Looking in the mirror, you probably say to yourself in particularly self-hating moments that you aren’t normal. Everyone else seems able to hold down a job, maintain emotional equilibrium, and manage healthy relationships; it is you, and you alone, who are singularly cursed to abnormality. If only you could change, be different, be normal…
But, of course, this type of thought process is myopically narrow. You have no idea about the destructive storms raging within the hearts and minds of those around us; you merely assume because their outer appearance is calm, their inner experience must be too (imagine how you must appear to those around you).
But, other people aren’t as normal as you might imagine. You can tell when more than one person watches a video on topics like No One Is Normal by the School of Life or Am I Normal on Ted Talk; we all feel, deep down, a little bit like imposters, a little bit like sickos, a little bit ‘not-quite-right’.
We are unintentional solipsists, forgetting that other people have internal worlds and are suffering just like we are. We would do well to remember that everyone wears a mask. If you think other people are completely normal, you’re just an emotional wreck and psychological freak, I guarantee others are surely thinking the same thing about themselves when they see you. Do you smile for a photo even if you feel dead inside? How do you know others aren’t doing the same?
You aren’t the only one who has driven down a road and thought ‘I could drive onto the sidewalk and hit 20 pedestrians right now if I wanted to’, you are not the only one who has been at the top of a tall building and thought ‘I could jump off right now’, you aren’t the only one to have an inappropriate sexual thought about a friends partner, and you aren’t the only one who might sniff, scratch or taste a weird part of their body. The only difference between you and other people is you know all the weird, messed-up and frightening thoughts, feelings and impulses you’ve had. Not knowing them in others doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
It might not be normal (whatever that means) to cry at a cartoon movie on Netflix, but that sensitivity is what makes you such a great listener and artist. It might not be normal to disdain eating meat, but that empathy is what makes you such a great friend. It might not be normal to want to spend nights alone instead of going out, but that dedication to your internal world is what helps you maintain emotional equilibrium. What might be weakness and weirdness in one setting becomes a defining strength and a sign of character in another.
Trying to be normal is an attempt to ‘fit in’; to become a part of the background, the wallpaper; to be an unassuming and invisible brick in the wall. In a weird way, it speaks to a desire to delete a part of ourselves in order to deal with the pain of being ourselves. But, this type of partial suicide will never rescue ourselves.
Saving ourselves begins when we realise that everyone is weird (in different ways, to different degrees); you’re not normal, no one is.
To the Ancient Greeks, one of the essentials of the good life was keeping everything in proper measure.
As a part of this, Greek tragedies portrayed man’s suffering as a result of him going beyond the proper measure of things. So did Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s noble vice was a quality in his protagonists (Othello, Romeo, Macbeth, Hamlet, etc.) that went beyond the proper measure; Macbeth was courageous, but disproportionately so, to the point where he killed the king and brought about his own demise. In the Shakespearean and Ancient Greek sense, measure was not utilised as a means of comparing size or distance, but rather, attuned to an understanding of the harmony and essential relations between things.
An insight into measure can be found by way of etymology. The Latin ‘mederi’ means to cure, and is also the root of the modern word medicine, reflecting the view that health is contingent upon a proper measure, or balance, of the inner harmony among parts. Cancer, being a proliferation of cells without limit, is a sickness, because it is growth without proper measure according to the functioning of the body. ‘Moderation’, one of the key virtues of the Ancient Greeks, derives from the same root, again speaking to the rule of ‘not too little, not too much’ and implying an inner harmony among parts; meditation too, is “weighing, pondering, or measuring of the whole process of thought” in order to bring about an internal harmony. So, physically (medicine), personally (moderation) and psychologically (meditation), measure was seen as key for a balanced and harmonious life.
The Greeks understood all human qualities: avarice, cowardice, selfishness, contempt, and violence; as well as generosity, courage, selfless, and kindness as potential human virtues; a worldview that stands in stark opposition to our own. The caveat? Each became a virtue when properly (or ‘proportionately’) measured.
