Counselling does not change reality

Soon after I first moved to Dublin in 1999, I went to see Martin McDonagh’s black comedy, The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Going to the theatre on a Dublin summer’s evening seemed an occasion for casual clothes; an open necked shirt and chinos seemed in keeping with most of the audience.  However, many of the seats around us were occupied by American visitors, who must have travelled with very full suitcases, for some of the women were in evening dress, with ankle length skirts. They took the occasion with the utmost seriousness; while most of us had gone along to enjoy an evening of humour, they treated the experience with an altogether greater degree of gravitas.

Manahan was an extraordinary woman, and one personal moment of seems particularly pertinent.

While a young woman, Manahan went touring to Egypt with Michael MacLiammoir, Hilton Edwards and her new husband Colm O’Kelly.  O’Kelly went for a swim in the Nile and contracted polio on a Thursday and died the following Tuesday.

Manahan and O’Kelly had been married just ten months; the evening after losing her husband, Anna Manahan went on stage to play her part as scheduled.

At a time when almost every serious programme seems to come with the announcement that anyone affected by the issues raised can phone a helpline, Anna Manahan’s stoicism seems something from another age.

Is a generation raised on a diet of counsellors for every eventuality better able to cope with the horrible realities that inevitably arise in everyone’s lives? Or is stoicism a better response? Does the Manahan attitude create a greater degree of resilience?

What would modern analysis suggest regarding Anna Manahan’s behaviour  in going on stage even though her husband has just died?  Probably that she was anaesthetised by the shock, even in denial about what had happened.  Maybe so, but she coped with her bereavement and went on to become a world-acclaimed actress.

My grandfather served in the National Fire Service in London during the Second World War. He was a Section Leader, the Fire Service equivalent of an NCO. During the winter of 1939-40 he saw horrifying sights, burnt remnants of flesh that were once a human being, people dying ghastly deaths. His experience was a common one. Hundreds of thousands of people suffered severe emotional trauma, yet all the talking in the world was never going to change the facts. There was no choice other than to carry on.

Counselling does not change reality. Facts are not changed by attempting to finesse or nuance them with pseudo-scientific language. Horrible stuff can’t be talked away.

Anna Manahan was right, and those American theatre-goers knew how seriously she should have been taken. You just have to get up and get on.

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6 Responses to Counselling does not change reality

  1. DiscoveredJoys says:

    I have a friend who lost his wife a few years ago. He was devastated and grieved for a long time. When we met for a drink recently he mentioned that in the first few months of widowerhood he considered suicide – but every day he woke up and decide to go on.

    • Ian says:

      That takes courage.

      After long marriages, many surviving partners die very soon after the death of their spouse, often for no apparent reason.

  2. Paul says:

    Maybe talking helps to understand reality and put fantasies fears aside to cope with the reality and realise one does not need to cope with the fears of what has not yet happened.

    But I agree that modern talking therapies do not have this result.

    Another thing is that something a lot of people do is work out their thoughts and feelings by talking through them and I think the loss of the confessional in our culture/religion has opened the space for counselling

    • Ian says:

      I would agree. The best help I ever managed to give anyone was to sit in silence and listen (and not ask spurious questions about their relationships with their parents during their childhood).

  3. Chris says:

    Having survived Dunkirk, my soldier (Protestant) father was then caught in a munitions explosion in an ammunition dump. A grateful Army discharged him with a small gratuity that was spent trying to find work in WW2 Liverpool; not easy being unskilled and disabled. Having then met and married my (Catholic) mother, he then found himself thoroughly unwelcomed by both families and escaped the prejudice by moving to London.

    He was able to find work in a factory and started to raise a family. One brother was born and another was on his way when the Germans invented a new weapon. The V1 was called the ‘doodlebug,’ a child’s name for a killer, but the more efficient and deadlier version, the V2, was coming online. Father didn’t like the risk, so he begged a room from his hostile family so my brothers (actual and unborn) would be safe. This was done, and my mother had a miserable time of it. My father stayed in London because he had to earn money to support this.

    Having bicycled the usual five miles to work, one day Father heard a loud bang. From a window, he was able to see a large plume coming from the direction of his lodgings. He finished his shift, cycled back, found half the street gone and a huge hole where it once stood. His premise was undamaged.

    He helped the local ARP and Ambulance staff to extract the bodies from the rubble. He went indoors, brushed off the dust and muck from his rooms and had his tea. He went to work the following day, otherwise he wouldn’t have been paid, and he needed the money.

    This is what nowadays ‘toxic masculinity’ is all about I suppose.

    • Ian says:

      I spent thirty years in parish ministry and learned hard lessons in remaining silent because there was nothing I might say that could change the facts.

      No matter how they are interpreted, painful facts are painful facts, yet a legion of snake oil sellers now suggest their words can alter reality.

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