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Who coaches the life coaches?

by Jane Shortall

Am I becoming a grump? Will I soon be joining — late in life — one of those daft ultra conservative ‘pull yourself together and get back to basic values’ groups? Am I losing my patience and failing to understand the human condition?

I hope the answer to all of the above is no, but in the last couple of years, something has sprung up, positively mushroomed, and now appears to have taken a firm hold, becoming an essential part of so many people’s lives.

I am not talking here about appropriate and necessary therapy for serious depression or other medial conditions. But of the arrival of unqualified charlatans on the scene, all offering to help and heal us.

There truly has been an extraordinary increase in the amount of individuals setting themselves up as gurus with alleged knowledge of what we need in our lives. It is with utter amazement that I observe how many people, more and more each week it seems, pop up advertising all sorts of ways of helping us live our lives. Some of the adverts and stories I have heard recently are simply hilarious, although in some cases it is verging on a hysterical black comedy. Lately I have come across a few tales that really border on the bizarre. This phenomenon set me thinking; pondering on the self sufficiency of humans.

A person actually sent an e-mail to the national broadcasting station in Ireland announcing that she was making plans to commit suicide, and therefore setting all her affairs in order. Of course it was incredibly sad to hear the desperation in the message and as I listened I could only hope that the undoubted response which was bound to come from listeners would give her the courage to seek help and talk to somebody.

But oh dear, in her case, where was she to seek help? The programme presenter continued reading and to my astonishment came to the last line of the person‘s message, which read; ‘As a counsellor myself, I know how difficult life can be etc‘. It turned out that the person had left one life, began counselling, and was now fed up because her ‘new’ life hadn’t worked out.

Politically correct or not, this must be said. And whether or not this reads appallingly unfeeling, I am profoundly glad that I am not one of her patients. This does not mean that because I have never been to a counsellor myself, I do not consider them essential. I know lots of people who need and value greatly their professional counsellors and therapists. It also does not mean that I have no knowledge of suicide, or the incredible and long lasting bleakness that follows the suicide of someone we loved.

At some point we have to question people who decide to make a life change, and suddenly think they can counsel or help others. Why not decide to buy a violin and lead an orchestra? Where are their qualifications, their years of experience? Who would possibly have confidence in them? How many of these people offering to help others live their lives, actually need help themselves? How crazy have we got that hordes of people are paying strangers fistfuls of money each week to talk, or have various ‘healing’ practices carried out on them. Are we now at the stage where there is a whole generation of people out there totally unable to cope?

Consider this. A person has been employed as a receptionist for over twenty years. She has worked hard and been a thoroughly good receptionist. Then, shortly after having accepted a retirement package, she announces she has taken a two week course and is now offering Indian Head Massages — phone for an appointment. One person I know did a similar course in just one weekend. A friend in the Insurance business tells me stories of people turning up in her office, some with quite obviously low IQ’s, asking to be insured in various ‘healing’ businesses.

These people, however well meaning, have absolutely no experience of healing anyone. Can there be so many people out there needing help that these people can set themselves up as head massagers, councillors, reiki healers, feng sui experts? I even heard of someone who lights candles and puts them into the ear, almost as far as the ear-drum, in an effort to cure headaches. She did a short course in this particular healing method. Who gave the course? Someone not one person had ever heard of. The class nevertheless all paid her a considerable sum of money. Is it all getting out of control?

Just when I thought I had heard enough hilarity, comes the latest wave. Step forward the Life Coaches.

Now this takes beating. There is one individual who charges the equivalent of two thousand dollars for a course in ‘life coaching’. A friend went along to enrol. The address turned out to be a private house. A man ushered her into his front sitting room, sat her in an armchair, and told her to come along on the starting date, bringing the full fee. She asked about books and whatever she would need, and who exactly would be running the course, expecting at least to hear some well known names from the professions, business, media, medical etc. He told her that the course would be run in his house and the students would work in twos, each helping the other to reach their full potential. At the end of the course, they would get a certificate. Surely this beggars belief. Can anyone be so utterly stupid to think they will gain anything from such an outlandish set up?

