Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

There’s a powerful piece on the Bahá’í Teachings website this month by the novelist, Sidney Morrison. Advocating, as it eloquently does, the power of art – and literature in particular – to connect us, it shed light into one of the places I most love to examine. It includes a moving story, not quoted below, of how Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina helped a prisoner find some hope and understanding in his darkness. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

As a recently published novelist, I wondered before publication if a photograph of my black face should be reproduced on the book’s inside cover.

Why? Well, I wrote a historical novel called City of Desire about a young white woman who, because of the severely limited options before her, chose to become a prostitute in 1830’s New York. Based on a true story, her rise and fall fascinated me, and I wanted to understand her character, her choices, and the culture that molded her. As a man, too, I wanted to understand the struggle of women to be free.

But I feared a possible challenge coming from self-appointed members of the identity police, the people who think they have the right to determine group membership and excoriate those who dare to penetrate barriers imposed for outsiders, “those people” who don’t belong, “the other” who can’t possibly understand what it is to be black, white, female, male, Muslim, or Christian, or any other difference. Take your pick; the list is endless.

I heard those “identity police” voices in my head: “How dare you? Who do think you are? How can you possibly know what it is to be a white woman? Stay in your place. Write about what you know, and only what you know. If you do otherwise, you are appropriating our space and taking from us what is legitimately and exclusively ours.”

Writers are usually told one tired nostrum in classes and workshops: Write about What You Know. The familiar makes your work easier and more authentic, advisors and teachers say. If you write what you know, you’re less open to criticism. After all, this is your experience.

But think about it. If all writers followed this admonition, then we would write only memoirs or autobiographies. Painters would paint only self-portraits. Actors would only play themselves. Instead, artists do much more, and have done so since the beginning of storytelling and artistry itself. Artists extend themselves into uncharted territory so they can imagine and empathize with others—so they can make a human connection unmitigated by the artificial barriers we erect to keep us apart.

Ultimately, I decided against removing my photograph. I refused to capitulate to a rising culture of tribalism, where people live in their own bubbles, hearing only what comforts them, reaffirming their assumptions and prejudices, reinforcing the righteousness of their cause and the status of their group.

These separatist impulses have exponentially intensified as we all have become more aware of a diverse and complex world. The world is uniting, as Baha’u’llah promised it would in the middle of the 19th century:

The purging of such deeply-rooted and overwhelming corruptions cannot be effected unless the peoples of the world unite in pursuit of one common aim and embrace one universal faith. – Baha’u’llahTablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 68.

Some people fear this fact of increasing unity, globalization and human connection, hating those who are different from themselves and trying to wall themselves off from others.

But literature, since the beginning of art itself, has demonstrated the exact opposite, focusing on our common humanity despite our differences. Literature tears down walls, and shows us we are all human and all one. We all feel love, anger, resentment, and hope; we all strive; we all want connection:

… the true worth of artists and craftsmen should be appreciated, for they advance the affairs of mankind …. True learning is that which is conducive to the well-being of the world, not to pride and self-conceit, or to tyranny, violence and pillage. – Baha’u’llah, from a tablet to an individual Baha’i.


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Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is Distinct for Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is Distinct from Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

The British Psychological Society (BPS) has stated that ‘clients and the general public are negatively affected by the continued and continuous medicalisation of their natural and normal responses to their experiences; responses which undoubtedly have distressing consequences … but which do not reflect illnesses so much as normal individual variation… This misses the relational context of problems and the undeniable social causation of many such problems’. The BPS Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP) has explicitly criticised the current systems of psychiatric diagnosis such as DSM–5 and ICD–10. It has suggested that we need ‘a paradigm shift in relation to the experiences that these diagnoses refer to, towards a conceptual system not based on a ‘disease’ model’.

(From Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia published by the BPS – page 28)

What has this to do with EMS?

EMS stands for Everybody Means Something. My work as a clinical psychologist was with people who were experiencing what our culture calls a psychosis. When I started work in the NHS most people felt that these experiences were meaningless. I disagreed. I found myself using those three words as a kind of mantra to remind myself of my conviction. It was a no-brainer to use them as the title for my blog.

Various experiences reinforced my scepticism about the medical model with its prevailing assumption that such experiences are largely biologically determined. I came increasingly to believe it was significantly incomplete, possibly seriously flawed.

Before I move onto psychosis in particular there is a story from my earlier experiences in clinical psychology, which served to reinforce my scepticism and which clearly illustrates how this default assumption can operate as a potentially damaging blinker.

