The aim of this book is to set you free. But free from what? Free from neurosis. Free from the feeling that you have to obey authority. Free from emotional intimidation. Free from addiction. Free from inhibition.
The key to happiness, mental health and being the most that we can be is absolute and unconditional self-acceptance. The paradox is that many of our problems are caused by trying to improve ourselves, censor our thinking, make up for past misdeeds and struggling with our negative feelings whether of depression or aggression.
But if we consider ourselves in our entirety in this very moment, we know these things :
1. Anything we have done is in the past and cannot be changed, thus it is pointless to do anything else but accept it. No regrets or guilt.
2. While our actions can harm others, our thoughts and emotions, in and of themselves, never can. So we should accept them and allow them to be and go where they will. While emotions sometimes drive actions, those who completely accept their emotions and allow themselves to feel them fully, have more choice over how they act in the light of them.
Self-criticism never made anyone a better person. Anyone who does a “good deed” under pressure from their conscience or to gain the approval of others takes out the frustration involved in some other way. The basis for loving behaviour towards others is the ability to love ourselves. And loving ourselves unconditionally, means loving ourselves exactly as we are at this moment.
This might seem to be complacency, but in fact the natural activity of the individual is healthy growth, and what holds us back from it is fighting with those things we can’t change and the free thought and emotional experience which is the very substance of that growth.
Friday, 29 November 2013
While I have a rather more optimistic view of the human situation than the one at which Will Storr arrives in this book, I think he sets a very good example through his approach to investigating deviant belief systems. He has also written a supremely entertaining book, at times very funny and at other times disturbing. He has a fine sense of ironic detail when relating his encounters with the heretics and also those who might be viewed as orthodox, but who are capable of their own absurdities.
If we genuinely wish to support reason in the world, it is not enough for us to know what is reasonable. We also have to know why other's beliefs do not conform to what we believe to be reasonable. The quest to find the answers to this question may shake us to the core, because anyone who tries to address a problem in the world but does not view themselves as part of that problem is deluding themselves. Everything is connected.
Storr comes to the conclusion that there is a general human characteristic which makes us view the world via a filter through which we appear to be the heroes and certain others the villains. His own self-image is so riddled with doubts that he is able to open up to the people he examines without immediately casting himself as hero in relation to them. And this is necessary if he is to learn something important about what makes them tick.
Personally, I think this hero-maker tendency varies from person to person. All of us are neurotically insecure to a different degree. If we are very insecure then we can't accept the idea that we might be wrong about something. As very young children we didn't have this need to recast our view of the world to fit the belief system in which we had invested ourselves, because we had not yet invested ourselves in a belief system, nor had we learned to repress our emotions and our drives in a way which made us neurotically inflexible. We had no character armour. The thing about character armour is that it is defensive and thus the more our worldview is attacked the more likely we are to cling to it. Storr finds this happening again and again with the individuals he interviews. But this is why I'm more optimistic than he is. If we learn to practise unconditional self-acceptence then our self-esteem will not rest on being right. Then we will not be locked into wrong-headed thinking as a matter of pride as is the case now. As for others, we can see that what is needed for them to move away from an unfounded belief system is not to have it argued against but for it to be accepted, not as our belief system but as theirs. I don't believe that the earth is only six-thousand years old, so why would I have a problem with the fact that someone else believes that. It is viewing such a belief as a threat which makes it a threat, because people dig the trenches, and start putting a major effort into trying to enlist others, to support such a belief only if others are fighting against it. View it as a harmless eccentricity and it becomes irrelevant.
Each extreme in the world is maintained and fed by its opposite. Creationism and proselytising atheism keep each other in business. There is an interesting example of this in the opening chapter on Creationist John Mackay. Mackay's father was strongly pro-evolutionist and anti-Christian and Mackay was following in his path until, at sixteen, he read a book about evolution which contained a chapter about why there is no God. Quite rightly, he viewed this as propaganda which didn't belong in a science book. This led to him reading the Bible and going the whole other way. Perhaps it was partly a rebellion against his father. But, apocryphal or not, this anecdote provides an example of how excesses on one side of a conflict inspire and strengthen the opposition. Bigoted atheists reinforce the faith of fundamentalists in just the same way that bigoted religious leaders drive some away from religion into atheism. And yet the bigotry of all has its roots in a buried lack of self-acceptance. Those who can accept themselves also accept all others. Anyone who doesn't accept anyone doesn't accept themselves. Not that accepting someone need entail accepting their behaviour, but accepting what underlies someone's behaviour helps us to restrain it where necessary. For instance, if someone wanted to murder me, the best starting point to trying to prevent them from doing so would probably be to accept that they have good reason for wanting to. To do otherwise would be to impose my world view on theirs.
What drew my attention to this book was a conflict between Rupert Sheldrake, a prominent scientist specialising in psychic phenomena, and self-proclaimed sceptic James Randi. Sheldrake, along with a number of other individuals, have accused Randi of lying and using his fame as a tool to wage a close-minded ideological war against researchers into psychic phenomena amongst others. Storr has a chapter on each of these individuals. He finds Sheldrake to be very reasonable, but he can't overcome his own disinclination to believe in the phenomena Sheldrake studies. And Storr does seem to catch Randi out in some lies. But then at least Randi is honest enough to admit that he is not always truthful.
The chapter on David Irving, the historian who reckons Hitler might not have been such a bad guy after all, is particularly entertaining, with Storr going undercover amongst a group of Nazi sympathisers on a sightseeing tour. Here again one wonders whether any danger Irving poses hasn't been created by viewing him as a danger. His ideas on Hitler have been pretty much universally dismissed by other historians, so wouldn't those ideas have less power to inflame disenfranchised misfits if he were not made into a persecuted hero figure through book banning and jail terms? But perhaps we need to act against villains like him in order to fool ourselves that we are heroes.
