There’s a new church in town…the holy church of positive thinking. The crux of its belief system is that we can control material reality merely by the way we think….a bit like magic. It’s a dogma which has evolved from the all pervasive Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which underpins our mental health services, the cheap skate version of real psychotherapy. It’s a belief system that blames the victim for all her problems. If we get sick, get raped or mugged or burgled or abandoned or our home is flooded, we are somehow to blame because we have ‘too much negative energy’. If we are poor or weak it is our own fault. We should try harder. Apparently, according to nit-wit pundits like Nigel Schofield we could all be rich and famous if we were only more positive.
While I wholeheartedly agree that taking a positive attitude when dealing with the many problems that challenge us through life is always to be encouraged and can make a huge difference in recovery from illness, this ideology has gone to a ridiculous extreme. It’s mind over matter gone mad. All the positive thinking in the world will make no difference when you watch your home burn to the ground or your child die of a terminal illness. Is the child to blame for getting cancer? Did his five year old mind generate too many negative thoughts? Did you invite faulty wiring into your house through the faulty wiring of your mind? Are the desperate victims of wars in the Middle East to blame for their own suffering? Perhaps if they improved their attitude the barrel bombs and drones would vanish in a puff of smoke.
The other nonsense people tend to spout is ‘Everything happens for a reason’ and ‘Everything happens for the best’. Really? Say that to someone watching their loved one disintegrate through Alzheimer’s Disease. They will not welcome your comment.
All this positive thinking crap just puts extra pressure and guilt on people who are already suffering misfortune. It is insinuated that their bad luck is their own fault and they need to try harder. It’s a good excuse to run down our health service even further. Why not just send people away from ER with a button badge telling them to always look on the bright side?
Here are the facts:- 1. We are mortal creatures who begin to die from the moment we are born. 2. There is a very concrete material reality underpinning our lives. It will not shape shift to suit our desires. We are living in a material world and we are made of flesh and blood. 3. We are not to blame for our own problems. Bad things happen to good people. 4. Shit happens for no reason at all. Life is chaos and the most important things are beyond our control.
So all you woolly minded purveyors of positive nonsense need to grow up and have the guts to confront the world the way it really is, warts and all. Life is not perfect. We all suffer and that suffering is unavoidable. What happens is not all down to us but that doesn’t mean life can’t be beautiful. Make the very best of what you’ve got and be grateful for every precious moment.
Everywhere you look in the Highlands there are wild seas, sparkling waterfalls, crystal rivers and lochs. Rain falls almost every day. Northern Scotland is a realm of water. Perhaps that is why so many people choose to make it their home. Human beings, like other animals, have an instinct to gather near water. Water is a source of sustenance, essential to survival.
Many of the novels of acclaimed Scottish novelist Neil M Gunn (born 1891 – died 1973) focus on a watery theme:- Morning Tide, The Silver Darlings, The Grey Coast, The Drinking Well and Highland River which won the 1937 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. Neil Gunn was born in Dunbeath, a tiny coastal village which is a half hour drive from my home. His father was the captain of a herring boat and Gunn’s writing explores the harsh lives, isolation and landscapes of Caithness fishing communities. Gunn was a socialist and a political activist committed to Scottish Nationalism and independence. His writing has a Zen-like intensity with an underlying mysticism, detailed descriptions of landscape and the slow unfurling of events.
Visitors to Dunbeath harbour today will see a striking bronze statue of a boy wrestling with a huge salmon. The statue illustrates a dramatic scene from Highland River when nine year old Kenn captures a salmon with his bare hands. The novel contrasts this childhood struggle for survival and dominance with the brutality of World War 1 when an adult Kenn joins the British army.
Within the first two pages Gunn introduces the novel’s main protagonist, establishes the remote community setting and the landscape whilst building dramatic mood and tension. It is an example of Neil Gunn’s great skill as a writer. Here is a short excerpt describing when Kenn on a cold morning, reluctantly goes to the river pool for water for the breakfast tea just before he sees the salmon:-
“Out of that noiseless world in the grey of the morning, all his ancestors came at him. They tapped his breast until the bird inside it fluttered madly; they drew a hand along his hair until the scalp crinkled; they made the blood within him tingle to a dance that had him leaping from boulder to boulder before he rightly knew to what desperate venture he was committed.”
My first experiences of poetry happened early in childhood. My maternal grandfather wrote a poem for me each year to commemorate my birthday. It would be penned carefully on the back of his birthday card. I am sad today that I did not keep these special tokens of his love.
My first poetry book was A Child’s Garden of Verse by Robert Louis Stevenson. A beautiful blue leather bound copy with gilded page edges was presented to me at Primary School as an Attainment Prize. I was nine years old. Again it reinforced the idea that poetry was something precious. I began to write my own poems. I recall a gem that began with the lines, “I was playing in the dairy/when I first saw the fairy”!
At the age of sixteen I was initiated into contemporary poetry (together with sex) by my Glaswegian boyfriend. He introduced me to the music and poems of Leonard Cohen. As a Christmas present he bought me a little book of his poetry and I still have the battered copy on my bookshelf. Cohen’s poetry is often overlooked as he is best known for his songs. I like his short poems which seem to have a mysterious double meaning. Here is one of my favourites called I Heard of a Man:-
I heard of a man
who says words so beautifully
that if he only speaks their name
women give themselves to him.
If I am dumb beside your body
while silence blossoms like tumors on our lips.
it is because I hear a man climb stairs and clear his throat outside the door.
I read Cohen’s romantic and political poems over and over again, learning some of them by heart. At the time I had no idea poetry would become such a vital element of my life as it is now. For me, poetry is therapeutic but more importantly, a way to communicate difficult emotions and experiences to others.
What were your first tastes of poetry? Were they positive or negative? Did you learn poems by rote in the classroom? Or did your parents read to you? Do you remember your first ever poetry book? I would love to hear how you were initiated into the wonderful world of poetry.
And here is a YouTube video of Leonard Cohen singing one of his most famous and poetic songs:-
“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet