We think about life in terms of a subject who acts, and an object that is acted upon. So, if there is an artist in her studio, we think and speak with the artist as the active subject, and the paint, brushes and canvas as the still, inert objects being acted upon. We are inclined to say that the painter uses paint and canvas to express herself, but is that quite the case? It doesn’t seem like she actually expresses, meaning ‘push outwards’ onto a canvas something that was already fully formed inside of her mind. Rather, she would have started with an idea and as she began painting, saw ways in which what was in front of her was similar to her idea and what was different. From this new point, she rethinks what she wishes to paint and as she proceeds, yet again sees how what is in front of her is similar and different to what she has in her mind. There is a creative process of back and forth. There is not a subject acting upon an object but a creative process whereby she acts and reacts with the pain, brushes and canvas.
There is another point to be made that goes beyond similarities and differences. It is that as the painter creates her art, it must be in accordance with the materials. As she paints she has to work with the limits of her medium. She can only paint within a certain frame (the size of the canvas) and using certain colours (depending on what base she is using). She cannot paint whatever she wants, however she wants, but must paint within the limits of her tools and medium. The point is that she does not act upon the things around her, but with them.
A musician does not express themselves any more than the painter does. The instrument shapes the musician (who must learn to purse their lips in a particular way to hit the right note, or perform certain motions with their fingers to achieve the right combinations of sounds) as much as the musician shapes the sounds. There is a back and forth process, a reciprocation.
You cannot make a piano sound like a violin, or play piano simply by moving your fingers very fast. The musician must, to a certain extent, allow the instrument itself to determine how it should be played. A good musician does not play the instrument, but plays with it.
A gardener, if they wish to have any success, must work with their garden, rather than upon. For it is the case that one cannot yell at broccoli to grow, or beat lavender into submission and make it bloom. A good gardener understands they must work with the garden. You need to pay attention to what nutrients are needed, how much sun and water are required, and whether the time of year is right. The garden is a joint project between equals, the gardener who cultivates, and the garden which grows. A gardener who tries to force a plant to bloom is as ridiculous as a musician who thinks blowing harder into the trumpet will produce a melody.
The painter, musician and gardener (to which we may also add the parent, friend, doctor, scientist and chef) approach their craft masterfully when they understand the principle at the root of all relationship: it is not about you. It is about so much more than you. It is about the creative unfolding of life. When we step outside of ourselves, when we no longer reduce life to the matrix of the I and me, something magical happens; we create in concert with others and end up becoming a part of something bigger than ourselves. A parent is enlarged by their child, a painter by their painting, and a gardener by what they grow. The paradox is that by leaving ourselves behind, we end up becoming much more than we were.
One of the most emotionally crippling and psychologically damaging feelings we experience is shame. But what makes shame so cruel to those who fall under its curse, is that shame is a second-hand, vagabond emotion that has made its way into your mind where it does not belong.
Shame arises when we feel like we have failed to meet the real (but often imagined) expectations of others. It is, in this sense, quite different from our other emotions in two ways. Firstly, it does not arise from the heart but from the mind. After all, shame is a product of what think we should be. Secondly, shame is not a product of the self but of the other. Shame is inextricably bound and dependent upon what others think. Shame is tangible only when expressed through others.
When we are gripped by shame, something reveals itself that we should pay attention to: we are living according to the rules and standards others have set for us.
To loosen the vice like grip shame can have on our souls, we must make the essential but monumentally difficult task of deciding for ourselves what is right and who we want to be. It does not mean we will never feel guilt or disappointment (life is, after all, often a succession of these very moments), but that these feelings will cease to have the disabling effect on us they once did because we now know what we didn’t before: we can decide for ourselves what to do next, rather than succumbing to the imagined expectations of others.
Like laughter, tears (which often go together and are separated by the thinnest of membranes) are a testament to our humanity, of our capacity to feel. Contrary to popular belief, crying does not come from a position of weakness, but of strength. For it takes a particular sort of strength to allow yourself to be vulnerable enough for something to touch you; whether it is a painting, a movie, a sunset, or a child dancing on crunchy autumn leaves. It is, paradoxically, the strength of fragility.
