Sunday, May 22, 2011

Rush Hour

The sound of the train doors colliding with the torso of the unfortunate man made a sound much louder than I had expected.     Its impact spread around the carriage like an electric current where every passenger it seemed felt its reverberation.    The man himself was in agony, it said so all over his face.    After what seemed like a  very long time the train doors reluctantly slid apart releasing the battered commuter from their crushing grip.    I half expected him to fall limp on the ground or scream out in pain but his response was far scarier.    Once free he leapt fully onto the crowded train, found a spare seat and buried his red face in a newspaper for the rest of his journey.    I looked around me and saw that people’s faces had changed, their expressions had gone from acute panic to indifferent blankness all in a matter of half seconds.    I couldn’t decide which of these two things I’d just witnessed disturbed me more.   
People, everyone it seems is in a rush.    Hurrying has become the same as walking.    I can’t remember the last time I watched somebody stroll, even baby strollers are being pushed faster than ever.    I wondered where the crushed commuter man had to be in such a hurry that he was risking life or at least the function of several limbs to jump on a train where the doors were already half closed.    Surely two minutes to wait for the next one isn’t too intolerable, or is it?     This treadmill type existence of continual and perpetual movement is getting worse and by that I mean it’s getting faster.    We are living our lives more and more in a constant state of emergency and forgetting to ask hey what’s the emergency?!     What do we fear will happen if we stop or if we, dare I even suggest this, do nothing for a while.   
Perhaps it is about timing.     Do we rush around because we never have enough time to do all the things we need to do?    We work so hard to try and fit everything in and yet are always playing catch up.    But on the other hand there is always time to do it in.    Contrary to popular belief, time actually never runs out, we are the ones that have cornered it off by setting up deadlines, appointments and infinite to-do lists.   Time is a minor player compared to what we do to it.    The trouble is, allowing time to just run freely without conditions and constrictions opens up all sorts of unexplained feelings.    Guilt being among the main ones I imagine.    If we’re not doing anything we feel bad about it.    If we’re not doing anything for long enough we feel guilty.   Activity has become the norm; widely accepted and expected all of the time.    And it starts early in life, I remember my favourite book when I was a child started with the words, “Hurry up hurry up get on the train”.   
Hurrying from one place to another, from one particular activity to something else can mean that we literally don’t have the time and space to stay in the present where already so much is going on around us if we sit back and watch it unfold.     At the speed we move we rarely allow the world to touch us to move us.    We react to it but avoid being affected by it, because we never stick around long enough for lasting impressions to take place.   We don’t notice the smiling child sitting opposite us on the train staring in the hope that we’ll smile back.    We give the widest berth possible to the homeless man who has made the station underpass his home and doesn’t even ask for money anymore.     We no longer hear birdsong or can distinguish between the different types of birds the way we were taught to at school.     We live in our own worlds within the world.     
There is a paradox in all this too, and that is that somehow we are distinguishing between the things that can affect us and the things that don't even come close.     It seems to me that there is a decision making process going on here, albeit not a completely conscious one, but one whereby some experiences are allowed to stay with us for longer while others are fleetingly brief.     How is it that sadness rarely outstays its welcome while joy offers only flying visits?     We rush because we are in a hurry, we are in a hurry because we can't stop, we can't stop because if we do the world catches up with us and we will be caught, and if we are caught we are not completely free, losing our freedom would mean that the world has a say in how we live, and if the world has a say then we are open to the unknown, to anything, and if the unknown is nice we may at last rush to stop and wait and see.     

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Be Right Back

Reunions are complicated.   Sometimes you don’t realise just how much you’ve missed someone or something being in your life until they’re there in it again.      The joy of reunion is also a reminder of the separation that had preceded it, it is an unusual experience where feelings of loss and gain rise up together at the same time.      Not surprising why so many people decide to give their school reunions a miss, perhaps the loss is greater than the gain.    There is a lot going on in the midst of a reunion.

Learning to live without something or someone is no easy task but once it has been mastered it is difficult to let go of even when the object of our affection comes back.    Our methods of self preservation are vast and for the most part quite invisible to the outward eye.     A reunion therefore highlights the very reason why we have had to preserve/protect ourselves in the first place.     There are however some unique reunions where all we feel is the happiness of being together again, and none of the other stuff.     These are the best reunions of all and show that even in separation there really was not a loss but a mindfulness that has kept the other very much around.      

