When it comes to our relationships with ourselves, one of our most hazardous and insidious beliefs is that we must always be happy. A product of a culture that extols us at every waking moment to enjoy and sap as much pleasure from life as possible, we are reminded everywhere that happiness is the supreme goal in life. Disinterest in seeking out ever new and unique forms of happiness is seen as a sickness. Unhappiness is seen as a deformity, one which must be immediately rectified before anybody notices. Happiness is considered a-priori that normative state, and any deviation from this state is seen as an abnormality, if not a failure.
The dark underside of this belief is how it is offensive to be sad or, even worse, that we might want to be sad, to feel this other aspect of our humanity so often relegated to the shadowy margins of our psyche.
Unlike happiness, our culture meets sadness with a toxic mixture of repulsion and refusal. We want to make the sadness go away and lift the heart out of the pit of despair.
We have all been victims and likely (well-intentioned) perpetrators of denying sadness. We tell our bereaved friends that it is going to be okay, that things will get better soon, perhaps things are bad now, but they will not remain so forever, or that being sad gets us nowhere so we might as well be pragmatic and toss sadness aside. We engage in all forms of mental and emotional gymnastics to make the sadness disappear.
One of the unintended consequences of this behaviour is to widen the abyss between ourselves and our saddened counterpart. They are painfully aware of their own condition. The daughter of a dying mother knows the feeling of her internal organs twisting from anguish is not “good”, and that crying every day is interfering with her life. Of course she knows this. We might try to coax her out her misery, to dissolve it, and to lead her to a happier place, but for someone incapable of anything except sorrow and grieving, the call to be happy only affirms the distance between themselves and others. The result is not communion, but alienation.
It might seem intuitive to try and remove sadness, but there is another approach, no less intuitive, but perhaps more affectionate and considerate of the other. We could, instead of trying to remove sadness, feel it. We could extend a helping hand and empathetic ear to our friend and hear them out. What they need, even if they may not put it in these words or realise it themselves, is to accept that, in the piercingly simple words of Miranda Devine, ‘it is okay to not be okay’. We can sit with our friend and do something we might not be used to doing: listen.
If we can begin accepting that it is okay to not be okay, rather than rejecting our sadness as something deformed and separate from ourselves, we will be in a position to accept that it is an uncomfortable but necessary part of what it means to be human. It will, in turn, allow us to feel more fully, and lead more intense and emotionally fulfilling lives. What others require of us, is not instructions on how to be happy, or second-hand advice on dealing with pain or sorrow; ultimately, what the other needs is so painfully simple it is easily overlooked: a mind ready to listen, and maybe, two arms ready to hug. The beautiful thing is that this is something all of us can do.
Our society has a tendency to embrace simplistic narratives about the world and our place in it. ‘Good versus evil’ would be one such example. Whether it is a hero battling a villain, or a ‘nation under God’ battling terrorism, there is no such thing as a person (or nation) that is inherently good, and one that is inherently bad. This way of framing life says little about the world, but much about how we think about it.
Another simplification that dominates how we look at ourselves and each other is to categorise some as ‘winners’ and others as ‘losers’, which is really just ‘good’ and ‘bad’ under another label.
The logic at work here is that life can be reduced to a single, all-encompassing matrix where competitors in the race can be ranked from lowest to highest (with medals handed out accordingly).
But, of course, life is not like this. It is a multiplex of many different races, occurring over unique and distinct terrains, with any number of competitors. There are races for fame, prestige, power, status, and rank. And while these receive the most coverage, there are other races occurring all the time. There is a race for who can be the most understanding friend, a race for who can stay calmest under pressure, a race for who can be the most attentive and loving in the face of overwhelmingly harsh and difficult circumstances.
But, the coverage given to certain races – such as the race for power or wealth – creates the impression, soon turning into an opinion, transforming into a belief; that these are the only races worth winning. In the process, we judge ourselves according to athletes we have no hope of contending with. One would not place a child against an Olympic runner and expect them to succeed, nor would one invite a fish and a monkey to a tree climbing race expecting a fair competition. We are not suited to every race in life. Our advantages in one area will become disadvantages in another.
