Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Sad Films Make Us Feel Better

I imagine that already some of you are completely disagreeing with me right now.    Sad films are depressing I hear you say, they make you feel worse not better and if you’re in a bad mood to begin with you’ve had it.      I can’t deny this isn’t true, some films really do make us feel awful inside and it takes a good while to shake them off.     But I would class those as the wrong kind of sad film.    A good sad film takes us through a very different process, a good sad film is worth ten times the admission price alone.     I can now feel myself struggle to articulate what I mean by a good sad film while being well aware that one person’s idea of a good film may be another person’s drivel.     Strangely enough I experience the same sort of struggle when I’m asked to define what therapy is and what therapists actually do in therapy.     In many ways cinema and psychotherapy aren’t that different, they both entail a journey of thought and emotion.      But there are some films that do more than just that and I’d go so far as to say that a very good sad film is therapeutic. 
Therapy is not ‘one size fits all’ no matter how hard the powers that be would have us believe, and similarly we are not all affected in the same way when watching the same film.     In fact it is our different individual responses that tell us how and to what extent a film has resonated with us personally or not.      Of course there’s no denying that there are many many films that rouse near unanimous reactions from the audience where we all near enough are feeling the same thing.     These films tap into what we have in common; our human condition.    The really exceptional ones go a step even further by helping us recognise, understand and occasionally resolve a part of ourselves better through film.     Perhaps it is no coincidence that these types of films are rewarded with various accolades for their naming of things and for managing to capture, albeit on celluloid, real life in the form of fiction.     Though I must admit that I don’t think fiction really exists at all for all fiction is created by people and people are anything but fictional.    
I am what I watch.     This is perhaps what makes a film memorable long after we’ve seen it and especially what makes us cry about it.     We’re not crying because we believe the actor in the film is really dying or ill or whatever the story happens to be, it’s not because we can’t differentiate film from real life but precisely because we can.    Through film we vicariously experience our own stories and we cry for them.     A good sad film can enable us to momentarily grieve, not for the character but for the part of ourselves we recognise in them.     They don’t even have to be human!      In 1942 Walt Disney’s Bambi introduced a whole generation of children to themes of loss and death and all during World War II.    Over 65 years on and it still packs an indisputable emotional punch. 
Sad films are cathartic that is to say they facilitate an opportunity to cry.      Sometimes crying for someone else, be it a character in a film, is a way in to our own tears that may otherwise not easily surface.     Perhaps we cry for them because it is one step removed from our own situation while at the same time imagining we are one step ahead and in the shoes of the character we are watching.     It is a crying for the past and the future together.     It is empathy and it makes no difference if our tears are for ‘real’ people or not for it’s the themes that hit the nerves which unite us all as human beings.    And besides, what’s to say that all cries are about sadness (obviously excluding the happy cry).      Some cries are more to do with letting sadness go than anything else, which is what makes them cathartic.     What a relief to cry when watching a film that moves us, moves us to tears as the expression goes.      But what does it actually mean to be ‘moved’ or to find something ‘moving’?     I’ve been trying to figure out whether it’s an emotion or a state of mind or a mood but can’t get a handle on it yet I know what it feels like.     I can’t decide whether being moved is about feeling sad or the complete opposite or something altogether quite different.    It’s the films that move me which make me cry and they don’t necessarily need to be sad, in fact now I too disagree with myself on the title.     Maybe being moved means exactly what it says; that our hearts, our thoughts, our world is shifted and re-positioned.     Some films really hold the potential to do this.    Some films do do this.      

For P.H.W


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Strangers When We Meet (part 2)

The perfect stranger is affecting, so affecting it seems they can either make your day or completely ruin it.    All it takes is one single form of action for a brief moment in time and like currents of electricity we can experience sparks or a short fuse.     People we’ve never seen before, we’ve never heard speak before, who we have absolutely no idea about hold the potential to invoke our strongest emotions.    An argument with a friend is annoying, an argument with a stranger is infuriating.    How is this possible, what is it that gives a stranger such power and by power I mean ‘affect’, emotional affect.    I should first make an obvious point a little more obvious and say that we are all strangers to someone, and by talking about their affect on us I am of course also including our ‘strangeness’ to them as well.    

