Director Christine Lister-Ford’s Graduation Speech
I travelled to Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme last month to find the sites of the battlefields in which each of my grandfathers had been wounded. The plan was hatched in 2011 when my mother said she would like to go. And in a spirit of ‘Why not, that sounds interesting?’ I agreed to take her for her birthday the next year. But her own frailty overtook our plan and she never managed to make the trip. So our plan took up residence at the back of my mind where it grew of its own accord into a fully formed imperative with which I meekly went along. It was only after everything was booked that I began to emerge out of my trance and realise that I was going in the centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War. Now my own birthday is in early August and I have never been entirely happy that my entrance into the world fell just a few days after the anniversary of the outbreak of such a catastrophic event. But until this year I have managed to avoid remembering this unhappy coincidence, aided and abetted by the fact that August is a holiday month and most people are in a relaxed mood.
Well after my childhood had ended I realised that both my grandfathers had had PTSD. Tom, my mother’s father had no obvious wounds but every night he would shout and scream in his sleep. He kept a constant supply of whisky and chocolates under his bed. I thought this was just the way grandfathers were. My father’s father, also called Tom, enlisted, age 17, as a fit and sports loving young man. He came home minus a leg and part of his arm. I never met him but the family story tells of him removing his prosthesis each night to soak his stump in a brine solution. He was reputed to be stoical, hard working and a frightening disciplinarian with children. Nobody talked of PTSD but someone did once say in passing that the nightly rantings of my mother’s father were due to shell shock.
Walking through the Menin Bridge was my first shock. The whole edifice is inscribed with names, the names of countless men, some still boys, whose lives were taken from them by a war of grotesque proportions. At Tynecot Cemetry row upon row of the graves of unknown soldiers stand in stark white lines. A group of Belgian soldiers were visiting the cemetery as part of their army training. Recruits from our own Sandhurst do this, too. The quiet of the cemetery and the beauty of the Belgian countryside make this a strangely tranquil place. Questions began swirling around in my mind – ‘Why were so many young men allowed to die? Why hadn’t all this slaughter been prevented? Who had the right to take these sons, husbands and fathers away from their families and consign them to barbaric living conditions, frequently sending them in to battle unfed, weakened and ill equipped? A feeling of enormous anger mixed with deep sadness began to take hold of me. Alan, who is sitting here today, sent me this quote from Aristotle on Wednesday:
‘Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right reason, and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.’ Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (c. 325 BC)
Who to be angry with and for what? What is being angry in the right way? Perhaps that is one of the dilemmas we are grappling with as we remember wars, genocide, and other events then and now. As psychotherapists and counsellors we are called on to be the companion on many different journeys, existential dilemmas resonate in our own psyches just as much as they do for the person with whom we sit.
Anger and blame can rise to the surface whenever we feel threatened, frightened, hurt or wounded. Current events are feeding our human anxieties, global warming, the ‘war on terror’ and attempts to right past wrongs that are currently in the media.
There have been countless times in my life when the frustrations I have felt have persuaded me into anger with the wrong people, for the wrong reason at the wrong time. Often I failed to see this because I simply didn’t know enough. It took me a long time to recognise and understand the generational impact of PTSD on my family and the way that reached me through my parents and my grandparents. I had no interest in family history and knew little of the events they had lived through. I needed a therapist with the wisdom to support me in my perception of my life but who would hold a space for the unseen and unknown influences, to hold for me the possibility that there might, one day, be more for me to understand about my story and that I might want the freedom to create a new narrative.
As your tutors and supervisors, each of us has attempted to recognise your special and unique qualities, tend and feed these and hold a space into which you felt supported to grow and develop so that you could emerge as the kind of therapist you want to be. At times we may have been clumsy, made mistakes, awoken your frustrations and anger. On such a deep and transformational journey it could hardly be otherwise. We have never intentionally made mistakes. We are incredibly proud of you and wish you an amazing professional journey. Hold fast to the wisdom that will allow you to recognise more than you know with those with whom you will sit.