Reminders of our unique experiences

Occasionally in this blog I will mention fiction books I’ve read and been impacted by. Some of my clients refer to the books they read that are spiritual or geared toward self-help (which of course have a valuable place). However, I like the idea that we are often surprised where and how we stumble upon lessons and insights and connecting to creativity keeps those opportunities broad and unexpected. There is research that emphasises the power of reading fiction and poetry to improve mental wellbeing. This research indicates reading reduces stress and loneliness, whilst also increasing our ability to empathise and our ability to ‘think through our thoughts’ i.e., to use the apparatus of our thinking to learn from our experiences, this is vital to enable personal development (Davis 2021).    

I have been re-reading Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (CwR).  Like a lot of people, I first encountered CwR at school and following a family holiday in the Cotswolds, but at 14 I wasn’t ready for the book to touch me -30 years later and my experience was different. There’s a chapter called ‘public death, private murder’ Laurie Lee describes a brutal murder, a suicide and the death of a very elderly couple in his village. His voice passes no moral judgement, I find his tone possesses a curiosity relaying the incidents of murder and suicide much like a child might observe the world. However, it is his writing about the elderly that really connects to me. It is these parts that rattle through my head long after I put the book down and I’m curious about this impact… 

Firstly, I know when I read about Laurie Lee’s elderly inhabitants, I feel a connection to my grandparents and even great-grandparents. As I have gotten older, I feel closer to and more curious about these mythic figures who are passed down through my family’s stories. I sense their complexities and challenges which created their behaviours and insecurities. As I come to recognise my own insecurities and those of my parents, I see my inheritance stretches far beyond genes, for good and bad. At this moment this doesn’t create a feeling of judgement but a tenderness for those that have gone before me, and I think that Lee’s writing enhances that tenderness within me.  

When I read of the demise of Joseph and Hannah Brown the poignancy is almost too much to bear. Lee describes the couple as ‘indestructible’, joined together for over fifty years, raising a large family and sending them out into the world. ‘Absorbed in themselves as lovers, content and self-contained…they lived as snug as two podded chestnuts…’Here live the Browns’ as though that were part of nature.’ The chapter ends with Hannah and Joseph entering a rapid decline ‘a feebleness took them both’. Lee describes how they were found ‘Hannah was on the kitchen floor feeding her man with a spoon…they were both too weak to stand…she had chopped a plate of peelings as she hadn’t been able to manage the fire. But they were all right really, just a touch of the damp; they’d do and it didn’t matter’. Well-meaning village spinsters intervened, they decided Hannah and Joseph should be moved because they were too frail to look after each other. Hannah and Joseph end up in the local infirmary (workhouse by another name) where they are separated into male and female quarters and within the week were both dead. It’s not a lesson in what constitutes good care or the lacking social services of the day that I’m stuck with. Instead, I’m haunted by how readily I put my priorities on to someone else like the well-meaning village spinsters. I mistake my opinion for an objective rationality when I think I know what’s best for someone else. I do it with my children, my parents and partner, and I have to keep checking myself when this happens. Lee starkly reminds me just how individual and personal priorities are, no matter how messy that can seem. 

With all this is mind I want to reflect on subjectivity…We all inhabit our own subjective realities; I know that deeply and it is a cornerstone of my practice as a therapist. It’s also one of the most challenging aspects of being human, how we (I should probably say I!) love to seek similarity between us and avoid or worst still shun the differences. Personal reflection and supervision are vital ways for me to keep this practice alive and ensure I recognise and challenge myself when I’m beginning to make assumptions. However, I know that when I meet a new client, I genuinely want to try and understand what it is to be them. Inevitably mine and my client’s experiences and stories both overlap and divert, but regardless of our similarity and differences, my aim is always the same, ‘help me to understand what it is to be you’.  The beauty of my job is I see with endless examples the way others surprise us and are not quite what we previously imagine or assume – a lesson as helpful outside of the therapy room as within and as relevant with strangers as those we know well. I know I hate it when someone else assumes they know something about me or they don’t allow me to change, instead I feel like I’ve been set in stone in their view.  

It was the experience of re-reading CwR that ignited a bone-deep felt-sense of the truth of our subjective lenses that felt significant to share. It also prompted me to look again at the photo of my grandmother and wonder at her unique experiences confined now to memories and family myths. 

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