Thursday, 8 April 2010

The power of suggestion

This morning, I put on a sweatshirt and some jeans. I did not put on a kimono, military uniform, a bear costume or a spacesuit. Had I really wanted to, I dare say I could have acquired and worn any of these items. They have all been invented and (save perhaps for the spacesuit) are all within my price range. I could have bought a fancy dress spacesuit. So why didn't I?

We are all creatures of habit. If we thought long and hard about every single action in the day living would become so bogged down with endless decision making about matters which are of little consequence that it would perhaps not be worthwhile continuing to exist. So we create habits to allow us to sail through most aspects of life without really having to think about them at all.

But there is something else at work here. The society in which I live has dictated that I should wear something like jeans and a sweatshirt on a spring day when not at work. Had I been born into the life of a geisha, a kimono would have been the right choice. Had I been born into rural Siberia, I imagine something very warm and hard wearing would be in order. In the Tudor court, perhaps a gown made from some expensive and intricately woven fabric would be best. The time and place make us accept almost unquestioningly the fashions, the social conventions, the morals.

Seeing our peers behave in a certain way makes us staggeringly more likely to follow suit, even if their behaviour appears irrational to the casual observer. A good example might be Chinese foot binding, or smoking. The foods we eat, the religion we follow, the morals we believe in are highly likely to be the same or very similar to those of our close relatives and friends.

This seems to be a basic trait of human nature: not all humans follows these trends, but the vast majority do. What is an existentialist to make of it?

We could despair at the willingness of humans to be led into oblivion like sheep, sauntering after one another, happy to allow others to make all our choices and blame the outside world for everything about ourselves and our lives which we dislike.

I have a better idea: use this tendency to become what you want to be. Put yourself into social groups, places and positions which are full of the characteristics and activities which bring you closer to what you want to be. Fill your life with French people and French textbooks, and you'll probably pick up French. Hang around with athletes and you'll get fit and slim. Start doing yoga and you'll probably learn to meditate.

Your subconscious might pick up the habits of others like five-year-olds pick up headlice, but there's no reason to see this as a negative.

My aims:

Cook proper meals (so position lovely cookery books around my flat)

Keep challenging my beliefs (so spend more time with the friends whose outlook is both admirable and different to my own)

Read better books (so spend more time with people whose knowledge of the classics puts me to shame)

The freedom to be imprisoned

Leaving inside the intricacies of meta-ethics, there's something instinctively attractive about freedom. Whenever we find it, we like it. It's the rush of joy as we escape from a place that makes us unhappy, the thrill of choosing to do otherwise than society dictates, the pleasure of making a choice from one of a whole variety of attractive options.

I do not believe we can ever be truly free. Sartre argued that whenever we chose to follow a dictat of another, we ceased to exist (in the sense of being in bad faith). We merely became the creations of another's reality, rather than our own. His theory was beautiful and terrifying in equal measure. It promised utimate freedom but total responsibility: hence, existentialist angst.

I think Sarttre's vision of existentialism can help us enormously, in making us break down barriers which inhibit our freedom and hold us back from creating what we otherwise would have created. But there are limits, and it is these I have been thinking of for some time.

I am currently a sugar addict. I frequently indulge in far more sugar than my muscles and organs require to function optimally, simply because the rush it gives me is very pleasant. I was telling a friend the other day that I plan to break this addiction, to free myself from this self-destructive urge. As we discussed it, I mentioned to her that I do not really get pleasure from much else that I eat. Everything else I eat in order to avoid collapsing with exhaustion or some form of malnutrition. Sugar is the only food that gives me a real thrill. She told me she found it worrying that I was planning to cut out the one part of my diet which actually makes me feel pleasure.

And so it dawned on me that I am at the mercy of more than one controlling influence here. On the one hand, I have a psychological addiction to sugar, which puts great pressure on me to eat the stuff and makes me make choices I often look back on with regret and guilt. But on the other, I long to obey society's rules about sugar and eat only the small amount I am told I can get away with. And the language I use to describe these choices, weirdly, is the language of morality: regret, guilt, obey, get away with.

