A friend of mine who often finds himself in rather high powered company through the promotional work he sometimes does told me about a recent experience of his that left him somewhat disquieted. It was during a photo shoot in London for some sort of publicity campaign which brought together an assembly of diverse talents that would assure the final product would meet the highest professional standards in advertising. The mood in the room was friendly and energetic enough, yet my friend found himself unable to share in the cheerful spirit of camaraderie. "It was their talk," he explained. "All they were talking about was the stuff you'd find in the Sun: gossip about celebrities and things like that. But the thing was I couldn't tell if they were actually interested in it or not. I mean who could possibly be interested in rubbish like that? Yet that's all they talked about."
The ubiquity of celebrity culture is one of the vexations of modern life. Even if you try to remain aloof from it, you still know more about celebrities--people who are famous for being famous--than you would ever want to know. Part of this is due to the pervasiveness of various social and mass media, which keep a pipeline of celebrity gossip flowing incessantly into the public arena. But another reason has to do with the question of seriousness that occurred to my friend during the photo shoot that he attended. Were the other people there really interested in the lives of celebrities that they were discussing or were they only joking about matters that they actually felt were beneath them? My friend couldn't tell. So perhaps a third possibility can be suggested. They were not speaking either out of true interest or intentional irony so much as they had adopted tones of playful half interest because it was the easiest, most natural way for them to converse with each other. Besides, everybody regards celebrity gossip as mere fodder for idle conversation, just as everybody knows that the manufactured glamour of celebrity isn't quite real, either. But perhaps this was the cause of my friend's feeling of unease. The empty conversation didn't occur because of any real interest of the participants. They just sort of fell into it because they had no other, real interests to speak of. Their idle chatter filled a void.
A photo shoot is hardly the place for a symposium so perhaps it would be a mistake to be disappointed by the vacuous conversation that took place there. Yet, like my friend I too find that celebrity gossip often becomes the preferred theme of many casual social encounters and thus cancels the possibility of more serious and stimulating conversation. Indeed, I think we both wondered where serious, spontaneous conversations are supposed to take place, even as we conversed freely about psychotherapy, politics and religion in his kitchen in north London. But the seriousness, not to say solemnity of our conversation, violated a certain unspoken protocol of most casual social encounters: don't talk about serious matters as if they seriously matter to you.
Psychotherapy, of course, begins with an entirely different premise as it seeks to discover the hidden, inner truth behind the mask required for social interaction. The idea here is that behind that mask there is a true self that never dares express itself for fear of censure or exclusion. According to this view, psychotherapy creates a safe environment for the client to remove that mask, allowing the true self to emerge. Although it is sometimes useful to think along these lines, we should be careful not to reify any simplistic notion of a self that finds its truth in an act of cathartic self disclosure. It is far better to think of a true self experience based in authentic possibility rather than of a true self. But observing such a fine distinction hardly makes realising the truth of self any less elusive. Still, the idea persists that there is a truth of self that has a pre-existent objective status, even if we ourselves don't know what that truth is. It is just "out there", presumably observed with patient disinterest by psychiatrists and other experts in human behaviour, even though it is supposed to lurk unseen and unknown within us.
Psychotherapy should attempt to see things in a different light. Not because there is no objective factual truth or that such truth is unimportant to psychotherapy, but because a merely objective view of human affairs can never fathom human experience which will always involve factors that will escape prediction and prior understanding. Above all, it will miss the happenstance of the everyday world within which each individual life must make its self discovery and appears predestined only after the fact. This inherently anxious state of affairs is usually easy to ignore by losing oneself in meaningless diversions and the idle supposition that important matters are best left to specialists and experts. But a crisis of self that robs idle pleasures of their diverting power and forces one to distrust second hand certainties taken from experts can bring about a turn towards truth that is anything but consoling. For the truth of self can never be entirely factual, but must rely on a faith that can never be conclusively verified. Such a moment of truth must also be a moment of doubt.
I have no doubt that dealing with a crisis of self is what psychotherapy is all about. And I am also aware that the view I express here owes more to my reading of Heidegger and Sartre than to the Buddha. So how does Buddhism figure into any crisis of self?
