musselmannThe old ones of Auschwitz Birkenau, the survivors, called them the ‘Muselmann’ (german for Muslims); the weak, the inept, the ones who distanced themselves from suffering by giving up.  Deprived of any expectation or hope, they no  longer suffered, they just existed, shuffling along like zombies to the inevitable conclusion;  already dead in spirit.  Any hope had been destroyed together with their humanity and dignity.  . 

Jenny fell passionately in love with a man, who abandoned her.  So she declared War on Want by refusing to submit to her own emotions and with that her need for  sustenance?   This is Jenny’s way. Others use drugs to fill the void left by the loss of hope, others eat or drink too much, others seek sex and others find refuge in illness or madness. In a moment of clarity after the storm, Lear expresses that it is better to lose his mind than to be preoccupied by devastating grief.  

David has been my client for twenty years.  He first came to see me because of persistent abdominal pain and constipation, which he was convinced was caused by a cancer of the bowel that his doctor had failed to diagnose.  No medical tests could convince him that he did not have a disease that would kill him unless promptly and properly treated.  He was very suspicious of any notion of any psychological cause but never stopped coming to see me.  David has never   given up, but he has been a hostage to fortune and he suffers for it.  He clings on to the idea a notion that life has to be fair.  He believes in trust and in spite of everything, retains expectation and hope.  If he were religious, this might give him peace of mind, but he’s not and it doesn’t.  Instead his expectations condemn him to torment of frustration and disappointment as life lets him down yet again.  For David, the pain and mental anguish represents his life force, a continuous grudge against the ineptitude of doctors, the neglect of society and the unfairness of life. . 

It was only recently that he came to the realisation that he doesn’t have to be a victim; the passive recipient of what life delivers. People rarely do what we want. They are much more concerned with their own needs. In that respect, life can never be fair.  It’s a world in which those who shout loudest often get all the prizes.  So if David wants to get what he needs out of life, he has to create the conditions that provide what he needs. 

Those who survived the dreadful conditions in the Nazi concentration camps were the ones who were able to retain a sense of their own identity and adapt to the environment without giving up.  They had no expectation of kindness from the prison guards, but they could gain sufficient life force from a brief glimpse of the mountains, the sound of birdsong, the memory of a melody or composing a poem.  Life is what each of us can make of it.  David’s wife was recently seriously ill with cancer, but this gave him a sense of purpose and worth as he negotiated with the doctors, looked after himself and the house and kept up a email commentary to friend.  .  

Life is never easy,  but we don’t have to submit to its cruelties and injustices. Neither do we have to make ourselves ill by railing against the world and suffering the torment and the illness.  There is a third way.  That is to adapt and take responsibility for our own destiny.

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train_wreck_at_montparnasse_1895 (Large)A few years ago, while staying in London,  I was coming down the stairs carrying an open suitcase,  but there were more steps than there were at home, I couldn’t see where I was putting my feet and I was preoccupied with anxieties about being away from home.  Three steps above the bottom of the staircase, I stepped out – into nothing – and landed heavily on my left leg, rupturing my quadriceps tendon and rendering me disabled for three months.     

It was an unfortunate accident, but how accidental was it?  On reflection, I realised there  was a trail of causation. 

Accidents are often caused by mistakes, lapses in concentration or errors in perception resulting in behaviour that is clumsy or inappropriate.  Our expectations of what might happen are not only determined by what we really see or hear, but by habit – what usually happens.  Most of what happens in our lives is familiar, we go through it on auto-pilot.  We see what we expect to see, hear what we expect to hear, as long as things proceed on cue, we don’t think about what we’re doing; we just do it. 

Our thoughts and actions are so conditioned by experience that for the most part, we don’t have to pay much attention.  Training and experience have set up circuits that cause us to react automatically to a whole variety of familiar circumstances.  To take a current example, Roger Federer is a tennis playing automaton for much of his game.  Hard wired into his brain is an extensive repertoire of responses to every possible nuance of court conditions, ball trajectory, his opponents method of play, the state of the game, the weather;  he reacts without thinking and can produce the perfect cross court volley in the right situation.  He functions in the moment; things only go wrong if he regrets the last shot and worries about the next.  But for most of us, life is not a tennis match, everyday life always throws up the unexpected and unless we are alert and paying attention and able to adapt our responses, we can all too easily assume the expected and cause an ‘accident’. 

Our focus is more likely to be distracted if we are tired, upset and preoccupied about something else.  If our mind is not on the job, we ignore the cues, we expect something to be there but it isn’t.  So if we are in charge of a dangerous machine, operating equipment at work or driving a car, or even just walking down the stairs, we are more likely to make a mistake and have an accident.  My mind was so distracted by domestic worries, I was not focussed on being ‘in London’ and so my legs behaved as if I was coming down the stairs at home. 

Accidents do not always occur because of lapses or distractions.  Emotion can play its part. Desire is not only a potent cause of distraction but can make us take the most enormous risks.  Fury has to be satisfied no matter the consequences.  Guilt or shame can induce a wish for punishment or even injury and death, that is often expressed in the most foolhardy and dangerous behaviour. 

Just as we all possess an instinct for self preservation, so there is a much darker side, an urge to self destruction.  Among the various manifestations of this death wish are overindulgence in alcohol or drug abuse.  Many people use drugs or alcohol to achieve a state of oblivion, so releasing them from the normal inhibitions and calculations over risk.  I used to belong to the Night Climbers of Cambridge.  After a heavy night in the pub, my friends and I would go out and, completely unprotected by ropes or pegs, climb up the walls of the colleges, clamber over roofs and leap from one building to another.  What was that about; a confirmation of the immortality of youth, an urge for self destruction, or a desperate attempt to attract a pretty girl? 

Accidents often have a trajectory, a trail of consequences, stemming from a single  decision made for the wrong reasons and leading in some cases to injury or death.  So when a  woman accepts the invitation of her boss to dinner, drinks too much, has sex with him and then has to drive fifty miles back home in the middle of the night, all the components, tiredness, preoccupation, fear, guilt, self disgust and being in charge of a lethal machine, are assembled for a major accident.        

Accidents also have a purpose.  If you are injured, then you don’t need to do something you don’t want to, to take an exam, have an awkward meeting, take a difficult decision or own up.  The accident does the job for you, extricates you from an impossible situation, and at the same time, recruits the love and care your spouse, family and friends.   

For me, my accident allowed me time out from external distractions while providing the time and space to relax, rest, feel the confidence of being cared for at home and finish my book.  In time my tendon mended and so, for a while, did the connections with my family.