It is not only human relationships that involve reunions.    There are all kinds of reunions going on around us all the time.    I am in the middle of one right now as I write this long overdue post and realise how much I’ve missed doing this and yet I didn’t feel this way while I wasn’t doing it but only now as I am doing it again.     Sometimes we need to be reminded of the things we are missing even if we don’t realise we’re missing them, especially then in fact.      

Sunday, February 27, 2011

In Sync

It has happened for me many many times.     One minute I’m thinking about someone and the next that same someone just then calls me on my phone, on some occasions even shows up in front of me on the street I happen to be walking on.     Once I was waiting at the bus stop and it was raining hard and for no reason I can think of, even now, a memory of somebody I knew suddenly popped into my mind.     I’m reminded of the film Inception, it’s really not that dissimilar.   And as I was looking out for the bus I saw someone a few feet away standing with their back to me wanting to cross the road.     I’ve always been good with faces, and that day I realised I’m not bad with backs either.     The person turned round and showed me the face that I had moments earlier pictured in my mind’s eye.     We clocked each other and though they were surprised, I was flabbergasted.     I blurted out with shock and wonder that I’d just been thinking about them and obviously they looked at me like I was a little crazy, it had after all been years since we last met.     
I’ve often thought about that day and still haven’t been able to come up with a reasonable explanation.      Perhaps that’s the thing, perhaps reason has nothing to do with it.     Who can say what these accidents/coincidences are all about, if anything?      I’m not even going to attempt to tackle that but I do think that there are times in life when a multitude of variables perfectly align with each other in such unison that for a fraction of a moment it enables an otherwise impossible encounter to take place.    It is perfectly understandable then why we become a little obsessed with trying to figure out why it happened, what the purpose of it is and of course what does it all mean.     It is difficult to accept coincidence without question, it begs the question especially when a series of unrelated incidents come together leading to a significant event, one that could not have taken place without any one of those little happenings along the way.     A chain is created that links one thing to another to another and like two trapeze artists that must synchronise their catch down to the last second timing is the bond between them.    

But timing is not everything.  There are also the possibilities that arise from the interconnectedness of things, the idea that nothing in this world is completely independent of itself, that everything is linked to everything else across all the kingdoms i.e. human, animal, mineral etc.      And viewed like this it is not so much of a coincidence at all.     

“There is one common flow, one common breathing, all things are in sympathy.   The whole organism and each one of its parts are working in conjunction for the same purpose.... the great principle extends to the extremist part, and from the extremist part it returns to the great principle, to the one nature, being and not-being”.           (1)

This is not to say however that one event is the cause of another necessarily.     When that instant memory of an old friend came into my mind it was not the memory itself that caused them to appear, like magic.     I would venture a guess that it may have been the other way round; because they were close by that particular memory came to mind.     There was a connection already in place which needed a few conditions to be met i.e. same time and place, before it could come to light in that specific moment.     Connection is not the same as cause and therefore much trickier to make sense of and you can’t actually prove it the way you can with cause and effect.   For example there’s no way I can ever really know that when I find myself thinking of someone they too are thinking of me, yet I’m sure of this connection because if we believe in the connectivity of the world then even our thoughts are never solely our own but always relational, whether the person in question is near to us or not.      I say I can't really know this but in actual fact it gets proven time and time again with every text message I receive from someone that I was just about to text myself.     That I was just thinking about you line we all commonly use is not just a nicety but echoes a shared truth that we are all the time thinking and feeling alongside each other.    

             **********phonecall interruption************

That was my friend on the phone just now.     She and I have been trying to have an overdue catch up conversation for weeks.     I'd been thinking about her while writing this post wondering if today I'll catch her and we can finally have that talk.     Further proof.            


(1)  Hippocrates, translated by John Precope in Hippocrates on Diet and Hygiene.   London, 1952.  

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Who Knows

I have to be honest and say that this week I had absolutely no idea what to write about.    Actually I still don’t know what I’m going to write about even now.     But it did make me think what it means not to know things and not to have the answers to things.     What it means to be unsure or to say those shame ridden words, ‘I don’t know’.     From the very beginning we are taught to know; what our name is, how we spell it, the names of parts of our body, what are parents names are and so on.     We get tested on these things way before we get to school.     From the start we are told, universally, that knowledge is good and lack of it is bad, worse than bad that it’s somehow shameful to be in this world and not know things.   But in reality we obviously can’t know everything and there’s plenty we don’t know and will likely never really know and to a large extent that is also universally understood.          

