Useful Concepts -#10- Lawrence of Arabia’s Trick

Here’s a scene from one of my favourite films:

LAWRENCE: Allow me to ignite your cigarette.

He strikes one of the SERGEANT’S matches and lights the CORPORAL’S cigarette. Then, he extinguishes the match by very slowly closing his finger and thumb upon the flame, his face very attentive the while. It is a trick the other two have evidently seen before but which evidently still fascinates.

SERGEANT (dispassionately): You’ll do that once to often. It’s only flesh and blood.

LAWRENCE returns to his work, murmuring: Why, Michael George Hartley, you’re a philosopher.

CORPORAL (amiably): You’re barmy.

(…)

The CORPORAL is preoccupied with a burning match which he proceeds to extinguish between his fingers.

CORPORAL: Ow! (Indignantly) It damn well ‘urts!

LAWRENCE: Certainly it hurts.

CORPORAL (cajoling): Well what’s the trick then?

LAWRENCE: The trick, William Potter, is not minding if it hurts.

I have not been able to find any evidence that this scene depicts anything that TE Lawrence used to do or say. Though there is certainly evidence that the scene is consistent with some of his actions and strongly held beliefs.

So, for example, one of his biographers, Robert Graves tells us about Lawrence’s behaviour at the time Lawrence was supporting the Arab Revolt:

“A few days later Lawrence began hardening himself for his coming campaign, tramping barefoot over the coral or burning-hot sand. The Arabs wondered why he did not ride a horse, like every other important man.”

From another biographer, John E. Mack, we have evidence that TE Lawrence also advised other people not to express grief or pain. After TE Lawrence’s brother Frank was killed in the first World War, Lawrence wrote to his mother:

“If you only knew that if one thinks deeply about anything one would rather die than say anything about it. You know men do nearly all die laughing, because they know death is very terrible, and a thing to be forgotten till after it has come.

There, put that aside, and bear a brave face to the world about Frank. In a time of such fearful stress in our country it is one’s duty to watch very carefully lest one of the weaker ones be offended: and you know we were always the stronger, and if they see you broken down they will all grow fearful about their ones at the front.”

Or how about this scene? On one campaign in the desert, Lawrence noticed that one of the men, Gasim, was missing and the man’s camel was found riderless. Despite the risks to himself and his entire undertaking, Lawrence turns back to retrace the day’s journey to find him. Eventually he does. The man is confused, nearly blinded by exposure to sun and dehydrated. After Lawrence gives him water and puts him on a camel, Gasim moans and cries about the pain and thirst. Robert Graves describes the scene that ensues:

“Lawrence told him to stop, but he would not and sat huddled loosely so that at each step of the camel he bumped down on her hind-quarters. This and his crying spurred her on to greater speed. Lawrence was afraid that she might founder, and again told him to stop, but Gasim only screamed the louder. Then Lawrence struck him and swore that if he made another sound he would be pushed off and abandoned. He kept quiet then.”

So Lawrence’s trick could be read as being simply about the repression of pain and suffering. Certainly some of his biographers have found plenty of opportunities to interpret his actions, words and demeanour as repressed pain and traumatic experiences coming to the fore. But, much as some aspects of his life suggest psychological symptoms of things he didn’t deal with fully, a strategy of pure repression doesn’t fit with what we know of the deeply introspective man who was given to psychological self-examination and wrote about himself and his motives openly in letters and in his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Still, if it was the case that Lawrence’s trick was purely about not giving voice to pain, he might still have some support, even in these times of public outpourings of grief, social media oversharing and celebrities baring all their emotions, from people who reckon that the immediate expression of our feelings following traumatic experiences isn’t as helpful as is widely thought.

