I can’t describe how much I have struggled with this question, even when I thought I’d let it go.
I like to imagine a place many generations ago, where there were less people and they were a little more connected and aware of each other, and if I were asked that question my only response would need be “I am Chris.” And that would explain everything.
Today, identity gets blurred by expectations and media images and career plans and elevator pitches. There is an anxiety woven into our culture warning that whoever we are or whatever we’re doing at any given point isn’t enough in and of itself. We categorise and legitimise ourselves with words ending in -er: writer, doodler, whittler, philosopher. If we truly are what we do, then we might also more honestly call ourselves tellywatcher, toothbrusher, money worrier, imaginer of people naked (just throwing out random examples). But it doesn’t sound as impressive.
Young people, when they are struggling to get grips with who they are, get bombarded with questions about what they want to be. Some might even have an answer to this aspired identity question; unlucky them if it isn’t a good enough answer, if it isn’t the identity that was intended for them in the first place. Watch that dream get squished (for their own good of course). The superficial messaging that we receive in the hundreds of brand stories pointed at us every day soothes us, saying how free and individual we are. But everything points to conformity, just with bells on. Quests are not tolerated. Secretly, our culture wants everyone to be the same as everyone else – easier to manage and sell to, I suppose.
“I don’t know what I want to do” – adults say this as much as children these days. If I say it, it can be translated as “I have lost myself.” A painful loss, and you can see it in my eyes when I say it. In those moments, maybe what I most need to do is to experience that pain for a while. This is a secret story playing out up and down the shopping centre escalators that brands would never talk about.
I am Chris. I am a collection of values – possibly even my own heartfelt ones that I have spent much time tracking, observing and courting, and might strive to test and honour above all else. I am a puff of changing emotions that I can’t put my finger on, but which seem intimately linked to those values. I am nothing that ends in -er, apart from when that’s what I happen to be doing at the time.
This gives rise to endless possibility, and in the reflection of these possibilities I see the dreams of an interconnected individual, and I taste freedom.
But to answer “I am Chris”, and all that this complex concept contains, is taken as facetious and frivolous in the world of I.D. Dreams seem to invite concerns over sanity, pity for job prospects or even outright hostility. Dreams and values and emotions are not what make the modern world go round, and perhaps the reminder of this tragedy is profoundly upsetting to a human being. So the dreams get ridiculed and called names as if the playground has never been left, except clever adult words are used: naive, extreme, irresponsible, self-indulgent, idealistic.
As if the deepest expression of the essence of someone’s very core is somehow selfish and unrealistic.
Imagine a world of visionless people divorced from their souls, where the only response to that yawning emptiness is to run off and do things. What kind of a world would that be?
On many occasions I have made a long list of things to do: urgent things, important things, really important things, and admin stuff. Then I go about doing all the easy things – all the admin, the urgent emails and none of the important stuff that demands wholehearted and uncomfortable commitment.
I need to careful about how my attention is focused. Too much attention in the wrong places does not lead to good places: this is the danger of Small Victories. Small victories are comforting but dangerous distractions from deeper issues.
Most recently, I was reminded about this by the fracking debate. I was a at gathering in my village last month, attended by the local MP and ex-Energy Minister, to discuss questions around fracking. Fracking sounds like a ludicrous idea. So ludicrous that it won’t take off, surely. If it does, I’m sure I’ll turn up waving angry placards. It does need attention because ludicrous ideas have been known to take hold in the past (burning billions of tonnes of coal to make disposable novelty plastic toys for instance, or buying a house bigger than you need with a mortgage you can’t pay).
But too much attention on fighting the ludicrous idea can divert the attention away from the fact that my own unsustainable lifestyle is the real problem. So maybe we need to talk a bit less about fracking for a while. The real problem around fracking and renewables is not how we generate our energy, but that we consume vastly too much energy – for things that we generally do not need, and need to learn to do without. Water supplies and democracy are already threatened, fracking is only another example highlighting this; beating fracking won’t do anything about the fix we’re in.
Small victories tend to justify and prolong the wider status quo. They do not challenge the real problem, they are worthwhile causes that make me feel I am doing something, when I’m not really. As long as I concentrate on small victories, I can just keep on consuming, and voting for governments that encourage the nation to consume more and grow.
