Scrim Down


scrim: (noun) pronunciation /skrɪm/ Theatre: a piece of gauze cloth that appears opaque until lit from behind, used as a screen or backcloth: “a plain scrim for backcloth and good lighting are all that are needed.”

We all live in our own personal cinema. Much, if not all the time, the way we experience and interpret the world is based on the familiar script of how we view ourselves; played out against the cast of characters with whom we are surrounded. Sometimes the hero, sometimes a victim; it is often supremely hard to see beyond the daily soap opera which occupies our heads.

The late American psychologist Donald C. Klein has some interesting things to say on this, in his 2004 paper ‘Appreciative Psychology: An Antidote to Humiliation’:

“The scrim is a transparent curtain on which theater people paint scenery. When illuminated by footlights and spotlights from the auditorium to the stage, the scenery appears opaque. 

That scenery and the actors playing their parts on the stage in front of the curtain constitute “reality” for audience members. The curtain no longer is perceived as transparent. 

If, however, the scrim is lit from behind, the scenery fades or even disappears. The curtain now appears transparent and the audience can see through the curtain to a whole new vista of objects and people, that is, a new reality. 

It is as if each of us has a ‘mental scrim’ on which, from earliest childhood, we have been painting the scenery of our lives, literally millions of thoughts about ourselves and the world around us. 

When we are an ordinary state of being, we take these ideas very seriously and treat them as the only reality that is available to us. Under ordinary circumstances, this is the only reality of which we are aware. 

Under special circumstances, however – as, in my case, when I witnessed a beautiful sunset and experienced the awe and wonderment – our mental scrims become transparent. The clutter of thoughts about ourselves and the world fade or even disappear. We see through and beyond our mental scrims.”

It’s a lovely concept. If (to paraphrase Klein) you can regularly get beyond:

  1. how one imagines one appears to other people; 
  2. one’s imagination of other people’s judgment of that appearance; and 
  3. emotional reactions related to one’s sense of self…

…you are metaphorically, and sometimes literally laughing; as I was yesterday with a great friend, as we laughed and laughed at each other’s French phraseology.

If you feel the ‘mental scrim’ of the ‘millions of thoughts about ourselves’ and the soap opera of ‘one’s imagination other people’s judgements’ coming down, all you have to do to escape, is concentrate hard for a moment on looking through it. 

Reality is often full of little-appreciated beauty, joy, happiness and love which is simply masked by the vivid, all-consuming but largely psychological ‘light show’ playing out in nearly all of our heads, nearly all of the time. 

Donald Klein’s ‘mental scrim’ is worth thinking about; and regularly seeing through.

Note to Self

20111217-121831.jpgI came upon a terse description of ‘identity’ this week in a longer piece by neuroscientist Terrence W. Deacon of USC Berkeley:

An intrinsic tendency to maintain a distinctive integrity against the ravages of increasing entropy as well as disturbances imposed by the surroundings.

He was describing the way molecules come together in sympathetic, then symbiotic relationships to form ‘auto-catalytic’ processes – where one chemical reaction feeds, and is fed by another. But deliberately he was defining ‘self’ in a way which embraces chemicals, bodies and minds.

I watched a chilling piece on the news last night about Alzheimer’s, with an awareness raising TV ad portrays sufferers fading through transparency to invisibility. Another of Deacon’s definitions – intended for chemicals, is as true of minds:

To be truly self-maintaining, a system must contain within it some means to ‘remember’ and regenerate those constraints determining its integrity which would otherwise tend to dissipate spontaneously.

Which leads me to the conclusion that:

After Aristotle, as moral animals, we are what we repeatedly do.

After Aquinas and McCabe, as linguistic animals, we are what we think, say and write.

And after Deacon, as forgetful animals – sometimes helpfully, sometimes tragically – we are what we can remember against the ravages of entropy, the environment and time.

All the more reason to write the odd reminder I think.