By Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet, MSW, RSW
On February 15th, Canada lost one of its most treasured hearts, our beloved Stuart Mclean.
For years Mclean has travelled this country, reflecting on the vibrancy of our cities, and sharing his warmth with residents and listeners at home. He was unique, in that his art kept a powerful mix of self-forgiving parody on what it is to be human, of wonder for the world around us, and of awe-inspiring depictions of love and connection.
What does he have to do with mental health? In fact, a lot I think. Bear with me while I try to explain.
While specifics of the therapeutic work will differ from person-to-person, in CBT therapy there are some broad areas that are universal. One, is evaluating general outlook or perspective on life, the world, others and yourself. This outlook is made up of deeply formed beliefs that can be the root of difficulties in mood, anxieties, coping and behaviours.
When mental distress is present, it is usually because our more cynical beliefs have become most active. Usually this is because our sub-conscious keeps these cynical views in the forefront of our minds in an attempt for self-protection. The idea being, if I am conscious that, “the world is scary and cruel”, then I will be more prepared and equipped when bad things happen in my life. Falsely, our brains interpret that we will be safer if we continually anticipate danger or hurt, or we will be corrective if we start from a position that we are not good enough, a failure, or useless.
Tackling and learning to challenge and evaluate distorted general outlook or “Core Beliefs” as they creep up in our consciousness, is a huge part of the work in therapy.
The other part comes more naturally. Through practice of tracking and challenging our thoughts we begin to foster and and develop our ability to step outside of ourselves and find perspective. Practice at being able to step back from powerful thoughts and emotions and relate to them less literally allows us to detach from them, and be present to the world around us in a deeper and more connected way. To be present in this moment, right now, and see it, beyond our own rumination.
In the therapy room, once we can be truly present – after you’ve dealt with, challenged and eliminated all the distortions, and your brain is finally free – all that’s left to see is beauty. And then it’s your job to just stay there. To not let all of the other crap creep back in. But to stay there, in this moment, and let your freed brain do its work.
Now, what does this have to do with Stuart Mclean? If you’ve listened to his show, read any of his books or even heard him interviewed, you might have already guessed.
Open a copy of his 2010 book The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks, you will find this quotation by E.B. White,
“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”
Mclean’s stories and commentary articulated this love powerfully. Powerfully enough to help his audience touch in with the softer, gentler beliefs about the world, other people and themselves, that often lay under a harder, more discriminating surface. There was nothing of cynical views in his work, and in its brutal kindness, it remained artful, dignified and glorious.
So, what does he have to do with mental health? I challenge you to listen to a podcast of the vinyl cafe and to reflect on the beliefs he proposes. I would venture to say that Dave never failing to take risks and allowing himself to look foolish promotes the belief, “I am good enough as I am”. That his portrayal of the characters’ interactions with both loved ones and strangers demonstrates a deep consideration that, “other people are kind, giving and potential friends”. And finally, it goes without saying that this work is full to the brim of the message that this world is a big and beautiful place.
Mclean is also able to step back and take perspective. He is able to paint the world with all its colours and all its beauty. And painting it that way, showing it to us so clearly and articulately, this vantage point opens to his audience, even if just for a moment, or the hour of his show.
His work might provide a breath of relief from a cynical belief system. It offers a glimpse into our own capacity for those beliefs, that often lay dormant, underneath all of the others. I’m not proposing blind innocence or ignorance, but an experiential knowledge that when we are operating from our hope and love we are more capable of exploring life with joy, without fear. We are actually more equipped to handle danger calmly and rationally if it presents itself.
He may not have been out on the front lines fighting modern day mental health, and simply bandaging our cynical beliefs is certainly not enough for lasting change. But Stuart, just knowing there was someone like you in the world, sharing and spreading this outlook, I felt a little happier, freer and lighter, and I don’t think I am alone.
I maintain a regular mental health blog on the darouwellness.com site, so check back in for more on coping with anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional difficulties, trauma and general coping and mental wellness.
Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet is a Mental Health Therapist, Supervisor and Instructor.
For more reading on Stuart Mclean go to: http://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/stuart-mclean-dead-obit-1.3984826 and https://thewalrus.ca/mister-nice-guy/
To listen to his podcasts go to: http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/vinyl-cafe
To purchase his books go to: https://zunior.com/collections/stuart-mclean