Richard Lawton

Musing on life, the universe and everything

Why do people have affairs?

couple-arguingIf you’re in or have been in a long-term relationship, there’s a good chance that you have or your partner has. At the very least you probably know someone who has. There is also a good chance that you know of relationships that have ended because of it. But why do people in long-term relationships have affairs? Especially given that it can permanently wreck the relationship?

A simple Google search will reveal thousands of explanations, most of which tend to the “symptom of poor relationship” category. If a relationship is not meeting your needs then you are likely to be tempted to turn elsewhere. There is a great deal of truth in that, especially if you understand that these needs will include needs and desires that you are not conscious of but impact your behaviour nonetheless. So many lines have been written about this that it hardly seems worth my adding to the pile. So instead I’m going to take a different approach.

In the Western world about 50% of marriages end in divorce. (There are no similar statistics for long-term relationships ending, but the rate is almost certainly far higher.) Of the marriages that do survive, how many of them are deeply fulfilling for both partners? In how many of them have the partners remained faithful? There are no reliable statistics here; however, if you read problem pages and personal ads, there are many people choosing to stay in unfulfilling marriages but seeking sexual connection outside. It is not always “because of the children”. There are many older couples where one partner has “gone off sex” or has a chronic illness; or the unfulfilled partner chooses not to face the financial perils of divorce, or finds the marriage too “comfortable” or “convenient” in various ways to want to give it up.

I suspect that the number of marriages in which the partners remain faithful and find true fulfilment in the relationship is very small indeed.

If, as it appears, the vast majority of people do not find fulfilment in marriage then there are 2 possible conclusions one might draw. First, that most people are selfish, lying, cheating, commitment-phobic pond-scum (paraphrased from a website for people whose partners had affairs). Second, that the very institution of marriage places unrealistic expectations on ordinary human beings who are neither saints nor the devil incarnate.

Marriage (in all its forms) is a very ancient institution. And it perhaps was fine when people had short lifespans and many only lived into their mid-30s. What with the daily struggle just to survive, the very idea of personal fulfilment has not been on humanity’s agenda for most of history. As Maslow indicated in his hierarchy of needs, self-actualisation only appears on our radar when all other needs have been met. Personal fulfilment (at least for the masses) is a recent invention, a luxury made possible by the increasing social wealth afforded by the industrial revolution.

Marriage was made for a different age. Now that we have longer lives, more time to be rather than just exist, it is creaking at the edges. Are all we humans failures? Or is marriage an institution that no longer serves us?

Winter Wellness: Top 10 tips

winterwellnessDark when you go to work. Dark when you leave work. Summer seems an age ago. You’re not sure when you were last really warm. Hibernation begins to look very attractive. It can be all too easy to become low and miserable in the depths of winter.

Here are my top tips for feeling good this winter.

1. Keep your home comfortable. It is strange that a room at 20C can feel comfortable in summer, but cold in winter, so you may feel tempted to turn up the thermostat higher than necessary. This may make you feel wonderfully toasty, but will then make for a bigger shock when you leave the house. So keep your home warm, but don’t overdo it. Before you set the thermostat higher, try taking a very brief walk outside. When you return your home will feel warmer than it did when you left a few minutes earlier.

2. Keep your home aired. Our bodies are constantly shedding small particles of skin and hair, while cooking releases sticky particles that cling to surfaces or just float around. With so many homes fitted with double-glazing the air in your home can get very stale during the winter months. A squirt of air-freshener may make your home smell good, but it only masks this staleness. So throw the windows open in every room for a few minutes every day and let in some fresh air. Bad energy advice but good health advice!.

3. Do move around for a few minutes at least once an hour whether at home or at work. Even a few simple breathing and stretching exercises will improve your blood circulation and generate internal heat. This is particularly important for older people who can feel cold and stiff very easily.

4. Grab the sunshine whenever possible. Even in a very bad winter there will be days when the sun is shining, however weakly. Try to make the most of this. If you work, take a brisk walk at lunchtime. If there is a bright day when you have free time, try to take a longer walk, exposing as much skin as you comfortably can. Sunlight on our skin converts cholesterol into Vitamin D, and is our major source of this vitamin essential for healthy bones and teeth. Also, a dose of sunshine simply feels good and can raise our spirits. If you suffer badly from the ‘winter blues’ you may have SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), in which case buying a lightbox or using daylight bulbs in your home may help.