We can better understand words by tracing their lineage. To help understand ‘measure’ it is useful to understand another Ancient Greek term, proportion, or, as they would have said, ratio, a word from which our modern ‘reason’ derives. For the ancients, ratio was relevant to understanding the nature of things and the proportions of relationships. So, to take an earlier example, cancer is problematic because it exists out of proportion to the growth of the rest of the body, and its disharmony results in mismeasure that requires medicine, or ‘remeasuring’ to bring everything back into harmony. To take another example, courage is fine, but when courage exists out of proportion to context (such as rushing head-on into a battle without a plan), it creates danger and requires a ‘remeasuring’ to be put in its proper place.
The Ancient Greeks, therefore, would have been bemused by questions such as ‘is it wrong to lie?’ or, ‘is it wrong to steal?’ because for them, lying or stealing; courage and meekness, were not moral absolutes; all morals and virtues existed in a totality proportionate with each other. Sometimes, lying is wrong, but if Nazis came knocking to ask if you knew any Jews while you had some hiding under your floorboards, the Ancient Greeks would answer here that lying is not wrong; because the lie is indeed proportionate to the context. They understood that virtue was not predicated on a particular quality (like courage, truthfulness, strength), but on the relationship of this quality to others, and to the context of the human who possesses them.
This notion of measure undergirded many aspects of Greek life. Measure was crucial to understanding harmony in music (measure as rhythm, proportion of sound intensity) to the arts (with ‘the Golden Ratio’ providing the clearest example). Measure went beyond the moral to inform all aspects of daily life; which is something which we have sorely lost, with words like ‘measure’, ‘proportion’, and ‘ratio’ used in a mathematical and strictly external sense.
So, when Protagoras said ‘man is the measure of all things’ we shouldn’t look at him as saying ‘man is the highest form to which all things should be compared’, but rather as saying ‘reality is not independent of man, and his insight should be in harmony with the reality in which he lives’. This implies clarity of perception and seriousness of thought. Measure or ‘moderation’ encapsulates how the virtues should work in harmony with each other to bring about a coherent whole. Man isn’t the measure of all things in the traditional sense, measure is an insight created by man to understand life.
We do, luckily, have modern re-workings of these older concepts. ‘Putting things in perspective’ is one such example. To ‘put something in perspective’ implies nothing less than taking a step back and seeing how one thing relates to another in the hope that, with the new vantage point, we will be able to fit something in, or adjust its magnitude, so that we regain a sense of inner balance or harmony.
To live ‘virtuously’ as the Ancient Greeks would have said, requires us to dissolve the fragmentary nature of our thinking whereby we say certain qualities are ‘bad’ and others are ‘good’. Instead, we must see that our beliefs, values, and ideals are like ingredients for a delicious recipe, and for it to turn out right, we must put add these ingredients in the right proportion. Living well is a balancing act, one we must be constantly attuned to. As Socrates understood, the examined life is the beginning of the virtuous life.
‘We are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear’ writes Katherine May in her work Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. We imagine ‘our lives to be a long march from birth to death in which we amass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty.’ But, this is simply one way to look at life.
Our lives are not linear, they are cyclical. We do not rise to crescendo and then collapse into nothingness; rather, our lives are a series of peaks and troughs, twists and turns, blooms and decays. We are not born and then die; rather, we are born and experience multiple deaths and rebirths along our journey of becoming. We can look to nature as a teacher here. Like a tree,
We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.
Winter for a deciduous tree is not a period of death, but instead, a period of letting go of the old to make space for new growth. The dropping of leaves is not an unfortunate accident for the deciduous tree but a necessary part of its life cycle; and so it is for us. The depression causing us to despise our very bones, anxiety attacks leaving us unable to leave the house, and mental illness rendering us unable to communicate with close friends are not signs we are deformed and defected, but rather, are processes of what Katherine May calls ‘wintering’, whereby old parts of ourselves’ are being let go to provide room for something new.