Not everything that needs to be said can be expressed with words. Like hugging, crying is the non-verbal language of feeling. Crying is intimidating because when we cry, we are no longer in control. We can no longer be hoarders of the soul, putting our feelings and memories in little boxes on a shelf to gather dust. It is also intimidating because crying makes us vulnerable. The body turns on us, the boxes open and fall off the shelves and a demand is made: the demand that these feelings be seen and acknowledged.
People seem to dislike it, but crying is the most wonderful thing! It says that you feel! That you are human! That something was able to move you. It is a signal that you are alive and sensitive.
We do not mind when we cry from laughter. We only have a problem when we cry from sadness. We have decided that some emotions are simply unacceptable and must be pushed away at all costs. But, at what cost? When we do not allow our psychic energy to release, it does not go away, it moves around and is released somewhere else. This is what Carl Jung meant by ‘transference’. Tears denied do not disappear but displace, and manifest in other ways instead.
We bend things to our will all the time. If a piece of wood does not fit, we cut it to size; if an employee does not do what the boss says, he can be threatened with dismissal; but you cannot threaten a flower to grow, nor can you demand yourself to stop feeling. You cannot bend yourself to your own will without inflicting immeasurable damage. The one who is bending is also the one being bent.
We associate maturity, especially in men, with pushing down feelings, with not being a ‘cry-baby’. But there is nothing more immature than locking up a part of you and denying yourself the capacity to feel freely, fully, and deeply. To fear crying, or to say it is weak, soft, pathetic, or unnecessary (which may again be symptoms of fear transferring as ridicule), indicates insecurity. Criticising others or yourself for crying indicates a sense of low self-worth, of a need to feel strong in order to compensate for feelings of being week.
Crying does not make you weak, it makes you human. It is a reminder that you are still able to be vulnerable and fragile, and there is an exquisite beauty in this, like a flower allowing itself to be swayed by the wind. We can make ourselves hard and not allow the breeze of feelings to move us, but then we will become more like rocks than humans. Crying does not make you weak, immature, or pathetic; it makes you human.
When we speak of beautiful faces, a generic set of assumptions and descriptions arise: proportionate features, geometrical perfection, and symmetrical smiles. Perhaps a residue of Renaissance art and its use of the golden ratio, we tend to find people whose faces are the most balanced, proportionate, symmetrical, that is to say, mathematical, the most beautiful.
But there is another kind of beauty, one that is certainly not skin deep. It is the beauty of a melancholy face. It is the beauty of eyes that betray an inner storm, a smile that reveals a life story that would fit a Dostoyevsky novel, facial lines that are traces of a history we want to discover. It as an altogether different, more penetrating and moving type of beauty.
One type of beauty may be found in mathematics, like the Pantheon of Athens. It is complete, ordered, and proportioned. It is a beauty of axioms resolved, virtues achieved, questions answered. But another type of beauty is found in complexity and mystery, like the beauty of a lightning storm. It is a beauty of unyielding force, of commotion and conflict, of rage and release. Order and chaos.
Consider this appropriately named painting, Melancholia. A human figure in the lower right hand corner, in the prime of its life contrasts against the observed skull. The wolf, symbolising the ravenous and ineluctable process of natural decay, looks down at the body. We can imagine the wolf saying ‘you’re time will come soon’. The man knows that one day he too will be nothing but husk and bone. He is thinking about time and how much (or little) of it he has left. There is an almost morbid beauty in his face. He is entranced, deep in thought, inviting us to wonder what he could possibly be thinking. What is beautiful in the most melancholic way is not the perfectly sculpted torso, but the mournful brooding of a man contemplating his own demise.
This woman’s face is not proportioned according to mathematical logic. Her nose is crook, her brow furrowed. But there is an intensity and savage honesty in her gaze as she looks upward to her impending doom. She is feeling, viscerally with her whole self, her psyche consumed by the terminal event. Her beauty comes from an expression of soul. It is perversely beautiful in its melancholic way because it makes us feel something. It is not the pleasure of a symmetrical face, but of something deeper, of the human condition.
