratic structure. Whereas, in the UK, a more Laissez faire and democratic structure seemed to be the preferred model.

Sadly, and to me somewhat counter productively, this schism deepened overtime. To the degree that there are now two distinct networks each using a similar methodology. It has gotten to the point that the two networks no longer communicate or have anything to do with each other. Within my own geographical area I have learned that there are people from both factions. That there are individuals, probably not too far away from me, that I’m not permitted to work with because they’re part of the “other” network. I find this exasperating. It seems to mirror the political, religious and cultural divisions that exist throughout humanity.

The other thing that happens within these two factions, and again this is something that is mirrored by all sorts of other groups throughout the world, is that a fair amount of misinformation is put out by each group about the other. Which to me just seems to perpetuate the idea that somehow the “other” is heretical. All of this behaviour is also a complete contradiction of the core fundamental belief of each faction, that all humans are completely good, cooperative, caring, loving individuals who are striving to be the best person they possibly can be. Also, that all that is required of each individual to achieve their full potential is to use the basic skills of the counselling; that is, getting together to share time and give each other full, respectful and non judgemental attention. Go figure, people.

Autobiography

Tick…..tick………….tick. Hear that? They’re the moments of a life slipping by. Points in time when options are available. Then comes a decision and then an action. We’ve done this all our lives. Each one a Butterfly wing beat not just in our lives, but in the life of the entire universe.

Even before we are born these decisions and actions are taken as cells are given instructions by our DNA. Very little is as random as we might think. There is a life behind the life that we outwardly live. Even as we sleep our brain doesn’t stop. It continues to make decisions which in turn lead to actions.

And all actions lead to consequences, which in turn lead to more decisions. It’s a kind of feedback loop of life. We stumble from first steps to running then skipping and then, provided we get the decision/action/consequences loop right, we may even dance.

And so our journey of life continues, with this process running constantly; it’s enough to make you dizzy isn’t it. But hang on, that’s not all there is to it. We have to interact with every other living thing around us. That’s where the fun really starts. Like balls on a snooker table all these individual decisions, actions and consequences begin to canon off of each other.

So how does anyone or anything manage to control any of this; when there are so many variables in the game? I guess the answer is, we don’t. At least not to any major degree. I think we like to kid ourselves that we are somehow in control of our own piece of the pattern of our life. And of course to some degree we are; via our own decisions and actions. Hopefully, these will lead to our desired outcomes.

This is the story of everybody’s life. The risks the challenges the pitfalls and the joys. All crammed into one space of time so small as to be virtually non existent. But oh, what we get to cram into that tiny time slot. We get to think, we get to feel. We get to realise that decision is a wondrous power. We get to choose a course of action based on that decision. A concept that is as terrifying as it is amazing.

Pause to consider, that the same process of decision, action, consequences that created Adolf Hitler; also created Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin, Marie Curie and even Greta Thunberg. They also created the person who empties your bins, or fixes your car, or chose to donate the kidney that saved the life of your daughter.

So this is the story of every life. A life that drifts by and then stops as suddenly as it started. Only for our physical matter to be broken down into its constituent atoms to be used again by the universe. Perhaps to create more life. Who knows, the decision’s not ours to make at that point.

Tick……tick………tick…..

Remembering Mum

For some reason I don’t seem to have many, if any, clear memories of my Mum from very early on in my life. Some people claim they can remember being nursed by their mother. They can take themselves right back to the warmth of her embrace, remember her voice and even the smell of her. I don’t seem to have any such memories. I have vague early memories of being handled; possibly during routine medical checks. Even these aren’t very clear. I think that the earliest memories I have are from when I was 4 or 5 years old. I think she was only hands on in a practical sense, that’s to say I was fed, watered and changed, and I vaguely remember potty training. But apart from that I don’t remember being read to or played with or being taught nursery rhymes. She just seemed to be this distant figure, hovering around the perimeter of my infancy.

Later on I had a sense of a little more connection with her; as she picked up my interests and did the best she could to nurture them. She would buy me books on natural history or some form of educational toy. While this fed my intellect and curiosity the one thing that was still missing was any sense of closeness and emotional connection.

I’m guessing that her own childhood didn’t help. From what she told me in later life, it seemed lacking in warmth. From her account it was a fairly strict household, of which she was the only child. She was taught piano and went to dance classes, but I think she mustn’t have persevered with either of these disciplines as I never witnessed her engage in them.

