I recently saw the exhibition “America’s Cool Modernism” at the Ashmolean museum , Oxford. It had paintings by Edward Hopper. I was struck by the absence of mess or untidiness in the pictures on display. There was a sterility to them which is at odds with any major city. The lack of people also made it harder for me to judge the dimensions of the buildings. Cities are messy, untidy places .There is always a mixture of beauty and near chaos. Of life and of death. Each element sets up a contrast with the other. The open top Porsche driving past the beggar in the street. The quietness of a church or cathedral contrasting with the noise outside. Cities epitomise thee contrasts. Yet in the Hopper works on display, mess was not in sight.
As a counsellor I work with these contrasts each day. Although the contrast here is about people’s inner worlds. And of the interplay between these worlds. In any given session we will move between life and death. Order and chaos. A session may begin with a patient in tears of sadness about a loss and end with that same patient sharing a smile and laughter with me. (And, occasionally, at me!) These contrasts are part of the richness of people making- soul making, one might call it. I’m often struck in my initial assessment with a patient about the gap between where we begin and where we end up. Someone will come for Anger Management and what emerges is someone who has never known a truly nurturing relationship. Or someone who comes with Anxiety who is suffering from an intergenerational message about the value of women. They themselves are anxious. Their mother had similar difficulties as did Grandmother-and possibly great-grandmother. The work then moves from Anxiety Management to Self Esteem work and an affirmation of their worth and value.
So how do we move from Hopper to Anxiety? As I’ve said what struck me was the sterility of hopper’s paintings -or those chosen for this exhibition.There was no mess. I live in an untidy home. I visit friends whose homes are models of neatness and tidiness. Everything has its place and everything is in that right place. My home is hull of “things”. An empty wine bottle waiting to go in the recycling bin. Today’s bills on the kitchen table. Half read books on the table in the front room. And two very untidy dogs. I used to get cross at the “mess”. Every now and then one of us will tidy up. Which lasts for a couple of days! Then the “mess” takes over again. Curiously this feels comfortable. We are not a “neat and tidy” couple. Or not at home! The “mess” goes to define and shape us in some way.
I looked up the etymology of “mess” because i had a hunch that its roots weren’t as critical as its current usage would suggest. The earliest meaning is to do with food. Specifically a prepared dish with a later sense of it referring to a group of people sharing a meal together. The idea of untidiness or chaos is much later. I was pleased by this! Partly because i can claim that our home is not untidy but convivial! Partly because it chimes with my clinical experience that when my patients bring me their “mess” we can begin to work. The “mess” provides a fertile bed from which new growth can occur.
The American writer, Mark Yaconelli summed it up well. “The way of the spiritual life”,he wrote”begins where we are now in the mess of our lives.” (He defines spirituality as being about intimacy. “Spirituality is not about perfection: it is about connection.” Which demystifies “spirituality”and re incorporates it into the everyday |mess” of our lives.