How to Overcome Indecision.

Can reframing decisions empower you?

The most annoying thing about the new year is all the promises and resolutions people make to themselves (or more annoyingly – loudly to other people) about how this year they are going to enact a series of changes, give up vices and exaggerate virtuous behaviour. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for self improvement and self awareness, but I feel that goals should be kept personal, because at the end of the day (or year) your goals should be for yourself. Having said that, I am going to share with you something which I am trying to ascribe to in 2019. I have made a few promises about things I want to improve personally, and after reading various self help books in the forms of rules, I presented these ideas to myself in the only way a nerd such as myself would do – as a contract or citizens agreement with myself. I won’t go into these ideas but needless to say they are hanging up in my room in a place I will have to see everyday. I like the ideas of rules, although I framed mine as reminders because, what can I say, if I set myself some rules perhaps I would probably annoy myself to into rebelling. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life – an Antidote for Chaos and Richard Templar’s Rules for Living were very inspiring to me in developing these ideas this way. I know from my experience with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that we all of us live by certain rules, whether consciously or not, and sometimes those rules are maladaptive. I believe that by aspiring to adhere to new rules, more productive ones, you can make a change.

What I wanted to explore in this post was a particular area of my life where I genuinely struggle and after talking to a few people about it, I get the feeling that it is something people share. That area is indecision & uncertainty. The sensation we all get that we are making the wrong decision in the face of all the possible outcomes we can imagine. I talked a little bit about knowing you will regret a choice in the future in my post Regrets, Choices & Time Travel Reading that blog post now, I can really feel the melancholy place I was in when I wrote it. It was a particularly dark period of my life that I feel is well and truly in the past, and while scarred, I have learnt so much from it. None the less my relationship with uncertainty remains similar and as time goes by, I feel it creeping into many different areas of my life. I understand that there is a relationship between anxiety and being indecisive and this has manifested itself to me personally in many different ways. Take a moment and consider the last time you were confronted with a decision that you were certainly unsure of how to act; How did you feel in the run up to the decision? How did you feel after you had committed to a course of action? How do you feel about the decision now?

If you are anything like me, you are still troubled by that decision, all the alternatives still play on your mind. I discussed where I thought may dependency on indecision comes from in my post Of Ships & Shadows. In Barry Schwartz book The Paradox of Choice he calls people like me maximizers, and suggests that there is a link between this mentality and lower levels of happiness and satisfaction with life. Throughout his book he is critical of the abundance of choice we enjoy in our society and suggests that it inevitably leads to dissatisfaction knowing that there was, potentially, a better option available. A maximizer,he says, is someone who will investigate all the possible outcomes of a decision and then strive to make the best one. The distinction between the best and a good one is very important. If you are not a maximize you are a satisfier.The latter will make a decision based on their own criteria, and will more often than not be happy with the outcome, even if a better option was available. The former will be sad to know if what they committed too was not the best option. Imagine you go out for dinner; you stare at the menu struggling to decide what you would like to eat. A satisfier will think along these lines: “I want something with cheese, something hot, and maybe some serving of potato, preferably chipped, but I’ll accept roasted”. They will come across a portion of cheesy chips and be happy with that choice. A maximizer will think more along these lines “Ok, what is the best deal here? What is the cheapest but most filling option? Should we even stay in this restaurant? I heard next door do two for one, and the portions look bigger. Ok maybe I will opt for the lasagne because it looks reasonable.” Then when the lasagne arrives, they wish they had also bought cheesy chips, regardless of the thought process that goes into the decision.

Now that example, while peculiar, can seep over into other areas of your life. Schwartz basic point is that while in some circumstances the maximizer will inevitably end up with a better deal, the subjective experience of looking for that deal, and stressing about what decision to make, is more intense, draining and costly on an emotional level. The satisfier however, will be more content and happy with their decision. It is clear that Schwartz is an advocate for always trying to aim for the middle option. This seems counter intuitive in our society where we are always told to aim high, expect the best, but in reality, or rather in my experience of reality, this is often the path to unhappiness. That is not to say that you can’t aim high, but that this must always be tempered with an element of realism. How likely is it that you will end up with that dream job that you cannot even articulate yet? Not very. How likely is it that if you make the good middling decisions you may end up with a job that you don’t mind that allows you to life the live you want to lead, with potential at your fingertips. Much more likely.

 

As Voltaire said “The best is the enemy of the good”.

 

So if we accept that we all need to try and aim towards becoming satisfiersin order to live a more fruitful and happier life; we ultimately end up tackling the question of indecision. By accepting that the decisions you made were the best decision that you could make at that particular moment in time should then start to diminish those feelings you may harbour that another option was better. But what of uncertainty in general? What do you do when you have no idea what to do for the best? What do you do when you feel completely paralysed by choice or lack of it?  Brian Schmitt did an excellent TedTalk on certaintywhich really spoke to me. He points out that uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact it is at the very core of the entire universe. Even within your own life, there may be events that appear as random, but ultimately, if you have faith, they are leading you somewhere. Where that is cannot always be seen at this moment. There is an account on YouTube called Like Stories of Old an incredibly beautiful and creative perspective on what films are saying to us, the morals they have and the society it reflects. They did a kind of analysis of the 2002 film Signswith Mel Gibson which really spoke to me. Although the film is about an alien invasion, there is also a narrative of the main character’s loss of faith in God. Spoiler alert, it works out in the end, but the way it does is interesting. A series of seemingly random events crescendo into meaning that have an ultimate purpose. I’m not particularly into religious interpretations, which I guess in my life is why I wouldn’t find any, but I do believe in an element of fate. If we accept that your life is a story that you are tell yourself, a narrative you create with the content you have lived, then there is no reason why seemingly random events couldn’t be connected to see some higher purpose.

Joseph Campbell, an American comparative mythologist calls this path the Hero’s Journey and stresses that it is filled with uncertainty. First the hero, which is you in your own life, receives the call to adventure, the summons to leave what you know and venture out into the realm of the unknown; in mythology sometimes represented as the safety of the castle. We see this all the time in Disney movies; Rapunzel in her tower inTangled, the elephant graveyard in the Lion King or even Andy’s house inToy Story.The idea that you must leave the realm of the known, the safety of what you are used to in order to become the hero. This idea of a journey in which the hero must face monsters, challenges and even their own limitations, is so embedded within us, almost a biological format we are attuned to follow through what Carl Jung called the collective unconsciousness.This is the idea that we all share a structure in our unconscious mind that is populated by instincts and archetypes., and that there are patterns we must follow in order to become who we really are.

Once you read Joseph Campbell, who incidentally has the most beautiful writing style – pages and pages of creative and insightful prose, you begin to see the pattern he outlines repeated in so many areas of life. Books; film, TV shows, games, interviews and even conversations you have with loved ones. I unashamedly listen to Russell Brands Podcast Under the Skin and almost every guest is asked “Why are you doing what you are doing?” and they will all answer with a story of seemingly random events that led to this moment. How does all this relate to my goal of striving to deal with the role of indecision in life different this year? I guess by accepting that any decision I make is in reality a random event that in the future could potentially be one of meaning. I mean in the sense that if you imagine all your decisions as purchases, by accepting them from a position of future opportunity, instead of future regret I can free myself of the shackles of indecision. By remembering that decisions I make however small or large, may potentially be a metaphorical Ariadne’s thread for how you view your life – how you construct the narrative you live by. Robert Frost’s beautiful poem The Road Not Taken opens with the weight of deciding which path to take, a paralysis of indecision, and discusses the decision making process. The poem ends with the line “And that has made all the difference”. Make your decisions to the best of your knowledge and have faith that they will lead somewhere.

I heard a Chinese parable the other day that I though was beautiful that I will relate to you now to end this ramble. It is on the long side, but I feel it sums up what I am trying to say. That we have the gift of hindsight, but the power of foresight is denied to us, it is only ever an educated guess. Don’t feel guilty over limited knowledge, and accept that paths in the past are now closed to you.

There was once a farmer who owned a horse. One day the horse bolted and all the villagers came to see the farmer and said “What bad luck, your horse has bolted!” The farmer stoically replied “Maybe, we will see.” The next week the horse returned with two other mares. The villagers returned to the farmer and said “What great luck!” Once again the farmer replied “Maybe we will see.” A few weeks later the farmer’s son fell over and broke his leg. The villagers returned to lament the farmers bad luck. “Your poor boy! What bad luck!” The farmer replied slowly “Maybe, we will see” The following week some officials came round to gather all the able bodied young men to fight in a war off on some distant shore. The villagers said in grief after having lost their boys to the military “Your boy wasn’t taken, what incredibly luck.” The farmer once again replied “Maybe, we will see”.

 

References;
Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice
Carl Jung – The Portable Jung – edited by Joseph Campbell
The Hero’s Journey – Joseph Campbell.  
YouTube – Like Stories of Old
Under the Skin Podcast – Russell Brand
Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken
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Morality. Is anything objectively wrong?

Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

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What can I say, perhaps all of the hours I have dedicated in my life to the Assassin’s Creed franchise is having an effect on how I think. This quirky line is the creed from which the assassin’s take their raison d’être. The idea may seem cynical as a character called Sofia in Assassin’s Creed Revelationspoints out, to which the hunky Ezio replies “It would be if it were doctrine, but it is merely an observation of reality.” Is there really no right and wrong in reality? I had a bit of a self epiphany the other day when I realised that I am really persuadable. I can hear a compelling argument and before I know it I am fundamentally a supporter of that argument. Obviously this exists within a paradigm that I am not particularly aware of, some kind of moral structure that I oscillate within but it came from watching a YouTube video with Douglas Murray that I realised that perhaps my beliefs are not always compatible with each other. It is quite a shock to see that you can hold opinions which nullify each other, and in finding this out about myself it was interesting to see that I didn’t believe either of the arguments any less, instead I kind of mentally tried to smash them together to make a coherent narrative that made sense. This has been something very vivid to me during the ongoing Brexit debate, a staunch Remainer, and yet peppered with resentments towards the not so benevolent union based on experience with people who live outside of it, not to mention the impact on me of the sprawling works of former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. I don’t think any of my posts before have so challenged my strongly defended opinions as what follows as I attempt to tackle the issue of morality, or at least, to align my beliefs to something that is more coherent that the one I currently hold. Perhaps I have been too simplistic in what I lay out, but to be fair to myself it is a complicated incompatibility of beliefs.