In our more self-critical moments, we begin to feel like fish that have entered a tree climbing competition against monkeys. We feel like we are ill-equipped and unable to compete. Dejected, we blame ourselves. If only our fins were fingers with the necessary climbing dexterity. But, it would be helpful to remember, that if the competition was a swim across the Bass Strait, we would be feeling very different.
We have people in our lives who we think are doing better than ourselves. They may already own houses, go on fabulous holidays every year, be in long term committed relationships, or never suffered the loss of a loved one. We look on at these people and think to ourselves that they are truly winning at life. But on closer inspection, this might not really be the case.
You might not own a house, and have grown up in poverty. But that has given you a appreciation of small pleasure that perhaps your wealthy friend does not have. Another friend may go on fabulous holidays every year, surround themselves with all sorts of pleasures, and spend their days in supreme entertainment. But, they might be less adept at being alone than you, someone who does not have the money to spend every waking moment busy with pleasure. Your friend may never have experienced the severely painful experience of losing a loved one or having a family member struck down with cancer. But you have developed a resilience borne out of suffering that your friend does not have. While another friend is having a party of life, you may have developed depression; but as a result, you may develop an appreciation of life that is profoundly deeper than someone who has never felt the crushing emotional toll of loss as you have. You lost one race, but you certainly won another.
Someone who wins at being a ruthless businessperson will likely lose in the race to be an attentive and understanding partner. Someone who wins the race for prestige and fame will be a loser in the race to be humble and empathetic in the face of someone else’s pain. We simply cannot be winners at everything, which means, likewise, we cannot be losers at everything either.
You are not a loser. It would be far more accurate (and fairer) to note that you may be a loser here, but that only makes you a winner there. If we can begin to realise that life is a multitude of races, and that we will lose some, but win some also, then perhaps we can redeem ourselves in our own eyes and realise that we are not totally losers at all but sometimes flawed and other times excellent humans who are good at some things, and not others.
What is it that we celebrate when one year descends below the horizon of time while the next is rising beyond it? In a sense, nothing. Nothing really changes at this point. Its signification appears to come from its convenience at the end of the calendar, rather than from some real (as opposed to artificial) event, like the winter solstice, or the first full moon of the Summer equinox.
Yet, there is something to be said, however briefly, about its very artificiality, a word we would be wise to remember, shares an etymology with artifice, and both of these with art; that is, with the creation of something new and symbolically powerful. The celebration of new years is an artifice of the human imagination, sure, but this does not empty if of meaning, but rather, opens a space where it can become meaningful.
What meaning do we grant it? New year is simultaneously requiem and celebration.
New years is a requiem for the year, for dashed hopes, squashed aspirations, and unmet goals; a chance for us to bury our past failures, regrets, and disappointments, and let them sail off with Charon, heading for oblivion. We wanted to lose 10kg, build that deck, and become a more attentive partner, but our aspirations were not met with equivalent strength of will. No matter, that was then, and this is now. Now is the time to restart and not let these things hold one back.
New years is likewise a celebration of dreaming. It is the dream of all dreams, a dream we so ardently want to make a reality. In the new year, we celebrate the possibility of things being different. This time, we really are going to lose that weight, commit to that renovation, or become the partner our significant other deserves.
Just as new year is a requiem for a dead past, it is likewise a resurrection of hope. The hope that was trampled, beaten down, and left for dead from the trials and tribulations of the previous year is brought back to life with a renewed optimism that maybe this time, we will succeed in the resolutions we have set ourselves.
New year’s is about recognising the person we have been in the current year and striving to be a better sort of person in the next. The new year is the metaphysical crossroad we traverse annually, where we look back at the person we were and then set our sights forth on the type of person we want to (and hopefully can) be. The new year is the juncture between a solid, fixed, and unchangeable past that refuses to budge, and a future still yet unwritten, undecided; pliant, and flexible enough for us to shape it. It is at new years we are faced with the inexorable tension between the questions ‘who am I’ this year and ‘who do I want to become’ in the next?
