An Ode to Gratitude.

Following the Yellow Brick Road…

Recently, the biggest & most avid reader of my blog musings (who also happens to be my mum) said that she thought my post were filled with too much regret. I re-read my posts and can honestly say that they did take a bit of a turn down a darkened path, even if that wasn’t my intention. So Today I wanted to try and affirm some positivity. It has been a dark few months – a real struggle against my own behemoth, rising purely from my own volition and tendency to think myself into spirals. Ever since exploring the ideas in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol I have been thinking more about gratitude. One of the reasons I find it so hard to be grateful for the present, to express the gratitude that I do feel is because at some point I feel that I learnt to suppressed the value I attach to it. In our day and age, it is difficult to be genuinely grateful of the here and now.

I recently visited Rome – somewhere I have longed to visit since I first began learning about the Romans at school and was eagerly dragged around the baths (in the rather originally named city of Bath). Even my time in Spain, I visited Tarragona many times, and walked through the ruins of what was once strong and mighty. There was always something so inspiring about the Romans, what they achieved, what they built – and ultimately – what they lost. While I will save the best pictures for a later post, whilst I was wondering around the coliseum and I did happen across a book that caught my eye. I bought it instantly and have been reading it ever since.  Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the very same that – spoiler alert – dies at the beginning of the Ridley Scott classic Gladiator.  This man was one of the five great emperors, and his writings have touched me so beautifully. I was never one to make a mark on a book, something about the purity of the pages always refrained me from ever really etching on the pages, but there is something about his musings that have inspired me to begin doing so. Even though it is a slime volume I have now filled it with pencil scrawling and multi-coloured post it notes picking out my favourite quotes. The book hardly shuts now. Given that this man was the head of the largest empire the world had seen at the time, the man was incredibly grounded and it is amazing how much his words permeate and echo to my life today. It could have been written by Eckhart Tolle or any other self-help author but it is the timelessness that really struck me. I began to see that things I had written before had echos of his teaches, and I guess it struck me as an inevitability that I would find an affinity to it. As much as I hark on about Charles Dicken´s A Christmas Carol  it is odd how this particular emperor had the same message to say all that time ago. Remember, that in a very short time – both he [the person who has upset you] and you will soon be dead, and your names forgotten. I know I said this post would be a positive one, and I understand that may come across as incredibly nihilistic but to me it is a liberating thought. The musings of Marcus Aurelius has sent me on a journey into the philosophy of the Stoics, a journey which I am finding incredible practical and useful in my day-to-day life.

In my post Time Travel & Regrets I talked about the writings of St Augustine who powerfully observed that the only moment that exists for us is the present. The fact that I spend a lot of that time remunerating on the past, or imaging how much better a future could be if only I had X makes being grateful for the now difficult. I can’t even put a number to the amount of times I have sort out a kind of new age technique borrowed from some eastern tradition about living for the moment; being in the here and now explained as simply as “breathing in, and breathing out; counting to ten”. When that fails to give me the solace I was seeking it is very easy to feel dejected by that, assume that, the problem was with me and my abilities – that most things I turn my hand to and fail at is a reflection of my abilities as a person – nay, worse than abilities – my whole intrinsic moral value. When I use this frame all my failures seem amplified; I struggle to maintain an interest in most jobs after a certain threshold, I have hundreds of books that I probably will never bother to find out how they ended after reading two-thirds & I am not compatible with complacency. Does the fact that I crave novelty, that my mind wonders and I like to explore ideas when the initially arrive instead of dogmatically pursuing them make my value any less?

Why then, I wonder, do I feel like it does. I was looking for a word today to describe something, and I still haven’t arrived at it, but I guess the closest thing I can find to it would be “normality”. Growing up in a certain town, in a particular country, ascribing to a given set of values that stem more from culture than from me lays out a path for you. A path that seems like the right thing to do – a path that aligns you with everyone else on that same path. I have been watching Oz lately, despite the intention to give up watching TV, and I was thinking about why solitary confinement is the worst punishment that can be administered. Why is it that man struggles to spend time alone with a person they should know inside & out? I first thought perhaps it was the consequences of boredom, but I arrived at the decision that perhaps it is a biological thing. In the hunter gatherer times – to be excommunicated (a well-chosen word here, if I do say so myself, as this was a punishment in medieval times for anyone who dared to digress from the hegemony of Christianity) from your group would probably mean certain death. Will Storr talks about anxiety & social conformity as being a biological reaction to the fear of being left out, that to be ostracized was to face psychological death, to call into question your whole self-worth. The desire to fit in, to be accepted by society operates on a deeper level, than a conscious decision.

The yellow brick road, immortalized in L. Frank Baum’s books not to mention the classic movie, could provide a good analogy of this path. Dorothy arrives in Oz after a terrible storm; she arrives in the safety of a village and there appears a sinister character. She must then follow the yellow brick road (because because because BECAUSEEEE!) and along the way she meets her best friends and together they defeat the evil witch and to an extend if you don’t read (or watch on) after they live happily ever after. To some extent I feel that “normality” is like that. That the path is laid before you, and that path is constructed out of expectations of what life you should be living and as such – to deviate from it causes you pain because it at least biologically on a mental level it could mean leaving the group, seperating from the pack. There most, after all, be a evolutionary reason fro being a social being -exposing yourself to uncertainty, and the potential pitfalls of being outside the group, leads to conflict. (Ironically enough when Dorothy returns to Oz – the yellow brick road is destroyed and her best friend has become king and a prisoner. She makes a friend of a pumpkin and with a walking, talking version of windows 95). That road is very much like life in general, it is a path that leads somewhere. No one told her who made the path, why it was there, what she would find along the way, only to follow the path and Dorothy followed it, hoping to get some resolution at the end.

Sometimes I think I feel that I should be on this path in my life. The path that any man aged 30 should be on, and I am not. I should have the things that society expects me to have. I should be that person. Who that person is exactly I could not tell you, I think on reflection – nobody could. That person doesn’t really exist just a lot of people trying to become them. The Buddha said that living is suffering and that suffering comes from desire. I think as I get older I can understand that finding. That my desire for possessions or to be a certain way, despite that fact that, at my core, I am not that person is where a lot of my conflict come from. A lot of my regrets stem from the fact that I imagine other lives that I could have had if I had made different decisions. Why would that life be better? I used to do this thought experiment when I was working in a factory – soul well and truly destroyed as I cleaned shower head, one after another, a cog in a machine which paid rather well. Inspired by the Aladdin’s genie power of 3 wishes, the thoughts went like this – If you could redesign your life – how would it be? In my mind it played out like a game of The Sims as I chose physical attributes I would change first then they slowly expanded. Sometimes I would imagine being an American, or being in the military, or some innate talent I had as a child would be fully realised. Other times, when I was feeling particularly bad – it would be as a victim fleeing a war zone, always with some heroic twist at the end in which I was very much a hero of my own story. I had the thought the other day – what if this life I am living now, a different me designed. That everything about the way I am (except the anxiety I suppose) has been thought up and perfected by some other Jordan in his imagination where also discontented he imagined that what I have and hold dear was the best possible life I could have. There really is no reason why I shouldn’t think the same.

I am beginning to think though, that perhaps I am not compatible with this path I judge myself for deviating from. That the kind of lifestyle I need to live, is one that I don’t have laid out before me, but is something I must discover through trial and error. My past failings were not that but instead were expressions of when the path wasn’t for me unattached from my moral value, two sizes too big. With this perspective it is hard to take regrets too seriously if I think of them of ill-suited routes. What then is the path I should be on, where does it start and where does it lead? Not knowing it should fill me with anxiety but lately it has been filling me with a sense of freedom, that I am not destined to follow a pre-determined route but instead have the liberty to find it for myself, and I am grateful that I have tried many routes with timid toes. Looking for direction with a Goldilocks mentally of finding the perfect one right before me was never going to work, so perhaps it is in my failings that I should be most grateful, that they are showing me the best way to my “just right!”.

I have been walking around the countryside of late, and sometimes I get overwhelmed with such feelings of beauty and awe. Listening to the crashing waves, the joyous birds, the slow therapeutic sounds of silence when noises suddenly jump out of you from some nameless direction. The endless creativity of nature, the display of colours that you never noticed, the differing feelings of sand or grass on my bare feet, toes curling absorbing the difference tasting through touch. The beauty of my family and friends when I picture their smiles in my mind’s eye, imagining their laughter recreated from memory fills me with such a warm sense of love. Thinking about things that I have seen, learnt, tested, felt all magnified in their beauty that I have experienced them. Sunsets, forever passed from some beach, never to happen in exactly the same again, immortalized in my brain. The knowledge that my place in the grand scheme of things is so transitory that there will never be someone who has my thoughts, my feelings, or my subjective experience as I have lived them ever again feels me with gratitude that it wasn’t robbed of me earlier nor that I lived my life ignorantly of my pains because it allows me to see the joy with much more clarity. I am grateful to be here bashing this keyboard as my enthusiasm spews forth, I am grateful that I can feel inspired that the path I have been on lately has not drained me of any hope. That at my worst my nihilistic thoughts have always been tempered by the fact that everything, and please excuse my language, is so fucking beautiful even at its darkest.

References; 

L Frank Baum – The Wizard of Oz & the Return to Oz (and the movies too)

Marcus Aurelius – Meditations

Will Storr – How the West became self-obsessed

Oz – HBO TV series

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The Trickle of Time & I

What do I think about time? Why have I never really thought about the passing of each second….?

So where have I been, and just what have I been doing? Still living in my hometown of Ilfracombe, still enjoying the time with the family and working once again at the campsites in the ceramic studio, running pretty regularly all in prepartion for the looming half marathon in just a few short weeks. I had various excursions of various types, visited friends, family, places. Have I made any huge leaps forward in my life? I don’t think so, I feel like I am in a bit of a stasis. Like the days are passing but I do not notice them; the sun rises and sets but I feel the same. Solzhenitsyn says in his book A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich:  “The days rolled by in the camp – they were over before you could say knife. But the years, they never rolled by; they never moved a second” and I guess this so something I could relate too. Obviously, I am not in a Soviet prison forced to work in horrific conditions, but I can relate to his experience of time so much of it and yet so little. A paradox.

This is my half marathon training look – Have I captured the Olympian spirit of perfection?

Time is a strange concept and it is something that I experience on so many different levels and in different ways. The old idiom time flies when you are having fun seems as true as time is dragging by when you are bored. How can I experience an hour as fleeting, yet another hour as a painful accumulation of seconds? Normally when I am on holiday or enjoying myself in some way I don’t really notice the slow hand of time: the dropping sands in the hours glass of eternity. However, when I am at work or in a situation I have no control over; waiting for a train for example, I am hyperaware of experiencing each grain tumble. What does that say about me, about my experience as a thinking human being, that something so constant as time can so severely be distorted by my perception of it?

