(a quick clean-up-an old post that had disappeared – Betty was looking for it)
Sheep have a reputation for stupidity that is well deserved. The black sheep in the family flock had twins this week and in the several acres of perfect pastureland available to her, she perched them on top of a steep bank. Inevitably, one slipped down towards the river necessitating a heroic rescue by your columnist. I proudly reported this minor drama to my uncle, ovine midwife and general livestock expert. He predicted that this particular lamb was clearly both frail and foolish and would find another way to kill itself before the night was out.
Over dinner, my city-bred husband expressed concern for its survival. Thus prompted, I regaled him with glowing childhood recollections of the lambs we were charged with rearing as pets each Spring. We always gave them Imperial names like Romulus & Remus or Caesar and Cleopatra. We fed them from old wine bottles and rubber teats and we thought we were great.
Inspired by the fables, and spurred on by a surprisingly good Australian Chardonnay, we resolved to check on the endangered lamb and stumbled off towards the field in great cheer. Of course, despite the dark and the mild intoxication it took the briefest inspection to see that my uncle’s prognosis was correct and the lamb was dead. I was philosophical enough at this development but he took the bereavement poorly and shared his dejection with my sister.
She admonished him severely for his sentimentality. Lambs would break your heart. Even if you rescue them and keep them as pets they die anyway. Some of our pets got terrible mouth sores and were hungry but couldn’t feed with the pain. Most of them died. If they did live, they were sent out to the field after a while and then you’d have to round them up to send them for slaughter. They’d recognise you and run over, looking to be saved. And you’d have to send them on their way regardless. We were only children and we’d cry. I’d cried the most, she claimed. The moral of her story: don’t get attached to lambs.
We were equally appalled at this litany of misery. He never knew; but I had completely forgotten. I had firmly maintained a romantic cheerful version of the pet lamb saga in my head and wiped out the subsequent miseries, which for my sister were the predominant factor in the tale.
I had been in a deep state of denial and thanks to the prevalence of the therapy culture in which we exist I knew this was a very bad thing. The purpose of denial is to minimize anxiety. It would appear I had managed to eliminate anxiety entirely by simply replacing a miserable memory with a happy one. Having successfully buried the tragedy of the dead lambs, who knew what other disasters lay hidden in my psyche? If Freud was right, through a course of expensive and no doubt traumatic analysis, I could create a link between defects in my personality and these distressing early experiences. Were I to indulge in such a process, who knows what narrative I could create to justify any negative behavioural patterns in my life. Armed with a dodgy diagnosis such as general anxiety disorder (being worried about stuff), I could revert from being a mature and reasonably well-adjusted adult into a victim in a state of recovery. Mining my brain for upsetting childhood events, is it a coincidence that therapist alternatively reads as ‘the rapist’?
But if the exposure of my false memory syndrome proved anything, it was the futility of discussing childhood experiences with someone who wasn’t there. An entire diagnosis and treatment could be based on a series of incidences that never happened whilst omitting crucial events that did. If the purpose of therapy is to force us to acknowledge the truth, then surely its principal flaw is the subjectivity of these truths. The psychoanalyst will claim that it matters not whether one’s grievances are based in fact, but frankly, I disagree. In the absence of any real pathological illness, does a reasonably well functioning adult have much to gain by seeking out childhood upsets in order to justify poor behaviour?
Of course, that justification is in itself the gain and is at the source of my resentment of the culture of victimhood cultivated in today’s society. The ex-slave Epictetus said “Man is troubled not by events, but by the meaning he gives them” or in modern parlance, “It’s not what happens to you that counts, but how you deal with it’.
When bad things happened our parents like the Second World War, TB and poverty, they developed characteristics such as forbearance in adversity and fortitude in times of distress in order to survive. Sadly this stiff upper lip approach to life is seriously out of fashion. The transcendence of every day problems is now seen as a retrograde step on our evolutionary path. The Stoic has been pushed aside in favour of the Hysteric and simply coping as a life strategy has been crushed in the stampede to the therapist’s couch. Hysterics get to excuse their bad behaviour because someone was mean to them when they were 6.
This therapeutic perspective places us as casualties of life rather than survivors and creates an environment where pulling yourself together is seen as being somewhat Neanderthal. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t mean that the unfortunates around the alleged victim didn’t have to pick up the pieces left behind. Work has to be done, children have to reared and perhaps sometimes one is better off getting on with the mundane tasks of life rather than pointlessly nursing grievances.
I suppose I could decide to nurture resentment against my parents for cruelly exposing me to the emotional risk of rearing cute but doomed animals. I could accuse, they could defend and the only achievement would be that a drama had been created in which I was a central character. Everyone else would be upset, but my ego would have been gratified. Looking out the kitchen window at the frolicking lambs in the spring sunshine, I decided there were two options available to me. I could embark on an investigation to discover what other tragic episodes of my youth existed in my unconscious. On the other hand I could embrace my ignorance and respect my mind for so wisely concealing these miseries. In a culture of acknowledgment, I decided to acknowledge that my denial was the only therapy I needed.