As those of you who follow this blog know, I’ve recently changed jobs at the university. Term has begun now here and I am gradually getting over the sheer freakiness of sitting in my old rooms, not teaching French literature, but instead greeting a series of students from across the range of subjects who are in need of learning support. My college has never had this facility before and so it’s new for all of us and my expectations are mutating by the day. I’d thought I might see a student here or there, but it turns out to be more like a steady stream. What’s also surprising is how very intriguing the job is so far. When I was teaching French literature, the students came to me to be given something, and I knew in advance what that would be (more or less). Now, I feel so curious every time a new student appears; I never know what they are going to tell me, or what I will need to do. I can’t wait to hear their story and start figuring out the best way to proceed. I can already see that the problems have a pattern to them, but the individuality of the student concerned means that the answers are never the same.
So far, so good. But – and it’s a big but – I’m posing myself all kinds of philosophical questions about the capacity we have as human beings to help one another. We’ve all of us had the experience (I hope) of receiving help when we’ve needed it in just the right way. There’s nothing like the moment of expansiveness and serenity that follows, and it’s one of best experiences we can have, encouraging us to cultivate the trust in the world and the love for our companions that makes life a cheering proposition rather than a prison sentence. And we’ve all had the experience (all too frequent) of having the wrong kind of help pressed upon us, in a way that grates and jars and puts our teeth on edge. Or it can do worse; a constant and unrelenting supply of the wrong kind of support can lead us into self-denial, delusion and depression. A word of advice can be a powerful and a dangerous thing. And so perhaps that’s why human self-defensiveness is so strong in relation to being helped. The urge to be confirmed in our worst delusions is utterly overwhelming – that people are out to get us, that we are not loved, not valuable, not capable, that life is pointless, that tasks are beyond us, oh the list goes on and on. Negativity clings, it grows on a person like ivy on a statuesque tree and threatens to strangle the life out of it. I’m beginning to see, too, that such negativity gains in power, the more determinedly positive or achievement-oriented the circumstances of the individual. If we insist that life must be a steady upward progression, full of good things, if we find value only in perfect appearances and admirable achievement, if we constrain ourselves to be perpetually cheerful and good-natured, then we silently feed the demons of negativity, who thrive on being kept in the darkness of shame. Too much positivity sets the barrier unreasonably high, and then inevitably real life compared to the ideal is going to look pretty awful.
But what to do about all of this? Where to begin? Freud was somewhat astounded to note that his patients, once given a clear explanation of their neuroses, and one that they understood and agreed with, were often still not able to change their behavioural patterns. When the answer to their problems stared them in the face, what possible reason could they have for not being able to take it? This breakdown of his faith in the talking cure as a form of human crossword puzzle ended up in a radically different conception of the mind. Rather than see individuals as problems to be solved, he was forced to admit that they were instead creatures of shadows and fog, full of gaps and quirks and powerful underground forces. My favourite psychotherapist has to be the one and only Milton Erickson, who was particularly good at curing phobias. Erickson seemed to understand straight off that reason was a rather weak force with someone who was mortally afraid. Instead his eccentric solutions maintained the fantasy of the troubled individual and worked from inside it. For instance: the wife of a couple came to him, broken by her husband’s hypochondria. For years he had controlled their life together with his fear of having a heart attack. He was convinced his death was imminent and refused to do anything for either the household or their entertainment. Erickson told the wife to take the husband at his word, and to collect together a whole lot of different brochures from various funeral parlours. These she was to place strategically around the house, calling his attention from time to time to the kind of coffin he might like. For variety he also suggested she tot up his life insurance policies and tell him what he would be worth to her dead. The wife did as she was told and in no time at all the fear had disappeared. Of course, the problem didn’t go away within the couple, but it had been forced out into the open. Erickson was full of indirect solutions like this. On another occasion he was called out to a mental home to assist with an inmate who absolutely refused to take part in the communal work projects that were obligatory for every patient. Instead this particular individual would dress himself in a sheet and claim that he was Jesus; avoiding all scheduled sessions he would walk around the campus trying to convert the nurses and heal his compatriots. Apparently Erickson simply walked up to him, said ‘I believe you have experience as a carpenter,’ and set him to work on a bookcase building project. Now that’s class.
I, alas, am no Milton Erickson, but I see the problems in the students separating out into three general categories: 1) I’m not good enough, 2) I don’t want to and 3) I’m extremely confused. Most problems have a mixture of elements from all three categories, but there’s a gender distinction that is forming before my eyes. On the whole, the problem with the young women is one of lack of self-confidence, and my heart goes out to them because it’s an issue from which I am not exactly immune. Confidence is nothing but an illusion, but it’s one that makes all the difference. Conjuring it up out of thin air is not an easy thing to do. For the young men, by contrast, the problems settle around motivation. That’s not to say that uncertainty might not lie buried underneath, but application and endeavor are the greatest challenges that face them. So far we’ve only taken baby steps because I think the first realization that needs to take hold is that they are no longer alone in the face of the problem. I don’t necessarily want to advise or alter them yet – I just want them to know I am there. After that…. Well, I’ll let you know how it goes.