Putting Britain on the Couch
What did the Tidal Wave of Emotions over
by Oliver James
Princess Diana's Death Really Signify?
TIME, September 22, 1997
"If Britain were a patient on my analytical couch, how would I interpret the collective reaction to the death of Princess Diana? Contrary to the guilty, histrionic press headlines, I would start by pointing out that the patient is not in mourning. That term describes the cycle of anger, sadness and emptiness [that enables us to] cope with loss. It usually lasts about a year and is of an intensity and duration that far exceeds what most of us feel about her death.
"Prince William mourns. Each day he wakes and remembers, with a dreadful sinking feeling: she is no more. I do not believe it is like that for the rest of us who never met her.
"Partly, the scale of reaction is explicable by the nature of the death: its unexpectedness and violence made it shocking. Feelings of horror, regret that she should no longer be with us and sympathy for her relatives are appropriate, but to claim mourning for a stranger? Whilst the sincerity of the feelings are undoubted, their authenticity is not.
"The 'mourners' have forgotten that she was the daughter of an earl, that she married the 'most eligible bachelor in the world' and was often described as 'the world's most beautiful woman'. Her estate is said to run into many millions. The most cynical observer might point out that the same was not true of Mother Teresa's. There are many thousands of Britons who have made far greater personal sacrifices, with minimal public recognition, doing far more good -- wise social administrators, dogged scientists, charity fundraisers and, yes, other members of the royal family.
"The 'mourners' have exaggerated her good points beyond all recognition and forgotten that she must take some of the responsibility for the mess that her privileged life had become. The starting point for any explanation of this collective, selective amnesia must be that the 'mourners' are emotionally attached to Diana: they feel affection and concern and identified with her. But not all identical to the same extent.
"After I appeared on BBC television casting doubt on the health of what was happening I received a surprising number of letters. To my amazement, all talked of their 'gratitude' that someone had attempted to put the event into perspective.
"So who were the 'mourners' and what do they tell us about the Britain on my couch?
"Much of the answer comes from a poll of those signing the books of condolence at St.James's Palace: 80% were female. Women identified with Diana more than men. The product of divorced parents, Diana was a depressive bulimic who made 'plea for help' suicide attempts. She was betrayed by her husband in a loveless marriage, fell out with her in-laws and got divorced. She went to great lengths to convey the precise nature of those problems through Andrew Morton's (effectively authorised) biography. Subsequently, she was even more explicit in a notorious television interview. This made her truly iconic, a conduit for the sufferings of modern womanhood because her problems mirrored an epidemic of angst.
"Compared with 1950, a 25-year-old today is 10 times more likely to suffer depression. Suicide attempts and bulimia have mushroomed. These problems are 2-3 times more common in women compared with men. In three quarters of divorces (the rate is now 40%) it is the woman who seeks it.
"Of course, there were other groups who identified with her. To the many excluded of stigmatized people in this society, like blacks and gays [homosexuals] and the underclass, she represented one in the eye for 'the Establishment'. By emoting so publicly, they showed solidarity with her criticim of the royals' alleged emotional frigidity. There was also a desire to be part of something, to share some emotion. Congregating in public places and experiencing collective ritual compensated for the atomization of modern society. She was a conduit for suffering or subordinated Britons.
"But the wider significance of the event has been grossly exaggerated. For example, many commentators have claimed that the outpouring of emotion demonstrated a softening of the British stiff upper lip. This ignores the fact that the majority of British adults did not shed tears, wail or gnash their teeth. Their upper lips did not quaver.
"When the dust settles and not too long after the tens of millions of dollars worth of flowers strewn around the country in her memory have decayed, the sad truth is that monarchists will breathe a sigh of relief that one of the loosest of loose canons, perhaps the greatest threat to its survival, is no more.
"In reality, if Britain is the patient, Tony Blair [the British Prime Minister] is the analyst. Let us hope he can offer the right treatment for the causes of the ailments that led to this extreme reaction by some Britons to a shocking accident."
If Britain were a person coming to my pastor's office for spiritual guidance I would have much to say to her. Whilst agreeing with much of what Oliver James said, I would go one step further and say that the mass mourning of Diana was symptomatic of a spiritual need that temporarily found an outlet in the death of a nation's heroine -- what we witnessed in the streets of London and elsewhere was a substitute for God -- a religious outpouring, an identification with a hopelessness that could find no comfort.
In my own place of work in Norway I witnessed much the same thing amongst some of the employers. One atheist or agnostic created an altar with a framed picture of Diana covered in black ribbon, lighted candles which she kept alight throughout the day, and a remembrance book. One was expected to go to this improvised church altar, make ones inward bows and curtsies, pay ones' respects and condolences, and mourn with the nation.
When I first received the news of Diana's death, my heart went out to her motherless children, and I sensed the emptiness and grief that they must have been experiencing. As for Diana herself, though she had certainly become a kind of ambassador of good causes like the one she was pushing at her death (the banning of landmines) she was, in many ways, a contradiction. For not only did she identify with the suffering of homosexuals with AIDS but, wittingly or unwittingly, was acknowledgding the validity of a sinful lifestyle.
Though risking the diatribes of those saying I am speaking ill of the dead, as Christians we must balance compassion with truth. And the truth was that Diana, like most falen human beings, was a contradiction of virtue and self-interest. She was not a believer and avidly dabbling in the occult forces of astrology. She was, in short, unsaved.
I do not believe it was any accident that Mother Theresa died at about the same time. I believe the Lord was showing us a contrast of worldliness and saintliness. Doubtless both had their calls within the sphere of free agency that they respectively adopted -- God will use everyone, even unbelievers, for His purposes if they will respond to righteous principles. And doubtless each will receive their rewards.
Where are Princess Diana and Mother Theresa today? That is not for me to pass judgment on. God alone is the final arbitrator. But I will nonetheless feel concern because, assuming that Diana ever had the opportunity to hear the message of salvation, those who reject Christ have only one destination. And Mother Theresa, for all her wonderful deeds, was a Mariolator and was, I believe, supportative of the contemporary movement in the Catholic Church to make Mary co-redemptrix -- co-Saviour with Jesus. Such is a blasphemy. However, who am I to comment on her final spiritual destination before one who so selflessly gave her life for the blessing of those unable to help themselves? I leave such balancing in the hands of the all-wise and all-merciful God. But I confess, I am still troubled.
As for Tony Blair the analyst, I am equally hesitant. Though a professed and church-going Christian (Anglican), he is also a secularist. Right now he is busy trying to rehabilitate Prince Charles and to get the public to acknowledge his (by biblical standards) adulterous relationship with Camilla, and sway popular opinion to accept her as future queen of England. Blair, like most, represents a double-standard of secularism and watered.down Christianity. Professing to be appalled by abortion, I doubt he will try and alienate his own (Labour) party who have always supported the mass-murder of the unborn.
Diana, though certainly abused and betrayed by her former husband and inlaws, nevertheless resorted ro revenge, thus underscoring the acceptance of rebellion as a bona fide means to justify her end. That she will reform the British royal family I sincerely doubt; when prince William's time to ascend the throne comes following his father's death, I doubt there will be a monarchy left -- rather, there will be a King for the whole planet whose Name is Jesus. Then the nations, their chequered histories, fallen leaders, republican as well as monarchical, will become distant memories. Their day will have passed.
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Updated on 6 March 1998
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