What is time? The oxford dictionary defines it as “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present and future regarded as a whole” but also as “A point of time as measured in hours and minutes.” Why do we have hours and minutes? What exactly are they? They are just a division of how long it takes for the earth to spin on its own axis. I guess the history of our experience of time, like how we came to have the current system of UTC (sorry Greenwich) and the history of how we have viewed it as a species would be an interesting read (please recommend if you know of a good one)  In a simplistic form then – time is the passing of astrological bodies through space. I love thinking about time like this because it really highlights my relationship to the cosmos. Really, my life span is measured by the movement of the earth; the moon, the sun, the galaxy, the universe. It is hard not to get a sense of awe from that beauty. The majesty of time on these scales can make you feel insignificant after all on those kinds of scales do you even register? I look at it differently; I think it is a beautiful way of conceptualising your life. Every breath you take on this earth you share with the entire universe. All of everything that is right now is a part of this second with you. In the time it has taken for you to read this sentence, the enormity of the universe was there with you experiencing that moment. That may seem like a stretch and I accept that it is, but I think of it like a concert. You don’t know all the people you are there with; all you know is that you have a sharing that experience of the music with the people there, and if you can feel an affiliation to those strangers – Why not the universe?

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It really is vast, and everything in the universe (with the exception of anything near a black hole) is experiencing time.

Given the vastness of all this, the sheer beauty of everything, why do I still waste so much of it? Why are there sometimes whole days lost to movies I won’t enjoy; TV series that I watch for the later conversation they will potentially create (more out of conformity than desire), the hours I have lost to YouTube on nothing more productive than watching video after video of cats doing funny things, the time devoted to a constant scroll on Facebook & Instagram looking at the lives of people who I wouldn’t talk to in the street, yet obsess over their trivialities more than my own? Why does time seem to me sometimes like something to be used up, like excess money to be wasted, or food waste to be disregarded at the end of the meal? Lately I have been experiencing a growing guilt, or rather a shame that I am wasting my life. Sometimes I feel frustrated; I feel misery, down, sadness, shame, guilt and a sense of failure, like there was another life for me which somehow, I have lost – one with meaning; purpose, but above all this a feeling of being content. That feeling chiefly is something I feel is out of my grasp – could I relate it to the time I waste?

I guess it would be pointless to move on without elaborating on what exactly I mean by wasting time. It is interesting here to appreciate that I have a value system regarding what counts as wasted time. I have already listed above some of the things but then what exactly do I consider to be time well spent? (I like the fact that we refer to time the same way we refer to money as something to spend – a finite resource to be budgeted). I suppose that is more important a question and even though it seems an easy one to be honest I struggle with it. I struggle to define to myself what is time well spent, because being productive or enjoying my time usually entails an element of motivation. Something, which overall I struggle with. I recently did the Big 5 personality test – an area which I will post about at some point – and though I should know about my internal experience more than an algorithm spewing out results based upon a series of questions I answered, the truth is I don’t. It revealed somethings to me that I didn’t know about myself that surprised me: one of them being the conflict I have between motivation and being active. I am an incredibly active person who requires stimulation almost constantly – not out of a desire to be distracted from despair – but out of a curiosity that I cannot easily satisfy. I get bored easily, even with things that I shouldn’t be bored with.

So, for me at least, time well spent is time doing something I enjoy but would rather not exert the initial energy to get going. If that seems paradoxical I guess that is because I am a complicated human being, as are we all and within all our personalities and psyches exist conflicts of interest; conflicts of being. I know from my own “coming out struggle” that sometimes the conflicts within yourself are more powerful, more beautiful or potentially more destructive than external ones. In many ways that conflict is something I still experience – I hate coming out to people with a fiery passion. I would rather that people just knew because I hate having to say it – but why do I? Is it some lingering conflict that even though I think I have dealt with it still permeates my life? Or is it that simply that I just resent doing it, that I think it’s unfair that no heterosexual person must do the same (unless of course they have stereotypical traits that leads people to assume the opposite, in which case they do… “Oh HE has a girlfriend? I always thought he was gay!” So, I guess to an extent I am not alone in that.)

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali – I love the way that the clocks – a symbol of time are melting – like how I feel about time, distorted.

How then can I be more productive with time? How can I do this in a way that allows me to enjoy these cosmic moments without a sense of shame, guilt or frustration. Sometimes this has gone to extremely the other way. I have felt guilty reading some books if they aren’t part of an accepted canon of “classics” or particularly thought provoking. I feel bad watching some things on the TV because it doesn’t feel productive, or challenging. It feels like I am being lazy. Even driving – sometimes I have thought “I should be walking” even though actually – it is not a productive use of my time to spend an extra hour doing so. How then do I balance this desire to be more productive with the ability to do so while allowing myself to enjoy those lazy moments?

I guess that idea of balance penetrates life in so many levels. What is balance but an equilibrium, a perfect alignment of good and bad, justice and truth, strength and weakness. Within a Yin Yang is there more black or white? Is there more chaos or more order nestled within its defined shape? Jordan B Peterson says in his book 12 Rules for Life (or thinking about it may be somewhere in one of his podcasts) that the perfect place to exist; the goal of your life should be on the very cusp of where black meets white. A perfect harmony of discord and routine, where neither one is dominating the other. Do I have that balance in my life now? I can honestly say that no, I don’t. I am sinking into order, routine and I guess after the chaos that was my last few months in Madrid, is that necessarily a bad thing? I feel myself becoming frustrated; indecisive, prone to boredom and long bouts of lying down doing nothing because I cannot decide what to do. I would say that I am happier; that the steps I have taken to improve my mental health are working out, regular exercise, reading, challenging my mind with philosophy and books & documentaries, trying to search for connection & meaning that make me consider my place in the world as an entity sharing time with the vastness of eternity. What I lack; is chaos.

I understand that chaos has many forms some of which it is desirable to avoid. The dreaded letter from a collection company saying you owe for not paying enough of your student loan back, or from the tax office; the worry that one of your nearest and dearest will succumb to something awful, and your experience will be altered forever, a minor argument that spirals out of control so much so that you feel helpless, money worries, health worries, existential worries. They are all forms of chaos and of course I wish to avoid this variant. The type I am seeking, the type that my frustration hungers for is the type I can survive. The type that challenges me; shapes me, allows me to grow moving me from my comfort zone, from my routine into a situation that my lack of motivation would rather I avoided. A type of systemic chaos almost more of a competition that I can engage with. I guess it all sums up as a goal; a mission, a course of action, something that will help me experience time more vividly. Time as an expression of those astrological entities moving silently through the emptiness that manifest within me something that makes me feel a variety of emotions; that shows I can be strong, that I do have agency, that I do have power, that my life is more than a routine and more than a slow trickle of repetitive grains of sand. That I am worthy of sharing those moments with everything that is. Albert Camus a French philosopher wrote a short piece analysing the Greek myth of Sisyphus; he was punished by Zeus for craftiness & deceitfulness; forced to roll a bolder up a hill only for it to come tumbling down the next day – for all of eternity. To sink into routine is to become Sisyphus making meaning from monotony labouring by day to lug the bolder to the top of the hill, only to awaken the next day and do it all again, maybe enjoy two weeks in Benidorm once a year. Is this the life I desire? Do I really desire uniformity, security and an allegorical bolder over everything else there is? To withdraw into routine is to become Sisyphus, is to be punished by the gods, by the universe.

Order & Chaos.

I have realised over the last few months during which I have tried to make a conscious effort to improve many things about myself; my health and my outlook on life, that for the longest time I was like Ebeneezer Scrooge, a character I explored in this post. That I darkly enjoyed the self-pity because the embitterment gave me meaning. I had feelings; I was experiencing even if those emotions where negative. It is easy for the “Absurdity of Life” to borrow a conceptual idea from Albert Camus, to sneak into my mentality. To manifest with self-critical thoughts, a materialistic cage. I haven’t been visited by three ghosts nor liberated in any other sense besides the fact that I am developing clarity. I used to feel a sense of moral superiority about the fact that I felt hard done by; the fact that my illusion over what my life should be like, and what it is like meant that I knew something about the futility of existence that others didn’t. Now I see clearly that it is me who is missing something. The distorted perspective; the clouded lens, the obscured ocular frame with which I have learnt to frame the world is faulty. It really doesn’t matter where I am in the world because I am always in my mind and in here there is so much room; so much space to grow or to shrink, to love or to hate, to experience seconds as years or years as seconds.

Will Storr talks about the idea of social perfectionism in his book Selfie; how the West become self-obsessed. Social perfectionism is the desire – or perhaps a better phrase would be the drive – to appear perfect. To have the body of a Greek Adonis; to have the intellect to spew out intelligent comments at parties, all the while traveling the world, suffering from an excess of excess not to mention the money and documenting it all on Instagram for your friends to admire. Your perfection fed back to you when you compare downwards to your peers, elevating you to a pedestal they could admire like the statue of David by Michelangelo. I read an interesting article in the news about an Australian teenager who was caught smuggling drugs into the country. She said her main motivation had been as a response to the pressure to have that perfection I listed above. The pressure for her to be able to post about her holiday to whatever country it was to collect drugs for some unknown underworld was solely due to her desire for likes on a disingenuous platform (link in the references). I discussed Instagram and my relationship with it at length in this post but I still feel this pressure, if only internally. After all, knowing isn’t always a liberation. I feel the pressure of perfection and how I don’t match up to it intensely; I can see how absurd it really is. Who is this person that we are all trying to become? Is my experience of time all about fulfilling the next desire?

Back to Scrooge and his embitterment: it was only really the visit of the final ghost which embedded within him the desire to change. The Ghost of Christmas’ yet to come showed Scrooge his own death, and it was that which scared him the most; the realisation that his mortal life was finite and one day it would end – at some point he would spend his last breath in and then nothing (or everything depending on your view of the afterlife) but ended. No more anything. The grains of sand that fall through the hourglass of eternity are not counting off the minutes – they are counting them down for you. The universe will move on impartial keeping time in its own glorious way, but you will cease to do so. Without being too deterministic there is an end point to your existence – whether predetermined or not. There is a finite amount on what you will experience until your time is inevitable ended. Referring to Solzhenitsyn’s quote about time; the years do pass by, the seconds do add up, and one day you will be released, like Solzhenitsyn from his Soviet prison, only your liberation will be from this earthly existence. I’d like to think that when that comes for me, that I can honestly say that I made the most of my time, and accept every moment for what it was regardless of whether I was being productive or not. As as a small role in the theatre of the universe, a unique one that I experienced through my senses a subjective journey viewed through my interpretation of it. I hope to become free of the regrets of the past and the worries of the future and accept this moment for what it is, one in the countdown to the final breath, and I want it to mean something.

References:

Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
Jordan B Peterson – 12 Rules for Life (2018)
Will Storr – Selfie: How the West became self-obsessed (2017)
The Jordan B Peterson Podcast
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/melina-roberge-cocaine-mule-instagram-likes-australia-holiday-selfies-a8312081.html

Do I really like what I think I like?

Just how do I manage to make a connection between Masterchef and my CV?