 

I am reading Julian Baggini’s book called Do You Think What You Think You Think? At the beginning of the book he asks a set of questions. The questions are statements which you either agree or disagree and they are laid out in a way so it is difficult to see much relation between them. You fill out your answers and then review them. It then points out that some of your questions come into conflict with each other. The first statement is “There are no objective moral standards; moral judgements are merely an expression of the values of particular cultures” Stumped. On question 1. At first I took the opinion well of course some things are wrong. Some things must be wrong regardless of the historic time period it belongs too. Slavery was justified for a long time in the history of humanity, and yet it is wrong, fundamentally and objectively. However, if I had been born into an aristocratic household in the 1700s, would my opinions have been different? Almost certainly, but does that make it any less wrong? I figure that actually I am very much trapped within the culture and standards that I grew up in.

 

What society views as wrong, I also, generally, view as wrong. Of course there are something’s within this that we can contest, drug legalisation, abortion, gay marriage, but some things are blanket wrong. For example,murder is wrong. If we take the view of murder as the unlawful and premeditated killing of one human being by another, there can be no justification for the taking of life, and yet I live within a society that acts as if this was not true in somerespects. The topic of the UK’s involvement in wars in the Middle East is an issue I don’t want to tackle, but the nature of it is interesting to explore lightly here. The UK’s policy includes supplying arms to countries that conduct attacks against militia and kill innocent civilians as a consequence (as in the case with Saudi Arabia and the war in the Yemen) and conducting military strikes in the Middle East designed at taking out high profile ISIS’s targets, but often with the death of civilians included (collateral damage). So even from a societal point of view – murder is wrong – unlessit is designed to stop somebody else from harming you. Ergo, murder is not an objective wrong within law– it is dependent on your position culturally. I understand that sounds fickle, but my point in writing it was to show that something as universally accepted as wrong, can be repackaged in a different light and presented as, if not right, at least as an unfortunate consequence. I really struggled to think of something that is considered so wrong that somebody couldn’t justify as right, or at least justified, because justifying something, may not make something right but does allow for the absolution of the act. I think that actually we live within an era where some things are accepted as wrong, but are viewed as necessary, diminishing the question from right and wrong to necessity. Sometimes I think it is an interesting thought experiment to dwell upon what our society currently participates in, that posterity will look back on in disgust. Do you think how we currently treat cancer, or test on animals, or pollute the environment will ever be looked upon as anything but naïve in the future? This is a fallacy of our time that how we have it now is as good as it will ever get, and that all the right and wrongs we have now, will always be right and wrong in the future. Based on this conclusion then it is very hard for me to remain in disagreement with the above statement, and instead I have to opt for agree.

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This places me within the realm of something called Moral Relativism and the idea that our moral judgements are indeed true or false, but only true relative to something that can vary between people & between epochs. Of course this would be the camp I end up in, the ambiguous indecisive one. The idea of being tossed around and carried by the winds of the era strikes me as flippant, and yet it is the category I find myself in, given that I struggle to avoid having conflicting views. An everyday example for you. I currently live in a very beautiful little village in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The town thrives upon its status as a holiday area, and as a result receives influxes of people from around the country who come here and spend their money and bolsters the local community. However, these people also bring something else with them – rubbish. I always find it disheartening when you see the beach after a busy hot day because there is so much rubbish there; plastics, papers, packets, boxes it is pretty disgusting really. Yet, that believe I hold is very relative to the era. The drive towards plastic free, sustainable packaging, and people opting out of using non biodegradable materials is relatively new. Twenty years ago, this debate was on the fringe of society, although even then I had an aversion to littering. I was in no way a die hard recycle man, until the tide of society changed. Is it important to have green values and to act in everyway you can to have as little impact on the environment? Yes, I believe that wholeheartedly, everyone has a responsibility to put their rubbish in the bin and do what they can for the environment. Would I drive to work on a rainy day? Yes, also – I contradict my own belief. Therefore, these views that I hold, despite seemingly against one and other, must have some kind of coherence, and that coherence is relative. In another throwback to ancient Greece, during the 5thcentaury BC Herodotus (a Greek historian, who I currently have on my boat in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey) told a tale of some Greek men at the court of the Persian king Darius. They were disgusted at the suggestion that they might partake in the cannibalistic consumption of their own fallen fathers. The tribe who offered the ritual, the Callantians were equally as disgusted by the Greek tradition of burning their dead instead of eating them. The ritual of each is wrong to the other, because theirs seems so normal to themselves. However, I can see the problem in identifying myself as such. If I am going to accept that everything is relative to the culture it is practised in, then I am being going to have to accept some pretty horrible things. Genocide for one, something which obviously I can’t agree with, is carried out on the assumption of the perpetrators that what they are doing is right. If I am going to accept that the view points are relative then I have to accept that this clear wrong, is right to someone.

 

The problem germinates from the fact that I don’t. Baggini’s next question is “Acts of genocide stand as a testament to man’s ability to do great evil”. In agreeing to this I have created a conflict with the fact that I believe that there is no such thing as right or wrong, and that it is all relative. You see my dilemma. How can I be such a believer in the fact that right and wrong can be boiled down to perspective and yet think that some things are fundamentally wrong – such as genocide. There is no way I could ever justify that some of the most horrific scenes that the world had ever seen that played out during the second world war and its aftermath is acceptable to someone. So I am siding myself more with disagreeing with the first statement. This is what I mean about contradiction and I think that I need to resolve this ethical dilemma in order to be more coherent and authentic. So let’s try. I feel that living a life in which I have incoherent beliefs is one in which I cannot behave authentically in. So let’s try and work this out. Firstly, though, why is it important to know where my personality and belief system is conflicted? I guess because in my attempts to become more holistic and grounded, the question of authenticity raises its head, how can I be truly authentic if there is a duality within me? This idea of duality is something I discussed in my post on Ships and Shadows. It may seem like such a grand idea, that has no real practicality in my life, but I think that actually, questions of right and wrong permeant my life on a daily basis. If my system of right and wrong is conflicted, then how can I make decisions. I guess I had a de facto system which had two lenses, one a macro and impersonal perspective, and the other a micro and very focused one. How can I collide this system into a more coherent believe system that is not so vacuous? With difficulty, for sure, but here we go.

 

Let’s lay this out as simple as possible in order to try and get to the root of it; I believe that right and wrong exist only within people’s subjective experiences of them. I could do something others thought of as wrong, but I could justify it as right. However, the conflict stems from the fact that I also believe that some examples of great evil are also wrong. These two ideas don’t fit… I guess my ambiguity there comes from that I would like to understand the reasons for actions, and I guess I have never really met with true maliciousness in that I have never experienced someone causing pain just for the fun of it, but I can’t deny that these people exist. That the worst thing about genocide apart from the death and potential being eliminated is that someone actually took some thing from it, that perhaps there are feelings of pleasure derived from such a horrific act– even if it is in a “the job well done” sense. So I have to accept then that people do evil things, under the pretext of whatever ideology they adhere too, but that we can fundamentally condemn as evil. Therefore, I would disagree with the initial statement now that “There are no objective moral standards; moral judgements are merely an expression of the values of particular cultures”. My conclusion brings me around to the fact that I do think there are some objective morals that supersede us all. I guess the hard part then is to determine who decides what is right or wrong?

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Luckily for me, in his book the Moral Landscape Sam Harris, an American atheist, clears this dilemma up for me. He makes an analogy between morality and the practise of medicine. He says that while there where things in the past that we did under what Foucault called the medical gaze we now agree that this is no longer appropriate. Best practise in medicine is constantly undergoing review and being updated. Sam Harris says that there is no reason why morality can’t do the same. That even though there exists some conflict, like the one I laid out above, that doesn’t rule out the fact that there also exist actions that (should) receive universal condemnation. So I can still function as a moral entity, with this confusion within my morality, because not doing so would leave me worse off. Jordan Peterson says of moral relativity – that it is the path way to nihilism– something which obviously I need to avoid in my fragile state. Perhaps my particular moral dilemma is made more poignant by the fact that I consider myself to be hugely empathetic. I like to think that I am a compassionate man and while I can try to understand almost anything, there is a limit to this compassion and that limit it was I would define as wrong. I guess Ezio’s profound statement is correct in theory, but in practise, when it involves people, places, & things that you care about, it reduces its practicality. If I lived my life by such a doctrine, I wouldn’t really believe in anything (“God is dead, and we have killed him – said Nietzsche) and a life not believing in anything is not really living per say, it is more an existence, like a plant – and they reproduce asexually… how boring.

 

 

References
Sam Harris – The Moral Landscape
Julian Baggini – Do You Think What You Think You Think?
Jordan Peterson – Youtube Channel

Why The Grinch Stole Christmas.

Why are you “such a mean one, Mr Grinch?”

My favourite time of year – Christmas! There is something so inspiring about December and I think everybody picks up on it. In my last Christmas post I discussed (over two blog posts no less!) Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. I explored some of the themes of the book and the different movie interpretations; the messages it holds for us as a society, and for me personally. A Christmas Carol is a story about a grumpy old man, who like a mythological dragon, craves solitude and to hoard over his treasure in peace. The only thing Ebenezer Scrooge truly cares about is his money, his infamous hatred for Christmas was born of his disgust at the loss of revenue on Christmas day (Humbug!); how people change their behaviour, but not because of any particular hatred for the holiday. Until that supernatural Christmas evening, where the spiritual world exists closer to our own that Scrooge is visited by four spectres, who each leave a mark upon to him, inspiring a transformation from shrewd copper counter, to loving individual. The first ghost was, if you remember, his old friend Jacob Marley who warns him that his cupidity had consequences in the afterlife in the form of an eternity wondering the world shackled with the chains forged from his shrewd deeds. The second ghost – the ghost of Christmas past – reminds him of how innocent and loving he once was, and shows him how he made the transition from good soul to corrupted individual (the Muppets Christmas Carol inserted a song here called The Love is Gone – it proved too upsetting to put on the DVD other than in the special features.) The third ghost, demonstrates the joy of the present with all its small rewards. The third, and as I argued the most important – the ghost of Christmas yet to come, asks Scrooge to consider his own mortality as a mechanism to change his mentality and transform his personality.

