Friday, January 19, 2007

Others and Ourselves

In the 2001 film The Others, Nicole Kidman plays a woman who lives with her two light-sensitive children in a beautiful house on the isle of Jersey awaiting the return of her husband, a soldier away in the Second World War. The house seems strangely haunted until the viewer begins to see everything from the point of view of the haunters.

An inversion of a similar sort is needed to take the next step in this series of meditations toward an ethic. We have seen, in the last post, the conflict between how we see ourselves from within and how we are seen from the outside.

The problem with my self-perception is that I cannot see all of myself, even physically. I'm told that elephants, when shown a mirror begin to inspect themselves thoroughly to gain a view of parts they never are able to see otherwise.

The problem with mass thinking is best seen in context. Groups of adolescents, from male gangs to female cliques, tend to enforce among members a uniform style of clothes, speech patterns and behavior subject to the whim of the alpha male or female, precisely at that point of personal development when individual self-image is weakest and most malleable. The result is often antisocial, self-destructive behavior that ruins lives.

In the adult world we have the world of fashion, which tyrannizes how people, although mostly women heed it, must look and what they must wear.

We also have William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956), in which such individuals were collectively described as
"people only work for The Organization. The ones I am talking about belong to it as well. They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions."
They remind me of Catholic priests; which brings me to the third possibility, the therapist.

The problem with the therapist -- in past ages priests and shamans, oracles and seers -- is that they are not without their own agenda that may be quite distinct from our own goals. The priests and shamans were, like artisans and scribes, dependent on the king's bounty and pleasure, as they did not produce their own sustenance, nor exercise brawn to protect the realm.

The therapist today is freer but still vulnerable to pecuniary corruption -- it's very handy to draw that fee every week for years on end from patients supposedly never quite ready to fend for themselves. Therapists are also subject to the fashions of their profession and, on the whole, are society's ultimate organization men, wielding the power to lock people up. (Speaking of power, let's not forget Aristotle's thinking on power and potential.)

Nonetheless, in the ideal, the therapist is a trained and experienced observer. As a journalist, also a trained an experienced observer, I often hear people say they can get information themselves. Journalism isn't mere information retrieval, but sifting through what's misleading, erroneous or misleading, to arrive at some preliminary, first-draft of what might possibly may have happened.

Something similar might be said of the ideal therapist. This is someone whom we vest with the potential to help us discern who we really are and what we really want to do and be in our lives. The point is not, should not be, the therapist, but the therapeutic process.

Its essence was captured by an old joke: How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to want to change.

At heart, it is not the therapist who lays out a picture of our selves, but rather we who pick up insights from the therapist's active listening and rejigger the picture we had. Who we are and who we are seen as, taken in this context, interact with each other. The therapist need not be a credentialed specialist. A good person will do, as will a good book.

All we really need is an active "mirror" that allows us to see ourselves as we are seen and that leaves us free to transform ourselves to what we would like to be or become. To develop a true image of ourselves, we need to interact with some one or some thing, an Other, who offers glimmers of what we appear to be.

In times past our forebears made of the Other a god, or at least a powerful intermediary, ceding independence largely because they saw themselves as powerless kites in the winds of Fate. Today, I think, things are different.

The Others may well be inside us, challenging us, showing us what we do not wish to see but need to, or it may be another, on the outside, summoned by the inner voice. As in the movie, it may turn out that we are the Others.
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