The beauty of a melancholic face lies just as much in what it reveals as in what it doesn’t. What was the man’s conclusion? What were the woman’s final thoughts? The melancholic face is beautiful because it is, at its most fundamental, relatable. It expresses something about ourselves; that we are all somewhat broken, frightened, and consumed by inner storms that those around us can only guess at. The beauty of melancholy is precisely in how it captures the conflict that besieges us throughout our lives’. This beauty says ‘I too suffer like you’ and perhaps that is what we find most beautiful, the possibility that we do not suffer alone.
‘The expectation’ for ‘help and protection’, writes Carl Jung in The Structures and Dynamics of the Psyche, while ‘normal for a child is improper in an adult’. In Psychology and the Occult he makes a similar point, remarking not being able to psychologically mature is just as absurd as not being able to outgrow child-size shoes. We must, in order to be healthy and well-adjusted individuals, learn to grow up. And this means, among many things, learning to take our life in our own hands.
But many of us still allow others to dictate to us what is right, what we must do, and how we should live. We exist in a state of existential childhood, where although our parents may have retreated as figures in our physical and mental life, the fundamental relationship that characterised childhood (submission to authority, acquiescence, and obedience) still exists.
To be an individual, writes Thomas Mann in his work The Magic Mountain, ‘one had to recognise the difference between morality and blessedness’.
The moral man decides for himself what is right or wrong. He lives according to his own standards and monitors his own conduct according to his personal set of beliefs. The blessed man, however, is what Mann, echoing Jung, calls a ‘child of God’. He does not think about what is right, just, or worthy, but accepts these as givens by those around him. He does not think for himself but allows others to do his thinking for him. John Ralston Saul, in Voltaire’s Bastards writes,
A man who depends upon blessedness is one who relies upon God and his representatives to define morality and to enforce it. He is a child of God — a ward who would not dream of claiming personal responsibility. The individual is more like a child who has grown up and left home. More dramatically put, man killed God in order to replace him. Either that or, having killed God, man was obliged to fill the resulting void. In either case he assumed the powers of moral judgment previously limited to divinities.
The voracious consumer who chases commodities because he is told these will make him happy, the obedient convert who believes unflinchingly in the 10 commandments because his priest has convinced him of hell, the pupil who behaves as the master instructs because he is lost and the master provides answers; they are all Mann’s ‘blessed’ children of God, who have given up the task of deciding for themselves how to live, and have granted this responsibility to someone else.
Mann and Jung argue that by taking life into our own hands, we cease being reflections of others and grow into ourselves. We become individuals.
It is unlike the individualism in our society, which is often of a tawdry or superficial kind. Imagine a surgeon. He lives in a luxury city apartment. He drives an expensive car, likely a German import. On his skin are the finest fabrics, on his tongue talk of the finest wines, on his bed the finest linen. He studied and worked hard in order to have a life where he could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and spend the weekends at his country house with his wife and children. The surgeon has rank, title, power and prestige and these, he thinks, makes him who he is. But, he has never questioned whether wealth or power is the correct path. He has not asked whether rank and title are statements about him or simply titles conferred by society. Nor has he asked that after the houses and cars and holidays, ‘what the point of it all’?. Society has told him how he should live and what he should value, and he has accepted it. In this way, the surgeon is not an individual at all, but ‘‘blessed’.
Many of us have failed to assume responsibility for ourselves and instead, allow others to do it on our behalf. A ‘master’ will tell us how to live, a holy book will instruct us on what is right and wrong, social organisation will inform us on what work is valuable or not. In childhood we may unthinkingly accept the prescriptions of others, but being an adult means taking your life into your own hands and deciding for yourself questions like ‘is this right’ and ‘is this what I want to do’. The distinction between morality and blessedness is exactly what Nietzsche was trying to capture in his distinction between ‘master and slave morality’.