At first glance, A Christmas Carol and Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas both have a similar, for want of a better word, protagonists (or is it antagonist? Former antagonist to be?). They are both cold individuals, who share a dislike for Christmas. They are both living a self imposed social exile, in which the believe that their determination to reject Christmas is correct, a kind of secret they both share, one that everyone else is ignorant. Despite its colourful setting, a pastiche of everything Christmas, I think How the Grinch Stole Christmas is inherently darker than the festive effort of Dickens. Scrooge is a hateful man, but his resentment towards Christmas is his own. “’Nephew!’ Returned the uncle sternly‘keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine!’” said Scrooge, showing us that while he hated Christmas, he had no desire to take from anyone else their Christmas sentiment. The Grinch doesn’t seem to be particularly avaricious, he rejects pretty much everything. Importantly too, despite its setting in a snowflake, the Grinch didn’t need any ghosts or supernatural elements to show him the error of his ways.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas takes a different trajectory. The first time in the movie that we actually see the Grinch smile, is when he contemplates the tragedy he can cause the Whos down inWho-ville. Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch considers it his mission to to take Christmas and twist it into an unhappy affair for everyone. He actively works on sabotaging Christmas for everyone, even sending dreaded hate mail and jury duty notifications. However, it is to be noted from the get go, that the story of the Grinch could have been darker. What better way to ensure that Christmas doesn’t come, than by killing all of the Whos down in Who-ville? I am certain that this a Tim Burton film waiting to happen. All it would have taken is a little poison in the local water supply, or cruelly and calculatingly cutting all of the throats of the little Who’s whilst they slept and the Grinch would have deterred Christmas, simply by having no one alive to celebrate it. He never chose this option, choosing instead to go for the overt symbols of Christmas. He steals the presents, the lights, the trees, the tinsel and everything else that represents Christmas, but leaves the people alive to see the consequences of it.

In the book, and indeed in the film –no one knows the reason why the Grinch hates Christmas, “It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps that his shoes were too tight. But I think that the most likely reason of all, may be that his heart was two sizes too small”. So whilst Dr Seuss may not be an actual Doctor of medicine, I guess what he is saying here is that there was a biological – or perhaps even a psychological reason. So let us look at his personality to see in what way he is different. The Meyers-Brigg Big Five Test is a particular type of personality test developed by Mother and daughter Jungian psychoanalysts, Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Meyers. After completing some questions with answers that you rate, you are given a comprehensive map of your personality in five different areas. I completed this test a few months back and it was quite interesting seeing how you fair and how much you identify with the results. For me it highlighted, or rather articulated areas of my personality that I struggle with and that need improving; strengths that I have that I need to maximise, and potential pitfalls I am susceptible. The five areas are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Let us look at each of these areas and see how the Grinch would fit in if he ever conducted an online personality test – granted not much was said in the book or the movie about Who-ville’s internet connection, but the green guy spent a lot of time in that cave alone – what was he doing if not furiously masturbating to Who porn online?

Openness to experience is the trait that describes how creative an individual is, how much they appreciate art and emotion, or crave novelty and diversity. Someone who is high in openness tend to be more driven towards the arts, and can often be perceived as unpredictable or lacking focus and engaging in risky behaviour. Someone who is low in openness is quite pragmatic narrow minded (as in focused) and data driven. Now this was a difficult one to start with when thinking about the Grinch because even though he is very close minded, he is rather theatrical in his behaviour. He does seem to be rather unpredictable, but I guess he is very focused in the drive to be left alone – or is he? We will come back to that. I am going to go out on a lime here and say he would score in the positive here, based on the sole fact that he is spontaneous. People who score high in conscientiousness tend to be very reliable and organised and have high levels of self-discipline. Now just glimpse at the lair on Mount Crumpit would show you that the Grinch is very low in conscientiousness – I mean the man eats glass!! I think Extraversion speaks for itself, and those who score low in this area are more introverted. The Grinch is very energetic, assertive and dominating so he obviously scores very highly in this area. Agreeableness, the trait associated with compassion and cooperation is obviously an area that the Grinch scores low in. He has a distrust of the others and is suspicious of kindness – he even goes out of his way to try and make Cindy-Lou Who dislike him (“Run for your life! Before I kill again!” he says). Neuroticism is the tendency to have a very intense mental life, and experience negative emotions such as anger; anxiety, depression or vulnerability strongly. This is obviously something the Grinch has – there is the scene where he discusses with himself all the outcomes of going to the Whobalation – “What if it’s a cruel prank? What if it’s a cash bar?”. How the Grinch negotiates with the Whos gives us insight to his neuroticism. Now what is interesting about this little personality examination is that there is nothing particularly unusual about the Grinch’s Big Five. You could do a personality test and come up with similar to the results as our favourite green loner (although there is also Shrek – another green miser – why is that?) It is said that personality traits are very difficult to change, and even after the Grinch (belated spoiler alert) becomes reintegrated to the community, I imagine his personality doesn’t change too much. So what else is going on with him?

One of the most beautiful things about the movie rendition of Dr Seuss’ book is the back story. I am unashamedly a sucker for some back story. Cindy-Lou carries around an amazing Dictaphone in which she undergoes what I imagine is Who-ville’s very first investigative journalism. She interviews the Whos that knew the Grinch before his Lucifer like fall from grace and self imposed exile and I think herein Cindy-Lou proves her worth as Who-ville’s equivalent of Joseph Pulitzer. We learn that the Grinch was raised by two old ladies (who may have been too busy with a sex party to notice he had arrived for some hours – check out the The Independent’s story on just that here). Even if you’re not that fresh on your psychology it is thought that those early hours are crucial. A baby, when it first arrives does not know why it is crying, or what is is crying about, and having the problem soothed assures the child that the world is not, in fact, a cruel place. I am sure there is a lot of literature on this, although I do think it perhaps extends until the child is about 2 if my AS Level Psychology still simmers correctly in my memory – but humour me. Then we see him at the school, in love with Martha-May, but horrifically bullied. He has an unfortunate episode with a razor and then is shamed so drastically that he turns to violence, flees the town to begin his life in exile. Now, not entirely similar, but I can remember having little temper tantrums when I was younger, running to my room and moving the bed in front of the door and packing a Fisher price suitcase. It was only after calming down and then having the soothing tones of my mom trying to reconcile me back into the family sphere that I calmed down. Now imagine that I did run away, and that nobody came to find me, would I be any different to the Grinch, fantastical elements aside – I don’t think so. In fact, look at it like this; a little boy who was different from everyone else, was bullied horrifically and ran away and nobody, not even his parents went to look for him – I think he was 8 years old. Now, given that all he has had to think about in his isolation for however many years it is not hard to see how he became so Grinch-like.

John Cacioppo is a social neuroscientist who did some research into loneliness. He decided to investigate the sensation that many of us feel that even when in a crowd of thousands, we still have feelings of being alone. The sensation of being isolated, even in our era of social media and more ingratiated connection, is something that we can relate to. It doesn’t matter how many friends you have on Facebook, or followers on Instagram, retweets on Twitter, connections on LinkedIn, you can still experience being alone. Cacioppo suggests that this sensation does not exist purely in the physical realm, of not having contact with others, but can exist even within social human beings. I know this feeling, and have described it in the past as a sort of knowing, like being in on a secret aren’t privy too, a secret that separates you from others. Cacioppo conducted an experiment in which he undertook MRI scans of individuals who described themselves as lonely and not lonely looking at stimuli in the form of pictures designed to create positive and negative thoughts. What he found was the people who felt lonely responded to the unpleasant images in a way that the none lonely people didn’t, and vice versa. The long and short of this investigation is that people who are lonely have different mental lives to those who are not, they actually see the world differently. It is safe to conclude that the Grinch is lonely, and this loneliness is being projected outwards. The Grinch was never given the tools to express his emotions effectively and so resorts to an animalistic expression of lesser emotions (although – if you are interested in the emotion of anger you can read my take on how it can sometimes be constructive). He is dissatisfied with his own existence and seeing the Whos (who incidentally rejected him as a youth) all happy and joyous reminds him that he is not. I can relate to that feeling – of seeing other people happy, and how painfully it heightens your awareness that you are not – its called depression. People respond in many ways to this feeling and I guess the Grinch’s way of dealing with it is to project all that self hatred out. He doesn’t hate the Whos or Christmas, he hates himself. When Cindy-Lou offers him the role of Holiday Cheermeister the Grinch even explains that he is afraid of rejection, the same rejection he experienced as a child. At first he is reluctant to give up the persona he has create, or rather – the defence mechanism against rejection – the miserable Christmas hater, but then after a while he gets really into it (in fact it even makes me think of straight men in drag – at first they pretend they don’t like it, then they go all out and start behaving incredibly feminine) and becomes vulnerable again. It is only when the Mayor, the childhood bully, spitefully reminds him of a previous rejection that he reverts back to his cold attitude of before, his default defensive position. He decided in that moment he was unlovable and became addicted to the negativity. How dare theWhosbe happy when they made him feel this low, and he is filled with that kind of self-righteous rage everyone experiences when the break up with someone particularly toxic. He then took on all the behaviours that he thought the Whos thought he had and thus became the adjective Grinch.

It is in the midst of this celebration that the Grinch really loses it. It is different from his first outing in the village of Whoville, where he is enjoying making peoples lives a misery, because here you can tell he is in a lot of pain, and he reacts to this true to his personality, by exaggerating and overcompensating, causing as much destruction as possible. He makes this brilliant speech;

“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? That’s what it’s always been about. Gifts, gifts… gifts, gifts, gifts, gifts, gifts. You wanna know what happens to your gifts? They all come to me. In your garbage. You see what I’m saying? In your *garbage*. I could hang myself with all the bad Christmas neckties I found at the dump. And the avarice…The avarice never ends! “I want golf clubs. I want diamonds. I want a pony so I can ride it twice, get bored and sell it to make glue.” Look, I don’t wanna make waves, but this whole Christmas season is stupid, stupid, stupid”

Can we accept then that the real villain of our story should be the Mayor who even stoops so low as to shame a little girl, making up rules that suit him (echo’s of tyranny) and somewhat perversely covets Martha-May, or perhaps the two old ladies who did not really care for their child. Yes, the Grinch is vulgar and mean, but I would venture that actually he is a very sad person too. In the nature of the festive period we need to take this on board especially when we see other people’s behaviour that doesn’t quite match our expectations or understandings. Everyone has a story, even the Grinch has a back story (thanks to the 2000 movie) and though it couldn’t excuse his behaviour it certainly went a long way to explain it. Was Cindy-Lou right to find out the Grinch? Ultimately yes, but there was a period when she was wrong. Some people can’t be saved from what they are, some people don’t want to be. Looking more closely at the Grinch has really made me think about my own behaviour, particularly in the areas in which I felt wronged. I may have been right to have taken a particular course of action, but did it ultimately end well? Like the Grinch, was I justified to behave like I did? Who knows, but let’s look at how the Grinch returned to the loving arms of the community.

