The Examined Life

Examined LifeRecently I listened to a podcast entitled Literature on the Couch featuring Andrew Solomon, Greg Bellow and Stephen Grosz.

It was the book written by the latter that provoked my interest, Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life, How We Lose and Find Ourselves. While there are many books one can pick up, which write with a voice of authority and experience on the subject of Freudian psychoanalysis, there are few if any, which have been penned as a practical legacy to the children an author will one day leave behind.

I like the idea of leaving lessons of our life’s learning to one’s children, they are the few people on earth we are able to genuinely love unconditionally and it intrigued me to seek out this book, to see if writing for one’s children on a subject one is something of a professional expert in and having already been reasonably widely published can remove the influence of ego or meeting the expectations of one’s academic peers and make a subject or in this instance many case studies, accessible to the lay person and true to that spirit of sharing wisdom with one’s progeny.

The book is divided conveniently into five sections, beginnings, telling lies, loving, changing and leaving.

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My Other Passion, Distilling Essence

The chapters are like perfume samples, distilled to their quintessential essence yet encapsulating the base notes that make a scent whole or a lesson in life complete. Incredible given that many of the cases he mentions are the product of a year or two of conversation, meeting with a person for fifty minutes, four or five times a week, over a number of years. A life work of more than 50,000 hours listening, learning, resolving, and understanding (or at least trying to).

In Beginnings, the first case that made me go back and reread a few pages was How Praise can cause a loss of confidence and once you’ve read it, you’ll understand the subtle difference between giving praise and giving something else more likely to boost esteem and confidence in children, so subtle and yet so potentially powerful. And what a great gift to pass on to those children, who may one day become parents themselves.

Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signalling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have – but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing – doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism.

In Loving, the chapter Paranoia can relieve suffering and prevent catastrophe is insightful and may make us more sympathetic to those who suffer from it, particularly the elderly.

With old age, the likelihood of developing a serious psychological disorder decreases, and yet the chance of developing paranoia increases. In hospital I have heard elderly men and women complain: “The nurses here are trying to poison me.” “I didn’t misplace my glasses, my daughter has obviously stolen them.” “You don’t believe me but I can assure you: my room is bugged, they are reading my post.” “Please take me home, I am not safe here.”

Grosz suggests that paranoid fantasies, such as a feeling of being betrayed, mocked, exploited or harmed are a defensive response to the feeling that we are being treated with indifference. They protect us from the more disturbing emotional state, from a feeling that no one cares about us or is thinking about us, that we have been forgotten.

changeIn Changing, we learn how our very survival can be put at risk by our fear of change in How a Fear of Loss Can cause us to lose Everything. How some of us will escape at the very first sign of danger, even if it means doing something we are not used to doing and how others may perish, because of the fear of acting without sufficient information.

“We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even – or perhaps especially – in an emergency.”

Overall, an intriguing, easy read including stories which might easily be those we encounter or recognise in ourselves or others close to us and with a clear explanation of the hidden meaning and lessons that can be found within them. Not surprising to see it listed yesterday in the Guardian’s recommended Holiday Reads, literature for the couch, the beach, the balcony or wherever it is you’ll be putting your feet up this summer (or winter if you’re down-under!)