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Recently I have been re writing my CV after leaving Spain and returning to the home lands of Ilfracombe, North Devon, and submitting it left right and centre to no avail. Given my success rate at the moment, I have been carefully reviewing my CV for errors, to try to make any tweaks that may give me more of an edge. A standard addition to any CV is the hobbies & interests section which always seems the easiest to spice up a little, after all what is it there for really? According to totaljobs.com, “when you tell your employers about what you do in your own time, it says a lot about your natural motivation.” Perhaps this is why I am getting no calls back.

What are my natural motivations? What do I actually do to pass the time? It is such a loaded question because at the moment being unemployed I have more time, and while that may mean I have this time to dedicate myself to my hobbies, I lack the financial means to do so because I don´t have a job. So what do I actually do to pass the time, especially now I have more of it? Well I read a lot and obviously I do a bit of writing now and then. I would like to think I run but I haven´t been since before Christmas (although this is like to change as I have signed myself up for another half marathon in June – I need to get back in shape least I look like the last rhino in Jumanji. ). I watch the TV, I listen to podcasts, I play computer games, and I stare at my phone – and yet apart from reading (and running) – none of that appears on my CV. I listed photography; hiking, snowboarding, travelling, and culture. Don´t get me wrong all these things I do have an interest in, I make little cards to sell my photos, I like to go hiking when the weather is nice, I love to go snowboarding whenever I can, I enjoy travelling and learning new things about culture, but do I do any of these things enough to list them as real hobby, if a hobby is how you pass the time? Should I really be thinking about what I do to pass the time and making it more productive, as no wonder I have such feelings of being unfulfilled if I spend hours staring at a mobile phone.

So how authentic am I being on my CV? On the one hand very authentic, they are things I do, or like doing and get enjoyment out of them, and they are genuine hobbies. I would not list the things I do to pass the time as hobbies, and as the CV does not allow for a section dedicated to distractions, I can´t accept that I am being deceitful. What is the point of a CV after all, but to dress yourself up like a product and describe yourself in the best way as possible? This is what I am and if you invest in me this is the experience & qualifications I can bring to your work place. Obviously it is not about just work, experience, or demographics because why should it matter what I like to do in my free time? That time is mine, it will always be outside of work and in a way I do resent having to include it. I need to careful express my hobbies in a way that may give me an edge over another candidate when in fact it shouldn´t really have an impact. Granted if I applied for a job at the library then listing reading as a hobby would suggest that I have a strong motivation or empathy for the role, likewise if I was applying for a job in a particularly creative area, then creative hobbies may show that I have transferable skills again desirable. When there is no direct relation why do we need to include it? As I am writing this more things are popping into my mind, like for example team sports and being a team player, or volunteering with old people, as an indicator of empathetic qualities, but I still feel like it is a little cheap to include them, especially when there is not a direct relation with your hobbies. Apart from deconstructing the role of a CV in society let´s look at this through the paradigm of taste.

Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist who was prominent in the 20th century, notoriously paranoid he led a distinctly secretive life. In 1984 he published a book called Distinction – Critique of the Judgment of Taste in which he elaborated on the role of taste in society. He defined taste as “an individual’s patterns of choice and preferences and said that it is heavily dependent on social class. In one of his studies he stood outside an art gallery and asked people who were leaving whether they enjoyed it. He then asked for their household income, and how long they spent in the museum. He found that people who had higher household incomes enjoyed the museum more and spent longer in there than people who had lower incomes. A second experiment he conducted outside a movie theatre and he asked people who were leaving questions about film, like who directed it, whether they liked it etc. He found that people who would identify as a higher class remembered facts about the movie, like production details that people who were from lower-income backgrounds did not know, even though both groups had been to see the exact film. Bourdieu set out to explain why this was.  In his view you could accurately guess someone´s class by examining their tastes or preferences over a wide range of cultural practises. Let´s give it a try;

I like running, and I enjoy watching the Olympics, if I had to watch a sport regularly I would pick rugby over football, and tennis over boxing, but I follow nothing religiously. I am a vegetarian and I like cooking, but I´m no expert. Pizza is my favourite food, but I have a strong aversion to tomato ketchup. I like reading fiction and do enjoy reading non-fiction, but I struggle to finish these ones. I like going to museums, but I don´t understand modern art. I keep up to date with the news, and am slightly obsessed with British soap opera, Emmerdale. Based on this information, to what extent do you think you could accurately guess my social class?

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Bourdieu would say with relative ease because taste is not natural but instead a learnt behaviour, that we can amend, learn new behaviours or adjust. It is a behaviour that has lots of variables like where and when you are born, who your family are, how you were raised, who your friends are, what your town is like, what level of education is and more. Taste functions in society as an indicator of class and as class is the basis of social order and the distribution of power, taste can be viewed of as an expression of power. Imagine that when you are saying what you like you are in fact potentially exerting power as long as what you are expressing is the “right” thing. Karl Marx suggested that the ideas of the ruling class in a society are dominant and Bourdieu expanded upon this suggesting that taste forms a hierarchy, a sort of pyramid of what we should and shouldn´t like. Take my example of ketchup and my strong dislike of it. I would say it goes far beyond the negative attitude I have of the sensation of the flavour, because the sight, smell, or texture of it is enough to make me feel sick. Yet, my favourite food is pizza, and one of the main ingredients is tomato sauce, how do these two conflicting points add up. Apart from the fact that ketchup is different to sauce which I accept, Bourdieu would argue that class is playing a part in this; that within my dislike of the concept of tomato ketchup I am expressing a class distinction, I am separating myself, from the people who do like the vile stuff.

 

There is an excellent Mickey Flanagan sketch upon which I will elaborate, he is having a romantic evening with his girlfriend and they head to a particularly fancy restaurant. While he is eating his meal he asks for a bottle of ketchup and to his surprise the waiter arrives with a small pot of the condiment. He has a little taste, and then suggests that it is good ketchup and he would like the bottle. It is humorous (although it won’t be when I explain it) because of the class confusion that is going on here. Mickey Flanagan is portraying himself as a member of the working class, who is obviously aware of the idea of wine tasting. The humour stems from his miss-interpreting the situation as when he orders the bottle of ketchup he is conforming to the best of his knowledge to the cultural norm of wine tasting and because his experience does not allow him to decode the situation which would suggest that ketchup is not really the thing to be asking for, he cannot understand why he isn´t given it in larger quantities, therefore he adopts the middle class wine tasting practise to assume, that he tried a little, and to his taste, he asks for the bottle. Even though this situation is an exaggeration the idea that our tastes seem natural to us is essential to Bourdieu´s work. Why did Mickey miss-understand the situation like that? He was obviously aware of the concept of wine tasting, but it is how he interpreted the situation that can be expressed by Bourdieu´s work. The concept of capital is something that Bourdieu went to great lengths to explain and he defined it within three (or potentially four) different areas. The most obvious is economic capital, the money and the means to create wealth, and the ownership of things (this is where he differs from Karl Marx who believed that this was the most important), the second is social capital – who you know who you network with and what access they have to certain areas of knowledge and you by association have with them. The (potential) third is prestige capital, something reserved for the nobility I suppose, why would we show deference towards a member of the royal family, it is not for any particular trait of theirs, but the prestige or honour they embody within our society. The fourth and final is cultural capital and this I think is the most important.

The idea of cultural capital suggests that sometimes the way you were raised and the experiences you have will give you an insight into certain situations which others with different experiences may not understand. For example, I would have no idea how to conduct a business meeting on a golf course, so I would lack cultural capital in that, but given my experience of living abroad and teaching English as a second language, I think I have the cultural knowledge to communicate easily with people who are not native English speakers. The idea of cultural capital is that it can be converted into something else to make economic capital. For example, when we watch The Antiques Roadshow on BBC, the people who are bringing the artefacts do not know anything about the items they are selling; they only suspect it may be worth something. Bring in the expert who has the cultural capital, the knowledge and the experience to decode the artefacts and give a price to the guests. The person who is telling them the value isn´t necessarily making profit out of it, but someone is making economic capital out of their knowledge.

I mentioned earlier that I have problems understanding modern art. Marcel´s Duchamp´s porcelain urinal is at once confusing to me and ugly, I cannot understand what it is meant to mean. Bourdieu would say that this is because I lack the particular type of cultural capital needed to decode it´s meaning. That the very fact that I can´t understand is what gives it it´s worth, because it is meant to serve as a filter for keeping out certain layers of social strata. I would look at it the same way I would look at any painting, what is it? Do the colours please me? What is going on here? Can I understand what the artist is trying to say? Yet, I arrive at the same place. This must be a joke, the artist is making fun of people, I mean how many memes exist of people taking pictures of things left in art galleries assuming it was part of an exhibition. On a different level, I understand the reasoning behind it, at least I think I do, that art is something you piss on, the urinal was not unique it was something mass-produced, but raised and elevated to something you can observe and question. This however does not mean I have the ability to enjoy it, or appreciate it as art. Referring back to my post about what and why I post in Instagram  I think it would be relevant to discuss my pictures in reference to Bourdieu´s work on taste. Before I started to take an interest in my photos, when my interest was what I called more authentic, I was only looking at the photos from one level, a kind of animal level. Does that picture bring out an instant emotion from me, happiness, sadness, humour, memories whatever it may be? Then I started to look on it as more of a practise, the idea that I needed to look at my pictures with a second level of meaning, a taste filter, and start to consider other factors. What does it mean? Why does it work? How have I constructed it, is the lighting OK? Have I adhered to the rule of thirds? Does this picture fall into a ritual holiday snap, which in my desire to separate from the herd makes me resent looking the same, even though but trying to be different I am doing the same as everyone else. Why would I be embarrassed if I were to go to Pisa in Italy to have that picture taken holding up the tower? I would never post it either because it is in poor taste. I guess what I am trying to say is, that taste can change over time, and you as an agent actively change your tastes, as your cultural capital changes with your experience.

 

Bourdieu said that a lot of the time pleasure in a particular cultural practise doesn´t exist, in fact we are either justifying why we like something that is frowned upon (I have this experience with the TV soap opera I like – why is there so much hate, so I almost have to like it more, to justify the pleasure it gives me) or aspiring to like something, basically pretending we like something because our peers do and you feel you should too. Damien Hirst donated a statue to my town of Ilfracombe called Verity. I think she is beautiful despite being controversial; she is a half skinned pregnant woman with a sword after all.

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Why do I like it? I think it looks like something from Greek mythology, like the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria welcoming returning sailors to the safety of the harbour. I have an active imagination and I like Greek mythology – so perhaps if you didn´t have these things you would think it is an eyesore. I think a better example would be clothing in this context, why do we wear what we wear? For the longest time growing up I wanted big branded clothing to be a walking billboard for all the best brands. Why did I want that, was it because I liked them the best, or was it to buy into a particular brand or life style? Perhaps a bit of both, but if it is the latter surely I would not admit to it because it would not be operating on a conscious level, I guess that is the art of advertising, and branding specifically. Another example would be food. Not just what you eat, although that is also very telling, but how you eat it. Do you not think it is funny that there exist jokes about fish fingers and bad moms, or the general consensus that microwave meals are bad for you if you buy them from Iceland (the supermarket – not the country) However if you buy them from Waitrose or Sainsbury´s they are not as bad, it´s not necessarily just the practise of microwaving a meal, but it is the social use of it. When I watch Masterchef I literally look at all the foods and think to myself “No way, I´d still be well hungry after that, she only tried a small bit” but that is because I don´t have the experience or the cultural capital to understand that the show is representing food as an art almost, the elegance of its presentation is more important than taste. When I see pictures of meals my friends on Facebook upload, I think, “Gross it looks like someone has vomited” and yet that is what I would make at home as well. It is almost like I think it is OK in front of me, if I have the other sensory inputs but bad taste when put on my news feed. Why?

