In the latest episode of Phoebe Waller Bridges’ astounding comedy Fleabag, (BBC1, 25th March) the eponymous heroine finds herself in one half a Catholic confessional. Reeling with grief for her mother and best friend and desire for the man on the other side of the confessional box, she utters a lament that sounded to my lapsed Catholic ears like a secular Lord’s Prayer, a giving of self to another authority:
I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning …I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about, I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them … I think I just want someone to tell me how to live my life because I think I’ve been doing it wrong.
Finally she addresses the priest: ‘And I know that’s why people want someone like you in their lives, because you just tell them how to do it; you just tell them what to do’.
While commentary on Twitter has focused on the transgressive eroticism of what happened next (watch it) , I (because of my age and occupation) was transfixed by the existential anguish in Fleabag’s plea; a prayer for our uncertain times, or perhaps a cathartic release for my own sense of uncertainty.
I was watching it on catch-up last night, through the zig-zag haze of a visual migraine. I don’t know what triggered the migraine, but a two hour governors’ meeting at our local high school may have been one factor. There’s less money (and what there is, no-one’s sure of and when it will arrive because the civil servants have all been seconded to Brexit). In the place of resources are more acronyms, more frameworks and many initiatives which are explained to the governing body by exhausted teachers with the breathless zeal of long-term hostages, not sure if they want to escape the system they’re in or stay put and do as they’re told. Governors are meant to ‘support and challenge’ but the level of incongruence and inauthenticity which is built into the system means it’s hard to know what either support or challenge look like and for whose benefit it’s meant to be. So just tell me what to do.
This morning the zig-zagging visuals had faded into a dull headache as I listened to the news headlines, which seemed to be coming from a parallel, pre-Enlightenment universe: unvaccinated children quarantined in New York to stem a measles outbreak (eh?!); parents protesting in Manchester against inclusive relationship education in schools (in Manchester?!); Barry Gardiner, the Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, announcing unequivocally ‘Labour is not a Remain Party’. Apparently I shouldn’t have been so uncertain about that. So just tell me what to do.
Days like these, with Fleabag’s prayer ringing in my ears, are a reminder to me of why people come to counselling. Sometimes we want someone to contain our fears, to redirect us towards hope, to tell us what to do. Before you’re thinking of calling the BACP to have me struck off, my response as a counsellor isn’t like that of Fleabag’s priest (watch it). I’m often as uncertain as my clients and to pretend otherwise helps no one; and nor does it help my clients if I collapse into fear of uncertainty. I won’t tell anyone what to wear, what to eat or how to vote, but I’ll help them to find stable enough ground so that they remember how to decide to take those risks for themselves. Amen.