A stranger’s power lies in their anonymity.    The fact that we don’t know anything about them or what their likely response to things will be makes them unpredictable and uncertain, in other words a bit scary.    However, our lack of knowledge about someone is also the reason we are so moved by them when they come forward to help us at the point we need it the most.    If we fall in the street and hurt ourselves it’s not until someone rushes over and asks if we’re okay that we suddenly feel the pain of the fall.    It is as though someone else’s acknowledgement of our pain enables us to feel it more too.    This is very common among children; they cry harder when mum has noticed they’ve been hurt.    But when the acknowledging person is a stranger, things get a bit complicated.    Pain gives way to embarrassment which in turn gives way to gratitude (for the stranger’s kindness) and gratitude can invoke feelings of shame and indebtedness.    Why?    Because out of all the people we know and love in the whole world it wasn’t them but a complete unknown person whom we have no relationship with that came to us in our time of need.    They helped us not out of friendship or obligation but for nothing really, they helped because they were there and because they could.     

So powerful is this act (regardless of whether purely altruistic or not) that it immediately creates a bond between us and the stranger followed by the thought of how can we repay them for what they’ve done, how can we say thanks.     Can you imagine then what it must feel like to have a stranger save your life....?    Being the helped person is not necessarily a comfortable position to occupy particularly in this modern age of progress and self sufficiency where asking for help or looking like we need it has all sorts of disparaging connotations attached to it.     At the end of the day aren’t we meant to help ourselves, to sort out our own problems and show independence in our loves and losses?    

Independence in my opinion is overrated.    We live in a relational, interconnected and inter-dependent world whether we like it or not.    I happen to like it!

The affect that strangers evoke for the most part resides within us.     It is our response to them that highlights what they may have activated.     Of course they don’t know this; what our buttons are, being strangers and all.    But this may help to understand why an argument with a stranger is often so hard to forget, its aftermath lingering on for hours.    Take queue jumping for instance, quite possibly the quickest way to unearth a boiling pot of dormant emotions.      Road rage is another example, this time more a case of unresolved grievances displaying themselves on the streets and all over the place.     In a sense there is no such thing as a total stranger because we all have the potential to make an impression on one another even if it’s only through conflict.     But perhaps the most exciting or equally worrying thought about strangers is that we never know which one of them will enter our lives and at the same time leave the unknown and be strangers no more.        

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Strangers When We Meet (part 1)

I was sitting on a busy train, had managed to get a seat and was reading my book.    I was engrossed and didn’t much notice how more and more packed the carriage was getting.    I looked up for a second and noticed amongst all the squashed people an elderly man standing in the crowd holding the bar above his head to steady himself.     He was too far away for me to indicate any sort of seat offering gesture and he wasn’t looking in my direction at all.      I tried to get back into my book but couldn’t, I was distracted now and strangely worried about this old man who was probably going to fall over any second and it would be all my fault.     Commuting is such a big trigger for our psychologies but that’s a different issue.     Just then the train stopped at the next station and after a flurry of people had got on and off I looked around and there he was, the elderly man who had seemed miles away was now sitting in his own seat right in front of me.    How did he do that?    There were at least two dozen people all around him, he would have had to fly above them to nab that seat.    Anyhow, however way he did it I was relieved and could get back to my book again, guilt free.    But I couldn’t concentrate and kept reading the same line over and over again.     The elderly man meanwhile was looking at me smiling.    He had the kindest smile I could ever imagine and I smiled back feeling a bit shy and self conscious.    I wanted to ask him if I knew him or whether he knew me but I was certain I’d never seen him before.    He was a stranger with the smile of a friend.    He seemed to be saying something with his eyes but I couldn't decipher them, though they were full of compassion as far as I could tell.     And then I don’t know why but I suddenly felt very tearful.    I couldn’t stop the tears from forming in my eyes and making my vision blurry.     The perceptive old man seemed to notice and nodded gently with his eyes closed.    This was getting too much, what on earth was going on here...    I couldn’t think straight and kept trying to formulate a sentence and a way of breaking the silence but I felt frozen in myself and unable to speak.     Then without warning he looked at me one last time, stood up and when the train stopped he got off and disappeared into the crowd.     I was somewhere close to feeling devastated.     I felt an overwhelming urge to jump off the train and run after him, to ask him a barrage of questions starting with who was he, this man who had affected me so much and how he seemed to know how I was feeling.     And then there were questions I had for myself such as were we meant to meet, was he someone I should have spoken to, what was he trying to tell me and why did I feel so emotional all of a sudden?     I didn’t get off the train after him that day and six years on I still remember those few minutes we shared on a packed train, those minutes where I both did and didn’t meet a perfect stranger.       