 

This leads me to question some of the assumptions I have, some of the tastes that feel natural to me, but perhaps are not natural, in fact maybe everything I like or dislike is just an attempt to identify or separate myself from certain social groups. It just generates questions though, like who decides? Why is Big Brother frowned upon, but the aforementioned Antiques Roadshow is high culture?  I think it is interesting especially within my example of my CV, that the hobbies I put may well be telling someone who is reading into it a lot more than what I meant them too, and if we attach even without meaning to class distinctions to certain activities over others then perhaps I am letting my class show on my CV, and people are not liking what they have seen.

Of course, I could always be over thinking it…

References
Distinction – Critique of the Judgement of Taste  – Pierre Bourdieu 
The Partially Examined Life Podcast – Episode 137 & 138

Regrets, Choices & Time Travel

How are regrets both, past and future, shaping my life?

Moving further along in this journey sometimes some of the things I am finding out, or discovering about myself is actually make me feel a little disassociated with myself. Somethings appear as so big, so unattainable so incomprehensible that it makes me feel a little like I have left my body, like the thoughts are not happening to me and nothing is real. I have had this feeling before, when I smoked marijuana in Toulouse, France. For about three weeks after I felt like my hands were not my own, it was a crazy experience and I have avoided the drug ever since – except for a slight slip when I met my boyfriend´s best friend and we smoked outside a train station in the Netherlands, luckily I did not become disassociated with myself, but I did vomit everywhere in the bar we later went to. Great first impression.

I have been looking at decision making and regret. Netouriously I am terrible at making decisions. I literally struggle to decide what to have for breakfast some days, and most times I ultimately decide to not eat anything. I wanted to look a little closer at the decision making process as it operates in my head to see if I could explore it and try to find out what it is that makes deciding something such a struggle to do. I have read somewhere that problems with decision making is something that can happen when somebody develops & experiences depression, but in other times in my life I don´t remember being very assertive, it is a trait I share with most of my family I think – at least when it comes to decision making. Now my friends know this about me, the performance of me ordering food in a restaurant is actually a joke some of my friends make of me because for some reason I actully clam up, looking at the waiter is too difficult I mumble what I want and then anxiously worry about how I will act when the food is brought out. Am I neurotic? Yes, but it is interesting that when ordering food in Spanish, a language I am not native in I do not have these problems, it is almost like out of the blue this other language seizes my brain and non chalantly orders. There have been studies to show that decision making when you think through the paradigm of another language actually helps you to rationalise the decision – yes even if it is something as simple as ordering a meal.

This got me thinking about the process of choosing. Now whether the choice is something to eat; (I stumble at this first block so you can imagine my demeanour in relation to the rest) to buy, to experience, to read, or a decision which has more value & consequence such as should I buy the house, should I marry this person, should I take this risk, the element of choice is what destroys me. There is an author by the name of Barry Schwartz who came up with a theory called the paradox of choice. He says that in our modern society, the western capitalist model , it is embedded in us that choice is healthy, and the ultimate expression of freedom. Without choice, we would be living in a different system, one which would take away so many of our “natural” rights expressed in our society as the neo-liberalist right to consume, for what is the opposite to abundance of choice – facism and a control or complete lack of choice. Schwartz highlights that in our day to day life we are constantly having to choose between things, and even if other factors can determine some of the parameters for you, economical factors over whether you can buy a certain model of phone for example, you still have a huge number of options as to where you can buy the phone you can afford, especially as internet shopping becomes more abundant. The recent re-release of the Nokia 3310 even offers you a choice of choosing something by limiting the extras to choose from. Schwartz explains that this is a shifting of responsibility when it comes to choice, autonmy it is called which means ultimately the person who is making the decisions is you, we can see this more and more in the UK with governments promising parents the power to choose their children´s school or where they can receive their medical care. Every morning when we get dressed, we are deciding who we want to be for the day what do I want to wear, how do I want to look and be perceived by others? Then we leave the house and go to work, and that in itself is a choice, you can always change your job, no matter how disruptive the process may be, it is always the choice that you could do it. Is this availibility of choice a good thing?

Schwartz insists that ultimatley it is not, and from my own experience I would agree with him. No choice is also very bad, so there must be some kind of Goldilocks area to answer to this problem. Schwartz says that the abundance of choice actually creates paralyses and not liberation, that instead of making decisions we actually postpone them, even if the delay can be detrimental in terms of loss. Once we finally get over this, and make a choice, are we happier with the outcome? Schwartz would say no and gives the reason as an idea called oppurtunity costs, which I guess is just a fancy name for what I called FOMO (fear of missing out) in my last post. It is easy to imagine what it would have been like if we had selected another option, and over emphasize their attractive features. This has been called buyers remorse, where you regret a purchase you have made. He gives the example of selling honey and says that a store selling 60 different types of honey generates a lot of excitement over a store that only sells 6 different types, but people who visited the store when the had six types were more likely to revisit than those who saw 60. In this example it would be clear that the store with 60 different choices is more beneficial as there is more chance we find something we like, but we don´t feel better about it once we make the purchase, in fact we feel worse.

Schwartz ends his talk by highlightening his key to happiness. He says that “the key to happiness is low expectations” which at first seems counter-cultural. We are always told to seek the best, don´t settle, get the most out of everything, but given that the decision has been passed over to us, the responsibility for any disappointment is your own. There is no one else you can blame because of all the choices you had, you made one you are not happy with, you are the failure.

So with this knowledge firmly under my belt why else do I struggle so to make decisions? Another reason is consequences. I am at a stage in my life now where I find myself more and more looking back and wishing I had done something differently. Looking into the future, I am searching for decisions that avoid me looking back on them and thinking “ah, what if I would have done that instead” because that power of reflection is so great that it affects my behaviour now. Given that the possibilities substantial, the consequences far reaching, I find myself in positions of paralyses like Schwartz outlined, but instead of being unable to decide because of abundance of choice, I am inhibited by regret over future actions, that I have no way of knowing how they will plan out.

As featured in Jurrasic Park, at least breifly in the movie and more substantially in the book, Choas theory is the idea that it is difficult to know how something happening now can effect other things over time. The idea was popularized in terms of the butterfly effect – basically boiling the argument down to if a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, can that very action have far reaching consequences on the weather in other parts of the world. It seems absured to think it could, but when you take a humanistic approach and explore it going back through all the actions and reactions it is not hard to see how it is possible. Take a rather outrageous exmaple – World War 2 was caused by Ceasar crossing the Rubicon.

Not possible right? The statements have no relativity and are serperated by 2000 years. Well even in this very euro-centric example, if Ceasar had not crossed the Rubican human history potentaily, would have panned out so differently you would not be here to examine the possibility that he had. Obviously this is a very huge example crossing 1000´s of years but even on a micro level,  decisions have unfathomable consequences. Anything, no matter how small can be amplfied and lead to any number of manifestations, look at the TV series Game of Thrones, what is that show really but a series of actions and consequences?

I have huge problems with regret, so it is interesting to look at it through this spectrum. I can think of countless times I have thought to myself; if only I had said this, or done this or that, taken a different course of action, said something different, replied, taken an interest in, tried harder, worked harder, or made a different decision, my life would be better now. I feel sometimes I am actually trapped by this frame of mind because it clouds my decision making process in the future because regret is an expression of shame & guilt and manifests itself as pain. Thinking of decision making, or regrets through the spectrum of the butterfly effect can on one level free me from the shackles that hold me down. In one way, even thinking “had I done this differently then…” becomes redundant because I have no way of knowing what the path I didn´t take would result in. The number of possibilities of the undecided action are so endless that thinking of Schwartz paradox of choice here it is evident it seems obvious there would be regret. That you don´t know the consequences of that which you decided not to do should be enough to help limit the regret, at least in theory. Of course, from a purely nilhlist approach the butterfly effect can be interpreted as very demoralising, why even waste time thinking about potential outcomes, when in reality none of those things may happen but something completely differently all together. In some ways because any outcome is so unpredictable, why bother deciding? I guess because inaction in itself is a decision and often has its own consequences. Taking all this into account I suppose making decision based upon intention seems a good way to proceed. Instead of basing it on past experiences, or expectation of future regret. Not that both of them cannot play a part in it, but I imagine that moving forward the need I have to free myself from experiencing this present as now, and not as a complex relationship with my past and imagined future so intensly. If making changes seem so huge, then at least knowing that even small changes I can make have the potential of turning into something as huge as crossing the Rubicon (though highly unlikely) should offer some comfort.

I once had the idea of a short story about a time traveler giving himself the idea of time travel. My plan was not very thought out and I think it is safe to assume that I will never be a author of any renown, but was basically as follows. A man enters a bar and begins a conversation with another man. The man who was sat in the bar is an acholic and feels he has failed as a scientist. The other man offers him some encouragement, and before you know it, their drunken conversation has offered the clarity the alcoholic needed to develop his failed ideas and create timetravel. I thought of the story as a tale about redemption and despair (obviously in the throws of a depression) and my intial story developed into the time traveler commiting suicide after the encounter and the alcoholic was arrested for his murder (the murder of his future self no less). Given that the fingerprints were the same after all and resulted in an interesting conversation between the arresting officer (who himself was under extreme pressure to perform better at work or lose his job) and the accused, who had by now worked out that it was himself who had died, at least his future self. Would he still be encouraged to create time travel if he knew he would use it to come back to share the secret and commit suicide? I left that unresolved because the two sides of time travel always give me headaches (Are you of a Back to the Future pursuation – we can alter the past- or more of a terminator direction, they could only create time travel because it had been invented.) Either way a huge digression so to get back on point about regrets both past and future.

All the way back in the 400s St Austine was musing upon his life and his relationship with God. He said of time that there was only the present; “the present of past things the present of future things and the present of present things”. Now this may seem obvious but to me it was an extreme way of clarity. The past & the future do not exist outside of my concept of them. Obviously they do exsist at the physical level as a measure of time in terms of planetary bodies making orbits around other celestrial objections, but I can never expirience the future, nor re-experience the past. Of course I can relive parts of my past mentally, I can create certain situations in the future too but if we take the idea of the butterfky effect that is also fruitless as I can never know the exact situation the future will materialize, and even when it does it is in my present. Take my example of my time traveling unfinished short story. When the man from the future comes back into the past, he is a from the the alcoholic man´s future, and obivoulsy in his own past. When though, are they both experiencing this time? In their retrosepctive presents. The present is everything and I suppose at some point in my life I have lost this, and got caught up living through regrets and expectations, and the question would be why? What refuge can something that at least in terms of experience can never exsist offer me? I guess a psychologist would suggest at this stage “that we are compelled to repeat unresolved negative emotions again and again until there is a solution” which is great to know, but how do you get at these problems? If regret is all about choice, then the paradox of choice would support the idea that I am in for a lot more of it in the future (at least when that arrives in my present anyway). Does Regret even have a purpose?