Laura had been given a diagnosis of endogenous depression, ie one that was not explicable in terms of her life situation. She used to believe that her parents were more or less perfect. The work we were doing became very stuck and seemed to be going nowhere.

We had plateaued on bleak and distressing terrain, more tolerable than her previous habitat but too unwelcoming to live on comfortably for the rest of her life, and yet with no detectable path towards more hospitable ground.

Frustrated by the protracted lack of movement, I began to see discharge as a very attractive option. I discussed this with my peer supervision group. We decided that I should continue with the processes of exploration but make sure that I did not continue my habit of stepping in relatively early to rescue her in sessions from her frequent experiences of intense distress. I continued to see her, having agreed with Laura that I would allow her to sink right into the “heart of darkness” in order to explore it more fully and understand it more clearly. The very next session, when we first put this plan into action, after I had left her alone in her silence for something like half an hour, Laura came to a powerful realisation at the heart of a very intense darkness. She said: “I think my mother threw me away even before I was born.”

This paved the way for deeper and more fruitful explorations of the reality of her childhood, the nature of which I will come back to later in this sequence of posts.

Since I started this blog almost eight years ago now, my interests have ranged widely across many topics, and psychosis has only featured in a relatively small number of posts. Decluttering has triggered me back into my fascination with ‘psychosis’ as the recent posts on out-of-the-ordinary-experiences illustrates.

When I trawled through my backlog of journals I found no other article dealing with that topic. On the web as a whole my most important find is a book edited by Isabel Clarke titled Spirituality & Psychosis which touches on it in places. I will need to buy a copy of that and read it carefully before I can even begin to comment, but the Chapter headings and their authors on the Google version certainly whetted my appetite. How could I resist a book dealing with two of my favourite obessions?

I have found a few other titles on related themes via the British Psychological Society website and it is on three key papers from among those that I wish to focus now.

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

We’re on a Continuum

Bethany L. Leonhardt et al, right from the beginning of their article[1] arguing that psychosis is understandable as a human experience (page 36), ask us to regard the symptoms of psychosis ‘as part an active meaning-making process, regardless of whether or not that meaning is adaptive.’

They explore how the use of literature, particularly novels, can help those who work with people who are having psychotic experiences tune into their predicament more empathetically. As a result of their use of this method, they offer some interesting perspectives.

For example, (page 47) they ‘suggest that exposure to novels and related literary genres may help prevent therapists from surrendering to the view that psychosis is not understandable as anything other than a collection of abstract symptoms or from infantilizing patients by offering of paternalistic direction or protection from life demands.’

As we have seen in the previous sequence on out-of-the-ordinary experiences (OOEs), the attitudes of others has a powerful effect upon how well or how badly a person is able to deal with their bizarre and often frightening experiences. An assumption that what people have experienced is meaningless is at best patronising and at worst confrontational and undermining. One of my own early observations was that most of the clients I saw were expecting me to dismiss everything they were saying, either by ignoring it, refusing to discuss it in any way that resembles their own terms or by frankly rubbishing and pathologising it. They seemed both surprised and relieved when I did my best to engage with them in an attempt to understand it, which is of course not the same as endorsing everything they told me as objectively true. It was though a way of taking what they said seriously and respectfully. For a fuller explanation of my approach click on the posts listed below.

On the occasions where I was unable to sustain this at a sufficiently high level I risked damaging the relationship. I can remember one such occasion. A client was convinced that the devil was plotting against him and kept bringing forward the evidence he thought proved it. My approach clearly aroused his suspicions as to my beliefs about the devil, and he repeatedly pushed me to disclose what my own beliefs were. After several repetitions of this over a number of sessions I concluded that my holding back was blocking further progress. I made the mistake of letting him know that I thought that the devil had no objective existence but was a metaphor to explain evil. He discontinued therapy at that point.

In retrospect I realised that I could have given a more authentic response from a deeper level of my thinking and stated that, while for practical purposes in my own life I did not operate on the assumption that the devil existed, I had to admit that there was no way I could dogmatically state or absolutely prove that he didn’t: agnosticism on that point would have been a better and perhaps more honest answer. Though I may have failed this client, I learnt something very helpful for future interactions.