To a large extent, I think she was pretty much a victim to the social trends and expectations of women at that time. At 17 years of age, she had all her teeth replaced with false teeth; something I understand was seen as desirable at the time. Although she may have mentioned that she had quite bad gum disease. I guess even that was probably down to lack of education about dental hygiene and low expectations of life generally. I don’t think her parents were wealthy. He was a coal miner and I think my grandmother was a seamstress. She married young and had four daughters and a son before divorcing her husband on the grounds of his infidelity. Although it seems a little inadequate to refer to it as infidelity, as it was with his sister who turned up one day and announced that she was pregnant and that he was the father.

So Mum found herself without a partner, with all the stigma that must have gone with that, and 5 children dependent on her. There being no social services at that time, she fell back on her parents and what she referred to as, “money from the parish” in order to survive. I don’t know when she met my Dad or in what circumstances, but I do know that they married in a hurry as the wedding was only a couple of months before I was born.

I’ve often wondered where my sense of anxiety and panic, particularly when under stress, comes from. I’ve realised that it always seems to be at its most intense around individuals that I’ve become emotionally attached to. I now think that the roots of this distress lie in the weeks and months after my birth.

At that time attitudes to raising infants and children were very different. It was fairly common practice to tuck a baby into it’s cot or pram and leave it for long periods in isolation; often ignoring any protests it might make. As a child I used to hear adults use statements like, “oh, leave her, she’ll cry herself to sleep”, or, “don’t pick him up, you’ll spoil him”. Even when feeding it wasn’t unusual to simply prop a baby up with a bottle and leave it to it.

I’m thinking that at some point I was in some distress and no one responded to it. I think as an infant I feared for my survival. I was in a position where I couldn’t resolve a situation myself because I didn’t have the intellect or physical ability to do so. These seem to be the key elements in present time in any situation where I feel something is required of me that I feel I can’t possibly deliver. To individuals around me, a solution appears obvious. To me, however, the degree of fear and panic I’m experiencing causes me to freeze into immobility; both in my head and physically. I should state that this condition generally overtakes me in a situation of person to person conflict. In most other, even emergency situations I’m usually pretty level headed.

Apparently, having a row or argument is considered a healthy part of any relationship. After a fair amount of tit for tat shouting and stomping about, the air is cleared, the dust settles and the couple or family group return to normal and, theoretically at least, the root of the argument is resolved. I’ve never been able to understand this. The mere thought of it scares the bejeesus out of me. In fact, any such situation I have been involved in, I have come out of feeling in some way damaged.

I’ve speculated that I may have witnessed or been within earshot of arguments between my parents, but I can’t recall anything more distressing than minor spats between them. Disagreements that usually ended with my mother throwing her hands up in exasperated acquiescence. On the opposite end of this emotional spectrum I also don’t recall any acts or gestures of affection between them.

Looking back I realise that my mother’s general demeanour was depressed and down trodden. What social life she had was very limited and narrow. Her evenings were spent knitting while watching tv. This monotony broken by weekly trips to bingo. In my teens I made small attempts to rescue her from this by booking trips to see a play or contemporary dance. In the hope that she might feel encouraged to continue and break out of what seemed to me to be a very unsatisfying existence.

Something I’ve inherited from her is her dark sense of humour. She would burst out laughing at the most macabre things. One thing I definitely didn’t inherit was her taste for X rated horror, both in literature and cinema. It was her favourite treat for herself; to buy the latest Steven King novel or take herself off to see the latest Hammer Horror film. She used to say to me, “if you can’t laugh at it, don’t watch it”. Which I’ve always taken as good sound advice.

Climate change

There’s something of a debate at the moment, as to whether climate change is man made or not. These debates can become quite heated, with one camp berating the other for being climate change deniers, while the other insists that it’s all part of a natural planetary process that is nothing to do with humans and therefore nothing to worry about.

I have a slightly different take on the matter in that I agree that it is not man made and that it is part of the natural processes of our planet. However, I believe that one important fact gets missed out of the equation by both camps. That is, that humans are just another species on this planet and therefore we are part of its, so called, natural processes. To me, there is no denying that our activities are contributing to driving our climate in a particular direction.

