- My Year of Living Vulnerably, by Rick Morton. Fourth Estate, $34.99.
To live vulnerably is to live dangerously, thereby acknowledging Rick Morton's quiet nod towards an iconic title from another time.
In 2019, Morton was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and decided to figure out a way to get better. This book is the story of that "figuring", but I hasten to add is as far removed from a self-help text as a Mozart symphony might be from a country music pop song.
I was keen to read Morton's story, having been impressed by his fluently intelligent social policy journalism, as well as his affable rationality on the ABC TV's panel show, The Drum.
However, there was also a deep-seated personal reason for my interest. Having suffered from the twin afflictions of clinical depression and anxiety disorder for most of my life, I sensed a fellow traveller affinity. Okay, so my illness doesn't - as far as I am aware - constitute PTSD in its usual frame, let alone the complex version, but does share a similar shade of isolation.
Limping into the third millennium, our human species can look back on some notable achievements. We've split the atom, walked the moon, and fast-tracked remarkable science in finding a global virus vaccine, but still struggle to understand the human brain, and the complex ways it can turn against us. A line from the metaphysical poet, John Donne, chillingly captures this wasteland: "But I do nothing upon myself, and yet am my own executioner".
Morton sees neglected love as the root of his trauma: "There was a man, my father, who I believe wanted to love his children but was never shown how and was too frightened to discover it for himself." Morton grew up on an outback cattle station, where his father was inclined towards brooding masculinity and disinclined towards the dreamy softness of a young son unknowingly heading for an alternative gender role.
Aged seven, Morton saw his brother, Toby, suffer third degree burns in a farm shed fire, and discovered his father embracing the young female housekeeper. These events, compounded by a serious sexual assault received as a young adult coming to terms with a gay reality, helped embed the psychological confusion of his yet to be diagnosed condition.
Morton warmly remembers his mother, Deb, and sister Lauryn, with whom he later shared a family-centric resilient sense of humour. I know, from my own experience, the way humour can stand against darkness, a proposition supported by Morton's reference to psychiatric neurologist, Viktor E. Frankl (who suffered at the hands of the Nazis) who described humour, in his book, Man's Search for Meaning, as "another one of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation".
Mental illness therapy has become much more sophisticated, as well as effective, over many decades, but in some respects remains a work-in-progress, largely because we are still unravelling the myriad functions of the human brain, with its Alice in Wonderland flavour of consciousness. Personally, I've always regarded consciousness in much the same way as I see postmodern poetry - as a mystery, invented and defined entirely by itself, but one of the many charms of Morton's seductively clever book is the treasure trove of scientific, philosophic and literary observations, scattered throughout its pages, like beacons.
Take, for example, this consciousness snippet from New York University Professor, David Chalmers (said to be a "rock star" of the field): "We've been wrong about our consciousness . . . We only really get details about what we're attending to . . . But somehow introspection makes us think that we're conscious of more than we are."
Vulnerability is about opening yourself, to allow the entry of sadness as well as joy, and Morton's generous invitation reveals a series of essay-like chapters, on 12 subjects including forgiveness, kindness, and doubt. There are some affectingly insightful passages in every chapter, especially forgiveness, where Morton decides the forgive the men responsible for his sexual assault, but I was drawn towards doubt, having written about it myself, in essays, stories, and poems, and have long considered doubt to be the single most important aspect of our unfulfilled aspiration for global civilisation. As Morton says: "Certitude left unchecked will get us all killed. Overconfidence twined with arrogance will get us there quicker."
This is a significant book, to be read, dipped into, put aside and then revisited. Morton writes with grace, enlivened by vivid imagery and spontaneous wit. His mother, Deb, gave him the valuable gift of curiosity, which he uses here to gather wisdom from across the world and deep into the history of human thought.
For me, a sentence near the end of the book might stand as its epigraph: "If you remove love from the equation, nothing makes sense." Amen.