I think I know what Sartre would say here. I think his answer would be that it does not matter that one path is that of addiciton and the other that of society's preferred course. What matters is that I freely choose to follow one and do not simply drift down a channel, without ever consciously opting for one or the other. That is the message of existentialism. It is about creating choice in a world where there is never a need to choose. It is about consciously opting rather than drifting, being carried along by the currents that flow so freely around us.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

It's the holiday....bugger

I am crap at holidays. I look forward to them through the nights of working late and the mornings of waking early, typing away at my keyboard and arguing away in court until I want to drop like a bluebottle at the end of summer. I long for the time to do all the creative things I dream up when I have no time for them. The dress I am going to make, the book I am going to write, the technically difficult and beautiful piece I am going to learn on my guitar.

Then the holidays arrive and I sink into a few days of sleeping for England. Constant work leaves me with desire only to stay under the quilt for as long as possible. If I do venture out of the bedroom, watching iPlayer is about as close as I get to doing anything useful. That and making endless pots of tea.

Then, when the exhaustion has worn off or at least been kepy at bay, I should get a surge of energy to do everything I was waiting to have the time to do. But instead I vegetate. I can't be bothered to go for a run or make a quiche. I sink into a slightly miserable static state. It seems I need work to make me value time off. God help me if I ever retire.

I think there's a lesson here. Human existence is relative. We feel hot when we enter a warm room after being out in the cold. We thoroughly enjoy the plainest sandwich after ten hours of hiking without a break. We don't mind being in the back of a beaten up old car which smells of wet dog when it is transporting us away from a hungry grizzly bear.

We need points of reference to make us appreciate what we have. If we are ever going to write a great novel or run a marathon, we need to conisder (and if possible experience) something far away from the feeling of satisfaction achieveing these aims will give us. When we swim in a sea of sameness, we become desensitised to the water around us.

We fail to appreciate what we have.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

So this is my life

Time. I need more of it. I am time thirsty. I may only be 24, but I am already conscious of the hour glass sands slipping away, sliding me towards obscurity.

I know what I want: a successful full life, with a stella career, adoring and adorable husband, 4 children and an incredible kitchen. I mean who doesn't want a KitchenAid?

The problem is, knowing exactly what I mean by success. We children of the 70s, 80s and 90s were raised by mothers who had the options of university, a career, financial independence, divorce. They didn't necessarily know how to cook or darn a sock. The world had opened up to them like a never ending series of choices. They had raised us to believe that our birth right was the choice to be whatever we wanted. They suffered, no question, when the gloss of pain-free choice came off their lives. When they were abandoned with the kids so a career became a necessity. When they were made to feel like getting crows' feet was a sin whose than adultery. When their kids learned to starve themselves.

They fed us a diet of self belief whilst having none of their own. They taught us that we could outdo the boys, we could join the army, we could make the world we wanted and no-one could stop us. All at the same time as putting themselves through endless weightloss programmes and rounds of botox. They hated themselves while telling us to lavish nothing but undying love on ourselves.

I am a product of that strange message. I am a high flyer, a pushy ambitious young woman. My mother is not satisfied with anything but perfection. And I am her child. It hasn't made me happy, I know, but I also feel incredibly driven to do better than people expect of me.

I have this chance. By some happy accident I was born in 1985, not 1762 or 1135 BC. I was born into a time and place where being a woman doesn't mean you are tied into a role which society has built for you, complete with iron bars and fetters. I have this fantastic opportunity which so many women never had. I am determined not to waste it. They wouldn't want me to do anything less.

And it's not just women. Anyone but a tiny minority of people holding the power at any one stage of human hisory was forced into one mould or another. You, young man, will be a blacksmith like your father. You, young lady, must marry a miner. There's nothing else for you. Except perhaps a convent.

Sometimes when I am afraid, when I am in some difficult situation and feel like a little girl again, I think of them. The dead women. Billions and billions of them who never became all they could have been. I feel their breath on my neck. I feel their unfulfilled ambitions. I sense their potential. And I run into the fire which scares me. So far, it may have burned me, it may have made life hard sometimes, but I don't for one moment regret it.

I want to lead a life where I define my own success. That is the heart of existentialism and there's an awful lot of truth in that. Singing to the songbook of another only makes you their creation.

I am determined to become the very best I can be. In my career, as a friend, (one day I hope) wife, daughter. Here's to making the most of the time we have.