Throughout the history of the Earth the atmosphere has been composed of a complex soup of different elements. This mixture initially was probably created by the geological forces of the embryonic planet and likely varied considerably in its content over millennia. Depending on the levels of certain chemicals in this mix, the atmosphere has been supportive of or lethal to life. It’s possible that life may have had many false starts as the atmosphere swung between these two states. Once life got a definitive foot hold though, it grew to be a serious contributor to the atmosphere. Over millions of years, micro organisms pumped out trillions of tons of a variety of different elements in different concentrations. So that, at different times in the Earth’s history there were higher levels of Oxygen or Carbon Dioxide or Methane or other elements. All of these differing mixtures contributed to steering the climate in a variety of directions. Sometimes hot and dry, sometimes cold and wet. Of course, other factors contributed to driving the climate; volcanic and solar activity being just two. Gradually though, life became a significant player in the creation of the atmosphere and climate of the earth.

We’ve learned that the concentration of specific gases in our atmosphere can have a marked effect on life. For example, high concentrations of Oxygen have supported large bodied animals. The fossil records show us this in the form of Dragonflies with wingspans of 60 centimetres, that lived millions of years ago when the levels of atmospheric Oxygen were much higher than they are now. There have been periods of time when the planet was arid and dry due to higher levels of Carbon Dioxide or Methane.

Throughout most of Earth’s history there has been a notable absence of one particular species. In the absence of this species the climate, driven by a variety of factors including other living organisms, has waxed and waned and done it’s thing. In general these changes have been slow to happen. The exception to this pattern being occasional cataclysmic events such as an asteroid impacting the planet.

Just a few million years ago our species evolved from a group of primates. Natural selection endowed our species with a brain structure that enabled us to step outside of our ecological niche. Now, every living thing has evolved to exploit a particular niche in the ecosystem. So for example, some birds have evolved to catch prey in flight, whereas others have evolved to catch their food in water; yet others will feed at ground level. They are all birds, but each type has evolved and adapted to exploit a particular slot or niche in the ecosystem. A Swallow can no more dive for minnows than a Kingfisher can snatch insects in flight.

We however, slowly at first but then accelerating, began to buck that trend. Driven by the same instincts as every other living organism to find as much food as possible and produce as many babies as possible, we began to move into the niches of other species. We began to claim the resources of these other species as our own. This didn’t happen overnight though. For a long time we existed like many other animals. We moved around with the seasons gathering whatever foods had ripened enough to make them edible. Meat eating was probably limited to eating carrion or stealing from predators. Those same predators were also partly responsible for controlling our populations; disease, starvation, cataclysm and war against others in competition for food also played a part in keeping populations low. While these factors were in play the need to produce as many babies as possible remained a necessity. So for thousands of years we occupied the same ecological niche as the many grazing and foraging animals that we shared the planet with.

For many millennia there weren’t vast populations of any medium or large sized animals. There have been big herds of grazing animals that have existed in their millions, but as far as we know not many species have grown much beyond those numbers. Populations in the billions or trillions were reserved for the very much smaller creatures on the planet; most of which formed the bottom of the food chain for the larger animals above them. All of these animals never moved outside of their ecological niche. This system worked pretty well for keeping some form of status quo that enabled life on the planet to persist.

Our species alone, naturally selected for a different kind of brain function to other species. It gave us the ability to manipulate first non-living matter, (stone, bone, wood) in such ways that gave us a survival advantage over other species. As we progressed, we also learned to manipulate living matter, via actively hunting other animals for food and materials and ultimately learning to create favourable conditions for particular food plants to grow and flourish. In this way we were able to expand our niches so that we could not only catch Minnows, but also snatch insects from the air. We were able to do all this without altering our breeding strategy.

In 1900 our population numbered a little over 1.5 Billion souls worldwide. In just over 100 years that figure has risen to around 7 Billion. To my knowledge, and I always stand to be corrected, no other animal of our size has ever existed in those numbers. In particular, no other animal has ever existed that manipulates the environment in the complex and complicated ways that we do. As a species we are embarked on a vast unintentional experiment with the life sustaining processes of this planet. Largely because, although we were endowed with the technical abilities to shape the environment to suit our needs. We have yet to really challenge the fundamental drives and instincts of our early primate existence; the drives and instincts of every living thing to gain as much resource as possible and produce as many offspring as possible.

