Speaking Truth to Power

In my last piece I wrote about St. Paul’s view that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers…” I linked this idea to the ways in which generational values come to be handed on. It is usually those values that are least helpful that get transmitted. The values that could be creative and life affirming seem to get filtered out.

I’ve written before about the power of naming something or someone. If I know your true name, then I have power over you. I hold your soul captive. This is how I interpret Paul’s message. I am held captive by the principalities and powers of anger, anxiety, depression. There is a long mythic tradition of ” binding” demonic forces by knowing their true name. The story of the Gadarene swine seems to fit with this tradition. Once the man was free from his afflictions, he was back in his right mind and able to function as a human being. Not trapped in a world of ” demonic” forces.

In my therapy room I meet lots of demons. Demons of silence that won’t allow a person to think about themselves because any alternative story is forbidden. Like Cinderella longing to go to the Ball, but not allowing herself to even consider the idea. She was exiled to the principality of ” Duty” “Depression” and “No Hope”. Fortunately she had enough of her homeland in her to find Hope,

When I see a new patient, there is always the struggle between how much work they want to do and the amount of work I hope they might achieve. Leaving behind somewhere that has become Home is always difficult. Part of my work is to speak truth to Power. To challenge the powers that keep so many people trapped. (It’s hard to write about this aspect of the work. One ends up sounding like a fervid religious preacher offering to cast out demons. Or a touchy feely Californian New Age guru.)

The work is in naming and having that name acknowledged. “Yes. I am angry about such and such.” ” No. That shouldn’t have happened.” “Yes. It was abuse.” By allowing the speaking of Truth to Power, the individual is affirmed.

Which might be a way of thinking about the Christmas story.

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Principalities and Powers

Saint Paul wrote that we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers,

This seems to be one way of thinking about the way values seem to get embedded. Whenever I assess a man for Anger Management there will be generations of men behind him sharing their values and instilling in him a view of how men behave and conduct themselves. Usually these values include emotional and physical abuse as a way of enforcing a power structure. These men then grow up with a view of themselves as needing to be ” hard”. Hard on their children and hard on their wives. Sometimes the control is physical, sometimes emotional. But always about control.

Similarly when I assess a woman who has come for help with anxiety or depression, there will be mothers and grandmothers who instil a view of a woman’s place and function. This will be that they are there primarily to serve their husband or children. ( To serve. Not to complement or share, but to serve. As one patient put it, her task was to help her husband become the man she saw that he could be!)

Saint Paul understood his battle to be with the spiritual forces that he thought lay behind everyday life and society. He saw these values as demonic and anti Life..

Looking at the Brexit decision, I’m almost inclined to follow him.

In broad terms, he had a point. Violence, rage, crippling anxiety and depression are anti Life. Which might be one way of characterising the demonic. That which is anti Life. Which begs the question of “Why?” Why does a man come to believe that violence is the only way to live? Where does he decide that hitting his wife and children are good ways to live?

Where does a woman decide that her task is to sacrifice all for her husband/ father/ family?

It seems that there is an alternative value system that ensnares us in its thinking. I recognise it in myself. My wife works full time in a job that she enjoys and which is demanding. I’m retired and work fewer hours. But if we run out of something at home, my all too frequent reaction is ” Why hasn’t Jenny done the shopping?” (I do try to remind myself that I am quite capable of going shopping.) And I consider myself to be a modern man. Some values run deep!

So how to understand the principalities and powers at work here? Much of the difficulty seems to stem from a sense of insecurity. I’ve yet to meet a man for whom Anger was a problem who was able to value himself very much. In all the men I’ve worked with, there was an underlying sense of low self worth. ” I’m just thick. I’m only fit to be a navvy” is how several of my men have put it. And even on the building sites, there’s no respite. Any comment on their work, justified or otherwise, is experienced as criticism. Any criticism wipes out their entire being, confirming their view that they are indeed ” only fit to be a fucking navvy.” Take this away and it’s hardly surprising that violence erupts in some form. If my self esteem is so fragile, then anyone or anything that threatens that will be met with an extreme response.

With depressed and anxious women self esteem also seems to be involved but in more subtle ways. We know how misogynistic our society can be. A woman’s place is still in the home. No matter how many important decisions she makes at work, a woman can still be undone if she forgets the milk! ( I wonder who does the shopping for Theresa May? I remember David Cameron shopping in Aylesbury. A large, black SUV parked illegally at the top of our street. No parking ticket was issued! His bodyguards got out first, followed by Cameron as he did a bit of shopping in Aylesbury. An everyday trip to the shops such as we all do.)

Women still see themselves as being subservient to men. The patient who told me she saw her task as helping her husband to be the man she thought he could be, was expressing a maxim from her mother and grandmother- which is usually as far back as records go. In this case all three generations had seen their marriages fail as the men they had chosen turned out to have agendas that didn’t match those of their wives. In each case the present generation managed to instil the message ” Do as I say and ignore what you see.” with no good outcomes.

We seem to be back to principalities and powers. Of powerful unseen forces shaping successive generations and influencing behaviour and values. Perhaps one way of characterising the work of the therapist is that we speak Truth to Power.

Evensong

” Grant to thy faithful people pardon and peace…” Words from Evening Prayer or Evensong. As a benediction at the end of a day or a week it’s hard to better. I rather like the idea of having this on my headstone. Along with “Go not gently into that dark night” and Winnicott’s ” I hope I’m alive when I die.” ( I’m going to need a lot of space on my headstone!) It seems a lovely way of summing up all the hopes and wishes that we hold for someone.

In my counselling work I often want to offer this blessing to so many of my patients. It’s an aspect of the work that many of us perform. Pronouncing a blessing for our patients. It forms an Amen at the end of a session. A way of affirming our belief in our patient and in the work.

” Pardon and peace” are so often absent in my patients worlds. Angry men who are the sons and grandsons of violent men. Anxious and depressed women who are the product of mothers and grandmothers who were anxious and depressed. The pardon and peace they need to hear has never been spoken. What they heard was rage, bravado. A refusal of any sign of vulnerability or need. ( This is mostly the case in those men who come to me for Anger Management. Being the hard man was more acceptable than being able to be “needy”.)

The women who come bringing their anxiety and depression are often just as trapped in a story about how they should be. “Seen and not heard” is often how they feel treated. (Underlying their depression is a rage equal to any ” anger management” men. Simply that women so often internalise their distress where men are more prone to act it out.)

 It seems that giving oneself the gift of “Pardon and peace” takes a deal of courage. “Do I deserve it? What does it mean? Can I keep hold of it?” Kierkegaard talked of the Leap of Faith. He was thinking of God. As a counsellor my task is a little easier. I invite my patients to trust that our work together can result in Pardon and peace.

Paul Tillich described God as the Ground of our Being. Perhaps this where we arrive when we receive and grant Pardon and Peace. We find the Ground of our Being. Whatever that Ground might look like.