The dropping of leaves by a tree is called ‘abscission’. Occurring on the cusp of autumn and winter, it is ‘part of an arc of growth, maturity and renewal’. While leaves are dying off from the tree, a layer of cells is weakening between the stem of the leaf and the branch: this is the abscission zone. Over time, this zone halts the flow of water to the leaf, where it withers and falls off. Yet, ‘even as the leaves are falling, the buds of next year’s crop are already in place, waiting to erupt again in spring’.
We think we’re seeing the skeleton of the tree, a dead thing…
But if we look closely, we see the tree is already in bud, waiting for the turn of the seasons to bloom once more.
Even as the leaves are falling, the buds of next year’s crop are already in place, waiting to erupt again in spring.
The cyclical nature of the seasons is a mirror to the soul. We experience periods of vitality and exuberance, only to have them followed by periods of despair and defeat; but these moments are not aberrations or deformities, but stages in a cycle, providing the space for us to retreat, rest, and recuperate, before entering the world once more, a little older, a little wiser, and a little more mature than before.
We should be nicer to those we care most about than a complete stranger. After all, these are the people who we have made an implicit promise to embrace and care for. Yet, oddly enough, this isn’t always the case. In fact, we inflict far greater malevolence, insult, and injury to those we care about than those whom we have no noticeable affection. Our behaviours seem entirely at odds with the position of the other as ‘someone we care about’.
But, being mean to someone we care about can be, in a perverse but entirely understandable way, a compliment. We are only mean because we don’t believe we have to pretend to be someone we’re not. We shout, cry, abuse, and sulk not because we think so little of someone, but because we think so much of them: we know that no matter how unruly or stupid our behaviours might be, they care enough about us to stick around.
We expect very little of strangers. When they cut us off, ramble, ignore or offend us, we tend to be significantly less offended (and therefore, mean in response) because we have next to no expectations about them; we are rather indifferent to their entire existence. But, this is not so with someone we care about. We hold those around us to a higher standard and therefore, a failure to meet our standards (which are sometimes valid, often petty and arbitrary) is met with anger disproportionate to the act. We need to be deeply emotionally invested in someone before we are prepared to slam doors or shout at them. Being mean here is a sign of emotional involvement (but not necessarily maturity).
We live in a society so obsessed with happiness, success, and wellbeing that it is inconceivable to reveal the miserable, failed, and warped aspects of ourselves to strangers in society. Being mean to those we care about often involves revealing these hitherto hidden parts of ourselves and therefore, engaging in a grand gesture of kindness, with an unspoken but very powerful message: I am mean because I trust that I can be my most depraved and broken self around you, and you will still accept me.
Obviously, there are instances to the contrary, and verbal, psychological and physical assault is nothing to take lightly. But, at the heart of this is a message to reconsider the everyday acts of spontaneous vindictiveness, cruelty, and malice we heap upon those we care about.
The next time someone we care about is insufferably mean, we should consider that perhaps, they are only being this way because, perversely, they care so very much about us.
Good advice is a gift. Like any gift, it isn’t about you, but the other person. Here, this means that what matters is what helps your partner in conversation, and not your desire to be seen as wise.
Tied up in this is an important recognition: good advice shouldn’t involve telling someone what to do (they likely already know), but instead, helping them understand why they need to do it.
Advice is useless if someone can’t implement it, and it is even worse if they were ignorant in the first place. By analogy, there is no use giving someone a hammer if they don’t know how to use one, and there is even less use telling someone to buy a hammer if they don’t know what it is; no use telling someone to be happy if they don’t know how to be, and even worse to tell someone they can be happy if they don’t even see it as a possibility.
The problem we often fall into when giving advice is we don’t really give advice at all; advice, and the subjunctive ‘to advise’ comes from the Latin ad meaning ‘to’, and videre meaning ‘see’. That is, to advise means helping someone ‘to see’ something they couldn’t previously; but usually we think of it as meaning to give instructions, commands, or orders. We have a tendency to tell people what they should do, without giving proper consideration to what they could do. If someone smokes, no use telling them they should quit; of course they know that, what they need is advice, a way to see how they could quit. ‘Advice’, seen in this way, is about opening up possibilities for action, rather than providing instructions for an action that clearly isn’t possible. After all, a smoker really would quit if they could.