I like to think that in recent history we have begun to turn our intelligence away from simply using it as a tool of competition. That we might have grown weary of simply using it as an aid to becoming as resource wealthy as possible in order to increase our numbers as much as possible. That we can get to the point of realising, that allowing our early primate instincts to drive our thinking is not really benefiting us or the rest of life on this planet. I like to think this is happening, albeit slowly.

Listening

Now there’s an interesting word. It sounds simple doesn’t it. We all think we can do it. We all think we do, do it. I’m doing it right now, sitting here attempting to write about it. I can hear the wind outside the house. I can hear the water flowing through the central heating system. However, I can also hear the high pitched whine of my Tinnitus. A condition caused by exposure to too much damaging noise in my youth. It’s usually my excuse for having a radio running quietly in the background; its white noise helping me to tune out the din.

I’ve realised overtime though, that listening can involve a little more than just using my ears. People who know me, know that for many years I’ve been involved in Counselling. I’ve had a fair bit of experience of both ends of it’s spectrum. That is to say from the position of client as well as counsellor; in pretty much equal amounts. I’ve learned that there is a qualitative difference in the type of listening when counselling someone, to the type of listening on a day to day basis.

So I’ve tried to do some thinking about what it is I do when listening in the counselling situation, that is so different from listening in everyday conversation. I’ve become aware, that when counselling, I have several things going on at the same time. So I’m going to try and break down the process and itemise these actions.

Let’s deal with listening first. Here I think I’ve learned that I’m not just listening to the person in front of me. Their words, what they’re saying, the way they are saying it and their tone of voice are all important, but I’m also listening to myself. My words, what I’m saying and my own tone of voice are important too. From my perspective I’m also listening, or perhaps I should say paying attention to, my own inner dialogue and whatever feelings I might have wrapped around that dialogue. Listening to myself in this way is as important as listening to the person in front of me. I need to know my own thinking and feeling in this situation. Am I relaxed and comfortable with this person? If I am, then all well and good. But if I have feelings about what they’re saying, particularly negative feelings, then I need to be aware of that. I’ve learned that a lot of my own thinking and feeling has no relevance to this person’s situation, so I need to try and keep these out of the counselling environment.

Another thing I do a lot of is observing. Yes I know that’s not strictly listening but the two go hand in hand and, in concert together, they are important to the quality of the attention I’m aiming to give. I’m maintaining eye contact; not a glassy unblinking stare but a relaxed gaze in their direction. I’m noticing; looking for clues and indicators of stress. A very faint pinkness to the whites of someone’s eyes can mean that they are close to tears. Or a sudden flicker or increase in blink rate might be an indicator of some thought that flashed through their mind. There’s also body language to think about, how they’re sitting, the shape their body makes, is their posture closed or defensive in some way or is it relaxed and open.

Another element of listening that I consider to be important is touch. Now, unfortunately this is something that has become a bit of a minefield in our culture. It’s something that can be used incorrectly and disrespectfully. However, the simple act of offering my hand for them to hold can sometimes be reassuring. It can also be another means of reading tension. If my fingertips start to go white because of lack of blood flow, then that’s another reasonable indicator that something’s not quite right for them. Any form of physical contact has to be with consent. Some people find it helpful to be cradled while they’re weeping, others feel safer at the other end of the sofa.

I’m aware that I’m making this sound a little formulaic. And it’s not really like that at all, or at least it shouldn’t be. Most of these processes are going on just below awareness, and only come to the front of my mind when they need to.

I got to talking with someone I’ve worked with for awhile, about this subject. They reminded me that the most important thing I brought to the act of listening, was my own authentic self. That the key thing that any counsellor should be is themself. To be honest about what they feel they can or can’t bring to the situation. To own up if they are struggling in some way and to acknowledge any feelings they may have.

Something that generally can only be built over time, is the developed sense of trust in one another. It can sometimes take quite a bit of working together to build this. It can and has happened to me that someone will superimpose another personality on to me. It’s sometimes referred to as projection or identification or some other bit of psychobabble. Put simply it just means that something about me reminds them of someone in their past. If they are unaware of this it can lead them to have expectations of me that I simply can’t fulfill, and can lead to damaging consequences in the level of trust between us. Awarely handled though it can be quite useful. I have had it happen, that I reminded someone of a person they were very fond of who had died some time ago. We were able to turn this to their advantage in working through unresolved grief. With the trust and awareness built up between us, it got to the point where they only had to look up at me to see their loved one’s face and burst into tears.

