Looking at the Sun

‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.’ Oscar Wilde (1891)

Last evening I watched a documentary about the actor Judi Dench, someone who’s work I have admired for many years. She talked about her grief when her husband died at too young an age. But she seemed to find comfort and help in continuing to work at that time because she could work through her grief, to some extent, by using it, drawing upon it, to tell a different story, the story of the play in which she was performing. We know that actors draw upon their own emotional experience to portray the emotions of the character they are playing, but Judi Dench seemed to be saying something more than this, that it helped her with her own emotional pain to be given the opportunity to connect with and use them, in a different context.

I do a lot of walking, sometimes alone and sometimes in a group of other women. When I am alone, I find it helps me to think. It is as though whilst my body is occupied my mind is freer to think about whatever is occupying me at that time. When I am with my walking friends I am always amazed that we can not only walk for many miles and several hours, but that we can talk non stop for the whole time. We talk about anything and everything and quite often speak of very personal or intimate matters.

I had a student who worked with young men who were in trouble in different ways. Her job was to try to teach them some cooking skills. She found that when they were doing something like chopping carrots they would begin to tell her about themselves and about their fears and their feelings of vulnerability. She understood that for them the reason for attending the cookery class was to be able to talk, not to learn to cook, but she also thought that they would not be willing to have counseling or psychotherapy because that would mean just talking without an activity.

I wonder if part of it is that we are frightened of our own emotions and can only reveal them to ourselves on the sly as it were. Then having realised that we have actually said what we thought we would never say, we can know that it didn’t cause the sky to fall in and that then we can maybe face it. Maybe Judi Dench went home on those nights and cried and cried for her husband. Maybe those young people who told my student how they really felt whilst cooking could then know how they really felt. Maybe it allows feelings to be revealed without the revelation in itself feeling catastrophic.

Maybe the mask makes it possible to reveal the truth.

I remember hearing a paper given by someone who worked with young women with a diagnosis of anorexia. She said that it was not possible to discuss their eating or their feelings about their bodies directly, it had to be done through metaphor. They would simply leave the room if the therapist was too direct. Again they could approach their fear, their terrors, from a sort of oblique angle but it was too frightening to do so directly. Maybe.

The genius of Shakespeare is to tell a story about the human condition as though it is about someone else, but actually the reason it resonates with us is because it is about ourselves not about others. We know this but can feel very exposed and uncomfortable if we have to face it directly.

I seem to be saying that we can feel overwhelmed by the truth, that it is too much for us, that we can only see it out of the corner of our eye. To look straight at it would be like looking at the sun.