Some would say that on a purely evolutionary level regret has a purpose on that it can help us avoid making mistakes in the future, as summarized in the old proverb “learn from your mistakes” and on a basic behavioural level it can offer changes in behaviour to avoid negative feelings. Regrest can be broken down into four areas. The first being agency – to regret something there has to have been a decision, an action or inaction, and if you happen to be particularly imaginative like me, perhaps the oppurtunity costs of the other course of action plays itself in you mind so vividly that it makes the pain more accute. Everyone has said at sometime “If only I had left five minutes earlier” and you are regretful because at some level you made the choice to leave when you did. The next area of regret is denial, that cry of “this is not happening” or “I will go to sleep and this will all be ok” happens to everyone too. The third is the punishment, one of the worse kinds of self inflicted disgust with all those horrible feelings of shame, guilt & despair. The last part and the part that gets me the most, is the perserverativity of the first three. The constant cycle, the circle with no end, the snake eating it´s own tail. It is interesting that regrets only appearabout certain things, for example do I regret spending thousands over the years on flights, hotels, excursions? No of course not, they fundamentally have added to who I am as a person. Do I regret making a series of decisions after univeristy that have led to where I am now? Yes. What is the difference between these two examples I guess is nothing more than how I have framed them. The first example is framed as achievement and personal growth, but I cannot allow the same distinction for the other, even though the consequences result in the same? I will admit it is difficult too. I guess because the one, the desired outcome was the goal, whereas the other I looking over imagining another course of actions which may have resulted in a different present, which in my imagination is widely different than the one I currently have.

I guess years of Eastern esoteric thought and the popular modern craze of mindfulness is an expression of this. The idea of remembering that the future is nothing more than expectations and the past a collection of memories surely is something that should make me at least more aware of my present. In theory it does, but in reality it is so much more complicated than that at least for me. There is no easy way out of these kind of things, but would I regret not trying? Yes, and not even a future regret, I regret not trying sooner, to make sense of what  feel, what I experience and what my life fundamentally means to me. In contrast to Schwartz Jim Carey says that choice is down to two fundamental principles; a choice between love and fear. Seems way to simplistic at first but I guess it is true especially on the narrative you tell yourself. Carey says that sometimes being practical is just disgused fear, but if you make decisions from a persective of love, well then you break the cycle of regret because at least you know that your intentions were pure. Incidently nobody promotes not having regrets because apprently that is an indcation for being a sociopath. I may be a lot of things, but I think the amount of regrets I have at least rules that out, and for my nuerotic brain, that is a relief.

My sisters and I enjoying a little ice skating in Central Park. Obviously by my facial expression you can tell I was contemplating something.

I realise I put way too much personal information in these posts but I guess trying to be true to what I spoke about in my last post, that authenticity is becoming more and more important to me as I feel so disconnected. I hope in some way my ramblings can offer some sort of help, because sometimes this journey we are all on seems so independent of each others that it must be reassuring to know others feel the same. To know we experience as a collective, even individually is a reassuring thought.

References;

The Paradox of Choise Barry Schwartz TED talk;
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VO6XEQIsCoM
The science of regret | Marcel Zeelenberg – TED talk;
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPCV3Oe1fYw
Kathryn Schulz: Don’t regret regret
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ka8L1YMR88U
A Chaos Theory of the Mind Peter Michaelson
http://www.whywesuffer.com/a-chaos-theory-of-the-mind/
Say goodbye to regret Peter Michaelson
http://www.whywesuffer.com/say-goodbye-to-your-regrets-2/
The Wanderling – St Augustine on time.
http://the-wanderling.com/augustine_time.html

A Christmas Carol – Part 2

The Song of Modern Society, and the Path to Our Redemption.

Imagine we sit down at Christmas for a nice family game of Monopoly. Only in this game one person, selected at random starts with twice the amount of money, and the other players start with half the money. The rich player receives 400$ when they pass GO and the other players receive 100$. If you were going to place a bet on who would win the game, who would you pick; the players who start in Monopoly poverty, or the player in the position of random advantage? This exact scenario was carried out in a study by a man called Paul Piff, who found out, perhaps to little surprise, that the player who began the game glorying in Monopoly wealth would go on to win the game. When asked after the game why they had won, none of his subjects gave any credit to the windfall, but gave it all to the decisions that they made throughout the game. He found that during the experiment the wealthy player would become overtly dominant, and more condescending as well as more concerned about little amounts of money that the players in Monopoloy destitute owed them. What does this tell us about human psychology?

Thinking back to part one and our focus on the Dickensian character Ebenezer Scrooge can we drawn any parallels? We found that as Scrooge began to focus more and more on money throughout his life, his ability to empathise decreased, his connection to others withered, and the importance he gave to wealth over love set the seeds of his secluded future. Now imagine our monopoly example, take it out of its context of a board game and imagine this situation in society at large. Can we see anything different? Why are the wealthy, wealthy? And why are the poor, poor? In our monopoly example it came down to random chance. A random dealing of cards with consequences for the rest of the game. Now I ask you to think about life in general – Is there really any difference when it comes to were you are born?

Now I understand that in life there are more variables and that our monopoly example is very simplistic but psychological studies show at large that as wealth increases so does cupidity and the inability to empathise. Using this paradigm to look at my self, I have to ask myself to what extent am I privileged? It is a hard question to ask myself I think, because at the moment how my thoughts and emotions are unfolding as I come through depression I have been thinking, that like Scrooge, that life has dealt me unfair cards. That the world needs to chance, and that I am hard done by. In reality, if I use my monopoly example to frame how I started this game of life was I dealt an advantage over others perhaps? I think in some ways, for sure. I am a white male and as unfair as it is, there is already an advantage attached to that. I don´t think I am in any way better than a woman or any other ethnicity but I acknowledge that being a white male means I do not face some of the difficulties that people may face by not being a white male. I am a British citizen, and Brexit a side, there is a privilege attached with that an identity, or a stereotype that sometimes could possible work in my favour. Certainly when I went to the immigration office in Barcelona, I was told back in 2013 that I was “from good Europe” and was processed for my papers faster. Why did the random chance of the country of my birth allow me to skip a queue of people from a different country. At the time I didn´t acknowledge this for what it was, bigotry (is there really no other word for discrimination based on nationality, because there should be) but now I look back I wish I had acted differently. I was born into a loving family, and had a beautiful childhood, which is more than some people have. I am gay and even though there are people who dislike this fact vehemently, certainly in the UK this is not the disadvantage it once was in terms of playing the game of life, though I guess it is not the advantage it would be if I was born straight. In terms of wealth that is not a card I have been dealt, relatively speaking I am not poor, but neither does the wealth I have bought me happiness. So what could I possible share in common with Scrooge?

Like Scrooge we live in a society that over emphasises the focus on wealth as the primary source of success and well-being. Unlike Scrooge, we live in an era of hyper individualization the goal is to maximize our wealth in outward displays of our wealth. Someone who is relatively wealthy who does not spend their money is thought of as “not enjoying their money” and pitied, but in reality is spending that money on products any different to hoarding it all together? Ever since the publication of Adam Smith´s a wealth of Nations our post industrialist society has moved from the desire to produce to create wealth to consume to create wealth. Smith described materialism as the ultimately viable economic system for the future, and unleashed materialism upon the (western) world. I think those at the very top, the 1% of society who control and have ownership over most of the world’s wealth who have more than they will ever need, perhaps disorienting amounts of money are perhaps even more reflections of Ebenezer Scrooge than the rest who are given crumbs of their lives to aspire too. How is it fair that some were locked up in dusty old vaults are some of humanty´s greatest achievements; the original manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci, countless priceless works of art, treasures and jewelery, that were given out to certain individuals at the start of their game of life. How is that fair that some crumbs of this achievement is scattered out to museums over the world (although this is disproportionate – the British museum for example is not one of those two things) whilst others are locked up and drooled over by wealthy individuals who are using these things as a means to reassure their power and their material success.img_0369

Obviously the system we currently operate was different in the era which Dicken´s wrote A Christmas Carol as for Scrooge the ultimate goal was the hoard, not the spending of it. Like in Disney´s Ducktales we see Scrooge McDuck taking pleasure in swimming in his pile of gold over the love of his nephews, or in the opening scene from Robert Zemekis´A Christmas Carol we see Scrooge physically pained when the funeral director asks for coin to pay for his services rendered upon Jacob Marley cadaver. I would even go as far as to say for society at large, physical money is no longer the goal. Money has transcended its our state, no one would rightly have piles of money in the homes like Scrooge McDuck but instead a serious of numbers in a bank account. The material wealth has moved on from money, almost post money to jump on the attaching “post” in front of everything band wagon, and has instead morphed into a state of items, and the more expensive the item, the more worth it has. I asked myself the question recently, how many things do I own have I had for ten years or more. The answer, really is not much, which I guess at my stage of life is not unusual, given I have no furniture. Doesn´t this than just go to show the transitory state of materialism. The futility in consumerism because no matter what you are aspire to purchase, and then inevitably go on to buy will ultimately end up where? You would hope in a charity shop, although studies show that people who are wealthier, and therefore have more expensive items are unlikely to leave them to charity – if you even go to a charity shop you are unlikely to find a Hugo Boss outfit in there, why is that? Are these things not thrown out, discarded because there is a slight default or perhaps because after a few wears it has become outdated? No, of course they are, but there is no desire from wealthier people it would seem to pass this wealth down, instead discarding it and where then does it end up? Again, studies show that wealthier individuals are less likely to recycle, so they end up in some landfill somewhere, rotting away, providing warm perhaps to rats that scurry on through the rest our societies detritus. What that has consumerism brought us, but a few moments of pleasure and then a pile of rubbish for a landfill somewhere?

If we refer back to the monopoly example we can see that money changes people. I have seen this in my own life, how wronged I feel when money is an issue, how money can morph otherwise loving relationships between people. Even if there is no debtor / indebted construction, people get angry with how other people spend their money. We see this in the UK with the rage against people on benefits, how dare they have nice holidays, buy televisions or have nice cars without succumbing to the rat race of 40 hours a week?  How dare they take some pleasure from spending time with their families and friends after being given a hugely disadvantaged start, so bad in fact, that they have not been able to move on from the bad start and rely on measly placating hand outs from the well off player in order to avoid arguments. Where is the criticism of the people who started the game with hundreds? There is none, because we aspire to become them, and know we will feel just as entitled when we get there, because we already feel this when we look at those beneath us. The amount of money in a monopoly game is finite, in fact in a standard game of monopoly there is $15,140. If we are all chasing this finite resource, we are in direct competition with each other, for you to win more money, some one must have less, and we feel good about that because we define ourselves in terms of how much we have materially.

