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.
I have been noticing more and more when my actions are lining up with my values and, even more, when they aren’t.
And along with this, I have found how terribly inconvenient it can be to enter into a relationship with my own values, rather than the ones that I adopted without thinking.
I have always been vaguely aware of my values, or at least one form of them. I remember having no problem, when I was earning well, choosing to buy a second hand Skoda. To me, expensive new cars seemed like a terrible mistake and a big misunderstanding around happiness. This was a sort of value decision, but mostly just a consumer preference. Similar to feeling good about myself for buying Ecover instead of Fairy Liquid.
For a long time I have marvelled at how I can continue to eat meat produced by a process of industrial scale torture. But for no particular reason, last month I found that I was finally unable to put to my lips the McDonalds burger I had just bought. And yesterday, I found for the first time I was unable to buy chicken from Tesco, no matter how soothing the messages were on their packaging.
This goes beyond consumer choices, and deeper into actual eating habits, and also something bigger than just me. But rejecting something as an option on the basis of my deeper values is of course vastly more inconvenient than finding a way to sneak around it. (I bought mackerel instead of chicken, which made for a bit of a weird curry.)
An even trickier one for me is the realisation that at the moment, the whole idea of work and employment, as it is currently practised in our system, seems to sit outside of my own values. Would my first choice be to spend the majority of my life energy serving the empty cause of scented cleaning products or death nuggets, adopting the busy behaviours, habits and priorities that mainstream work ethics demand? Can I put money by default ahead of my family and my health (plus those even wider ethical considerations that I won’t even dare mention)? I cannot.
So what the hell am I supposed to do now – reject the very system that I am a part of and dependent on?
Maybe… as long as I do not get caught up in the rejection bit. Rejection is useful if it forces me to seek other options that dwell elsewhere, in an inconvenient, uncertain place. It is not useful if rejection the end rather than the means, just a way to vent some frustrated childish rebellion.
Only by listening to the quiet voice of my real values and moving past the things that butt them out of the way can I hope to be my own free person. It won’t happen stood next to the absurd booming loudspeaker of everyday normality. Away from that noisy place are the conditions where the solutions can present themselves while I wander. Because for me it does not feel like a matter of willpower – in McDonalds and Tesco the voice that guided me came from somewhere else inside, somewhere I don’t have a tight grip. I find willpower useful for many things, but redundant when it comes to values – like trying to fall in love with someone.
Values are tough and demanding companions but, as with so many things, their ordeals bring with them the joy of living well. Convenience – the bedrock of our age – is a cold, grey cement bypass that skirts the lush mountain which is home to the real matters of living. It is a motorway that crushes everything in its path in order to provide a smooth, featureless ride to nowhere.
I am thankful that I am being inexplicably compelled to carry my own values. I want to go the long, winding way, by foot.
My wife walked in the front door the other day, or rather sprang in like a lynx, and proclaimed how happy she felt. This was quickly followed by a dose of guilt about feeling that happy. This, as I understand it, is not the first time in history that this has happened to someone.
It is true that an outbreak of happiness will inevitably be followed at some point by some unhappiness, as the two require each other to exist. It seems to me that it is important not to pollute either of them, spoiling an experience of happiness by fixating on future unhappiness, or cutting short a good dose of grief with some old-fashioned pulling-yourself-together. Instead, just experiencing them as they arise and depart.
A 3 year-old girl last week was a good example to me of this. She was happy, and wanted to be chased and picked up. So I did, picked her up, turned her upside down and ran a bit more. She giggled hysterically for 5 seconds and then started to cry. I put her down and she cried for 5 more seconds, and then set off again happily through the field.
That sort of behaviour often gets depicted as fickle or schizophrenic, even with young children – but actually it is just truth and freedom in action. Feelings come and go… I remember how I feel moments before eating the Krispy Kreme and moments after: very different – awesomeness and awfulness in quick succession. But it is not fickle or schizophrenic, it’s just the truth about feelings.
Maybe it’s that way because in those moments I am at my most animal, my most human – most embodying my feelings and emotions, when my mind is safely in its box and my body in control of proceedings, my brain limited to its proper role of helping me move and breathe. These moments of climax – of happiness but also, I have increasingly noticed, of grief – are sublime. They make life lively; they dezombify.
Intellectual experiences do not compare to creative, intuitive, emotional moments. One big difference is that creative, climactic moments simply do not, can not, last. That is the secret of their beauty.
They are transient and fleeting, while intellectual bubbles can be resided in for prolonged periods, often at the expense of emotion and real human experience. Maybe that’s why there is such a fixation on sex, as it has become one of the last places where modern intellectual man can go to experience the chaotic sublime (or, perhaps, a convincing substitute for it).