I don’t want to give the impression here that I always find this level of listening easy or even desirable. On a day to day basis I’m as inattentive, insensitive and forgetful as the next person; just ask my wife. In fact, I’ll probably have to keep this piece of writing out of sight, as I think if she read it she’d probably have a seizure from laughing so much.

I’ll finish with a little tip. If you are receiving any counselling just now and you want to test your counsellors attention. Try pausing at some random point and asking them to feed back verbatim your last five sentences. Do me a favour though and don’t tell them I put you up to it, as I’ll probably receive death threats.

Dark.

It’s gone dark, and this is going to be hard to write. Not because there isn’t any light to write by; I don’t mean that kind of dark. I’m referring to my inner darkness. I’ve been here before, quite a few times in my life. These days less and less and for shorter periods.

It’s hard to put into words, and over my lifetime I’ve realised that, whatever the words I use, it still can’t be read or understood by certain people. I’ve described it as a different state of being that robs me of any sense of connection with anything. A constant emotional flatness coupled with varying degrees of mental chaos.

I have to say that I can understand why people find this state hard to be around. Because when I’m outside of it, I find it difficult to be around people who are in the depths of this darkness themselves. I think, maybe because I know that there is nothing I can say or do, that will help them in any way to climb out of it. This demon has to be defeated from within.

The odd thing is, that I seem to be able to function on a day to day basis somehow despite what is going on inside me. I wouldn’t say I was functioning 100%, but just enough to get by while things just churn away inside. I figure that’s just part of my learning to survive in a world of others who aren’t in the same place.

One of the hardest symptoms of this is hypersensitivity. Things like sudden sharp noises or little critical asides, that I would normally brush off, suddenly cut very deep; like chalk squealing across a blackboard. And then there’s the self destructive side of it too. Oh, I’m not suicidal, I’m not deep enough in the hell of it for that these days. It’s just the sense of not wanting to be here. Suddenly the insanity of life gets to the point where I don’t want to play anymore. I find this curious, because my nihilistic view of life doesn’t really bother me most of the time; I just find the human condition amusingly bonkers.

I’m never too sure if something external triggers this state, or if I just get to the point that my inner world has become so fragile, that the simplest of external factors tip me into the darker end of my emotional spectrum.

Whatever the cause, I’m damn sure that I can’t simply snap out of it. Unless there is some form of crisis that demands attention; like the house being on fire. Coming out of this is more of a gradual process. Sometimes I can sleep it off; that, combined with the activities of the following day can serve to pull me back. Something I noticed long ago is that some form of demanding, challenging mental and physical activity can also help. However, the ability to think of that at the time and then the motivation to begin are usually sadly lacking.

Thankfully, these periods are few and far between now, and generally short lived. The light, with a little patience and self care, comes back.

Remembering Dad.

I try to recall some positive memories about Dad; it’s something I find quite hard. I have an old black and white photo of him sitting in a chair in what looks like a living room. He’s wearing a white smock coat that looks a little stained in places. So I’m guessing he’s just come in from work. In the crook of one arm, he’s cradling a baby. I’ve no idea who the baby is. I wondered if it might be me, but I was born when dad was thirty four and he looks older in the picture.

I guess I dug out this particular photo because I was looking for some evidence of tenderness. I’m not sure I see it there; there’s a matter of fact look about the whole scene and that just about sums up my dad. Life was just about hard work. About getting on with things. You faced challenges with stoicism. Life wasn’t complex back then.

He came out of the RAF after the Second World War and used his savings to set himself up with a roadside canteen, as a means of making a living. Probably a pretty shrewd move on his part as I think unemployment was quite high back then. I don’t know how or when he met my Mother but I know that they got married in a bit of a hurry. Of course, I was never told this; families in those days being a bit quiet about that sort of thing. No, I had to figure this out for myself when two months before my 25th birthday, they had their Silver Wedding celebrations.