Equally importantly, Leonhardt et (ibid) ‘acknowledge that our views largely draw on the idea that psychosis can be understood as existing along the continuum of human experience. Our use of novels and related literary genres indeed seems predicated on the idea that individuals experiencing psychosis are not inherently different from anyone else, and that some of the strangest and most bewildering experiences can be made sense of while reading literature and engaging in other reflective activities.’

This ability to find ways of empathically recognising that psychosis is a point on a dimension we all share in some way is a key requirement of a true understanding of what psychosis is in my view.

Next time I will explore the role of trauma in the formation of psychosis.

Related Posts

An Approach to Psychosis (1/6): Mind-Work & Trust
An Approach to Psychosis (2/6): Surfaces & Depths
An Approach to Psychosis (3/6): Complicating Factors
An Approach to Psychosis (4/6): The Mind-Work Process (a)
An Approach to Psychosis (5/6): The Mind-Work Process (b)
An Approach to Psychosis (6/6): Fitting It All Together


[1] The article was published in the American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 69, No. 1, 2015.

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Chekhov LettersThat an artist’s sphere is free from questions and is solidly packed with nothing but answers can be claimed only by one who has never written and has nothing to do with images. The artist observes, selects, surmises, composes – actions which by themselves presuppose a question at their very beginning… In demanding from an artist a conscious attitude toward his work you are right, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct posing of a question. Only the second is obligatory for an artist

(Letters of Anton Chekhov edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky – page 88)

I found a blue notebook in my drawer the other day. It seems to date from the 1970s. It contains notes taken from many books by various authors including Victor Serge, Anthony Storr, Donald Kaplan, Ken Keyes, and Robert White. I have no memory of reading any of these books from which I took such care to record quotations, though I remember my fascination for the topics they cover, ranging from creativity through personal growth to revolution, because they continue to fascinate me to this day. I owned none of them. They were borrowed from the Hendon Library. I owe a lot to libraries, and that one in particular (see link). They are a necessity not a luxury even in the age of the internet.

One set of notes grabbed my attention in particular though. These come from Sophie Laffitte’s book on Chekhov. I can’t find much information at all about her on the web. A used copy of her book can apparently be obtained from Amazon at the cost of 1 penny. New it would cost over £70. Read into that what you wish!

Chekhov was a major influence on my development. Part of that was because he combined professional writing with the work of a doctor. I’ve recorded the following in my notes (page 71[1]):

Medicine is my lawful wife, literature my mistress. When I tire of the one, I spend the night with the other. . . . . If I did not have my medical pursuits, I should find it difficult to devote my random thoughts and spare time to literature.

I don’t know whether his reason for this difficulty was the same as mine when I was balancing impossible demands and wrote this in my journal in September 2000:

When I’m on the treadmill of tasks dictated by other people’s agendas I know I’m doing something useful but I feel totally alienated from myself. When I am writing, reading or reflecting for myself — or simply slumping in a deckchair in the sun sometimes — I feel close to the heart of who I really am — absorbing sensations and impressions, reflecting upon them, but doing nothing with them — but at the same time guilt gnaws away at me. I feel it is all profitless, pointless, indulgent. . . . . . So, I spend my life being the railway while longing to be the grass.

He probably made better use of his down time than I was able to do.

At the point in my life when I took the notes, I was combining training as a psychologist with a passion for poetry. His life resonated strongly for that reason. I was yet to experience any extreme conflict between duty and creativity: this only became apparent later. I may even have believed I could emulate the balance he achieved, albeit in a minor key, such is the arrogance of immaturity.

I can take some comfort perhaps from the words of Virginia Woolf (A Writer’s Diary – page 29):

I don’t like time to flap. Well then, work. Yes, but I so soon tire of work – can’t read more than a little, an hour of writing is enough for me.

I had been nudged even more strongly to take this moment down memory lane seriously when, after putting the notebook away again, this time on a shelf near my desk, I started to read Lydall Gordon’s introduction to A Writer’s Diary and found another fascinating angle on the man. Gordon describes Woolf as using her diary to commune ‘with her secret self, what Chekhov calls the kernel[2] of a life.’

Even though I blog, have used various psychotherapies and am very open with those I become close to, I think my diaries and journals are my way of reaching far deeper into the ground of my being than I can achieve in the company of or in communication with others.

Good I got the notebook down again because that was not all.

It was what he stood for that influenced me most and the purple scrawl of my notes reminded me of this when I looked at them again more closely.