It seems the Grinch’s hatred for Christmas also stems from the irony he sees therein. He accuses the Who’s of only caring about the presents which is the plot line for many a Christmas film. It can be seen as a critique of our own attitude towards Christmas because our message is slightly confused. The adverts, the food, the presents, the events, the bargains, the deals, the plans, the disappointments, the stress, it is almost a manic sentiment. Don’t believe me? Black Friday. People actually get hurt trying to get the best deals, trying to save money on things. It is funny that we think the Grinch is a mean when what he is saying is how materially driven we all are, or seem to be. Hopefully no one is going to steal your presents this year, but what if you don’t get as much as you want? What if you don’t get the thing that you wanted? What if someone else gets more than you? These are the things that the Grinch hates. It is only at the end of the film that he sees that even with all the material wealth stripped away, the community is fundamentally good and caring. They are a loving people who turn to each other in their time of despair and find solace in the sense of being together. Like Ebenezer Scrooge he feels remorse and actually cries, really feels the error of his ways, and is overwhelmed with a sense of love and beauty, and I guess importantly – gratitude (something which I discussed in this post). Arguably it would seem that Scrooge was further along the path of despair than the Grinch, as he needed to see his own mortality and the futility of wealth in the face of it to transform. If the Grinch had been visited by spirits, he would only have needed the first two Christmas spectres. He lets compassion enter into his soul, and not only emotionally transforms, but biologically too, his heart grew three sizes! The message isn’t just about Christmas, but about all of our lives; that our desire for things, the capitalist system of ever replaceable, upgradable, degradable stuff can be unfulfilling hollow. All of our belongings end up in some literal Mount Crumpit at some point. Remember this Christmas, and after if you can, that there is a power in connection, that connection feels good. Ultimately, belonging is more powerful than belongings. Happy Christmas.

References:
How the Grinch Stole Christmas – Dr Seuss.
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (movie with Jim Carey) 2000
Theories of Personality – Schultz, D. P., and S. E. Schultz.
https://www.thoughtco.com/important-lesson-about-christmas-from-grinch-2831927
https://epicpew.com/grinchs-extraordinary-spiritual-life/
https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/neuronarrative/201412/neuroscience-explains-why-the-grinch-stole-christmas
The Indepenent’s article on the Grinch’s careers sex party.

Emotional Wreck – Anger

The futility of road rage meets the possibility of progression inspired by anger.  

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What I have been taking away mostly from the stoic books I have been reading is that all humans have been endowed with the capacity to think rationally. Rational thinking, say the stoics, is the thing that separates us from beasts, and is the truly magical thing about our existence. Any situation that you find yourself in could be experienced in two ways. Firstly, with your rationality – logic – conclusions and consequences – this path offers you the ultimate power that is available to you, deciding how to respond. Or you can revert to your emotions, trust your instincts as it were, be taken over by these bestial forces within you. Culturally we tend to shun emotions; we give great allowance for emotions as being something that is out of our hands, that emotions are a distorted lens with which to view reality. What is the difference between murder and a crime of passion resulting in death? Someone who murders in the heat of the moment is deemed less of a criminal than someone who murders in cold blood. The difference being the abundance or lack of emotion. The power of hindsight allows us to cringe at decisions we made with our heart rather than with our head – sometimes to lasting grief. Is this a fair assessment of emotions or can looking at them through a different light offer any insight into the role you allow your emotions to play in your life. Some people live life with their hearts on their sleeves – others negotiate the world with emotions locked up inside and suppressed. Who has the right of it? Is there a happy medium? I have discussed emotions before, particularly and festively in my blogs posts about Charles Dicken’s  A Christmas Carol 

 

Anger. The kind you feel boil inside of you. The kind that causes you to spit out that thing you have wanted to say but never quite had the courage too. That emotion we tend to regret the most, to berate ourselves for not mastering. We talk about “loosing it”; “exploding”, “flipping”, “I saw red” we say as we try to justify that burst of feeling. It wouldn’t take long for anyone to imagine some examples of how destructive anger can be – the pain it can cause – the injustice! We talk of managing anger, controlling it like a wild beast we need to cage and domesticate. Most of the worst things done in history can be attributed in some sense to anger – even in our own lives – the role that this demonic emotion plays in our lives is highlighted and sensitive. Sometimes we defend actions we took when we were angry. Sometimes it makes us angry when people question why we were angry. We feel shame at anger and we do our best to shun it – but should we? A quick google search yielded up thousands of results about how we should shun anger, how it is a bestial remnant of our psyches that need to be exorcised with rational thinking and self discipline. Very few of those results suggested how anger can be useful so hegemonic is the cultural understanding of this particular emotion.

 

The physiological aspects of anger are universal. We all feel anger in the same way. Our body language expresses anger so that anyone from around the world can sense that you angry. Sometimes when talking to a colleague or a loved one, you get the feeling that they might be annoyed at you – you can feel it despite the “I’m fine” they tell you. You just know. You can sense anger in someone else, without even knowing that you have. There anger causes you to react, maybe you apologise for anything, maybe you question them maybe even you get angry at the thought that they might be angry at you.  In Dexter Dias’ book The Ten Types of Human he talks about a man who suffered a stroke, a result or the cause of a car crash he was involved in. When he woke from his coma in the hospital he found he was now completely blind. The case confused the treating doctors, as he had no obvious neurological damage, and yet he could no longer see. One day the patient was waiting in the doctors room, the doctor walked in apologised for being late, sat down in front of the patient and smiled. To the doctor’s surprise, the blind man smiled back. When he asked why the patient had done this, the blind man responded that he didn’t know. The doctor began to develop a hunch that the patient, blind as he was, could sense his emotions. They conducted experiments with flashcards of humans showing different emotions and proved beyond doubt that the patient could see emotion in human subjects. The patient felt he was merely guessing, but the results proved otherwise. The patient was unable to sense emotions in animals (although this is a peculiar area anyway as Lisa Feldman Barrett points out in her book – do animals show emotion, or do we attribute emotion to them? I guess it depends on how much you love animals). They put this down to what happens in our brains when we see. The information leaves the optical senses and travels to different parts of the brain and the area that responds to, reads and recognises emotion was structurally different to the area that processed sight. Thus proving we can see emotion – in fellow human beings at some level different than that which we realise. Obviously in terms of our human evolution this has served us in good stead, a survival instinct of reading other people and processing their emotions in order to survive. Obviously it has worked in the past, because here we are.

 

So reading human emotion happens unconsciously. There is an area of your brain dedicated to reading your fellow human beings emotions. We read emotion without even realising it. The argument could be made here that if everyone managed to master their emotional lives, we would struggle to communicate. If we are talking and you get angry, I know you are, even if I don’t know that I know. At least in the terms of our bilateral communication your anger is telling me something. It has an inherent communicative purpose – I can now regulate my behaviour accordingly, or not depending on how I am feeling. I know from my own life that I have tried many a time to control anger, or its more common and frustrating younger brother – irritation. Believe it or not, I get angry at traffic just like everyone else, but even before reading the stoics – I could see the futility of my rage. Somehow I manage to overcome that anger to accept it, to rationalise it and I can honestly say that road rage is not something I experience to often anymore. That is not to diminish what a perfect storm traffic is. In his YouTube video Ryan Martin talks about road rage as a recipe for disaster. To be in a car, going somewhere, establishes before you even consider how angry you might get, that you have a goal, a destination – an end point, that everyone you meet along the way frustrates this goal which in turn creates anger. Is this emotion even slightly useful in this circumstance? Not at all. There is such an ugly futility in road rage, something that no matter how much you swear, or gesticulate, nothing will change your current speed or situation. This example would further the belief that anger is a futile emotion – a pointless one, like trying to swear yourself out of a traffic jam. Is it fair to write off this emotion based on this example, or the countless others like it? We tend to emphasize this aspect of anger; the worst type, the ones that are brief, irrational and often violent.

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So universal is anger you would probably instantly see that I am angry – and perhaps that I am faking it.

Eminem said in an interview “There is something inside me that is a little happier when I’m angry”. Honest answers now, do you ever enjoy your anger? I guess your reply would initially be no, but I imagine if you, like me, reflect upon this you would start to shamefully admit that there are occasions in which you do. Aristotle said of anger that it is a response, a propelling mechanism to action and that in and of itself it is not always wrong. Anger, he says, is appropriate sometimes, and you would be stupid not to feel it. There exists a type of anger known as righteous anger, the kind that has propelled social change for eons. The anger that you feel when you discover something you think is wrong has the power to mobilise you, and bring about change. The NHS, civil rights movements, the abolition of the slave trade, various independence movements, global peace treaties and more, are all examples of how righteous anger have led to advancements. If these examples can show us anything it is that anger, correctly fashioned can be a force for good, it can in fact, despite how we cultural conceptualise it, led to solutions. That phone call you make to your friend; in which you detail all the things that have annoyed you lately is an expression of anger, and your friend then dutiful replies after your rant has ended “don’t worry, it’s good to let off steam” and that is true, there is a relief we feel when let that anger out. I would argue that even in my own experience exercise is also a way to release anger. I won’t go on record and say that I am a fitness addict, but I have been known to run frequently and this in itself can be an expression of anger.

 

Anger is hardwired within us. When it is triggered what follows is almost automatic. To be triggered though anger needs some stimulation, we don’t just get angry for no reason. That stimulation varies from culture to culture, likewise person to person. Some people get angry at watching the news or reading the paper, some get angry after thinking about different things, some get rage a technology, when something we want to happen instantly takes slightly longer, because anger is a way of engaging in the world. Within anger, is more than just being annoyed, there is a whole package of information, vast amounts that you could reduce and peel back with the Socratic method. Let’s take an example. I am angry that the lady in the supermarket was rude to me – ok, why? Because she should have been more polite – ok, why? Because it doesn’t cost anything to be polite – ok but why would that make you mad? I guess because I feel a little bit vilified, I didn’t do anything wrong. You can keep asking why, as annoying children are want to do, but to be fair, it does help to reduce the layering back. In my supermarket exchange I interpreted more information than I was aware of. I had an expectation that the lady would be polite, because that is something I have cultural come to expect and when she wasn’t I was angry. At the time, my outrage didn’t allow for the fact that she was probably half a shift in to a job that perhaps she doesn’t like and she wants to get home to her family because of some awful tragedy. My cultural expectations fed my anger, more than the basic exchange. Sometimes I could go into the supermarket and be completely unaware of any rudeness, because for what ever reason, for whatever context I was not looking for it, or sensing it. I did not react to these exchanges with anger. Jean Paul Sartre was a French existential philosopher, who said “Emotions are something that we do” – they have a strategic value. Thousands of years of evolution and we still get rage. Why? That crucial word – strategy.Anger never happens in a vacuum it has its variants like anything else; you can be angry and cry, you can be angry and shout, you can be angry and jealous, or you can be angry and motivated. Anger is not inherently a bad thing; it can be used in defence as well as assault. It is an indicator that something is wrong and a call to arms to propel change. Stoics would argue that you have to accept everything before you can get angry. My supermarket example – I should enter the shop expecting the worse, forgiving the lady her rudeness before it even happened, because that way I can not get angry because I had expected that outcome. To accept the futility of the event before you can get angry about it. This they say, is the road to self mastery, the good life, and to living in accordance with nature. I am not to deeply indebted to the Stoic argument that I have not looked for criticism of it. Something within in senses that rejecting your emotions, or that annoyingly unpractical guideline of “accepting” is something that does not always lead to a satisfactory conclusion.

