Wouldn’t it be great if we all knew how to live and love without needing to be told how? But looking around, it begins to seem as if we have lost that knack. Instead, we have coaches, psychologists, psychiatrists, mentors, therapists… and look back with almost romantic nostalgia upon simpler times, when the world wasn’t mad and we did not need professional help.
I contend that the longing is misplaced. Therapists and teachers have always been around, we have always needed them…we just called them by a different name. Most of them didn’t specialise in one fragment of human need, but brought a lifetime’s experience to the problem at hand. We called them elders, wise-women, druids, minstrels, priests or storytellers.
The practical skills would be taught by those who knew best. Granny would teach you how to spin or make bread, while grandfather told tales of the hunt or plough. The life-lessons too, were learned through listening, either to simple advice or constructive criticism. Storytellers would weave magic around the fire, shaping tales that held morals and wisdom hidden in their heart. And although the world has changed, people have not altered very much.
We are still surrounded by those teachers and therapists, but we call them by other names. The elders are just ‘old’ and advice from those closest to us is seldom treated seriously. We have lost the ability to listen with discernment or to accept criticism. As a society, we seem to have been conditioned to expect qualifications and letters after a name before we can accept advice as sound. “Yeah, but you’re just my mum/dad/grandad… you don’t count.” We have lost the innate respect for the kind of wisdom that can only be gained through experience.
There is a place and a need for professional expertise and knowledge. Ironially, our society still stigmatises those who genuinely need such help, while those choosing to pay for someone to listen to them are praised for their choice.
Much of what is discussed now with professionals might once have been shared with the elders, with friends and families. Much of it is itself a symptom of the increasingly isolated position in which we find ourselves in this fragmented, introverted society we have built, where families live far apart and few friendships endure in their closeness as jobs move us around.
But there are teachers and therapists all around us still, and all of them share one quality. They listen. Friends who listen without judgement, advise without agenda… empty hills where we can tell our stories to the clouds or an empty page that welcomes our words… dogs who listen with unreserved attention… trees that share their whispered secrets with us, reminding us we are never truly alone unless we close the door on the world.
Perhaps, when we look back on those simpler times of yore, we need to ask ourselves whether the world really was a simpler, better place… or whether we, younger than we are, were once less complex creatures, less fraught with expectation. The eyes of a child see the world as it is… simpler.