In my last blog I talked about two clients--though not mine-- whose childhood experiences created massive emotional deficits which undermined their ability to find love and approval as adults. But I didn't discuss the emotional lives of their parents which might have given the impression that they were simply ogres who abused their children out of the sheer evil delight of doing so. Although I offer no defence for actions which appear to have been deliberately cruel, I think the emotional lives of such parents need to be considered in order to understand the emotional lives of their damaged children. Indeed, I fear much of the popular literature on child abuse tends towards the gothic and favours stereotyped tales of violated innocence. This might satisfy a popular taste for victims and villains, but it tells us little about how children develop their self understanding though their relationships with their parents. Instead, it is assumed that abuse has a simple, predetermined cause and effect relationship to mental illness. No doubt bad parents can and do make their children mad by inflicting terrible and senseless punishments on them. But I think there is another version of this pat formula which is rather more complicated. Parents drive their children mad by demanding that they share in the madness that they themselves suffer.
All of this was suggested by a conversation I had recently with a friend who has battled severe mental illness for most of his adult life. This appears to be a result of having to manage the mental illnesses of both his parents from a very young age. His mother suffered from bouts of deep depression and his father was a paranoid schizophrenic. Nearly everyone, including my friend, believes that these circumstances offer compelling evidence for his strong, perhaps even fatal genetic predisposition towards mental illness. According to a widely believed theory, my friend must have inherited his mental illness much as he has inherited his hair and eye colour. I would reserve judgement on such a claim, though I concede that it merits thorough investigation. I will say more about this later, but one undesirable consequence of adopting a position of genetic determinism is that it inclines us to overlook the force of personal experience in shaping any personality, but particularly for profoundly disturbed personalities who suffer mental illness. Consider, for example, a regular childhood experience that my friend was forced to endure.
My friend was only four on the first occasion in which he was made to participate in one of his father's psychotic episodes which featured terrifying visual hallucinations. His dad had already begun to rely on my friend for almost everything so he was not reluctant to make a bizarre request. "Get rid of it! It's on the walls! Wipe it off!", his father screamed. Not quite certain of what his father was seeing, he followed his instructions in order to placate him and wiped the walls with his hand as if polishing glass with a cloth. He knew that there was no actual danger. But he also knew that his father's madness was a reality that he would always have to live with. "After a while it just became normal," he recalls. In fact, wiping hallucinations became an ordinary occurrence over the next four years. Not that his father found sanity when my friend turned eight. It was just that his terrible visions gave way to other symptoms of madness for which other strategies of compliance had to be devised.
In spite of regarding it as normal as a child, my friend now believes his relationship with his father was actually abusive. He is certainly entitled to feel that way. The burden of providing emotional security for a psychologically disturbed adult should never fall on a young child whose emotional development depends largely on the stability that only a responsible and caring adult can provide. Yet his father was not intentionally abusive, either. My friend never suffered physical violence or sexual exploitation and even the verbal aggression that he heard was seldom directed at him. There was only his father's crushing dependency on my friend which deprived him of emotionally stability. Having had to act as the steward in his father's terrifying voyages into madness as a child, it is little wonder that he still struggles to find stability and direction as an adult.
His dreadful childhood experiences do not, however, rule out the possibility of a strong genetic component in my friend's mental illness. But if genes preordained the emotional dispositions of my friend and his parents, then the agony that he continues to suffer today must have commenced at his conception. The lurid scenes of despair that he was forced to witness as a child almost had to follow from his genetic inheritance. This would seem to lend scientific weight to his occasional, but deeply depressing conviction that he should never have been born at all. Here, though, we should retain some scepticism about genetic determinism and keep in mind that there is no proven causal link between genes and any mental illness. At best, there might be some interaction between genes and environment that would increase the likelihood of someone developing a mental illness. But as Raymond Tallis observes, it is remarkable how little genes tell us about being human. Indeed, it tells us nothing about the experience, that is the felt sense and conscious appreciation, of being human, at all.
This doesn't mean that genes are irrelevant to human experience. Clearly, they provide an essential foundation for it, at least inasmuch as our physicality contributes the embodied form for all our experiences. Yet the formulation "interaction of genes and environment" suggests how limited a genetic perspective actually is. For a human environment is not merely an environment like a pond is for a frog. It is an open, indeterminate field of experience from which an infinite number of unpredictable potential experiences can and do arise. Denying the possibility that experience--the adventitious , unpredictable, perhaps ultimately unknowable possibilities inherent in being human-- could make us what we are seems to be the prevailing consensus these days. Yet appreciating the particularity of what human experience is for each of us may be the only true way to understand each other---even those trapped in the terrifying vortex of madness.