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Philosophy For The Brave

Dahlian Kirby on the benefits of existentialist counselling.

According to Epicurus, “The discourse of the philosopher that wouldn’t cure any human affectation is indeed an empty one.” So in a society where cutbacks are destroying education, where money is considered the main blessing and intelligence an embarrassment, what is the point of philosophy? I believe it is to keep us well.

Whilst working in a semi-open prison as a counsellor, I came across several men who were nearing the end of very long sentences. They had all committed violent crimes, and some of them had spent their entire adult lives in prison, having entered the system at sixteen or seventeen. They had spent a long time being institutionalised; but had also been able to spend a long time thinking. Where else do you get the opportunity to reflect so long on life, morality, and individual worth?

The problem for these men was that as the end of their time inside drew near, they began to feel very distressed. It wasn’t just the thought of sorting out housing and money. It wasn’t always about lost relationships or the world having moved on. It was a question of not knowing who they were: about not having a purpose.

A lot of prisoners are physically and mentally unwell and rely on medication to get through. Some of them go to counselling. In counselling they are able to discuss the meaning of life. Anxiety and depression cause a person to feel isolated. We tend to start questioning our existence when we are in crisis or have suffered great loss. Philosophy can help us feel connected. As a counsellor with a doctorate in philosophy, I have found some of my most memorable conversations have occurred with a prisoner in a small room trying to make sense of human existence.

By philosophy, I mean the sharing of ideas from the unique perception of the individual who has come to a point in their life when they need to know more or go deeper. It involves an acknowledgment that we are alone, but also together. In discussion with another questioning person, we can feel that we are not alone in our search for answers. Enter the philosopher, armed only with questions. Is that enough? In some situations, an encounter with a person willing to enter into a philosophical dialogue about life’s meanings, free will, and intention, may be enough to let someone know that life is both more complex and more beautiful than they have previously imagined. This can set the frail but curious individual on to the road to wisdom, and finding a way of coping with being a thinking, feeling being.

Now according to Emmy Van Deurzen, “psychotherapists, psychologists or psychiatrists often have considerable difficulties in recognizing the validity of philosophical questioning. They are reluctant to engage in theoretical discussions with clients and patients who are seemingly disturbed, but who actually may be in search of meaning” (‘Existentialism And Existential Psychotherapy’, 1999). When people are distressed and questioning we often shut them up, either with pills or platitudes. But why shut them up, when what they really need is to think through what has happened and who they are? I think the modern cliché I most dislike, posing as a piece of philosophy (but which is really a form of shutting people up) is “Everything happens for a reason.” Okay, explain sudden cot death. Or suicide bombing. Or my cat getting run over. Or domestic violence.

Philosophy doesn’t shut us up, it opens us up. We don’t need a university education to question, to wonder, to find meaning – we just need space to reflect, and perhaps, to debate. We need to tell our story, and in telling it find out who we are. We can do this alone, in our heads or on paper. However, to do it in the company of another human is both challenging and reassuring. We can piece together ideas between us. And why stop at two? A host of questioning human beings can be a fine thing.

Choose Meaning

Psychiatrist and philosopher Viktor Frankl, imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp, asked himself why some prisoners survived and some did not. What made the difference? He found that those who found the will to endure the horrific conditions did so because they felt they had meaning in their lives.

Frankl’s conclusion invites us all to find meaning. Sometimes this is easy, but when we’re in crisis it is painful. Long bouts of depression can leave us so isolated and exhausted that any suggestion of finding meaning seems beyond possibility. Frankl suggests that the final human freedom is “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946). I believe that Frankl’s focus on choice of attitude is the greatest wisdom he could give us. He isn’t suggesting we can overcome death or disaster, but merely that we can decide our attitude towards it. We don’t have to rely on the government/the priest/the weather, etc etc. We ourselves can begin to change how we feel. We can take comfort from the possibility that life isn’t something that is done to us; then we can decide to explore the hows and whys, and of course, the all-consuming ‘Why me?’

Asking the question ‘Is my life worthwhile?’ suggests we are looking for meaning. The question might occur to us because we are emotionally or psychologically tired from a life that seems to be only about paying bills and answering to the whims of an unreasonable boss. Or it may come when we have a serious illness, or are about to be released from prison after serving ten years for murder. When we ask this question, we are perhaps hoping that our life should be worthwhile. Or we may be asking why it used to be but isn’t now. Alternatively, we may feel it never was, and never can be.

Counselling Through Philosophy

woman listening
Woman listening © Fred W. Baker III, 2009

People who have suffered serious abuse may need ‘formal’ discussion to make sense of their lives. This can come in the shape of existential counselling, which is therapy through philosophical discussion provided by a trained counsellor. If drugs block out the thoughts and feelings caused by abuse or other trauma, existential therapy does the opposite: it enables a person to think through what has happened, how it happened, and why it happened. Through existential counselling, depressed people can become aware that they are now responsible for themselves, and use this knowledge positively. The relationship between the client and the counsellor reflects all good relationships: we learn what it means to say that there is another who can listen and debate with us, but also that we are ultimately responsible for our own thoughts and feelings. Also, like other relationships, it is finite, which makes it bittersweet.

