How do we live well with others?
About the article
How do we live well with others? is a searching question underpinning the work of philosophers, psychotherapists, and cultural theorists such Professor Stuart Hall who was influential in early campaigns for social and racial justice and a central figure in the founding of Iniva, becoming its first Chair. First published on the Iniva website.
How do we live well with others? is a searching question that has preoccupied thinkers and philosophers through the ages. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall considered the roles we adopt or resist; how we interact with each other in our personal, social, and professional lives; and what part historical or contextual influences play. As well as being influential in early campaigns for social and racial justice, Stuart Hall was a central figure in the founding of Iniva, becoming its first Chair.
Such preoccupations also contributed to the work of Wilfred Bion who contributed to the development of group analysis in the UK out of his sessions with WW2 veterans suffering from what came to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Bion recognised the ways in which unconscious dynamics mould relations in groups and also between them. As both psychodynamic theory and our own experience illustrates, we all have a primal need to belong; the easiest – but most damaging – route to achieving this is to create ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, a process which relies on splitting off unwanted or hateful parts of the self and projecting them into others, an unconscious and often extremely subtle phenomenon that is at the root of cultural tensions.
Such mental processes are complicated as they are shaped by in how we define ourselves and the personal myths we have constructed about our past and present lives. Questions which capture aspects of these processes include, ‘What kinds of inter-generational trauma or historical shame are we struggling with, sometimes unknown to ourselves, which might propel us towards taking up a particular role in our relationships or in the groups of which we are part? How does our family’s perception of who we are, and our own perception of our family’s status or standing influence how we relate to other people? Why might we identify with the outsider or the victim? In what situations or circumstances do we label ourselves ‘better than’ or ‘less than’, often without being fully aware we are doing this?’
Bion and Hall remain seminal figures in their own ways whose ideas continue to inform our understanding of how we make sense of our worlds both within and without. Each was interested not just in how we engage in social groups but, importantly, how we describe our current and historical experiences to ourselves and to each other. We know that memories are not factual records of the recent or distant past but are narratives forged out the residue of emotionally potent experiences, often re-written or ‘curated’ to edit out what is too disturbing or painful or that which places us in an unfavourable light.
Margareta Kern’s colourfully decorated ‘cake’ entitled Kolačnikov is one of the images featured in the emotional learning card set entitled How do we live well with others? It references social or family celebrations however its outline – that of a menacing Kalashnikov rifle – suggests darker truths, more layered dynamics.
One way of reading this piece of art is to see it as a reminder of how we all inevitably damage, and are damaged by, others in big and small ways throughout the course of life, sometimes intentionally, other times unavoidably or even unwittingly.
Margaret Kern Kolačnikov, 2005 Watercolour on tracing paper (above); icing sugar and wax (below)
One way of reading this piece of art is to see it as a reminder of how we all inevitably damage, and are damaged by, others in big and small ways throughout the course of life, sometimes intentionally, other times unavoidably or even unwittingly. We’re all familiar with the barbed compliment which carries a hidden, unconscious message, even, at times, a lethal one designed to ‘kill off’ the one we are envious of or have hateful or conflicted feelings towards. Reading this image within a relational context, we might well see it as a reminder of the uncomfortable reality that the more primal our emotional bonds, the deeper the hurts both inflicted and felt.
No child goes through their early years without feeling the pain of loneliness, exclusion, rejection, or intense jealousies. We all carry residual childhood hurts which can influence subsequent choices or aspirations or self-beliefs. For example, some of us only became conscious of being seen as ‘different’ by others when we were teased in the playground because of our skin colour, our accent or social class. Or perhaps we’ve internalised the felt experience of being perceived as ‘not the same as’ in our own family, just as Stuart Hall, a slightly darker skinned child than his sibling, so poignantly described in the film The Stuart Hall Project (2013). Hall was motivated and inspired by his difference, determined to use his personal history as a platform from which to spark debate thoughtfully, intelligently, and tirelessly about, and campaign for, social and political change.
We can all use our internal representations of ourselves in self-centred ways. For instance, without being aware of it, we might hold the belief that something about us – our politics, our creativity or intellectual talents to name a few – single us out as ‘better than’ others. We can easily elevate ourselves in our own minds by projecting the notion that we are in some way ‘superior’, laying down social markers which are immediately recognisable to others to aid this process. By stage-managing our image, we present an edited version of who we are.
His depiction of individuals standing stiffly atop of very high pedestals set against a dark and foreboding sky reminds us of the isolation we can suffer if we place ourselves ‘above’ and the troubled social atmosphere this can lead to.
Lu Chunsheng’s photograph entitled I want to be gentleman, also featured in ‘How do we live well with others?’ captures something of this. His depiction of individuals standing stiffly atop of very high pedestals set against a dark and foreboding sky reminds us of the isolation we can suffer if we place ourselves ‘above’ and the troubled social atmosphere this can lead to. Creating hierarchies of individual value and ranking them is commonplace; living well with others requires a letting go of this kind of hierarchical thinking.
As nations, social groups, families, and individuals, being ‘one amongst many’, ‘alongside’ rather than ‘above’ or ‘below’ is the ultimate goal. To achieve this requires paying closer attention to our perceptions and being prepared to adjust them when necessary. The on-going need to recalibrate how we see ourselves and the image we project as well as how we perceive others is paramount. Reconsidering culture and identity, and the impact of race, gender, and class, is a ‘live’ project, one to which we can all contribute, building on the legacy left by those who have come before.
Lyn French, Director of A Space
Lyn French is the Director of A Space. She first trained in art (MA Goldsmiths) with a focus on conceptual art practice before completing an art therapy training and a psychoanalytic psychotherapy training. She was a staff member on the Birkbeck MSc in Counselling & Psychotherapy with Children + Adolescents for over 10 years and has co-edited two books in the field as well as contributing to the production of Iniva’s emotional learning cards.