Saturday 30 July 2011

On a time and place for pain

Many years ago I awoke very early, surrounded by sleeping people. I was on a week-long retreat with the creative writing society at university; I had just finished my degree. Curled up silently, feet away, was the guy I was mildly interested in at the time, in the arms of a girl whose arms were always covered with angry red slashes. I'd found out too late that she didn't like talking about it, which put me in a terrible bind: I ached to listen, to try and help her, and it seemed unforgiveable to ignore them, yet that boundary was one she had asked me to respect.

It was a wonderful week, but one in an unhappy time, for various reasons such as my then poor health and generally being young, with romances that weren't meant to work out, not working out. That sort of thing.

I couldn't bear to stay in that room. I crept downstairs. It was summer, so already light. There were more people downstairs; there were 13 of us in a house for about 5. The kitchen was empty, though. On the windowsill there were huge boxes of books. One was called "Cutting". I picked it up. I've never forgotten it.

I don't know how good, really, the book is. I know nothing about psychology and I have the feeling the author, a psychiatrist named Steven Levenkron, was writing about his own theories and I don't know whether or not they were tested. I could go and do a bunch of research now, but this is the wrong place to go into that or the issue of self-harm, which other poeple have written about far better than I could. Because that's not the point right now. I wanted to write about an atypical case in the book.

A 12-year-old girl was very good at gym, and seemed to be constantly training, always pushing herself harder. Sometimes she had an accident on the equipment, which hurt, but she would recover and go on. Her gym teacher grew concerned and called her parents, however, when injuries began to appear on her body that could not be accounted for by any accident he'd seen.

It turned out that the girl was used to the fact that after hard exercise, her body ached, and she had heard that that was a sign she was really pushing herself and on the way to success. Feeling desperate for more success - due to ambition or due to feeling undervalued out of the gym or feeling honour bound to please, whatever it was - she had started inflicting pain on herself, confusing that kind of pain with the by-product of hard training.

Now before we start shaking our heads and sighing pitifully and thinking how dreadfully obvious it is that two forms of pain should not be confused, let's remind ourselves how similar they often seem - and how much we need to reassure ourselves that the productive kind is worth going through. Isn't "no pain, no gain" a common saying? I once had an immensely illuminating discussion with a particle physicist at Sussex University. For some reason he and I and a few other students were talking about mathematics and how far removed it is from society. (I could not more recommend this wonderful essay by Paul Lockhart on that.) This physicist's remark was: "With so much television these days, and things like that, people think they should understand something instantly, and they must be stupid if they don't, so they should do something else. But mathematics is like a language, or a musical instrument. You need to practice."

Although the first bit sounds a bit Susan Greenfield ish, his words resonated with both my own education, and the curriculum I was supposed to feed to the children I later taught. In short: here is the learning objective for today, all of you must get it by the end of the lesson, and we will move on. No allowance for children who might whizz through five or six of such "objectives". Nor any allowance for topics, for skills, for complexities that needed a long story, that required several lessons - and often bits from apparently unrelated subjects - until it all hung together.

He had a point. If you don't get maths immediately, you're encouraged to stick to arts subjects. That's the attitude that, if many of us want to get anywhere, we must fight. The fighting can be painful. So can the practicing and practicing. Those of us who come to university to do a science degree, having done the kind of maths lessons that address something for one lesson, prepare you for the exam, and then leave you to forget. You have to make up for all that. It can hurt.

It leads to a schism of two cultures. The people who feel let down by the get-things-instantly approach foster their own reactive culture of work-yourself-like-mad-to-make-up-for-it. And a reactive, they-did-this-to-me-and-it-was-really-damaging approach to things can go a bit into overdrive.

Similarly, something being "hard to understand" can often be labelled as "and therefore, correct", along with "if you don't understand it, you just need your brain to work harder". Alternative medicine proponents use very warped logic to seem deep. Indeed, they use what they think is the language of scientists, and borrow the catchphrases of brave fighters, to look like lone, persecuted proponents of truth.

The fact that their logic is "hard to understand" does not make it correct. Something being hard to understand may mean that it is hard to understand, but important and worthwhile - quantum mechanics, for example. It may also mean there isn't anything there to understand.

Similarly, someone I used to know got very angry when I responded to his constant nagging that I became a devout Christian with a few choice quotes from the Bible, inspired by a few handy hints like this. When he told me that God was all about peace, and anyone who engaged in war was directly disobeying God, I reminded him of Numbers 31 7-18. "Where are you getting all this from?" he demanded. "You're obviously not looking this up as you go along." (For the record, I do not usually go around upsetting people by pointing all this stuff out until I've been severely provoked.)

