Category Archives: Psychology

The amazing Susan Sontag on photography…

train mountain

As photographs give people imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure … Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that the fun was had. Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of families, friends, neighbours. But dependence on the camera, as the device that makes real what one is experiencing doesn’t fade when people travel more. Taking photographs fills the same need for the cosmopolitans accumulating photo-trophies of their boat trip up the Albert Nile or their fourteen days in China as it does for the lower-middle-class vacationers taking snapshots of the Eiffel Tower or Niagara Falls. A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic – Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures” (Susan Sontag On Photography p10).

I really love this piece of cultural observation from Susan Sontag (published over 36 years ago). More than a few friends of mine have remarked how liberating it felt when they forced themselves to put their camera away for a few days while travelling. After getting over the initial fomo they recalled a far more tangible sense of being present and living the experience now rather than living it to recall later. In reading her thoughts I find myself smiling guiltily as she easily enumerates my unknown motivations for taking photographs. Whether it be ‘certifying experience’ and providing indisputable evidence that ‘fun was had’, or as a way to placate my own insecurities of being unproductive on holiday – I have been exorcised of my naïve view that photographs are just a means to remember events. Reading things like this helps me to realize that it is easier to focus on doing rather than being, but that being is more important. Doing usually produces something tangible – evidence or proof, something to show for it – what does being produce? Perhaps a life without regrets?

*For an excerpt of the book see here (PDF).

Rationale for Apartheid…

“It was but yesterday that the Afrikaners wrested from British impe-

rial occupation the right to be a nation, to be independent in part-

nerships with their countrymen of British stock. And today, with

this  battle  that  is  all  of  Afrikaner  history  hardly  fought,  the

demand comes that they submit to a new imperialism, not this

time to the weapons of Europe, but to the numbers of Africa. The

answer, not unnaturally, is no. Unlike the English in India and the

Dutch in Indonesia, the Afrikaner has nowhere else to go. For him

there is no Britain and no Holland to return to; for him no central

shrine of national existence to survive the death of the outposts.

On the soil of Africa he, and with him his history, culture and lan-

guage, stay or perish.” –  Schalk Pienaar

Source: Sparks, Allister. 1990. The Mind of South Africa. Boston: Little, Brown p208

In Fiske and Ladd 2004 “Elusive Equity” – the book is downloadable for free here

 

Fragile

‘Nuclear Man’

“From time to time a man enters into your life who, by his appearance, his behavious and his words, intimates in a dramatic way the condition of modern man. Such a man was Peter for me. He came to ask for help, but at the same time he offered a new understanding of my own world! Peter is twenty-six years old. His body is fragile; his face, framed in long blond hair, is thin with a city pallor. His eyes are tender and radiate a longing melancholy. His lips are sensual, and his smile evokes an atmosphere of intimacy. When he shakes hands he breaks through the formal ritual in such a way that you feel his body as really present. When he speaks, his voice assumes tones that ask to be listend to with careful attention.

As we talk, it becomes clear that Peter feels as if the many boundaries that give structure to life are becoming increasingly vague. His life seems a drifting over which he has no control, a life determined by many known and unknown factors in his surroundings. The clear distinction between himself and his milieu is gone and he feels that his ideas and feelings are not really his; rather, they are brought upon him. Sometimes he wonders: “What is fantasy and what is reality?” Often he has the strange feeling that small devils enter his head and create painful and anxious confusion. He also does not know whom he can trust and whom not, what he shall do and what not, why to say “yes” to one and “no” to another. The many distinctions between good and bad, ugly and beautiful, attractive and repulsive, are losing meaning for him. Even to the most bizarre suggestions he says: “Why not? Why not try something I have never tried? “Why not have a new experience, good or bad?”

In the absence of clear boundaries between himself and his milieu, between fantasy and reality, between what to do and what to avoid, it seems that Peter has become a prisoner of the now, caught in the present without meaningful connections with his past or future. When he goes home he feels that he enters a world that has become alien to him. The words his parents use, their questions and concerns, their aspirations and worries, seem to belong to another world, with another language and another mood. When he looks into his future everything becomes one big blur, an impenetrable cloud. He finds no answers to why he lives and where he is heading. Peter is not working hard to reach a goal, he does not look forward to the fulfillment of a great desire, nor does he expect that something great or important is going to happen. He looks into empty space and is sure of only one thing: If there is anything worthwhile in life it must be here and now.