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Freidrich Nietzsche says of the stoics “How could you live in accordance to such in difference”and that consciously refuting anger is acting against nature given that “nature” is fundamentally who you are. When you boil all of the civilization and technology away, we are beasts. Beasts of habit, beasts that love, beasts that get angry. Anger still exists within us because it served in the past as an evolutionary advantage. I would argue that it still does. I am never a supporter of violence, or fruitless anger, but channelling anger or recognising that this emotion is an expression of something should help in any journey to understanding oneself. When you are angry you become more dominating, more practical and according to a study carried out by the university of Sydney more creative. Anger propels problem solving, as much as it can drive change. Anger can inspire great wars like the fabled siege of Troy, and the rage of Achilles which has echoed down through time, but anger has also inspired great change. Picassos painted Guernica as an expression of his anger at the bombing of the town. Technology has been inspired by anger, as people strive to stamp out injustice. Literally every charity in the world functions because some founder was angry at the current state of affairs. So the next time you get angry about something, think to yourself what is it you are angry about. What were the circumstances that led to this little outburst? Why have you got allowed yourself to be angry at this particular moment? Could you use this to help right a wrong? To inspire you to change in anyway? That frustration that you feel when you look in the mirror and think “I should exercise more” is your emotions telling you what to do. Your anger is speaking to you, it always speaks to you, as fruitless as it may seem, anger is communication. Listen to it.

 

References
Friedrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil
Epictetus – Discourses, Fragments, Handbook.
Robert Solomon – The Teaching Company- the Passions Lecture 2
Ryan Martin – Upside of Anger Ted Talk
Lisa Feldman Barrett – How Emotions Work.

Better than Life

In search of some old TV show to see if one particular episode can help with negative thought patterns.

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The older I get the more I find myself referring back to books, films, songs & TV programs to explain things that happen. I understand how strange this might sound, but the amount of times something is said and it makes me think of an episode of The Simpsons or a song by Bowling for Soup. It took me a while to accept this nuance about my personality. Our lives are fundamentally constructed of the narrative we tell ourselves and even though this tendency to refer back to popular culture makes me feel like Guy Pearce in Momento in my day to day life, I have an annoying capacity to make these links to things that I didn’t even know that I remembered. Negative thought patterns are something that can affect us all. Sometimes you don’t even know from where they are summoned, the inner demons responding to an unannounced Ouija board – and worst of all, sometimes they can take on such a dominant role in your present that you become suffocated by the. I touched briefly on the idea of memory when I discussed photography – but in this post I want to talk about a TV show which aired between 1988 – 1999. Specifically, one episode which came to mind lately in peculiar circumstances.

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Red Dwarf was a BBC production which aired on BBC for pretty much all of my childhood. I wasn’t overtly into it, but my brother was a huge fan. I do believe that the format was trialled in the USA but it never took off and I can see why. The premise was a Sci-Fi sitcom cantering around the man character Dave Lister, a holographic reanimation of an annoying colleague of his called Rimmer, an anthropomorphic cat and a computer system. The setting of the show was on-board a mining ship called Red Dwarf that had been sailing away from earth for 3 million years. Lister was frozen in a cryogenic machine as a punishment for some minor offence, and during his stasis everybody on board the ship had died. Waking up 3 million years into the future, the ship is turned around and begun its journey back to earth – unknowing if humanity still existed. It is a very weird show – distinct in its humour and struggles to withstand the test of time. Some of the jokes are now a little slapstick – and the canned laughter is enough to put anyone off. I still recommend this series as something to watch – it is almost like the Black Mirror of the 90s but presented in sitcom format. I love the way that Sci-Fi has the ability to tackle issues in a way that we can’t quite put our fingers on in our own experience.

 

The other day, something amazing happened to me but yet for some reason all I could summon to my mind where negative things: an internal movie premier featuring all of my past mistakes, fears and negativity. I think I am not alone in this, that everyone has this reel prepped and ready to summon for an introspective open-air cinema. This internal movie annoyed me so much until I had that wave of realisation that sometimes can follow particularly glum circular thoughts. I guess it was more like a moment of clarity – achieved by recalling a particular episode of Red Dwarf that obscure program now confined to the depths of the BBC archives. In episode 2 of the first season the main characters receive some post that has been traveling to catch up with them since they departed planet earth some 3 million years ago. They enjoy opening up the post and there are genuinely some funny jokes whipped out here. One of the parcels they receive is an augmented reality video game, incidentally sharing its name with the episode title Better than Life. Writing about this now in 2018 was very different from the world of the early 90s when I first saw this episode – the idea that video games could potentially become so augmented does not seem too unrealistic – after all we already have some types of virtual Reality. To play the games the characters had to put on what look oddly like bicycle helmets (what I can I saw – I can’t imagine the budget was particularly high) and then they appear in the game. I guess kind of like the scene when Neo is born again in the Matrix except not nearly as sinister – or slimy.

 

Upon entering the game, they realise that literally anything they wish can come true – all they need to do is think about it. So they begin thinking of cars, attractive women, food, luxury hotels and the like. The character Rimmer, the animated hologram goes the furthest in this game, I think he ends up as an admiral entertaining some impressive people and meeting Napoleon Bonaparte – his favourite fascist dictator of all time (this does come across as rather amusing in the show – but I can see how this is easily lost in this post). Everything is going extraordinarily well for him, and he seems to have the biggest change in character – he is confident and happy, smug and witty; until his father appears and calls him “a Smeg head” (literally cannot explain this phrase – it was the late 80s after all – it was the cool thing to do for people to make up new slang – yes Bart Simpson – I won’t have a cow!). The next time we see Rimmer he is in a run down Morris Minor with 7 children and arguing with his pregnant with. He gets out of the car and initially pretends he is happy to the other characters before being confronted by a representation of the Inland Revenue demanding a large sum of money. He wishes away his friends money, and says “help me – I can’t be happy – my brain just rejects it”

 

This line. This line is what I remembered when I had that pattern of negativity within my mind – that specific line. For the first time in a long time, I actually stopped and thought about the way I think about thinking. Paradoxical as that sounds – it often seems to me that thoughts are taken as truth whereas in reality, as I mentioned in my last post about photography, thoughts are more a story. A narrative that you can contest or amend at anytime. The human brain is a marvellous thing, it can take even the best of things and convert it into something terrible – if you allow it. For a few moments before I remembered this episode I was literally doing exactly what Rimmer did in the game. I was not allowing myself to experience the good, my brain was literally rejecting it and giving me a huge list of reasons why. Most of those reasons where attached to memory – all the times in the past where something good had happened and it turned out badly. All the things I had done that made me feel like I wasn’t deserving of anything, or guilty at feeling the pleasure when I have around me the shackles of regrets like Jacob Marley, doomed to walk for eternity amongst the shadows of the night.  What is it then about memory that can physically weigh you down? How can something as useful as remembering things hold you back or as in Rimmer’s case – cause you to reject the good from happening.

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In one of the many Jordan B Peterson lectures I have watched online – he says somewhere that the point of memory is not to remember – but to learn not to repeat the same mistakes. This idea is compounded so strongly in the scholastic field – Albert Einstein himself said “Doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results – that is the definition of stupidity”. How then can you shed this tendency of having memory act as a ball and chain? Carl Jung, a psychologist who I mentioned in my post on incorporating all that which you hate about yourself, discussed at length the idea of mythologies being important. It is an idea that resonates with me so holistically that I find myself thinking about it more and more. The concept is that in stories and tales we have in them coded messages of how to live our lives – collective archetypes of how to behave. That these stories are ones to live by, that we need them to help make sense of ourselves. I stayed here for a while when I first read this, the question raised in my mind – but how can we do this? Why does it work? It was literally in the moment I recalled this episode of Red Dwarf that an answer cleared in my awareness. We need mythology and stories to help us make sense of our own stories after all what are our own lives if not ultimately stories we tell ourselves about ourselves? Granted a BBC Sci-Fi sitcom from 30 years ago can hardly be included in the great works of the human mind – but even still – it helped me make sense of the particular feeling I was having. Here was a character who could have anything he wanted – all of his dreams coming true – and yet, he still managed to ruin the game with his thoughts. The literally perfect situation was poisoned by imperfect thoughts. I really liked how you can see the pain and frustration on his face and he starts to annoy himself by making his situation even worse; a feeling that I can relate too and strikes me as quite poignant given that it is not really something we see very often represented, particularly in our social media lives.

I guess what I am saying as a take away from this is basically to stop what your doing – and watch Red Dwarf.

But on a serious note perhaps the source of this is obtuse to say the least, but the sentiment is still there. That sometimes your thoughts are literally crucial to whether a situation becomes better or worse. Obviously there are some things that are always going to be bad – I’m not talking about those moments, I’m discussing the ones which are almost as perfect as the game in Red Dwarf. When there is literally no reason to be so negative but your thoughts are just forcing you down and down. Allow good things to happen – allow yourself the compassion to accept these thoughts. That sounds so unpractical I know, so I am going to give you something applicable to try. Find something, whether it be a book; a move, a song, or an inspirational quote that resonates with you. Create in your mind a perfect analogy for how you are feeling, a mythology, and play it out. Instead of looking at it through the filter of your own mind, look at it through someone else’s interpretation of it. How did they deal with it? What was the outcome? What do you need to do? I think on some level we all do this regularly – but I am suggesting that you do it consciously. I discussed my first venture into stoicism my post about gratitude and it is still an area I am exploring but one line from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations struck out for me here. He said “You can go anywhere you want to in the world – but you will still be there.” Like Rimmer in the augmented reality game, you could literally be in the most perfect of places, but unless you start thinking about the way you think – you may never enjoy it.

 

References
Jordan B Peterson’s YouTube channel
Red Dwarf, BBC Season 1 Episode 2 Better than Life
Carl G Jung – The Portable Jung – Edited by Joseph Campbell.
Marcus Aurelius – Meditations

Philosophy of Photography

Can we think about Photography – philosophically? Is there anything to learn from doing so?

