You Clueless, Fraudsters!

Survival of the Group and Impostors.

Cast your mind back to the first time you watched the 1995 classic Clueless. If you haven’t seen it, well you have just outed yourself as a virgin, who can’t drive. We will wait for you to watch this staple of popular culture and re-join us once you can make at least two comical references to it. At the end of the film (no spoiler alert here, it was 24 years ago, that’s practically historical fact) Cher realises that she is in love with Phoebe’s boyfriend / Ant Man. I always thought this scene was a bit strange; the idea that Cher didn’t know how strongly she felt about someone, that she could be so Clueless – Ah! Makes sense now. How did it take her that long to realise what a hunk he was? Then I kind of realised that this state of clueless (ness?) is something that I experience a lot more than I ever really acknowledge. I have emotions, or feelings literally all the time, but I am not exactly an expert and explaining what they are. Am I tired? Am I hungry? Am I annoyed? Am I lonely? Am I horny? It’s strange that I can ask these questions of the same symptoms, and still not really diagnose what I am feeling correctly.

 

My most recent intellectual crush has seen me gushing over the works of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. There is just something about the way he talks; annoying as it is, his wit and his intellect, it makes me envious that I don’t have a shred of his insight or capacity. I have to be content with orbiting his ideas and understanding them as best I can, like the scene in the Life of Brian where the lady mishears Jesus in the audience “Blessed all the Greek!”. Anyway, he said “We feel free because we lack the language to express our unfreedom”. Perhaps then I just don’t have the capacity to explain my emotions effectively to myself. Know thyself the inscription at Delphi reminds us; To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom, Socrates said; Alan Watts suggests that the reason you don’t know what you want is because you don’t know yourself! Trouble is, it is quite hard to do. I did however, stumble upon a slither of an insight into my own mental life the other day, a small idea, that as soon as I had read it, I ran with completely and identified almost every aspect of my core with it. I had found the language to express my unfreedom. I know this was something I would do ever since I first asked Jeeves if I was gay circa 1998, his reply was an overwhelming yes – I guess I couldn’t even fool a late 90s algorithm – that I would continuously google things with which I could identify. I don’t suppose it is that bad, like more awareness is a good thing, right? To me at least, it is easier to relate to someone who has diabetes, if you spent a week convinced that you had it too, based on facts from Web Doctor and a hyper vigilance of your urinating patterns. Fine, it’s not the same thing as actually having it, but you’ve done your research and isn’t that the corner stone of empathy? It’s like that scene in Wayne’s World, only made more vibrant by the dawn of the internet, when Wayne says “I once thought I have ME for an entire year. Turns out, I was just really bored.” Anyway, let’s get this back on track, the word that I recently found I could identify with, in true Spiderman Venom style was;

Impostor Syndrome, impostorism, fraud syndrome or impostor experience, literally anyone of these phrases will do. It is the name given to a psychological phenomenon which apparently affects up to 70% of the population at some point in their life time. It is important to point out that impostorism is a phenomenological occurrence and not something that you can catch or develop like other mental health problems. I guess it stands to reason that people who suffer from mental health issues may experience this more intensely than others because the emotions attached to this syndrome are similar to those of anxiety, depression low self esteem and so on. Initially, it was thought to be confined to women in the work place who had achieved a measure of success within their employment. The term was first coined 1978 in a publication titled The Imposter in High Achieving Women; Dynamics & Therapeutic Interventionwritten by Dr Pauline R Clance & Dr Suzanne A Imes. They point out that this reactionary phenomenon that manifests itself in an individual, that even though external evidence exists to the contrary suggesting success is tied to competence and not deceit, it is hard to accept this as reality. The study sparked a plethora of interest into the idea, and it has been explored countless times since then. The belief that it was something limited to women and minorities, specifically not straight white men, has been contested lately, especially when the latter mentioned are asked anonymously. It would seem that straight white men experience these feelings but struggle to talk about them, and even though I am only two of those three things, I struggle to talk about it too.

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This is why it is beneficially to come across these ideas, to help you articulate what you feel, to express and deal with emotions differently. While we can never see the world through the eyes of someone else, through the lens of any perspective that is not our own, we can come close to it through discussing and listening to different accounts of experience. Henry David Thoreau said “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?” and until such time that technology allows us to perform some kind of psychological Kafkaesque metamorphosis, a subjective Face Off (Nicolas Cage & John Travolta style), the best we can do is communicate our experience and listen to others yarns. There is something very powerful in the idea of orientating yourself through the paradigm of conversation, something I am only recently discovering. I suppose much of my life was a competition with changing challengers, shifting rules, fluid and unattainable finish lines, and distorted measures of success. Slavoj Zizek uses the analogy of a Slovenian farmer who is visited by some kind of god or genie, who says he can great him any wish on the proviso that it is granted twofold to the farmer’s neighbour. What would you wish for here, bearing in mind that it will happen to your neighbour twofold? The farmer decides to wish to lose an eye, fully aware that his neighbour will lose both. Obviously, any thought experiment with genies and gods will be extreme, but I wonder how much of our lives are taken up with thoughts like this. The futility of wishing ourselves into worse situations knowing that it will hurt someone else. The idea that life is a game, a competition, that in order for you to win, someone else must lose. I think this came up in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, that in our system the rich want more, even if that means that others have less, that to be is to have, and if you don’t have, then you aren’t. In global political economy theory, there is a concept called the Zero-Sum Model. It is bases international interaction as a chess game of geopolitical importance, setting the nations of the world against each other as they compete for resources and wealth. Given that resources are finite, for one to win, another must lose. The idea that life is a game and that we must win, that anyone can win, if only you are cutthroat and cunning, display traits that if life was a Christmas pantomime; you would be booed when you entered the stage. This idea is so embedded within us, the idea of survival of the fittest, the individualistic drive to have more, a Victorian mentality of exploitation and extraction, that it is barely disputed any more. However, just for the sake of the tangent, let’s try.