Have you ever bought something new, like a new coat or shoes or hat, and been excited to wear it on a particular occasion. On one level we operate purely aesthetically; We like to look nice, I like to wear certain clothes to certain events because it makes me look skinny, or makes my eyes look blue or just looks damn great! On another level, we wear these things in order for someone else to say “Oh Jordan, you look nice” and perhaps talk about where I got it from and launch into the theatrical epic of justifying the purchase; after all it was on offer, it is a special occasion or I did deserve to treat myself. What if you don´t get the positive comment, or the validation you were looking for? What if the response you receive is negative (“Long johns? Really? I can see your penis!! Very inappropriate”) I feel bad. The long johns, they don´t care, they are emotionless and yet I feel bad because I define myself by the things I am wearing. I could brush it off and think, ah well they are comfortable, but in some situations that is not possible and that is a horrible thought, that it is plausible to disassociate your self with what you are wearing.

I do not have any children, but I have nephews and a niece, and there is always that particularly difficult time for a parent which is sometimes refered to as “the terrible twos” ( I do so love alliteration!). This period I think is more overt and difficult if the child has a sibling because the very concept of ownership becomes an issue. “THAT´S MINE!” the child wails angrily, bitterly often snatching whatever it is they were arguing over, regardless of what they were doing, which is usually playing with something else. If the child who is on the receiving end of this frustration is younger, often they do not care, sometimes they even laugh because they cannot comprehend this desire to mark territory. If the child is older, perhaps a bigger argument ensues one in which the parent tries to moderate the situation by offering other products or trying to install a communist society in the household with the stern lambast “you were not playing with it” to which the angry child does not understand. It is theirs, whether they were using it or not. Are we really any different as adults? Perhaps there are less tears in such an example, but I can remember a situation which arose between my brother and I some years ago about a car we were sharing, and fine the argument was tempered, but sterner heads did not prevail, we were both hurt by our sense of injustice over something which we identified with as ours.

I hate it when I am teaching students English and ask them what their hobbies are how many of them identify shopping as an interest. I am sure that at some stage of my life I would have done the same, after all I do shop and I am not about to become a hermit on the fringes of society. It does however seem to me a little depressing that for every occasion the correct response is to shop. You have a new job? Excellent, best buy some new clothes. You lost your job? Oh no, best buy some new clothes for interviews. Oh no, your partner left you? Go out and buy something to make you feel better. You are feeling depressed? Have you tried going on holiday? The Twin Towers have just been destroyed in a terrorist attack. Awful, but we should not let that stop us from going shopping. In David Mitchell´s novel Cloud Atlas  (which I recommend wholeheartedly) there is a section set in the future. In this future, society has passed the need for manual labour, instead relying on a type of artificial intelligence as the means of production, they are humanoid and refered to as Synthetics. The only role really that humanity has in the process is consumption. All they need to do, and in fact are paid to do is consume. Is this really as far-fetched as it looks on paper? Russel Brand said in an interview once that “Materialism can buy you pleasure, but not happiness”. Obviously I am in a situation at the moment were I am struggling to find happiness. Perhaps I am looking at it all wrong, perhaps happiness is not a state of being but an emotion you experience, when you do something you love. I can´t imagine people who say they are happy feeling that emotion of joy constantly because surely that is delusional. What then is it that they are expressing? I guess contentedness, peace. Yet surely living in a society which existence depends upon there being no peace, at least on a materialistic level because you constantly need to be buying more and more. The religion of capitalism demands its disciples to go out and replace old products, it demands that we listening to the sermons in form of adverts about what our lives are missing and how we can not be content until we have scooped them up, preferably at a bargain price we can discuss with our friends. This religion instructs its followers to prize material wealth and the success of an economy, which is based upon exploitation at least somewhere in the world, to be the main point of our existence. What does our current system boil us down to at the lowest level. Are we people? No. We are consumers.

When I talked about my sexuality as not being the disadvantage it once was I do genuinely believe that this is because I can still consume. In fact theories about the “pink pound” (although I can´t say I have many of these) suggests that the very inclusion of the gay community into the main stream is a market that can be exploited. In my experience the gay community as it strives for some sense of identity has become more caught up in this system of wealth and identity in terms of consumerism than others. I have seen many gay people, and would include myself in this, who are openly obsessed with products and wealth showing that this disadvantage that we received at the start of the game has in no way impeded how our game has progressed. The very idea of being gay is something that has been branded and is sold to people, and for a long time this caused some conflict within me, because even though I identified as a gay male (after an annoyingly long and difficult coming out period) I did not feel that I could consume that world in terms of the products it directed me to worship. Like I discussed in my post about InstagramI wanted so much to be the pictures of the advert, the gay bronze hunk, the gay traveler, the gay professional all these identities that I didn´t have that capitalism was telling me I could have if only I invested time in the creation of money, then money in the consumption of that which I should become.

When Scrooge is asked to donate money to charity at the beginning of the book he seems generally shocked. “Are there no prisons? And the union workhouses – are they still in operation? I help to support the establishments I have named and  those who are badly off must go there.” This may seem a bit of a stretch to be quoting, but it is easy to modernise this sentence. Take our monopoly example once again. The wealthy player could rightly suggest “are they know properties which you could buy? do you not get money when you pass go? You are only handling your resources poorly” and in terms of society at large we can have the same opinions “Is there not state education? Is there not social mobility? Do we not have a benefit system?” To what extent are they differing from Scrooge´s statement. Both are implying that the poor are in that situation because of their own decisions. At least on an ideological level it could be argued that by having a consumerist system we hid the differences between the 1% at the top and the rest of society. By being able to afford the new iPhone, you are buying into a crumb of the lifestyle that the mega rich have, and then you look back down on the trodden and like Scrooge, blame them for their position, because you have been able to do it, regardless of thinking of the start of the game.

Marketing is by no means a positive force. At its very nature is the drive to exploit the most negative aspects about your psyche to make money. The reason d´tre is to highlight things in your life that you don´t have, and pursued you that your life will be better if it did. Many of these advertising agencies know more about you than you do yourself, and as time goes on in the age of big data this is becoming even worse. Imagine Facebook, having stores all the information it has about you, your photos, you status your messages, your likes sells on all that information to a psychologist. They basically within a few days can map out your personality. A good example of this would be the television series The Hunt. In this show, normal people with no specific training in survival or avoiding the authorities try to escape from people who are tracking them down. The first thing that the hunters do is to create a profile of you using your social media, and it is usually very effective. If this information is used against you with marketing, in an era where marketing can be specific to you at your desk, on your computer they can exploit the emotions you have of greed and envy, disappointment and desire. For example, is it coincidence that if I sit and look at pictures of hunky men on Instagram and like a lot of them, that within a certain amount of time, I will get adverts for weight-loss plans, work out DVDs or protein shakes? Here my insecurities of my looks, of what I am not has been bundled up into a target audience and exploits me into using my desire to look differently to go and spend money on that.

Our individual realities are very much illusionary, they are constructs of how we started the game and who we are playing with. I know from living in Spain for a few years that the reality here is much different to the UK. I know from the brief time I spent in Cambodia, that their relative experience is different too. Has my 30 years on the planet, directly or indirectly (in my childhood) consuming brought me any closer to something resembling happiness, or peace? No it hasn´t. Here I sit, feeling down about myself, the choices I have made, but what is it that says that it could be different. What am I being led to believe could be better if I only consume X, Y or Z. Haven´t I consumed all three of those things in the past? The are probably long gone, rotting somewhere, and yet here I am no happier for it. Consumerism is never-ending, there is always something wrong with you life, there is always something you can buy to improve it. My affinity with Scrooge will never change because I see emotions similar to him in my own personality sometimes. The way Scrooge managed to overcome these feelings was an existential experience something which is very unlikely to happen to me in a similar way. I do however remember an experience I had whilst I was in Thailand (obviously participating in the young aspiration of traveling as a means of consumption) but anyway, I drank a rather large shake of magic mushrooms. It was a very funny and interesting experience, but the thing I remember most distinctly was after the laughter gave way to an introspective journey (and imagining everyone as burn victims stopped) I was looking at a group of people dancing. I remember so vividly thinking, what are they doing? They look ridiculous. What is the point? (I also remember being very emotional over the realisation that I love reading)

What then is the point? What are we doing with our constant drive to consume? We are damaging the planet, our relationships with each other, embarking down a path of unacknowledged exploitation, but we are ok with that because we are doing ok. Does knowing this make me any less materialistic, will i begin to stop forging the chains in life that Jacob Marley carries so heavily? Probably not, so the whole exercise has been a huge hypocritical journey, but is there anything I can take from the example that Scrooge gives us to at least frame my reality a little differently? Money does not buy happiness, in can buy pleasure and convenience and overt indicators of success, but peace no. What can the path to Scrooge´s redemption teach me about myself?

  1. I need to look at my past. I need to look at what decisions I made and why I made them. I need to understand why I feel like I do and what has been my primary motivators for doing so 
  2. I need to look at my present. To what extend is my life about engaging with others and empathising over the drive to increase my self-interest out of selfishness and the belief that peace can be found that way.
  3. I need to look at my own mortality. I need to begin to look at my life with the perspective that actually, ultimately one day I will breathe my last breath. On that day, what will my legacy be, both before death and after death and is the current path I am on, the legacy I strive for? Scrooge pleaded for another chance, a change to change his ways. I need to plead for the same and the act upon it.

Heavy stuff for a Sunday afternoon, but I have enjoyed writing it. There was other areas I wanted to get into but I think I will adapt them for different posts.

References;

http://time.com/22257/heres-proof-buying-more-stuff-actually-makes-you-miserable
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfwB0Nl56ho
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYDKCx4hSQQ
https://www.wired.com/2014/06/5-hidden-visual-tricks-advertisers-use-to-sell-you/
https://www.jstor.org/stable/20734447?mag=charles-dickens-right
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/apr/12/happiness-capitalism
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/03/the-happiness-industry-by-william-davies-review
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-good-the-bad-the-economy/201209/psychological-roots-capitalism
https://www.marxist.com/does-capitalism-make-you-happy.htm
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJ8Kq1wucsk1  

A Christmas Carol – Part One

The Song of Scrooge´s Journey & Redemption

December. One of my favourite times of the year, not least because of Christmas, but also because it is my birthday. Following on from previous post about the past I think this is another reason why I love December so much, because it makes me remember the wonderful Christmas´s I had as a child. I have always been a really imaginative person, and I remember the whole month just feeling, for want of a better world, magical in a way that you can only feel when you are still wrapped up in the tight embrace of innocence. I wouldn´t say I long for this feeling to return, but deep down my inner child still feels it and I think it is an amazing emotion to experience as an adult – a stark reminder of how you used to view the world.

