On the 15th September 1976, the BBC aired an episode of the situation comedy “The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin“, starring Leonard Rossiter. In that episode, the extended family join a queue of cars to visit a safari park where, according to Reggie, “All the humans are running around in herds and all the animals are parked” Reggie’s grandson, on seeing a pride of lions, asks the question: why are lions? why are lions, lions (in addition to telling all and sundry that he was “doing Biggies“).
What follows on this page is only my personal view but it might inform your design on small, safe experiments.
The meaning of life
Being a human involves, at least some labelling and categorising (or being categorised). This helps us to understand our world. To most of us, ‘lion’ is simply another four-letter word. That category works for me. To an animal biologist, the lion is an obligate carnivores (an animal that needs to eat other animals to obtain the nutrients needed to survive).
As I have said elsewhere, it seems human beings are wired to find meaning about our world. This can complicate life when we seek meaning where there may be none. We develop a number of defences to protect our ‘meanings’; to protect our view of the world. Maybe, our world, full stop.
It is possible that aliens from outer space might do the same thing. Consider, for example, the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (2009 ). In this film Captain Kirk and his crew face the daunting task of facing down Vgr, a space probe from another part of the universe – or is it? It turns out to be Voyager 6, a space probe sent out from Earth early on in the NASA space exploration programme. The primitive, if amazing Voyager comes back to the Milky Way, courtesy of a distant civilisation, but it returns as a large and hostile object.
The aliens who found it decided that it needed to go home with an array of protections to ensure that it could look after itself on the trip. They did not think, as one wag has put it, to give the probe a good wash so the full name could be displayed for all to see. NASA did sent Voyager 6 with its name well displayed – not with an array of defences.
Another similar demonstration of the problems we self-create can be found in The Wizard of Oz. The team, led by Dorothy from Kansas, are frightened several times by the loud booming voice of Oz warning them not to trespass on his territory.
My picture at the top of the page shows how the Wizard wanted to look but what is the source of that loud and booming voice – as revealed at the very end of the film?
What we hear or see is not necessarily what is
Read this extract for yourself and consider: how often have I been intimidated by a large and loud message (or injunction) that possessed only as much power and influence as I had given it?
Here is an account of events near the end of the yellow brick road
Presently they heard a solemn Voice, that seemed to come from somewhere near the top of the great dome, and it said:
“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible. Why do you seek me?”
They looked again in every part of the room, and then, seeing no one, Dorothy asked, “Where are you?”
“I am everywhere,” answered the Voice, “but to the eyes of common mortals I am invisible. I will now seat myself upon my throne, that you may converse with me.” Indeed, the Voice seemed just then to come straight from the throne itself; so they walked toward it and stood in a row while Dorothy said:
“We have come to claim our promise, O Oz.”
“What promise?” asked Oz.
“You promised to send me back to Kansas when the Wicked Witch was destroyed,” said the girl.
“And you promised to give me brains,” said the Scarecrow.
“And you promised to give me a heart,” said the Tin Woodman.
“And you promised to give me courage,” said the Cowardly Lion.
“Is the Wicked Witch really destroyed?” asked the Voice, and Dorothy thought it trembled a little.
“Yes,” she answered, “I melted her with a bucket of water.”
“Dear me,” said the Voice, “how sudden! Well, come to me tomorrow, for I must have time to think it over.”
“You’ve had plenty of time already,” said the Tin Woodman angrily.
“We shan’t wait a day longer,” said the Scarecrow.
“You must keep your promises to us!” exclaimed Dorothy.
The Lion thought it might be as well to frighten the Wizard, so he gave a large, loud roar, which was so fierce and dreadful that Toto jumped away from him in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a corner.
As it fell with a crash they looked that way, and the next moment all of them were filled with wonder.
For they saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were.
The Tin Woodman, raising his axe, rushed toward the little man and cried out, “Who are you?”
“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible,” said the little man, in a trembling voice. “But don’t strike me—please don’t—and I’ll do anything you want me to.”
This extract highlights how the members of the band, including the Wizard, himself, wanted different things. At first it seemed ill-advised to cross Oz to attain their ambitions. In the end, however, Oz was not whom he seemed to be. It was not possible to be intimidated by him anymore. The dreams and imagining of each member of the team were now less likely to stop them moving on with their lives.
Grand creations or doing biggies
How do these imaginings, these grand creations, compare with just being alive, that is, “doing biggies“? That very mundane action, essential to being human, is wrapped around in many labels. As infants we learn how to side-step certain topics as something not to be mentioned whenever possible. Reggie’s grandson had not quite grasped that at his tender age. If we have to mention it, then an elaborate process is developed to deal with it; a wide range of language is adopted in the family – some of it quite unknown to the wider world.
In practice, then, there is a tension between being and doing. It is a tension that characterises the world of therapy where, for the most part, doers and be’ers look suspiciously at one another.
I suspect my sentiment will raise eyebrows when I say that much therapy is about mundane, everyday things. The view I advertise – of change made from small, safe experiments – can seem dismissive. Indeed, I have been called to account for my casual manner a few times in the professional career. Even so, I am not being casual or dismissive here.
As I look over this website, and recall the work I have done with so many people, over so many years, I am most struck by the impact of small, safe experiments with very ordinary outcomes that spoke volumes. For instance, there was the woman who went to see a Musical in London, with some friends. You cannot know how important that large, safe experiment was.
Then there was a male client who walked in the woods as his safe place.
Then there was another client who had a conversation with her husband to speak out about her wants and needs; a conversation that, in time, made a visible difference to the quality of two peoples’ lives.
Some of the important steps are so concrete and specific that they remain hidden in plain sight. This would not matter were it not for way therapeutic work has evolved over the centuries. I say this to make the point that humans seem to have the tendency to copy those aliens when feeling the need to explain ‘touchy’ subjects such as the nature of human existence.
Freud lived before his time and felt the need to integrate his mid-European experience of medicine, hypnosis and the human condition with Greek mythology. It helped him to make good some of the short-comings in neuroscience around at the turn of the 20th century (he’d love to be alive today!). The end-result was the building of a number of cul de sacs that required others to revisit and build a pathway back to the main road.
A lion is a lion because that is the four letter word agreed on in the English language. It’s generally agreed by all, except Reggie’s grandson, who will be learning very fast. It’s not really contentious whereas a label like ‘Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)’, still used by some people in mental health services, is contentious because the implicit judgment or ‘put down’ hidden in the words. There’s nothing more likely to prove ‘touchy’ in mental health provision than language. In these changing times, I look forward to seeing these examples of labelling and categorising used less and less.
In short, it’s my view that therapy can be – and has been – a life-saver for some people. At the same time, the everyday, ordinary steps that most people take in therapy can be under-valued. The ‘sexy’ things in therapy eclipse the everyday events, but at a cost, usually in the form of jargon, mystery and complexity. I have a suspicion these features are intended to bamboozle Joe and Joanna Ordinary as material rewards in therapy come from a complex re-invention of the wheel.
By contrast, simplicity is demeaned – knowingly or unintentionally. Too often, as a consequence, the small victory is under-rated and the small defeat given too much air-space.
So. in the immortal words of Joyce Grenfell: “George, don’t do that…..”.
THE END of the Yellow Brick Road
…. hmm …. or AN END?
….. maybe just ONE END
…. seems like PART of an END?
Oh, I know …… ONE OF SEVERAL ENDS
What does yours look like?