Homeopathy and its opponents also come in for coverage. Storr talks to a woman whose cancer went undiagnosed by conventional doctors until it was, apparently, terminal. After hearing this from them she took a course of homeopathic medicine and recovered her health. Of course an isolated case doesn't prove the effectiveness of a treatment which defies common sense, but I bet if you had had the same experience you would swear by it. The placebo effect is the most likely explanation, but if we can recover from a serious illness simply because we think we will why should be care that we were tricked into it? Opponents of homeopathy place a great deal of emphasis on cases were someone may have not received effective treatment because they placed too much faith in a folk remedy. But is fighting against the folk remedy the best way to address that problem. In most cases it isn't that serious. If someone has a headache and they buy a homeopathic headache treatment either their headache will go away more quickly (most likely from the placebo effect) in which case they achieved the desired result and will probably continue to do the same thing, or it won't work for them, in which case they won't buy it again. The sceptics Storr finds fighting against homeopathy are not terribly sensible. Some admit to having never actually examined any of the evidence even though they are arguing that matters be decided on evidence. And James Randi leads them all, sheep-like, in a mass "overdose" on homeopathic remedies. Now think about it. Does taking many times the recommended dose of a substance prove that it is ineffective? No. It only proves that it is very very safe. I have no reason to believe that homeopathy succeeds through anything other than the placebo effect, but I'm sure that those who do believe in homeopathy were not worried by this demonstration, which appears to be founded on the belief that homeopathic remedies are reputed to work in the same manner as pharmaceutical medicines, many of which are highly poisonous and therefore can be overdosed on. The demonstrators, like so many of us in this divided world, were preaching to the converted. But, then, perhaps saving the world is less important to them than maintaining their self-perception as heroes.
I won a copy of this book. It wasn't quite what I expected. The title suggested to me that it was a refined narrative of the author's experience with depression. It is actually a two year diary covering the years 1997-1999, during which she experienced a depressive breakdown.
Diaries are generally not written to be read by anyone other than the diarist. There can be advantages and disadvantages when they are made public. On the plus side, they are often uniquely honest. On the negative side, some of what they contain may not have the kind of interest for others that it does for the individual doing the writing. They may also be poorly written. Christina Taylor's diary comes across as starkly honest, it is mostly interesting and, in places, is well-written. Some of the poems, in particular, are powerful.
The raw honesty here may be a test for some readers. I often found myself horrified. "What a selfish, cruel, dishonest, whiny bitch!" I found myself thinking as she related the ins and outs of her on-again-off-again relationship with her boyfriend Aaron. But I'm glad I kept reading as, when she goes through her breakdown and pours out the troubling story of how she came into the world and how it effected her relationship with her mother, I was able to see her behaviour in a more sympathetic light. It may be an uncomfortable read, kind of like watching a slow motion car wreck, but it can be rewarding.
And I did wonder a bit how some of the other people written about in the diary may have felt about having such intimate aspects of their lives exposed.
The book's title also gave me pause. As a person who suffered a great deal from depression and mental breakdowns from my mid-teens until my mid-forties, I don't think of my survival of those horrible times as a case of courage. Depression brings with it a lack of courage. It filled me with fear. I survived because I had help and because there was no other option except suicide. I made a couple of half-hearted attempts at that. But are those of us who survive more courageous than those who end up killing themselves? I don't think so. I would have ended it if I could have done so with a painless pill, but slashing my wrists would have required more courage than I had at my disposal. When we are depressed, even little things require a great effort. A lot of the people we think of as courageous are people whose psychological character makes it possible for them to do relatively easily things the rest of us might feel were nigh on impossible. Perhaps the author's concept of courage comes from the idea that the depressed individual fights a inner-battle which requires as much strength from them as climbing a mountain does from the mountaineer we call a courageous hero.
Depression is a kind of black hole in the heart arising from a lack of self-acceptance. It doesn't affect only those of us who are diagnosed with it. Each of us tries to fill that black hole with something - drugs, material consumption, sex... During the period covered by this diary, Christina tried to fill it with the sexual or romantic attentions of young men, among other things. But mental health and healthy relationships can't be built on shifting sand. The key to mental health is unconditional self-acceptance. If our acceptance of ourselves is dependent on whether someone else loves us, our school grades, whether we drive a flash car, etc., then it will always be tentative and the black hole of self-doubt will continue to sap our energy, creativity and joy in life. Replacing faulty coping strategies with the habit of accepting ourselves unconditionally can take practice, but it is the long-term cure for depression.
Can this book help those who suffer from depression and those who wish to help someone who does? I think it can, because it provides an example of the kind of thinking which is the substance of the depressed state, and it helps to break the silence about the darkness within. Most of us, whether diagnosed as depressed or not, live lives of quiet desperation but put on a brave face. This means that each of us feels alone with our craziness or our despair or our bitterness. When someone bravely lays themselves bare, it helps to break the ice for the rest of us. And if the selfishness Christina exposes shocks us it may be because we have a blind spot to our own. After all, selfishness is the natural self-directedness of the suffering individual. Hit your thumb with a hammer and it will be hard to think about anything else but your thumb. To blame ourselves for being selfish is to keep the black hole open. We might try to feed the black hole with the thought that we are courageous, but if our courage breaks we will condemn our self as a coward. If we learn to accept ourselves and each other as we are now, warts and all, then we have the basis for mental health and healthy relationships.