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The cave was a tall corridor, the walls foaming with white and orange calcification. It was cool, much cooler than the hot summer day outside, and dark. Our eyes gradually accustomed themselves to the blackness, with only small gangway lights on the floor to guide our way. We edged our way in, taking care to ensure that our clothes did not brush against the damp walls, for we would damage them. Deeper in, once we had left the day behind, away from the entrance, we began to make out dark shadowy shapes on the rock walls. Nothing more than storm clouds to begin with. Then we were shown a head, a leg, a tail, and the animals began to take shape. The contours of the cave sides filled out a belly, defined a hind leg, followed a tail. We saw bison, deer, black, red ochre.
One large black deer with horns curling over its back had its head lowered. Scratched into the rock, its form was clear even if some of the colouring had faded. From its half open mouth a tongue protruded. It was licking the forehead of a red ochre deer, kneeling, whose head was lowered to the ground grazing. The scene was intimate, affectionate, gentle, loving.
Elsewhere animals were superimposed on each other, creating an unamiguous perspective. Bison stood in front of deer. Their four legs were correctly drawn to show those on the offside shorter. The chest of some animals was shaded as one shades the disappearing roundness of an apple, using black colour blown through a bone. Movement was frozen, as one animal leapt behind another.
I imagined the wonder as the flickering light of the flame of torches animated the tableaux, one picture fading as another came into view. In front of each group of animals we reconnected with the people like us who had created them, fuelled by the same desires and hopes as us, decorating their shelters, illustrating their struggles, leaving traces behind of the beauty they brought to their lives. Thousands of years collapsed until we were Cro Magnon men and women, each having our different role to play, hunting, caring, cooking, painting, teaching, inspiring. Later on the cave narrowed so that you would have had to squeeze through to see the rhinocerous and the lion trapped within. We had to turn around and retrace our steps past the Ark-like procession of black and red ochre pairs until, like moles, we blinked and left behind a fourteen thousand year old zoo of Magdalenian inspirations which would colour the graffiti we saw on walls or the image of a child scribbling, holding a thick wax crayon in his fist. I thought how the austere rocky outcrop gave no hint of the beauty of the inside, of the feelings laid out to see by the few who ventured inside.
This email address [email@example.com] should work if you want to make an on-line reservation in advance. Nothing about Les Eyzies is easy. I don’t think it is supposed to be. It would not be the same if it was laid out on a plate, ready to be consumed. It has to be discovered, and it takes some effort. The Font de Gaume ticket office is little more than a roadside railway shack. There is no cafe, and the toilets are a hard up-hill walk away.
[Lascaux was closed to the public in the early 1960s, and there is nowhere else in the world where you can see cave paintings like these for yourself. Tours to the Font de Gaume cave at Les Eyzies de Tayac (and here) are arranged in small groups of 12, and only less than 200 people a day are allowed in. Timed tickets are sold out months in advance (for the rest of the summer already), but 40 tickets are issued each day to those who come and queue when the ticket office opens at 9.30am. We arrived twenty minutes early, and 26 people were already queueing, some buying several tickets for absent friends. Luckily, a very stressful wait was rewarded with tickets for 12pm, and we drove 6km away to see the impressive high- and low-relief frieze at the rock shelter, l’abri du Cap Blanc. The area around St Eyzies is so full of pre-historic sites that it would take days to visit them all, and it is not far from Sarlat and other delices of the Perigord noir. We had lunch afterwards in the Hotel Cro Magnon, just in front of the cave where the Cro Magnon skeletons were first discovered in the late nineteenth century. You cannot but wonder whether the cave at Font de Gaume will, like Lascaux, be closed to the public forever. Go soon. It is one of the best things I have ever done. I told my parents-in-law about it and watched the memory of the joy of seeing Lascaux before it closed come over my father-in-law’s face. He saw the paintings there in 1958 – exactly fifty years ago – and the memory of it still burns bright.]
Image of cave entrance: http://www.donsmaps.com/images/fontdegaumeentrance.jpg
One of the best things about getting home again after having been away is going through the post. Five days is barely long enough to accumulate much, but the harvest was nicely padded out by a couple of Amazon packages that I had almost forgotten about. I had ordered a couple of books by Matthieu Ricard and both arrived together. The first – Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill – looked as satisfying as a packet of biscuits with a cup of tea, so I tried that first.
The second – co-written with his philosopher father – will need more time.