I began to think back on my own life, my family and how we all muddled through the usual set of catastrophes that befall the human race. With a very important point which must be stressed. We did not have any spare money.

I come from a somewhat eccentric, if fairly harmless family. When I was a tiny child we lived in the top part of a very large, old house in Dublin, Ireland. Gracious, spacious and all that, but still basically two huge rooms. Opera was played loudly with no regard for a sleeping child. My mother, who was a talented pianist, sang all the time, sometimes at the top of her beautiful voice. Years later when we lived in a house, my school friends used to say they loved the way my mother was always singing as she came down the hall to open the door. Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner were favourites of my father. Chopin and Listz, both of whom I came to like in my late teens; (romance, romance), were deemed ‘fine, but light music’. Which is why to this day I can sing snatches of Italian Arias without completely understanding what they mean.

How different my life would have been had my parents been different. They thought everything could be made better by an appreciation of the arts.

When I was about three years old, I was taught to read and by the time I went to school, only one month after reaching my fourth birthday, which seems incredible now, I could read all the little words we started to learn in the class. I loved early school. As the school itself was an all Irish speaking school, it meant that we children had mastered two languages, Irish and English, which of course was the language most of us spoke at home, at a very early age.

By the time you were eight or nine years old, although it wasn’t a rule or anything, everyone was expected to be reading something else at home, a ‘real’ book, as well as the school texts books. This suited me down to the ground, as by now I loved reading more than anything. Ballet stories were favourites. It never occurred to me to ask about learning to dance. I already knew we didn’t have money for that. But the books were great. Then I saw a Degas painting of ballet dancers. The third great thing entered my life. I already had music and reading.

Best of all was that I had loads of cousins in the country, where I was sent off to for holidays, to stay with my aunt Maud, the beauty of the family, and her enormous family of eleven children. To me as a child, she was one of the calmest people I knew. I loved going there more than anything. The freedom was fantastic for a city child.

My summer holidays consisted of my mother packing a suitcase of silly city clothes — I am an only daughter with three brothers and as such I was dressed up to the nines to visit the country. Darling Maud would hang my clothes up on the back of a door in the bedroom, dress me in a little pair of shorts and a t-shirt and let me loose across the fields for weeks of fun and a total lack of fuss. I loved sharing a room with so many girls. Even though at home I was quite happy to have my own room and my own things, these weeks of topsy turvy living with all the cousins, the days spent fishing in the river or sliding down haystacks, scratching the backs off our legs, were the very best of times. There always seemed to be loads of lovely food. We went to bed while it was still bright and in no time we seemed to be up and running again. It always appeared to be sunny. Is this a sign of age?

How on earth my aunt Maud managed to produce food for all of us three times a day remains a mystery. And the housework. I remember seeing her washing bedclothes in the bath once, her magnificent dark hair just tied back casually, her beautiful long hands working. She seemed always at peace. To me she was like a film star.

But more than that, she coped with appalling sadness in life in a way that only became apparent to me years and years later. Maud was widowed while pregnant with her last little girl. The great love of her life died in his early forties. Never, ever, did I or the other children get a feeling of gloom, doom, or the desperate unhappiness she must have felt at times. She simply got on with life, looked after us all, stayed beautiful. She still is.

In my father's case he could be quite startling with his advice. I think some of my more timid friends would have found him difficult going, but for me, the genes are there, so I can appreciate the rather formal approach. The following is probably a goodish example of the difference in my upbringing and what I hear now from the younger generations of our family.

Naturally my teenage years produced all the usual dancing hormones, just like everyone else‘s, when suddenly you think your parents are nuts, and everyone else’s are so much better. People tell me they call family conferences now to discuss issues if one of the children has problems; I mean ordinary things like teenage angst.

Well for me, any moaning and complaining about life not being tip top and wonderful was likely to be met with something that went like this: ‘It's about time you read some Dostoevsky. Try The Brothers Karamazov. See what suffering and misery is. Find out how to survive.’ There was also a totally daft tendency to thrust Shakespeare, the complete works, into the hands of a fourteen year old, with a shout of ‘It‘s all in there; everything, all recorded by a genius. Read it, read it, read it.’

Lucky me.

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