Knowledge seems to have a radius of acceptability; the further away something is the less likely we are expected to know about it i.e. the economic climate in Papua New Guinea, though it would be highly revered if our knowledge did stretch that far.     By the same token we are expected to know exactly what is going on closer to home, not just in the countries in which we live but within our own lives right from the time they start.      We’ve got to know what subjects to choose at school and later want to study at university.     We’ve got to know what sort of job we’re looking for and how to go about getting it.     We’ve got to know who to love and how we want our lives to be with that person.     The expectations come hard and fast from nowhere in particular and everywhere at the same time.     Basically we’ve got to have it all figured out like a bunch of know it alls.     How conflicted then we feel when we don’t have the answers or when we just don’t know what to do.    

I remember once having a conversation with someone and telling them how confused I felt about something.      I was really surprised when they responded by saying how useful it is to be confused and perfectly perfectly okay.     For some reason I didn’t get a chance to ask why being confused could be regarded as useful but that didn’t matter because since then permission to not know has been granted and what a huge hook to be let off from.       

Sometimes things don’t tie up neatly and are never really finished, they linger on in memory and dreams like building sights that go on and on.     Like the time I broke my leg and lost my memory....  

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Set Up

It’s funny how some conversations stay firmly with you, surrounding you like a mist but not the kind that clouds things up, the kind that makes you see clearer than you ever did before.     I was fortunate enough to have such a conversation recently and this post is a residue of that mist.  

Imagine you’ve arranged to meet up with an old friend whom you haven’t seen for a very long time.    You are so excited to be seeing your friend that you run through in your mind all the things you want to tell them and perhaps even in what order.    You imagine what they might say back in return and how the conversation will generally flow between you.    Before you know it the whole thing has already happened in your mind.    What a shock then when you meet your friend and discover that they are not responding the way you had imagined, that the conversation is going in an altogether different direction, in fact your friend is saying things you hadn’t thought about at all.    Your expectations, imaginings and preparations have fallen flat and the meet up that you were so looking forward to has become a big disappointment.   Sometimes the disappointment is so high that it stops us from enjoying the actual situation because we are still grieving the loss of the one we’d fantasized about.     This is just one example of many many scenarios whereby we attempt to live the future in the present and in doing so set ourselves up for all sorts of let downs.      So what is going on here?

Let’s start with the ‘F’ word.    Fantasies.      Fantasies are such a double edged sword, on the one hand they provide an escape and a respite from the real world but on the other they take us away from the reality of life and encourage a sort of magical thinking where on some level we believe that our fantasy will and should come true.   What a high price we have already attached to it because once the bubble bursts, and it inevitably will, we are left with less than we started with.    Not only has the fantasy not been realised but the reality is nothing like the fantasy either, a double kick in the teeth.  Fantasies raise expectations, that’s their job and often they raise them impossibly high so when the reality of a situation does not meet the fantasised version we are massively disappointed.    As a result we may take an angry vow not to participate in that part of reality again because as we’ve experienced, it never works out.     But our vow is slightly misaimed.     Perhaps it is the fantasy itself that we need to curtail as that is what gets us in this mess in the first place.     Why do we do this, why do we set ourselves up for such disappointment time and time again?     

What comes to mind before anything else is how irresistible it is.    We just can’t seem to help ourselves and on top of that it is also the easiest thing in the world to do.    We can conjure up a fantasy in seconds and do it anywhere anytime without having to express it to anyone else.    It is all in our own head as they say.    Stopping an action is one thing, stopping a thought is an entirely different matter.     A fantasy also serves an important function; it allows us to see the world from our perspective and ours alone.     It is a solitary pursuit no matter how many people our fantasy involves and therefore we have sole control over what happens within it.     We do not have to take into account other peoples thoughts or feelings because we’ve already done their thinking for them.     And of course our thinking of their thinking is perfectly aligned with ours, how convenient!    This is the point where the fantasy is set up at its highest peak later leading to its biggest drop because we can never really and adequately rob someone else of their own responses and swap them with our own.     We sure like being in the drivers seat don't we; managing all the controls, choosing the destination and generally being the only one on the road.     Maybe it has to do with something most powerful and most necessary in an unknown world; it gives us a sense of certainty and security.     If we can pre-empt the outcome of something then we know where we stand with it and this is very reassuring.   A fantasy is a way of controlling a reality that has not occurred yet, it is our way of making the ambivalence of not knowing what the future holds more tolerable.   But the security/certainty it gives us is not a real one and we learn this the hard way each time things don’t work out the way we’d imagined they would.     