To his credit, he took on what in those times was quite a challenge for a post war working class family, as my mother already had four daughters and a son from her previous marriage. I doubt that there was much in the way of social assistance back then, so he clearly had to bring enough money in to keep us all. Over the next ten years he progressed from the roadside canteen to manager of a works canteen and then on to his own roadside cafe. Nothing fancy, just a typical greasy spoon place selling breakfasts and lunches to passing motorists and lorry drivers. He’d clearly reasoned that people would always want food, and that this was always going to be a straightforward money over the counter transaction. A good business to be in if you had a sizeable family.

I don’t remember much in the way of quality time with him. His idea of playing seemed to be vigorous tickling sessions to the point that I got panicky. If he tried sports with us he usually ended up frustrated and angry with us. He had no patience with me at all. I’m guessing that, as I was his eldest, he had quite high expectations of me, but anything I did elicited no praise from him whatsoever.

There was much more of a gender divide back then. For boys, particularly working class boys, the education was about training in practical skills based on what they might be required to do in the world of work. So I was given toys that were appropriate to nurture me in that direction. Things like Meccano, Lego, and other toys that had a construction element. Later on I was allowed to progress to tinkering with odd broken down domestic items. One occasion sticks in my mind. Dad turned up with an old cylinder vacuum cleaner. He gave me a selection of tools and told me to take it apart. I set to the task with relish, and when I’d finished he came over and began to explain how it worked; in particular how the electric motor worked. He must have made a half decent job of this bit of tuition, because I remember the details to this day. It was one of the rare occasions that one might consider to have been some sort of bonding exercise between us. Mostly these little training sessions ended up in tears, my tears.

He seemed to have very little patience with any of us; very quickly getting quite irritated. Like many men of his day, he was the family disciplinarian. The go to person for punishment. We weren’t regular recipients of beatings, but he could certainly dish it out. Holding one of our arms so we couldn’t run away, he would deliver several sharp slaps to the back of our thighs. Always with an open hand and, “where it wouldn’t leave a bruise”, he would say to my mother. The effect on me was to make me fearful of authority. Which, from a social perspective, was quite useful for the world of work; one has to have compliant workers who know their place.

Yet, the same man was capable of very kind actions. There was an old tramp who would appear at the back door of Dad’s business, and this old guy would pick up a brush, mop and bucket and set to swabbing out the Ladies and Gents toilets. As payment for this little chore, Dad would fill up his billycan with hot tea and give him a sandwich; which he would consume while sitting outside leaning up against the wall of the cafe. Not exactly an attractive welcome for prospective customers, but he was tolerated. He would then disappear, turning up weeks or months later and doing the same again.

Occasionally other rather more furtive characters would appear at the back door and there would be a quiet huddle where my Dad would hand over some cash. I later discovered a drawer containing a selection of odd watches, electric razors and other assorted bric-a-brac. It seemed Dad was also a bit of a soft touch for people who were short of money; so he was a kind of unofficial pawn broker. I think it’s fair to surmise that some of the items were knock offs, and so they were rarely reclaimed.

Come to think of it, most of his kindnesses involved giving out money. On a trip to a fairground I was witness to him hand out money to some local children, so that they could enjoy the rides. Later in life, whenever I or my brothers visited, he would suddenly push his hand into our shirt pocket and leave behind a wad of notes; ignoring our protestations that we didn’t need it. If he got wind that they were struggling for some reason, he would wrap considerable sums of cash in newsprint and post them to family members at the other side of the world.

I came to the conclusion that this was the only way he could show any form of caring or love. Because of his psychological make up, other ways of expressing these feelings simply weren’t open to him. Thinking about it now; I find that very sad.

I realise now that I learned very little of his early life. He wasn’t one for talking much about the past. He reckoned that his grandfather was a master mason and had worked on the Liver Building in Liverpool. Even this story only ever came out if we were passing through that city and his memory was jogged. He would also occasionally talk about his time in the RAF. Some of these stories were pretty grim. He was ground crew only and from what I could gather he didn’t seem to have a specific role; just called on to do whatever was needed. One of these tasks was to recover bodies, usually from beaches. One story he told was of the time he joined a team digging out what remained of an aircraft that had nose dived into the ground. He would relate how, when they got to the poor sods who were still in it, the pilots face had literally peeled back to one side of his head. He told this story in a very calm and matter of fact way; with no intention to shock or horrify at all. I can’t help feeling though, that these experiences must have had a formative effect on his psychological make up.