 

The idea of survival of the fittest relies upon the presupposition that particular traits will develop and allow for individuals to take advantage of them, surviving against the odds of their competitors, with resources limited, any biological edge you have to make it easier to survive, in turn will lead to procreation with your choice of mate, and the passing on of this amazing genetic mutation to your offspring and so on ad infinitum. All very well and good, however, with this model of human evolution how do we account for altruism? Some humans inhibited remarkable traits that would appear counter intuitive to survival of the fittest. How can e explain away people who make decisions to lose their lives to protect others? The thousands and thousands of childless men who have marched off to war over the centuries, potentially making the ultimate sacrifice, a decision that can not be attributed to genes. Are we not social beings? Doesn’t our survival depend directly upon the survival of the group? Isn’t the harshest punishment our penal system offers solitary confinement? We need the group, and wee need it to be healthy and thriving. There is a scene in The Grinch where he is coming around to the fact that his heart has grown three sizes. “Oh no!” he says “The presents, they’ll be destroyed… and I care!”. The fact that he cares is so universal, we all care about others in some way. We are all moved by stories, or movies, or the plight of friends. We care about people who are so disconnected from us. In terms of evolutionary biology, the survival of the fittest, how can we account for Kim Kardashian? If we were all so individualistic and out for ourselves, how does her popularity hold? If there was a zombie apocalypse, I am not sure what Kim’s chances would be. I am not postulating that I would last to the cure was found, or at least to set up a very unique utopia where all men must wear incredibly short shorts and preside over it for the greater good, but I am assuming I would last a little longer than an international celebrity who has a big retinue of people, and thus more exposure to the virus. I mean, how fast can she run? Does she have any survival skills? Obviously it would depend greatly on the type of zombies, The Walking Deadones, there might be hope for my homoerotic utopia, 28 Days Later zombies, well I don’t expect to make it very far. Yet, end of the world aside, we do care about Kim for some reason. We have elevated her in our cultural importance, because she must mean something, she must say something to or about the group that she represents. She holds a place in our group identity, an identity that fundamentally transcends our own. This idea is very contested amongst evolutionary biologists, but to me at least it seems common sense and hopeful that life is not a vicious Monopoly game, that what is of benefit to the group is of benefit to us all. I appreciate that this sails very closely to utilitarianism which I would be keen to avoid, but the sentiment is there. Accepting our role on this earth, fleeting as it is, as a part of a team, a group, allows for so much more diversity and compassion than a (queue the Abba music) Winner Takes It All mentality.

James O’Keefe did an amazing TedTalk on the role his gay son played in the family. Obviously this is something very dear to my heart, and so I usually relish these kind of talks, and I can honestly say as a gay man, I had never seen the interpretation he offers up as a means of explaining homosexuality from an evolutionary stand point. Using ants and a hive mentality, which I am sure under scrutiny wouldn’t hold up, he explains that mother nature has plans to make everything turn for us. I have showed this to other gay men before and some of them found it offensive but to me it was so hopeful, and normal that it really spoke to me. The example can be extended beyond James O’Keefe and his gay son, and into the roles people traditionally defined as Introverts & Extroverts can play in a society. In the nature article, they offered a brilliant analogy of these two types of people being the brains and the muscle almost, the idea of a group of people sitting around the fire, the introverts more observant hear and animal approaching, and tell the extroverts who go and kill it, bring it back for the introverts to cook up. Whilst the sexist undertones could be exemplified here, I do think that its is kind of true, think about a friendship group you have, what roles do you all play? I normally take up the role of either the loud extrovert or the sad crying one, especially after a beer, but I suppose that position in the group needs to be filled, right?

 

So, tangent complete, back to Impostor Syndrome. It is very common and I am pretty certain that everyone has felt it at some point or another. It’s that feeling of being in a situation but knowing that you ought not be there. You’ve lied, or cheated, deceived your way to this position. There has been a misunderstanding, you will be apprehended at any moment, you fraud. It is literally a matter of time until you are discovered, you fiend. You didn’t work hard enough to be here, look at all the people around you, they are talented, capable and confident, not to mention beautiful. You don’t belong here, your accomplishments are all luck and circumstance. All your achievements can be explained away; after all they don’t really mean anything at all.

That is imposture syndrome, and I accepted that may have been what Johan Hari refers to as Pain Porn, a phrase I love (it’s not like S&M but the idea that when talking about anxiety and depression people will go into great deal describing the sensations that we all already know. The gratuitous presentation of suffering Hari refers to as Pain Porn) but at least you have an insight to what the it means, even if you only feel a fraction of those examples. There is the possibility that it is not as common as I think (or hope) and I did find it quite difficult to find an example of this in a movie or a book, but struggled. The only example I could come up with was Harry Potter, the cultural go too for much of my psychological maladies (What Would Harry Potter Do? – A question I often ask myself in the face of Horcruxes and social anxiety.)

 

In the first Harry Potter book (and film, don’t worry film only people, there will be no discriminating about whatever floats your boat to Hogwarts) one of his first interactions with the wizarding world was exactly the emotions I have described above, the denial of himself and his abilities. “I… can’t be a… wizard. I mean, I’m… just… Harry. Just Harry.” Already he is deceiving himself into thinking that there has been a misunderstanding. Sorry Hagrid, you have been misinformed, no wizards here. (Just another side track, I was more than ready at 11 to accept that I am a wizard. I am still waiting for this reality to come to fruition) He slowly begins to accept his new reality, his new story of who he is, but then spends the train journey worrying that he will make a fool out of himself, that he will be the worst (witch… lol!) wizard that ever existed. Much of the first book (and movie) is peppered with this stuff, it even runs throughout the whole series. We as the reader are thinking, Harry, calm the fuck down, you’re amazing (for a drama queen). There is one more specific example I wanted to explore, and that is the sorting. Obviously, only a true muggle could forget “Not Slytherin…eh? Very well, better be GRYFFINDOR!”, but in the second book (and movie, don’t worry) this seed of doubt has fully germinated in Harry’s personality.  He should have been in Slytherin, he can talk to snakes for crying out loud, all the signs are there, he is a fraud. The fact that he managed to save the philosophers stone from he-who-must-not-be-named less than a year before the events of Chamber of Secrets, those events mean nothing to Harry now as they don’t fit the story of his impostorism. All the achievements of the first year slowly disapparate. We as the readers know that he is a true Gryffindor, but that is the crucible of Impostor Syndrome, it is very hard to accepted external evidence that indicates otherwise, even if someone you know, trust and love offers it up, you end up feeling guilty for deceiving them into believing your lies too.