I’m not for a minute suggesting that fantasies are bad and should be eradicated from our thinking, that would be the most impossible fantasy of all.     No, I’m wondering whether we can have our cake and eat it too.     Can we live in the real world and alongside it enjoy our fantasy worlds as well?    There is nothing wrong with fantasies, the problem lies in their lack of separation from the actuality of our lives.     When we believe that our fantasy could be or should be more than what it is then we’re heading for trouble.    If we are able to have the fantasy but then come back to our lives as they really are, a bit like holding on to the string at the end of a kite so it doesn’t get carried away, perhaps with time and practice we may be able to bypass the set up altogether.     A fantasy does not have to result in actuality, in fact it rarely ever does.      A fantasy does not have to be created as a one-way moving bridge to what we hope will take us to reality on the other side.      But I don’t think we need to burn our bridges either, perhaps we can create a sort of two way traffic of thinking; one lane for our fantasies and another lane to bring us home again.     

For LM, with thanks. 


Sunday, February 06, 2011

Starry Starry Night

When I was a child I had a fascination with the sky at night.    I would stare out at the blackness from my window and wonder who else at that moment in time was also looking and counting the stars they could see.     The more stars there were the less I wanted to sleep.    I always felt I’d be missing something, something that would happen if I closed my eyes.     I had a strong sense that things were already happening at night but that these things weren’t visible to human eyes, darkness was the perfect camouflage.    The next morning I would wake and the thoughts and feelings I had had the night before would no longer seem real as though evaporated in the light of day.      To me it always seemed that there were two worlds that went on side by side; day and night.     Many years later I read a short story called "Night and Night's Travellers” by Banana Yoshimoto and it captured my fascination with the night once more.     As with so many of Yoshimoto’s stories an atmosphere is created that floats around long after the book has been read and shelved.    This particular story was no exception, it instilled in me the impulse to leave my house in the middle of the night and go for long walks when everyone else would be sleeping.     
I imagine that if I had given in to these curious urges and came across a fellow night walker I would want to talk to them and tell them things, tell them my thoughts and feelings because the night creates an intimacy and a willingness to share.     I think we talk more when it’s dark outside, I think there are conversations that only take place when it’s dark outside.     The darkness of the night encourages an anonymity that perhaps allows us to feel safe and more trusting.     Maybe because we can’t see the world as clearly and the world cannot see us so then we are less afraid to show ourselves.     How much braver we are at night over the telephone where we say what we want and not lose face since there is no face to our words.      During the day our words are endlessly interrupted, our sentences cut short (by ourselves as well as others) and time is always working against us hurrying us along to say whatever it is we need to and move on.      But some things can not be said quickly, they need time to formulate and reveal themselves.     The night provides a peculiar backdrop to intimate conversations, it almost nurtures them and we are granted a freer rein to express ourselves with less constraints and structures to consider, so often the case in daytime living.     I would imagine that the majority of secrets are divulged at night.   

But the other side of night is also all too visceral; the dark side.    Fear of the dark is something none of us I think ever truly grow out of.     Yet the fear is not the same for children as it is for adults.     When we are kids the fear lies in the unknown-ness of what cannot be seen.     In time the unknown-ness becomes more of a friend that we willingly opt for and it is the dark which brings to light a clarity where perhaps too much can be seen.    Do we not think our darkest thoughts in the dark?      The darkness lends itself to our fears and seems to exaggerate them all the more.    It is therefore a common consolation that things always feel a little better in the morning and though there is some truth in this I think, perhaps how we feel at night may serve us better if we didn't wish it away so fast.     Perhaps that is why our dreams take centre stage and show us, vividly at times, what we're not thinking about during the day.                     

I think my blog posts in the day but I write them at night as I am doing now.    At night I write with a voice that I can’t quite find in daytime.     The darkness brings things to light.   It is quiet and still outside my window, the only sound I can hear is the wind thrashing against the trees.     I find this quite soothing and it helps to settle my thoughts.     The stars are out and I don’t feel much like sleeping, perhaps tonight I’ll give in to my urges and finally take that walk.     

