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Matthew Scurfield Turning the Stone, all rights reserved.

Celebrate difference TURNING THE STONE

When Dr Ruth Falzon and Dr Dione Mifsud, Department for Counselling, University of Malta, asked me to give a talk for the International Association for Counselling, in Malta, it fired me up to write and more importantly to think it through….

A fiend, set deep in the subconscious, creeps up just before dawn, drowning out any hopes and dreams I entertain in a sea of impossibilities – ridicule and shame make getting up to meet the day seem a fruitless task…

I’d be a fool after such a night not to wonder how that whispering demagoguery took hold from such a tender age... Empty promises, false claims to justify imaginary smears, add urgency to the question!

If you go by the labels and pigeon holes, I couldn’t be writing this. The rule book states I've been packaged and relegated accordingly. The truth is I slipped the net, escaped by a whisker – I’m affected, but not incapable. As an outsider I can fall two ways. Actually, like a good many of us, I can slide every which way, but while my hand is on my heart, let’s just say I can either pack a punch, or help lift the load…

During my informative years, the direction in which I was being pushed didn’t add up. I found myself at the antithesis of the school spectrum. The power of the teachers was paramount, the lessons given out with such conviction, like thousands of others, I could do nothing else but buckle under pressure. I lost control of my faculties and began to believe I was at fault, that I wasn’t worth the shoes I walked in. I left my formal education behind, with absolutely no qualifications, not an O-level, or a merit badge, in sight. Dragging the weight of shame behind me, I became an expert in the area of marginalising and failing. I am well aware of how easy it is to swallow the bitter pill of resentment and the destructive outcome that can entail.


And still, here I crouch, beside the water, turning the stone. The smooth, rotund, undulations are cool, reassuring to the hand. There’s no doubting the weight; it’s heavy. I push, ever so slightly, a place teaming with life opens up, with time for me to wonder awhile…

The irony is that with the reasoning and logical thinking of some great teachers, outside the system, I came to understand how the finger of the system needed me to fail. By unearthing this truth, the root cause of my disintegration and alienation, I began to gain some much needed dignity and strength. This integrity helped me to understand how the merit badge is ingrained, held up as a way of enticing us and separating us. We are set up for the path ahead…

We start, like eager puppies, performing tricks for a treat. If you behave adoringly, jump the hoop as you are supposed, you are rewarded with a gold star. As the terms go by that prized star grows in stature, morphs into exam results, degrees, doctorates, the crowning glory of a diploma. For those of us running in the opposite direction, such a glittering prize becomes an increasingly impossible goal. When you’re told year in and year out that passing exams is the one and only way to a better life, and you can’t get past the first hurdle, the wind soon goes out of the sails, along with any remaining enthusiasm for the persons and places who put you there.

In sport winning and losing are out in the open... part of an acceptable tournament, competing adds zest, fun and edge to an event. But if winning and losing become the affirmation of our education, our life and our existence, then it’s time to shut up shop and expect unmitigated problems.

In endless meetings, think tanks, boardroom gatherings, in the halls and corridors of parliament, our senates and universities, we manufacture, invent, dream up, re-establish and refresh the benchmark, by which we measure the next generation to come… Even if we make second or third, especially tough in a high ranking institution like Cornell, Harvard, or Oxford, where the competition is fierce, we are marked out as those who didn't quite. The highest achievers, the underachievers, and the last in line, are measured and framed, then sold and bought.

It’s a simple hypothesis – for every winner, there has to be losers – the yardstick makes it so!

This is a dilemma that we have to address if we want to root out the worst of what these academic ground rules have given us. The dismissal of many to offset a few, sets us apart. The greater the distance the more the bigotry, underlying these rulings, festers and grows. Our mind and imaginings ponder the worst. We become vindictive, deceitful, while learning to stab each other in the back, with a wry smile and a fake tear.