To the extent that we submit to the values, goals, and ethics of others, we become what Krishnamurti refers to as ‘second hand people’. What makes neurosis so dangerous and also so prevalent is how the authority of friends, family, authors and institutions becomes internalised and thus, invisible. Because we have not interrogated ourselves, we do not see how little of our thoughts, beliefs, values and morals are our own. To grow up, to become an individual, therefore, requires us, for perhaps the first time in our lives’, to investigate ourselves and discover what we value, believe, and want. It can be an incredibly tumultuous experience, as well as lonely one. The road to personal truth is a path just big enough for one.
The sun is disappearing below the horizon. The sky is soaked in a whirl of pink and purple. It looks almost like a surrealist painter took his brush to the clouds. Arrows of light splinter through the leaves of the tree you are sitting under as a gentle breeze caresses your skin. It feels sublime, peaceful and serene. You are perfectly content. There is not another thing in the world you would rather have or another place you would rather be.
Then, your skin begins to crawl, your lower lip quivers, you start feeling distressed, upset, even a little bit sick. Only moments ago, you were supremely satisfied, now you just feel sad. You tell yourself that something is wrong with you, but the only thing that is wrong here is failing to identify your feelings and instead labelling yourself as flawed, wrong-headed, or even deranged.
You are not deformed; you are suffering from melancholy. As your attention was focused on the beautiful landscape in front of you, your unconscious had another thought: just how rare it is for you to experience beautiful moments such as these. You are not sad at being a part of this beautiful moment, rather, you are sad that so much of your life is bereft of moments like these.
You are melancholic because it was not until now that you realized how happy you could be, and inversely, how much happiness has been denied to you by the dull monotony of your everyday life. Thanks to the spears of light casting curious shadows on the undersides of the leaves on this tree, you are able to see just how little joy and how much agony fills your day-to-day life.
What you are looking at is not just a beautiful sunset. You are looking at peace, inspiration, equanimity, clarity, and sublimity. These virtues inspire. You are melancholic because these virtues fill your heart now, only to remind you that before that space was empty.
To sit under the tree (or be in a garden, looking at the window at the ocean, or sitting in your fancy hotel room on holiday) and cry in a melancholic state is a testament to the poverty in your hearts and your life, of how much happiness is denied to you. But it is likewise an opportunity to be grateful for the small slice of serenity in a chaotic life; and also a moment to reflect on the absence of joy in our lives and change it.
McDonald’s prides itself on the fact their hamburgers taste identical no matter where in the world you are; Bombay or Barcelona, Milan or Madrid, you are guaranteed an entirely replicable experience. Looked at from one angle, this is a wonderful example of uniformity and consistency. From another angle, it is the deletion of local flavour and uniqueness, extinction of difference between one place and another.
The principles behind McDonald’s business model can be found elsewhere. Once upon a time, architects had no option but to source materials that were natural and local. This is why the cedarwood homes of Swiss villages and the terracotta tiled roofs of Bologna are so distinctive. Building was dependent on a local time and place, and therefore had a local flavour. But, with the development and use of steel, glass, and concrete on grand scales, these local flavours disappear. One benefit of local materials is they help orient you to a particular place. But with steel, glass, and concrete, buildings in Frankfurt resemble those in Tokyo, Manhattan, and Melbourne. Once buildings look like they can be anywhere, they make you feel like you are nowhere.
This same issue applies to the ‘cookie-cutter’ Metricon homes and estates built on the urban fringe. Every single home looks the same. Without going inside, you know what to expect: white walls, built-in LED lights, a stone slate kitchen-island bench, and this deep, pervading sense of emptiness as you walk into a property that looks like it was designed for capital accumulation, not for people. The feeling that you could be in any building makes you feel like you are in no building. It feels like a template, not a home. It will be one home in an estate among many, are you in Epping or Cranbourne, Pakenham or Kalkallo? Differences become, as Herbert Marcus writes, ‘flattened out’ and the world begins feeling increasingly one-dimensional.
