Saturday, August 10, 2013

Nature studies and kinds of reverence

"...there is a sense in which the development of Baconian or Cartesian science led us to view the world reductively, to murder by dissection, and so to give priority to death over life." Stratford Caldecott The Radiance of Being, p58 
As a boy, urged by teachers to read Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, I was irritated by the title. Even allowing for my excessive literal-mindedness, it seemed to imply something more sinister than a casual joke.

On attempting to follow my teachers' advice, the relentless flippant jocularity I found only confirmed the initial suspicion that there was a lack of reverence in Durrrell's approach. This on the one hand seemed to make no essential distinction between the funniness of humans and that of animals, while on the other - in books such as The Bafut Beagles - it made arbitrary distinctions between this knowing ironic author and those comical foreigners or natives and their quaint ways. There is an edge in Durrell wich betrays not kindly irony but rather an assumed superiority and irreverence.
The apparent exclusion of seriousness - an essential aspect of reverence - the very relentless and indiscriminate quality of his humour also seems to betray a denial of some underlying fear: the emptiness gaping beneath the smile and bonhommie of the bluff individual, leading to the peculiar repulsion that such people induce at least in me.
What transpired in his books is that Durrell was a naturalist of the old school, an adventurous collector, dissector, classifier and analyzer. A contrasting style is fashionable now: David Attenborough in his nature documentaries observes with a kind of reverence supported by exquisite production values, but marred by a distinct though no less cloying ideology.
Recently I came across a beautifully produced Dorling Kindersley book on nature study which I snapped up, as something likely to inspire reverence and wonder in my children. Later, looking through it, the emphasis on collecting, killing, bottling and analyzing left me chilled; these  discoveries led to second thoughts about letting my children see it at all. In choosing the book I had "judged the book by its cover" but would have done a better job had I read the author's name printed there as one of the key selling points: Gerald Durrell.
The production values of Durrell's The Amateur Naturalist were as lavish as those in Attenborough's nature programmes, but the reverence that might have been induced by the the stunning photography and videography is overshadowed by the underlying spirit: in the one case a deadly analytic domination which brushes beauty aside, and in the other an environmentalism that despairs of preserving beauty because of the inevitability of man's destructiveness. Neither mood is right, or desirable, for my children; even I - with my insight into the ideological roots of these works - am scarcely able to brush aside the painful and unwanted moods that they induce.

My children love to go around with sticks and "hack and rack the growing green" with them. They are not unaware of my distress at their slashing even nettles in the woods, but the tenderness for even the crushed reed that I feel and try to project does not seem to overcome that urge to destroy. Yet I observe that they also have an undeniable sense of wonder for things of nature.

Perhaps my fear is that the destructiveness will overwhelm and mar that other facet of their spirit that I so much want to foster; and I want to find works of art and reference that will reinforce the gentle and reverent side of their spirit.

The matter becomes more complicated still when I explain to them the need to kill the butterflies that lay the eggs of caterpillars which devastate our cabbages. It is a teachable moment, but I am not sure that I am doing it well. I explain that it makes me sad to bat a cabbage white from the air (with a tennis racket, which makes an a excellent butterfly swatter) and then stamp on it, but that I am not doing it for sport but only because the butterfly is an "enemy" of our vegetables and I want the necessary death to be as swift and painless as possible.
It is even sadder that the cabbage butterflies are virtually the only ones that visit our garden, thanks presumably to the devastation of insect life bemoaned by the likes of Attenborough.
Henry pinned one of the dead butterflies to our family noticeboard. It seemed the thing to do, though his motivation remains mysterious. He must have been reading the Durrell book ...
He also loves collecting skulls. One of his prized possessions is a rabbit skull we found in the woods. His sadness at the death of an abandoned nestling seemed to vanish when I told him that once the corpse had rotted a while on our compost heap he could have the skull. He kept asking me when it would be ready. A fox got to it first, probably the same blighter that ate all the gooseberries off the tree, which brings me to another death we need to arrange ...

Thursday, August 08, 2013

About "beating oneself up" and the alternative

Thanks to a suggestion from Stratford Caldecott, I discovered the blog of John Janaro, who writes wisely and engagingly on a wide range of things.

Here's something he wrote recently:

Self-Inflicted Violence: It Doesn't Always Meet the Eye 

I beat myself up all the time. Does that sound scary? Yet you won't find cuts or scars or bruises on my body. No... as is so often the case, I'm talking about something I do inside my head.
I think its important to take seriously the metaphor of "beating ourselves up" mentally and emotionally over our own real or perceived failures. These metaphors resonate for reasons that are deeper than we may realize.

Mentally ill people can develop even compulsive forms of interior violence, and repetitive psychological self injury. This can be even more crippling than visible, external self-inflicted violence, although I think the two often go together in life circumstances and illnesses other than my own.

Whatever the nature of the behavior, we need to become more aware of how damaging (and how potentially dangerous) it is to "beat up on ourselves."

I am not a medical doctor or a therapist. I am just a "patient" who has lived with my own mental illness for more than 40 years. All I can do is share what I have learned, what has helped me in my own struggles. And I have certainly learned that beating up on myself is very bad thing. Neurological dysfunctions in the brain can give rise to dark and distorted perceptions or feelings of doubt, which then strive to articulate themselves as compulsive thoughts and emotions.
This can break out into a cycle of interior self abuse that is not only painful, but that causes me to withdraw from my responsibilities and from others who need me. I know that I must try my best to break this cycle, by turning to God in prayer, certainly, but also by sticking with my medications, watching what I eat, following my routine, managing stress, exercising, using cognitive therapy, and relying on people who can help me get back into focus and stay there.
I have never been able to think my way out of this. Help comes from outside, and no degree of illness can take away the personal responsibility that I have to be receptive, to struggle to be open to the help that I cannot give myself.
I know that there are many people who don't worry about much of anything, and who would benefit from a good dose of sober self-criticism (n.b. sober, which means balanced, measured, realistic). And we all feel guilty and ashamed at times simply because we've done something wrong. This is normal and good. But its something entirely different from a pathological and constant interior assault that is all out of proportion to any fault, that seems to block out goodness and that leads to discouragement.
Don't give in to this. Move away from it, even if all you can manage is an inch. Do it one inch at a time. And search for anything that helps you to draw out of yourself. If some of those helps begin with "psych," don't be ashamed of that. Its awkward terminology, but when properly applied these "helps" encompass both corporal and spiritual works of mercy. And we all need mercy. 
It is essential to people with mental illness to remember that God loves them just as they are, and that they must learn to love themselves, to be kind to themselves, and to turn their energies outward in constructive ways. And they must not be ashamed that they need help from others.

From my own experience I can say: It is possible to live in a relationship with God, with joy and patience, and constructive engagement of work and relationships, even with chronic depression, bi-polar, OCD, and other neurobiologically based disorders. It is also possible to be healed greatly from much self inflicted personal damage.
It is an ongoing process, and you can't do it alone. You need help.