I know that unlike Harry, we can’t all have our feelings of being an impostor eliminated by pulling out a sign of our rightful place in Gryffindor from an old hat, thus confirming our identities and abilities. So without such sorely needed symbolic gestures, what can we do to tackle it in our lives, and even in the lives of those we care about? Although I have to admit I do experience these feelings, they are usually limited to certain situations, so being mindful of what circumstances led to impostorism can help us identify when it is an appropriate response. I feel it most strongly, in new situations, when I receive praise, sometimes in response to criticism, sometimes in relationships if I begin to doubt my own worth, or when I am nervous or apprehensive about a particular event on the horizon.  Sometimes I can feel the complete opposite, entrenched in a sense of pride, an oblivious entitlement and a feeling of invincibility. While certainly a better sensation to feel, I often wonder whether along with feelings of imposture syndrome comes a desire to work harder. For example, when you start a new job, and you are feeling a bit like a fraud, so you work that little bit harder versus when you have worked there for a while; your coffee breaks take up most of your day; you’ve mastered the ability to be as unproductively productive as possible and end most conversations about your behaviour with “What are you going to do, fire me?” Perhaps, then, a little bit of impostorism is a good thing. Like with Harry, his performance wasn’t necessarily inhibited but his psychological experience was impaired, subjectively he suffered more than he needed too. For me, I know that when I am plagued with feelings of being a fraud I am less, well, me. More worried, more cautious, more reserved and more self-critical, I develop a hyper-vigliance over everything I saw and do which makes it very difficult to be in the moment. I asked the wonderful Dean, an Adlerian by nature, even if he doesn’t agree, if he had ever experienced this sensation and he said while he knew what I meant, he refuses to let it happen (Adlerian, right?). He just asserts the inverse of the feeling, fake it until you make it I suppose. I wonder how effective that mentality is, the mantra of I am a strong independent woman man in as a garlic garland to ward off the vampiresque feelings of impostorism. I guess it would be the equivalent of bumping into someone at a party who is wearing the same T-Shirt as you, to save yourself the feelings of being uncomfortable, the only way to deal with it is to go on over, say something along the lines of “double-trouble” and then go on to introduce yourself as the British contingent, Parent Trap style – “We are more than sisters, we are like twins!”

Amy Cuddy, a psychologist from Harvard university, suggests that the best way to deal with these feelings is to be more aware and communicative about them. It is only in realising that others probably feel the same or have felt the same in the past or at some point in the future, that you can almost exorcise that demon, spinning head and vomiting. Cuddy points out that the delusion that if you just achieve the next hurdle these feelings will leave you has been proven false over and over again. She interviewed Nail Gaiman, the author who wrote American Gods, Stardust and Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, who admitted that even though he was successful he put most of that down to success and worried that when he published the next book, the gig would be up. Emma Watson who Played Hermione Granger in Harry Potter said she has felt the same in the past, undeserving of the attention and praise. In recognising the feelings of impostorism, we have been given the vocabulary to be able to articulate change, awareness is the first step to change. Cuddy suggests that by framing our internal experience within the context of the environment we should be able to change thoughts from “I don’t deserve this” to “This is a new environment or experience that is making me feel like I don’t deserve this” ergo, it is the environment you find yourself in and not your capacity that is leading to these feelings. The realisation that your feelings and reality are not always N*Sync (Bye Bye Bye) but can be doubted or distorted in true AliceThrough the Looking Glass style. One of the rules in Jordan B Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is treat yourself like someone you want to help and I think when dealing with emotions such as these that is an important one to remember. What would you say to yourself if you were a friend asking you fro advice? You would say, just the same as what we said to Harry above – calm the fuck down, you’re amazing (for a drama queen)!

If this is the first time you have heard of impostor syndrome then I am both sorry and happy that I have introduced you to another thing we can all say we got, in a kind Pokémon card collection – “gotta catch them all!” style. I suppose the take away message is that it should help to know that these feelings you experience are not unique to you, even though it may feel like that. You at least share them in common with me and while I would hesitantly add myself to a spectrum which includes normality, I don’t think I’m too far away from at least the standard deviation. If you are a dab hand at impostorism, how do you deal with it? If you have never experienced it, you probably should have by now….

References.
Henry David Thoreau – Walden
Slavoj Zizek – In Defence of Lost Causes
James O’Keefe – Homosexuality; It’s about survival not sex – YouTube
Nature.com – Survival of the Fittest Group – https://www.nature.com/articules/nature13755
FS Blog – Survival of the Fittest; Group Vs Individuals https://fs.blog/2017/02.survival-of-the-fittests/
Dr Pauline R. Clance & Dr Suzanne A. Imes – The Impostor Syndrome in High Achieving Women. Dynamics & Therapeutic Intervention – http://mpowir.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Download-IP-in-High-Achieving-Women.pdf
Paulo Freire – Pedagogy of the Oppressd
J. K . Rowling – Harry Potter Series
Johan Hari – Lost Connections
Jordan B Peterson – 12 Rules for Life
Amy Cuddy – https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/01/28/amy-cuddy-presence/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What if? Abstract Words, Dangerous Mindset.

But, If I won the lottery, then everything would be better, right?

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I won’t even care about the catastrophic injuries about doing this. I could afford it.

On Friday morning last week, for the first time in a long time I purchased a lottery ticket. Drawn in by the advert for triple mega super once in a lifetime, awe dropping amounts etc rollover, for some reason I supposed that my chances of winning may improve fractionally if I actually exchanged some hard earned pounds for a ticket. The maths is interesting – a quick google search reveals that I had roughly a one in 14 million chance of winning if I bought the ticket, as opposed to zero if I didn’t. With these odds, it’s not surprising that I didn’t win, but that didn’t stop me from imagining what it would be like when I won and specifically how much better everything would be. Thus began a weekend of fantasy, how brilliant I was going to look diving into my money pit, Scrooge McDuck style.

When I lazily checked my ticket the following Monday, with the hope that my indifference would lead to some divine intervention from the universe to reward my forgetfulness and feigned lack of greed, I saw that, perhaps inevitably, I hadn’t won the lottery. “Oh well, next time!” I concluded. In a good show of sportsman ship, having been cheated from the big win I felt I deserved, I angrily tore my now worthless ticket up (and placed it in the recycling bin – come on, I’m not a complete monster!) and continued with my day as an (self-proclaimed) international pottery expert. Emotionally though, I began a subconscious journey of returning all of the items I had bought in my imagination. I had to mentally cancel my trip to Costa Rica where I planned to help turtles; advise the yacht builders that this was not the summer I would be learning to sail in my bespoke crafted boat; let the architect know that my modest sized mansion by the sea would not begin construction this year, and accept that my role as the Count of Monte Cristo, dishing out divine gifts in my role of providence to my loved ones would have to be pulled back in scale drastically. On the whole, I felt pretty shit.

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Now, I appreciate that you may be reading this and thinking “alright you diva, calm down” and I accept that perhaps I may be a tiny bit more dramatic than Adrian Mole, but I was experiencing a feeling that I was finding hard, with only language to help me, to express. Was it, maybe, disappointment? I think not, after all I didn’t expect to actually win, and what is disappointment if not the division between expectations and reality? I had hoped I would win but I never expected to, otherwise I would have bought the boat I had mentally designed.

It was the “Oh well, next time” that helped me to explain to myself the sensation I was feeling. I had accepted I hadn’t won – hence the “oh well” – but acceptance is a neutral term and I was closer to disappointment / outright outrage! The word I think I was looking for was resigned and conceivably this hits the mark a little more accurately, but the question remains, what was I resigning myself too. I continued on in my role as (self-proclaimed) international pottery extraordinaire, but it suddenly dawned on me in a fashion that caused me to blurt out in an (luckily) empty room “Oh, Jordan!” in a tone you would adopt when you try to console a crying child, with sympathy. I was feeling resigned to this life,  my life, the one I am living now.