The commodities we buy suffer from a similar ‘flattening out’ or more pointedly, deletion of uniqueness. In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin notes the mass-produced commodities, like McDonald’s burgers or Metricon homes lack the element of ‘time and space’. Just as Metricon homes and skyscrapers lack geography, our phones, laptops, clothes, and furniture lack history. They are just reproductions among reproductions, infinitely exchangeable with each other and therefore, lacking a transcendent value that might prompt us to possess them for longer than 6 months. In contrast, on my father’s workbench sits a pencil holder I produced as a small child. It is utterly unique, an original, and because of this, it is irreplaceable. It is filled with history. But most of what we own lacks history. They are just machine-made commodities, destined for the rubbish bin eventually. That is, they have no future because they have no past.
We are immersed in a society that operates without a tangible sense of time and place, of history and geography. The result is a feeling of not really being at home. After all, if everywhere is like anywhere, and everything is like anything; you do not feel like you are everywhere with everything, you feel like you are nowhere with nothing. This is merely to indicate that the places we live and the things we surround ourselves with determine to a significant extent the type of people we are.
The rootlessness that seems to be the cause of so much contemporary malaise and ennui could be rectified if, rather than focusing on brutal functionalism and mechanical reproduction, we instead cultivated a sense of time and place in our buildings, our art, our food, our clothes, and (within reason), the everyday items we use. The solution then, as Benjamin Barber notes in his book Jihad vs. McWorld, is living beyond the homogenous one-dimensional world of contemporary capitalism and instead, creating culture that makes things meaningful, rather than just cheap.
Within each of us there exists a censor, a judge, an authority who is ready at any moment to tell us ‘you shouldn’t feel that’. Something taboo turned you on, someone falling over made you laugh, a friend said something stupid that drove you into a fit of rage; and each time you say to yourself, ‘what I’m feeling is wrong’. Perhaps you said ‘I am disgusting for being turned on’, ‘I am dishonourable for wanting to laugh’, or ‘I am petty for becoming angry’. At the end of the day, you are still censoring yourself and the message in these reflections is: it is wrong to feel this way.
But truly, is it? Feelings don’t arise out of nowhere. They are not conjured out of will. Feelings are always a result of something. If you have been bullied and begin feeling like you are worthless, the feeling itself is not wrong, the bullying was. If you spent your life being ignored or abused by your mother and begin feeling like you would rather her dead, the feeling is not wrong, but how you were treated was. The cause of a feeling can be wrong, but not the feeling itself.
There might not be wrong feelings, but there can be wrong actions. If you feel like hurting someone, there is nothing wrong with that. That feeling is expressing something deep about you, something that should, with care and compassion, be investigated. However, acting on that feeling and hurting someone, that can be wrong.
In a more philosophical sense, the entire notion of speaking about feelings as right or wrong rests on a misunderstanding. A thought, idea, or statement can be wrong because they belong to the realm of ‘true or false’. A thought: thinking to yourself ‘this food is yuck’; an idea: running will help cardiovascular health; a statement: ‘it is raining.’ These all belong to the realm of true or false because each can be verified, respectively, by how you enjoy the taste of your food, your resting heart rate, or looking at the sky. Each is propositional and therefore belongs to the realm of ‘true or false’. Feelings, however, do not. They are not propositions, they simply are and therefore, it makes no sense to regard them as correct or incorrect, right or wrong.
Taking a sideways step, there might not be wrong feelings, but there can certainly be wrongly reported feelings. After a long work week, your friend might ask you how you feel and you say, ‘I’m tired’ rather than, ‘my job drains me and makes me want to shut off from the world’. Or, when seeing a particular act, you say ‘that’s disgusting’ rather than ‘that’s strangely arousing’. Our ‘feelings’ here are not wrong, our statements about them are, because these statements fail to conform to the ‘true’ state of our emotional landscape.
The only thing that is ever wrong with our feelings is how out of touch with them we often are. We do not deal with our sadness, so it bursts forth in paroxysms of rage. We do not address our need for love, so it turns into a hatred of intimacy. We do not tackle our insecurities, so we become pompous and proud. Again, it is entirely appropriate to feel rage, hate and pride, but it is unfortunate. Feelings we fail to address do not disappear, they just move around and come out in different forms.