The tragic twist is that, in truth, the sublime is everywhere, especially in the ordinary. But the emotions in which the sublime resides have so often been wallpapered over by sensibleness and rationalisation.
These days, if a tree were to move a man to tears he would be considered insane and unmanly rather than alive and free. That’s probably why I have chosen to live next to an unpopulated forest.
Over several years I have slowly been arriving at the understanding of how dangerous and misunderstood the idea of talent can be.
Talent, the idea that a particular person has a particular gift; there are few more destructive, dream-killing, power-draining concepts. The application of the idea keeps me in my cage, serving other people’s agendas, eradicating my own… Along with my human-ness, for it is the natural existence of talent that makes me human.
Talent is universal, a sleeping giant present in everyone – and it is everyone’s challenge to see if they can awaken their giant.
I find that the mainstream view is that talent is something you either have or you don’t. And if you don’t, then you had better continue with your vain random search for something where you somehow do. I have heard this called the “fixed” mindset. It serves the purposes of experts who can earn a living from it, for as long as their special talent makes them essential. But it also serves my purpose when I’m afraid of exploring my own power. Maybe afraid of the repeated failure that is an inherent part of doing anything meaningful. Or maybe afraid of the confusing flood of emotions that comes from uncorking my own creativity. The absence of talent (or money or time – two other great examples) is a perfect way to disguise that feeling of powerlessness.
But if I can hold on long enough, through that dark uncontrolled fog of uncertainty and intense emotion, I might begin to realise my own potential and the breadth of possibility.
Talent is a human gift. I think we get it mixed up with skill. My experience of developing skill is a combination of hard work and, more importantly, operating from a place of curiosity and enthusiasm rather than desperation and “being better”. I don’t find it an easy mindset to maintain, as there are many influences around trying to proclaim my powerlessness.
For me, it is a long and intensely active journey, to perhaps begin to operate from a place of love, to perhaps begin to experience what I have heard lots of other people describe as “a sense of greater purpose”. I start with crappy skills, but I have had the best time of my life writing, drawing, making, and sleeping in the woods, to develop a set of crafts that I might be able to work with but are also just fine being themselves anyway.
But what was never absent, only ignored, was the essential ingredient – the universally shared, inexhaustible well of inherent human talent that invites in the infinite and the eternal, and makes me and everyone else a quirky sack of powerful magical energy waiting for the chance to be unleashed.
The World Cup might have brought a frenzy of goals (at times), but in the World generally a goal frenzy seems to be going on all the time.
Where am I trying to get to? A better question: do I need to ask myself that at all?
I understand why I do – I am trying to bring about some certainty and rational explanation to please myself strategically and intellectually. A strategy and a good rationalisation can be very reassuring.
But trying to get somewhere suggests that where I am is not good enough, and improvement is required. This sounds very worthy, but it is also relentless and very anxious. The attitude of trying to get somewhere never ends, and just tends to pick up workaholism, exhaustion, alcohol and expensive holidays along the way.
What happens in the absence of trying to create certainty by getting somewhere? The answer in my economic, moralistic, compulsive conditioning is: I become a lazy bastard. Not getting somewhere is inherently passive, and we need to be pro-active, is the message I hear broadcast in many convincing ways.
However, living in this supposedly shameful absence of goals, I have found that not to be true; the opposite in fact. Another tasty paradox for me to feast on.
When I am not creating certainty, I am inviting mystery… and that’s when the real action kicks in. Instead of things happening by me, they seem to happen through me; it still feels strange to describe it that way. I guess I mean that I end up doing things I never could have predicted, in ways I never would have considered I could. With much less alcohol and holidays involved.
That’s one of the differences that seems to come from choosing free will over iron will.
Ideas – the good ones – only seem to materialise when I’m staring out of the window, unthinkingly. Possibilities I could never imagine only present themselves when I stop striving to imagine them. Aaah… how delicious.
But sometimes things that seem like a paradox are not really a paradox at all, they are just the unfamiliar truth peeking out from behind the convincing illusion.
A very obvious clue that I missed for so long: my dreams only happen when I have relinquished control to sleep. Without permitting a meaningful release, I live in a dreamless, imprisoned state, trying hopelessly to get somewhere else. Completely unnecessarily.
I shall definitely keep trying to stop trying. Oh, hang on…
Another article of mine has sneaked into the online Diet and Exercise magazine – this one is about one of my experiments around eating. Check out riveting articles by food and movement experts, and by me, by clicking here: