books, reading, stray thoughts
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The Examined Life

The Examined Life

Today the wind is banging the sash windows against their frames. The rain is fast and steady. It’s that time of year when I compulsively buy bunches of daffodils at the supermarket checkout. Fat buds within dry, papery spathes. And then – miraculously – overnight they split open, and at breakfast we’re greeted by a vase of glorious sunshine-yellow coronas.

On the drive to pre-school we pass banks of snowdrops. Sheep nibbling the sodden grass at the edge of temporary lakes in the flooded fields. A village where blue pipes drain water away from the houses, out onto the road. ‘It’s a river now,’ observes the Moose cheerily. My thoughts linger with the owner’s of these – and so many other – flooded homes.

It’s a week for catching up. I’m trying to get back on track with Dovegreyreader’s A Suitable Boy read. I’m somewhere back in part 6, and this month is, I think, parts 9 and 10. I stopped somewhere before Christmas, but it’s proved incredibly easy to slip back in. I love the humanity with which Vikram Seth treats all of his characters. The sympathy which he allows us to experience for even the least appealing of them while we’re in their minds. It reminds me of William Maxwell’s The Chateau, another novel which I remember as unerringly kind to its characters, whatever their faults.

Last week I read The Examined Life, Stephen Grosz’s wonderfully compelling tales of twenty-five years as a psychoanalyst. Like Maxwell and Seth with their characters, Grosz is unerringly kind and attentive to his patients, and this is a beautifully written and nuanced account of his conversations with a handful of them. Each chapter is bite-sized, many around five or six pages. Perfect reading with small children underfoot (though naturally I then started worrying about the damage I’m inadvertently doing to them: ‘They f*** you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.‘). But all Grosz’s stories linger in the mind long after they’ve been put down. It felt like a book of small epiphanies.

Two chapters in particular stick in my mind. They both, naturally, reveal something about me. The first, is the tale of Grosz’s friend and the revelation of his analyst that, ‘if you’re frightened of being criticised, you’re probably pretty critical’. Still thinking the implications of that one over. The other, is on the work of psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller, and the strange paradox that praise can cause a child to lose rather than gain confidence. Grosz’s question is, if praise doesn’t build a child’s confidence, what does? And his answer is being present – watching, observing, not hurrying, paying attention. Always, always good to be reminded that this is what our children (our partners, our friends) need from us.

Being present builds a child’s confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about. Without this, a child might come to believe that her activity is just a means to gain praise, rather than an end in itself. How can we expect a child to be attentive, if we’ve not been attentive to her?

Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness – this feeling that someone is trying to think about us – something we want more than praise?

I love that ‘even with oneself’, which is amazingly true.

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