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I think it is important to point out here that actually, on the whole, I consider myself to be in a very good place and tentatively would attach the word happy to my life. The last few years, although peppered with happiness, have been full of a self-competition, a desire to escape and to mash together parts of what I thought would make me happy into what can only be described as a faux pas to match that of the botched fresco restoration – Ecco Homme. At this moment in time, I have an outlook on life, which matches Dobby the house elf, a blind positivity despite his returning to a similar role to that of his previous enslavement. I have dedicated time to reading and really challenged myself with the choices I have been opting for. I have embarked on a journey to get into the best shape I have ever been in physically, focusing more on habits than results, but with the latter showing (when I tense) none the less. I have an amazing and inspired man orbiting my world, a Luna hunk, and an appreciation for my loved ones that I never felt so severely. I’ve got some plans and goals, which I am excited about the path I will under take and not just the potential rewards at the end goal. I fully accept that there are areas that I am not happy with, but I can see with a clarity that they need work, and how I can resolve that. I don’t feel paralysed by indifference, or plagued by uncertainty, bogged down in a haze of loneliness and disillusionment. All that being said, I still felt, at the loss of my big win on the lottery, that I was resigned to this life, a life, that to be fair, is full of love; potential, and meaning. How confusing, then, to feel this, if to all intents and purposes – I am content.

To explain this then, I thought about how I had responded to the obvious news that I hadn’t won the lottery. Immediately after the “oh well”, perhaps with the same disappointed breath, I uttered “next time!”, and on reflecting on this I had found my answer. The gamblers trap, the illusive mating call of inverted anticipation. It could be misconstrued as hope, a positive emotion, but Hic Autem Dracones. What I was saying by “next time” was more or less a new ‘What if?’ one that mirrored the initial one that inspired the absurd notion that for some reason my chances of winning this time where more hopeful, after all someone’s got to win. Next time I will be that one in (roughly) 14 million, who goes on to travel to Costa Rica where I will  help turtles; I will contact the yacht builders and advise them that this is the summer I would be learning to sail in my bespoke crafted boat; I will let the architect know that my modest sized mansion by the sea would begin construction this year, and accept that my role as the Count of Monte Cristo, dishing out divine gifts in my role of providence to my loved ones would, if anything, have to be expanded to include harsh but just vengeance to those who wronged me.Image result for here be dragons

What are these What if’s trying to tell me. Perhaps that I have an overactive imagination? Or that how I am viewing happiness is fundamentally flawed in some way. If I can attach solutions to pretty much all of my problems and concerns on the mathematical probability of being one in 14 million twice a week, then maths really does make the universe turn, or perhaps I need to consider what it is that my mind is doing here. Ken Robinson in his book Finding Your Element spends a chapter discussing happiness and the idea that you can count this ethereal condition like you can count cold hard cash (I assume £1 equals one happiness. The more you have the more you have. (I imagine that’s why some people get plastic surgery to make it look like they are always smiling – money = smiles, lots of money, lots of smiling)). He suggests that this idea is based on a false polarisation, that if you have zero money, of course you are going to struggle and be relatively unhappy because your basic needs aren’t being met. If we take Abraham Maslow’s Hiearchy of Needs as the base here, then food; shelter, water, air, sex (LOL!! – no wonder I was so miserable!)  and sleep are things that Maslow would suggest you couldn’t be happy without. Robinson, however, stresses the point that the opposite isn’t necessarily true. That while no money will make you unhappy, more money, potentially, won’t make you happier. If we look at the position of the world’s largest economy (excluding the European Union because that is a group of countries, and I have to respect that fact that I am, at least, mostly British and would hate to deter any Brexitiers from reading what I have to say) then the USA is the wealthiest, and not by a small amount. According to statisticstimes.com the outlook for the USA in the coming years, based on IMF predictions is that it will hold 24.4% of all GDP, worldwide by 2022. Such an incredible amount of money and if we stick to our idea that 1£ (although lets convert to dollars, because why the hell not? Reminds me of Ducktales for some reason) our idea that $1 = one happiness, then the USA should in theory have 24.4% of all the worlds happiness. Yet, according to the World Happiness Report, publish in 2018 (something I have referred to before as a more effective way of measuring success between countries you can read that here) the USA is only the 18th happiest in the world. A stunning 13% of Americans take anti-depressants on a daily basis, I accept that some of that $1 = 1 happiness might not be being spread out to that 13% of the population, but even still, the idea does come under some stress. Finland, has the highest levels of happiness, and yet has the 45th largest economy in the world, followed by Norway (38th largest) and Denmark (36th). For my British friends the UK is the 19th happiest, yet the 7th largest.

To me it seems somewhat counterproductive, for me to mourn the loss of the lottery I never won, not to mention the waste of precious mental energy and time (if time = money, then I not only wasted the £2 for the ticket but also the cost in time spent researching best time to visit Costa Rica for optimal turtle helping!) I had some time off over the winter months, and I have to admit, while I had more time to dedicate to other enjoyable things, hobbies and exercise, reading and writing, I found myself more frustrated than anything else. When I reflected on this I kind of realised that most of the people I know who are retired share that frustration. I think about my granddad complaining that there is nothing good on television, and obviously directed him to Emmerdale, but to my astonishment, he was not interested. It seemed strange that actually, a lot of people I know plan for the retirement, and yet the ones who are already retired would trade it all for a younger body and even some of the most numbing jobs out there (Shout out to all the veterans of Pall Europe out there, it’s a scar we share!) I guess what it boils down to is a confusion between pleasure and happiness. That one automatically results in the other, and while that may be the case it is not sustainable.

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The reason why it is not sustainable is because of an idea called The Hedonic Treadmill and although this sounds like a move I would attempt to do (and obviously fail, perhaps comically so) at the gym, it is related more to a staple fact of adaption of the human species. Human beings have an amazing ability to adapt to our environments and situations. You may think that this is a positive, and to a large extent, it has been in our evolution, but it is also a restriction, especially when you consider happiness. To illustrate what I mean, I’m going to explain with the epic tale of how I went online and bought a new laptop. I sent that one back because I didn’t feel I deserved it the first time around, but a few weeks later, I bought it again, perhaps even the same one I returned, but none the less it came. Oh, the possibilities I attached mentally to this shiny new laptop, I could write more on it, edit photos more, generally organise my life more effectively. The laptop arrived and for a few glorious days, I considered myself to be a beacon of how laptops should be used; it went everywhere with me and I did all those things I wanted to do. Then the glory days came to an end, the imperial dominion of this laptop waned and it went on to become like any other thing I have been excited about in my life, and stopped offering the possibilities it had once offered. The laptop hadn’t changed at all really, perhaps a little bogged down with disappointing pornography, but still the same, it was me who changed. I had got used to the laptop and the novelty no longer rewarded me the way it did. Like the pornography. I have a similar story about a rabbit (obviously, relating to the laptop and not the porn) but it had a sadder ending – it died, the laptop, much more positive and relate-able. I adapted to the presence of the laptop (rabbit, pornography – whatever you prefer, insert here) and it no longer became the thing that bought me happiness. This is the hedonic treadmill.

