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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Nugent

Going on A Bear Hunt

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

I recently attended a conference in Finland. A small group of clinicians travelled from across the world to meet in person and think together about psychotherapy practices when working with people who are questioning their gender. Given the powerful political context, the polarised opinions on the nature of the experience of being gender questioning and the insight that significant harm has been enacted by our professions, meant the valuable diversity of both thought and life experience that was present, also came with conflict, deep emotion and strength of feeling. At times it was difficult to bear. Having said that, the group worked hard to try to meet each other and reach across polarised divides and I returned home tired, with much to think about and try and make sense of.

A feature in the conversations was the hope that if we could just somehow get around our differences, maybe by moderating language enough and being less emotionally provocative then maybe the experience would feel less distressing and we could come together more easily. I had a strong reaction to this, and I kept thinking of a particular story: Michael Rosen’sWe’re going on a Bear Hunt’.

'We're going on a Bear Hunt' is a children’s story about a family who decide to go looking for a bear, they leave their home with the refrain – ‘we are not scared’, but the the family then face a series of obstacles, including a river, a snowstorm, and a muddy swamp. Suddenly they do seem a little more scared. At each point, the family realize that they cannot avoid the obstacles, but must ‘go through’ them. They finally do find a bear in a cave. The bear roars and the family are terrified and hastily re-do the difficult journey to their home, where they can hide in bed under the covers. The bear chases them all the way to their front door.

Most of us can understand that there are many reasons it is not always possible to avoid something that is difficult. That no matter what we might wish, we instead must go 'through it'. We can also connect to the idea of chasing an outcome only to experience fear and remorse when we finally find what we are looking for. The contrast between the excitement when the family set out on their walk; the exhausting and relentless obstacles on the way and then the reality of their feelings when the family finds the object that they were seeking, are interesting metaphors to reflect on.

So what might the bear represent? Bears are common features in fairytales and myths. Bears can represent anything from the monstrous to the compassionate. In real life, bears are overwhelmingly solitary and are considered to be the most asocial of all the Carnivora. The only times bears are encountered in groups are mothers with young or occasional seasonal bounties of rich food (such as salmon runs). However it seems to be their hibernation habits that are most of interest.

Bears hibernate as long as 8 months without moving from their den. Every spring, as days in the north stretch longer bears start to rally from hibernation. It’s tempting to say that they are “waking up,” but hibernation is more complicated and mysterious than a simple long sleep: Any animal that can spend months underground without eating or drinking and still emerge ready to face the world is undergoing an extraordinary biological process. This makes me think of the hidden stories and unconscious processes going on underground in the conference experience. It also makes me think about how we might relate to these unconscious/hibernating parts. How much truth and accountability are we able to bear, was a painful and frightening question for the group.

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes: "To the ancients," she writes, "bears symbolized resurrection. The creature goes to sleep for a long time, its heartbeat decreases to almost nothing."

Terry Tempest Williams wrote that the bear embodies "opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter -- We must journey out, so that we might journey in. The bear mother enters the earth before snowfall and dreams herself through winter, emerging with young by her side. She not only survives the barren months, she gives birth. She is the caretaker of the unseen world."

A particularly famous fairytale involving bears is "Goldilocks and the Three Bears". It is an English fairytale first written down in the 19th-century of which three written versions exist. However, the story is taken from an old folklore called ‘Scrapefoot’. The Scrapefoot story is almost identical, except for the fact that the protagonist is a fox rather than Goldilocks. The idea of an intruder entering the house of three bears is a different type of bear hunt story.

In the Scrapefoot story - the fox known as ‘Scrapefoot’ enters the forest home of three anthropomorphic male bears while they are away. He is frightened but curious. Once inside he discovers each bear has their own bespoke preference for milk (rather than porridge), chairs, and beds. Scrapefoot trials them all and finds his own 'just right' experience. Eventually he falls asleep in a bed. The bears return home and discover him there. Scrapefoot wakes up and as he becomes conscious again, the bears show their true animal natures and attack him - though they do stop to negotiate how to best to kill him and finally agree to throw him out of the window. Scrapefoot miraculously survives the fall intact, but he is never seen again.