5. Wear layered clothing whenever you go out. It is very easy to get chilled by not wearing sufficient clothing, especially if you just pop outside for a while. Wear several layers of thin clothing rather than one thick layer; this way you can easily adjust yourself to a comfortable temperature whatever you are doing.

6. Take regular exercise. This is important at all times of the year: the recommendation is 30 minutes of physical activity at least five times a week (any activity where you break into a sweat and get slightly out of breath). Exercise releases endorphins (feel-good hormones), improves your mood and boosts the immune system (giving you added protection from all the winter bugs). When you feel cold and sluggish it can be difficult to summon up the energy to be active. If you have a regular exercise routine, try to maintain it during the winter. If you find it hard to motivate yourself, join a class and buddy up with someone to encourage each other to attend. Don’t forget that it doesn’t have to be athletic exercise – everyday activities count too: heavy housework; walking the dog; raking up leaves or shovelling snow; making love.

7. Eat well and healthily. At some point every year I start wanting carbohydrates like pasta & potatoes rather than fresh fruit and salad, and I know then that autumn has arrived. It is perfectly normal to want to eat more during the autumn and winter, part of our genetic inheritance to stay alive during the cold and lean months. Many people worry about putting on a lot of weight; this is not inevitable, although it may require some self-discipline, especially around Christmas with its roasts, cakes and drinks (many people are unaware of the huge calorie content of alcohol). Make sure you balance rich foods with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Keep your cupboards well-stocked to avoid the temptation to order in a takeaway, and check out the many websites offering suggestions for dishes that are both tasty and healthy. With a little bit of thought and effort you can enjoy your food without feeling more stuffed than the turkey.

8. Be sociable. With the short days and cold dark evenings it can be all too easy to stay at home and put your social life on hold until the spring. But socialising is very good for our mental health, and spending time with friends can help lift our spirits enormously. So try not to give in to any tendency to go into complete isolation.

9. Find a new interest. The dark days of winter can seem endless and be dispiriting: spring seems so distant and tomorrow is going to be just another dark day. So try to discover a new hobby or activity that will keep your mind active and stimulated, something that raises your enthusiasm and makes you look forward to your evenings and weekends. A little bit of fresh excitement can be very uplifting.

10. Accept the rhythm. We are creatures of nature, and our rhythms vary from season to season. We do have a natural tendency to be more inward and inactive in winter. This is inconvenient to a modern society, but you can at least show yourself respect by recognising your needs and not placing expectations on yourself to have the same desires and energy levels as in summer.

I hope these 10 tips are useful. But don’t force yourself to do anything that doesn’t feel right for you. Make your own decisions about what you want and how you want to be. Take anything from these tips that is useful to you and happily discard the rest. Enjoy the dark months as best you can.


Posted in Health, Seasonal | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Merry dreaming!

dreamI’m sure you’re all familiar with the old folk song:

Row, row, row your boat,

Gently down the stream.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream.

It’s a very pretty little song, often sung as round, and with a simple lilting melody that becomes quite hypnotic as more rounds are sung. I can (just) remember it being sung to me as a child, and can definitely recall singing it to my daughter. It holds nothing but happy memories for me. But I rather puzzle at the implied association of ‘merrily’ with ‘dream.’

Dreams are often strange, bizarre, puzzling, intriguing, disturbing and occasionally downright terrifying.

I’m at home (it doesn’t look like any home I’ve ever had, but it feels like home), then somebody walks in and says something, and the next thing I know I’m in a strange town and everyone is wearing yellow coats, but I’m naked and desperately need to find a particular store because I must find my grandmother’s coffee-pot; I try to ask for directions but the first person I approach is my old schoolteacher who reprimands me for something (which I can’t quite catch), and then suddenly I’m falling off a bridge over a deep river and… jerk myself awake.

Even if you haven’t had that particular dream (which, by the way, is a complete fabrication), I’m sure you’ll recognise elements of it.

