I will be on holiday soon for a couple of weeks, and there will be no new post until on or before Friday 29th March


When was the last time you solved a nagging personal problem by breaking the law?  Never?  Me neither. But let me tell you about a friend of mine I shall call Maria, married and living in the countryside, who somewhere around the mid-1980s, when she was about 30, had a problem that was driving her mad. A skilled and natural driver, she kept failing her driving test simply because she was so pent up and nervous at the all or nothing ordeal. Because she lived out in the sticks, she needed reliable transport to her job in the town, plus she was planning to have a child, and there was no way she could rely on non-existent rural buses, nor exorbitant taxis, and with Jack her overworked husband giving her inconvenient lifts everywhere, it was proving onerous and a strain on them both. So it was that on her fourth attempt, before going into the Test Centre, she nipped into the public toilets and took a hefty swig of odourless vodka, a double or possibly a triple measure, whereafter she sailed through her test and indeed the elderly male examiner congratulated her on her impressive navigational finesse.

There is a whole array of moral issues to be debated here, and any reasoned outcome might well be inconclusive. Supposing Maria had kept on failing her test for say another 2 years, with the rural housing market completely stagnant at the time, it is not impossible the marriage might have broken up with them trapped there in their remote but no longer idyllic cottage, she might well have ended up a single mother without a car, she might well have lost her job. Needless to say, once she passed her test and with a small child in tow, she never drank and drove, and for sure she never will. So what she did to make life tolerable for herself and her partner and the imminent child, was an act of lucid and ad hoc expediency rather than moral recklessness, even if I doubt that many others would follow her example. And given that we are talking about the pragmatic use of hazardous alcohol, it’s also relevant to recall life in impoverished mining villages in the UK somewhere around the 1920s and 30s, when colliers on exhausting shift work simply could not be allowed to have broken sleep. If there was a young baby in the house and it was teething and crying, the mother would often take out the rum bottle normally reserved for Christmas cakes and puddings, and put some rum on the baby’s dummy to make it go to sleep. The objective reality of giving a tiny baby strong spirits, however little, is certainly shocking, but with the acoustics of poky back to back mining cottages, of divorce for working folk being non-existent, and the prosecution of domestic violence ditto, what meaningful choice did a practically-minded collier’s wife have at that point?

There are by my count 3 principal ways of dealing with the Bashing Your Head Against a Brick Wall scenario. The most common one is to just keep on vainly bashing and exhausting yourself, possibly until your dying day, with temporary relief in the form of e.g. amnesic weekend holiday breaks if you can afford them, drinking, gambling, and possibly adultery, whether or not you can afford it. The second option is a mystical or spiritual and occasionally psychotherapeutic one, variations on the Zen koan or exercising a paradoxical approach to an intractable problem. The controversial US writer Henry Miller (1892-1980) who was full of homely didactic wisdom often culled from oriental sources, fittingly once quoted a Zen Buddhist saying about brick walls, which went:

Stand still and watch the wall crumble

As I’ve mentioned earlier in these pages, there is the apocryphal tale of two famous Surrealist painters, one of whom I believe was the Belgian, Rene Magritte (1898-1967). The two artists liked each other very much, but were always painfully tongue-tied in each other’s presence, so much so it looked as if the friendship might have to end. Then one of them (remember that he was an artist hence easily seized by unrehearsed inspiration) one day took a pure Zen approach, and instead of mumbling and squirming and blushing at his lack of words, promptly cracked the other one across the face, full across the chops! Satori! Liberation! It was high risk inspiration you might say, but instead of it leading to cascading not to say surreal fisticuffs, it instantly broke the ice, they both started laughing heartily, and they had no communication problems ever after.

