Paws for Thought

I got married in April, 1982 during the time of the last recession in Ireland – not nearly as catastrophic as the present one.  I was then employed as a Senior Clinical Psychologist by the Midwestern Health Board and located in Our Lady’s Psychiatric Hospital, Ennis, Co. Clare. I had also established several community psychological clinics throughout the county for individuals, couples and children who were experiencing problems in living.  My wife Helen was working in Cork and we had rented a house in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare and on weekends either she would commute to Ennis or to Cork.  We eventually bought an old farm house in East Cork but continued the commuting arrangements for another eight years until I returned to Cork in 1990 to establish a private practice and design, direct and lecture on courses for University College Cork.   Not surprisingly, during those eight years Helen experienced loneliness and some anxiety about living on her own four nights a week in a remote part of East Cork.  When I spotted an advert on The Clare Champion offering a border collie pup for sale I decided on the following Friday evening to head into the wilds of Clare to choose a puppy and surprise Helen when I got to Cork later that evening.  I chose a black and white male pup and he had the plump softness of a pound of butter when I picked him up and carried him to my car.  I placed him on the front seat next to me, but he was obviously feeling insecure, and he quickly drifted onto my lap and secured himself there for the entire two and a half hour journey.  Unfortunately, on my way through Knocklong, Co. Tipperary I was stopped by a local garda.  This was a time when wearing a seat belt was not mandatory but highly recommended.  After he checked the tax and insurance discs he came to my side of the car and when I rolled down the window he commented on the fact that I was not wearing a seat belt.  He had not seen the pup, but when I pointed to it fast asleep on my lap, his stern facial expression dissolved into softness and with an attempt to show firmness he gruffly said: “Go on so and drive carefully”.

How is it that pups and kittens and most young animals touch our hearts so much?  The saying “A dog is a man’s best friend” certainly captures that tender responsiveness, but, there is a poignancy in that saying, because one would hope that a person’s best friends are himself and a fellow human being.  Do not take me up wrongly here – I loved my dog – we called him Shep (the name of the organisation Helen then worked for – Social and Health Education Programme).

However, I have learned that my best friend is myself and my second best friend has been Helen and, thankfully, I have established several other good friendships.  More than anything else friendship is what maintains a marriage and a relationship and when it is absent it is usually due to the absence of an inner connection with self.

Back to the doggie story.  Helen was besotted with Shep and he became her watchdog when I was away but, intelligently, ceded the role to me when I returned home at weekends.  Curiously, too, when I would take Shep with me on trips in the car – and he grew to be a big dog – invariably he would find a way to put his head on my lap.  Clearly, he never forgot the security he had found there during those first hours of separation from his mother and fellows pups.  When Helen commuted to Clare he would sit up like a human being on the front seat – a strange sight for sore eyes of a dog and a woman in a quirky green and white safari Citroen 2CV as they motored through the streets of Tipperary, Limerick, Ennis and all the way to Ballyvaughan.

On a number of occasions I brought Shep into the Psychiatric Hospital – mind you, not for treatment – but as a treat for those individuals who were long-term residents of the hospital.  The effect the dog’s presence had was mesmerising – grim faces being transformed into grins, smiles and laughter.  Somehow Shep’s presence was no threat for them and they wallowed in his unconditional acceptance of them.  For weeks after these long-term residents would continually ask about Shep and look forward to his next visit.  I attempted to persuade the hospital administrators to get some dogs for the hospital, but, sadly to no avail.  Of course, this phenomenon of the therapeutic effects that a friendly dog can have is well documented.  People who are isolated and lonely can benefit radically with the ownership of a dog.  Individuals who have had heart attacks and heart operations are often advised to get a dog to lift their spirits and lift their fitness with daily walks with the dog.

Shep lived over twelve years but he also sired nine pups with his partner Jessie, a beautiful rough collie.  We kept one of the pups – the runt of the litter – who also turned out to have a very sweet nature.  Twenty-six years after that visit to the farm in Clare that pup called Missy died at the ripe old age of sixteen years of age.  We have not yet replaced their presence but we are sorely tempted.

Dr. Tony Humphreys, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Author, National and International Speaker.  

Unity in Tragedy

Recovery of the final body lost in the fishing-boat tragedy in Union Hall allowed loved ones to finally honour and mourn the sudden and sad passing of their loved one.  What was striking about the catastrophe was the very active love, support, compassion provided by individuals of the Union Hall community and, indeed, beyond, and by the divers who risked their own lives in search of the missing persons.

In a poem at the outbreak of World War 11 the poet W.H. Auden wrote: “We must love one another or die”.  How accurate Auden was and how much that lesson still needs to be learned in so many ways in so many warn- torn and political- torn countries.  However, there is a paradox to tragedy and war and that is in these catastrophic times people find it is their hearts to reach out with love, compassion, consolation, support, cooperation and be self-sacrificing for the sake of others.  I am not suggesting we need disasters and wars to awaken our true nature, which is love, but this phenomenon certainly begs the question: how is it that we struggle with loving others in times of plenty?  How was it that during the ‘boom’ economic times sight was lost of fairness, equality, individuality, justice and that a ‘me fein’ ethos predominated.  The Dalai Lama echoed this absence of emotional and social care when he argued that “Love and compassion have been omitted from too many spheres of social interaction for too long; their practice in public life is considered impractical, even naive.  This is tragic”. 