When the Three bears was first written down there was a transformation from a fox to an old woman - described as ‘an obscene crone’. The second version replaces the old woman with the young girl we know as Goldilocks, and the third and by far best-known version keeps Goldilocks and additionally replaces the bachelor trio with a family of three: mummy, daddy and baby bear.

We also might wonder about the sweet versus salty milk/porridge, the different sized chairs and varying softness of beds represent. These specific tastes are not about personal basic need, but about individual desire and individualized perfect fit. In psychoanalysis, the narcissism of small differences is the idea that the more a relationship or community shares commonalities, the more likely the people in it are to engage in interpersonal feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to minor differences perceived in each other. The term was coined by Sigmund Freud in 1917, based on the earlier work of English anthropologist Ernest Crawley. Crawley theorised that each individual is separated from others by a taboo of personal isolation, which is effectively a narcissism of minor differences. In therapy, narcissism of small differences may arise as resistance, enhancement of self-esteem, and expression of unresolved conflicts. In contrast to Freud's observation that narcissism of small differences is relatively harmless, others have suggested that in the social sphere it harbours the potential to escalate into widespread hostile and destructive actions.

It has been pointed out that Jonathan Swift in his 1726 novel Gulliver's Travels described this phenomenon when writing about how two groups entered into a long and vicious war after they disagreed on which was the best end to break an egg.

What was originally a tale about curiosity and exploring differences between the natural world versus the social, was flipped on its head becoming a frightening cautionary tale of an unwanted intruder, to then a cosy family story with only a hint of menace. Goldilocks became part of the culture of small differences - testing out her own preferences.

When reflecting on the three bears fairytale I began to wonder about its meaning and why it might be we are still interested in knowing this story. What might we make of the notion of three bears so absurdly socialised that they live in a cottage, and express individualised preference for porridge, chairs and beds? Why change from a fox to a human? What disturbance is being located in the ‘obscene’ old lady and why later has this morphed into a little girl with golden hair?

In both ‘we’re going on a bear hunt’ and the final goldilocks story there is a family that goes out for a walk, only to return home. I think of my own experiences as a child on family hikes and remember the resistance and anger that would be expressed. ‘This is boring!’ and ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ were regular complaints. At some point submission and then typically pleasure would kick in, but it was rare for it to be there from the get go. Now in adulthood going for a walk is one of my favourite things to do as a family. It is my turn to motivate the children and contain their ambivalence, as my children groan and complain in anticipation.

In the conference I was left wondering what exactly the task was. What kind of a bear was the group looking for - a bear in its natural habitat cave, or a bear that wants to live in a house and cook porridge to order? I also wondered if we were imagining ourselves and each other as foxes, obscene crones or little girls with golden hair? Were we there to curiously explore or just intrude on each other and destroy?

Curiosity and fear often work together. To be curious we have to contain some of our fear without denying it. Inevitably we experience ambivalence. In fearless moments in an attempt to deny our ambivalence, we sometimes declare that we are ‘not scared’. However, this is rarely the full picture and may be connected with a wish to be strong, or be distracted by some excitement, rather than the reality of our vulnerability. We do not know how much danger we are moving towards.

Alternatively, we might choose to never leave the house, but in doing so miss out on an extraordinary experience both of connection to life but also to taking our place in the group (that whether we like it or not) we professionally belong to. The family were on the exploration together. I like to think of some leading and some being led, maybe even dragging and screaming in protest. I was left thinking that as clinicians we may need to help each other on this journey of developing better services. We also need to hold in mind the more mixed picture of our feelings, so beautifully depicted in the stories. In doing so we might find we bare a great deal.

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