Buying green products, signing petitions, doing sponsored runs, attending charity galas – these are all good things to do but the mistake is to think that it is enough; that’s when small victories become a threat. They become an escape from the uncomfortable deeper truths, a dreadfully scaled-up version of spending the day reading Upworthy articles shared on Facebook rather than doing my overdue homework.
What does appear to be necessary – something along the lines of radical, government-led behaviour change – unfortunately lies a long way outside my comfort zone. In many ways my comfort zone is the problem – there is a heavy toll that has arisen and accumulated from the attempted elimination of hardship in western lifestyles, through short term convenience and happy-gadgets and other things powered by coal and shale gas and solar panels. This erosion of fortitude leaves me poorly placed to do the important things required of me.
Once I’ve done my admin and my emails I have little time and energy left for anything else – a few small victories and I’m already exhausted, or even worse I feel righteously satisfied, full up on little goals like a feast on white processed bread. The energy debate is about far more than electricity, it’s about how and where I direct my own power.
Freedom for me is not some selfish idea about being able to do whatever I want, but being able to live in accordance with my deepest values.
Since beginning to actually consider what those values might be, I have been astonished by the amount of obstacles that can sit in the way – either externally through some persuasive social logic and system organisation that holds different values, or internally, which I suppose is the prisoner mentality that arises from internalising those external values. Either way, it’s following orders that everyone might be better off not following.
Extrinsic values of popularity, financial success and status competition that underlay most of my previous efforts are inherently incarcerating. It seems like we all know this, and accept at different levels that self-interest above all else is, below the surface, displeasing and diseasing. But it’s still difficult to imagine a way to live any differently; prisoner mentality.
These values create modern day wonders such as high-carbon lifestyles, which feel very nice, feel insane to consider giving up. But these days it takes more and more drastic measures to deny that something utterly atrocious is happening. I sometimes wonder whether, in my inability in the past to see the obvious flaws in the Myth of Endless Growth, there was a similar psychological process going on to the one that might make me bury a personal trauma, act like it never happened. This would be understandable in a situation which threatens the very ground I stand on, both in the sense that it shatters a worldview that I was raised to subscribe to, and that it literally erodes away the soil under my toes that grows my food.
These values alienate me from what my heart truly desires: loving relationships, connectedness to something bigger than myself, and an attempt at service towards that bigger thing. And not killing things.
Our common pursuit of economic unhappiness creates such horrendous social and ecological conditions that we would do well to be deeply concerned. But the prisoner mentality says that there’s nothing that can be done, so we seem to proceed as normal. Our culture creates a black hole that we don’t want to fall in, and so we run away from it like frightened rabbits. And those who succeed in running away from it achieve the further widening of the hole to swallow those not fast enough.
For those who are not in the hole, opting out of this madness is a real and necessary option, if we can get past our denial and indoctrination. And an important step towards slowing the damage – to ourselves, to those who are in the hole, and to the natural support systems we take for granted. The funny thing is, my experience of ceasing to pour my energy into accumulating my way to imagined security has involved a swelling of wellbeing, and also deep appreciation and sense of responsibility for those systems that sustain us (and that I am trashing).
Stand and fight or roll over and give in? Honour my own values or meekly accept someone else’s? The first carries the fear of the unknown, a leap of faith and the discomfort of being responsible for my own actions and all their consequences, the inconvenience of radical behaviour change. The second comes with the slow, deep, grating anxiety of not being true to myself, of being in service to attractive but dark forces… and dark days ahead.
To die inside and carry on living like that sounds like a terrible way to go. On the path of unhappiness, a bit of me dies with each step, and the most I can do is tell myself it doesn’t matter. Freedom, however, is quickening… and by its very nature, it means it doesn’t have a path. So a zombie walks through life very differently to a human being.
This year I have been particularly awake to the amount of rubbish that gets spoken about men and women. Aside from the obvious biological differences, I’m unclear as to how any distinctions can be drawn on gender. Even when I am staring in the fridge and can’t see the butter until my wife points at it, I can’t put that down to male ineptitude. It just doesn’t seem to make sense. It’s too simplistic and convenient, and whenever there is convenience there is usually damage, through important corners being cut and crap filling the gaps.
Another big reason for gender lunacy must be the chronic levels of cultural stereotyping that goes on, all this crazy black-and-white thinking, which only contains truth when it becomes normalised enough to fulfill its own absurd destiny.