In my desire to win the lottery (and all the things I’d do with the winnings – expect obviously the turtles, that is true altruism) I was embarking on an exercise in imagination. Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness discusses the various states of our minds when thinking about the past, present and the future (I have written about the past before focusing, melancholically, on regrets, you can wade through that here).

“To see is to experience the world as it is. To remember is to experience the world as it was, but to imagine – ah, to imagine is to see the world as it has never been, nor never will be.”

“Nor never will be.” Wow! Danny boi! You’ve hit the nail on the head here. Even if my numbers had come up on that uneventful, but in in this thought experiment, very eventful Monday morning, I could not see clearly how that future would unfold. Daniel Gilbert talks about our inability to foresee an accurate prediction of the future as normally it is so much more positive than what it would be like (or negative if you are depressed and cannot see the positivity, either way, it’s not going to be as much of either.) I have no idea of the details my lottery win will involve, only the positive aspects, and none of the potential pitfalls (but honestly Mr Gilbert, what could possibly be bad about turtles in Costa Rica?). So obviously I will be disappointed when what I would have liked to have happened – a perfect future, with lots of money, no stress, a yacht, turtles, divine justice and a mansion by the sea, doesn’t come to fruition this time, because really there was no thought put into anything negative. What if I get seasick? What if the moderate mansion is on a flood plain? What if I am allergic to surprisingly sinister turtles?

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Now take away my absurd and perhaps slightly exaggerated none winning of the lottery and attach this mind-set to anything in your life that you are striving for. Now as I have mentioned somewhere in this repetitive button bashing session, the dawn of some goals in my life, attainable and exciting has really fostered in me a Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope. So I am not detracting from the idea that goals are impulsive and pointless, because unlike the rest of the Star Wars series, what followed that instalment was two great movies. Goals lead to great things, but enter into them with realistic expectations. Pinning your hopes on the formula When I get/earn/meet/see/experience/taste/achieve X, I will arrive at happiness and my optimal state of being, because like a rainbow with the promise of gold, the treasure is illusion (and physically an impossibility I suppose, the gold, I am probably short enough to be genetically of leprechaun ilk.)

Alain de Botton, in his Consolations of Philosophy delves into the works of a Greek philosopher Epicurus and presents his work in a way that can ring true to modern readers. Epicurus was by no means adverse to the finer things in life, Alain de Botton even quotes him

“Send me a pot of cheese, so that I may be able to indulge myself whenever I wish.”

What a rock star and a man after my own brie stained heart! He believed that money, power and fundamentally stuff were falsely perceived the means of happiness. Epicurus believed that the real source, the spring and sustainable origin of happiness was in fact Friendship, Freedom, and Reflection (and obviously, I suppose, cheese). I guess this is weird that when planning my big win, I selfishly didn’t think about the freedom it would give me, who I would share it with, or how much self-reflection I would be doing when helping turtles, but I suppose at least that not winning has given me the chance to do the latter of Epicurus’ list of Eudaimonia.

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I would love to write more, but I need to get off and grab a ticket before the shop closes. Despite all I have said, I really feel like tonight is my night… for the turtles, of course. I leave you now with a poem I found online called ‘What if?’ by someone called Shruthiyspencil. Link in the references.

 

What if?

What If
The most scariest word in our vocabulary
Signifying endless possibilities of existence,
Making you live in your scariest dreams and
Haunting your mind with terrifying thoughts.
What if life was never born?
What if there was no sunshine?
What if the world suddenly disappears one day?
With these feelings swirling around
Our life’s greatest puzzle “What if?”
Has remained unsolved for eons.
With probabilities and possibilities attaining infinity,
Many such questions remain unanswered for eternity.
What if I could never pen these words?
Just, What if?

 

References:
Finding Your Element – Ken Robinson
The Consolations of Philosophy – Alain de Botton
The Hierarchy of Needs – Abraham Maslow
Stumbling On Happiness – Daniel Gilbert
What if? – Shruthiyspencil. https://allpoetry.com/poem/13388798-What-if–by-Shruthiyspencil
GDP projections – http://statisticstimes.com/economy/projected-world-gdp-ranking.php
World Happiness Index  – https://s3.amazonaws.com/happiness-report/2018/WHR_web.pdf
Depression in the USA – http://time.com/4900248/antidepressants-depression-more-common/

 

 

 

‘Everything is Awesome’ – The Lego Movie Review

Part 1. The Movie.

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Recently I’ve been on a bit of a movie binge, catching up with some of the latest (and older) blockbusters I missed over the past few years. My last post on laughter got me all inspired to watch something funny so I finally got round to watching the 2014 Lego Movie. I had put off watching this movie as in the past I had been less than impressed with movies based on toys. The Transformers series (apart from Shia Labeouf – phoarw!), the terrible Battleships, and I even seem to remember a Cluedo movie, all were ultimately a little disappointing. I was worried that the Lego Movie would be a 2 hour advert, and to an extent it was, I did fish out some of my old Lego sets (what can I say, mentally I am prepubescent) but there was a layer to the film that got my little thinker whirring in philosophical contemplation. Who would have thought that what is essentially a children’s movie could ask such deep questions that left me a little stunned at its ambition. Obviously – spoilers.

 

Sure you could watch the movie without seeing any of these things, and enjoy it for what it is, an action packed story of a reluctant hero as he embarks on an adventure to save the world; but there are multiple layers to this story that only developed as the film progressed. Perhaps it is because I have spent the best part of the last year reading philosophy, or watching hours of YouTube videos of philosophers and their big ideas, that I was so taken aback by this movie because I actually saw so many links between things I have learnt over the last year and themes explored in this film. The amount of puns in this film really is what makes it so enjoyable. I don’t think most of these puns could really work in any other film, from one of lines that subvert our expectations and make them applicable to the Lego world (“Rest in pieces”) to the teenage anxiety of Batman (“This is a song I wrote for Wildstyle. It’s about how I’m an orphan”.)