In existential therapy in particular, the client will most likely be encouraged to reflect on one or all of the following: freedom and responsibility, isolation and meaninglessness, and the inevitability of death. This may sound negative, but the approach is positive. It depends on the theory that people can find meaning and can come to terms with the past now, and are therefore able to have a worthwhile future. With support from the counsellor the individual can face up to their fears and take responsibility. They can learn about their strengths and limitations. Existential therapy celebrates authenticity, and also acknowledges how damned hard life can be. Van Deurzen-Smith (same person, different year – this time 1997) suggests in her book Existential Counselling in Practice that through existentialist counselling, people can become truly alive, and that only when “they begin to be ready for the recurrent challenges, crises and troubles, do they start to be open to the depth of experience and reality that comes with a true commitment to existence.”

The truly liberating thing about existential counselling – possibly about any philosophical discussion on human existence – is that it doesn’t rely on diagnostic labels or on the medicalization of behaviour. A person isn’t ‘bipolar’ or ‘depressive’ or ‘borderline’; they are a unique human being reacting to a difficult world. The symptoms of, for example, borderline personality disorder, can be viewed as the results of rational responses in someone who has been sexually abused since childhood. She may feel she also would like the support of a medical doctor, and possibly medication; but for someone with such a history to have a serious, intimate, honest conversation, as equals, with another person about their choices, their abilities, their possibilities, is to give them the chance to take control of a life that may have seemed forever out of control. The journey won’t be easy, and the conversations will be painful. I am not talking about a quick fix self-help afternoon. We are looking at facing our fears head on, working out what we must take responsibility for, and what we must accept that we can’t change. It’s about giving up our victim status, and becoming powerful. It’s exciting, it’s challenging. Its philosophy for grow ups! It’s philosophy for the brave.

An Antidote To Junk Culture

We live in a culture where rather than ask our grandma for the old family Christmas pudding recipe, people look online to see what famous people put in theirs. To train our dogs, choose a book, live a healthy life, we look to celebrities who are making money by telling us what to do, think and eat. We seek the answers to how to live life and how to be happy from the rich and famous, although they themselves are often also struggling to find their authentic selves. Through existential therapy we can explore who we really are and find out what we really want. Existential philosophy and existential counselling can both be considered antidotes to this celebrity culture. Through philosophical discussion – with a friend, a philosopher, or with an existential counsellor – we can begin to answer the questions ‘What would make life worthwhile?’ and ‘How do I get to that place?’ We can look back to what used to satisfy us and see if that still works, and if not, find new sources of meaning. We can also look at responsibility – a very important issue for people who have been abused.

It may be thought that counselling in general, and existential counselling in particular, is only suitable for articulate, confident people. I strongly disagree. My work with people in prison is the evidence. In fact, the quirkier mind the better, and prison survivors often have a particularly individualistic, thinking-on-your-feet kind of way of looking at life. And as I said, they have had a long time to contemplate life’s meanings. One of my most successful therapeutic relationships was with a prisoner who was a traveller, or ‘pikey’, as she enjoyed describing herself. We looked at abuse and the meaning of life mostly through metaphor. Her aim was to make her life worthwhile. She learned what she could change and what she had to accept. Our starting point was both staring at the brick wall just outside the window.

Sometimes those who can talk and think well hide their fears behind their talking and thinking. I believe very few of us are without anxiety. Instead of putting up armour, we can bring down our barriers in discussion (please enjoy the almost mixed metaphor!). We can start to look at questions in a new way, rather than trotting out the glib answers we have become familiar and comfortable with. We can take time away from looking at the constructs of our society, and look instead at our self-constructs. Instead of debating international politics, we can look instead at our internal politics. This is not self-indulgence, rather it is self-knowledge. We can look at the way we react to situations and people, and decide that from now on, we will respond in a here-and-now way. We can dump any aspect of our public persona at any time. This can only be liberating .

If there is a meaning to life, shouldn’t we learn to understand it? If we are not choosing suicide, we are choosing existence. Existence is confusing and frightening. We need to reflect, and to talk to each other; to be humble and brave, and always question those platitudes handed to us which are announced as truths. Through philosophy, and in particular through existential discussion and existential counselling, we can learn to be good at life. Philosopher, heal thyself.

© Dr Dahlian Kirby 2016

Dahlian Kirby obtained her PhD in Philosophy from Cardiff University. She works as a counsellor, and teaches counselling at Redcar and Cleveland College. She also runs therapeutic writing courses.

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