What this reveals is that good advice does not come from a position of authority; it does not involve one person telling another what they should or must do. Good advice, rather, comes from a position of assistance and partnership, and its aim is giving insight into what one can do.
Good advice should operate like a mirror, giving reflections on what the other person is saying. It could, rather than clay-shooting a target, be more like a game of verbal Ping-Pong, where their thoughts are bounced back to them at different velocities and angles, to have them return the play and keep going. What someone may need is not comments on appropriate courses of action, but a back and forth which will bring their own thoughts and feelings into greater clarity. If someone says ‘I’m feeling sad’, the response is not ‘you shouldn’t be, the weather is so nice today’ but instead, ‘why are you feeling this way? Let’s talk about it’ (and thus opening the door for actual advice). Good advice, in this sense, isn’t a one way street, but two-ways, and relies on bringing unknown thoughts and feelings into focus.
The statement ‘giving advice’ implicitly reveals there is a person giving the advice, but what about the one receiving it? Giving advice must be intimately connected and inextricably bound to the person who receives it. Just as we want to talk, the other person want to be heard. This can yield particularly fruitful results. Imagine you have a friend who is complaining about their struggle with a university course. You could very well give them advice on how to study, the importance of being studious, and tips and tricks on how to maximise their time; and these tid-bits of advice might be very insightful and helpful…to another person. But, there is any chance that if you were really listening, you would find the problem wasn’t with that university course at all, but the fact they feel, deep down and irrevocably so, stupid. What they need isn’t advice in the traditional sense, but advice in the Latin sense, in allowing them ‘to see’ these deeper feelings. The best advice you could offer them, therefore, might not be tips on how to study, but the insight of a partial observer alerting them to a deeper angst which must be addressed.
Advice comes in many forms; we think of it as instruction or teaching, but it could more properly be identified as guidance. But we can only provide guidance when we know where someone has come from and where they are going, therefore, the best advice needs us to do something very simple which parents and lovers know all too well: listen.
The Mobius strip is a surface with one continuous side and one boundary. It folds in on itself with its opposite poles revealing themselves as the same side. It isn’t like a coin, which has two sides. On a coin, they really are opposites of one piece, but on a Mobius strip, they are one but misunderstood as being two.
I have a friend. They have been working for many years now to save up for a house. Sure, they don’t really love their job, in fact, they hate it, but they are committed to working because, among many other reasons, they are good at it and it pays well; that is, it helps them achieve their goal. Although they want to buy luxury items and splurge on new furniture, they hold their resolve. They sometimes feel like quitting and giving up on their dream, but they persevere, always keeping their long term goal in mind.
But the very qualities which make them such a good saver also make them a sometimes infuriating friend. They never adjust their position in an argument; once convinced of something, it is hard to change their mind; and moral compass is so firmly fixed that I can never shake their convictions…no matter how misguided or just plain wrong, I might find them. What makes them an excellent saver can, at times, make them an utterly infuriating friend.
Being utterly compliant might make one an excellent employee, but will lead to real trouble standing up for oneself; being a really careful writer who painstakingly agonises over every single word will make one a brilliant writer, but a terrible friend to make loose comments with (not to mention using poor grammar); being able to stand in front of crowds and handle insults and embarrassment might make one a fantastic public speaker, but it might also make one less attuned to the complaints of their peers.
In the infinite multiplicity of life, what is strength in one situation is a weakness in others. It does not mean you should necessarily change who you are, but rather, that no matter who you are and what you do, it will be a boon in one instance, and a bane in another; that is a fact of the Mobius strip.
But what we can do, for both ourselves and others, is that next time we observe what we would think of as a weakness (someone’s stubbornness, or their ignorance, rudeness, or lack of empathy), we should see how this can also be a strength for them. In doing so, we will look at each other with a fairer and deeper understanding of their personality, perhaps not being so offended the next time they are so stubborn, knowing that this aspect of their personality we see hate, is intimately entwined with a part of their personality that we love.
Nobody says “I had a lovely day; the high point was staring out the window”. But, maybe they should.