One of my favorite christmas traditions is, sadly enough, the movies. There is just something so singular about them, and I guess that is my inner child again enjoying the festive vibes. Aside from the obvious classics like The Grinch, Home Alone 1 & 2, The Santa Claus Movie and the others, I really enjoy any version of A Christmas Carol. Now, I am not one of these people who insists that the book is much better than the film and even though I do enjoy the book, I relish the films even more. My favorite version is the Muppet´s take on it with Michael Cain. It is interesting to see the differences between the book and the different renditions of the movie because I think it shows a lot about what the director finds important enough to explore and equally unimportant as to omit. The one scene I like best in the book that does not appear in most adaptations of the films is the scene in the first Stave (Dickens didn´t use chapters, but Staves like in music given that the story was a carol) when Scrooge sees all the spirits in the mists just before the Ghost of Jacob Marley appears.

The novel was written in 1843 with the intention of raising awareness to the plight of the poor in Victorian London. Ebenezer Scrooge, neither a hero nor an anti-hero is our main character, but who is he? Now we know even as the story opens that he is a very unhappy character. Financially he is extraordinarily rich, but socially he is poverty striken, his one friend (which perhaps is too strong a word – better would be perhaps business partner) died some years before. He has a nephew who he shows no emotion or love for and employees he openly disdains. Most of the film adaptations do not go into much detail over his back story, it is just a given that he is a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, with a pointed nose and shrivelled cheeks. He is described in the book as a lonely child and his father resented him so much as to send him away to boarding school. His only affection comes from his sister who dies in child-birth (the mother of Fred, his nephew) thus depriving him of his only real emotional connection until he meets Belle, a woman whom he loves, but ends up loosing due to his infatuation with money. So with this in mind, who is he when we first met him? He is an embittered old man; selfish, indifferent, unsympathetic and cruel.

In many ways he personifies Dicken´s critique of the upper echelons of British society, as the rich got wealthier their empathy for the poor decreased, and instead a bitterness ensued to their plight. After his sad and lonely childhood and the loss of his sister, Scrooge seals his destiny as this detached and materialistic man by choosing money over his fiancée. I imagine in one way that by making this choice is a reflection of his relationship with his father, who in true British stiff upper lip style diminish the importance of emotion instead focusing on the desire to make material gains, which we see in novels from this era. In some way, he could have been living up to the shadow of his father instead of following his heart, after all it was instilled in him from a young age, that rationality and logic are traits that his father admired, over love and emotion. He is thus left with only business and commerce to ease his pain. He is chronically embittered insisting that life has dealt unfair cards and externalized this self loathing onto the poor insisting that they would better off dead (to decrease the surplus population no less!), almost as if he has lost his faith in the world.

The point of the story is the Scrooge is visited by three spirits who show Scrooge the error of his ways. I think it is telling that when Marley visits him Scrooge tries to reduce the visit to the rational plain, by suggesting that Marley is an apparition due to food poisoning or undigested cheese, thus affirming the length to which he is now affiliated to the physical reality he so firmly believes in.

The first spirit when the bell tolls one, is the spirit of Christmas past and she shares with Scrooge his memories. She shows him how he became to be the man that he is and where the pain and suffering came from during different junctions in his life. (In the Muppets adaptation of the movie, the scene with Belle where she leaves him features a song that is so sad that it was cut from the DVD edition and moved to the Extra´s.)  

The second visit shows Scrooge the power of empathy. The ability to put himself in the shoes of another and feel their plight. Stripped away from his financial goods and put in the position where empathy is the only option, this allows him to see humanity for what it is.

The final spirit and I think the most important one is the spirit of the future, who despite saying nothing, clearly has the most important impact on Scrooge by showing him his own mortality. He hears of the death of a man that nobody liked, whose funeral is to be attended by nobody (one person may however go if lunch is provided) whose possessions are stolen and distributed, and whose death gives relief to one family struggling with debts. As the spirit of Christmas´s yet to come leads Scrooge to the graveyard, the mist clears and Scrooge find his own name on the gravestone and begins to repent and regret the choices he has made thus far. He sees what his money will buy him in death and witnesses first hand how limited his commitment to the material is. Remembering the chains of Marley and the eternal suffering in store for him, Scrooge begs forgives and the chance to change his ways. He then wakes up on Christmas morning reformed and grateful for the opportunity to chance his life, which he then goes on to do.

I think the most poignant point about the story is that in the end Scrooge chooses to change. That through the trauma of his spiritual experience he actually chooses a different way of living, one that is more humane and social just. Ultimately nobody forced him to accept the advice of the spirits, and somewhere within him must have been this redemptive power latent and waiting to be explored. In some ways the supernatural element could be removed from the story if Scrooge sat down to self analyse himself. He could remember the events the ghost of the past showed him. He could witness the events in the present and learnt to empathise and could contemplate his own death without the need of spirits.

I think in a lot of ways this was Dickens point. That self-reflection, the importance of empathy and the gratitude that comes from recognising your own mortality are steps everyone can take and as a critique of the injustice of Victorian London he knew that there were many Scrooge like characters. Ultimately the story is no about Christmas nor about God or the supernatural but about life, the love of life and the importance of connection and interaction with your fellow human beings. The power of reflection to help understand your situation, how your circumstances and decision in the past ultimately led to your current situation and how easy it is to follow a path without love. How the power of empathy can save you, save your very soul from the darkness of bitterness and restore your faith in the world. How contemplating your own death and imagining how you would feel on that day, or if you could see what the world will remember you as can ultimately change your present and align what is important in this current reality and life that you experience only briefly and quickly. Are there any lessons to take from this story even though it is like 150 years old? Given that society has changed so fundamentally is there anything that we can learn from the three apparitions that visited Scrooge? Given that we have establish that Scrooge was chronically embittered, trapped in a miserable existence by his own memories and a misplaced sense of what was important in the future and relating that to my previous post about regrets and anxiety; is there a way to adapt the tale of his redemption to my own life?

We will see in part 2.

References; 

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-doesnt-kill-us/201311/the-ebenezer-scrooge-effect
https://www.charlesdickensinfo.com/christmas-carol/psychological-evaluation-scrooge/
https://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-santens/the-science-behind-charle_b_8849262.html

Instagram: To Post or not to Post?

Exploring my Instagram habits and what it says about me.

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As part of exploring myself I wanted to examine the way I use the social media tool Instagram as it is something that I regularly use and feel has changed my behaviour  in the way that I live my day-to-day life. Instagram is a relativity recent phenomena but already there exists a huge amount of research into the uses, implications and meanings behind the pictures we share. Did you know, for example, that studies have shown that there is a good chance you can guess whether someone is suffering from depression by the type of photos that they like/post. That how you edit your pictures can potentially reveal personality traits about yourself; higher brightness for example tends to present  more narcissistic qualities, whereas greens, few faces & higher saturation connote an openness to new experiences. Why are the 3 top Instagram accounts (in a purely objective way – in terms of interaction & followers) Beyoncé, Ariana Grande & Kim Kardashian? What do I decide to post, who do I follow and interact with and more importantly why?

what-kind-of-spontaneous-nutcase-clicks-on-take-a-new-15045967
Certainly seems true when it comes to my posting habits. How about yours? 

If I look over my Instagram account since my very first post back in August 2012, artistically named “Instagram newbie pic” and showing an uncomfortably close picture of my face with some kind of sepia or burn filter, I am left thinking that I wouldn´t post that now. I remember the day I snapped the picture & uploaded it. I was actually sleeping on a friends sofa, I had woken up all hung over and they were still sleeping. It was really hot in the apartment because they had a window that faced to the east and it was like a furnace as the sun rose. So, sweaty and hung over, I pulled a funny face, added a sepia filter and uploaded it to Instagram. My latest picture to Instagram is another selfie of me drinking tea. I was bored one afternoon and wanted to do something with my camera so I began looking at ideas for self portraits which in and of itself is funny  because self portrait is just a constructed selfie. I decided to make one of me drinking tea, and used my vape machine (of which I am very much addicted too) to breathe out through my nose to give the impression that the tea was steaming. I then used Photoshop to smooth away some wrinkles, make my eyes a bit brighter and add a little more hair to the thinning cabbage patch that is my head. Add an a thoughtful quote and some hashtags and hit the post button. What a difference 5 years can make to the process of posting a picture.

Screenshot_2017-11-18-10-25-33
August 2012- Note the likes, the number of hashtags and the lack of location
Screenshot_2017-11-18-10-25-57
November 2017. Note the likes and excessive hashtags

My posts don´t tend to be of myself very often anymore, let´s say one in 9; a question I have asked myself is why? I suppose it is almost as a way to take credit for the other pictures I upload to show people the face of who is bringing them the pictures, that I am a real person. I tend to post pictures of landscapes, always being sure to tag the location something which I guess has lost meaning given that Instagram removed the map function. Initially out of the my first 13 pictures, 7 were of me in some way contrast this to now where out of my most recent 13 pictures only 2 are of me. I can almost see the journey through my pictures how I have changed as a person, at least in the representation I give of myself to the online world. The pictures were much very “silly photos” or to mark places that I had been too, or experiences I had had, in the sense that they were not constructed so carefully, more like sharing holiday photos. Around 2015 the photos begin to change at least in my eyes to less of a focus on me, and more of a focus on where I was, the expiriences I was having and the lifestyle I was living. It is interesting that the shift in focus occurred around the time I was going through a break up. I began to exercise regularly and ran through the streets of Barcelona, and during my boredom I started to take pictures whilst running. This became almost an obession trying to get a perfect picture. From this point on my pictures became higher saturated, less of a focus on me as a subject (although equally maintaining the desire for the perfect photo) and more about “documenting” where I have been. It was around this time that the obsession with likes began to creep in. I suppose it is telling that it was during a break up when I began to look for these likes, to need them, in a sense to validate myself after feeling rejected and down from the split. I guess it became a confidence building tool that if I could get likes for the interesting pictures and I was in fact getting  validation from other people, even strangers, that my  life had meaning it taking away some of the pain of being newly single.

It started to become a hobby, getting up early to watch the sunrise, looking online for special places to go to find great shots that I could upload. I have never examined this behaviour before but now I have I actually thought about the pictures from before I can see  this turning point was a decline in the authenticity of my photos. Not that the pictures I posted after this split and change in my use of the application are not interesting or beautiful, some of them I love and would print them on canvasses and hang in my home because even still they are things that I had seen, memories that I have recorded, but even at a purely aesthetic level – very pleasing. Not so much now I live in a city, but the pictures I took which had a heavy nautical element fill me with pride and a nice reminiscence of my love for the sea. Sometimes I only have to look at some of these pictures and my mind creates the smell of the fresh sea air, the crispness of dried sea salt on you lips and the clanging of bells and crashing of waves. I guess the innocence and truthfulness of the older pictures are something inspiring to me now. To what extend can I say that my more recent photos; heavily edited and consciously constructed are true recollections of my life and not a fabricated narrative. That is of course assuming that the older pictures weren´t also a construction, only constructed by a different desire of how I wished to be perceived on this platform..

