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Solitude and Creativity
One could say that we are congenitally predisposed to suffer, even though it is probably wrong to impute to nature this discouraging condition that contradicts the instinct for self-preservation. More likely it is millenia of culture that have contaminated the will to live. Whatever the reason, it is a fact that human suffering is pervasive, sometimes imperceptible but at other times so brutally in evidence as to override all else.
Let it be clear that I am no friend of pain, but wherever we look it is there. To echo Kierkegaard:
I am not the man who thinks that we ought never to suffer; I despise this paltry wisdom, and if I have a choice I prefer to bear pain to the bitter end. Suffering is beautiful, and there is vigor in tears; but one should not suffer like a man without hope4.
Human suffering has not only its shocking aspects, but also those of a more discrete nature that nevertheless carry significant weight. Loneliness, for example. We know well enough what it is, but only when we experience it personally does it touch us deeply. Isolation, like other emotional experiences, reaches a threshold beyond which words lose their meaning. We cannot communicate our most intimate experiences to others. And this is not due to the physical absence of people around us, but rather, paradoxically, to their presence. It makes itself felt the moment we are in contact with others, when we believe we ought to feel their nearness and support, but don't.
Thus we conclude that our loneliness is not due to a difficulty in having relationships but is rather a question of inner suffering that can be neither cured nor alleviated by external presences. We become tragically aware of solitude as a basic human condition5.
One reason for that sense of alienation goes back to our most formative moments when essential needs like mirroring and tenderness were not met. When such deep desires are not gratified, one is obliged to create within oneself the response that others were not able to give. It is this surrogate fulfillment in the world of the imagination that makes us aware for the first time of our innerness. In other words, on both the ontogenetic and phylogenetic levels, frustration motivates creative fantasy and with it the awareness of one's inner dimension. To acquire this knowledge means in a certain sense to become capable of understanding one's personal truth. This is always mute. When it is expressed, it is communicated in silence. If one really has to speak, what results is a translation of silence.
The contact with solitude allows us to avoid indoctrination; in fact, to create a complete Weltanschauung in this situation would mean deriving one's knowledge of reality exclusively from within. That is why, for example, it is so difficult for some children to start school. That which is proffered now clashes with something more vital and individual.
But at this point we make another tragic discovery: we learn that the world outside does not belong to us. In life's difficult moments we are always alone, because the other has no power to help us, however much he or she may want to. In such a predicament not even an invitation to conquer the outside world proves of interest. Sometimes the commitment to acquiring material wealth can be a defense against the deep fear of remaining alone. When we give up such external defenses, we enter a realm where we can no longer participate on the collective level because of our irreprehensible individualism.
A person who lives consciously and intensely is considered dangerous by the collective because this is the very level on which truths are gathered.
In solitude—understood not as detachment from others but as a feeling of being alone among our fellows—we represent a truth that can unmask and denounce the falsity that circulates in the external world. The great figures in history, those who changed our vision of the world, drew their truths from the wells of their solitude.
One must not, of course, fool oneself into thinking there is no price to be paid for this. On the contrary, the price is very high: the suffering one feels when one tries to communicate and becomes aware of the distance between oneself and others. This totally personal experience cannot be translated into words, but it is as binding on us as an intimate secret. Many existential tragedies are due to this kind of life, one that offers us the opportunity of making our own the most intimate and profound aspects of things, but deprives us of human warmth and relationships. Every time we mingle in the community, in social situations, the flimsiness of conventional relationships is brought home to us.
A conventional relationship is not a substitute for, but the exact opposite of, an authentic one. The words it uses are virtually empty and have no expressive power. Such relationships are common in everyone's life, and so we live an almost uninterrupted sequence of exchanges that could be called insignificant if it were not for our few desperate attempts to save at least the semblance of a real bond. Even when the chance for an authentic relationship presents itself, we are so out of the habit and unprepared for it that the fear of being inadequate pushes us into adopting false behavior.
The Basic Concepts of Reality Therapy
What is wrong with those who need psychiatric treatment?