"The night glittered brilliantly then.
The night seemed to be infinitely long.   And I could see something stretching way off into the distance behind Yoshihiro, whose eyes sparkled with the same mischievous light as always.    I caught sight of a vast landscape.
Something like a panorama.
I kind of wonder if that wasn't The Future, as my childish heart saw it.
Back then my brother was something that definitely wouldn't die, he was both night and something that travelled through night - something like that".       (1)


(1)  Yoshimoto, B.   2000.   Night and Night's Travellers in "Asleep".    Great Britain: Faber and Faber Limited

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Sad Films Make Us Feel Better

I imagine that already some of you are completely disagreeing with me right now.    Sad films are depressing I hear you say, they make you feel worse not better and if you’re in a bad mood to begin with you’ve had it.      I can’t deny this isn’t true, some films really do make us feel awful inside and it takes a good while to shake them off.     But I would class those as the wrong kind of sad film.    A good sad film takes us through a very different process, a good sad film is worth ten times the admission price alone.     I can now feel myself struggle to articulate what I mean by a good sad film while being well aware that one person’s idea of a good film may be another person’s drivel.     Strangely enough I experience the same sort of struggle when I’m asked to define what therapy is and what therapists actually do in therapy.     In many ways cinema and psychotherapy aren’t that different, they both entail a journey of thought and emotion.      But there are some films that do more than just that and I’d go so far as to say that a very good sad film is therapeutic. 
Therapy is not ‘one size fits all’ no matter how hard the powers that be would have us believe, and similarly we are not all affected in the same way when watching the same film.     In fact it is our different individual responses that tell us how and to what extent a film has resonated with us personally or not.      Of course there’s no denying that there are many many films that rouse near unanimous reactions from the audience where we all near enough are feeling the same thing.     These films tap into what we have in common; our human condition.    The really exceptional ones go a step even further by helping us recognise, understand and occasionally resolve a part of ourselves better through film.     Perhaps it is no coincidence that these types of films are rewarded with various accolades for their naming of things and for managing to capture, albeit on celluloid, real life in the form of fiction.     Though I must admit that I don’t think fiction really exists at all for all fiction is created by people and people are anything but fictional.    
I am what I watch.     This is perhaps what makes a film memorable long after we’ve seen it and especially what makes us cry about it.     We’re not crying because we believe the actor in the film is really dying or ill or whatever the story happens to be, it’s not because we can’t differentiate film from real life but precisely because we can.    Through film we vicariously experience our own stories and we cry for them.     A good sad film can enable us to momentarily grieve, not for the character but for the part of ourselves we recognise in them.     They don’t even have to be human!      In 1942 Walt Disney’s Bambi introduced a whole generation of children to themes of loss and death and all during World War II.    Over 65 years on and it still packs an indisputable emotional punch. 
Sad films are cathartic that is to say they facilitate an opportunity to cry.      Sometimes crying for someone else, be it a character in a film, is a way in to our own tears that may otherwise not easily surface.     Perhaps we cry for them because it is one step removed from our own situation while at the same time imagining we are one step ahead and in the shoes of the character we are watching.     It is a crying for the past and the future together.     It is empathy and it makes no difference if our tears are for ‘real’ people or not for it’s the themes that hit the nerves which unite us all as human beings.    And besides, what’s to say that all cries are about sadness (obviously excluding the happy cry).      Some cries are more to do with letting sadness go than anything else, which is what makes them cathartic.     What a relief to cry when watching a film that moves us, moves us to tears as the expression goes.      But what does it actually mean to be ‘moved’ or to find something ‘moving’?     I’ve been trying to figure out whether it’s an emotion or a state of mind or a mood but can’t get a handle on it yet I know what it feels like.     I can’t decide whether being moved is about feeling sad or the complete opposite or something altogether quite different.    It’s the films that move me which make me cry and they don’t necessarily need to be sad, in fact now I too disagree with myself on the title.     Maybe being moved means exactly what it says; that our hearts, our thoughts, our world is shifted and re-positioned.     Some films really hold the potential to do this.    Some films do do this.      