I’ve rabbited on a lot about idealism and its costs and benefits, quoting Jonathan Haidt admiringly for his insights. Chekhov, who died in 1904 at the age of 44, exactly captured Haidt’s key insight into the means/ends problem. He wrote, at the age of 32 (page 179):

Disgusting means used to achieve excellent ends make the ends themselves odious… Were I a political man, I should never be able to bring myself to dishonour the present with a view to the future, even if, for a gramme (sic) of despicable lies, I were promised a hundred kilograms of future bliss.

Blue book

He sets out his standards for the writer (page 19):

(1) absolute objectivity; (2) truth in the description of people and things; (3) maximum brevity; (4) boldness and originality; (5) compassion.

My memory of his stories and plays suggests that he managed to hold to those standards in his later work. What resonates most strongly for me is the idea of upholding both truth and compassion. It is easier to honour one of those than both. There is a link for me there with both the Buddhist ideals of wisdom and compassion, and the Bahá’í ideal in consultation of combining truthfulness and courtesy. I’ve described that in training materials available on my blog as learning how to walk a razor’s edge.

Chekhov believed (page 71) that ‘to educate oneself requires ceaseless, unremitting work, night and day. Every hour counts.’ He advocated ‘constant reading’ and ‘the development of will power.’ We’re on Baumeister’s ground with that last remark. And Leonard Woolf testifies to his wife’s similar tenacious dedication to her novelist’s art (Writer’s Diary – page ix):

The diaries at least show the extraordinary energy, persistence, and concentration with which she devoted herself to the art of writing and the undeviating conscientiousness with which she wrote and rewrote and again rewrote her books.

Chekhov believed (Laffitte: page 85) that ‘educated men should . . . fulfil’ certain conditions, including ‘respect’ for their ‘fellow men,’ being ‘compassionate, not only towards beggars and cats. Their hearts are also moved by what is not visible to the naked eye.’ More below on what I think he means by that last point.

He also felt they should not lie or be vain. His comment on talent is relevant to his art:

If they have some kind of talent – they respect it. They sacrifice leisure, women, wine and futile pursuits to it.

The lives of many writers, artists and composers clearly reveal that this is easier said than done. I’ve blogged about this before and won’t rehearse it all again here.

It is towards the end of this collection of Chekhov quotes that I find perhaps the most powerful of all.

First, there is this brief comment ((page 115):

. . . . man’s destiny either does not exist at all, or exists in one thing only: in a love, full of self-sacrifice for one’s neighbour.

Chekhov Sophie LaffitteHe goes on to amplify that in a longer passage from Gooseberries, which I feel needs to be quoted in full:

We neither see nor hear those who are suffering and all that is appalling in life takes place somewhere off-stage. Everything is calm and peaceful and only mute statistics prove the opposite: so many people driven insane, so many buckets of vodka drunk, so many children dead from hunger. And this state of affairs is apparently necessary. Apparently, a happy man only remains so because the unhappy ones bear their burden in silence, and, without that silence, happiness would be impossible. It amounts to mass hypnosis. Behind the door of every happy contented human being, there should be someone armed with a small hammer, the blows of which would constantly remind him unhappy people do exist and that however contented he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws; misfortune, illness and poverty will eventually strike him down and, when they do, no one will see or hear him, just as now, he, himself, neither sees nor hears anyone. But the man with the hammer does not exist, the happy man goes on living, small everyday cares touch him lightly, much as the wind gently stirs the leaves of the aspens, and everything continues as before. . . . In actual fact, there is no happiness and there should be none, but if our life has any meaning or aim, that meaning and aim are in no way concerned with our personal happiness but with something far wiser and more important.

Even in the age of the internet we can find enough distractions to make widely publicised suffering invisible. Chekhov’s insights are still painfully relevant.

It seems that I could do a lot worse with any spare time I have than re-read Chekhov. The Guardian article at the Gooseberries link certainly suggests so. In discussing reservations about comfort reading Chris power states:

According to Vladimir Nabokov, “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader”. Sean O’Faolain, discussing Anton Chekhov’s short story Verotchka, writes, “Having reread it I feel … that nobody should read more than he can in 10 years reread; that first reading is a pleasure for youth, second reading an instruction for manhood, and third reading, no doubt, the consolation and despair of old age. . . . . .” What O’Faolain identifies here is an altogether higher form of comfort: that provided by an inexhaustible work of art.