The crux of the matter - excuse the pun - was that he would end up by acknowledging, "Yes, some of these things are hard to understand. But God is Love." Apparently, I was supposed to twist my brain around to equate war crimes and genocide with love. It was difficult, but a mature, thoughtful person could manage it.

Sorry, I don't think I'm being immature or thoughtless to refuse to equate war crimes and genocide with love. I don't label that as "hard to understand". I label it as "barbarity that is an integral part of an important and sometimes beautiful historic document, whose barbarity should not be overlooked or embraced".

But many people do feel that the "hard to understand" actually is maturity and depth. They have worked hard to find peace with it, and they feel that I should, too.

Maybe it's not the same thing as the pain. But maybe it is. Maybe feeling that you've made a difficult, complex leap, in whatever form, feels like an achievement - when it might simply be that you've made a difficult, complex leap into a much worse place than you were before you made it.

The reason I'm writing all this is to make a request to many teachers, employers, and other leaders out there. Not anyone I'm currently working for or with, all of whom (and I am very lucky to be able to say this) are wonderful.

Take a man whose company I worked in when I was 18. He believed himself to be naturally of infallible honesty, but irrevocably corrupted by a cruel world. He had had to adapt. He had had to learn to exploit and deceive. He had faced the pain of watching his real self die. He had to, he felt, charge a client £600 for his trainee (me) to update a few words and dates in a document to send them, a process which took 2 hours and for which I would be paid £7, minus tax. It was not respectable to tell your clients the truth about anything. "At the end of the day", as was a favourite phrase of his other two employees, that was how business operated.

Well, if that was what he wanted to think, that was his problem, I thought, and got on with my work. But no, he had to make it my problem as well. He couldn't stand the idea of me thinking, even privately, that one might be able to run a business without deceiving everybody, one might buy locally produced food, one might have a romance that worked, one might smile and do someone a favour without feeling afterwards as if you had personally handed them a spoon to dig into your flesh. I knew not to contradict him. I knew to look polite and listen. But my opinion must have been written on my face. I had to have daily lectures about how unacceptable my attitude was, how he had faced the pain of betraying his principles, and my not facing similar pain was equivalent to my being a bad worker (no matter how good my work was), and I had wasted company time by having him lecture me, too. I owed it to him to get as badly hurt as he had, to feel as if I too was filled with poison.

Why this was so important to him I have no idea. I'm glad I've never met anyone quite like that since. What was so strange was that I was, as he constantly reminded me, the bottom of the heap - why was it so important to him how my brain worked? He seemed to think he was doing me a favour by making me miserable. I'm sure I need hardly say he wasn't. It wasn't as if I learnt anything, other than that he wanted me to be miserable. Maybe he thought I was learning, maturing somehow.

It was the teachers on the science teaching course I nearly completed four years ago who were even more blatant. (I've written elsewhere about some of their methods.) Let me put it this way. Two of them, a man and a woman, complained to my mentor in my hearing that I had failed to cry when they expected me to.

Yes, you read that correctly. Apparently, my commitment, effort, and indications of success were measured by my ability to weep when they criticised my teaching.

Indeed, I recall now, all the girls in that school who I worked with had broken down in tears in public at some point or another - except me. I don't cry often or easily. It's not my thing - that's just the way I am. When someone humiliates me in public, I crawl into a shell. Surely to cry would be to let them win? I guess that was what they wanted. I guess they also didn't apply that standard to the male trainee teachers.

If they had some point to make about my teaching, then I presumed this was to instruct rather than upset and therefore I listened as hard as I could. It wasn't as if there was any point taking it personally. Of course my teaching wasn't perfect. I was a trainee for goodness sake. I was full of human faults like everyone else. I didn't know the kids or the curriculum as well as them. I didn't have their authority. I hadn't gained the children's respect. (Well, of course I wasn't going to gain that if they shouted at me or made sneering remarks in front of the children, as some of them did!)

And it's the same in a lot of jobs, if not to quite such a degree. Apparently "I'm stressed" and "I'm broke" is an acceptable form of boasting. To be willing to be stressed out, to be willing to be utterly humiliated, to give up your principles, to give up your dignity and important things in your life, means you are committed to the job.

It doesn't. It means you are committed to the ego management of your boss. It means they have power. It doesn't mean you're good at your work, but I guess the former is a lot more satisfactory to them (and indeed to be too good would be an insubordination).

Bosses? Teachers? Leaders? People with a public influence? Please think twice before being dissatisfied if those below you seem happy. It doesn't mean they're not learning, concentrating or respectful. Most of them will learn far better without extra pain. If you really need to see someone getting hurt, please bear in mind that in their lives they will all have plenty of that to deal with all on their own.


1 comment:

Alice said...

Oh, what good timing. I promise I did not see this until a couple of hours after I'd finished posting!