All that bullshit around men being from Mars and women from Venus, men being providers and women carers, men being thinkers and women feelers, that men are hard and logical and women are soft and emotional. The sort of stuff that might make me hold off from cuddling my Tough son, or mindlessly overprotect my Sensitive daughter.
I’ve been thinking about attitudes to sex. Men are desperate for it, of course. They think about it 1,000 times a day you know – perhaps one thought for each million sperm they produce, because they are designed to get around as much as they can, like rams loose in a field of helpless sheep. This, by the way, is why all men are afraid of commitment, unless they are pathetic mummy’s boys. The hard, logical, high-performance male will Deliver whenever someone supplies the merest opportunity for sex (and if they don’t then they must be pretty weird).
There’s nothing wrong with sexual energy in its healthy form, but there is a problem when it goes no deeper than an act – which is what cultural stereotyping seems to cause.
I’m not just thinking about the men who “need” one night stands, prostitution and porn. Harmful superficiality can seep into close, established relationships. For example, there is such a big difference between a partner saying something like “We can have sex if you like” as opposed to “I really want to have sex with you”. Both are perfectly acceptable, morally speaking. But one is deeply affirming, and the other is absolutely not. One feeds the man’s soul, and the other feeds only the stereotype. How often might the interplay of how he grows up seeing himself and how he is treated by the world around him lead to a man’s emotional needs being buried by his physical needs?
I have frequently heard women sharing wisdom about how men need their egos massaged. They don’t. This just serves to desensitise men further. It is just another instance of mistaking something deep for something shallow, another unwitting participation in the parody and emotional impoverishment of modern men. In the absence of our stupid adherence to absurd collective behaviours, it would be obvious to see that men are just people who want to be loved well, like any human. This is not a problem of maleness itself, it’s about the abuse of maleness.
I have managed to avoid using the word ‘masculine’, because I’m suspicious of that also. It seems that thousands of years ago people took those “hard” traits and symbolically ascribed them to “masculine”, and figuratively attributed the “soft” to “feminine”. In a linear and anxious modern world where YouTube views are mistaken for self-worth and money is mistaken for happiness, and God is still believed literally to be a man with a beard like in religious images, it’s easy to mistakenly equate the masculine symbolism literally with males, chuck all the ‘soft’ stuff out the window, encourage them to behave accordingly and then moan about all the confusion and malfunctioning.
Too often we bring gender to an issue to create difference, when it is as irrelevant as skin colour or religion. Men and women are composed the same stuff – we just started telling stupid stories and forgot that we are.
Last week my seven year old daughter woke up in the middle of the night deeply upset because she doesn’t want us to die.
We have been pretty open about the concept of death, rather than treat it as a taboo subject (it was treated almost superstitiously when I grew up). Moments like this can call into question that approach.
And so it should, because it is such a tricky one. The line between grief and fear is difficult to navigate, and carries such immense implications.
I am coming to understand the importance of grief. Another taboo subject though – something to be shy about or ashamed of. It often gets treated like a disease in this world of insane happiness-chasing. This is a tragedy, especially if grief-avoidance makes me choose to tell my daughter that everything is alright and there’s no need to cry.
It is important for her to cry. But over time it matters so much whether she is crying out of grief of fear. For me, fear leads me to freeze, avoid risks and conform. It turns my soul to stone. Grief is the opposite. It awakens me, tunes me in to beauty, through acknowledging the loss of beauty. It moves me to action, but from love rather than fear.
For me, grieving isn’t about finding things to be miserable about. That’s the screwed up perspective from the World of Insane Happiness. Grief involves dwelling in a different world. Stepping into this place opens up a lot to grieve about, things that would be sniffed at in the mental busy state. What can such a Privileged Person possibly be entitled to grieve? Well, the dreams that never came true perhaps; the paths I was too afraid to tread. The friend I never was. The times that I didn’t think I was good enough and sacrificed myself to please other people. The days I failed. But worse, the days those failures made me scared, and so I failed to understand their deep significance.
If I truly enter into these thoughts, I feel something stir.
But grief goes deeper than that, into things much greater than me. Like the slow grinding extinction of beauty in the world, of seemingly inconsequential things that compose our life support system (the World of Insane Happiness either groans or yawns at this point). These things can often seem abstract to me until I connect with them through grief – and then I become intimately part of it .