[1] I’m not sure how reliable the page numbers are as I could only use Google Books who wouldn’t let me inside the book itself, simply dredging up accurate quotes to only some of my searches. I hope that doesn’t mean I transcribed the original text inaccurately!

[2] Gordon misleadingly quotes from The Lady with the Little Dog (Introduction: page xii): ‘He had two lives one, open, seen and known… and another life running its course in secret… Everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people.’ This is Gurov reflecting upon his life of deception as he conducts his affair with Anna Sergeyevna, the only woman he has ever been able to love. I do not feel this to be the same as the ‘kernel’ of one’s inner life, which is what I think Virginia Woolf was concerned with and to protect which both Leonard, her husband, and Virginia herself constructed a ‘carapace,’ to use Leonard’s term in his autobiography (Gordon’s introduction – page xiii). David Magarshack does not use the word kernel at all in his translation (Penguin Edition: page 279), although he uses the word husk to describe the lies that conceal ‘the quintessence of [Gurov’s] life.’

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Neil Gaiman

I was alerted on FaceBook to a brilliant and beautifully written defence of reading on the Guardian website by . I thought it worth flagging up, even though it’s a couple of years old now, not least because it complements the case I’ve just quoted Keith Oatley as making in his book, Such Stuff as Dreams.  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

. . . . . . .

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

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Blog Planner v2

Some time ago I explained how I wanted to pursue the theme of interconnectedness on this blog and shared the feeling I had at the time that the key purposes of my blog were somehow being compromised by the way I was blogging. The blog had changed from a tool or servant that I was in control of and using to further my chosen ends, to a treadmill or dubious end in itself.

In EMS Explained on My Background page, I optimistically wrote when I started this blog:

. . . . . perhaps most importantly of all, it’s worth remembering that we’re all meaning-makers. We can’t help weaving webs of meaning with our words and stories, and when those meaning systems that we make mean a lot to us they shape our sense of who we are and of the world we live in: they also shape our actions and our relationships with others which in turn cannot help but change the world for better or for worse.

We need to ensure that the meanings that we make are really the best that we can manage. There’s a lot at stake. I hope this blog will help me and help you make the best possible sense of this rich and complex world in which we live. If we do it’s my belief we can build a better self and create a better culture for our children to grow up in.

I think the pressure to produce posts to weekly deadlines has caused me to sell that intention short at times. In an earlier attempt to get back on track, I posted a rather arrow-laden diagram of the ways that the arts, ecology, psychology and history were all overlapping spheres of understanding which I should be trying to integrate rather than deal with separately. I even began to look at how I might arrange my books to match as the picture at the top mockingly shows.


Even though I made strenuous and partly successful efforts in this direction, re-reading Easwaran’s excellent book on meditation, with the emphasis it places on slowing down and becoming more focused, made me realise how far I still had to go to redress the balance.

As a result, and having been forced by the pressure of other commitments to slow down the pace of this blog anyway, I can now see that I need to keep the pace slow and tread more lightly than I was doing. I’ve also realised that a different kind of diagram possibly captures where my focus needs to be in terms of my reading at least.

Meaning Making v5

Obviously, as the pattern of Bahá’í life makes clear as does Easwaran’s book, relationships with other hearts and minds are key to deepening our understanding of reality, as are the processes of consultation, meditation and service.  These are an implicit context for the processes of the diagram, which seeks to capture where my priorities need to be when it comes to my reflections upon my reading and any writing I do as a result. And the current attempt to reorganise my books is proving more successful – well, I think so at least (see photo below which samples some larger volumes).

I realise that there are many areas not mentioned such as philosophy and history. Philosophy, as my struggles to unpack Plantinga’s lines of argument in his brilliant Where the Conflict Really Lies should indicate, is for me an inaccessible realm of discourse by and large. I only tackle it when I have no choice. History, on the other hand, sends me to sleep. Information is all too often too far removed from human interest to hold my attention for long. I have learned more history from reading biographies than from anywhere else. Biography is not specifically mentioned as a separate item in the latest diagram because it supports my investigations of almost all the areas I have mentioned.

Basically though, I feel as though I need to move across all the areas delineated in a way that will deepen and integrate my understandings and draw  my simulations of reality, my meaning systems if you like, far closer to what will always remain the ultimately elusive truth. There are aspects of truth that might be eventually accessible to us, and these lie within the first arc of dotted lines that surrounds possible meanings: other truths lie far beyond all possibility and are infinite in number.

