Man Overboard


I haven’t written a blog for a while. I came to a standstill in the exploration of excellence in the field of therapy and went on a kind of experiential sabbatical. I think I came to the conclusion that the current paradigm would work if it wasn’t for the people. A bit like the old saying that the operation was a success, but the patient died. People also say that hospitals and schools would run smoothly if you did away with patients and students.

I thought it might be useful to look at the problem of mental illness culturally, since looking at it medically didn’t get us anywhere… and by that I simply mean that there is no evidence that we have improved outcomes for people since the medical profession took on he task of treating emotional suffering after the Second World War.

Returning to the topic of cultural change takes me back to hang out with some splendid explorers. The ones I like are Humberto Maturana, and the others who came out of Chile’s turmoil with a fascination in ontology, Heinz Von Foerster and his connections with the Macey conferences and beyond, and then the greats who have created it without necessarily talking about it intellectually like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Desmond Tutu. 

Humberto Maturana was interviewed by Bernhard Poerksen to create the lovely book “From Being to Doing” In it he spoke about his time in Chile after the coup where Pinochet assassinated Allende and the country was thrown into tyranny. Everyone who was able, tried to get out while they still could, including Maturana whose friend Heinz Von Foerster scrambled to get him a University post in North America so that he and his family could escape. 

In the ten days or so that it took for a position to be secured Humberto had watched as all the free thinkers and movers and shakers fled the country. As a University lecturer he found himself wondering what would happen to the young people, to his students, and what would happen to democracy if all the democratically minded people left.

He had in the past been fascinated by the stories that his friend Heinz told about cultural change that happened in Nazi Germany, of which Heinz had personal experience. In those phenomena that shocked the free world, including that there were good people who actually didn’t know what was happening and were upholding and supporting the regime that was perpetrating atrocities. How did that blindness get created? 

Maturana was beginning to see how. Curfews were being imposed and people disappeared under cover of night. Plausible stories of cover up and some sense that things must be happening for a greater good because the country was still functioning began breathe life into a bizarre unreality.

He decided to stay.

One of the many things I admire about him was his ability to maintain his dignity in the face of potential oppression. Here is a chilling example:

He and a hundred or more other University academics were invited to dine at the palace with Pinochet. History did not build confidence in situations where large groups of people were rounded up by dictators and many of them feared for their lives. 

Pinochet gave a toast to the fatherland and they sat down to a delicious meal. Before dessert was served Pinochet stood again from his seat where only a few meters away Maturana heard him say “Ladies and gentlemen, the sole purpose of this meeting is to get to know each another. That is all. You may feel quite safe; there will be no demands on you of any kind.” 

He sat down again and Maturana then picked up his glass and stood and said “Ladies and gentlemen, I would also like to toast our fatherland with you. We are gathered here today in the company of the president, and that is a rare occasion under any government. I will therefore seize the opportunity and bring out a toast with you and the president to the effect that we all who are here today contribute to the intellectual freedom and cultural autonomy of our country, Chile”

Now you can imagine the terror in that room as he spoke, but Maturana understood that power only exists where their is obedience. By standing with dignity and preserving his autonomy he helped to restore the dignity of everyone in the room. Pinochet clapped his hands together three times and the room exhaled. Later, in the mingling, Maturana was urged to approach Pinochet who shook his hand and said “I share your good wishes for this country”

Take another moment to share Maturana’s reflection: “It really was a bizarre situation”

Twenty or so years ago, we began seeing a cultural shift in government departments in Australia that had trickled down from some big shifts in leadership. Books were written like “Tampering with the Asylum” and there was enough political commentary for most people to see that something fishy was going on. It wasn’t yet so mainstream that you couldn’t stand up and call out acts of tyranny, and a common analogy of the day was that of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Back then you could be the little boy who stood up and said “But the Emperor is naked”

Not long after this a colleague said “Yes, but the world isn’t kind to the little boy who says that”

That comment has stuck with me as I have watched in government departments as piles of such little boys (and girls) are chewed up and spat out, and we are now seeing this spread from government department to private industry and to schools.

I no longer use the “Emperor’s New Clothes” analogy, as it’s too dangerous, and have moved through the “moving the deck chairs on the Titanic” analogy and am more and more seeing people drowning and flailing in the water in these organizations.

The Fat Man in “The House of God” instructed his hospital Interns: In any emergency, take your own pulse first. Or, said another way, when the oxygen masks fall in the plane, fit your own mask before helping others. If you’ve ever tried to help someone who thinks they are drowning you have likely experienced that the flailing force of their grasp to be saved can be life threatening for you.

I used to think that people higher up in the organisation should know better and have a responsibility to the person under them. It might be true, but it isn’t useful to have that expectation if nothing comes of it. I began to think instead that they were under the influence, like the good people in Germany who fought for Hitlers regime believing that it was right. I often shared stories with people who were damaged by such treatment, of the denazification programs that happened after the war that helped those good people grapple with the terrible things they had done. This reframe helped to make the damage seem more cultural than personal, which sometimes helped the pain. 

More and more, though, I am seeing that those people doing the damage are just drowning too.

Erickson was asked to see a patient in a mental institution around the middle of last century. The man kept saying “I shouldn’t be here” he said this over and over, even in response to attempts to help him. Erickson simply walked up to him and said “But you are here” to which the man replied something like “Oh shit, how do I get out”

I see so many people grappling with injustices in our present day culture, and I do so myself, all the while saying “It shouldn’t be like this”

“But it is like this”

Oh shit….. 

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