So Ordinary

Harvey Sacks’ lectures were not prepared. They were delivered ad hoc in ordinary everyday language, which is very encouraging to those of us who are used to reading academic treatises full of special words we don’t understand. Yet paradoxically, its very strangeness surprises us and makes us work hard to see what he is aiming at.

Much of what he says we haven’t heard anywhere else because he was working from sets of human behaviour that he had observed and had not taken for granted. For example when we are in a different group of people we adapt ourselves to the unwritten rules of that group without even realising what we are doing.

Whenever I went to a conference to find out more about psychotherapy I found myself floundering in the group exercises because I hadn’t the faintest idea of what these hidden rules were. Whenever I came up with a response of my own I always heard cries of “This is not what we are talking about!” and I did not know why I should be denied to come up with my own ideas.

Sacks wrote a lecture called “Doing being Ordinary”. This at once threw light on my dilemma. I never learned as a child to fit in anywhere, because my parents left me to my own devices or told me things that seemed so ridiculously childish that I took no notice of them. Neither did I want to join in any kind of group because they never fitted in with what I wanted to do, so I learned to be myself and to act that way to whoever I might be talking to. My book “Boadicea’s Chariot” is about my childhood experiences and clearly explains what I am trying to say here.

Sacks points out that circumstances alter rules about conversation. We all have a job to do which enables us to create different kinds of rules for how we fill in our time.

People who are as independent as I am are categorised as eccentrics because they have found there own way to live and their own work to do. When I consider the small number of what I call ‘real friends’, these are the ones we keep forever even when we rarely meet and even after they have died. I realised in due time that the complete freedom of speech between us is what I value most.

So how can we learn to “Do being Ordinary”? If we have different ways of being and doing ordinary what do we do when we come up with a completely new kind of person? We can say what we like as in my article called “Stranger”.

I end with a story. When I became a psychotherapist I was determined to work only with people who were willing to come to terms with themselves. I noticed that those who did not would play all the games they could think up to avoid taking responsibility for themselves.

When clients came for the first time, I spoke to them as I would have done with any stranger with the sole exception that I would take into account their emotional state by close observation so that I could understand it better.

I worked with a lady who did not value herself enough. She was also making a good recovery from an operation for cancer. I don’t know what I did. Like Sacks I let myself respond to her in a way that would, hopefully, do her no harm. I took a great liking to her from the first time I met her. That made it easy for me. Clients are not fools. They soon find out how you feel about them. Our work was very successful. It took quite a while until she felt confident enough to look after herself. Towards the end of our work she suddenly said, in tones of astonishment “I don’t know what you did but I feel like a different person. I can’t believe it. After all you are just an ordinary person!” “Quite right” I said. It was one of the best things anyone said to me, that just by being myself I could have had such an effect on another person.

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