In his book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, Timothy Wilson writes about the evidence for the effectiveness of a widely applied method of treating people who have suffered traumatic experiences, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD):

“The premise of CISD is that when people have experienced a traumatic event they should air their feelings as soon as possible, so that they don’t bottle up these feelings and develop post-traumatic stress disorder. In a typical CISD session, which lasts three to four hours, participants are asked to describe the traumatic event from their own perspective, express their thoughts and feelings about the event, and relate any physical or psychological symptoms they are experiencing. A facilitator emphasizes that it is normal to have stressful reactions to traumatic events, gives stress management advice, answers questions, and assesses whether participants need any additional services.”

But actually when it was properly studied, it turned out that people who have undergone CISD have more post-traumatic stress disorder, were more anxious and depressed and less content with their lives. Wilson concludes that “making people undergo CISD right after a trauma impedes the natural healing process and might even ‘freeze’ memories of the event.” Another approach, championed by Wilson turns out to be more effective: Instead of debriefing the traumatised person, “we could ask him to complete, on four consecutive nights, a simple exercise in which he [or she] writes down his [or her] deepest thoughts and emotions about the experience and how it relates to the rest of his [or her] life. That’s it—no meetings with trained facilitators, no stress management advice—just a writing exercise.” As it happens the conclusion about the writing exercise is more positive:

“In the short run, people typically find it painful to express their feelings about traumatic experiences. But as time goes by, those who do so are better off in a number of respects. They show improvements in immune-system functioning, are less likely to visit physicians, get better grades in college, and miss fewer days of work.”

The point here then is not to repress painful experiences, but neither is it just to express pain, whether in a controlled or uncontrolled way.

“Not minding if it hurts” is exactly the point. “Minding” suggests letting the mind do its work with something, in this case with the pain. Letting the mind take a grip of it, churn it around, amplify it, crystallise it,  freeze it. The trick is not minding.

But neither the historical, nor the Lawrence of the film knew about these studies. Here are three points about dealing with pain that we can see from Lawrence’s biography which may amount to TE Lawrence’s trick:

  • Practising the endurance of pain in small ways when you don’t have to, so that you’re better able to endure it when you’re forced to. This is what TE Lawrence was doing when he was walking on the burning sand. In that way he endured in a small way the thing that he must have endured in a massive way during his famous desert marches, days spent in the desert. On one of these occasions, according to Robert Graves

When he started he was very weak with dysentery brought on by drinking the bad water at Wejh: he had a high temperature and also boils on his back which made camel-riding painful. With a party of thirteen men […] he set out at dawn through the granite mountains on his hundred-and-fifty-mile ride. He had two fainting fits on the way and could hardly keep in the saddle.

  • Being mindful of the impact that expressions of pain or grief could have on others. His treatment of Gasim seems cruel and inhumane. In order not to panic a camel, Lawrence threatens a human being who spent a day suffering physical and mental anguish with further pain and possible death.  But that inhumane treatment might have stemmed precisely from the belief in the ability of the human being to do otherwise than simply expressing the pain that he was suffering in the moment, while the animal can’t help but act on the cries it hears. The same principle is also in evidence in Lawrence’s advice to his mother not to show her grief at a son’s death openly, in case it makes others worry over “their ones at the front.”
  • That ability to do otherwise stems from a fundamental understanding of what it means to be a human being. TE Lawrence wrote in 1927:

“It’s my experience that the actual work or position or reward one has, doesn’t have much effect on the inner being which is the important thing for us to cultivate.”

This belief in an inner being that is untouched by external conditions – pain or freedom from pain, comfort or discomfort, life or death – looks fundamentally Stoic to me. But Lawrence also saw it in the culture and beliefs of his companions in the desert campaigns, and in the desert environment itself:

“The common base of all Semitic creeds, winners or losers, was the ever present ideal of world-worthlessness.”

“The desert Arab found no joy like the joy of voluntarily holding back. He found luxury in abnegation, renunciation, self-restraint… His desert was made a spiritual ice-house, in which was preserved intact but unimproved for all ages a vision of the unity of God.”

 

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