When we hold to our opinions with aggression, no matter how valid our cause, we are simply adding more aggression to the planet – and violence and pain increase. (Pima Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart).
Robert Bly, the American poet, in his Little Book on the Human Shadow presents a compelling image of the impact of the opinions of others on our growth from child through adolescent, to adult. He describes the child as a globe of energy, fully him/herself, freely expressing what he/she feels and experiences. As the child grows and is exposed to commentary from parent, teacher, acquaintance, and other conventional custodians of what passes for morality and correctness (“It’s not nice to try to kill your brother”), Bly maintains that we ‘stuff’ those publically disapproved of parts of ourselves into the ‘long bag we drag behind us’ (his rather vivid description of our shadow side). By adulthood this ‘bag’ has come to contain most of what we have truly felt in our more ‘natural’ period as a child, is now largely inaccessible to us (without considerable reflection and introspection), and leaves only a ‘a thin slice of that globe’ from which to consciously operate. More concerning, that which remains has come to reflect little more than the aggregation, the collection of opinions of others as we become progressively ‘socialized’. We essentially lose track of our truth; have, in the words of a friend, ‘wandered from our path’; and perhaps worse, don’t know it. That collection of opinion has begun to feel like our own.
This has been a challenging week for my globe. Perhaps channeling my father’s private sector mentality (not to mention, his Protestant work ethic), I am instinctively triggered by ‘spin’ – whatever its source. With an election staring us in the face, it’s difficult to avoid the rhetoric (unless, of course one is attending to royal weddings or consolidations of sports’ seasons). These two polarities, private enterprise and public ‘party line’, collided early week for me in a conversation with a representative from the latter (me representing the former). Our practice had just come off a highly satisfying year reflecting what I had viewed as a ‘happy marriage’ between publically funded services in our practice and private sector supplements that had seen one of our major programs arrive at year-end within budget. I was somewhat surprised when the commentary appeared to veer away from things like being lauded for efficiency, value for dollars, volume of service provided into the muddy world of ‘liability’. What ‘truth’ is this’, I mused. But then I squinted, and saw that I was speaking to a very thin slice indeed. This was not a truth at all – but a carefully cultivated ‘opinion’ that likely flowed freely from a collective political unconscious. And I felt compassion (eventually, after I cooled off) for this little lamb that had lost her way – and in the bargain, contact with what she likely once believed.
Bly extends his treatise with thoughts on what lengths are needed for ‘socialized adults’ to go to access aspects of our essential truths. Again the poet, he notes that we often find it necessary to retain the services of ‘hired guns’ – artists, poets, authors, filmmakers – to express that for which we can no longer ourselves find the words. He laments this state of affairs; and challenges each of us to become our own ‘poet’, to reflect on the contents of ‘our bag’, and once again become conversant with our core truths, our core values – versus those we have adopted. He maintains that art, theatre, film, literature have ever been the repositories of our truths; and that there is genuine value in personally reclaiming that which we have ‘contracted out’.
Inveterate addicts of BBC entertainment we were presented a lovely little restatement of Bly’s contention (about the role of art in truth) in an early episode of Upstairs Downstairs – determined to plow through all 60+ hours of the original before getting into the ‘sequel’. Lady Bellamy is having her portrait painted and engages the artist in conversation around the likely ‘finished product’. He confesses that he doesn’t know if she will ‘like’ the result, that it will mirror her own experience of herself – it can only be an expression of how he sees her, his ‘truth’. She is at once intrigued by the possibility of multiple ‘truths’ – and anxious that she will not ‘come out’ as she expected. Her husband struggles even more with the prospects of a ‘libertarian’ being entrusted with representing something as personal as a family ‘image’, fearing that it will not conform to the narrow standards of the day and may convey something of his family other than the carefully constructed ‘spin’ associated with London society. As indeed it does, ultimately hung adjacent in a gallery to the artist’s impression of maids from this same house (in rather ‘revealing’ circumstances). The ‘truth’ of the scenario ebbs and flows, evolving through outrage, indignation, shame, political and social opportunism, tolerance – all to the end of ‘each seeing what each needs to see’, their personal and unique truths.
Back to Pima Chödrön for the moment. She makes a compelling argument that our opinions are as much expressions of our history, our ego, our thoughts. She notes that, with a mindful approach to opinion, we are able to suspend the compulsion to vet what we think we believe through all manner of filters, accept them as momentary (and evolving) postures that, in the next moment will, if allowed, morph into something else. To predicate our actions on opinion, as if they were somehow absolute truths, is folly.
And a few final lines from the bard himself on the importance of trusting one’s core self, core feelings, resisting the urge to ‘bend or alter’ one’s ‘opinion’ as the (transient) situation seems to demand.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
(Sonnet 116, Shakespeare)