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What does this tell us about fashionable theories on counselling?

2010 June 13
by Paul Vallely

Once he was every schoolboy’s hero. I am being gender-specific here deliberately, for what was celebrated in Scott of the Antarctic was a kind of manliness, which then went out of fashion. Modern heroes do not have “of” in their name in the way they did in the imperial era, like Gordon of Khartoum or Clive of India. Nor is their virtue that of the stiff upper lip.

Capt Robert Falcon Scott perished in a blizzard on his expedition to become the first man to reach the South Pole on foot. There was in those Edwardian days no 24 hour media to monitor his every brave and faltering step. But when they found his frozen body they also found his journal. Its publication made him a national hero. Its final entry read: “For my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.”

There has been much talk of the stiff upper lip again this week. Commentators have looked on in admiring bewilderment at the way the people of Cumbria have conducted themselves in their mourning after a gunman’s meaningless rampage left 12 of his neighbours dead. They have behaved with a dignity and reticence which, to many, has seemed like something from another era. In a world where lips now routinely tremble with emotion theirs has remained collectively steady, even if there are tears in their eyes.

It’s easy to overstate this, particularly for those who suffer from the metropolitan myopia which assumes that life in the rest of the country is the same as it is in London. Out here in the provinces there is far more of Cumbria left than is generally appreciated. What is on show there is not stoicism so much as community. By which I don’t mean the pious aspiration that politicians spray so readily around but what Edmund Burke called the solid platoons of our society – the village school and the women’s institute, the local pub and post office, the bowls club and the brass band, the working men’s club and the parish church – all of which still persist in places like Cumbria.

These are the places in which people get to know one another. There they are bound together in the ordinary times. So that when the bad times come they know one another well enough to offer support. The church is a particularly good forum for that; it has been striking how prominent clerics have been as community leaders in Cumbria, leading the communal gatherings, and acting as spokespeople; the children of the gunman even chose their local vicar to read their perplexed statement to the world. This is religion not as belief but as behaviour; it offers words and actions when we do not know what to say or do. It enables us to share our sadness, hopelessness, despair or mystification with others. It offers solace through solidarity.

It is the sharing which signifies. That is something our society is losing. Social mobility has dispersed families. Individualism is slowly dissolving the bonds of community. Our modern therapy culture is the child of this social fragmentation. It morbidly focuses us on our own feelings. It can make us self-obsessed, infantile, depoliticised, lacking in moral fibre and incapable of mature engagement with the world. It promotes a cult of victimhood. There are now almost three times as many therapists in the UK as vicars; the number of counsellors is increasing five times faster than that of doctors.

The apotheosis of all this was the death of Diana. It prompted an expression of mass grief which many saw as banal and meaningless, excessive and mawkish, sentimental and shallow. But seeing it as a turning point is unhistorical. A wave of grief swept the nation after the publication of Scott’s diary. Those who claim an individual cannot feel genuinely bereaved unless they knew the dead personally clearly weren’t at the funeral of Lord Nelson.

But there is no doubt that such events stand in stark contrast to a tradition which disdained exhibitions of public emotion as a sign of weakness. Victorian life was built on the central idea of Zeno the Stoic that a virtuous and contented life comes from self-control and detachment from all emotions. An entire empire was erected on the British schoolboy’s manful refusal to blub while being thrashed in front of his classmates. Yet the idea of restrained mourning as a mark of decorum is the very quality for which the rest of the Royal Family were pilloried when Diana died.

The truth is that the stiff upper lip and its trembling equivalent exist side by side in English culture. In part that is to do with temperament, in part it is generational. The Tremblies have no problem with this; they just emote effusively about what they want, or rather need. The danger is that the Tremblies can find it hard to read the behaviour of the Stiffs. You can afford to have a stiff upper lip when those around you know how to construe it, empathise with it, and seek to meet your needs without being asked. It is different when your stoicism is misinterpreted or simply not perceived. And there is a dangerous gap between the two worlds – down which Gordon Brown slipped when his spin doctors persuaded this intensely private man to go on television and talk about the death of his daughter.

None of this is to decry the importance of therapy. It is one of the great advances of our time. All the evidence shows, for example, that four months of counselling is a far more effective treatment for depression than are drugs. But therapy can be misused, just as emotional literacy can tip into emotional incontinence.

There is now a tendency to pathologise the unavoidable unhappinesses of life. The answer to any pain is to send in trained teams of counsellors, despite the fact that evidence shows that in time of crisis what people need is information, warmth, company and practical help. Endlessly asking them to articulate “how do you feel?” can make them worse; immediately after 9/11 $100 million was spent on counselling and rates of depression went up. It is usually three to six months before the symptoms emerge which indicate that therapy is advisable. In the immediate aftermath of trauma what is needed can best be provided by family, friends and community not psychotherapeutic professionals. The Army understand this; it has trained up fellow-soldiers to offer such support.

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”, Shakespeare had Hamlet proclaim. Real life is a little more complicated. Above the entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon is inscribed the words of another stiff-upper-lip poet, Rudyard Kipling: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And meet those two imposters just the same….”  It is from Kipling’s If which was in 1995 voted the nation’s favourite poem. What Cumbria shows us is an optimism about the human spirit. There is in that an Englishness far more deep-rooted than is to be found in the flags of St George now fluttering from the plastic stanchions on our car roofs.


from The Independent on Sunday

2 Responses
  1. David Boothby permalink
    June 14, 2010

    If, as you write, Scott perished “on his expedition to become the first man to reach the North Pole on foot” why was his body found in the Antarctic?

    Could it possibly be that he in fact perished on his expedition to reach the South Pole, which is in the Antarctic region?.

  2. June 25, 2010


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