Saturday, 25 March 2017

John Berger on loneliness and recognition

"Most unhappiness is like illness in that it too exacerbates a sense of uniqueness. All frustration magnifies its own dissimilarity and so nourishes itself. Objectively speaking this is illogical since in our society frustration is far more usual than satisfaction, unhappiness far more common than contentment. But it is not a question of objective comparison. It is a question of failing to find any confirmation of oneself in the outside world. The lack of confirmation leads to a sense of futility. And this sense of futility is the essence of loneliness: for, despite the horrors of history, the existence of other men always promises the possibility of purpose. Any example offers hope. But the conviction of being unique destroys all examples. 
An unhappy patient comes to a doctor to offer him an illness - in the hope that this part of him at least (the illness) may be recognisable. His proper self he believes to be unknowable. In the light of the world he is nobody: by his own lights the world is nothing. Clearly the task of the doctor - unless he merely accepts the illness on its face value and incidentally guarantees for himself a 'difficult' patient - is to recognise the man. If the man can begin to feel recognised - and such recognition may well include aspects of his character which he has not yet recognised himself - the hopeless nature of his unhappiness will have been changed: he may even have the chance of being happy."
The quoted section continues with a remarkable description of how the physician John 'Sassall' offers such recognition in his medical practice in the 1950s Forest of Dean. Sassall
"is acknowledged as a good doctor because he meets the deep but unformulated expectation of the sick for a sense of fraternity. He recognises them. ... 'The door opens,' he says, 'and sometimes I feel I'm in the valley of death. It's all right when once I'm working.' ... It is as though, when he talks or listens to a patient, he is also touching them with his hands so as to be less likely to misunderstand and it is as though, when he is physically examining a patient, they were also conversing."