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June 1, 2017
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July 27, 2017

Thriving in Mental Health

Like many children, I loved Roald Dahl’s Matilda. To me, Matilda was the perfect role model. She was everything I felt I was not, and everything I aspired to: Fierce in the face of injustice and inequality, spirited in her willingness to accept her own sense of separateness from her immediate surroundings, gleefully imaginative, and able to embrace enthusiastically a will to make the world a better place.

When we think of Matilda, we often think of her joyous victories against her careless and self-obsessed parents, who are idiotic to the extent that they fail to value her amazing idiosyncratic intelligence and kindness, or her challenge of the tyranny of the wonderfully sadistic villain, Miss Trunchbull. However, when I am thinking about what it means to feel safe, to feel well, to feel cared for, what I always come back to is Miss Honey’s house. Fans of Matilda might remember that Miss Honey, Matilda’s sweet, and gloriously lovely primary school teacher, has been displaced from her rightful home into a tiny rickety cottage where she lives in isolated poverty. By the end of the story, Miss Honey is back living in her big, beautiful, ancestral home with Matilda. In this house, at the end of the book, these two come to symbolise the dream parent-child relationship, the dream family, and theirs becomes the dream home. They love each other, and share wonderful games and adventures through the joy of imagination, kindness, and passion for learning. They have been two very lonely people - one very little and lonely, one slightly bigger, and lonely. Together they make a safe space for each other, in which no one ever has to be lonely again.

This is, of course, a lovely message, and one that is immensely cheering. However, what is interesting is that this is not the house I think about when I think about the magically transformative space in Matilda. This, for me, is that little rickety cottage where Miss Honey lives alone and where she first entertains Matilda for tea. This tiny space, ‘bare as a prison cell’, with its upturned boxes to act as chairs, is not meant to be glamorous. Indeed, it is normally perceived as a signifier of Miss Honey’s poverty inflicted, of course, at the hands of the evil Miss Trunchbull. Yet Dahl’s description of the approach to the cottage is filled with magic:

On either side of the path there was a wilderness of nettles and blackberry thorns and long brown grass. An enormous oak tree stood overshadowing the cottage. Its massive spreading branches seemed to be enfolding and embracing the tiny building, and perhaps hiding it as well from the rest of the world.

While Matilda is shocked at Miss Honey’s poverty, the cottage provides a place of respite for them both. It is a refuge that gives not only physical shelter from the cruelties of school and their respectively awful families, but a space to share their stories, and to find comfort in the empathy of the other. It is here, in this imperfect place, that they discover the bliss of mutual understanding.

Long before intergenerational loneliness projects became fashionable, Dahl’s stories are alive to the fact that loneliness exists in many guises. People find it very difficult to believe that children, even children with families, can be lonely, whilst the loneliness of adults is something that we rarely want to contemplate. It speaks too much to a fear that we would rather not see, a fear we would rather keep hidden, like Miss Honey’s cottage, from the rest of the world. Matilda, her own isolation within her horrid family palpable throughout the book, discovers in this little space her first true adult friend, outside of her beloved books. She also discovers that she is not the only one who might be lonely:

Do any of us children, she [Matilda] wondered, ever stop to ask ourselves where our teachers go when school is over for the day? Do we wonder if they live alone, or if there is a mother at home or a sister or a husband? "Do you live all by yourself, Miss Honey?"

It is this moment of wonder and empathy, which allows both of them to find, not only temporary refuge, but the beginning of their transformative journey towards a more permanent type of safety.

For most of us, smaller or bigger, in adulthood or in childhood, there will have been times when we felt extremely alone. Most of us will have fantasized about a perfect ending, a perfect connection, a perfect home of the type symbolised in Miss Honey and Matilda’s happy ending. Yet, it is worth dwelling on that other space in Matilda in this far from perfect cottage under the oak tree. In this space, an emotional connection based on mutual interest, compassion, and empathy, allows the start of something different for both parties. The message of Mental Health Awareness Week in 2017 was concerned with thriving, rather than merely surviving. Most of us see the importance of this message, but how to enact it, not just for ourselves, but for others, is something that can remain less tangible. With the first ever national Loneliness Awareness week coming up in June 2017, it would be helpful for us to think in terms of the process of shifting loneliness and isolation to inclusion and hope.

This is where Miss Honey’s imperfect ramshackle cottage becomes a wonderful signifier of what perhaps we should be striving for. In “Matilda” survival is exactly what Miss Honey and Matilda have been doing in isolation - Miss Honey through her teaching, Matilda through her books, and in her small acts of rebellion against her family horrors.

It is only in this cottage in the trees that both realise for the first time that more might be possible for them, that there might be other options: friendship, justice, companionship, and the relief of empathy that bring them joy and refuge.

Thriving is not therefore so much about finding the ideal space, the fairy tale ending; the perfect house with the perfect life that they find at the end of the book. Rather it is about working to find those connections, those moments when it feels more is possible, that in ourselves, in nature, in others, we see a journey that we can undertake.

Perhaps of most importance is the discovery that Matilda and Miss Honey make: That whilst life might have lonely moments or even long periods of loneliness, rarely are we as truly isolated as we sometimes feel. Indeed, with a little bit of empathy, and a little bit of imagination, we will generally find that there might be someone or something, that enables us to us to see that we have a common cause to be kind to ourselves and to others, and that gives us hope that more might be possible. In the impermanence of that tea sharing on those upturned boxes in Miss Honey’s cottage is captured the sense that even these small moments of joy and mutual respect and understanding are the stuff that needs and deserves to be celebrated - far more than the big happy perfect house at the end.

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