‘Not everything which cannot be deemed useful is useless’ wrote Josef Pieper. For while science, accounting, exercising and eating are all useful, other activities, such as art, music, poetry, and quiet contemplation, while being ostensibly ‘useless’, perform an incredibly important function. They calm, uplift, inspire, and move us; but we don’t necessarily do them for such utilitarian purposes. We do them, simply, because we like them. There is value in the useless.
This humble truth is revealed in the act of staring out of one’s window. What matters here is not what one looks at per se, but the very act of looking. It is the delicate act of looking but not seeing because, what matters is not the content of our view, but the content of our minds. Looking out the window can provide a perfect moment for self-reflection. That single bird chirping to the wind, notes extinguished by air; its song makes you think about the ephemeral nature of existence and the fleetingness of beauty. Or, perhaps, the clouds whispering through the sky causes you to think about your tendency to hold onto things. The world outside the window is a space on which we can project our thoughts; redefine, reconceptualise, rethink.
Our mind is like an upside-down cone. As we go throughout the day, thoughts will fill the cone from the point, up; thoughts at the bottom stay there, and new thoughts pile on top. But, when we contemplate with such (insignificant yet monumentally important) acts like staring out the window, the gravity of thought loses sway; thoughts once at the bottom can rise to the surface again and become objects of attention.
By giving our mind’s a moment to still, calm, and relax, we are providing an opportunity for the quieter parts of ourselves to have a voice. They may not be entirely useful: you might not become a better friend, a better lover, a better worker, or a better thinker by staring out the window; but then again, you might.
For it is the nature of quiet contemplation that you do not do it with a goal in mind; to achieve usefulness from it. It cannot be taken, it must be granted. The ancients called this ‘grace’; we call it ‘epiphany’. Like grace, you cannot force an epiphany; you must let it come to you.
Have you ever tried to remember a name or think of a certain word, but the more you try, the further away it seems to go? But then, in the midst of eating dinner or as you’re about to fall asleep, it just hits you?
The ancients understood well that when presented with a problem, sometimes, the solution is not found by strain or exertion, but by giving up and letting the solution come to us. This is the usefulness of the useless, and the greatest quality in aimlessly staring out of one’s window.
One of the lessons of Jungian psychology is that we are not one single entity. The thing we call ‘me’ or ‘the self’ is really a collection of voices or ‘selves’. Rather than one entity seated at a table, there are, in fact, multiple sitting together, all sharing a meal.
Jung used the metaphor of archetypes to help make sense of these multiple entities. You can’t look at the brain and find the archetypes any more than you can look at the brain and find the ego or the subconscious. They are just metaphors. That’s the first thing to note. The second thing is that we are all very different and our archetypes will express this. Even the ‘same’ archetype in two people will operate differently in content, even if the general context remains the same.
The personality can be divided into archetypes in numerous ways, it could be four, five, or sixteen; the best way to consider one’s own archetypes is not reading a list of general ones online (unless as a description and not a prescription) but looking at oneself and seeing how certain behaviours reflect certain actors in life. To take an example, there is a part of you that is the joker, the everyman, the serious, the seducer, the baby, the commander, and the magician. But, there can just as easily be the mother, the daughter, the materialist, the calculator (or rationalist), and the writer (if you’re someone like me who thinks this particular colour has specific traits). While every person is different, one of the points of Jungian psychology is to appreciate that we are a confluence of varying forces of varying degrees, each corresponding to a different part of our personality, and therefore, very likely to change over time. The magician may be a relevant archetype today, but not so tomorrow.
However, we tend to operate under the model that there is only one internal voice, the ‘ego’. But, this is just a model, and models are never direct reflections of reality, only metaphors; and metaphors can be changed.
This type of modelling invites what Adam Phillips calls ‘over determination’. That is, from every perspective you can think about something, there are so many other ways of looking at it. Your ego presents itself as absolute but ultimately, it is only one (and a therefore, limited) perspective.
