I offer these quotes, and words of wisdom, especially because they show that many of the precepts of ‘cognitive behaviour therapy’ are re-inventions, or re-workings, of musings from old philosophers and sages, as far back as the Greeks.
Scroll straight down to the quotes if you want to skip the waffle and sentimentality.
Especially since I am a psycho-pharmacologist and never pretended to practice psychological treatments, I will preface these quotes with an explanation.
This is an explanation that I found myself giving to patients I was reviewing, who were also having CBT treatment. They would sometimes seek affirmation that doing CBT was worthwhile, and a question that often came up concerned changing the way people think. I remember one fellow who said, ‘it’s ridiculous, you can’t just change the way you think about things, I mean … if you see somebody murdered or something … you can’t just not be upset about it.’
Not true. So, I invented this analogy in response.
Remember the film Gladiator [it had recently been released and of course most people knew about it]. Imagine what the Roman citizens who watched the gladiatorial ‘games’ did after they left the Colosseum. They would go to the ‘In vino veritas’ wine bar on via Appia and recount enthusiastically how great it was when the Thracian’s head was cut off and bounced across the arena spurting blood, and say that they were looking forward to next month’s show.
Now picture an atrocity perpetrated at a major sporting event in the Western world. They would be wheeling in psychological trauma counsellors from all points of the compass to treat the affected players and members of the crowd But, at the end of the day, what is the difference between these two scenarios? I would suggest not all that much, except for the effect it had on those witnessed it, which would be about as different as it could be. And of course, anybody who has been on holiday or travelled in less-advantaged areas of the world will have seen things which at home would be completely intolerable: like people dying on side of the road etc.
We are dog-lovers. I once got a lovely letter from somebody who had read one of my early review papers which contained the following acknowledgement: ‘We will always remember the special part played by Tess Gillman*** (1984–2002). Vale, to a noble heart that seemed to rise above the beast.’ It referred, of course, to one of our dogs [one other message of condolence was clearly based on the presumption that it was a child], but I rather suppose this correspondent was one of the smaller proportion of people who registered that Tess was a dog.
Recently I saw a rescue dog that had a genetic condition affecting its joints, it could barely stand or walk, it had been ‘in-bred’ by a backyard breeder.
Much more common, and only slightly less unfortunate and misguided, are dogs like Dachshunds and French bulldogs, that are deliberately bread with genetic abnormalities of cute flattened faces which impair their breathing and general health.
Just to satisfy some human who thinks they look cute — perhaps such people should bind up their daughter’s feet, like the Chinese do/did, to make their feet look petite and attractive!
As I reflected on this further, I wondered what, in years to come, will people think of such practices, that most people now regard without concern. There are, unfortunately, a great many other genetically abnormal breeds that suffer as a direct result of their genetic abnormalities.
I suppose, I hope, in the proximate future people will come to regard this as an unacceptable practice, to breed abnormal animals that experience suffering, resulting from their abnormality, created purely for the pleasure of human owners. A few countries have introduced laws banning such breeding, so progress has begun.
But it is purely how you think about things, and the person sitting next to me at lunch has no problem and feels warm and fuzzy cuddling their poor genetic freak of a dog, whilst I feel uncomfortable and sorry.
It may well be that most such people are just ignorant about science, biology, and genetics and do not even appreciate the consequences of their choices — should they be excused from culpability on that basis? Are ignorance and stupidity sufficient to absolve amoral actions?
*** ‘Tess’ was our first rescue-dog-bitsa (mixed-breed) when we got established in Australia. She looked like a breed dog with a finely proportioned 16 kilo physique, a golden luxuriant but short coat, a magnificent high-held tail that was bushy but neat, and exquisite ‘Spanish-policeman’s-hat’ ears in light charcoal, with muzzle to match. She was always in the office with us, sometimes outside in the sun waiting to escort people in, sometimes entertaining those into the waiting room, sometimes resting on the couch in my consulting room (she even gave the occasional 2nd opinion, being especially good at distinguishing nasty psychopaths from those who were genuinely ill).
She took the banking bag up the main street to the bank every time, head held high, acknowledging the many compliments she was paid as she made her progress. She brought-back the lunch from the café too. One day, as she was waiting with my wife in the bank to hand the bag to the teller, the manager came out and saw her and ordered ‘that mutt out of my bank’. I moved our accounts to another bank immediately. There was a call from bank headquarters soon after; they did not like losing the account of a new specialist in town — I do not know what happened to the manager.
Anyway, because I was a specialist and Tess looked so distinguished everyone assumed that she was a rare pedigree dog they had never seen before. So, after innumerable inquiries as to what breed she was, we decided to start telling people she was the only one of her kind in Australia: the only ‘short-haired-Swiss-goat-herding-dog’. The story circulated widely and was questioned by (almost) no-one. Her often-used moniker was ‘Tess’ll’ (Tess will) because there was little she was not ‘up for’: cars, motor-bikes, planes, boats, whatever, she was first in the queue. She was a tremendously strong swimmer and spent many hours in the swimming pool and could dive to the bottom of the deep-end to retrieve a ball. We were fortunate to share 17 great years with her, and reminiscences of her exploits will still wash away any dust that might be in my eyes.
There were many patients who were grateful for her soothing presence.
Ancient, and less ancient, words of wisdom
Epictetus, Stoic Philosopher
Epictetus was a ‘Stoic’ Philosopher in the 1st c CE, the quotes below will have a familiar ring to those who have experience of CBT.
People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of those things.
The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.
Wealth consists, not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.
If you will make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.
Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.
He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.
There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.
Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.
How many things are there for which I do not want.
Marcus Aurelius (Roman emperor, Stoic philosopher)
Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.
Happy he who learns to bear what he cannot change.
François, Duke de La Rochefoucauld
Before we set our hearts too much on anything, let us examine how happy are those who already possess it.
We should earnestly desire but few things, if we clearly knew what we desired.
Few things are needed to make a wise man happy, nothing can make a fool content. That is why most men are miserable.
Those who occupy their minds with small matters, generally become incapable of greatness.
Mediocre minds usually dismiss anything which reaches beyond their own understanding.
If we never flattered ourselves, we should have but insufficient pleasure.
We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others (cf. Bierce)
The truest way to be deceived is to think oneself more knowing than others.
Few people have the wisdom to prefer the criticism that would do them good, to the praise that deceives them.
In our era the omnipresence of advertising can only serve to adversely distort people’s perspective and expectations: the above epithets may be summarised as: expectations that are out of proportion produce unhappiness.
This succinct ‘one-liner’ from a friend is spot on:
Advertisers: agents of discontent.
And despite the length of time that has elapsed since he said this, it still says it all H. G. Wells:
Advertising is legalized lying
I include those in this section because the analogy is this: if an acquaintance repeatedly lied to you, and repeatedly made false promises, then you would avoid them like the plague — advertisers are essentially doing that to you: it is demeaning and depressing.
There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern.
John Oliver Hobbs
When a man forgets his ideals, he may hope for happiness, but not till then.
Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle
It is a great obstacle to happiness to expect too much.
If my hands were full of truths, I should be careful of opening them.
We tend to forget that happiness does not come as a result of getting something we do not have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.
If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy: but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think others happier than they are.
We grow weary of those things (and perhaps the soonest) which we most desire.
Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.
H L Menchen
Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
Happiness: an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.
Here, in contrast, is a sample of utterly vacuous saccharine bullshit (see the following commentary for discussion):
‘Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror, but you are eternity and you are the mirror’.
The use of the prissy euphemism ‘bulldust’ has always left me bemused.
See ‘A discursion on bullshit’.
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