In due course I know I’m going to have to lower the veil and begin acknowledging to the kids how so many things in the world are dreadfully fucked up, endangered, lost. I have no interest in raising them into a bubble, so that they can gleefully help inflate it (if today’s bubble is actually still available to them). The usual reaction to the world’s screwed-upness seems to be fear hand in hand with denial and inaction, a diminishing of what is human. To react with grief to our time-bomb of desperate destructive growth (and to our own death for that matter) is to stop and see the beauty of the world (and of life). These are the central ingredients of a life well-lived… and then well-died. But it might involve a few inconvenient tearful nights.
Every tear tempers the grief into a powerful driving force. And out of grief can come the other major soul-toucher, love. Not the superficial form. Providing well, saying nice things, buying nice things – these are all glossy modern day expressions of love, which prevent me from actually being able to love. They are distorted refractions of the soul, through the lenses of morality and expectation, and consuming.
A child experiencing soul-love and soul-grief from a parent, seeing a person being electrified rather than paralysed by it, is the one of biggest gifts a child can receive. Striving for this is surely a major factor of what it is to be a man, to be human. And to not know it increasingly seems one of the biggest forms of abuse, albeit usually accidental.
Like so many things, I need to do the vital work on myself, give myself the time and space to do it, before I have a hope of spreading anything but fear when it comes to others suffering sleepless nights. I pray for the strength to do this.
I got together with a few village buddies and we made this song and a music video to go with it. Forest Row is so brilliant it has its own big festival each year, and the next one is on 19-21 September. Come along… or if you can’t then just watch this song and pretend you are coming.
No matter how interesting I found any job I’ve had in the past (or in most cases how exciting I have tried to make them sound to myself), there are always things I know I would rather be doing. Often this fact revealed itself to me through my living for the weekend or waiting for holidays. So why did I choose to spend the majority of my time doing that job?
And no matter how much I liked any colleagues in the past (mostly in the pub after work – during the day I found we mostly behaved like robots), there were always people whose company I enjoyed more. So why did I choose spend the majority of my time with work colleagues?
Even though I used to be so busy with work that I had little idea of what I really would have preferred to be doing (and the people I might have wanted to be with were similarly absent), these still seem like insane choices.
The main reason I used to give myself for making these weird decisions and drastic sacrifices was Money: I have to do it, because I have to earn money. This is a universal view which sounds so irritatingly and convincingly true that it seems pointless to argue against it. I must work in order to live. But what if it’s all a terrible misunderstanding?
Money is often the bully in the lunch queue. Money does need to be in the queue, but it always seems to muscle its way right to the front, in a familiar case of the urgent smothering the important. Money does need to have its turn, but why does it always have to be the first thing I have to attend to all the time? Surely its purpose is just to facilitate the things further in front, not steal the show? I would rather its turn be as short as possible, before it goes to the back again, so I have time for the vastly more important non-earning matter of living.
But the act of living often seems to induce guilt. It is an affront to busyness. Living might be things like quietly enjoying my breakfast on a Tuesday morning, taking a walk because I feel like it, being in the presence of my family a lot without really doing much, sitting on a chair in the garden listening to the birds, or hanging out the washing.
I watched a cat in a field yesterday. It was just watching butterflies. And the butterflies were just fluttering. Both had the right idea, and by joining in, so did I. None of us were being lazy, we were just doing what cats and butterflies, and (occasionally) humans do, which also includes breathing and going to the toilet.
Why the guilt of “I ought to be doing something”? It’s like the ordinary, unproductive things that living consists of are not enough, and some existential threat takes over – all that ‘What am I here for, Am I making a difference’ bollocks. That deep fear of being meaningless that drives me to try and look clever or get famous. The irony for me is that the contentment my soul yearns for lies in what the cat is doing, not the busy person marketing hair-removing cream.
A piece of wisdom that I see cropping up regularly in ancient and modern sources is that when we try to solve the problems of the world, we only add to them. The real work – which perhaps requires an entire life’s journey – is to manage to teach myself that living is enough. Vital importance lies inside something I often observe being put down as shameful selfishness.
For a human being in 2014, living will need to involve paid work sometimes; the amount depends on my spending decisions, and also on my tolerance for being bullied.