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Is that annoying question that pops up from time, what do you do for fun? I think there is a whole post on why I hate these kinds of questions, but when I am asked I usually reply reading, running and photography. I hate saying it because I always feel like unsaid in this question is the subtler question what makes you unique? Fancying myself as an amateur photographer is by no means unique, I have yet to meet someone who does not have a vast amount of photos stored away on their phones. I discussed a while back the nature of how I use Instagram but today I want to delve a little further in the Philosophy of Photography. Anyone who has studied the history of philosophy will know that philosophy and science were once one and the same thing. I feel like the role of philosophy in understanding some fundamental questions about photography is rarely considered. What is happening when you take a photograph? Is photography an art? Is there a philosophical way to think about photography? Can a philosophy of photography be used as a template for living? I invite you on a journey to explore featuring some very amateur photographs of my own.

What inspired me to write this post, what entered my consciousness to absent-mindedly type the phrase Philosophy of Photography into Google? I recently signed up to a photography course at a local college. I have considered myself a bit of an amateur photographer for a few years, and this year even managed to make a little bit of cash on the side by selling my photos. The course has been very informative in the way that it has encouraged my understanding of the science of photography. In the age of camera phones – the science of photography is often ignored – we just point the phone at something – take a picture – perhaps add a filter or two and that’s it, done! In one particular class we looked at the art of composition – something which I struggled to get my head around initially. We were separated into small groups and given a task to selected our favourite images from a range of photos from a particular shoot. Once we had whittled them down to the best ones, we came back together and I was shocked to find that of the images we had all selected the same ones as our favourites. How could such a group of individuals from different ages all whittle the best ones down to the exact same? The instructor told us that there was something those pictures all shared, something that our eyes were biologically drawn too. After some prompting he revealed that the factor that had drawn all of our approval was something called the Golden Ratio and the reason it is so influential is because we are all attuned to seeing it repeated in nature. The idea that a mathematical equation could effect how we selected our images interested me and so I embarked on this post to discover more.

The history of photography is an interesting one. It is commonly accepted that photography was invented in 1839 by an Englishman Henry Fox Talbot & a Frenchman Louis Daguerre simultaneously, but the essence of it had been around long before the technology caught up. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, 384 – 322BC discussed the principle of concentrating lights through small holes to create reflections, all the way back in the time of Theseus’ Boat. The 1800’s was a time of huge change – the dawn of the enlightenment – an era in which rationalism birthed the belief that everything could be categorized, explained and record. It was in this epoch that a French sociologist Auguste Comte was finishing his book Cours dePhilosophie Positive an endeavour aimed at explaining society in a way that could be measured and replicated. It is no surprise that as one of the founders of sociology was finishing his book, the camera was invented. Sociology and Photography were born and grew up together, both products of their times. Photography as a practice was invented by scientists not by artists – and this relationship between photography and rationalism still rings true today in the cultural role photographs have as indicators of truth. For much of its early days, photography was a Bourgeois endeavour – a rich mans hobby only available to select few who had the means to undertake it. It was jumped upon by empiricists who ventured out with a to document things, categorise, and record of them for posterity. It was not until the Kodak revolution that cameras became something that everyone had access too. Nowadays everyone has access to a camera and billions of photographs are uploaded to the internet every year. We are experiencing such an explosion in the role of images in our society that I think it would be a good idea to explore the phenomena further.

I came across somewhere an interesting analogy of a photographer lying in wait as a hunter, waiting poised and ready to capture the perfect shot like a predator carefully stalking its prey but not in the savannah of old, but in the cultural jungles of our cities and landscapes. I know this feeling well and have spent many an hour lost to the lens of my camera, seeing the world through the screen and trying to match up images in my minds eye with the landscape. Sometimes before I know it hours have passed and I am 400 photos into my memory card, sometimes the same picture repeated again and again as I try to savour what I am seeing. Mihaly Cskszentmihalyi refers to this state of consciousness as flow. He suggests that this kind of mental atmosphere is optimal living and indeed is the goal of life. That you can spend time trying to earn more money, make sacrifices for the future, but to live truly and happily you need to find the activity in which you lose yourself like this and chase it more.

What is it though I am trying to do? In his TedTalk Bryce Evans discusses how his relationship with photography literally saved his life. He relates his experience of photography as a life line to him when he was battling with depression. He said that he realised on day that he had become so disconnected from any sense of authenticity so isolated from the human experience that he considered suicide. So overwhelmed with his own existence he said that it was only when looking at his life through the lens that he had any sense of peace. That somehow it calmed his mind and helped him gain some perspective, some sense of life external from his own pain. It began a journey in which he was able to have a conversation with himself and used photography to explore emotions that he had been supressing. He began to express the feelings that had been weighing him down. It is interesting that what lifted him out of his depression was what he poetically called developing a new relationship with light – because after all, at least optically – that is what photography is. He was able to develop a sense of control over how he was viewing the world and began to see the beauty, the crave for a beautiful shot became a thirst for life and subsequently lifted him from some of his darkest days. His photographs are beautiful – I’ve linked his Instagram account in my references. It would be difficult to talk about a history of photography and not discuss art. The two are often compared to each other as photography battles it out to rise to the level of art. Indeed, when photography was first introduced a lot of artists were the first people to pick up the technology fearing that art would now loose its appeal given that photography could represent the world as it appeared. A painter creating an image of a forest scene would paint it through his own lens of what he saw to be there, his interpretation of colours whereas a photographer can only take a picture of what was there. However, there is a lot to be said that as a photographer you are taking the picture with all of your being – your memories, your culture, your senses – just as much as a painter would. Within a drawing you are trusting that the artist represented the piece appropriately, but with a photograph we seem to let the photographer off.

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How can the act of photography be so powerful? What is it about taking pictures that draws so many of us into its practise? If I asked you the question right now – Why do we take photographs? What would you answer? One of the most common answers is for memory. This answer just leads on to a new question again of why?A memory is a fragment of time and space, an interpretation, a recollection of an event, so why would we need a photo to do it. I guess sometimes it is the fact that they nudge us into remembering things we thought we had forgotten, something which can be very powerful when looking over old pictures of our childhood. The idea of photography as a means to remember anchors it very uniquely in a very complicated subject – space & Time. This may seem like a stretch but a photography is an interplay of light and optics which captures a moment which from the moment it is taken is then gone for good. All that exists of that particular moment is the fragment of it in your memory – and this picture, an extension of your mind. A way of capturing what you were looking at, in that particular moment. This is one of the great things about photography – it can show us history; express culture, illuminate the depths of space in vivid colour, reveal hidden emotions – at the instant the shutter captured it. A photograph is a point in time and space, and then carries that moment on into the future – for as long as the image survives. Yuval Noah Harari – the Israeli author of an amazing book called Sapiens talked at length about the power of stories in culture. How crucial myths are to our existence and development. Is that not what photos do, is that not what memory is for? To create a narrative and relive those narratives in our lives.

 

The idea of photography as memory is very poetic and I like it very much however it falls apart very quickly when you consider the majority of photos that are uploaded to the internet daily. Do we really want to remember that one mediocre coffee you had at Taunton Deane services that one time? Not really. So what else are we doing? Of all the moments that there are – an infinite amount of moments – why do we chose to capture what we do? It would be very easy to link this of into a route I don’t really want to explore in this post, but I will throw in a sentence for you so you can see where I am heading. We use photographs to create a narrative about who we are & what we stand for in the same way that Naomi Klein’s book No Logo tackles the concept of corporate branding. However, the idea of the self as a brand is a nice area for another time.

 

The interesting thing about a photograph is its meaning. Meaning is a complicated area – a very philosophical one, existing in a realm of hypothetical questions. Where does the meaning creep into the photo? Is it when you are looking at the holiday pictures of a colleague? Or is it the moment that they were taken, the context of the capture. Let’s look at these two different areas. When you take a picture of something you are capturing a moment in space and time. The photo can never reveal the enormity of everything in the area, only what you chose to focus on. There is always what was going on behind the camera lens that was missing. A great shot of a landscape will not show your face when you took it. We take it for granted that photographs represent the world but is this not a naïve belief. I understand that you may be thinking it is hard to contest this statement given that photographs do show what was in front of the camera at a particular moment – so at least it shows you that, so I will give you an example. In photography there is a particular area that has such a devoted following a quick internet search would reveal hundreds of reason why to adopt the practise. Black and White photograph has often been hailed by it’s supporters as superior to colour photography, more dramatic, a stylish throwback to the true nature of photography. In his book an Anthropologist on Mars Oliver Sacks talks to man who, after having a stoke which was either the cause or the result of a car crash, lost all ability to see or even remember colour. He said that the world was not beautiful or dramatic – it was grey – very specifically – not black and white – but varying shades of grey. So these pictures at least do not represent the world – they are instead an interpretation of the world. It is not hard to think then about coloured photography as being equally as different from reality. I’m not sure anyone who owns a camera has not said the words “the picture doesn’t do it justice” so you can see even in your own experience that the photograph does not always represent the reality.

 

Vilem Flusser a philosopher from the Czech Republic puts out that we need to bear this in mind when thinking about photography. That while photography can be enabling in the way that Bryce Evans found it to be so, it can, like all technology be stifling. That a camera only allows for a finite amount of functions, can only operate within its operational capacity, and as a result very much sets the rules of the game. In establishing a relationship with a camera in which we just point and click we are surrendering control over the process – after all the camera does all of the work for us, many of us don’t even know how a camera works, and this is preferable because it is more convenient. This however leads a certain element of control, established by the technology. This may sound a little like the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix but Flusser believed we surrender this control at the expense of our freedom. He said that our lives are controlled by the actions we take, and invited us to think more carefully about our relationship with technology. Again I think I have a whole posts worth of thinks about mobile phones to delve into – but that is also for another time.

 

There exists an argument in photography called the transparency argument. This is the idea that a photograph is not really there. I know that sounds ridiculous so I will elaborate. Imagine I take a picture out of my bedroom window on my mobile phone, showing the banality of small town suburbia. You do not see the photo, you see the content, you look at the photo as if you were also looking out of my window. The photograph has become transparent. In this way the camera has extended the sense of sight, you are transported in time and space to see what I saw through the lens of my camera at the particular time. You don’t even really notice my phone because I have asked you to concentrate on the image. The photo – the object itself – is rather redundant, so what then is it that we are focusing on. In that beautiful landscape scene, you took, that you are so proud of, there is one element in the image that was not in the scene and that is the camera itself. Imagine the camera acting like a filter for Instagram, you can still see the subject but you are seeing it through the filter of the camera.

