A Fireside Chat. By Dr Keith White

One of the people who I now realise has influenced me greatly from my younger days is the Swiss psychiatrist, Paul Tournier (1898-1986).  He was the author of a number of books, eight of which I have on the shelves beside my desk.  The books are basically reflections on, and the retelling of, the stories of those who came to him seeking help.  The most famous is probably The Meaning of Persons.  On the front cover of three of them is a picture of Dr Tournier sitting in an armchair beside a fire, and it becomes apparent as his writing proceeds that this is his preferred position when listening to those who come to him.  They engage in conversation while sitting either side of the fire.

He sums up what is going on, in this way: “Day after day men and women of all ages and conditions, the healthy as well as the sick, come to see me in order to learn to know themselves better.  They tell me the story of their lives.  They take great trouble to get the details absolutely right.  They are seeking to know the person that they themselves really are, and they feel that everything we are setting out to do together may well be compromised if they are not scrupulously sincere in all they say.”  (The Meaning of Persons, SCM 1957, page 12)

Without modelling what I have done on Tournier in a conscious way, and despite not being a psychiatrist, it began to dawn on me recently that an increasing amount of my time is taken up sitting beside a fire listening to the stories and the detailed descriptions of those who come to me.  The pieces I have written in Childrenwebmag and more recently in the Therapeutic Care Journal (there are nearly 200 of them) often have their roots in exactly such conversations usually in the same room, and beside the same open fire.  I had been drawn to his homeliness and also to his humility: he readily acknowledges that he was a “wounded healer” who had experienced deep traumas in his early life.  And he has no difficulty in confessing when he feels out of his depth with a particular patient.

As in Tournier’s description above, those who have come to see me, have done so for a variety of reasons, and in quite different states of mental health.  What they have in common is a desire to know themselves better. In the past couple of weeks I recall the woman who feels unable to escape from the effects of an abusive and traumatic childhood; the man who finds it hard to forgive himself for some of the things he has done, and at least one thing he hasn’t done; the young man with Asperger syndrome who wanted to share with me his meticulous drawings and proposals for making the world a better place; the woman who couldn’t understand why most of her early years were a complete blank; the founder and director of a project, who is finding himself in the process; a mother who finds it painful to share about the way she has been excluded from her family home…

Almost always I find myself sitting in the same chair with the other person in the conversation on a settee the other side of the fire.  There is a low table accessible to both of us on which sits tea, coffee or water.  And the pattern of the conversation is remarkably similar, once we have got to know each other after a session or two. There is usually an uninterrupted period of up to an hour when the person  shares with me what has been going on in their life, what concerns them, and descriptions of feelings.  Whenever possible I seek the agreement of that person to take notes with my fountain pen on sheets of A4 paper.  I file the notes and always re-read them before the next session.  Usually I make no reference to the notes during a session, but they serve as a record of what has been said, so that I can be aware of what is repeated over and over again, what might be new or something seen in a different light, and what might be developing insight.

With this in mind I have come to realise that by now, like Tournier, though lacking much of his insight and nearly all of his training, I have a pretty extensive store of peoples’ life stories which help me to understand what is shared in human experience, and what is unique to a particular person.  Always, without exception, the stories are fascinating.  There is no such thing as a “boring” person.  Were there enough biographers to go around I have come to the conclusion like Dr Johnson, that every person’s life merits a biography.  True some are anxious or depressed; some are repetitive and predictable, and listening sometimes becomes especially hard, but the person and their story are always engaging.

Just one more point of background information before I share about a recent encounter and conversation.  I have always avoided categories and terms for our sessions together.  Candidates include counselling, therapy, spiritual direction, mentoring and the like.  There are some things completely off-limits such as project management and supervision, but the main thing is that it is a confidential conversation at the request of the person coming to see me…and beside the fire in my house.  And each individual conversation is part of a larger conversation which is in turn an aspect of a developing relationship.  There is no specified cut-off point, but to date there always seems to come an awareness that it is time to move on, and one or more of the final sessions, proceeds with this in mind.