I did not paint this portrait of Peter to show you a picture of a sick man in need of psychiatric help. No, I think Peter’s situation is in many ways typical of the condition of modern men and women. Perhaps Peter needs help, but his experiences and feelings cannot be understood merely in terms of individual psychopathology. They are part of the historical context in which we all live, a context which makes it possible to see in Peter’s life the signs of the times, which we too recognise in our own life experiences, What we see in Peter is a painful expression of the situation of what I call ‘nuclear man.’

…Nuclear man is a man who has lost naive faith in the possibilities of technology and is painfully aware that the same powers that enable man to create new lifestyles carry the potential for self-destruction…

…Only when man feels himself responsible for the future can he have hope or despair, but when he thinks of himself as the passive victim of an extremely complex technological bureaucracy, his motivation falters and he starts drifting from one moment to the next, making life a long row of randomly chained incidents and accidents.

When we wonder why the language of traditional Christianity has lost its liberating power for nuclear man, we have to realize that most Christian preaching is still based on the presupposition that man sees himself as meaningfully integrated with a history in which God came to us in the past, is living under us in the present, and will come to liberate us in the future.

…A preaching and teaching still based on the assumption that man is on his way to a new land filled with promises, and that his creative activities in this world are the first signs of what he will see in the hereafter, cannot find a sounding board in a man whose mind is brooding on the suicidal potentials of his own world…Obviously the level of awareness and visibility is different in different people, but I hope you will recognize in your own experiences and the experiences of your friends some of the traits which are so visible in Peter’s life style. And this recognition might also help you to realize that Christianity is not just challenged to adapt itself to a modern age, but is also challenged to ask itself whether its unarticulated suppositions can still form the basis of its redemptive pretensions.”

Henri Nouwen ‘The Wounded Healer”

Vulnerability

The last 30 days in my life have been very eventful. I am beginning to gain intellectual momentum and starting to understand how to learn. Notwithstanding the above, I think that this video is one of the top three most significant things I’ve read or seen this year. Brene Brown, a ‘vulnerability researcher’ explains her findings in 20 minutes on TEDx. The truth contained in her talk has the power to transform the way we live and how we evaluate what is happening to us. Highly, highly recommended!!

A brief overview from Brain Pickings

“Brené Brown‘s fantastic talk from TEDxHouston deconstructs vulnerability to reveal what she calls “wholeheartedness”: The capacity to engage in our lives with authenticity, cultivate courage and compassion, and embrace — not in that self-help-book, motivational-seminar way, but really, deeply, profoundly embrace — the imperfections of who we really are”

Selling our souls to the opinions of others…

‘What do you do when you are always comparing yourself with other people? What do you do when you always feel that the people you talk to, hear of, or read about are more intelligent, more skillful, more attractive, more gentle, more generous, more practical, or more contemplative than you are? What do you do when you can’t get away from measuring yourself against others, always feeling that they are the real people while you are a nobody or even less than that? It is obvious that these feelings are distorted, out of proportion, the result of projections, and very damaging for a healthy spiritual life, but they are no less real and can creep up on you before you are aware of it. Before you know it you are comparing other people’s age and accomplishments with your own, and before you know it you have entered into a very harmful psychological competition and rivalry.

I talked about this with John Eudes today. He helped me analyze it a little more. We talked about the vicious cycle one enters when one has low self-esteem or self-doubt and then perceives other people in such a way as to strengthen and confirm these feelings. It is the famous self-fulfilling prophecy all over again. I enter into relationships with some apprehension and fear and behave in such a way that whatever the others say or do, I experience them as stronger, better, or more valuable persons, and myself as weaker, worse, and not worth talking to. After a while the relationship becomes intolerable, and I find an excuse to walk away feeling worse than when I started it. My general abstract feeling of worthlessness becomes concrete in a specific encounter, and there my false fears increase rather than decrease. So real peer relationships become difficult, if not impossible, and many of my emotions in relation to others reveal themselves as the passive-dependent sort.