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Who Do You Think You Are?

"Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be".                   Ai Weiwei - Chinese Artist         

Imagine for a moment that you are not who you are.      That you don’t have the life you have, the job you do or know the people you know.      Imagine that in the next minute you will lose the entire memory of your life along with everything you know about yourself.    You are a stranger to you.      Then imagine that there is a large blank slate set out in front of you, a slate that can have written on it pretty much anything you want or nothing at all, your choice entirely.     As you pick up the chalk and bring it closer to your bare canvas what will you write, or rewrite, perhaps rub out altogether?    What would be the life you would have had if you didn’t have the one you’ve got?    

You can stop imagining now and go back to being yourself again, speaking of which who might that be by the way?      I’ve been thinking this week about who we feel we are and where our sense of ourselves comes from, whether it’s a natural process that slowly falls into place or if there are certain events that happen which leave their mark and change us forever.     I’m sure there are many many factors which come into the mix when we’re considering how we’ve come to be the person we are, but when the analysis is over and we have figured ourselves out, how would it then be to step off the map and venture out into the territory.     Once we’ve decided that we’re this way or that i.e. ‘that’s so me’ or ‘I’m not a dog person’, is there scope to change and be something we think we’re not?      There are inevitably things that we cannot change about ourselves and of course plenty of things that we can, the trick is to distinguish which is which and not to confuse one with the other.     History is abundant with examples of this sort of confusion where the common belief was that people were born into their positions and later bound to that particular fate.    Period dramas on TV are rife with this ideology, most recently seen in ‘Downton Abbey’.    Obviously where and to whom we are born is out of our hands completely but the rest is relatively up to us.    We are not fixed beings; we are an ever changing, ever advancing and ever developing civilisation with abilities and capacities that infinitely outweigh even the most sophisticated technology ever created or ever will be created.     We are, as human beings go, truly unique.     Yet with all our originality and potential we’re also terribly good at repetitively convincing ourselves that we’re not and that we can’t do certain things because of this that and the other.         

It is often said that no two people on this earth can have an identical experience of a shared event; that each person will react and feel differently about it even if the difference is only slight.    Therefore our knowledge of human development, of psychological understanding and of everything we’ve come to learn about ourselves is not set in stone, it too is always changing and open to reinterpretation at any time.      What a headache this can all be for us, the fact that nothing is a fact!      We don’t always cope well with this; the constant shifting of information that life inevitably presents us with and so to find some much desired stability we build sturdy little boxes to help us categorise all this data and then quietly reside and pin ourselves down therein.       And because we’re relational beings and don’t want to be alone, we thoughtfully create little sturdy boxes for other people too and pin them down as well.     The trouble is once the boxes have been built and lived in they become very difficult to leave and even harder to demolish.    When meeting someone new for the first time, we need to work out pretty fast whether we can like that person or not and if they don’t neatly fit into one of our already made boxes then we soon create a brand new one just for them and put them in it, after all it’s such a relief when things are properly filed!    But our first impressions of people can tell us more about us than them.    It seems that we can’t help but view others with lenses that have been shaped to fit our world, a world that is not perceived the way it is but the way we are.      

Nothing in life is ever straight forward it seems and we realise this when the people we think we know actually turn out to be so much more than we first thought or saw of them.     They will always outdo (and outgrow) the boxes we’ve placed them in.     A box by its very nature is constrictive and restricting, it has a specific shape with room only for what fits inside.    People on the other hand are fluid and embody many many facets and ways of being.    I don’t mean we all have multiple personalities but that we are different selves in different situations because who we are is always in relation and in response to where we are, who we’re with and what we’re doing.     I don’t chat to my clients the way I would to a neighbour and I wouldn’t attempt to offer psychotherapy to my neighbour the way I do with my clients and yet I inhabit both these ways of being, they are both me so to speak.      

