Saturday, 21 July 2012

Fighting Against Nature

Last night, I played a CD which is part of a home study course in counselling.

Listening to the CD, I heard the presenter talk about why potential counsellors should enter a course of therapy themselves: something which has always intrigued me.  The main reason, as I suspected, is that a potential counsellor should understand themselves and their own issues before they are able to empathise with, and support, their clients.  A point which came across very clearly was that most of us are at least a little unhappy with our lives, because we have gone against what we want for ourselves, in an effort to please others.

Recently, I have accepted that a career in counselling will not happen for me in the near future.  For practical reasons which I won't go into here, I must build the existing skills I have gained through working with computers.  By aiming for a career in counselling, I was, perhaps, fighting against my own nature.

As a child, I was something of a maths prodigy.  To be honest, my basic arithmetic was, and still is, no better than the arithmetic capability of anyone else.  For some reason, however, I was more at ease with abstract concepts such as algebra than my classmates.  I can't remember if I discovered my talent for advanced maths or computer programming first, but I will tell you that the thought processes involved are so similar that they could be said to be the same.  Binary notation was almost second nature to me.

My first personal experience of a computer was when a friend of a friend bought a Commodore VIC-20 (yes, I'm showing my age here - it was the early 1980s).  I can't overstate the importance of that event.  This machine before me was not a television - though it needed a TV as a display device - or a washing machine; it was not a video recorder (remember them?) or a microwave oven.  No, this machine could be programmed and expanded to be whatever you wanted it to be, or that's how I interpreted it as a child.  When I later discovered that the computers of the early 1980s were inherently limited, you would expect it to have discouraged me.  On the contrary, I was now hooked.  Overcoming and working within the limitations of the machine through the abstract processes of computer programming became a childhood obsession - one which probably did nothing to correct my inherent shyness and fear of social interaction, unless you count the computer club I attended weekly as social interaction.

One of the defining characteristics of childhood, and one which is lost in the journey to adulthood, is that we just go along with who we are, and we don't resist it.  Ask someone close to you what they wanted to be as a child, and you may catch a glimpse of a dream which has since been extinguished by having to conform with the expectations of parents, peers or society at large.  You might suspect that there is a side to this person you knew nothing about, and that assumption is probably more correct than you know.  There are various clichés about being all things to all people and wearing various masks in different situations, but they have become clichés because they are a true reflection of how we are in reality.

When I was studying Social Sciences, I came across a very powerful concept, social construction.  One of the longest running arguments in philosophy is the nature versus nurture debate.  If you are not familiar with the debate, it concerns whether a child is essentially a "blank slate" at birth, ready to be shaped by the experience of life, or whether that child's potential and personality are already deeply ingrained.  Most social scientists now hold the view that the truth is somewhere between the two extremes: from birth, we have a distinct character, but this is later modified to varying degrees by our environment and experience.  Anything which is determined by our culture, environment, relationships or social constraints is said to be "socially constructed".

There is a point in our early lives where our dependence on our parents and our attachment to the family home are gradually reduced.  We have to deal with the outside world and, according to our character, it is either exciting, an adventure or frightening.  It is also the point where we start to make adjustments to "fit in" with those around us.  As a shy, socially awkward child, I found it difficult.  Naturally, my apparent unease made me an obvious target for bullying from an early age.  From the start, however, I never saw anything wrong in fighting back, or actively striking pre-emptively, because I judged that an attack was imminent and wanted to prevent it.  I never became a bully myself, but I certainly didn't stand for being bullied.  The most important point, however, is that I was assessing the level of threat posed by anyone I was meeting for the first time.  I had started to analyse people.

You can probably see how I developed a talent for counselling.  My shy, quiet nature made me a naturally good listener and, as a matter of necessity, I developed the ability to "read" people very quickly.  Much to my surprise, I found a lack of ease and confidence in people who had at one time appeared strong and confident to me; most importantly, I discovered that I was certainly not alone in what I was feeling, and that others were just hiding their discomfort with varying degrees of success.  Some people, I learned, had even become experts at hiding their anxiety from themselves - something which, I discovered later, always backfires eventually.

Within time, I became interested in what made people the way they were and getting them to be better, rather than working out how to get the best out of a computer.  I even started to study for a degree in psychology, though a series of personal setbacks postponed that achievement.  As luck would have it, my circumstances now dictate that I should return to working with computers, and I am more comfortable with that than I believed I would be.  I have skills as a counsellor, and I continue to use them in voluntary work I am currently doing, but that ability is clearly a social construction, rather than innate.  I can not say, and probably never will be able to say, that it is a role in which I feel completely comfortable.

For the record, my earliest recollections are of wanting to be an astronaut or a palaeontologist.  At the time, space and dinosaurs were things I could not place into context within my life, and it was their mystery and status as things which were unattainable (dinosaurs no longer exist, and space is unreachable by most of us) which made them attractive.  They were, to me, abstract concepts.  The part of my nature which led me through algebra, to computer programming, to Information and Communications Technology in general, has been a part of me for as long as I can remember.  I am what society unkindly labels as a nerd, a geek, a boffin.  I fought against it, partly because of that label and also because I am living in a society which finds non-conformity threatening, but continuing to fight against our own nature only brings us unhappiness in the long term.

I know this has been a very personal post, but I hope it has inspired you.  If you want a snappy sound bite to sum up, I'll oblige.  Sometimes we wear a mask because we fear being recognised for who we truly are, and that others will not like what is beneath the mask; the danger is that we ourselves forget we are wearing one.