In a therapeutic context, there exists something rather on the same lines. A few unusually imaginative psychotherapists, working with those who have a stuck obsession or phobia or fear of losing control, sometimes apply the Paradoxical Injunction method, as a means of reversing the existential blockage, so to speak. Thus, in the American context, we read of a middle-aged woman Maisie institutionalised in a mental hospital for acts of non-dangerous violence, meaning she never actually attacked anyone, but had a habit at home of threatening to go berserk and wrecking the joint, and occasionally actually doing so. Then one day, the farsighted therapist in charge, had the idea of actually encouraging Maisie to go berserk rather than forbidding it, so that he got all his staff to put temptingly smashable but dispensable and non-hazardous objects all over the main reception area, when all the other residents were away on an outing. He then more or less grinned and taunted Maisie to do her worst, whereupon seized by decades of repressed rage, she started smashing and smashing unrestrained. At long last she got tired of, even bored by her epic vandalism, sat down exhausted on the sofa, and alongside her therapist started laughing her head off. Thanks to the paradoxical injunction, she had broken the deadening and debilitating taboo, meaning the projected and introjected and pathological rules she had lived by most of her days, especially during her grotesquely puritanical childhood. At last those rules had been proved by physical means to be existentially false, and from then on Maisie started to improve and would eventually return to the world. And the catharsis you will note, could not be achieved by talk or reasoning or reasonableness, but only by Maisie seizing the prohibition by the horns and overturning it in the form of physically, with her muscles, breaking those bogus childhood rules.

The third way of demolishing the brick wall is by the exercise of imaginative or creative thinking, best exemplified by the Maltese physician and academic Edward de Bono (born 1933) in his theory of Lateral Thinking, a concept he first expounded in 1967. It is the antithesis or perhaps imaginative counterpart of Logical Thinking, which sees deduction and induction and error-seeking as the primary rational means. Lateral Thinking is very often more on the lines of Playful Thinking, in the sense of provocatively asking seemingly inane or pointless questions at times. For example, why should most cups have handles, which demand greater ceramic time and more ceramic expenditure, even if they stop you burning your hands? Whereupon a lateral thinker might suggest that some cheap insulating material be put where the handle would be, or that an external holder, a cheap cardboard container with a cardboard grip be offered…an image which takes me back nostalgically, almost tearfully in fact, to the old British Rail and its Golden Blend coffee in those ground-breaking paper cups. An attractive analogue of the provocative question, why do we always have to have entity X, is the glorified party game which should never be scorned, whereby a bunch of people brainstorm any given problem (should Mary here marry George, currently on a boys only holiday in Benidorm, who is rather good at disguising his alcohol consumption?) to give as many practical decision-making options as possible. They should be rapidly and spontaneously generated, including any ludicrous options (George is really brilliant at pulling crazy faces) and then they can be reduced to the most liberating and imaginative core by the person with the problem, meaning Mary. Mary, in her crucial decision making, is opening up the emotional and imaginative possibilities, simply by the radical energy proliferated by creative brainstorming.

A word or two of obvious caution, though. Some of the least imaginative and least benign people in the world, like to brag about their own capacity for Lateral Thinking, but interestingly they call it something else, and overall, in the UK at least, they favour the cheery if decerebrated vocabulary of Rotarian after dinner speakers. Hence the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, that not always inspired Bullingdon Club graduate, he who laid Brexit on us by offering a referendum to the good old British public…he our PM was forever talking in reverential terms about ‘Thinking Outside of The Box’. The rent-a-cliché vacuity of this pre-packaged discourse was laid bare in other oleaginous formulae, specially designed to make your flesh itch. Namely, and apropos Tory political maxims or economic strategies he would say, ‘It Does What It Says on The Tin’ and re those unsettling not to say irritating and treacherous differences of collective strategic viewpoint, he would sunnily enquire ‘Are We Singing From The Same Hymn Sheet?’

Boxes, tins, hymn sheets? Imaginatively and subliminally speaking, seemingly we are back in the cosily retarded world of the 1930s, when you will recall Britain ruled a quarter of the world as colony, dominion and protectorate (which sonorous term is surely its own antonym, is it not?). There is no mystery then about why so many people voted for Brexit, for with every nerve they are hankering after the good old days when like so many selfless and saintly monarchs they and their like amnesically ruled the grateful globe…

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