Matthieu Ricard is a French Buddhist monk who gets rave reviews, but the book frustrated me. I tend to graze on books before bothering to read them properly only if they look sufficiently interesting. Dipping into various chapters, I was not finding anything I was looking for. Ricard’s solution to any unhappiness seems to be to nail the ego to the cross, to blow away all hurt and anger as just a useless manifestations of a bruised ego. It all sounded as if one should care about nothing, nor mind how people treat you, which is fine if you are a saint or a doormat, but was not going to provide me with any quick fixes, nor help me find a way through relationships that trouble me. However then I came across this:
“Whether or not we benefit from affection and love at an early age […] greatly influences our ability to give and receive love later in life, and simultaneously our degree of inner peace. If we consider the categories first described by Mary Ainsworth and applied by Paul Shaver and his colleagues to adolescents and adults, a “secure” person will not only enjoy a high degree of well-being but will be naturally open to and trusting of others. She is open to emotions and memories, exhibits high “coherence of mind”, and is nonhostile during disagreements with others and able to compromise. She generally copes well with stress. An “anxious and insecure” person will lack self-confidence and doubt the possibility of encountering genuine benevolence and affection, while yearning deeply for it. Such a person will be less trusting, more possessive and jealous, and will fall prey to nagging suspicions, often on a purely imaginary basis. She is excessively ruminative and vulnerable to depression, and tends to become overly emotional when stressed. An “insecurely avoidant” person will rather keep others at bay than risk further suffering. Such a person will avoid becoming too intimate with others, either in a fearful way or by silencing all emotions in his mind and retreating within the cocoon of self-absorption. He has high self-esteem, but his self-esteem is defensive and brittle; he isn’t very open to emotions and memories, and if often bored, distracted, “compulsively self-reliant”, and not very caring.
According to Shaver and his colleagues, the emotional style of parents, principally the mother, influences considerably that of the child. If the mother has an “avoidant” style, there is a 70 percent chance that the child will “learn” the same style while interacting with his mother. The same is true for secure and anxious styles. The best gift one can thus give to a child is to manifest loving, open, and peaceful qualities oneself and to let the emotional alchemy work its way.
Are such emotional styles acquired during the first years of life engraved in the stone of unchanging traits? Fortunately not. Phil Shaver and his colleagues have also shown that insecure anxious and avoidant persons can change considerably toward a more secure emotional style precisely by being exposed to affection and other positive emotions.
How can we help deeply wounded persons? By giving them enough love so that some peace and trust can grow in their hearts. How can they help themselves? By engaging in a meaningful dialogue with a human and warm hearted psychologist using methods that have proven to be efficient, such as cognitive therapy, and by cultivating loving-kindness, compassion and mindfulness.”
Now this I could agree with wholeheartedly. I was interested to see that Ricard recognised that poor attachments could cause great distress and, moreover, that he thought that more was required to repair the damage than merely breathing through the anxiety and loneliness that hangs around like fog in a hollow.
I was not lucky enough to have secure attachments to either of my parents. This is not something I feel angry about now – I’m not sure I ever did. But it is something that sometimes makes me sad. I am keen not to repeat the misery of the anxious and avoidant attachments I grew up with, and find it distressing when patterns seem to repeat themselves with people I meet. I can still be inclined to try to solve those anxious or avoidant relationships by myself when I know that they can only be solved by the two parties involved together, and I often carry on trying long after most people would have jumped ship. I know that I am capable of secure attachments, which is something of a miracle, and I am fortunate enough to enjoy them with my husband, my children, and with some of my close friends. Not all, though, sadly.
I found this learned and very informative article written by one of Paul Shaver’s colleagues (see above) and which presents an excellent overview of the research into attachment in adult relationships.
Although the article talks about romantic relationships most of the time, I think what it has to say applies to all relationships. I particularly liked this on-line quiz which tests your attachment style in relation to your mother, your father, your romantic partner, and your closest friend. You could answer the questions in relation to any friend, though. It probably will not tell you anything you could not have worked out for yourself if you thought about it.
Most friendships and relationships will begin with only a small amount of intimacy. Some stick there – through the choice of one of the two people involved. Others progress, but the progression is difficult for most people, and extremely difficult for some. The more the intimacy in a friendship builds, the more potential there is to be hurt. Particularly if your past experience of intimacy is a relatively unhappy one, it can be difficult to make the transition to secure intimacy. The bridge between can feel desperately unsafe, frightening, and too big a risk to cross, even if the terrain on the other side really is secure and safe. Quite a lot of two-steps-forward-one-step-back, tiptoeing around, testing the ground.I tend to imagine that every such bridge is a Tacoma Narrows bridge which will collapse as I try to walk across. I fear rejection. I don’t think I am alone.