For P.H.W


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Strangers When We Meet (part 2)

The perfect stranger is affecting, so affecting it seems they can either make your day or completely ruin it.    All it takes is one single form of action for a brief moment in time and like currents of electricity we can experience sparks or a short fuse.     People we’ve never seen before, we’ve never heard speak before, who we have absolutely no idea about hold the potential to invoke our strongest emotions.    An argument with a friend is annoying, an argument with a stranger is infuriating.    How is this possible, what is it that gives a stranger such power and by power I mean ‘affect’, emotional affect.    I should first make an obvious point a little more obvious and say that we are all strangers to someone, and by talking about their affect on us I am of course also including our ‘strangeness’ to them as well.    

A stranger’s power lies in their anonymity.    The fact that we don’t know anything about them or what their likely response to things will be makes them unpredictable and uncertain, in other words a bit scary.    However, our lack of knowledge about someone is also the reason we are so moved by them when they come forward to help us at the point we need it the most.    If we fall in the street and hurt ourselves it’s not until someone rushes over and asks if we’re okay that we suddenly feel the pain of the fall.    It is as though someone else’s acknowledgement of our pain enables us to feel it more too.    This is very common among children; they cry harder when mum has noticed they’ve been hurt.    But when the acknowledging person is a stranger, things get a bit complicated.    Pain gives way to embarrassment which in turn gives way to gratitude (for the stranger’s kindness) and gratitude can invoke feelings of shame and indebtedness.    Why?    Because out of all the people we know and love in the whole world it wasn’t them but a complete unknown person whom we have no relationship with that came to us in our time of need.    They helped us not out of friendship or obligation but for nothing really, they helped because they were there and because they could.     

So powerful is this act (regardless of whether purely altruistic or not) that it immediately creates a bond between us and the stranger followed by the thought of how can we repay them for what they’ve done, how can we say thanks.     Can you imagine then what it must feel like to have a stranger save your life....?    Being the helped person is not necessarily a comfortable position to occupy particularly in this modern age of progress and self sufficiency where asking for help or looking like we need it has all sorts of disparaging connotations attached to it.     At the end of the day aren’t we meant to help ourselves, to sort out our own problems and show independence in our loves and losses?    

Independence in my opinion is overrated.    We live in a relational, interconnected and inter-dependent world whether we like it or not.    I happen to like it!

The affect that strangers evoke for the most part resides within us.     It is our response to them that highlights what they may have activated.     Of course they don’t know this; what our buttons are, being strangers and all.    But this may help to understand why an argument with a stranger is often so hard to forget, its aftermath lingering on for hours.    Take queue jumping for instance, quite possibly the quickest way to unearth a boiling pot of dormant emotions.      Road rage is another example, this time more a case of unresolved grievances displaying themselves on the streets and all over the place.     In a sense there is no such thing as a total stranger because we all have the potential to make an impression on one another even if it’s only through conflict.     But perhaps the most exciting or equally worrying thought about strangers is that we never know which one of them will enter our lives and at the same time leave the unknown and be strangers no more.        

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Strangers When We Meet (part 1)

I was sitting on a busy train, had managed to get a seat and was reading my book.    I was engrossed and didn’t much notice how more and more packed the carriage was getting.    I looked up for a second and noticed amongst all the squashed people an elderly man standing in the crowd holding the bar above his head to steady himself.     He was too far away for me to indicate any sort of seat offering gesture and he wasn’t looking in my direction at all.      I tried to get back into my book but couldn’t, I was distracted now and strangely worried about this old man who was probably going to fall over any second and it would be all my fault.     Commuting is such a big trigger for our psychologies but that’s a different issue.     Just then the train stopped at the next station and after a flurry of people had got on and off I looked around and there he was, the elderly man who had seemed miles away was now sitting in his own seat right in front of me.    How did he do that?    There were at least two dozen people all around him, he would have had to fly above them to nab that seat.    Anyhow, however way he did it I was relieved and could get back to my book again, guilt free.    But I couldn’t concentrate and kept reading the same line over and over again.     The elderly man meanwhile was looking at me smiling.    He had the kindest smile I could ever imagine and I smiled back feeling a bit shy and self conscious.    I wanted to ask him if I knew him or whether he knew me but I was certain I’d never seen him before.    He was a stranger with the smile of a friend.    He seemed to be saying something with his eyes but I couldn't decipher them, though they were full of compassion as far as I could tell.     And then I don’t know why but I suddenly felt very tearful.    I couldn’t stop the tears from forming in my eyes and making my vision blurry.     The perceptive old man seemed to notice and nodded gently with his eyes closed.    This was getting too much, what on earth was going on here...    I couldn’t think straight and kept trying to formulate a sentence and a way of breaking the silence but I felt frozen in myself and unable to speak.     Then without warning he looked at me one last time, stood up and when the train stopped he got off and disappeared into the crowd.     I was somewhere close to feeling devastated.     I felt an overwhelming urge to jump off the train and run after him, to ask him a barrage of questions starting with who was he, this man who had affected me so much and how he seemed to know how I was feeling.     And then there were questions I had for myself such as were we meant to meet, was he someone I should have spoken to, what was he trying to tell me and why did I feel so emotional all of a sudden?     I didn’t get off the train after him that day and six years on I still remember those few minutes we shared on a packed train, those minutes where I both did and didn’t meet a perfect stranger.       

