Herding Cats


Back in the day (nearly 30 years ago) I attended what was called an Encounter Group as part of an M.Ed I was doing at Nottingham University. It went thus… A group of about 25 students entered a large rectangular room which was laid with chairs in an elliptical spiral pattern – enough chairs for each student. There was no front or back or rows, no seat that was in the centre, no board or screen or chart or focal point. Just chairs. We had to individually choose which chair to sit on without guidance or prompting. Four facilitators were sat on chairs in each corner, deliberately inconspicuous. They said nothing, they watched, observed, but were entirely impassive and gave nothing away about what they were thinking or how they were feeling.

After an excruciating five minutes or so someone broke the silent, uncomfortable atmosphere and said that this set-up was ridiculous. Another piped up about how there was nothing to do, and what was the point of that? Some, like myself, said that we were struggling with the situation because of the lack of guidance, but that this was obviously the point, or words to that effect.

It was then that things really started to hot up.

One person sprang to their feet, pointed at the facilitators accusingly and said this is fucking crap, and stormed out of the room. Others started to remonstrate about how they felt manipulated and abused by this situation, another said that this reminded them of how their father treated them growing up, by being silent and absent and emotionally cold. Another female commented bitterly that the one female facilitator was especially reprehensible for not intervening and showing concern for the participants like her, who were hurting and feeling abandoned by this. Division within the group ensued with some of us telling the remonstrators to stop being selfish by hogging the airspace with their issues. Some of the remonstrators responded by calling us and the facilitators names, like arseholes and morons, and that we were just trying to suck up to the facilitators and didn’t have the guts to stand up to them… etcetera. It ended with a lot of acrimony flying around.

Later I wrote up the experience in a journal and several things struck me powerfully. Everyone in their own way was projecting their issues onto the facilitators. How dare they not ‘lead’ and leave us hanging with no support or terms of reference was the mantra of many of the group.  They/we were being emotionally hung out to dry and this was an outrage. Conversely, they were also trying to expose us, make us spill our guts in a cruel and underhand way, and what gives them the right to do that?

What I learned most of all from all this was the messed up and contradictory nature of people’s relationship to authority and leaders. On the one hand we want them to protect us, rescue us emotionally, look after our interests, but on the other we resent the power they have over us and get really critical about what they do, and are suspicious of what we see as their ulterior motives.

Gaining insight and self-awareness into my own issues and contradictions with this was a profoundly important part of my personal development thereafter. Noticing when you project your issues on to ‘leaders’, developing the ability to step back and ask yourself what’s really going on, and start to own how much of what you feel about them is actually about you, is very enlightening and liberating.

I was also struck afterwards by the professionalism of the facilitators in allowing participants to have the opportunity to really look at ourselves, precisely by NOT rescuing us. This is far from easy and required a great deal of restraint and skill on their part.

Which brings me to the current social and political realities emerging from Covid-19. A lot of responsibility for doing the right things is being heaped onto the shoulders of our leaders now, especially when they themselves are being directly affected by the virus. Those who choose to carp and criticise hypocritically from the side-lines and play Tories are evil, blond man bad party politics, are obviously reprehensible and should be thoroughly admonished for their negativity and hot air that is not helping anyone. (Notwithstanding the Marxist/Communist/Anarchist and far-Right Fifth Columnists who want to use crises and conspiracy theories to undermine society and should be vigorously exposed and marginalised – they have their own very dark demons to grapple with).

This negativity syndrome is symptomatic of our current ‘victim culture’ where it’s always someone else’s fault or something else that is to blame for our own unhappiness/ shortcomings. It’s never a case of ‘physician heal thyself’, but rather ‘it’s not fair’ and ‘I’m being oppressed’. At a deeper level the negativity mongers are projecting their own anxieties about feeling inadequate, helpless, uncertain about their role in the world and all the ongoing uncertainties this is throwing up.

In the face of a phenomenon that is likely to change society in some very profound ways, they are struggling, we all are in our various ways. Turning down the projected heat on our leaders would therefore be a really good idea at this point. Leave them to get on with what they’re doing to the best of their ability and have some faith in the fact that Big Brother is not actually out to get us. Let’s take responsibility for being our own facilitators of ourselves.

Gary McGhee is a semi-retired screenwriter, loving the outdoor life with his partner in the Norfolk countryside. Gary was ‘red-pilled’ before it became fashionable, and believes in liberty, freedom, modernism, and defying herd-mentalities.