The latest British Social Attitudes report examines, and rejects, the idea that a ‘therapeutic culture’ has emerged in Britain.
A dense and baffling chapter on the subject manages to expend some seventeen pages without shedding much useful light at all. The relative murk of the report does, however, make certain things clearer by contrast.
And poets? One in particular makes things clearer still.
The report is the 25th edition of British Social Attitudes, an annual report by the National Centre for Social Research. Chapter 7, Therapy culture?, is by a team of sociologists from Scotland.
A private argument
The basis for the chapter appears to be a private argument between the authors and a professor of sociology at the University of Kent, Frank Furedi, whose 2003 book Therapy Culture explored the idea that intellectual life has in general moved away from shared public ideas towards private individual feelings.
Furedi suggests that social problems now tend to be reformulated as emotional problems, casting all of us as emotionally inadequate, mentally ill, and needing therapy to become normal. Emotional vulnerability and conformity are therefore imposed on us by this new social convention.
The authors of this chapter, on the other hand, focus on things like emotional support and talking about feelings. They specifically target Furedi, without appearing to engage with his central thesis in any way.
Bizarrely, one of their conclusions is that (chapter p. 22, book p. 170):
Important questions can also be asked about what lies ahead in terms of the emotional lives and needs of the youngest age group we studied.
Which, of course, tacitly acknowledges one of Furedi’s central claims, that the formerly private realm of emotions has become a matter of public policy and debate.
So these sociologists seem just to be talking past each other.
Embedded in the survey questions are assumptions about the nature of therapy — faulty assumptions that the methodology of therapy is to talk about feelings and that purpose of therapy is to regulate emotions.
A group of questions explores attitudes to talking about feeings. For example:
I find it easy to talk about my feelings
While it’s true that patients in therapy do talk about their feelings, it’s not true that talking about feelings is particular to therapy. No one argues that sitting on a chair is a form of therapy, even though most patients in therapy do sit on chairs. So no one can reasonably argue that talking about feelings is a form of therapy.
In the past, surely no one would have made this mistake. The reason clever sociologists make the mistake now is that they assume talking about feelings to be participation in a shared public phenomenon. In days gone by it would have been seen as the expression of private emotion.
So the embedded assumption — that talking about feelings must be associated with therapy — is derived from the way in which feelings have indeed become public property.
Another group of questions explores attitudes to emotional support. The text that introduces these questions explains:
Sometimes when people are feeling especially worried, stressed or down, they choose to talk about it to someone who is trained to help or to listen.
The embedded assumption is that therapy addresses worry, stress or feeling ‘down’ (whatever that is — depression?). While it’s true that worry, stress and depression are often part of therapy, it is (again) not true that they are essentially part of therapy. Plenty of people experience worry, stress and depression as part of everyday life without those feelings having any connection to therapy. Plenty of people have therapy that does not address worry, stress or depression. So no one can reasonably argue that therapy is about dealing with worry, stress and depression.
In the past, again, surely no one would have made this mistake. The reason clever sociologists make the mistake now is that they assume the public nature of these formerly private feelings. It’s only in the public sphere that all feelings are now associated with therapy.
So the assumptions embedded in the survey show that the designers of the survey tacitly accepted the notions of universal emotional vulnerability and need for therapy, even if the writers of the chapter then argued against them.
If therapy is not just talking about feelings, if it’s not just for when you are worried, stressed or ‘down’, what is it, then? The American poet, C.K. Williams, incidentally and unwittingly illustrates what it is in a reading released on TED last week.
Filmed back in 2001, the year after Williams’ collection, Repair, had won a Pulitzer Prize, this reading comprises seven poems on the theme of youth and age. All seven of these poems now appear in his 2007 Collected Poems.
Williams captures here some of the inner meanings that we all construct from our lives. He visits the places in the mind where therapists work, and paints pictures in words for us — pictures of cruelty, isolation, connection, memory, righteousness, suicide, lust. (Feel free to disagree with the descriptions I have chosen.)
I struggled for a while to find a quote from these poems to decorate this post, but then I realised it’s like trying to describe a painting by saying, “Look, here’s one of the blobs of paint — can you see from that what kind of painting it is?” So, no quotes. Go listen for yourself: Poetry for all seasons of life
I wonder if I dare summarize. Will doing this drain the life from them? I’ll risk it. Don’t let this stop you listening for yourself, or making meanings of your own from the poems:
|Dirt||A man recalls his grandmother’s cruelty to him as a child.|
|The Dress||A man recalls the isolation in which people lived when he was a child, and the ways in which people hurt each other.|
|The Neighbor||A man feels repelled by an old woman, but at the same time she reminds him of someone he once loved.|
|Gas||A woman farts, and evokes a mysterious and powerful memory from the writer’s childhood.|
|Thirst||An old woman meets the writer’s eyes every day as he gets his train, forcing him to confront himself.|
|This Happened||A young woman suddenly decides to end her life.|
|Old Man||An old man reflects on lust as he approaches the end of his life.|
It’s these intensely private meanings that are at the heart of psychotherapy. That’s where therapists go to make repairs, and where poets, too, go to paint their pictures.