But merry? I don’t think I have ever heard someone say that they had a merry dream. I don’t doubt that such dreams occur, and certainly I have read of people laughing themselves awake, but nobody has personally told me of such an experience.

People throughout history have been fascinated by dreams, and despite millennia of speculation and much modern research, we still don’t know why we dream.

Are they instructions or warnings from the gods? Glimpses into the future? Messages from the unconscious? Or simply the mind doing routine overnight house-keeping: sifting through all our experiences of the day, filing some, putting others in the bin, cross-referencing and indexing? Perhaps it is all of these, or something completely different.

As a therapist with a long-standing interest in personal development, I divide dreams into two main categories: those that have an emotional impact upon us and those that do not. My focus and interest lies on those that have a significant impact upon us, either because we wake from them with a definite emotional reaction (such as anxiety, fear or sadness) or because they stick in the mind.

The other kind may puzzle us; we may on waking wonder “What on earth was that about?” and even tell our partner – but within a few hours, maybe minutes, we forget all about them. I’ll leave this category to the neuroscientists to explore!

But when we have an emotional reaction to a dream or if we feel that somehow they are significant, then, as a therapist, I am interested. Such dreams often provide an insight into the deep inner workings of our psyche, and frequently can highlight matters that we are not aware of or feelings that we don’t which to consciously admit. Dreams can be the way in which some aspect of ourselves grab our attention and yell “You’re not paying attention to me!”

Interpreting dream is an art, not a science. There are hundreds if not thousands of books and websites that will explain dream symbolism, but these are bound to be somewhat simplistic. While there may be common symbols, how these should be interpreted depends on so many other factors: location, colour, position, our reaction to them, the presence or absence of other characters, the context in which they appear, what we associate with the symbol and above all our own beliefs, values and attitudes.

Say you dream about a snake. There are many possible associations; it is an ancient fertility symbol, and also one of healing (it is often found on medical symbols); but many people associate with evil because of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. What is your immediate reaction? How big is the snake, what colour is it – and what do you associate with that colour? Where was it: on the ground or up a tree, in your home? Did you feel distressed or threatened by it?

There are so many factors involved that it is impossible to say that dreaming about a snake means this.

There are two aspects that I think it is worth highlighting. Our unconscious mind frequently seems to have a sense of humour when it comes to dreams. Often there are puns or other forms of word-play involved. So, for example, a dream that is about some aspect of time (maybe you are procrastinating about something or worried about ageing) may have a scene where you are in a herb-garden wherethyme is growing. A dream where you are struggling to walk up a grassy bank may reveal worries about financial security. These little details, so easy to overlook, can provide a great deal of useful information. Sometimes they seem to be present because we cannot face the real truth and so a pun is an indirect way of expressing the message; at other times they appear to be reinforcers, humourous ways of underlining the point.

Another important consideration is that the characters in dreams generally represent you yourself. This may be directly, in that they represent some aspect of yourself; or indirectly by representing how you feel about something.

So, a young child in your dream probably represents some part of your child-self that has not been fully integrated into your adult self. In some aspect of your life you are operating more on an immature, child level than a mature adult one.

Movie stars are common characters in dreams. Sorry, but that isn’t actually Johnny Depp there and it’s unlikely that it’s a prediction that he’s going to come calling on you! More likely is that he represents your feelings about self-expression, admiration, your visibility in the world. If you are frequently dreaming about movie stars or other powerful people, then perhaps you are frustrated in not finding a way to achieve your potential?

Some people say they never dream. They almost certainly do, but simply transition very well from dream-sleep into wakefulness. If you want to remember your dreams – or to explore them more – there’s an easy way to do get started. Simply keep a notebook and pen by the side of your bed, and first thing on waking jot down anything you remember, however vague. Just getting into this routine can prompt you to remember your dreams with greater clarity, and the more you do it the easier it gets.

There’s a great deal of fascinating material in your mind, so get exploring.

Merry dreaming!

Mayan Reflections

Yep, it’s nearly here. Only 4 weeks to go. Are you ready?

No, not Christmas. I’m talking about the winter solstice, midwinter day, the shortest day of the year. But this is not just an ordinary solstice, this is the Mayan solstice.