We can always choose to do things differently, even if that means going against our usual grain.     Audrey Hepburn in ‘Roman Holiday’ illustrates this idea beautifully as she works her way through a list of ordinary things she’s always wanted to do.     Whether it’s sitting in a road side cafe or getting a new hair cut, sometimes in life it’s not only important but necessary to do things just for pleasure and devoid of obligation, duty and commitment.     Sometimes we all need a Roman Holiday or at least a blank slate to write our list of (fun) things to do just because we can.     


Sunflower Seeds - TATE Modern

Sunday, January 02, 2011

New Year, Old Times

First things first a very Happy New Year to you!    Second of all you won’t find any NY’s resolutions here I’m afraid and that’s not because I don’t believe in them, on the contrary, I strongly believe in making them, all year round in fact.     But I’m not a big fan of resolutions in the New Year and that’s because there are enough things that are new going on and so I’m much keener on resolutions that aren’t new at all, resolutions that are quite old and that take us back in time rather than spring us into an unknown future.     I suspect the main reason the majority of New Year’s resolutions aren’t kept up beyond February is because they are too new.     We are after all creatures of habit and therefore making new ones is not as easy as maintaining the ones we already have.     I wonder what it would be like to make resolutions about things we’re already doing or have done before.     A resolution to continue what already exists rather than starting something new from scratch.     I'm guessing resolutions that involve re-visiting things and going back to what’s familiar aren't half as daunting as something completely fresh.     It may even help to make them a little more sabotage proof.     But when the New Year is about a new year is it a cop out to reflect on what’s past?       

I’m beginning to wonder whether we quite readily revert to the past or at least think about it more when we are faced with new things both in the present and what’s to come in the near future.     It’s as though we need to look back or take a quick glance behind us just before we can go forward.     It reminds me of a child playing in the park with a new friend he’s just made and who every now and then turns to see if his mother is still there and still watching him.    And only when he is sure that she is can he really enjoy his playing.     We all need reassurance, the knowledge that we can go forward in our lives but still come home whenever we need to and by home I mean our past history, our memories and experiences, all the things that contribute towards us becoming the people we are.     For this reason it is not such a big surprise to reminisce on the cusp of a life changing event as if we know we may lose a small part of ourselves in the process of a new beginning.     A nod from the past is all it takes sometimes for us to feel self assured and move forward confidently.     

At the start of a new year we’re often so encouraged to look ahead, seize the future and generally go in a forward moving direction.      Thinking about the past and especially the painful parts is not really that acceptable and normally discouraged.    I think it is assumed that thinking (so often confused with dwelling) about these things poses a threat to both the thinker and the calm landscape of the life they currently lead.      After all thinking too much has been the culprit of many a boat rocked so they say...  But thinking about the past does not equate to reliving it.     Events that have past have past, they cannot be undone nor can they be repeated in the exact same way.      However, those people who suffer from post traumatic stress brought on by a trauma either directly experienced or witnessed present an unusual exception.     In these cases the person feels stuck in the original event and is unable to transfer their experience into the realm of memory but instead relives it over and over again as though it is happening for the first time.      I think this is a very common worry for all of us when thinking about the past, the fear that remembering certain things will somehow transport us back in time and drop us right in it again.      But remembering is not the same as repeating and neither is it dangerous to think about what’s gone by, it may bring up old feelings but it won’t resurrect what's already occurred.    If even the thought of thinking about an old memory feels painful it is usually a sign that it hasn't been thought about enough.     

Ironically as time goes on and we see through many more New Years we may find that the past is nearly all we think about as that is what we’ve accumulated more of.      Our memories are our very own ever expanding library packed with reels and reels of information all interconnected with each other, a library we can dip in and out of in a fraction of a second whenever we want where we’ll find stories on a wide range of topics including travel, history, geography, love and lots and lots of psychology.      As the final part of Wordsworth’s famous poem goes we are reminded just how wonderful memory truly is....

"For often, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."   

Daffodils' by William Wordsworth (1804)