Being Jollied Along – Free Ebook

There are friends who are very well meaning but who nevertheless have a habit of responding in unfortunate ways when we reveal a trouble to them. They try with considerable vigour to cheer us up. We may appreciate their underlying good nature, while nevertheless profoundly resenting their particular technique. For what we may want from them above all is not a swift enjoinder that our problems are in fact, despite appearances, easily solvable but rather a shared moment of sadness and mournful sympathy. There are times when we can’t believe in quick answers but we want company nevertheless. We want to give way to a low-level muted sadness and a joint acceptance that life is inherently difficult. Sadness isn’t always a disorder that needs to be cured. And yet, the dominant tone of many friendships continues to be cheerful or, its more brittle cousin, cheery. A good mood that tolerates no other. This falsely presumes that the best way to please others must always be to impose a vibrant frame of mind when, in fact, admission of despair is a key tool in the process of friendship properly reimagined. In a discussion of parenting styles the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once identified a particularly problematic kind of child carer – the person who wants to “jolly” babies and small children along, always picking them up with exaggerated cheer, bouncing them up and down, and pulling wide funny faces, perhaps shouting “Peekaboo!” repeatedly. This criticism might feel disconcerting. What could be so wrong with wanting to keep a child jolly?! Yet Winnicott was worried by what effect this would have on a child. The weight was subtly not giving the child any chance to acknowledge its own sadness- or more broadly, its own feelings. The jollier doesn’t give the child an opportunity to set the tone. He or she just wants to impose a mood which may have no basis in the child’s reality. The jollier doesn’t only want the child to be happy- more alarmingly, it can’t tolerate the idea that it might be sad. So unexplored and potentially overwhelming are their own feelings of unresolved disappointment and grief. Childhood is necessarily full of sadness… As adulthood must be too, insisted Winnicott. Which means we must perpetually be granted the possibility of periods of mourning – for a broken toy, the grey sky on a Sunday afternoon, or perhaps the lingering sadness we can see in our parents’ eyes. The friend, no less than the carer needs to remember how much of life deserves to have solemn and mournful moments- And of how much loyalty we will always be ready to offer those who don’t feel aggressively compelled to deny our melancholy.

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