Ruby Wax Sermon: The School of Life

August 2008 saw the launch of ‘The School of Life’ in London, an adult open-type university led by a group of intellectuals and artists whose goal is to bring modern individuals with a hectic life-style – and presumably with not enough time or a place to think! – together in a safe environment to discuss the essence of life through the core subjects of: Love, Family, Work, Play and Politics.

By drawing upon the wisdom of ancient and modern philosophy, literature, the visual arts and psychotherapy, the aim of their classes, workshops, dinners and other gatherings is to provide good ideas to live by, offer guidance in turbulent times and to re-introduce certain core values to a vastly secular and existentially plagued world.

Although fronted by a small shop in the Bloomsbury area, their unusual style and structure of education seems to have struck a cord in many ready participants’ hearts and minds. The number of their students keeps expanding; and, in order to book a place on one of their courses or to join in a breakfast or dinner meeting can take up to months in advance. Not to mention their intellectual holidays.

So I decided to see what the fuss was all about and managed to get a ticket for a Sunday sermon. This was to be the tenth of the series where the idea is for the School to get an expert to speak for 45 minutes about a hot topic that has a moral or philosophical edge to it. These are conducted at the metaphoric parish and with this particular sermon going to be led by none other than the comedienne turned psychotherapist Ruby Wax on the subject of ‘How to Love Your Ego.’

The Parish Congregation

On the Sunday, I made my way to Conway Hall in Red Lion Square for the sermon to begin at 11.30 am. Although it was pouring with rain outside with windy, there were about 400 (the full capacity at Conway Hall) super keen people ready and chatting in the reception area before being let in. Many were regulars as they greeted each other and fell into conversation, as we waited to be let in. Once inside the hall, I got a good seat near to the front and I noticed also clearly etched at the top of the stage was a quote: “To Thine Own Self Be True”. All I good I thought, just the right motto to live by.

But then bizarrely, a very tall fellow (seven-foot point-four inches man – I asked him!) was wearing a shiny red leotard with small red lycra horns and acting cheeky and coming up to people. I thought how strange this was, but then maybe because it was the Halloween weekend and they were just getting into the spirit of things to break the ice.

But then it got a bit more bizarre and frankly weird. For once we were all seated and welcomed by the host speaker, we were ordered to stand up to sing a hymn. This is not anything from the Bible but the lyrics of the Eighties popular song by The Righteous Brothers – “You’ve lost that loving feeling.” And yes, to my horror, everyone started to sing and sway and getting all worked up. I sang along, of course, but wondered what was the ethical or philosophical significance of this? And what does this song hold for modern man?

Anyhow, once this was out of the way, Ruby Wax finally took to the podium for her speech, but not before the place was screaming down with cheers and claps for her.

Ruby On How to Love your Ego

Ruby said that the title for the subject was not her idea and warned that her speech would not be of the self or group-congratulatory type of the popular – but intellectually derided – American self-help programmes best known for their ego or confidence boosting. Rather, she wanted to discuss the essence of the “I” or better the “ich” in German as the centre of the self and person and one’s core identity.

Ruby expounded on the experience of fame and fortune. In particular, she said that being in the public eye might well provide one with a huge surge to the ego, but that will only lead to a greater fall when the attention dies out. In her own words, she said: “When you are up and flying close to the sun, people will treat you as a star with perks and privileges. But once you are down in the midst of despair, nobody will hear your call.”

She then argued that the reality of fame has an ugly side that is not often spoken about; that the public’s fascination with stars is also laced with a bigger resentment and a secret wish and desire for your demise. Further, that when you are high on fame, it is easy to create a different persona to your real self and get confused; but, that unfortunately, the real you eventually does come out in pathology.

With her signature irony and jokes, she confided about her childhood demons of being bullied at school, being fat and unpopular and then having tough parents. But that one day, “the loser learnt to speak comedy” – and that is how she found herself on the public stage.

Wax of course became widely known in the Nineties when she started to interview celebrities in an up, very close and personal style; and with her witty approach in handling these became a TV favourite to watch. However, as she explains, despite being at the height of all this fame and success, her real self came back to haunt her and she experienced an awful melt-down, became depressed and found herself at the Priory Clinic.

Closer to the end of her speech, she says that, fortunately, it was the shock of this stint in rehab that made her decide to finally deal with her monsters; by questioning her life choices, re-assessing her values; and, significantly, returning to her studies in psychology and neuroscience in order to find out what goes on in the mind. And that through these studies, she has come to learn the importance of understanding and harnessing “detached compassion – not to be confused with love – cause love can be stifling.” And just as it was getting to be very interesting, her forty-five minutes were done and she had to wrap up.

Once Wax got off the stage, the crowds were clapping again with myself included. But before I knew it, the devil in the red leotard returned to the front of the hall in order to begin the chanting of the second hymn – this time the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” – to which I chose not to sing along. Personally, I do not believe that Jackson is the right teacher for me on the matter of looking at or studying myself in the mirror!

When the song eventually came to its agonising end, we were invited to drink tea or coffee and have biscuits to mingle and chat with other attendees. Although I could have stayed to talk with some people, I decided to leave because I felt a little out of place and I wanted some time to think to myself.

I admit I enjoyed the talk and was pleasantly surprised by Wax’s down to earth approach. At least it made me think and scratch my head for a whole hour after as I walked back home from Holborn to Maida Vale. Even the following morning, I found myself still troubled with the intricacies of the subject of the “ego” and whether or not I agreed with the gist of what she said. In fact, it was only after I wrote back my notes that I was finally able to make some kind of intelligent sense out of it.

However, this also made me wonder: Would the average man or woman on the street have been able to understand any of this philosophising? Would it give them any guidance in these turbulent times? For even this is speculation as very few can afford to regularly attend these sermons by the proclaimed intellectuals, artists and philosophers of our time.

Sadly I have to sat that I felt a little intimidated by the composition of this parish congregation and its leaders, even if they did try in many ways to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome. But I felt that you already have to be privileged nd of a certain class in order to fit in or to make sense of what they are on about.

I can’t lie that I won’t be seduced to return for another subject dearer to me, as I’m a glutton for punishment. The truth is there are very few places in London – bar universities – where one can address the big philosophic issues of life and being without feeling out of place. Just please don’t ask me to sing along to another Michael Jackson song! And please get rid of the red devil!

I do also have a serious suggestion to make to the School of Life. Could they perhaps begin to offer some of their classes, workshops and events to the less fortunate? Or maybe to introduce a community project to reach those who are truly in desperate need of ideas to live by? For that would definitely turn them into a more benevolent social enterprise and begin to truly personify the wisdom of the ancient and modern thoughts. Can they open their doors to everyone? I dare them to!

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Note; This article was first published circa November 2009