To take an example, say you have recently been dumped and are the type of person taken to self-critical assessments. You may say to yourself ‘I don’t blame her; I’m clearly a piece of shit’. Okay, maybe so, but this is only one part of you saying so. If you consider this internal voice to be the whole of your available voice, then you come out with an entirely different perspective than if you considered it only one part of the internal conversation. A Jungian model of archetypes invites further interpretations. ‘Indeed’, the ego may say, ‘I am a piece of shit’, but; when you contemplate for a moment, anothera voice may say (agreeing, however doubtedly) ‘but you were never really working, so someone had to end it’, and this is the mother; ‘calm down, and try to think clearly about this’, and this is the calculator; ‘I hate her, she’s a terrible person for leaving me’, and this is the baby; ‘you could have made it work if only you changed x or y, maybe there’s still time…’, and this is the magician; and ‘you never needed her anyway, you’re stronger on your own’, and this is the commander.
Different points of view attain a unique salience when, rather than seen as expressions of the single ego, they are seen as alternate dimensions of the self, which when taken together constitute a ‘personality’. Rather than a single one (the ego) reaching out in different directions, it is different perspectives bleeding in.
In thinking about ourselves from a Jungian perspective, we don’t invite split-personality disorder, because all of these voices are mere aspects of ourselves. They are never separate; no, they are intimately connected by the table at which they sit, but they all have something rich and insightful to give. But, that richness can only be appreciated when we see there has never been a single voice speaking to us but many, each giving a unique version of events. When we see this, we can topple the king from his throne, and no longer be beholden to one voice, because we know there are so many others waiting to speak.
Philosophy, especially in the West, tends towards the abstract and complicated. This website is dedicated to the pursuit of recapturing philosophy from these distant and often incomprehensible heights and bringing it back down to Earth. Raw material for philosophy isn’t just found on dusty library shelves or exclusive journals. It can be discovered in everyday life if we know where to look.
By correcting our vision ever so slightly, we discover so much suitable material for philosophy that we would often overlook; haircuts, clothes, or the furniture in our rooms. There is a hidden message encoded in our various actions, a message conveying to other people who we are. By learning to look differently, we can think differently; and that is the beginning of philosophy.
Everything we do ‘says something’ about us; that is, our actions carry a tacit message about who we are. Or, in the vein of Roland Barthes and his book Mythologies, these acts signify our persona. Whether we choose to buy that solid, stiff and upright chair, or choose the smooth, cushioned and lounged chair, there is a message there beckoning for a philosophy about our ideas, beliefs and values.
This website, if anything, is dedicated to unearthing and uncovering the unseen and buried aspects of life, and piecing together the fragments found. It is, without putting too much of a poetic emphasis on it, an archaeology of the everyday.
If Martians landed in Melbourne, they would be astonished by the degree to which we care about our hair. Barbershops and salons occupy every corner (and sometimes two or three to a street). We dry, blow-wave, cut, colour, curl, crimp, condition (and surely other verbs starting with ‘c’) our hair into all manner of shapes and sizes. We fold, stretch, bend, twist and straighten. Our Martian observers would be confused, ‘why do they put so much emphasis on keratin tendrils coming out of their head and face which serve no immediate functional purpose’? The answer is in what these acts signify; that is, how say something about who we are.
Hair pulled straight back says that you are serious, in control, and like everything to be in its proper place. Flamboyantly curled hair says you are fun and extroverted, with some good chaotic energy thrown in. Hair parted down the middle says you are ready to get down to business, are professional, and want to be taken seriously. Colourful hair says you like to have fun, diverge from the mainstream, and prefer the interesting to the safe. Tangled hair that hasn’t been combed or brushed says that you are relaxed and don’t necessarily conform to standards, you are more spiritual than material, and you pay attention to what really counts in life.
We can’t speak to every stranger we walk past, so we often let our hair do the talking. ‘I’m fun’, ‘I’m serious’, ‘I don’t conform to society’s expectations’. We encourage our hair to communicate who we are without having to speak a word.
At some point in our lives, we move from being dressed by our parents and wearing uniforms at school, to finally being able to choose for ourselves the type of clothes we wear. What this gave us, in no small way, is a chance to express ourselves, not as a subordinates to our parents taste nor as accessories of the school system, but as unique individuals with agency.