What is it that psychiatrists attempt to treat? What is wrong with the man in a mental hospital who claims he is Jesus, with the boy in and out of reform schools who has stolen thirty-eight cars, the woman who has continual crippling migraine headaches, the child who refuses to learn in school and disrupts the class with temper outbursts, the man who must lose a promotion because he is afraid to fly, and the bus driver who suddenly goes berserk and drives his bus load of people fifty miles from its destination in a careening danger-filled ride?
Do these widely different behaviors indicate different psychiatric
problems requiring a variety of explanations, or are they manifestations of one underlying difficulty? We believe that, regardless of how he expresses his problem, everyone who needs psychiatric treatment suffers from one basic inadequacy: he is unable to fulfill his essential needs. The severity of the symptom reflects the degree to which the individual is unable to fulfill his needs. No one can explain exactly why one person expresses his problem with a stomach ulcer while another fears to enter an elevator; but whatever the symptom, it disappears when the person's needs are successfully fulfilled.
Further, we must understand that not only is the psychiatric problem a manifestation of a person's inability to fulfill his needs, but no matter how irrational or inadequate his behavior may seem to us, it has meaning and validity to him. The best he can do in an uncomfortable, often miserable condition, his behavior is his attempt to solve his particular variety of the basic problem of all psychiatric patients, the inability to fulfill his needs.
In their unsuccessful effort to fulfill their needs, no matter what behavior they choose, all patients have a common characteristic: they all deny the reality of the world around them. Some break the law, denying the rules of society; some claim their neighbors are plotting against them, denying the improbability of such behavior. Some are afraid of crowded places, close quarters, airplanes, or elevators, yet they freely admit the irrationality of their fears. Millions drink to blot out the inadequacy they feel but that need not exist if they could learn to be different; and far too many people choose suicide rather than face the reality that they could solve their problems by more responsible behavior. Whether it is a partial denial or the total blotting out of all reality of the chronic backward patient in the state hospital, the denial of some or all of reality is common to all patients. Therapy will be successful when they are able to give up denying the world and recognize that reality not only exists but that they must fulfill their needs within its framework.
A therapy that leads all patients toward reality, toward grappling successfully with the tangible and intangible aspects of the real world, might accurately be called a therapy toward reality, or simply Reality Therapy.
As mentioned above, it is not enough to help a patient face reality; he must also learn to fulfill his needs. Previously when he attempted to fulfill his needs in the real world, he was unsuccessful. He began to deny the real world and to try to fulfill his needs as if some aspects of the world did not exist or in defiance of their existence. A psychotic patient who lives in a world of his own and a delinquent boy who repeatedly breaks the law are common examples of these two conditions. Even a man with a stomach ulcer who seems to be facing reality in every way is upon investigation often found to be attempting more than he can cope with, and his ulcer is his body's reaction to the excess stress. Therefore, to do Reality Therapy the therapist must not only be able to help the patient accept the real world, but he must then further help him fulfill his needs in the real world so that he will have no inclination in the future to deny its existence.
Chaucer and his times
In this chapter we are to get a glimpse of fourteenth century England through Chaucer's eyes. What Chaucer saw—or at least what he chose to record—is by no means all the story. Between the Conquest and Chaucer's time, Saxon and Norman had been gradually blending into one fairly homogeneous people. The kings of England had gradually become, not Norman, or French, but English kings. The people had come to look upon themselves, not as belonging primarily to this or that feudal lord, but as subjects, all together, of their English king. They had made the discovery that as a people they had rights of their own and by acting together could enforce them. In the thirteenth century they had wrested from King John the bill of rights called Magna Carta. In the early fourteenth century the elected representatives of the people, who constituted the "parliament," and who acted with the king in making laws, were strong enough to depose King Edward II. In the last year of Chaucer's life, parliament deposed King Richard II. The political strife of which such incidents are typical does not get into Chaucer's picture. Nor does the growing unrest of the lower classes concern him. Grinding poverty, oppressive taxation, the destitution wrought by war and by the great plague called the Black Death which swept over England in 1349, the great peasant rebellion headed by Wat Tyler in 1381, do not tempt Chaucer's pen. It is to Langland's Vision of Piers Plowman (1362) with its grimly realistic picture of the selfish luxury of the rich and the wretchedness of the poor, that you must turn for this darker side of the picture. Nor does the intense religious unrest of the time interest Chaucer. The central figure of that unrest was John Wyclif (1324?-1384), whose sermons and tracts roused the people to revolt against the luxury and oppressive authority of the church, and whose translation of the Bible (1380), made in order that the people might read and think for themselves, stands as the first great monument of English prose. The revolt of Wyclif and his followers caused great excitement in England and laid the foundation for the Reformation; but as far as Chaucer is concerned it is as if it had not been.
