Agents of Change. By Keith White

Over many years I have tuned in regularly to certain BBC radio programmes such as Desert Island Discs, The Life Scientific, and Private Passions, each of which uses a framework in which an invited guest is encouraged to share something of their life story. Among other ways in which I engage with them is to search for any clues into what had caused their lives and behaviour to change, by listening to their accounts of this change.  A dramatic example, during the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, was that of Jane Goodall, an acknowledged world expert on chimpanzees, who subsequently became heavily committed to the cause of preserving planet earth. She said that people asked her how she made that decision, but she replied that she didn’t make a decision: she was changed. She went to an international conference “as a scientist” and left “as an activist”. The shift and widening of her agenda arose naturally out of her discovery that human individual and social behaviour had to change. Because she was a changed person there was no option but to live and act in a different way.

A rather more common feature of the stories of those featured is that a teacher or parent enthused and inspired them by way of example, and then taking a personal interest in their questions and discoveries as children.

Both Jane Goodall’s story, and this element of the stories of many others, are, of course, encouraging for those of us engaged in therapeutic care. It may not be apparent at the time, but by sharing compelling evidence on the one hand, and leading by example on the other, we can contribute to a positive turning point in a young person’s life. Often, we will never know this, but those of us engaged long-term in a person’s life, are sometimes blessed to hear of occasions when this has happened.

But to see things in this way assumes something of a one-way process: a resourceful adult (teacher or parents) proving to be a catalyst or spur to a child’s development.

What, I wondered, about the role of children as agents of change in the adults who teach and care for them? An example I recall is of a teacher writing in the school report of one of my offspring, that she had learnt more from my daughter, than she had ever taught her. The idea that education, care or therapy leaves only one of the parties changed is surely suspect. Integral to the dynamics and processes in each are the relationships involved between adult, child and subject matter.

COVID-19 has been an agent of all sorts of changes, positive and negative, and one of these in my life has been more opportunity to watch programmes and films with my wife, Ruth. There were two films shown in close succession, that at other times I would almost certainly have been too busy to see. One was Goodbye, Christopher Robin; the other Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars. If you don’t know them, then I commend them warmly, but with a health warning: each film could seriously affect your mental health. A.A. Milne, the father of Christopher Robin suffered from what is now called Post-Traumatic-Stress Syndrome following the First World War. As a husband and parent, he was anxious and depressed, suffering unpredictable and harrowing flashbacks. As a writer, he had a complete block, unable to produce anything creative.  His (only) child, Christopher Robin, was therefore born into a dysfunctional household, with a strained relationship between his mother and father, and where his nanny (known as “Alice” in one of the poems) was his only consistently attuned, and securely attached significant adult.

Things reached a pitch when Milne’s wife left for a period, as the nanny (due to the illness, and then death of her mother). Suddenly A.A. Milne had become a single parent. Given his psychological condition, and his almost complete lack of experience of child-care and housework, he found himself struggling on a huge learning curve. But the young Christopher proved to be the agent of major positive change. He absorbed some of his father’s strange and inappropriate behaviour; they played together; and through this unusual relationship, a whole new imaginary world was brought into being. It included a growing family of characters including Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga and Ru, Tigger and Owl, and places like the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh Sticks Bridge, and the North Pole. A.A. Milne started to write the poems and stories in books such as Now we are Six and The House at Pooh Corner. Almost overnight he became a world-famous author.  His wife returned, and Christopher became a celebrity.

Unfortunately, the positive change in his father’s life and circumstances, cost Christopher Robin nearly everything. He felt that his personal relationship with his father and their imaginary world had been taken away from him. There was chronic bullying at school, and eventually he chose, against his parents’ wishes, to serve in the Second World War. He explained to his father that this was in large measure, not only to get away, but to repair the damage that he had suffered. He survived and his relationship with his nanny was restored. But the emotional scars were with him for life.

Eric Clapton was the world renowned, brilliant guitarist, who had everything humanly speaking seemed to have the world at his feet.  Musically speaking he was one of the most successful artists ever known. But due emotional abuse throughout his childhood, he was never able to establish, let alone sustain, genuine relationships in adult life. This was as true of professional groups, personal friends, or the women in his life.  Somehow, he survived a period on cocaine and heroin, only to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire, by becoming alcohol dependent. He reflected later that no one had told him that alcohol could be a more serious problem than Grade A drugs.

At this point tragedy struck. Due to his fame, it has been etched in the hearts and minds of a goodly proportion of the world, through one of the best-known songs of all time: Tears in Heaven.  His son, Conor, fell out of a window of a high-rise apartment block in New York. It could have been the final straw that broke Clapton’s back. But it wasn’t. And the agent of change was a little child.

Sometime after the tragedy, Clapton was in his own house alone, unsurprisingly unable to face anything. After a time, he started going through the thousands of cards and condolences that had been sent to him. Among them, he was shocked to discover a note from his son, that had been posted in Milan weeks earlier, and before he had set off to meet his father in New York. It read: “I love you. I want to see you again. A Kiss. Love, Conor Clapton.” Clapton commented: “Then I realised that if I could go through this and stay sober, then anyone can.  Then I suddenly realised that there was a way to turn this dreadful tragedy into something positive. That I would consider living my life from this point on to honour the memory of my son. I got hold of a little Spanish guitar that I had with me at that time. From the minute I got up and for the rest of that year I just played and played to stop from facing the situation.”

It was in this period that Tears in Heaven was born. One of the most famous songs of all time, it begins with the words, “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven? Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven? I must be strong and carry on because I know I don’t belong in heaven…”

A single card with words the simplest of messages from a child to his father proved to be the decisive turning point of that father’s life. The account that Clapton gives is an example of a decision that resulted from a changed life. The change was so profound that he was eventually able to relate to others for the first time, a wife, children, friends, and music groups. And he founded Crossroads, a therapeutic addiction treatment centre in Antigua.

Perhaps there are times when we might appropriately share stories of how children have been agents of change in our lives. It occurs to me that over the years I have written this column I have told of some of those who have helped to shape the way I have come to see and value things differently. One of the regular themes in these cases has been my realisation that they were resilient, both beyond my comprehension, and beyond my capability. The more deeply I got to know their stories the more I knew that had it been me in their shoes, I would have been tempted to give up, and most probably would have done. Their determination to “carry on” and “be strong”, to use Clapton’s words, has been my inspiration.

During COVID-19, one of these has at last received something of her reward. Against all odds, she is a survivor of serial rejection and chronic abuse. She is now full-time in a maternity unit of an NHS hospital. She has been feted in shops, on social media, and by the public at large.  Most are thanking her for risking her life for the sake of others. Meanwhile I am thanking her for proving to me that when all the odds are stacked against you, it is possible to absorb any number of set-backs, and still carry on, and to channel the hurt and resentment into caring for others.

It is just possible, I suppose that when she looks back, in some small way I may have been an agent of change in her life. Therapy works both ways. But what I do know is that my life has been inspired and enriched by hers.


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