In case you didn’t see the movie 2012 a few years back, and haven’t been keeping au fait with eschatology, 21 December 2012 marks the end of a 5125-year cycle in the ancient Mayan calendar. According to some, on this date the world is going to end. According to others, humanity will undergo a transformation and we will all become enlightened.

Either way, for me as a therapist this is bad news.

If everyone becomes enlightened, I’m out of a job. If some cataclysm befalls the world, then if I survive I’ll wish I had spent less time studying therapy books and more time learning basic survival technique, such as how to build a hut and how to identify edible mushrooms. If I don’t survive, I’ll be rather miffed.

In the interests of balance and to prevent mass panic, I must point out that Mayan scholars completely dismiss this prophecy; scientists everywhere dismiss it as pseudoscience. Even NASA has publicly joined the naysayers; NASA doesn’t do superstition. (Now that is too good to resist! Perhaps if NASA had called the Apollo 13 mission Apollo 12A instead, they might have had more luck with it.)

If it’s any comfort, I agree with the don’t-panickers on this one. I do not believe the world is going to end on 21 December this year.

But (there had to be a but) it got me thinking, and I have some questions for you. What if the world were about to end? What would be your regrets? Here are 10 questions for you to reflect on:

  • Are there any relationships you would wish repaired?
  • Are there toxic relationships you wish you had ended?
  • What hurts have never been healed?
  • What experiences haven’t you had?
  • Have you lived enough?
  • Have you laughed enough?
  • Have you loved enough?
  • Have you been true to your core self?
  • Have you been on the path to being all you can be?

Take some time to consider these questions. Write down your answers. Reflect.

[I shall now go and have a coffee while you do this. Take your time. We have all the time in the world for this exercise.]

Done? Right, let’s continue. The eagle-eyed and arithmetically competent amongst you will have noticed that there are only 9 questions above. So here comes question 10.

If there’s even one answer on your list, what’s stopping you from dealing with it today?

Yes, I know we all lead busy lives, but the days have a habit of passing by. I was chatting to someone recently who is within spitting distance of her 30th birthday. Seemingly only a few heartbeats ago she was 15 years old. Where, she wanted to know, had those years gone?

So don’t wait until the end of the world, or until your retirement, or until the kids have left school, or until the sitting-room’s redecorated or whatever it is you’re waiting for. Make the most of your life today.

Dark, light and many shades of grey

This weekend is the Autumn Equinox, or Mabon in the pagan tradition. At the equinox days and nights are of equal length, and here at Mabon we are poised with exact balance between the dark and the light. The reign of the sun has reached its terminal point, and after this moment is over we fall into its quiescence.

For me it’s a moment to reflect on our attitudes towards darkness and light. Darkness generally gets a bad press. The dark aspects of our personalities usually contain what are considered to be negative emotions and appetities. Sadness, anger, fear, jealousy, hatred, lust, greed… All these are generally regarded as bad, things to be denied or fought against. They tend to be emotions that we don’t feel good experiencing and often don’t like to admit to. They’re not the kind of things you proudly declare on your CV or on a dating profile.

But negative emotions are an intrinsic part of being human. Indeed, they actually give meaning to the positive emotions. If we never had a winter, we would have no concept of summer. If we never felt sad, joy would not actually be joyful. If we never felt fear or anger, how would we recognise love? Without dark, light is meaningless. Without troughs there are no peaks. Without the rhythm of ups and downs there is only anodyne experience and existential boredom.

We humans are neither wholly good, nor wholly bad. We are capable of the most incredible acts of self-sacrifice, and also of the worst acts of cruelty. Most people spend most of their lives see-sawing somewhere in the middle: neither monster nor saint.

There is a spectrum from deepest black to brilliant white, with infinite shades of grey in between. Where are you on that spectrum? And, more importantly, do you think you should be somewhere else?

How comfortable are you with the darker aspects of your personality? Are there aspects of yourself that you completely reject? What are they? What would happen if you accepted them? Are you afraid of them intrinsically – or afraid of being seen to be a person with such traits? Do you fear a state of being, or of being judged?