The man who came to see me and whose conversation I wish to share (in complete confidence and without attribution of course) had been off work for two or three weeks and was on medication prescribed by his GP for stress.  He had gone back to work, but was then told by his employer that given the mediation he was on, he could not continue at his job and place of work.  It was not clear whether this was for the time being or for good, and this had reinforced his anxiety.  He desperately needed to discuss with me what to do.

We had already had two conversations in recent months, and so although there was a specific context to the recent chat, it was part of a wider relationship and discussion.  Going back over the years he had chatted with me on numerous occasions, having spent his childhood in Mill Grove.  All through his life we have been in contact, and there have been some periods of his life when he has asked to spend a lot of time sharing problems and feelings with me.

Before the session in question he had told me the exact medicine that he had been prescribed and the daily dosage.  This allowed me to confer with a GP friend who specialises in mental health and related medication.  I relayed to my fireside friend her view that his employers were at fault in insisting that he could not continue at work while on this medication. I was also able to give him the relevant government advice and its source.

We discussed how he might go about contacting his employers and what he might say.  In fact we came up with a step by step plan, and he was clearly up for it.  But then the conversation took a turn.  “I always mess things up at work”, he said as he went on to describe how he sometimes lost his temper and said things that he later regretted.  Even when he had determined to remain silent in a team meeting, he often found himself speaking against his better judgement.

But there was more to come.  This reminded him, or brought to the surface what lay deep within his person and story, of his behaviour and attitudes that led to the break-up of his first marriage, and the distancing from his children.  Although it was a quite complex dynamic and narrative, his predominant feeling is always one of regret and remorse.  He holds himself responsible for what happened, and he hates himself for it.

Still that was not the end of his sharing.  Now there were tears welling up in his eyes as he spoke, reflecting the flames from the fire.  “I miss grandpa (that is his way of describing my father) so much.  He was always there for me.  He could understand me.  If he had been around perhaps it would never have happened.”  We reflected on this for a bit before he continued, “And what makes me so sad is that he gave so much for me; he was always interested in me; he was always ready to help me; to listen, and I never once asked him how he was.  I didn’t stop to think about what was going on in his life.  It couldn’t always have been easy for him.  But not once did it occur to me in all our chats to ask him how he was.”  The tears were unstoppable now.

From many similar conversations I have come to realise that my father was very dear to a number of people, and that he had a Tournier-like gift of empathy and understanding.  What’s more as I have shared in the columns of this journal before, it has been made very clear to me again and again that when you have lost your own mum and/or dad in early years and someone comes along whom you can really trust, their death is almost unbearable.  Several people I see simply cannot get over it.  There is not a glimmer of what Americans tend to call “closure” (a word and concept that I find hard to understand).

And then it dawned on me that in all the conversations that I have had by the fireside we have never once discussed my own situation or feelings.  As far as I can recall no one has asked, but had they done so I would have sought a way of deflecting the enquiry.  The reason for this is that the encounters are not about me seeking to know myself better (although that may well be a by-product) but because it is the life and feelings of the other person that form the subject of the discussion.

So it was that I realised that my father would not have minded in the least that a person had not asked about my father’s own well-being.  There were other times and places where that would be appropriate.  But in these sessions such enquiries would be an intrusion, even an obstruction.

I tried to relay something of this to my friend, assuring him that my father would never have wanted to discuss his own state of mind or problems but his sense of failure was so deep that it was obvious nothing was going to shift it in such a short space of time.

When we said goodbye, there was a buoyancy in the air, not least because he had a game-plan for the situation at work.  But whatever happens there, the conversations are set to continue for some time, and his lack of self-esteem and self-worth, coupled with his admiration of my father, and his grief at my father’s death, will be somewhere near the heart of things.

And it is highly significant that the conversation continues, just as the fire has never failed to light.  And I have been blessed by his sharing, his honesty, his determination not to give up, his insights into others and their motivations.

Just one more thing, that takes me back with gratitude to Paul Tournier.  He is thankful for the realisation that his professional (scientific) work and his spiritual adventure have come together in his “personal dialogue with…patients” (The Meaning of Persons, page 227).  And for that I am profoundly grateful too.