“Soul is about your friends” : an encounter with writer and therapist Thomas Moore

That  brilliant Canadian writer Margaret Atwood was quoted some time ago ( in the UK’s Guardian newspaper) as remarking drily that  “wanting to meet a writer because you like their books is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate”.

Bearing this in mind, I very tentatively approached the USA writer Thomas Moore (whose books I like….), who was giving an evening lecture in Glasgow recently on the topic of “Care of the Soul in Medicine”, his latest book. Having read and appreciated two of his other books, “Care of the Soul” and “The Soul’s Religion”, I wanted to ask him whether  an astrological perspective was part of  his broad and deep influences, rooted as they are in his studies of the world’s religions, his teaching of Jungian psychology and art therapy, and his work in music and art, as well as his practice as a therapist practising ‘care of the soul’. I suspected that it had  – which he confirmed, having in fact written another book called “The Planets Within” which I have not yet read.

I found meeting Thomas refreshing and cheering – found him humorous, laid back, wearing his erudition lightly. His very informal “lecture”, very much open to audience participation, was timeous in its theme: the importance of healing the whole person, rather than simply treating the body, within the health care system. Timeous because of revelations in the UK press, in the very week of his talk,  concerning the lack of compassion and due attention paid to individuals’ emotional needs and their dignity in too many instances in too many hospitals.

These revelations caused shock and much impassioned discussion and comment in the UK, which really values the NHS, appreciating all the good work and quality care which is also provided by hard-pressed nurses and doctors in a system increasingly squeezed by financial constraints and driven by mechanistic targets and bureaucratic box-ticking – all dehumanising.

Thomas made many important points, leaving us with much food for thought. He emphasised – as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus had done thousands of years ago – the mysterious, fathomless depth of the human soul, observing that in both his life and his work “I like to honour the mystery”.

Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse
Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse


He pointed out that there are various simple but profound ways to nourish the soul: the key, it seems, if you distil the essence of several thousand years of cross-cultural wisdom, is friendship. “Soul is about your friends”.

He made the point that friendship can range from a twenty-second friendly exchange, eg with the man or woman looking after the toilets in the local park (my example), to deep relationships that stretch over decades. He would like to see much more of this general friendliness across the whole of our society, including between “patients” and “professionals”. His view is that one does not have to set aside necessary professional boundaries in order to have this kind of exchange, and that professionals being less guarded and more open to the common humanity which links us all, could make eg the relationship between eg “patient” and “carer” much more nurturing on both sides.

He also stressed the importance to us all of a sense of being in the right place, of feeling that where we live is “home”. (Apparently the origin of the word “home” is “I am”) Soul nurturing also lies in the deep pleasures of “ordinary” life – cooking, shared meals, music, connection with Nature – and in  his case, window shopping!

I went along to Thomas Moore’s lecture with my friend and colleague, psychology researcher Emily Cutts. We left – having met and chatted with several old friends and acquaintances who were also there – feeling cheered, refreshed and uplifted. Judging by the snatches of conversation around us, and the general atmosphere of the departing audience, it was a view shared. Thomas, haste ye back!

Constructive criticism: can we do without it?

Where would we writers be, without constructive criticism?

One of the most useful pieces of advice I was ever given came from a newspaper editor I once worked for, a crusty old chap who called a spade a spade. “You’re too wordy, my girl!” he observed. (this was in the good old days, before my even thinking he was being offensive might have got him arrested….) “I’ve never known any piece of writing to get anything other than better by the removal of 25 per cent of its wording. Now – take “How I was left on the shelf and found true happiness” away, and chop it!”

Honestly, I did write an article with that title, for the Spring Brides feature of a provincial Scottish newspaper a few decades ago. And yes, dear reader, it actually did get published, minus 25% of its wording. Somewhere in my files I have the cutting to prove it….

Another piece of even earlier straight-from-the-shoulder feedback has just found its way to the front of my braincell. Picture the scene. Aberdeen university, the infamous Sixties. I had left my seriously overdue history essay till the very last possible evening before my second exasperated extension from my usually genial tutor had expired.

I finally stopped procrastination and began writing at one am. Many cups of coffee and cigarettes later, at 8am, the task was completed. It had to be handed in by  9am or I would not receive my History class certificate. Without that, I could not sit my degree exam. Serious business.

Burning the midnight oil....

I ran most of the way to my tutor’s office. It was pouring with rain. On the way, I somehow managed to drop one of the essay’s ten pages into a puddle. It was only rendered semi-illegible – and only the bibliography, I thought, thankful for small mercies. Made it by 9. Just.

A week later I visited my charismatic and much loved, but somewhat fierce, history tutor – Owen Dudley Edwards. He glared at me as he thrust the dishevelled bundle of paper that was my essay back at me. I scanned the title page. “Phew!!” I thought with relief. Fifty per cent. A pass!!

“This essay on ‘The Origins of the American War of Independence’ ” Owen Dudley said severely, in words I have never forgotten, “bears all the hallmarks of the triumph of native intelligence and writing ability over little if any credible content.” There was a long pause. ” The bibliography – I had cited Winston Churchill’s  ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’ having once flicked through it – I assume is a joke….”

There was a frosty silence. I left, not feeling as chastened as the good Mr. Edwards had intended.

“Mmmmmm” I thought to myself as I headed off to the refectory to buy a much needed bacon sandwich, ” maybe I should be a writer if I ever grow up.

That crusty newspaper editor is probably long dead. Owen Dudley Edwards is still with us, and still giving out his straight from the shoulder opinions. I know this because I heard him on the radio a couple of months ago. I am grateful to both of them for their never-forgotten feedback. It was direct, it pulled no punches. It let me know where I stood. Grit in the oyster, it helped me become a competent writer.

However, in recent times, constructive criticism seems to have morphed into something altogether much less forthright, much more timid, much more inclined to dish out indiscriminate praise and affirmation regardless of performance. Is this helpful to young people’s education and development?

My colleague Emily Cutts,  psychologist and independent thinker, has her serious doubts. Read Emily’s forthright views, published today on MoreBitsFallOff.com :

Emily Cutts: Constructive criticism is a gift


600 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
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