A friend asked me why I delve into the past like this. It seems it’s something they couldn’t do themselves; fearful of what they might dig up. I was taken off guard by the question and so struggled a little to answer. I guess for me thinking about the past helps me to understand myself a little better, and what I’m reaching for in remembering Dad is, that if I can find some level of compassion and understanding about him, I might also achieve some form of self compassion and understanding.

I don’t believe it!!

We like to consider ourselves as a thinking species. That not only were we endowed with consciousness, but that we also got to use our brain to work things out in a way that other animals didn’t. We sometimes refer to ourselves as the rational or logical species. That we can think through a problem and work out that A plus B inevitably leads to C. We even got to the point, of realising that we can also think about our own thinking. Or even think about thinking while we’re thinking. Although I might have to think about that one.

Anyway, where is all this going, you might well ask? Well, we are also endowed with another ability that, it seems to me, also marks us out as a distinct species. We have the ability to believe. Now this is a function or concept that I have some difficulty getting my own mind around. I can’t quite figure out why we as a species are blessed, some would say, cursed with it.

A few years ago, I was a participant in a discussion group. Just an informal thing for mainly older people who wanted to keep their grey matter ticking over. It was customary, at the end of each meeting, that the choice of the next discussion was suggested by a member of the group. On this particular occasion it seemed to be my turn; so I suggested the topic might be, “What is Belief?” There seemed to be general agreement that this was a good suggestion and it might be quite a challenging subject for discussion. I had no idea just how challenging it was going to be.

The following week there was quite a reasonable sized group around our table, and I thought that this bode well for an interesting debate. However, right from the start it became clear that this wasn’t going to be straightforward. As each person picked up the topic they began to talk about their own particular belief, usually their religious belief. Even the chair of the meeting held forth for about 5 minutes about his own particular belief. Nobody seemed to -get- the question. I didn’t want to know what their belief was; I wanted them to examine the whole concept of belief as a human trait. So I ended up leaving the meeting feeling quite frustrated.

In retrospect I realised that it simply wasn’t going to work anyway. For the simple reason that in order to examine the question “What is belief?” one might have to question one’s own beliefs, and the one thing that a deeply held belief will not tolerate is being questioned. Because it runs the risk of being exposed as fraudulent and thus ceasing to exist.

So opening up a deeply held belief seems to be fraught with danger for us. But why, I ask myself; when using our rational mind so successfully seems to solve so many puzzles for us. Why this division in our thought processes. Well my own thinking about this, I’ve discovered just recently, seems to be backed up by some science. Or at least some theoretical models done by psychologists. Belief is considered to be the simplest form of mental representation. A core building block of consciousness. So I’m guessing it goes back a very long way in our evolution.

I’m thinking that very early on, before we developed the ability to reason, we functioned mainly instinctively. We just needed to know if whatever we were confronted with was something to eat or something that was likely to eat us. Not being too analytical at that time, we probably decided that if something looked like it could eat us, we didn’t stick around in order to find out. Even if the creature was benign, if it looked like a predator it probably was one. So maybe belief was early hypothesising, driven by our instinct to survive.

I’ve long felt that belief is closely related to fearfulness. Ask someone to consider abandoning a deeply held belief they might have and there is usually a look of apprehension or even horror; as if they couldn’t countenance such a thing. It simply doesn’t compute.

One of the hardest things, I find, is convincing someone with low self esteem just how good they are as a person. They’ve spent their entire life telling themselves that they are somehow a lesser person than anyone else. Dig deep enough and one may find the roots of this belief about themselves is in early childhood. A simple message from outside of themselves, continually delivered by adults and peers, that simply got stuck in a mental loop and became a core belief. Followed by a lifetime of repeating that message to themselves over and over again. Until they end up believing all that negativity to be based in fact; when in reality it’s a million miles from the truth about who they are.

I’m wondering if as a species, we will outgrow belief and move beyond it to being completely rational. Or perhaps find that the only reason we are human at all is precisely because of belief. That it is something necessary to our humanity. I like to think that it will always be part of us, but we will grow to accept that it is not an absolute. That we will ultimately allow reason to be the final arbiter.

Anyway, after much thought about the subject, I arrived at my own definition of what belief might be. I offer it for consideration by anyone that might be interested. I’d love to hear your own thinking.

Belief: The aware or unaware choice of an individual to accept a position as fact. Without any evidence that proves that position, or in the face of any evidence that disproves that position.