What did interest Chaucer was human nature and the pageant of life. His own career gave him opportunity to sample and to see. He was born about 1340 when Edward III was on the throne. He became a page in the household of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, second son of the king, and learned, like the Prioress of the Canterbury Tales, to countreifete cheere of court, and been estatlich of manere.
He followed King Edward to France, was captured in the campaign of 1359, and was duly ransomed. He returned to take a place at court and married Philippa, a lady-in-waiting to the queen. He was sent on a mission to Italy in 1372. A year after the accession of King Richard II in 1377, he went to Italy again. During the later years of his life he held the office of comptroller of the customs in the port of London. He saw Richard deposed in 1399. He died during the first year of the reign of Richard's successor, Henry IV. During this long and busy public life Chaucer found time to translate or paraphrase a French poem, the Romance of the Rose; to retell in English verse, with extraordinary vigor and vividness, the tale of Troilus and Criseyde, the material for which he borrowed from Boccaccio; to compose various other narrative and lyric poems; and at length, with his powers fully ripe, to write the Canterbury Tales which have made his name immortal. These purport to be tales told by a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. The host of the Tabard Inn (at which they assemble for the start) decides to accompany them and persuades them to beguile the journey with stories—each traveler to tell two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. The twenty-nine or thirty, or possibly thirty-two pilgrims, would, under this first plan, provide for approximately one hundred and twenty tales; but this number was subsequently diminished to approximately sixty, and of these proposed tales only twenty were completed—just about enough, with the four left incomplete, to tide the pilgrims over the journey to the shrine. What they did there and how they entertained each other on the way back, Chaucer leaves untold. But the long "Prologue" describing the pilgrims, the twenty-four tales, and the little prologues in which Mine Host designates the story-teller and gets him going, are enough in themselves to make up a sizable library.
That indeed was a part of Chaucer's intention in writing the Canterbury Tales. Printing had not been invented—manuscripts were rare and precious. The medieval scholar who was fortunate enough to have access to a variety of them, tapped this rich mine, brought together stories from every quarter, and, weaving them into some plausible connection, made a compact library of them. It was what the great Italian scholar, Boccaccio, whom Chaucer admired and imitated, had done in the Decameron, gathering some of his material from actual life, much of it from old French fabliaux, and weaving it together in the form of stories, told in turn by a group of people who have retreated to a country house near Florence to escape the plague and wish to while away the tedium of the days. So Chaucer gathers stories from many old manuscripts, adds others of his own invention, and weaves them together on the thread of this pilgrimage to Canterbury, assigning each story to the pilgrim from whose lips it would most appropriately come.
But if the stories are to be appropriate, the pilgrims themselves must of course be real people, not mere pegs to hang a story on. It is in this characterization of the pilgrims, and in giving each story just the color and tone and turn that that very pilgrim and no other would give to it, that Chaucer shows his skill and takes his chief delight. And that, and the vivid picture of the life of the times which is thus created, is our chief delight in the Canterbury Tales. So vivid is the picture, so real are the people, that I think that we cannot do better than see them through Chaucer's eyes. Chaucer imagines himself as one of the pilgrims on that Canterbury journey. We, I think, may claim the same privilege, and as we proceed to join them may pick up a few general impressions on the way.
The first thing, certainly, that will strike us is that manifestations of the church, of the usages and practices of religion, are everywhere. Everywhere we shall see men and women clad in garments that mark them as belonging to some organized form of religious life. Monks, lady prioresses, nuns, priests, friars, pardoners, palmers, we shall hear them called. Even the military men, the knights clad in armour, are as likely as not to belong to some religious order, or to have just come back from a religious pilgrimage to Palestine. And when we find ourselves with a merry crowd of Chaucer's people traveling along an English highway, we shall discover that all of them—knights and merchants and millers and doctors and lawyers as well as monks and nuns and priests—are going on a religious pilgrimage. What does it mean, this religious life that is everywhere around us?
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