The equinox is a point of stillness in the wheel of the year. So perhaps you might try to find some time to be still and reflect on your own interplay of darkness and light.

Is your therapy holistic?

lotusUnless you’ve been absent from Planet Earth for the last decade or so, you can’t fail to have noticed that one of the biggest buzzwords in the health field has been the term ‘holistic.’ This term has moved from the humanistic and new age movements firmly into the mainstream. Everyone knows what it means. Or do they? When I read advertisements in health magazines it seems that nearly all therapies and treatments claim to be holistic, but I often wonder what exactly is ‘holistic’ about them. And that makes me wonder what people generally understand by the term.

It is derived from the Greek word ‘holos’ meaning whole, total or all. Given its present positive connotations, it is rather ironic that it was in fact coined in 1926 by South African politician Jan Smuts, a strong supporter of apartheid for most of his life.

The general meaning of ‘holism’ is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The implication is that you cannot understand a system just by understanding the function of the individual pieces, because together they create something more.

In the complementary health field, holism generally refers to the integration of the individual body-mind-spirit. In other words, every human being has a body, a mind and a spirit, and that you cannot fully understand or treat any of these without taking into account how they interact as a whole.

A holistic therapy, then, is one that treats mind, body and spirit. This kind of approach is very different from the kind of medical care that is mainstream, which deals only with very specific problems.

The technology of Western medical science has brought us tremendous benefits and has dramatically improved our quality of health and life expectancy. However, many people instinctively recognise that this approach is not sufficient. Even the most traditional of doctors will agree that the patient’s frame of mind has a huge impact on the outcome of treatment and their chances of recovery. A senior executive atEurope’s largest drug maker has admitted that more than 90% of drugs only work in 30-50% of people.

And, of course, it’s a standing joke (and not really that funny when you think about it) that as you walk through the doctor’s door wanting to talk about a problem, the GP is already reaching for his prescription pad?

If holism is correct, then illnesses are not only physical problems, and the body is not simply a machine that is as mechanical as a car engine.

We in Western societies have long accepted a dualistic view of being, which has perhaps caused this mechanistic view of the body. We have regarded the mind and the body as fundamentally different things, and has led to a mind-body split, in which we consider `I` to be the mind that lives in a body – like a driver in a car. Most of us believe that I have a body not that I am my body. This leads us to ignore one of the most important aspects of our mental well-being.

The dualistic attitude is most noticeable in our religious beliefs. Most of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) teach that the real ‘me’ is my spirit, which will survive my bodily death. The mind and spirit are seen to be superior, while the body and its needs are less important, inferior and maybe even shameful.

This attitude has been changing. Indeed complementary health and the holistic view could almost be said to be close to becoming mainstream.

Pioneering work by psychologist Wilhelm Reich, a pupil of Freud’s, showed the real connection between mind and body. Emotionally painful experiences and our own defences against further pain become locked up in our muscles, forming what he referred to as body-armour. Pupils of Reich continued his work, creating an alternative to the analytical, mind-centred approach of mainstream psychoanalysis.

Then in the 1960’s, Westerners started discovering traditional eastern practices of spirituality and medicine, radically different from those of the West. One of the most influential concepts was the notion that we have an energy-body, a network no less real than our circulatory system – and no less vital to our well-being. Many of these eastern concepts and practices have blended with neo-Reichian and humanistic psychology to form the basis of many of the holistic therapies that are flourishing today.

Holism is for me an understanding that mind, body and spirit are three interlinked systems, and that our current state of being is a complex pattern woven by all three. To achieve harmony and wholeness of being we need to honour each aspect of ourselves as best we can and recognise that imbalances in any one the systems can contribute to problems in another. We need to tread an often winding and subtle path from where we are to where we wish to be.

Posted in Therapies | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Making sense of chaos – Part 3

Continuing my series on making sense of chaos, I want to draw some threads together.  If you haven’t read the previous two parts, now would be a good time.

Since childhood I’ve loved the Wile E. Coyote vs Roadrunner cartoons. What has always amused me is the way the Coyote runs off a cliff and carries on running on thin air. All is fine – until he looks down. At which point gravity takes over: kersplat!