I also need to be more open to the subliminal intuitions that emerge more slowly after marinating the mind in an issue of interest. That requires more time to mull over what I’m reading and experiencing, and how I’m writing about it, than I have been giving myself so far. Blog posts will therefore be slower to appear except for the occasional topical one and my usual recommended links.

Just thought you ought to know why the pace has changed and the posts have become more spaced out.

Order of books


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My story diag 2

As I’ve said in an earlier post, I was asked if I had prepared an account of how I came to join the Bahá’í community. I’ve now completed the story at least in draft. I was planning only to send it quietly to the Bahá’í Histories website and leave it at that, in the hope that very few would read it outside the Bahá’í community. But then I wondered why I should be so quiet about it. Yes, I think it’s a fairly ordinary story about a fairly ordinary person, and to that extent, why go public? But then also it is just about the most important thing that ever happened to me and connects very closely to two of the other most important events in my life. So, I thought, ‘Share it and see what happens.’ It might do some good and probably won’t do any harm. So here goes for part two. Part One stopped with me on the way to Hendon Library during a period of unemployment post-qualification as a clinical psychologist, completely unaware of what was in store.

It took me a while to twig, after some good advice, that I was applying for jobs for which I was perceived as too-experienced, having done five years of responsible mental health work pre-qualification. So, I did not finally land a job till the January after I had qualified that Autumn. Even so, I never seriously doubted that I’d done the right thing to leave teaching.

I had fled the teaching profession in 1975, after my dissatisfaction with the work led me to a weekend encounter group. In that group, I’d experienced a dramatic breakthrough into a previously unconscious well of pain whose exact causes and parameters are still unclear. As a result I had the first of my three most significant blindfold leaps of intuition to date: I had applied for something like 25 jobs in helping professions. I knew I wanted to make people the syllabus not books as had been the case as a teacher, but wasn’t quite sure how to do so. I applied for jobs with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, probation, and social services amongst others.

Then, one afternoon, I went for an informal visit to a day centre for what they termed ‘the mentally ill.’ I cannot fully explain what followed. After only two hours in the building talking to staff and clients I just knew this was the work that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Very strange, especially as that feeling turned out to be completely right. It took another seven years before I finally qualified but neither then nor later did I ever doubt the correctness of my purely intuitive decision – that leap in the dark that seemed to defy reason completely. This was not to be my only such decision as time was to tell.

With hindsight this period of unemployment after I qualified was probably a Godsend.

By this stage memories of my snow-bound prayer had faded, the situation was sorted, and I was almost back to my normal state of complacent scepticism.

Consequently I was totally unprepared for my own imminent experience of conversion as I ambled towards the library in Hendon that triggered it one late November day in 1982. I had no sense that history was about to repeat itself, that my affinity with my maternal grandfather, whose life my mother had described in loving detail many times, was about to expand from a shared love of books to a life-changing encounter with a new religion.


T S Eliot

It was my love of poetry that in fact paved the way to my encounter with the book that changed my world. As a result of my enforced idleness I had re-read T S Eliot’s The Wasteland whose footnotes somewhat misleadingly draw the reader’s attention to Frazer’s The Golden Bough. As I had long ago lost my copy of that book, which I had never got round to reading, I decided to go to the library and take out a copy just to see if it helped my understanding of Eliot’s poem.

Once in the library, I checked the catalogue and found the reference number for the book. I located the shelf. To my disappointment the book I wanted wasn’t there. In fact, there was, in this library containing thousands of books, only one book on the shelf with that category number: The Message of the Masters by Robert Scrutton. I took one look at it and immediately put it back on the shelf. Why would I want to read another book on religion? I’d just been through all that nonsense all too recently.

I stomped off round the library. Generally half an hour in this well-stocked bookaholic’s paradise used to provide me with my maximum entitlement of six books after several difficult decisions had been made to reject at least another three. For some reason, that day, the philosophy, psychology, sociology, fiction, poetry, drama and biography sections yielded absolutely nothing of interest. I went up the stairs to the record section, another usually reliable source of entertainment: not a single thing attracted me.

Having walked to the library on a cold day I was reluctant to feel it was a completely wasted visit, so I went back to the first shelf I had visited and picked up the book I had rejected. I grudgingly felt that I might as well borrow this one rather than leave the library empty handed.