As it currently stands I have a draft folder, an addition I cannot remember when Instagram implemented, full of images I like but won´t post. What is it that stops me from posting these nice pictures? Of course they are carefully edited, but I don´t post them because for some reason they just don´t fit with what it is I have come to think of as my Instagram account. Why is that? Why is it that now I am more focused on conforming to some rules that don´t objectively exist. When it comes to sharing my own pictures?

Even though the difference between these two pictures is so subtle, a little change in the
saturation – have I still not altered the very experience of the event at least in my memory and your perception of the event itself.

I think to answer this I need to look at who I follow. The main bulk of the people are follow fall into on of the following categories; Friends & Family, people who interact with my posts, memes, hot guys (being gay and all), photography accounts, general adventure junkies and travel pictures, with some of course not fitting into anywhere. I imagine before that the people I followed were more likely friends, family or the people who Instagram suggested. At this time, my feed would have been filled with more pictures of a similar standard to that of which I was following. Sort of published holiday snaps, random selfies and funny moments generated from boredom and  assumed your followers would like (pictures of food has never really interested me, although I am sure somewhere in my feed there would be a meal that looked nice at the time but looks revolting the moment you have finished eating.) As my pictures began to change, and I began to crave more interaction with others, I guess I begun to look for more followers who were posting similar pictures. I must have started to search the hashtags I was using to see what other people where posting & what kind of pictures they used.

There is an interesting theory of psychology which I will divulge at this stage because I think it is helpful, in at least explaining my experience. The Social Cognitive Theory is the idea that we observe others in order to learn behaviour. It was developed in the USA in the 60s by a man named Albert Bandura in a rather interesting experiment. He set up a situation where an adult violently attacked an inflatable Bobo doll, mercilessly hitting, kicking, shouting and swearing at it. Whilst this attack went on, some poor child watched the episode. The child was then led into a room where they carried out the same act to the poor abused doll. The control of the test was a child watching as an adult did something different with the doll, or nothing at all. The test showed that the children learnt that “this is what you do with the doll” in terms of “this is how you play with it” and acted out the same process that the adult had before with no encouragement. This study really stressed the importance of imitation on people with some people purporting that more than half of our behaviour is based on this theory. Of course, the act of imitating not only affects our behaviour but also the way we look at the world. Our opinions and beliefs are shaped by this theory, in a way that we can see on a physical level  when someone acting in a certain way and being rewarded for it our brains also light up as if it had also received the reward and therefore creating the association of reward (or punishment) with particular behaviours.This is the idea of vicarious reinforcement that we then try to imitate behaviours in order to receive similar rewards. The act of observing causes emotional responses in the obersever and converts into latent learning, the idea of learning without consciously doing it.

How does this relate to my tale of the journey I have made through what I post to my Instagram account? Well quite simply the pictures I now post are imitations of the pictures that others post, for which a lot of interaction is generated. I would go so far as to suggest that I have learnt this behaviour of posting particular images and avoiding sharing others, despite what my personal feelings may be based on the fact that I have latently learnt how to present my life and myself in a way that reflects how I have perceived others to have been rewarded for sharing theirs. The models we base our behaviours on are generally more confident, powerful and symbolic and I guess in my Instagram these role models have been people who have great bodies, or live exciting lives and take amazing pictures. I have at least subconsciously learnt to attach the rewards I perceive them as having received to a behaviour that I myself should mimic. Therefore the pictures I share have not become blatant lies, they really did happen (even if my head no way contains as many strands of hair as I would like to admit) but there is an extra emphasis on flattering images, exaggerating them to show a more fulfilling or exciting life, that dare I say others will envy. By conforming to these rules I at least subconsciously expect to be rewarded in a similar way to those role models and in the platform of Instagram – that reward is likes and comments.

Why does a comment of “excellent shot” (although because I have made my profile on a bilingual stance another comment could be – “foto más chula”) mean so much to me? Why does a stream of notifications from people I don´t know make me feel so succesful and give a prideful sense of meaning? Even knowing now as I write this that what I am sharing is not an authentic depiction of myself, why does the process of having people engage with my pictures of such a high value to me, at least emotionally. I think to examine this I want to look at how it makes me feel looking at other people’s pictures. Given the categories I have outlined above of the people I follow my normal reaction to pictures is two-fold. I think a quick look, seeing something that a friend is doing, or a beautiful sunset captured over the atlantic with crashing waves, makes me feel good. It is a pleasing picture and aesthetically I am gratified by the image. I can read them, have my own memories stirred or even a sense of motivation or inspiration to do something similar. I think if the time is extended, then negative emotions begin to seep in. I begin to make comparison between my life and the life of the person I am perceiving. Why don´t I have a full head of hair? Why aren´t I relaxing on a beach somewhere? Why do I not have a really sexy body (in a Greek hedonists sense of the word – think the statue of David)? Why can I take such beautiful pictures. Why aren´t I as creative? Why didn´t I think of that? I get a sense of Fear of Missing out (FOMO) as I compare my life to the life I perceive others as having and ultimately I despair. There is a saying that jealousy hurts but comparison kills and I think in this age where it is all too easy to compare yourself to others you almost always comes up short. Even though I know that the pictures I am looking at are only half-truths, that because we have the time and access to edit them each picture can be carefully constructed to represent ourselves, our lives and our values as how we would like to be seen, I do not accept this when looking at my own life, I still feel deflated. Just because something looks amazing on a highly edited filtered imaged caputured through the latest iPhone lens(es), doesn´t mean that in reality it was that stunning and even though I know that on one level, I don´t feel that on another. It is like I optimize my own pictures to be as fantastic as I can make them, but accept others as the truth. If it is true that a picture can speak a thousand words, then I am reading exactly what it is that the poster  wanted to show, even if it is only a half truth lacking any authenticity. The idea of “Pics or it didn´t happen” is a growing one in our culture and it isinteresting because the picture does not necessarily show the truth of the event, only how the person producing the picture would like the event to be shown, and of course, why wouldn´t we want to show the best side? How much do the Instagram accounts of Beyoncé, Ariana Grande & Kim Kardashian accurately depict their lives? To what extend can anyones lives be that perfect? Why do we have to show only the perfections and dismiss the imperfections even though it is a psychological fact that we are more endeared to people who are imperfect?

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Is posting about your life and pictures of yourself inherently self absorbed? A focus on exaggerating your life, achievements, looks and relationships and eliminating imperfections  is in a way a literal description of the tale of Narcissus. The Greek man who was so amazed by his own reflection in the lake that one day he leaned in, absorbed as he was with his own beautiful eyes, fell in and drowned. Does the reflection have to specifically refer to our physical reflection in the mirror, or can it refer to our reflection upon our own lives and experiences – in this case as of that being seen when we revisit our old pictures? To what extend are we all Narssisus´ looking in on our past pictures and remembering it more fondly, more saturated, with more sepia, more contrast, and with more depth of field than it physically occured.Does this mean then that Instagram is inherently narcissistic, if everything we post is done out of a love for ourselves, or a jingoism of our reflections of our lives? What is experience anyway but a narrative we have created about ourselves, and now that we have a way to remember it more glamorous than the reality, why not?

Scientific Research Paper did a study that concluded that there was only a weak link to suggest that Instagram encouraged people to be more narcissistic, but instead represented an expression of pre-existing levels. They identified that there was two different narratives being carried out here being that of the grandiose narcissist and the vulnerable narcissist.The grandiose narcissist guilty of using the platform to exert their superiority over others, whether that be fame or the perceived reflection of success. They tended to avoid using hashtags, and had little concern to the feedback of others. The vulnerable narcissist however used the platform to seek acclaim, and were more sensitive to feedback, or lack of it in a way that demonstrates generally low levels of self-esteem and the desire for validation from perceived peers. I think it is obvious given my comments on feedback where I fit into this loop. I think that society in general is hypocritical when it comes to our values regarding narcissism. From an early age it is considered bad manners to self promote, and yet we are constantly given messages that we should be proud of who we are and feel good about ourselves. I guess an argument could be made that this individualization of culture, brought about by capitalism is an attempt to commodify our very beings, but individually & privately. Unless of course you are one of the people who help to radiate the idea that pride and self esteem can be bought if only you have this item, this experience or this gadget, like for example Beyoncé, Ariana Grande or Kim Kardashian, none of which are berated at length for being “full of themselves” at least not in a meta cultural sense. We tend to fall victim to the Survivalist bias, the idea that we celebrate the people who survive or who are succesful over all those who failed and that the only reason we are not in the same position as these cultural demigods is the fact that we are inadequate but we could be if we only purchase, experience, or embody the values of that which we would like to become.

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The very fact that images that have been edited are 45% more likely to receive a comment and 21% more likely to be liked shows that even on this platform reality has taken a hit. It is no longer truth that we crave but an expression of an event, a story, or a painting even that captures this moment in a way that is hyper-real – it is more colourful more meaningful than the actual event. Where then, does this leave me and my Instagram account (which by the way you can follow on @jordsully – Shameless promotion I know)? I am not sure. Undoubtedly the craving for interaction, for better pictures, for unique events, great shots to create the illusion that my life is something to be desired to fulfill my venerable narsicistic tendencies is one that I will not overcome any time soon. I think by at least reflecting on this I hope that I can dampen some of the negativity I feel when I compare my life to others on the platform especially now it has become an area that includes advertising. Now it is not just other people who I have to compare myself with but carefully constructed cultural beliefs that are exploited to make me feel bad about my life but offering the solution of consumption and commodification of experience as a way to make me feel great again. If only I go to Norway on holiday, I can be like the intrepid explorer  from the “Holiday in Norway” account. If only I buy those new Rayban glasses, I can look as sexy as these young hipsters with perfect skin and long flowing locks. If only I buy that Aussiebum jock strap I can look as bronze and as rugged as the hunk advertising them. If only I go to Wagamama´s I can have a great social event of laughter and extreme enjoyment. It is almost as if we ourselves are merely brand ambassadors for the brand that is you, and if other people comment or like your picture you have become succesful in the sense that your marketing strategy is working. Do I want to be my own brand ambassador? Is this life I am living really all about the perception I wish to create, not just for others but also for myself when I look back? Is sharing photos and editing them an illusionary tactic of self prommotion or glorification? Can it still be a harmless hobby?

Some interesting thoughts at least.

References;

My very own Instagram account
https://www.instagram.com/jordsully
Crash Course Psychology 12 ; The Bobo Doll Expiriement. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=128Ts5r9NRE
The Drum – The True Cost of Instagram Fans
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kc4XkBj-mpc
An Exploratory Study of the Relationships between Narcissism, Self-Esteem and Instagram Use
https://file.scirp.org/pdf/SN_2016042814584244.pdf
Simply Measured Q3 2014 Instagram Study
http://get.simplymeasured.com/rs/simplymeasured2/images/InstagramStudy2014Q3.pdf
Why We Filter Our Photos and How It Impacts Engagement
http://comp.social.gatech.edu/papers/icwsm15.why.bakhshi.pdf
Instagram; What Makes You Post?
https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.es/&httpsredir=1&article=1041&context=pjcr
Instagram photos reveal predictive markers of depression
https://arxiv.org/vc/arxiv/papers/1608/1608.03282v1.pdf