 

 

The film opens with a fight scene between two characters. We can assume that the one dressed in black and red is the antagonist, and this suspicion is soon confirmed by his actions. We are introduced to an old man, judging by his beard and his staff, we can assume that this character will be fitting the role of the “wise mage” an archetype that Joseph Campbell insists is integral to any hero’s journey. This character who is revealed as a Masterbuilder, claims that he can see all, moments before he is, rather comically, struck blind. He then goes on to make a prophecy, that one day good will triumph over evil. This idea of prophecy is something that came up repeatedly when I was reading a book about Irish Myths & Fairy tales.Most prophecies seem to operate like our idea of a contract but this one was very clearly stating the idea that evil will triumph for a period, but the dominion of the aforementioned is deterministic, there is an end in sight. There will be some kind of loophole, some kind of way out of the problem, a slight of hand in the interpretation, and it usually when a hero rises to challenge that the spell can be broken, or the evil defeated. This idea of prophecy is something that repeats itself again and again in popular culture; Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Game of Thrones even to an extent Dan Brown’s the Da Vinci Code and the Bible. Obviously the way that Lego present this prophecy is in a way that is so jovial and light hearted that it would be easy to over look this. By giving us this at the very beginning of the film, we already know on some level that we are going to witness some kind of happy ending, that evil will be defeated, and the prophecy fulfilled. There would be no need to add the prophecy if it was never meant to be filled (Something I wish I had known whilst I was eagerly awaiting the Harry Potter books to be released.) We know this about prophecy as a reflection of the film theory of Chekov’s gun; the idea that if there is a gun in the first act of the film, even just hanging on the wall in the background, it better be used in the third act. The same idea runs true for the prophecy, it must be fulfilled by the end of the film (or long series). How accurately it is executed remains to be seen.

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After the initial opening sequence, which I must admit I was not too impressed by, we are introduced to a labourer called Emmett (my mind went instantly to my fan boy obsession with Back to the Future – where the crazy scientist is also called Emmett. I know from my obsessive theorising about this movie that Emmett means truth in Hebrew). We see him waking up, way too jolly for me to be able to relate too, and instantly turn to his guide book of instructions as to how to live his life. I think the manual was called “How to fit in and have everybody like you and always be happy.” This made me laugh, because I am pretty sure, that I have read many self help books; websites, blog posts, YouTube videos even inspiring memes, all hawking the same thing. That’s our goal isn’t it really. Those three points pretty much sum up most of our struggles, perhaps add an additional line about making lots of money, and you have summed up society and the million pound self-help industry.

 

We are then introduced to the antagonist again. He is presented to us in a TV commercial and introduced as President Business of the Octan organisation and the world.Seeing that his position in a company comes before his position of a state shows us that the beautifully named Brickville is a society based upon the political idea of cooperate capitalism. This is the idea of a society, that instead of being run in a democratic way; a communist way, or monarchical, is managed instead through cooperate bureaucracy. The advert sees the President carry on talking about what makes a good citizen and then he lets slip in perhaps the most passive aggressive Freudian slip “don’t forget to obey the rules, or you will be put to sleep, and on Tuesday FREE TACOS” Emmett recognises this slip and is at first a little shocked, but brushes this comment off, evidently distracted by the prospect of free Mexican food. It is interesting to see that his character is so intent on fitting in, that he will literally chose to ignore what he can not cope dealing with. Later in the movie Emmett comments on how the Octan Corporation own everything (“including polling booths…oh!”)

 

This dystopia reminded me of the Sunni chapters in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, one of my all time favourite reads. The premise, briefly is that capitalist society has progressed beyond the point production through manual labour. Advances in Artificial Intelligence has result in a new working class being made of synthetics(basically robots). It is these beings that become conscious, who are subjected to the tyranny of cooperate capitalism. There is a large movement, as seen at any G8 meeting of disgruntled citizens who now view the world as predominantly dominated by the powerful lobbying groups that represent interests of particular companies, threatening to withdraw operation from these countries, or invest in them, as a bargaining chip for favourable trade deals. I always think a good example of these interests is when they build new supermarkets or shopping centres. No matter how much the locals may protest, it goes ahead anyway, and those concerns by the citizens are silenced after construction has been completed. In Cloud Atlas it is revealed that capitalism ceased to provide jobs for the traditional proletariat in favour of A.I., where as in the Lego Movie, we soon discover the motives of President Business being a drive to maintain rigid order.

 Image result for cloud atlas

I did think that the irony of Lego here was quite impressive as they are arguably one of the largest & most renown toy companies in the world. By insinuating that big cooperation is a bad thing, they run the risk of undermining their own legitimacy. I think that the obvious dig at big cooperation, softens the blow of this movie being seen as an advert, because after all they appear to be critical of it. As Emmett moves around his city, we can see more clues that indicate how severe the dystopia is, with some posters reminiscent of George Orwell’s’ book 1984 reminding people that the president is watching. We see CCTV cameras dotted around, and a perfectly functioning road system, everything seems so perfect. This movie really has all the trade marks of dystopian societies; torture, re-education centres, mass genocide, exile for rule breakers, reduced agency and superficial happiness with the status quo. One of the rules states you must drink over priced coffee (“That’s 37$ please.”… “Awesome”). This idea, that citizens must obey the state line, regardless of the expense to themselves, places the collective good above the individual one. This made me think of the Ministry of Magic under Pius Thicknesse, the puppet ruler for Lord Volde- sorry, he who must not be named. The statues inside the ministry were chance with soviet style statues and depictions like “for the greater good”. Another rule that should be followed is the idea that you must like popular music, and a song starts on the radio called “everything is awesome”. To be fair, the song is ridiculously catchy, but it is an excellent example of the world they live in. Not to question the status-quo. Not to be individual, but to sacrifice your individuality to the group identity. After a day in the construction yard Emmett hears a noise, and goes to explore. He sees someone doing something, and instantly refers to the instruction manual for what to do. When he sees that the person he should report is a beautiful woman, he instantly stops what he is doing, literally frozen in place.  He tries to take a step forward and slips down a seemingly endless and gravity defying hole. This tumble reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and represents a falling away his normal life and into a new realm. It is an idea repeated in Dante’s Inferno as he descends into hell, with appropriate colour scheme when he finally lands. He comes across something called “The resistance” and is very much tempted to touch this mysterious object, but upon placing his Lego hooked hand on there he loses consciousness. When he comes too he is being interrogated by a police officer. Here we see that Emmett’s idea of following the rules is dashed when we see that all the people he makes an effort with have little to no regard for him.