It seems to me that what is happening right now is the global coyote has just looked down. There is no solid ground underfoot.

So how did it happen? Who do we point the finger at?

One of the main causes of the current problems is that money is not real. If you look at an English £20 banknote you’ll see the legend “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of twenty pounds.”  Once upon a time (which is how all good fairy stories begin) this was true: you could go to the Bank of England and exchange your £20 note for twenty-poundsworth of gold. But no more. A banknote is 2 grams of paper, with zero intrinsic value. It is an IOU; but where once it was an IOU for something, now it is an IOU for nothing.  We only use it because we believe it has value. What we have is technically termed a ‘fiat money system’ – a system not backed up by a specific commodity. Another term might be ‘collective fantasy.’

It only works if we all believe in it, as long as nobody rocks the boat.

It seems to me that the financial institutions have behaved like infants who have not yet grasped the principle of delayed gratification. “MORE MONEY! WANT IT NOW!!!” This might have been manageable, were it not for the fact that the financial industry employs some of the keenest minds around. To those of us who don’t possess their kind of knowledge and skills, some of the schemes they have devised and some of the creative accounting are staggeringly incomprehensible.

Bankers – gotcha!

It is, I think, unarguable that the financial services industry has been out of control. It is, of course, the job of government to regulate the industry so it would seem that they have failed to do their job. Politicians thrive on popularity. So while the financial services industry was apparently delivering more and more wealth that enabled the politicians to finance their plans, they had little incentive to rock the boat, to kill the golden goose. They clearly failed in their responsibility to ensure economic stability and well-being.

Politicians – gotcha!

But then we are left with the question – whose job is to regulate the politicians? These very politicians who failed to regulate the bankers and conspicuously failed to regulate themselves – as the expenses scandal demonstrated. And who is in charge of the politicians?

Well, that would be me. And you. And all those who have the vote. Us.


We may think that we live in a democracy, but that is patently untrue. What we have is actually elected dictatorship. Every 5 years we elect a group of people who have absolute power over decision-making. Pre-election pledges are sometimes kept, but are broken more often than not. There is no substantial consultation. Did you want a choice over the Iraq war? Tough. Want a referendum on the EU? Don’t hold your breath.

The root of the term ‘democracy’ is Greek: people power.

But we give a group of people absolute power. We hand over our individual power and retain none for ourselves. And every 5 years we are asked – pretty please – to sign it away yet again; we happily comply with a simple ‘X’.

So for me trying to make sense of this global chaos, there is a simple conclusion. Much as I want to blame the bankers and the politicians, to blame the greed of others or unfettered capitalism, I am left with a self-reflective question:

What do I do with my power?

Making sense of chaos – Part 2

Inner world, outer world

The riots caused a lot of English foreheads to be furrowed in perplexity, wrinkled in concern. I feel that those who were shocked fail to understand human nature and its wider manifestation in social structure.

Humans are not born civilised, but with animal natures. We certainly have an innate capacity for becoming civilised, but it appears that we are not genetically shaped to be so: feral children (those raised by wild animals or who have suffered severe and persistent neglect from human parents) are like wild animals, and even when brought into a caring human environment they struggle to acquire even the most basic of social skills.

No, children have to be taught how to become human.

In the early stages of child development, a baby is shaped by its proximity to mother. This is true not only psychologically, but physiologically – the baby’s body learns to regulate itself by attuning to its mother’s systems. Then there are the wider processes of socialisation and enculturation, in which the child learns both the skills required to function in society and the values and behaviours considered appropriate.

Part of this process of socialisation involves children coming to terms with the reality that they must give up some of their freedoms (behaviours, desires, needs) in order to ‘belong to the tribe’.  This starts with the immediate family: “If I want mum and dad to love me, I must do x and must not do y.” This experience widens in scope to friends (“If I want to make friends I must…”), to schoolteachers and thence to other authority figures and society in general.

In order to belong to the tribe we have to limit ourselves. This is the basic principle of being civilised: having the ability and willingness to keep our self-centred desires within the bounds of what is socially acceptable.

But our animal nature doesn’t go away, nor does it become civilised.

Read that last line again.