 

Roland Barthes, a French philosopher, talked at length about the role of the camera in such a beautiful way. He developed an idea which had been the bane of my life during my university years of sign & signified. In the simplest form, the concept suggests that an image exists on two levels. There is what the image is, in terms of it’s physical entity and then there is what the image means. He suggests that the two can be separated, and even reappropriated, repackaged and presented with a completely new meaning. That sometimes the meaning comes from us, and not from the image itself. A good example I can think of here is when you look back over photos with your ex. You now look at the image, tainted by the way the story panned out, you no longer see that happy couple you once saw, you can see the pain and suffering in each others eyes, knowing full well how miserable you both were. The image has not changed – but the meaning you have attached to it has. The thing that you see is different to what you saw before. The original photo no longer has the same meaning that it had, or perhaps it never had any meaning, only what you attribute to it. What images mean is completely dependant on the culture you are living within because the meaning is derived from it. There is a reason why looking back at pictures from the past can make you cringe or smile, and it is because the meaning of the image has changed. This is something we do all the time, especially in marketing. Advertising is a good example to explore the idea of meaning and photos because, as Barthes points out, the photos used in marketing have a distinct purpose and that is to sell you something. The goal in any type of images used in marketing is to connote the meaning that the brand is good, is wholesome and is something that you need. The creators of these images know what certain things mean and push this out in their photographs. Have you never considered the absurdity of advertising perfume, especially in print form? How can a picture sell a smell? Yet – that is exactly what it can do, because the meaning packaged in the image can create a sense of what the smell might be – an idea.

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In Camera Lucinda, Roland Barthes looks more closely at the Ritual of Photography. The way he writes about this literally blew my mind – at first it seems incredibly absurd but as it progressed – well see what you think. He suggests there is something very strange going on within us when we sense the presence of a camera. Almost as if we were staring down the barrel of a gun, our behaviour changes. You begin to pose, whether this is a smile, or a grin, or presenting the preferred side of your face to the camera; even if you are of the “I don’t pose for the camera” tribe, you still feel the presence of the camera – a sort of discomfort within you for what you are doing. This Barthes says is the fact that you know this image can never capture everything that you are. We try to form poses that have been done before – try to act what we think we should be doing in a photo, striving for this picture to be our best picture. Our bodies are constantly creating meaning with everything that we do, and we want this to be present in a photo even though we know it can never be – at least not completely. When we look at pictures of ourselves we are measuring internally how much that picture represents the image we have created of ourselves. The photo becomes an object which creates a distortion within us as subjective beings. There are no memories or thoughts in a picture of you – it is just a representation of a given moment. Barthes calls this a “micro-version of death in the flesh.” The subject becomes the object – because the subjectiveness of your existence can never exist in a photography. What is something with out subjectivity – no consciousness; no life, death. This is the uneasiness we feel when looking at a lens of a camera, some people hate the feeling, others love it, either way it is a peculiar feeling –  and Barthes says it is because we have a fleeting experience of death. In K A Swanson’s YouTube video May I take your Picture?  Swanson asks various people if she could photograph them. The video is very beautiful in that you can see how people respond to this – the ritual taking place. Think about your internet dating profile, or your Facebook image – why did you choose that particular image of yourself? Think about that the next time you show someone an image saying “This is me” what do you mean by that? How can that be you? What you mean is – this is a representation that accords with how I feel I am. It was Abraham Lincoln who once said;

“There are no bad photographs – that is just how your face looks sometimes”

Remember that as you frantically try to delete images taken on a drunken night out that don’t accord with how you view yourself.

Jean Baudrillard a French philosopher suggested that images no longer have any meaning. That all that is being re-created in images are imitations. That pose you pull in every image is not natural – it is an imitation of some ideal you have of how you would like to look in the picture. He calls this Hyper-reality, the idea that the real has collapsed and been replaced with imitation. The the true has been merged with the false, the real with the imaginary. The meaning of the photograph becomes more real that the image itself. That when we read images – we interpret the meaning faster than what is actually being showed to us, the meaning thus elevated to a status more important than the image. I remember being in Thailand once, and seeing a T – shirt with Mickey Mouse smoking a joint next to some writing that said Jessica Alba. What the hell? Of course I thought it was a great T-Shirt and the fact that it made no sense appealed to me. We don’t care that things aren’t real – in fact a lot of comedy is based up the fact that we know that things aren’t real. When we look at advertising material – we know that the image of a Nike athlete has been carefully constructed – and yet we still want those trainers. Baudrillard was a very controversial philosopher who even went so far as to suggest that the first Gulf War never happened. What he meant by this was that we can never know the reality because all we are presented with are simulations of differing realities. Thus images become lies – or more rather – interpretations of reality, perhaps an element of truth in them, but none the less an interpretation.

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Whatever the nature of photography I would like to put to you a Philosophy of Photography as a means for living your life. Whatever is going on in front, behind and in the camera is there any way we can adopt these ideas into our life – as a means to become better people? Now as self help as this sounds – if you have made it this far in this rather extensive ramble you have seen how I have reached this conclusion. What makes a beautiful photograph? The question to that could go on for ever, in fact I don’t believe that there is a perfect image – there are an infinite amount of things, times and places to take a picture of how could one of them ever attain perfection? So I ask a more important question – What qualities make a good photographer? I think it is a life style, a way of seeing the beauty in the world; hidden away on grey days, empty streets, the rain, cloudy sunsets, peaceful beaches, the life in people’s eyes, that captured laugh, the glistening tear. It is a way to explore your surroundings and really see it, return to that curiosity you had when you were a child, since suffocated by the trauma of being an adult. As an adventure, embarking on a quest to find new ways of seeing the world; new perspectives, new horizons. A commitment to a mantra of trial and error – taking hundreds of images of the same damn sunset just to pick your favourite one and delete the rest. There is no reason why you cannot view your own life like this, as different snapshots on the way to finding the one that you like best – for now. An acceptance that something you hold dear, won’t appeal to everyone and that is ok, because of the value you attach to it. Finally seeing and really understanding that beauty is in the eye of he who holds the camera, you only need to look for it, actively look for it and you will surprise yourself with what you find. That hidden away in the rat-race of modernity are some gems shinning brightly, you only need to adapt your focus, adjust some settings. Nurturing a thirst for trying new things, pushing yourself into new situations because maybe, just maybe you will find something you weren’t looking for. Inviting yourself to be overwhelmed by Cskszentmihalyi’s flow and enjoying the meditative experience of inspiration. I know I have talked about doing all of this through the paradigm of a camera, but there is no reason why you need a camera to live a life like this. There is no reason that you can’t take these images with your mind, live these images, embody them. If photography is about seeing, then the camera is a tool, a technological extension of the eye, and an image is an extension of a limited memory. If you can nurture these attributes with a camera it will only take a shift in your perspective, a slight adjustment to your aperture (perhaps fiddling with you ISO settings – whatever the hell that is!) and you can embody that enthusiasm into your daily life. I invite you to start really seeing the wonder in the world, and if you take a camera with you – all the better – send me the pictures.

 

References

A Critical Introduction to Photography – edited by Liz Wells.
A Very Short Introduction to Barthes – Jonathon Culler
Introducing Baudrillard – Chris Horrocks & Zoran Jevtic.
Towards a Philosophy of Photography – Vilem Flusser
How Photography Saved My Life – Bryce Evans TedTalk.
Bryce Evans Instagram account
May I Take Your Picture – Youtube K. A. Swanson.
No Logo – Naomi Klein
Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
An Anthropologist on Mars – Oliver Sacks

Of Ships & Shadows

Tackling some thought experiment and the role all my negative attributes have to play in my life.

Starting a blog post is always really difficult. Everything just sounds weird or wrong. Sometimes it is only when the post is finished that you go back and retype the start, fully embodying the fact that the topic you wanted to address has now morphed into a different beast. For this post I initially typed “so much has changed since my last post” but I quickly deleted this and replaced it with “nothing has changed since my last post”. Obviously I couldn’t settle for either. Both seemed true & yet untrue; reality tempered with a  falsehood, deceptive but honest. Perhaps I am confusing myself and my life with Theseus’ boat – the famed thought experiment on the nature of reality.

For those of you who don’t know the Ship of Theseus plays out as follows (please excuse the creative license); Imagine you are on holiday on some Greek island somewhere. You decide after days of lounging in the sunshine and overdosing on vitamin D to go into the local town and lazy stroll pass a museum offering Free Entry to an exhibition. You enter into an artificially cool room and looming in front of you, illuminated by clinical lighting, is a real pre-5th century boat. As you walk around the vessel – you marvel at how well it has been preserved. You read the small information signs as you wander the room, and are taken aback by how much you love Greek mythology. You’d genuinely forgotten and are suddenly inspired to buy something in the gift shop. You learn how King Minos offended the sea God, Poseidon by not making the correct sacrifices to him. In his rage Poseidon had the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, cause Minos’ wife to fall madly in love with a bull (the one Poseidon wanted sacrificed in his honour). The issue of this bestial affair was the Minotaur, half man half bull, & filled with the rage of Poseidon. King Minos called in an architect named Daedalus, imploring him to construct a complicated maze, with many twists and false exits – labyrinth to hide the abomination. Daedalus did such a good job, that him himself struggled to solve its mystery once he finished raising it. To the Minotaur many were sacrificed – until Theseus.

Plutarch a Greek biography, who later became a roman citizen, lived CE 46 – CE 120. He asked a question that may have slipped your mind whilst you look awe-stricken at the wooden bows of Theseus’ boat. Over the years – Plutarch thought – pieces of the boat must have been replaced. This seems entirely obvious to you as you step onto this perfectly stable ship, you stop to touch the mast (even though the signs say not to). This was the mast upon which Theseus had forgotten to display the correct colour of his sails – causing his father to commit suicide. You learn how Theseus came to Crete and how he bravely defeated the beast. Now bored with the exhibition, you like Theseus, follow the thread back to the exit, but unlike Theseus you go via the gift shop & relish the power of the story to capture your imagination.

Over the years ever piece of that boat would have been replaced, restored & repaired to the point that now as you walk around it no piece of the original vessel remains. Plutarch would make your head hurt by asking “could you consider this boat the same as the original?” Consider this for a moment. What do you think? Is this the same boat?