Image result for lego movie wildstyle gif

 

When the beautiful women, who is named Wildstyle, realises that Emmett is not special, that he has none of the expected abilities the prophecy spoke of she is annoyed at him. Emmett asks her for some backstory and in a clever way it is delivered “Blah Blah Blah, back story, I’m angry at you for some reason.” I loved this scene because it really plays fun at the standard addition of exposure in movies. The introduction of Good-Cop, Bad-Cop, an agent of President Business, struggling with a personality disorder. It is around this time that the movie gets interesting as we start to see clues that this film is taking place within our world somehow. We see nail polish remover being used on Good-Cop, thus removing that part of his personality. We see his parents glued into position with superglue and learn of President Business’ plan to glue all the inhabitants of the world into a fixed position. There is even a few references made to “the man upstairs” in a way that introduces an element of religion into this society, showing a belief in a higher power. There comes a point in the movie were Emmett makes the ultimate sacrifice to safe the world and here the film really climaxes into the most philosophical part of the movie. He falls through a vortex and lands, on the floor in a basement, in our world. He is picked up by a child but he is still conscious. He is aware in true Toy Story style, that he is a toy, as he looks on a young boy play. The Will Farrell rocks up, the human personification of President Business and we learn that the conflict in the story, President Business’ love for order and the determination to fix everyone in place, is reflected in the father figure in the real world. He wants to glue all the pieces down and enjoy Lego as a model. He picks up various things the boy has made, and is horrified at the lack of organisation, not noticing the imagination the boy has invested into it. Seeing this pan out could explain the movie in a “oh, it’s all in the boys imagination way” but then we see Emmett move in our world, thus blurring the line between reality and fiction. If it is all in the boys mind, then how come Emmett still had the agency to affect the real world. It is while Emmett is in the real world that he becomes aware of the limitations of free will. He is not in control of his own life, expect for when he has transcended the child’s game and acts intentionally. He rebels existentially to exert his own agency and changes the course of the game thus reconciling father and son.

 

Ultimately the movie touches on themes of happiness, and finding meaning something which I have talked about before in previous posts which is why I think it speaks to me so strongly. If you imagine your life to be that of a citizen of Brickville in the opening of the movie, it can be quite painful to realise, that actually, we do all get caught up doing what are essentially pointless activities, with no real justification for their inherent value. The fact that it is a kids movie always leaves a bittersweet taste in your mouth, because on the one hand you can yearn for that which has been lost to you, think Lara Silver tongue in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials but also enjoy it with the wisdom that age grants you. I thoroughly recommend this film to everyone, and have been doing so on a regular basis. In fact, my opinions of this film run far deeper as I explore some of the philosophical, metaphysical and pop culture references it alludes too in my next post.

 

References
The Lego Movie (2014).
George Orwell – 1984
Irish Myths & Fairy tales
Lewis Carole – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Dante – Inferno

Emotional Wrecks – Get Giggly!

What’s so medicinal about laughter?

Have you ever thought about how absurd sneezing is? You feel that unique sensation in your nose and then the momentary hesitation, the am I / aren’t I moment. Then, if this time you go through with it (there is after all an undeniable disappointment on a sneeze that got away) you have a fleeting moment of satisfaction. Have you ever noticed how similar laughter is to sneezing? A quick trawl of google yielded me plenty of results about laughter but it seems that while there is a lot of literature discussing it, there is very little consensus on why we do it. Have you ever been in a situation where you find yourself laughing with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you? Somehow, the fact that you are laughing manages to transcend your languages because it is a universally understood lingo. Laughter, like sneezing, is something that happens to us, we can’t really decide when to do it. Obviously, we can pretend to laugh, but subjectively, it is not the same experience, we don’t feel the same compared to when we actually laugh. You can’t experience real laughter on demand, and like sneezing, we always feel a little better after we do it.

Think about the last time you laughed (and I mean the really guttural kind where it hurts) where do you laugh? Where does it come from? Where does it go? Your face changes, your body shakes, we move our heads; arms, legs, our breathing changes and sometimes we can quite literally roll about laughing. It is interesting to think that at some point in the evolution of our species that someone (or something – after all animals can laugh too) laughed for the first time. Did you ever actually learn to laugh? I know from spending an incredibly amount of time with my little nephew as he has grown from a baby to a toddler over the last year, that laughter is something that comes so naturally to him. Then there is that weird age, normally in your teenage years where you try out new laughs – what was all that about? 

I remember once at university, me and some of my friends sat around in a circle, probably playing drinking games, and someone suggested we all fake laughed at the same time. Those fake laughs turned pretty quickly into real laughs. What is it about the sound of laughter that makes you laugh? Think back to something really funny that happened, and sometimes it is enough to make you laugh anew all over again. I have already laughed numerous times, just writing about it. Apparently, although not uncommon, you are less likely to laugh by yourself a proposition that has been proven with experiments involving laughing gas (one science experiment I am devastated to have not been a part of). So the next time you watch a comedy or some stand up, know that if you are watching it alone, you are less likely to enjoy it (if we set our enjoyment as laughter) than if you were watching it with someone else, who is also laughing. Some theories of laughter (what a funny job – “Oh, I research laughter” but apparently, such a thing exists) suggest that the purpose of laughter, if we look at it in times of evolutionary biology is perhaps as a bonding mechanism. Most of your friends are likely to have shared some funny experiences with you, and that in turn endears them more to you. I was once at a really awful job interview in Barcelona. There was about fifty people sat in a high rise building all wearing suits for some poorly described sales job. Everyone was sat nervously when the door burst open, and this hobbit in a suit came strutting in. He went on to show us a PowerPoint of ex-employees and how successful they were after moving on from that company. When the slideshow ended he asked us a simply question; 

“Hands up if you’re here for a job?”

Obviously, I nervously raised my hand along with everyone else in the room. He surveyed the hands and nodded to himself, then with a deviant little smirk he said;

“Good, good. Now, hands up if you are here for a career?” 

Some people made affirmative noises, some were even a little aghast at the wit this man oozed. I was less than impressed because the whole situation was so absurd and the guy was so excessively serious, about what was ultimately, a cold call sales centre. I caught the eye of this other young guy in his suit, and we both smirked. I had never met this guy before, but we couldn’t actually look at each other again without laughing. Truthfully, I felt so much affinity to that stranger and we were drawn to each other for the next stage of the interview (which strangely enough involved us going into a separate room to shout at the hobbit “SHOW ME THE MONEY” – to see if we had what it took to succeed. (Un) Fortunately – on that occasion, I did not.) 

John Morreall, an American philosopher and founder of the International Society for Humour Studies, is a very entertaining speaker on YouTube and suggests that humour is a powerful force, perhaps more so than we ever give it credit for. He puts forward the idea that someone who has the ability to control the laughter of a group can perhaps yield a greater force than if they emitted fear. He said that this is because people are not only more likely to do things for them, but would do it with a smile on their faces, otherwise willingly. Being able to orchestrate the humour of a group, is thus a powerful position to hold. He also suggests that another reason we laugh is to limit the threat of a situation. Imagine you fall over, and you really embarrass yourself, if you laugh, you reduce the tension of the situation because if you don’t and other people do, you feel awful and potentially so do they because you didn’t. If you can all laugh then there is no need for feelings to be hurt. Morreall also points out that laughter is also a natural way of reducing stress too. I talked before in my post The Happiness Question about how I am prone to tears quite easily, but Morreall points out that some people who nervous laugh, or break out into fits of uncontrollable giggling do so because of a subconscious attempt to reduce stress (If you ask someone who has the giggles “Why are you laughing?” more often than not they will say “I don’t know” – they are stressed.)