When I got home I threw it dismissively onto the sofa, went off to make a cup of coffee, and turned on the radio. Nothing. The television: nothing. Flicked through my record collection: nothing seemed to fit my mood of the moment. The discarded book was lying next to me. I picked it up. I might as well read it, I thought, really disgruntled by this stage. What a pointless way to end the day!

Having picked it up I came very close to putting it right back down again. It clearly had quite a lot about spiritualism in it, something that my scepticism regarded as blind superstition.

What caused me to read on was that a religion I had never heard of, but which matched almost all my long-standing preoccupations, was described in compelling detail in its pages. There were many quotations from people with strange names I couldn’t pronounce, but I was drawn to the ideas and the evocative language in which these were expressed.

I skipped the stuff that would have put me off and homed in on the sections most concerned with Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.



It was impossible for me to believe that this could be real. It was claimed that an exile and a prisoner, enduring innumerable hardships over many decades and without the access to scholars and massive libraries Karl Marx had enjoyed, had unfolded to humanity’s gaze what seemed to perfectly combine compelling spiritual principles with credible social action. This activism was apparently rooted in a nonviolent honest process called consultation that underpinned what seemed to me would be a truly beautiful system of administration, if it existed. All this was presented in such a powerful way that I was sure, given my constant scanning of the landscape of ideas, that I would have met with it already if it were real. After all I had been actively searching for something like that for as long as I could remember, without knowing exactly what it was I was hoping to find. Even the God-problem was probably solved because the Faith did not believe in the God I didn’t believe in, as far as I could tell.

When I look back at my whole life trajectory from the moment I shocked my mother by saying I was not a Catholic anymore to when I made the declaration of intent we shorthand as becoming a Baha’i, I realize now I had always been on a quest. In fact in some ways of course I still am. I was unconsciously searching for something then with rather more desperation than I am searching now, when I feel I am at least pointing in the right direction or digging in the right place.

The quest had its roots partly in suffering. Two of the most important people in my childhood had been dead for several years.

One was my grandfather, the convert to Catholicism, whom I have already mentioned. His later life had been marred by an accident that caused him to lose his leg and become unable to work any longer as a railway signalman. The family had to regroup with my Aunt Anne leaving school at 14 to get a job, as did my Uncle Harold, the eldest. My mother was the youngest sibling but had been deeply affected by this testing turn of events which left her with a constant state of anxiety about what drastic twists and turns of fate life might bring in its wake. It was therefore deeply saddening for both my parents, but perhaps especially for her, to lose my sister, Mary, in 1939 just before the start of the war.

My parents’ grief as a result of Mary’s early death at twelve years old, four years before I was born in 1943, and the pain of a Maryworld recently at war, overshadowed my childhood and seemed partly responsible for triggering this intense quest, both for understanding and some kind of resolution of my disquiet, that drove most of my waking hours and many of my dreams as well.

So, I was being driven, even at that early age, by an intense craving to understand, and to understand in ways that made real sense to me, not in the incredible doctrinal terms that people were trying to placate me with, and which contradicted my own experience in the ways I have touched on earlier. The credibility gap widened as puberty took hold and the sceptic came out victorious. My spiritual side, it would seem to me now, was quietly biding its time but was by no means defeated.

So, having shut the door of the Catholic Church behind me and stepped into the back lanes of agnosticism, it wasn’t long before I was on the beach of atheism watching the tide of faith go out beyond eye-shot.

It seems though that this was about to change.

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I just couldn’t resist re-blogging this post from the Matilda Project for two reasons. It’s about a poetry book shop and I think poetry, and anywhere that sells books of poetry, needs all the support it can get, and also this blog is irresistible to a bookaholic such as me. I suspect there may be a few others like me out there who won’t have come across this blog yet and will be glad of the heads up. She writes with immediacy and wit about a subject very close to my heart. How could I not let everyone know?

The Matilda Project

IMG_1890The Poetry Bookshop, Ice House, Brook Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5BQ.

In large bookshops, poetry sections always seem a little bit homeless. They often share a shelf with Drama, overshadowed by The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and feel like an annexe to the fiction section.  This is hardly fair.

Poetry has been the preferred mode of creative expression since Ancient Greece and its Homeric epics, long before the novel as a form was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.  It was common to civilisations across the world, all of which brought their own styles, forms and conventions to the genre so that it would express exactly what it was that people wanted to say about their homes, their families, their great romances and their terrible wars in words that everyone felt deep down in their softly stirring souls,  but only the great wordsmiths could articulate for them.  It is an…

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