I spent most of yesterday in caves, more about which later, but I was thinking about all the myths associated with caves, and also about the popular Mars and Venus book. I began to wonder if men who exhibited Martian characteristics of needing time in their cave were not those men whose early attachments were anxious or avoidant.
“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Big thanks to Xanthippa for giving me a good laugh, and, boy, after the last ten days, did I need one. Here’s what she posted on her blog. Visit her blog to find more along similar lines …
A friend bought two copies of a book subtitled “A down-to-earth guide to parenting teenagers”, and gave me one copy. It’s good – or at least what I’ve read so far has been full of good advice well put. There are lots of practical exercises which you might like to try with your teenager (I’ll share the fruits of our efforts in another post). Here’s a snippet – relating to self image and how a teenager’s self image is often defined by a self-imposed heirarchy of desirable attributes or possessions – which struck a chord:
“Having this sense of heirarchy has many functions. It helps groups of young people to bond, creates society and to some degree keeps things ticking alone nicely. However, it can be limiting and even damaging if it is the only way a young person relates to the world around them. If a young person believes they are worth more or less than others in their way, they may make choices about their behaviour in relation to this information. At an extreme level we see this manifest as “isms”. Racism supposes that race determines a person’s worth and that some people are of more value than others from birth. Likewise sexism determines that the qualities and behaviours associated with one sex are of less value or worth in the world than those of the other. Hierarchical thinking is also strongly ingrained in those young people who are likely to bully or use power tactics over others as it allows whatever qualities are deemed desirable by the group to be more important than broader concepts of fairness or value.
A more healthy view of the self in relation to others is to see it as recipe that contains the same “ingredients” as everybody else but in differing quantities and mixtures. We are all unique but all made up of the same bits and pieces. Some of us have tremendous skills in some areas, some of us don’t. Some of have one kind of motivation in life, some of us have many and we change motivations as we develop – perhaps a love of music is supplanted by a love of amateur dramatics after coming across an enthusiastic local group. We are all different but we share a broad cloak of humanity and common experience. We are therefore able to empathise with people we have never met and whose lives are very different from our own.
I’ve often heard it said that everyone is good at something. I’m not sure I completely agree. I think many people are average at most things and they are still unique, worthy and valuable. It’s not being good at something that matters; it’s being somebody. And it is entirely by encouraging your young person to understand and share this view that parents can influence their child’s lifelong self-esteem.”
The authors make the point that self esteem often runs in families. I wonder if racism – that is, an over-developed sense of ethnic pride – is not something that children pick up from their parents who, for whatever reason, choose to emphasise their own ethnic identity to counter their feelings of inferiority. As with racism, so with sexism and extreme religious supremacy. First generation immigrants often feel an understandable anxiety in relation to the indigenous majority and, not unnaturally, respond by vaunting the very thing that makes them different. Sons smothered by their mothers may grow up to brandish their masculinity in a hierarchical way.
In their children, however, this defence mechanism may take on a more dangerous hue as it is expressed as unthinking, immoveable prejudice learnt at an esteemed parent’s knee. The book, then, offers advice to parents as well. To value themselves. To offer themselves the unconditional love that means being somebody – a person worthy of love even when all the achievements and badges are stripped away.
Gill Hines and Alison Baverstock, Whatever! A down-to-earth guide to parenting teenagers, Piatkus, 2005
I spend a fair amount of time wondering whether I am mad. Usually when people disagree with me vehemently, or when I wonder whether I am imagining the aggressive undercurrents that I sense in another person. Wondering whether one is mad seems inescapably normal to me. After all, none of us know what it’s like to live in someone else’s head and so we all have a funny idea of what not being mad feels like.
I usually conclude that I am not mad, but only after a lot of very anxious soul searching. Only very occasionally do I get sweet, objective, external confirmation that I am not mad. A friend who knows me very well gave me this card today which makes me smile whenever I read it. She saw it and thought of me, and bought it for me. I’ll pin it above my computer, I think, next to a lump of the Berlin Wall. I can cope with being Nice Mad.
(card from a brilliant series by Edward Monkton)