There are many answers to the question – so don’t worry if you are falling into the “yes it is the same boat” or “no, it’s not” because Plutarch asked this question nearly 2000 years ago and an answer agreed upon by all as correct still alludes people. Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679 – good innings!) , an English man considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy later made this question even more complicated by wondering if the pieces that had been replaced were then used to construct a separate boat, would that boat be the original? What would that make both the boats? It is enough to make your head hurt.

This brings me back to my “nothing has changed” or “so much has changed” dilemma. Perhaps the last few moths of my life have been like this fabled boat (which in case you are wondering – you will not find in a museum anywhere – despite being mythological – it would also have been made out of wood, if it existed at all!). On a purely biological level, my skin cells have been replaced entirely, perhaps a few times, since I last posted. This would support the fact that everything has changed at least physically, and yet my life feels the same. I am still pondering; wondering, dreaming, hurting, laughing, living. It may seem difficult to draw a comparison between yourself and a mythological boat – after all –  you are a living being, but the question of essence remains. What makes you, you over time? Are you the same person you were as a child? Of course not, your likes, tastes, appearance, opinions, drives have all changed. What then makes you the same? I guess the same thing that would make Theseus’ boat the same – a sense of consistent identity over time.

How then do you compare yourself to your past, and to your future? Do you assume that you will always be you, have always been you, and that the biological replacement of all of what makes you physically – does not change anything? This thinking  does not allow room for change – which can be a great help or hindrance depending on your circumstances. Or do you assume that you are a flexible entity, that your ability to change is what makes you – even if that means it would be hard to explain when questions why you are the same person as you were before. Either way, I have stumbled upon an area I would like to explore in relation to how one defines oneself.

Are you ready for some confusing wording? Here goes:

Theseus’ boat that you saw in the museum – both is, and isn’t, the same boat as in the past. You, are both the same as your past self, and not the same, and likewise in the future. Even in this present moment you are both you and not you. Allow me to explain my thinking here.

William Desmond (1951 – present) an Irish philosopher talked about the duality of being a human, the conflict of being itself. He said;

“We are strangers to the world / we are native to the world. We are at home with being / We can never be at home with being. We are double.” 

This sense of duality has permeated philosophy for years, but how came we to being so conflicted?  Within all of us there exists a Self – this is the formation of you hopes, dreams, drives for positivism, and life affirming desires. This is literally everything good, everything that you value and like about yourself, all the things you try to accentuated when you are trying to portray yourself in the best possible way. In his book Calypso David Sedaris calls this your higher self, and offers the analogy of how you behave when you host people at your house – how you behave around your partners friends or family when you meet them for the first time or job interview scenarios.  The opposite – he refers to as your lower self and this is antithetical of all that good. All the bad things, that running commentary in your head telling you that you are worthless, with your stupid ideas, past mistakes and humiliations. This is your Anti-self and it is not just bad it is downright awful. It sabotages your efforts, frustrates the good and is a hostile presence in your own identity.

If then there exists within you a duality, if we are double as Desmond suggest then you are both the best type of you, and the worst. How then do you define yourself? If I asked you, who you are you would probably list off all the parts of your higher self, your true self, but avoid aspects of your shadow, aspects of your Anti-Self . Why do you think that is? What is it about you that values the best parts of you, over the worst parts? I know this seems like it makes sense. Why would you want someone to know that you pick your nose, enjoy farting in the bath or cruelly enjoying closing 15 minutes early to see the sadness in people’s faces. “Of course I have moments of jealousy or anger, regrets, sometimes I think I’m not worthy, but that’s not who I am”

I put it too you, that despite what you would like to think, that is exactly who you are. Your whole self is made up of an elegant dance between lesser and higher forms of being. I don’t mean this in an esoteric way – you will not find me spitting out catchy phrases like “you need to hardness the power within you” or “open yourself up to the universe” because, despite whatever spiritual beliefs I hold – if you are anything like me, these quirky lines are inspirational to an extent – but limited in there practically abilities. It is very hard to “be kind to yourself” or “forgive yourself”, there is little applicable uses of these one liners. Granted what I am regurgitating is hardly more practically, but it is something that has been commented on throughout the ages.

The oracle at Delphi springs to mind (thanks partly to my latest obsession with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey). At Delphi there was a list of maxims engraved into a stone. These maxims were rules to live by, but one of them in particular caught my eye γνῶθι σεαυτόν – which I hope for the sake of this post translates as “know thyself”. There are so many ways to break this phrase down but I’d like you to imagine it through the paradigm I have already suggested. That you accept – not resist – that which is awful about you. You are also a cruel and terrible person, or at least can be. Alan Watts goes as far as to say it is everyone’s duty to imagine themselves as a horrible person – entirely selfish and self obsessed. He says that there is a huge gap between what we are, and what others think we are – and we know this. Life is a drama, and drama is a performance, and that requires deception, to be is to deceive. Watts says you can see this for yourself when you watch a really good comedian. The comedian notices and shows you things, that you think or do, that you wouldn’t admit to anyone – not even yourself – and the you know that, and that knowledge is what makes them comical.

Carl Jung called this attitude the Persona – the idea that we have a public face – so public that it even deceives ourselves. That we are so good at deceiving others into thinking we are righteous and moral people that we even convince ourself. There is something to be found in that part of your personality, just like in the myth of Pandora – for all the horrors unleashed it also contained that crucial element – hope. The part of your personality you don’t identify with is a treasure chest of loot. Whether you know it or not you carry with you all the negative aspects of who you are, all suppressed and shackled around you, hanging off your psyche like Jacob Marley’s chains. In here are the childhood ambitions you suffocated the innocence you lost, the love you once believed in, the trust you had in the future. There is a potential within you that you deny because it is too dark to harness or does not match the current persona you have adopted. Carl Jung refers to this part of your personality as your Shadow.

Jung conceptualised the Shadow as an element of your personality which is there, a part of you that you don’t consciously recognise or identify as yourself. We hide negative aspects, conceal them from ourselves and others but they are still there, lurking in the – well Jung did use an apt term – shadows. We develop a belief that we are fundamentally right; moral and just creatures and it is in fact others who are corrupted and evil. Jung highlighted the possibility that it is us who aren’t as friendly or honest as we would like to think. This seems a strange idea for something that Jungian therapists use as a way to treat people; that focusing on negative aspects could be of any use but Jung would insist that within all the negatives there exists huge potential if we could only harness them.

I am notoriously indecisive. From a Jungian perspective the diagnosis would proceed as follows. At some point I learnt that being decisive or assertive was an impolite or potentially counter productive behaviour. It is not that I am without opinions on decisions, but I believe that in giving my opinion I am going to create a negative situation for myself. In being indecisive I surrender the power a decision over to someone else, who may potentially choose something I don’t want. In surrendering this power of autonomy, being force, by my own admission, to do something I don’t want to do I begin to develop a resentment. I don’t know I feel this or that I also feel guilty about this resentment, because after all it was my conscience decision to be indecisive. These feelings find a way out through a mechanism Jung calls projection. 

Projection is a quick way to recognise that within yourself which you struggle with. To avoid dealing with your shadow directly you move those feelings onto another. The people you think are rude, or you for some reason you just don’t like them harbour qualities that you don’t like about yourself. A good example from literature would be Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Obviously I am joking and it is Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, if you have ever come across this idea of the Shadow in the past then I am sure that this analogy is one that comes up again and again. Dr Jekyll is the good man, an honest and moral character, but Mr Hyde is his murderous criminal alter-ego. Granted this is an extreme example as literature often provides us with, but you can see this kind of thing in your own life. Do you ever do things and think instantly “Why did I say that?” or “Why did I do that?”. Perhaps this is your shadow at work, your lower self. Stevenson said:

“Man is not one, but truly two, he has a conscious personality and a shadow, each of which is battling for dominance.”

This idea of having a shadow that almost has its own personality immediately made me think of that scene in Peter Pan. I guess a Jungian analyses of this scene – to the best of my knowledge, may help here. The whole story of Peter Pan is that he never grows up – his personality never graduates from being a child and he ultimately ends up the leader of Neverland – basically no where. When in Wendy’s house he is stumbling around the room (reminded me of being drunk when I was a teenager trying – and failing to not make any noise) wrestling with his mischievous shadow. Peter manages to capture his shadow, and then after failing to attach it with soap (?) Wendy physically sews his shadow back onto his feet, thus taming the beast. I guess there is an element of romance in this – that the worst aspects of yourself can be tempered by love – or rather by an opposite element to yourself, imagine the Yin Yang, I am not too sure though that this is the always solution.

However that element of relationship rings true to an extent. You are after all in a relationship, the most important one you will ever be in, and often a neglected one. Perhaps you already know who I mean – to some it is that obvious – to others it is a realisation. I am of course talking about yourself. Just like any other union, ignoring the negatives won’t help, suppressing them won’t help, but harnessing them might. I once did a blog post about Instagram and my search for authenticity and since then I have come to realise that in my daily life I can see the absence of my Shadow. That there is a similarity between how I carefully construct my online presence with how I conduct myself in my day-to-day life. If any of us are to become truly authentic – to become truly our whole self – then we need to incorporate the parts of us that we don’t think we like, a huge part of us that we don’t think we need to explore.

How then do we embark on such a quest, or learning to assimilate and utilise the parts of us that we have made redundant to the shadow realms of our psyche? I can’t pretend I am an expert on this so let us turn to the words of C. G. Jung himself.

“This confrontation is the first test of courage on the inner way, a test sufficient to frighten off most people, for the meeting with ourselves belongs to the more unpleasant things that can be avoided so long as we can project everything negative into the environment. But if we are able to see our own shadow and can bear knowing about it, then a small part of the problem has already been solved: we have at least brought up the personal unconscious. The shadow is a living part of the personality and therefore wants to live with it in some form. It cannot be argued out of existence or rationalized into harmlessness. This problem is exceedingly difficult, because it not only challenges the whole man, but reminds him at the same time of his helplessness and ineffectually“.

 

To me, this sounded like a movie plot line in which they negotiate with terrorists which is rather comical given that I am bot the terrorist and mediator. Sounds like a pretty crap premise for a movie but I guess that it is my life. Just to bring this back full circuit for you and venture back into the realms of Greek mythology, this kind of realisation was known by the Greeks, though perhaps a little differently. King Minos offended the God Poseidon by failing to honour and in his rage he caused Minos a lot of suffering. Now exchange Poseidon for your shadow – ignore it at your peril.

 

References 
Will Storr – Selfie, How the West Became Self-obsessed
C. G. Jung edited by Joseph Campbell – The Portable Jung 
Alan Watts – Various YouTube Lectures
irishphilosophy.com
Plutarch  & the Ship of Theseus – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus
Robert Lewis Stevenson – Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
David Sedaris – Calypso