We need to provide ourselves a space where we can observe our feelings. It might be writing them down in a journal, sitting quietly and meditating, or paying a visit to a counsellor, psychologist, or good friend. What matters is creating a safe space where feelings can be expressed, observed, and allowed to exist. When we allow our feelings (no matter how horrible or uncomfortable they might be) a space to appear, peace with ourselves becomes a possibility. We have acknowledged a part of ourselves that needed to be heard and that is the beginning of philosophy: knowing yourself.
Journeying across generations and species, How To Be A Good Creature by Sy Montgomery is a celebration of friendship transcending time, place, and genes. Featuring charming illustrations by Rebecca Green, How To Be A Good Creature is a textured weave of auto-biography, naturalism, poetry and philosophy. It is a love letter to the complex beings who call Earth home, a celebration of life in all forms, from outback Emu’s, to a Tarantula named Clarabelle in French Guiana.
Each creature Sy meets with has its own story and a lesson to impart. Her pig, Christopher Hogwood taught her ‘how to love what life gives you. Even when life gives you slops’. Her friend summed him up as a great big Buddha master,
Studying at the cloven feet of this porcine Buddha every day, I could not help but learn from a master how to revel in and savour this world’s abundance: the glow of warm sun on skin, the joy of playing with children…
After my parents had disowned me…Christopher helped create for me a ‘real’ family – a family made not from genes, not from blood, but from love.
At a New England aquarium, Sy meets Octavia, an octopus from the Pacific Northwest, who shared with Sy that ‘profoundly beautiful’ devotion of a mother tending to her eggs and without realising, imparted a profound message onto Sy,
Thousands of billions of mothers – from the gelatinous ancestors of Octavia, to my own mother – have taught their kind to love, and to know that love is the highest and best use of a life. Love alone matters, and makes its object worthwhile.
Yet, a mother octopus never leaves her eggs, even to eat. Octavia would starve herself to death in her devotion to her children.
I realised, too soon, Octavia herself would be no more. But love never dies, and love always matters. And so it still fills me with gratitude that Octavia tended her eggs with such diligence and grace. For I could face the inevitable fact of her dying with the knowledge that she would do so in the act of loving, as only a mature female octopus at the end of her short, strange life can love.
Being friends with an Octopus, ‘whatever that friendship meant to her’ writes Sy,
Has shown me that our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom – and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.
Rachel Carson, in her work The Edge of the Sea, remarked on the transfiguration that occurs when we come into contact with the unknown – unknown places, unknown creatures. When we enter a new world, or when a new life enters ours, ‘fascination grows and somehow you find your mind has gained a new dimension, a new perspective’. Without ever meaning to, those who come into our lives enlarge us.
Those we love expand us and teach us to love in new and hitherto undiscovered ways. In love, it is not a matter of ‘the more you give the less you have’ but rather, ‘the more you give, the more you have’.
Each creature that comes into our lives is different, and demands something different of us. We adapt, adjust, and in the process, expand on the quality of love we are able to provide. This message is at the heart of How to be a Good Creature. Sy loved her dog Tess, writing that
Never before had anyone relied on me so completely. Never before had anyone loved me more deeply. Never before had I experienced grace so profound.
And when Tess died, Sy believes she could never come to love again, until Sally came into her life. The death of Tess was not the end of Sy’s love. Rather, the life of Tess expanded Sy, and gave her the ability to love in new and yet unexplored ways.
Those we love enrich the complex tapestry of our lives. When the time comes for those we love to leave, we can see this loss as a negative space of a new beginning, filled with potential.
Each person I have welcomed into my heart gave me something I did not have before, and each one prepared me (often without realising it at the time) to be a better creature. Being utterly unique and special (as we all are), each person expanded my ability to love in different ways and made me a better person for it.
To be a good creature is to listen and learn from those around us, to embrace those lessons and continue our journey to always become better versions of ourselves.