What do you do? Analyze more? It is not hard to see the neurotic dynamism. But it is not easy to break through it to a mature life. There is much to say about this and much has been said by psychologists and psychotherapists. But what to say about it from a spiritual perspective?

John Eudes talked about the moment, that point, that spot that lies before the comparison, before the beginning of the vicious circle of the self-fulfilling prophecy. That is the moment, point or place where meditation can enter in. It is the moment to stop reading, speaking, socializing, and to ‘waste’ your time in meditation. When you find your mind competing again, you might plan an ’empty time’ of meditation, in this way interrupting the vicious circle of your ruminations and entering into the depth of your own soul. There you can be with Him who was before you came, who loved you before you could love, and who has given you your own self before any comparison was possible. In meditation we can come to the affirmation that we are not judged by how we compare with others but by how we fulfill the will of God. This is not as easy as it sounds because it is in meditation itself that we become painfully aware how much we have already been victimized by our own competitive strivings and how much we have already sold our soul to the opinions of others. By not avoiding this realization, however, but by confronting it and by unmasking its illusory quality, we might be able to experience our own basic dependency and so dispel the false dependencies of our daily life.

The more I think about this, the more I realize how central the words of St John are, words so central in St Bernard’s thought: “Let us love God because God has loved us first”

Henri Nouwen – The Genessee Diary P91

On the failure of New Year’s resolutions…

‘But change must always be balanced with some degree of consistency’ – Ron Burton

The change from one year to another provides the perfect opportunity for us to believe that we can change. While the designation of years is quite arbitrary, it’s ubiquity adds to the illusion that a new year is a new leaf. We think that somehow this year will be different. Well not entirely different – the good things won’t change, but the bad things will slowly evaporate as the clock strikes midnight on the 31st of December. Fortunately this is not the case. Apart from our calendars, the only thing that changes from one year to another is personal resolve. We resolve to exercise more, eat healthier, work harder, think differently, risk more, be more. In essence we want to be better people, so we resolve to change. I really love this about us humans – this inner desire to be more than we currently are. The collective action of individuals desiring to grow culminates in the advance of society. Progress is simply the aggregation of individual advancement. But I am getting off topic here 🙂 Where was I? New Year’s resolutions, yes.

What I’ve realised in the last few weeks is that we lose our reputation with ourselves when we over-promise but under-deliver. When we make personal commitments, we are in effect making a promise to ourselves. The only problem with doing this is that your reputation is now on the line. When you make a promise to a friend – ‘I promise I’ll be there at 9AM, count on it!’ – and you don’t keep it, your friend loses his trust in your word. True, it is unlikely to be the result of only one broken promise, but these things add up in time. If you promise to do things, but regularly don’t follow through, people will soon learn that your promises are not really promises at all. The same is true of our relationship with ourselves. We make resolutions to live differently, to use our time differently, to be different people – but if we consistently fail to deliver on these resolutions or promises to ourselves, we stop believing what we tell ourselves. This is a much more grievous situation than it may sound. When you cannot trust yourself, you will find it very difficult to trust other people, or more importantly, God.

So, if it is so important that we are able to trust ourselves and believe the promises we make to ourselves, what is the solution to this problem? I think the key is to be realistic about the promises we make to ourselves. It’s not a very glamorous answer, but I think it is the right one. Don’t over-promise. There is something to be said for the axiom ‘Under-promise and over-deliver’. When I make a commitment to do something and actually fulfill that commitment, I become more trustworthy in my own eyes. I’m more likely to believe the voice in my head in the future because that voice is trustworthy. So now I don’t make promises to myself that I know will be really difficult to keep. I refuse to commit to exercise for an hour a day, read for another, pray for another, and then to fast every second day…it’s just not going to happen. We should not measure success or progress by what we start, but rather by what we finish. So I will make resolutions about many things, but they will be within my grasp. And then I will do my utmost to be consistent in the outworking of those resolutions. Rome wasn’t built in a day people….