So, the choice in clothes (and this includes socks, shoes, perfumes, and nail polish) says something, like hair, about who we are. Embodied within every decision is a sign. This is not about creating significance where there is only insignificance; it is about appreciating that there is no coincidence in our choice of clothes (or hairstyle). We like certain clothes because they correspond to certain aspects of our personality, whether known or unknown. Think of people you know who, after a breakup, buy new clothes or go to the hairdresser…
What are her clothes saying in this photo?
Wearing exclusively organic materials says to the world that you care about the environment and your impact on the world. Wearing clothes with lots of colour and wild patterns says you are fun, quirky, and don’t like being put in a box. Wearing clothes that are starched, perfectly tucked and neatly ironed says you are someone who cares about being in control, appreciates order, and is quick to defend.
Of course, a certain degree of compensation is at play here. We may have to wear a suit and tie all day for work and would like nothing more than to escape the bondage of starched fabrics and embrace loose fitting tracksuit pants and moccasins. Or, we may spend a significant amount of money on designer clothes to display to others that we are well-to-do and have escaped the trash of the lower class. But, while we may give off an impression one way or another, the real sign (if only we knew the whole story) is saying something else. So, just as clothes may indicate who we are, they might also be pointing at the person we want to be. Whether it is one or the other is never immediately apparent.
There is a reason why corporate job interviews involve you in a suit and tie (double Windsor, above the top button please) or a prim and proper dress (buttons, but nothing flashy; a high cut, nothing revealing). Because this regalia says you are ready to work, you will conform the same way as your tie, and you will blend in like your buttons; and this is precisely the reason you don’t feel the need to wear a suit and tie with friends. Unlike an unknown employer, your friends already know you. You can be with them in an old t-shirt and tattered pants. They already understand you, and therefore, aren’t looking to your clothes for clues.
Clothes can tell us important information about people we don’t know anything about if we are paying attention. Hidden in the most ordinary of things is a treasure trove of information waiting to be uncovered.
We think of it as ‘our space’, and not without reason. Our bedroom, our retreat and sanctuary, is an embodiment of who we are as a person. Our bed, rug, tallboy, bedside table, lamp, duvet; choice of colour, texture, and form; and whether the room is chaotic or patterned, neat or messy, dusty or clean, all say something about who we are. (I think you are beginning to see the pattern now).
A neatly and orderly room says ‘I take life seriously, and everything must go to plan’. A messy room says ‘I know what is important and don’t care if a shirt is on the floor, what matters to me are that the bills are paid’. However, the compensatory nature of our unconscious can hold sway here too. A neat room can be an insurrection against the chaos of life and the feeling that one can never quite be safe or secure enough. A messy room might be a revolution against the imposing order of society, and after conforming for 50 hours a week, one can finally be who they want. Seeing a bedroom, in this sense, compliments understanding a person but doesn’t replace it because, ultimately, it is just a room.
The Temple of Zeus embodies order, strength, and permenance
But, in another sense, it is not; it is not just a room. The ancient Greeks built the temple of Zeus with strong sturdy columns set across parallel lines, with limestone and beautiful engravings. They did this because they saw the king of the gods as representing order and structure, strength and continuity, while also embodying the inherent beauty of the universe. Christian cathedrals were built with ornate and cascading architecture of almost infinitely receding lines and inspired paintings within because the message was that God is incomprehensible in his complexity yet beautiful in a way appreciated by the human eye. Architecture, like the bedroom, speaks to what we value, even if we may not know from whence this value arises.
When we speak to someone, there is only so much we can say to indicate the type of person we are. We may, such as on a first date, describe ourselves, but there is only so much time to share. So, our partner looks to other things, certain signifiers that will provide clues about the type of person we are. We are, in this sense, all detectives of the unspoken, and use this to create a profile of whom we are engaging with.
In an interesting way, our choice of hair-do, clothing and bedroom says things about us that we may not be able to verbalise in our everyday life. These unwritten codes become, in this way, clues to both others and ourselves. What do you think your aesthetic choices say about you?