What happens is that our cognitive abilities develop (the ability to think, reason, process) we make internal contracts with our inner drives.

To anyone who is a parent the scream “WANT IT NOW!!!” will be all too familiar, as will your own endless explanations of why your child can’t have an ice-cream, or needs to wait until their birthday or Christmas, or whatever. You will also recall that this principle of delayed gratification doesn’t come easily to children.

What is happening when a child learns this principle is that they are developing their internal contracts – in effect, resolving the conflict between their immediate desire and the rules imposed upon them. They do not stop wanting that ice-cream, but learn that there are benefits (parental approval) in waiting.

So there’s an internal trade-off: I’ll stop screaming about chocolate if I get something else in return, such as parental approval and positive parental attention (cuddle, story, game).

We all as adults operate along these lines of emotional economics, the trade-off between conflicting drives. This is how we maintain psychic stability. If all aspects of our self are getting enough of what they need and desire, we maintain a stable personality. If we are not, then parts of us may start grumbling; ignore the grumbles for long enough, and they may start rioting.

When people have problems with unhelpful or self-destructive patterns of behaviour, this simply means that there’s an unresolved inner conflict: some part of us somewhere is not getting anything of what it wants. The inner contract is not delivering, and the psyche is no longer harmonious.

Social structure simply reflects our inner worlds. The ‘social compact’ is that we all give up some of our individual ‘animal’ behaviours in return for wider benefits, the primary of which is safety: I agree not to give in to any urges to kill, hurt or steal on the understanding that all of you act likewise towards me.

We tend to push the boundaries as much as we feel able to (which indicates that deep down we’re not totally comfortable with limiting ourselves in this way. Many people happily take a pad of Post-It notes or a biro home from work without ever thinking that it’s an act of theft. There are many grey areas that we will try to exploit. If you stop and reflect you may find various areas in which you nibble at the edges…

It’s true that those who have not fully resolved their own inner conflicts will be less likely to maintain the social compact, because the latter is founded on the former. Sections of society with lower levels of emotional literacy will be more likely to behave in overtly anti-social ways not because they are more anti-social but because they have not grown up in an environment that enabled them to develop a healthy resolution of their conflict between self and tribe.

Making sense of chaos

I haven’t blogged for a few months or so, to the evident disappointment of many (well, there’s been one request on Facebook!) I have actually started writing on several occasions but there has been so much going on in the world that every time I began it seemed that my words got overtaken by events; I felt I needed to expand what I was saying – and it all started to look rather like a book rather than a blog entry.

So I’m going to publish those blogs I began, rather than waste some interesting material. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the themes are mostly reflections on social turmoil. Not the happiest of subjects, but it’s the reality of our lives. Starting with one from mid-August:


For those of us living in England the main topic during August was the riots. I felt very sorry for those killed or injured, for families burned out of their homes, for those whose businesses have been looted or completely destroyed. I was saddened by the events – but was I shocked or surprised? No, not really.

Reflecting on this I  found that alongside my sadness there was also anger, and one element of that anger was at the hypocrisy I witnessed.

I don’t for a moment condone the rioting and looting that went on. But listening to the grave, concerned voices from Parliament deploring the greed and sheer criminality of the ‘out of control’ youths made me shake my head in disbelief.

Greed? Sheer criminality? This from a group of people half of whom should be in prison? And if they weren’t privileged MPs but ordinary folk like you and me, would be in prison. Yes, the expenses scandal – remember that?

While it is true that a few Parliamentarians have been prosecuted, the vast majority got away scot-free. Collectively these people behaved like pigs with their snouts in the trough. Our lawmakers (!) engaged in outrageous expenses claims, claiming for this home, that home, non-existent homes, pruning the garden and providing duck islands. What astonishes me is that I have never heard a single MP express genuine regret at their behaviour. Regret at being found out, yes. Regret at Parliament being brought into disrepute, yes. But not a single one of them appeared to have truly understood why people were so incensed about it.

What is perhaps worse is that most of them were allowed to escape even censure. They were permitted to say “Sorry, I made a mistake” and pay back the money. Is this compassionate approach going to be accorded to the hoodies? “Sorry, I made a mistake. Let me give you back the trainers I nicked from JB Sports.”