I believe that loss, death and difficult times provide some level of emotional safety for people to express our hunger to give and receive love.  These times also allow individuals to mourn their own experiences of loss of love and loved ones alongside those who are mourning in the here and now.  Somehow men come more to the fore in times of calamities, as if somehow their very real reticence around the expression of love can be suspended in the face of those people who so openly manifest their grief and distress, and even more poignantly when the bodies of their loved ones cannot be found.  We have seen that sad phenomenon repeated many times when a father or son or mother or daughter went missing without trace in Northern Ireland.  Even when a body is unearthed over 30 years later, it brings a certain peace to those bereaved.

Great gratitude and appreciation need to be extended to all those individuals in Union Hall and beyond who pulled out all the stops to find the missing bodies and allow family members, relatives and friends to put the souls of their loved ones to rest.  People talk about this as drawing a closure around the tragedy, but I believe there is no such experience as closure around the loss – tragic or expected – of a loved one.  There is certainly a meeting of the need to have the body of the loved one laid to rest but one never truly gets over the death of a loved one.  What we do learn is to live with it and maintain the love connection that to my mind is both timeless and infinite.

Marie Rilke, the German poet, says that “to love is to cast light”, while “to be loved means to be ablaze”.  Certainly, the love shown by individuals in Union Hall ‘cast a light’ not only on those who were suffering loss but on us all.   Equally – and not often appreciated – the very evident receiving of love by those who were so evidently bereft set us all ablaze.  There is a secret about human love that is frequently over-looked: receiving is much more frightening and scary than giving.  It has been touching to witness the love expressed and received so powerfully by all involved in the Union Hall tragedy.  The lesson for us all is not to wait for tragedy to be expressive of and receptive to love.

I am going to finish with a poem by Hafiz, which is quoted in a wonderful book by John Welwood, Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships:

Jump to your feet, wave your fists,

Threaten and warn the whole universe

That your heart can no longer live

Without real love!

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Author, National and International Speaker.  His book Relationship, Relationship, Relationship, Heart of a Mature Society is relevant to today’s column. 

Each Person is an Island

The saying ‘No man is an island’ masks a deeper and, indeed, an opposite reality – each person is an island (I-land). When a person knows and occupies her own island she brings a maturity and independence to a relationship – to partner, friend, colleague, child, neighbour and service provider.  This reality is contained eloquently in Martin Buber’s (German philosopher/psychotherapist) words:

             “Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique.  It is the duty of every person....to know and consider....that there has never been anyone like her in the world, for if there had been someone like her, there would have been no need for her to be in the world.  Every single person is a new thing in the world and is called upon to fulfil her particularity in this world. Every person’s foremost task is the actualisation of her unique, unprecedented and never recurring potentialities, and not the repetition of something that another, be it even the greatest, has already achieved.”

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The Myth of Autistic Spectrum Disorder

Currently, a team of researchers at Cambridge University are exploring the connection between high-achieving parents, such as engineers, scientists and computer programmers and the development of their children.  Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who is the Director of the Autism Research Centre at the university, said that there were indications that adults who have careers in the areas of science and math are more likely to have autistic children. In studies in 1997 and 2001 it was found that the children and grandchildren of engineers were more likely to be autistic and that mathematicians had higher rates of autism than other professions.  What is shocking is that Dr. Baron-Cohen and the team of researchers are one, assuming that autism is a scientific fact and, two, missing the glaringly obvious fact that if the adults they researched live predominantly in their heads and possess few or no heart qualities, their children are going to have to find some way of defending themselves against the absence of expressed love and affection and emotional receptivity.  After all the deepest need of every child is to be unconditionally loved and the absence of it results in children shutting down emotionally themselves because to continue to spontaneously reach out for love would be far too painful.  Children’s wellbeing mostly depends on emotional security – a daily diet of nurture, love, affection, patience, warmth, tenderness, kindness and calm responses to their expressed welfare and emergency feelings.  To say that these children have a genetic and/or neurobiological disorder called autism or ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) only adds further to their misery and condemns them to a relationship history where their every thought and action is interpreted as arising from their autism.

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Falling In and Out of Love

In the words of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke it appears that ‘for one human being to love another is the most difficult of all tasks’, and this is true for parents and children, friend and friend, lover and lover and husband and wife. For the purposes of Valentine’s Day I am going to focus on adult relationships. In the USA, 60 per cent of marriages breakdown and, poignantly and significantly, 80 per cent of second marriages end unhappily. Those statistics do not take into account the high percentage of intact unhappy marriages. It is a real conundrum that if, on the one hand, love is the greatest power on earth – the force that sustains human life – how, on the other hand, is it that many relationships are a near-certain prescription for unbelievable pain and emotional devastation?

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