Just like architecture, our hair, clothes, and choice in furniture – in a strange and non-verbal way – speak; they speak to who we are, what we think is importance, and the dimensions of our personalities. They are significant precisely because they signify not only who we are, but also who we want to be.
Even though it comprises no more than two letters and one syllable, ‘no’ ranks among the most punishing words in the English language. Contained in this very tiny word is a universe of potential meanings.
When we run away from the possibility of being told “no”, we are often running away from something entirely different. When we don’t ask out that hot stranger, we aren’t terrified of being told “no”, we are terrified of being told we are disgusting and unworthy. When we hold our tongue and don’t ask for a pay rise, we aren’t worried about being told “no”, we are worried about being told we aren’t actually good at what we do and thus, don’t deserve a pay rise. When we don’t ask our partners for more attention or to be kinder to us, we aren’t worried about being told “no”, we are worried about realising something we may have known all along, they don’t love us the way we need them to.
No’s come in many forms. When we tell a joke and others don’t laugh, the absence of laughter says to us ‘no, you aren’t funny’. When our dog doesn’t roll over or shake our hand on command, the rejection of our order says to us ‘you’re weak, you lack the power to even control an animal’. When we ask a friend to come out with us and they say “maybe”, they might not be saying ‘no’, but it still feels like they are. A ‘no’ feels the same as negation or as absence of affirmation.
While it is reductive to a significant extent, we are largely shaped by the forces of our childhood. Early conditions of a sapling will determine the shape and strength of the tree it becomes; similarly, our childhood affects the shape of our lives and the strength of our character.
If our childhood was characterised by emotionally unavailable parents, we suffer. We may have never been instilled with a faith in our inherent goodness so that today even the slightest rejection, like a “no”, becomes perceived as an existential threat. Or, we may have learned that acceptance means pleasing others and “no” signifies a failure to satisfy and get that thirst-quenching “yes”. Or, one day we asked for an expensive toy and our parents shouted “NO” at us and began to cry; we thought we were being a horrible child to our protector, little did we know about the money troubles at the time. They weren’t crying because they hated us, but because they couldn’t give us everything we ever wanted. We weren’t the failure, they felt like the failure. Looking back, we know that intellectually we weren’t failures, but it still feels that way, deep in our bones. The answer (or at least, the beginning of the answer) lies in interrogating our childhood and seeing how the feelings a ‘no’ today conjures are often remnants of undealt with circumstances in our pasts.
To survive, we are likely of falling into a pattern of avoiding any situation in which ‘no’ might arise. We narrow the possibilities of life by sticking the well-worn tracks of ‘yes’. While it may be more secure and satisfying (or rather, simply not unsatisfying), in the process, we retard our own creative development and chances for self-transcendence. By avoiding situations where we are told ‘no’, we avoid rejection, but we also miss out on opportunity.
We would do well to utilise this intellectual tool: when people say no, they do so because it doesn’t fit in with their plans. The hot stranger said ‘no’ not because they think you’re a disgusting freak; they have a partner. The animal didn’t refuse your command because you’re weak; they were distractedly focused on food. When your boss rejected your request for a raise, they didn’t say so because they think you’re a worthless employee; the business is struggling.
Think of all the times you’ve said ‘no’ to people without meaning they were sick, defected, or intolerable. You said “no” to the telemarketer because paying $50 a week for insurance on a boat you don’t own simply doesn’t fit in with your plan of saving money; and you said “no” to a friend who asked you to hang out, not because you think they’re boring, but because you already had plans to have dinner with your parents. You didn’t say “no” because you hated them, their requests simply didn’t fit in with your plans.
‘No’ is an incredibly powerful word, but we would do well to be slightly less narcissistic here. It really isn’t about you. People say ‘no’ for so many reasons, often having very little to do (if at all) with you. We would be well-served in keeping this thought at the back of our minds so that next time someone says ‘no’ to us, we can remind ourselves it isn’t because we are disgusting or defective or a failure; our request simply doesn’t fit in with their plans.