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Who Do You Think You Are?

"Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be".                   Ai Weiwei - Chinese Artist         

Imagine for a moment that you are not who you are.      That you don’t have the life you have, the job you do or know the people you know.      Imagine that in the next minute you will lose the entire memory of your life along with everything you know about yourself.    You are a stranger to you.      Then imagine that there is a large blank slate set out in front of you, a slate that can have written on it pretty much anything you want or nothing at all, your choice entirely.     As you pick up the chalk and bring it closer to your bare canvas what will you write, or rewrite, perhaps rub out altogether?    What would be the life you would have had if you didn’t have the one you’ve got?    

You can stop imagining now and go back to being yourself again, speaking of which who might that be by the way?      I’ve been thinking this week about who we feel we are and where our sense of ourselves comes from, whether it’s a natural process that slowly falls into place or if there are certain events that happen which leave their mark and change us forever.     I’m sure there are many many factors which come into the mix when we’re considering how we’ve come to be the person we are, but when the analysis is over and we have figured ourselves out, how would it then be to step off the map and venture out into the territory.     Once we’ve decided that we’re this way or that i.e. ‘that’s so me’ or ‘I’m not a dog person’, is there scope to change and be something we think we’re not?      There are inevitably things that we cannot change about ourselves and of course plenty of things that we can, the trick is to distinguish which is which and not to confuse one with the other.     History is abundant with examples of this sort of confusion where the common belief was that people were born into their positions and later bound to that particular fate.    Period dramas on TV are rife with this ideology, most recently seen in ‘Downton Abbey’.    Obviously where and to whom we are born is out of our hands completely but the rest is relatively up to us.    We are not fixed beings; we are an ever changing, ever advancing and ever developing civilisation with abilities and capacities that infinitely outweigh even the most sophisticated technology ever created or ever will be created.     We are, as human beings go, truly unique.     Yet with all our originality and potential we’re also terribly good at repetitively convincing ourselves that we’re not and that we can’t do certain things because of this that and the other.         

It is often said that no two people on this earth can have an identical experience of a shared event; that each person will react and feel differently about it even if the difference is only slight.    Therefore our knowledge of human development, of psychological understanding and of everything we’ve come to learn about ourselves is not set in stone, it too is always changing and open to reinterpretation at any time.      What a headache this can all be for us, the fact that nothing is a fact!      We don’t always cope well with this; the constant shifting of information that life inevitably presents us with and so to find some much desired stability we build sturdy little boxes to help us categorise all this data and then quietly reside and pin ourselves down therein.       And because we’re relational beings and don’t want to be alone, we thoughtfully create little sturdy boxes for other people too and pin them down as well.     The trouble is once the boxes have been built and lived in they become very difficult to leave and even harder to demolish.    When meeting someone new for the first time, we need to work out pretty fast whether we can like that person or not and if they don’t neatly fit into one of our already made boxes then we soon create a brand new one just for them and put them in it, after all it’s such a relief when things are properly filed!    But our first impressions of people can tell us more about us than them.    It seems that we can’t help but view others with lenses that have been shaped to fit our world, a world that is not perceived the way it is but the way we are.      