Rather than push each other further apart, how do we open up to the challenges, make this segregation and separation between us diminish? How? You may ask, at least I hope you ask, given the distance between us here, between the so-called ill-educated and educated, if it’s feasible, possible even to come halfway, to find aspects of life we share, with sensitivity and careful diplomacy.

Sometimes it seems as if we’re tiny cogs, part of a gigantic machine that’s propelled by its own momentum, unwieldy and cranky, as its grown in stature through the millenniums.

Some accountability must lay with those untouchables who live somewhere in the rational and irrational ether... Phantom legislators, I’m not talking about the EU here, I mean top ranking officials, lawmakers, public administrators, who we rarely come into contact with, who frequently reside in locked and monitored buildings. The guarded façade and the dress code, give the pomp and ceremony a distinct and important air; we assume they know what they’re doing – at least we hope they know... If you’re not a member, or don’t have an invite, you don’t get in. This outward looking display of leadership and power, sets the tone, becomes our example.

The idea that we adopt power by image has become endemic. And the facilities and faculties of education are no exception. Measuring our success by another’s, by league tables, by the name, the architecture, the buildings, the tools at our disposal, desks, offices, the latest computers and so on, gives us status. The coveted letters of merit before and after our name and we lift the trophy. Our choices, those life defining decisions, made by parents, teachers and their pupils, are hammered by charts and winning results, no matter what the consequences. This is particularly so in our revered universities, like the university city of Cambridge where I was formally educated.

And yet, when it’s not depressed by political football, or dressed up in fancy clothing, the teachings, found within our schools and colleges, have the possibility to close the gap between us by miles. There’s no doubting, however its sold to us, whatever the facade, the best and the worst of environments and the means at our disposal make a marked difference. Nevertheless, the stark reality for most teachers and their pupils, sees this innate fix for learning buried in reams of paperwork, doctrine and bureaucracy, a smokescreen of importance, where the ramifications of mind, in all its manifestations, are overlooked...

From a humble flint stone, to a complex robot, the mind, has given humankind many of its material treasures. From stream cupped in the hands, to the marvel of hot and cold water, funnelled through a steel tap. From a bolt of lightning, to light thrown by a flick of a switch. A handprint in a cave, to a masterpiece in a gallery… foot stomping in a clearing, to a Swan Lake… wind and string, to a symphonic hall… from an incision with a stone knife, to microsurgery in a gleaming theatre… a donkey and cart, to jetting the airways in a rocket… smoke signals to the mobile phone… these innovations and inventions were once a twinkle in the mind’s eye.

Riding waves of discovery, the mind has enabled us to go where no person has gone before, in the same breath it gives us triumphs of engineering, that can induce mass extinction with a single shot. Truly, a double-edged sword. Our flare for developing the earth’s resources, such as the harnessing of oil, continues to give us our greatest achievements, yet it has also given us levels of pollutants that threaten the heart of humankind, the animal kingdom, as well as the natural environment. And if that weren’t enough to put the power of our cerebral faculties into perspective, the fickle nature of this friend, mind, serves up more wars than ever before, more conflict, mental and emotional breakdowns, unmitigated stress, alienation, depression, inhuman laws, unparalleled insecurity driven by uncontrollable fear…


The pinpoint accuracy and quiet, meticulous, planning of a leader, can unleash chaos, loud, untold hell, on another country, on the other side of the world. For many of us, who work in the arts and academic fields, the power of thought can make, break, or fragment, as we seek sociological, physiological and psychological understanding.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy, an accident, a breakdown, to gain perspective, to realise that the mind and the logic therein can be as treacherous as it is creative. Our thoughts may enlighten, dictate, the ways and means by which we live, but they can never become the air we breathe and the planet on which we live.

It’s not unreasonable when you ponder the mind like this to realise the limitations, a vital perspective, where we come to observe the central nature of who we are, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, without the spin of thought, however useful, clouding the window to our surrounding world…