It's an awfully risky thing to live
Musing about Carl Rogers, a mismarketed dance class and what it means to live.
That title is a quote from Carl Rogers, renowned psychologist and one of the fathers of humanistic psychotherapy. Where Freud and his crew believed it was up to them to tease out a person’s rationale and motivations, Rogers believed that you have all the answers you need within you, if you’d only see them.
In class this week, we were assigned to watch Rogers conduct a recorded therapy session. Freud went around giving talks on his theory, but we’re lucky enough that Rogers was coming up with his during the time of colour TV. After roughly a year and a half of struggling through practiced therapy sessions with all the grace of a giraffe on ice, it was time to watch a master at work.
The clip opens with Rogers explaining his theory, known as person-centred theory. He seems nervous, which I wasn’t expecting and found quite comforting as a trainee therapist. I’d already been wondering how you could hold a true therapy session beneath studio lights and in front of rolling cameras. How could anyone be really genuine knowing the nation would be watching? To her credit though, Gloria is.
She walks in with her handbag as though she’s just popped out to the shops, then seems almost to collapse onto the sofa. You get the sense immediately that she’s feeling somewhat stuck, defeated, and that becomes even more apparent when she starts grilling poor Carl Rogers for an answer to her problems. You see, Gloria finds herself at a crossroads. A newly divorced woman in 1965, she’s attempting to embrace her sexuality and desire whilst also trying to live by the patriarchal constraints of the time. She wants to be a good mother, but has lied to her daughter about whether she’s had sex with the men she’s dated. Good mothers don’t lie. Good mothers should be open about sex with their children, especially their daughters, so as not to give them a complex. Good mothers don’t have sex or experience desire.
It’s weird to watch Gloria discuss this dilemma. Nearly sixty years later and women still have the same issues. Don’t be promiscous, but also do dress provocatively for the gaze of others. Don’t discuss sex, but do know exactly how to please a man. Or, we go totally the other way. Become sex-obsessed. If you aren’t having casual sex, you’re not doing it right. If you’re not into BDSM, you’re a prude, vanilla. Still women’s sexuality is policed.
Rogers listens attentively. He’s a little awkward at the beginning, though he evades Gloria’s plea for him to tell her what to do quite expertly. But as Rogers himself highlights at the end, you can see how much more relaxed both of them become. The lights and cameras seem to fade away. Here are two people, connecting, one working through her problems in real time, the other listening, validating, affirming. Rogers doesn’t always get it right, and Gloria isn’t hesitant to correct him. So Rogers adjusts, realigns. He listens even harder. He opens himself up to Gloria’s inner world and lets her explain it to him. Then he listens out for the things she’s saying but can’t hear herself.
Rogers is here to sell his new form of psychotherapy. This is an advert, essentially. There’s a fair bit at stake here. He’s taking a risk, but so is Gloria. She talks about how she wants to be someone who takes risks, but isn’t that exactly what she’s doing in that moment? She’s telling the nation her deepest secrets and desires. The sixties might have been characterised by peace and love, but beneath that glossy surface the patriarchy stood firm. Gloria is taking a big risk. And because both of these people took a risk, we get to witness therapy in action. Their risk enhances not just their psyche but ours too.
A quote from author Neil Gaiman has been doing the rounds in the last few weeks. In it, he implores:
“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.”
He’s right, of course. To live is to take risks. If you don’t strive or stretch, you’re not living, you’re simply existing.
I said at the end of last year that I was going to challenge myself to start taking risks, or more specifically, that I was going to risk imperfection and failure. You’ll be delighted to know I gave that little challenge a go on Monday - please applaud me. And guess what, I did fail, and I’m still here to tell the tale.
I went to a dance class. I must say multiple times a year: “I wish I could dance,” whilst practically horizontal on the sofa, refusing to unstitch myself from the cushions. So, instead of simply wishing it, I decided to attempt to make it real and signed up for a class. It was lyrical dance, a kind of cross between jazz and ballet that focuses on bringing the lyrics of a song to life through movement - right up my alley. It was also advertised as being suitable for beginners and the first class was free. So I drove somewhere new on Monday night (a big thing for me) and played Tetris with my car trying to find a space in the world’s most poorly designed car park (another big thing, as I am a terrible driver. Case in point: on Wednesday, I accidentally ran a red light. In my defence, this set of traffic lights came like a yard after the first set, which were green, and I was being blinded by someone’s LED headlights. Sorry Mum and Dad.)
The class was held in a cold, somewhat damp, repurposed factory full of screaming children in leotards. That was the probably the first sign. The second came soon after. Having found the studio, the teacher let us all in and chatted to the regulars for a while before finally noticing me, as if I had just materialised before her eyes. Asking if I’d danced before (“Only if you count ballet when I was six”) she said, “I don’t stop. If you get lost, ask and I’ll explain.”
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Reader, that class was not suitable for beginners. I staggered clumsily about the room for 45 minutes whilst the five other women pirouetted and absorbed the moves after one demonstration. It became evident I could not stop to ask for an explanation as we would have been there all night and the other women would not have had the opportunity to learn a routine. The teacher did not acknowledge me again, and I spent the last five minutes of the class standing at the edge of the room watching the others dance. I could at least enjoy their routine as a spectator.
I failed, spectacularly, in public, arms flailing, and it was fine. I left disappointed in the class but not in myself, because I had tried. It was a tiny thing, an almost inconsequential thing in the grand scheme of life’s design, but I took a small risk, followed a desire and for 45 minutes I lived in the present, trying and failing but ultimately finding a little part of the answer to that important question: What makes a life?
It’s an awfully risky thing to live, but it is the only option we have. Staying home or in your head - neither of these are an option, and I mean that sincerely. If we want to achieve, to experience joy, to feel the highs, we must be imperfect and we must sit with the lows. Like Gloria, we must be honest and flawed and do what we think is best for us in the moment. Gloria may not have found the answers she sought if she hadn’t gone on national TV to hash it out with Carl Rogers. I also wouldn’t have got the answer I sought (that answer being that dancing is very hard and takes a lot of practice) if I hadn’t tried a dance class. You will never know if you can do the thing unless you try. You will never know if something you’ve created is good enough unless you send it out into the world. You will never know if you can be loved unless you try to love in turn.
With risk and life both comes anxiety and heartbreak and fear. The two are intertwined. You cannot pick the weave apart. Because it is an awfully risky thing to live. And what a brilliant job you’re doing.
Watch the video
If you get a chance, do watch Carl Rogers’ session with Gloria. If you just want to watch the therapy session rather than Carl waffling on about his theory, skip ahead to 9:30.