Now for some classes examples of scenes from movies where the characters laughter demonstrates exactly what I have just said. In the 2004 film Ocean’s 12 there is a scene where Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Matt Damon are having drinks with Robbie Coltrane. They are trying to win the latter’s affection and laugh at all of his jokes, regardless of how unfunny they are. What follows is a very funny scene in which all the actors are pretending to fake laugh. We have all been in a situation like this, but the fact that they drag it out for so long is what makes it amusing. If you think about it too much the scene gets even more confusing because essentially, we are watching three men, pretend to pretend to laugh and for some reason it makes us laugh. In the 1986 movie The Money Pit just after the bath falls through the floor of Tom Hanks’ dream house come nightmare cesspit, he lets out the most hysterical laugh. One of the best Tom Hanks scenes in my opinion, the laughter is so manic, bordering crazy, but sometimes even when everything is going incredibly wrong, all you can do is laugh even if it is slightly insane. In the classic Mary Poppins, when she and the children along with Bert, pop round to see Uncle Albert, they all get caught up in his humour and end up floating, perhaps symbolic of the euphoric power of laughter, not to mention its contagious nature. The song I Love to Laugh is such a light hearted one, that it is hard to not listen to it, and smile as you remember those moments in your life when you howled and felt as high as Uncle Albert. Finally, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the 1988 live action blended with animation we see the weasels at the end literally laugh themselves to death. Now while the idea of laughing yourself to death seems a little excessive there could perhaps be some truth in the idea that laughter is a transcending experience. 

Milton Bearle says of laughter that it is a “…vacation, that we go away when we laugh and then come back again feeling better” He then refines the idea of going away to suggest that we don’t leave where we are, but rather our consciousness suddenly losses its connection with time. “In no time at all, we are in no time at all” he says, suggesting that when you are caught up in those brief moments of sheer laughter, that you are not really there. You are living your life; problems, cares and worries, minor stresses all a burden on your busy mental life: then suddenly you aren’t thinking about any of this. You aren’t really thinking about anything, or you can’t really explain what you are thinking about. He suggests that this kind of laughter is like a mental time out for you mind, a time where you exists purely as consciousness, previous thoughts just disappear momentarily. If you identify with your thoughts, who are you when you are laughing? If you ever watch any video interviews with the Dalai Lama, you will see that he is always on the cusp of laughter, perhaps this is a form of transcendence. Now if this idea of time seems unusual to you in relation to laughter, then just take a moment to think about the nature of jokes. A key element of what makes an effective joke is the element of timing, delivering that perfect punchline at exactly the right moment. Have you ever told the same joke on two different occasions, the first time was a hit, and the second time maybe not so much. Perhaps it was a proverbial “tough crowd, tough crowd” (If your saw the reference to the Grinch there, then perhaps you would be interested in my post regarding his personality here) or perhaps it was an element of time (and I guess without getting to metaphysical, space). A good joke could also be about the stars and planets aligning for it to be received well at that particular time. Our own sense of time is something that separates us from other animals, after all, we are the only creatures that we know of that have the ability to be aware of our own “selves” over time, a continuity of who we are. We have a clear sense of our past, our presents, potential futures, and yet when we laugh we suddenly loose this. Schopenhauer said that this was fundamentally a good thing, to be relieved of the shackles the burden of being self aware lays upon us. We are human for all that means, but when we laugh and loose ourselves in that, we perhaps are something else. Either less human, or potentially more so. Schopenhauer says that there is enormous freedom to be found in those moments that we are not attached to ourselves in this way. Being human means we are always, on some level, aware of our own mortality, and our existential problem of knowing that one day we will die. He suggests that laughter is a means of avoiding that inevitability, if only for brief moments. I guess there is a reason why in some films people laugh right before they die. Laughter, instead of causing death like in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, may turn out to be our best defence against it. 

I generally laugh quite a lot, and although sometimes it comes across as inappropriate. I try to see the funny side in situations. In an article for The New Philosopher Oliver Burkeman suggests that in our current society, people who laugh more are seen as less serious than those who are not. The article focused on the importance of play in our lives, and talks about the idea that our sense of fulfilment is tied up with achieving our goals. The idea that everything in our lives must have a purpose, must have some kind of meaning is all well and good until we stumble upon the topic of laughter. Having fun, and laughing does not really have any measurable end goal except the fact that it acts as “an antidote to drudgery of accomplishment”. He quotes Kieran Setiya’s  idea that we tend to view fulfilment as something that can be achieved in the future or was achieved in the past, but never in the present. Any sense of fulfilment from these successes are fleeting. This idea of success (and failure) being relatively short term came up in The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. He explains that people who win the lottery soon return to the same levels of happiness as pre-winning, and likewise people who become disabled return to pre-accident levels of happiness within a certain amount of time, thus proving that time is a healer, of bother negative and perhaps counter intuitively positive things. No amount of success can make you feel as attached to the moment as a good session of hard laughing can. 

How then to take this knowledge forward? After all knowing that we enjoy laughing is no surprise, there is that old proverb “laughter is the best medicine”. In his book The Rules of Life Richard Templar states as his 30th rule (rather low down in my opinion, but hey, I’m no published author) “Have a sense of humour”. He suggests that the best way to keep ourselves on track, to stay connected and grounded is through laughter, at ourselves and our situation. That even in the utmost moments of despair, a sure solution can be found through fleeting moments of humour. When I read this it reminded me of Albert Camus’ idea of the absurdity of life. What I read when I went through this rule is the realisation that the only way you can deal with life effectively is to acknowledge it as absurd and laugh about it. Make time for laughter in your life. Controversially I am a strong believer in the idea of making yourself laugh, after all there is nobody in the world who will ever understand your sense of humour as well as you do.

References:
The New Philosopher Magazine – Issue 20 July 2018
The Paradox of Choice – Barry Schwartz 
The Rules of Life – Richard Templar 
How stuff works – Why we laugh
Philosophy Now – Laughter is a Time Machine
Who Framed Roger Rabbit 1988 
Mary Poppins
The Money Pit 1986 
Ocean’s 12 2004

How to Overcome Indecision.

Can re-framing decisions empower you?

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Morality. Is anything objectively wrong?

Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Why The Grinch Stole Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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