Yeah, as if.

And what about the bankers? Fine upstanding middle-class people all, would never dream of looting. Except their unfettered greed, their overweening ambition to accumulate ever more profits, their insatiable lust for bigger bonuses, has brought the entire global economy to its knees. Thousands – if not millions – of people worldwide have lost their jobs and their homes. The debts will take decades to repay. An entire generation of youth have seen their future suddenly look utterly bleak.

What is clear from the riots is that for some people the social compact is meaningless. As I said, I don’t condone the rampage and violence that took place. But before we completely demonize these youths, let’s look at their behaviour in the context of the behaviour of the ‘upstanding’ members of society.

  •  Many MPs on a very comfortable salary of £65k falsely claim thousands of pounds in expenses.
  •  Many bankers pocket hundreds of thousands per year and cause thousands to lose their jobs, homes and businesses.
  •  A few low-paid or unemployed hoodies smash up the place and loot shops.

Can anyone tell me what the moral difference between them is?

Life and other weirdness

Godzilla vs King KongSometimes I wonder, I truly wonder… I mean… Life, you know?

I was expecting a parcel delivery today, via a courier service (which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty). I’d been told delivery would be anytime between 8am and 6pm, but that I would receive a text message about 2 hours before my delivery time so would be able to organise my day. So far, so good. Now I’d had a late night, didn’t get to bed until around 2am, and was half expecting to be woken early by a text beep on my mobile. As it happens, the Universe had other plans. At 4.30am I was jerked awake by such a screeching, banshee-like wailing and utter pandemonium that suggested a portal from the underworld had opened directly onto my patio and the hounds of hell were pouring through.

When I say the Universe had other plans, what I really mean is the local foxes. Why they had decided to use my patio for their impromptu bout of gang-warfare, I have no idea. But they had. Eventually they ran off, their dastardly deeds completed, leaving me so thoroughly awake that there was no chance of returning to sleep.

Now I think about it, I actually have no proof that it was foxes. It may indeed have been the hounds of hell, or squirrels on crack cocaine, or even the rematch of King Kong vs Godzilla. But I tend towards the foxes theory.

After an unexpected and undesired, yet productive and way-overdue bout of paperwork and tidying, it reached 9.30am and I had a hankering for some hot fresh bread. I hadn’t received the delivery alert, so I happily toddled off to the shops and bought a ready-to-bake baguette. Just as I left the shop my mobile bleeped: my delivery alert. It advised me to expect delivery between 10.15 and 11.15. I checked the time: 9.55. As I was only 5 minutes walk from home, no problemo. But rounding the corner of my street I spotted the courier van. A sudden awful thought shot through my mind – they’d turned up early, tried my doorbell and finding no-one in would at any second whizz off, leaving me annoyed and parcel-less.

I sprinted from the corner of the street up the van, and panted to the driver “Phew – I thought I was going to miss you. I think you’ve got a parcel for me.” I gave the woman my address and she confirmed that she did indeed have a parcel for me, adding “But I can’t give it to you.”

I don’t remember, but I suspect I did a double-take and gawped like a goldfish. “Delivery is scheduled for 10.15, and I’ll get into trouble if I deliver it early,” she explained helpfully. “Look,” she said, waving an electronic gizmo under my nose, “it’s warning me that I’m not allowed to deliver before the scheduled time. It tells me not to be naughty.” She shrugged. “It’s only my second day on the job. “

So I went indoors, and promptly 14 minutes and 37 seconds later my doorbell rang. It was Mrs Godzilla wanting to know if I’d seen her son. No, I made that bit up. It was the courier delivering my parcel. Ah, don’t you just love happy endings?

All’s well that ends well, apparently. But to have the courier there and waiting, and me there and waiting, but nothing can happen because a gizmo says no – then you know that something somewhere is wrong. We humans need meaning, and will seek to create it out of chaos. But in this case… Common sense has shrugged its shoulders, given up and walked off. Rhyme is silent, chewing her pencil, stuck for a match for courier. And Reason… well, I thought Reason was fast asleep, but he just opened one eye and lazily observed “If Godzilla doesn’t get you, the gizmo will.”