Nothing in life is ever straight forward it seems and we realise this when the people we think we know actually turn out to be so much more than we first thought or saw of them.     They will always outdo (and outgrow) the boxes we’ve placed them in.     A box by its very nature is constrictive and restricting, it has a specific shape with room only for what fits inside.    People on the other hand are fluid and embody many many facets and ways of being.    I don’t mean we all have multiple personalities but that we are different selves in different situations because who we are is always in relation and in response to where we are, who we’re with and what we’re doing.     I don’t chat to my clients the way I would to a neighbour and I wouldn’t attempt to offer psychotherapy to my neighbour the way I do with my clients and yet I inhabit both these ways of being, they are both me so to speak.      

We can always choose to do things differently, even if that means going against our usual grain.     Audrey Hepburn in ‘Roman Holiday’ illustrates this idea beautifully as she works her way through a list of ordinary things she’s always wanted to do.     Whether it’s sitting in a road side cafe or getting a new hair cut, sometimes in life it’s not only important but necessary to do things just for pleasure and devoid of obligation, duty and commitment.     Sometimes we all need a Roman Holiday or at least a blank slate to write our list of (fun) things to do just because we can.     


Sunflower Seeds - TATE Modern

Sunday, January 02, 2011

New Year, Old Times

First things first a very Happy New Year to you!    Second of all you won’t find any NY’s resolutions here I’m afraid and that’s not because I don’t believe in them, on the contrary, I strongly believe in making them, all year round in fact.     But I’m not a big fan of resolutions in the New Year and that’s because there are enough things that are new going on and so I’m much keener on resolutions that aren’t new at all, resolutions that are quite old and that take us back in time rather than spring us into an unknown future.     I suspect the main reason the majority of New Year’s resolutions aren’t kept up beyond February is because they are too new.     We are after all creatures of habit and therefore making new ones is not as easy as maintaining the ones we already have.     I wonder what it would be like to make resolutions about things we’re already doing or have done before.     A resolution to continue what already exists rather than starting something new from scratch.     I'm guessing resolutions that involve re-visiting things and going back to what’s familiar aren't half as daunting as something completely fresh.     It may even help to make them a little more sabotage proof.     But when the New Year is about a new year is it a cop out to reflect on what’s past?       

I’m beginning to wonder whether we quite readily revert to the past or at least think about it more when we are faced with new things both in the present and what’s to come in the near future.     It’s as though we need to look back or take a quick glance behind us just before we can go forward.     It reminds me of a child playing in the park with a new friend he’s just made and who every now and then turns to see if his mother is still there and still watching him.    And only when he is sure that she is can he really enjoy his playing.     We all need reassurance, the knowledge that we can go forward in our lives but still come home whenever we need to and by home I mean our past history, our memories and experiences, all the things that contribute towards us becoming the people we are.     For this reason it is not such a big surprise to reminisce on the cusp of a life changing event as if we know we may lose a small part of ourselves in the process of a new beginning.     A nod from the past is all it takes sometimes for us to feel self assured and move forward confidently.     

At the start of a new year we’re often so encouraged to look ahead, seize the future and generally go in a forward moving direction.      Thinking about the past and especially the painful parts is not really that acceptable and normally discouraged.    I think it is assumed that thinking (so often confused with dwelling) about these things poses a threat to both the thinker and the calm landscape of the life they currently lead.      After all thinking too much has been the culprit of many a boat rocked so they say...  But thinking about the past does not equate to reliving it.     Events that have past have past, they cannot be undone nor can they be repeated in the exact same way.      However, those people who suffer from post traumatic stress brought on by a trauma either directly experienced or witnessed present an unusual exception.     In these cases the person feels stuck in the original event and is unable to transfer their experience into the realm of memory but instead relives it over and over again as though it is happening for the first time.      I think this is a very common worry for all of us when thinking about the past, the fear that remembering certain things will somehow transport us back in time and drop us right in it again.      But remembering is not the same as repeating and neither is it dangerous to think about what’s gone by, it may bring up old feelings but it won’t resurrect what's already occurred.    If even the thought of thinking about an old memory feels painful it is usually a sign that it hasn't been thought about enough.     

Ironically as time goes on and we see through many more New Years we may find that the past is nearly all we think about as that is what we’ve accumulated more of.      Our memories are our very own ever expanding library packed with reels and reels of information all interconnected with each other, a library we can dip in and out of in a fraction of a second whenever we want where we’ll find stories on a wide range of topics including travel, history, geography, love and lots and lots of psychology.      As the final part of Wordsworth’s famous poem goes we are reminded just how wonderful memory truly is....

"For often, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."   

Daffodils' by William Wordsworth (1804)