The Iron Lady: Thinking and Feeling

We saw The Iron Lady yesterday: Meryl Streep in a tour de force performance as Margaret Thatcher, well deserving of the Oscar and other accolades she received. 

The film has an elderly Margaret Thatcher struggling with dementia; she remembers events from her past while hallucinations of her late husband, Denis, both intrude on and comfort her in her loneliness. It was an unexpected view, astonishing even.  While Meryl Streep has received praise all round, the film itself has been panned and praised with equal passion.

One writer commented on the Daily Telegraph on-line review:

“The film does nothing and says nothing. It doesn’t laud Maggie. It doesn’t criticise Maggie. It doesn’t lionise her legacy, or vilify it. It doesn’t even give a clear factual account of her life, or any single part of it.  It is just an ill-conceived melange of scenes, and lacks the courage to take a view on Thatcher one way or the other, or to even invite the audience to form a view of their own.  It is not a film. Not a play. Not a documentary. Not witty. Not intelligent. Not engaging. Not eye-opening. Not challenging. Not demanding. Not entertaining. It is nothing at all, other than 105 minutes of waffling guff and voyeuristic rubber-necking.”

If you are looking for a documentary or a biography, this is clearly not the film for you.  But the critic missed the point.  Another comment on the same review summed it up for me:

“I just got home from viewing this film. I am a hard nosed pragmatist/realist who has an 82 year old mum who lives on her own miles from my sisters and me. The film is delightful: it put tears in my eyes and made me resolve to telephone and see my mother more often before she is gone.  In the end it is primarily a film about growing old and looking back at life and its meaning rather than a political commentary but is in no way diminished by that.”

I was challenged by the elderly Margaret Thatcher’s retort to her doctor, who asked how she was feeling. 

She said, “One of the great problems of our age is that we’re governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas. Now, thoughts and ideas – that’s what interests me.”  If I remember correctly she went on to say, “Thoughts lead to actions, and actions become habits, and habits develop character, and character defines who I am.”  (A twist on Descartes perhaps, “I think, therefore I am.”)

There is a great deal of truth there but, like much of what is confidently declared by self-assured people in a loud, authoritarian tone, it needs to be unpacked and taken with caution. As it stands it rejects feelings altogether, as if emotions have no significant role to play in our lives. Yet Margaret Thatcher herself became who she was because of her huge self-belief, which is as much about emotion as it is about intellect.

In the employment field, managers who reject feelings as “soft” and of no consequence are usually the ones whose (unstable) emotions drive most of what they do: they feel angry and react accordingly (usually very loudly); they like an employee and so afford him or her special attention and benefits.

Feelings play a greater role in so-called hardnosed business decisions far more often than most of the players will admit.  Business men and women, who cold-heartedly declare that the bottom line is all that matters, will still find money to throw at a pet project.  Why?  Because they feel good about it; it feels right.  The personalities involved, and the relationships developed, all play a significant role in decisions made at every level, whether we admit it (and sometimes even whether we are aware of it) or not.

Feelings are critically important.  What we have too often done is to allow feelings to dominate and determine our actions.  For some it is an unconscious thing, as for the manager above, because we have denied our emotions; for others it has become a lethargic, soul-destroying way of life: “I don’t feel like it, so I won’t do it.”  It is perhaps the latter that has given feelings a bad name.

We become aware of our feelings not to determine our actions but to make our actions more meaningful.  The manager or parent who ignores his or her feelings but acts on them anyway is a menace.  Awareness and acceptance of our feelings allows us to make more informed decisions about how we live, and how we respond to others, and to take responsibility for our actions, as did the person quoted above: “The film is delightful: it put tears in my eyes and made me resolve to telephone and see my mother more often”.  The writer’s emotional response led to an informed decision to take responsible action.

An edited version of this post was published in The Witness on Tuesday 3 April 2012. (You’re allowed to visit the article and leave a comment there, too!)

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