There are, as always, the naysayers, who seek to empty new year celebrations of signification. ‘Why wait’, they say, ‘until the end of the year? You can make changes now’. Strictly speaking, they are right. You don’t need to wait until the end of the year to try and become a better person. (Although, I don’t think anyone actually makes that claim). But they misunderstand why the new year is so valuable. The new year, strictly speaking, has no value. After all, it is just another arbitrary span of time. However, it has immense symbolic value. It punctures the calendar, delineating between one moment and the next. We are a symbol using species. The ring on the finger of an engaged woman and new year both are technicallywithout value, but they remain very symbolically valuable; both make real and visible to the world that something has occurred, that change has happened.
In the infinitesimally small magic moment separating this year and the next, we celebrate the possibility of a refresh; of cutting our losses and starting over in a way that allows us to make the past well and truly passed, and the future, well and truly upon us. The new year is a mourning for what we wanted to achieve but didn’t, a celebration of the chance to start anew, and a declaration that despite our failure to live up to our lofty aspirations, we are the architects of our destiny.
‘All action’, wrote Hannah Arendt in her meditations on what it meant to be human ‘presupposes a spectator’. Humanity is about seeing and being seen. This is not some idle commentary on the importance of Facebook friends or Instagram followers. It is a recognition that we are not fully alive until we are acknowledged by ourselves and our peers. Visibility is a precondition for feeling alive.
Writing, like other forms of creative expression, assumes the spectator. The painting is painted, the music composed and the words written in order to be enjoyed. Enjoyed by whom? Well, someone of course! The very act of creative expression assumes there will be someone there to receive and enjoy it.
The creative act is a revelation. ‘Revelation’ shares an etymological root with ‘reveal’, of removing the shroud/image/façade and seeing beneath. Revelation means literally ‘lifting the veil’. The creative act is a self-revelation where the artist bears themselves as they are on their canvas, music sheet or loose leaf. Art involves laying oneself bare in front of others.
This quality of psychological nakedness, of raw honesty, is fraught with ambiguity. Of course, the artist may be accepted and praised for what they have done. But they may also be rejected and tossed aside. This goes beyond mere pessimism or optimism but is a recognition of the fact that nothing is promised in advance but the artist perseveres, knowing a devotion to their truth matters more than its reception by spectators.
Crucial, for me, and perhaps for others, is recognising that in the creative act we open ourselves up to others. We allow others to peer into our soul and see what it is like. The book says as much about the world around as it does about the author who wrote it. The book says of its author ‘I am here. I lay before you something important. You may accept it or may reject it but you cannot help but recognise it. This is my offering to you. This is my truth’.
Depending on your position, your sight can be improved by moving closer or further away from the object of your attention. Coming closer to an object allows you to notice finer details yet come too close and everything turns into a blur. Yet, its opposite suffers from a commensurate defect. Moving away may allow your eyes to adjust and clearly see what was once a blur but, move too far away and distinctions melt and you fail to tell essential things apart.
Sometimes we are too close to something (our attachments, our fears, our relationships with others and ourselves) to be able to see clearly what is going on with them. But by moving back – not by severing attachments or pushing things away – but by observing your own thoughts, behaviours, and emotions; you may see something you couldn’t before.
I like to think of philosophy like a pair of glasses. Philosophy, like glasses, doesn’t show you anything new. All that happens is your vision is corrected. You once saw things one way and now you see them differently. And, like with glasses, you decide whether your vision is improved or not. But, not everyone needs glasses and not everyone needs philosophy. But there is no harm in trying to improve your vision.
I have been thinking considerably about rhythm lately. I appear to be stuck. I know what I want to write. I know the logic, the premises, the arguments and conceptions. But I can’t seem to write any of it down. It all just sits there, in the back of my mind, waiting. I too must wait, patiently. Each time I attempt to write down these thoughts, it comes out forced and fake. So, these thoughts remain lodged. I like to think they are like the inanimate objects in Fantasia, waiting for the right rhythm to bring them to life.
I believe we all have our own rhythm. That is why I think it is so dangerous and threatening to copy the text and style of other writers. That won’t make you good because what makes you a good writer is finding that rhythm, that inner harmony that resonates throughout your soul and your work. To mimic another is not only the cheapest form of flattery, but it is also to steal your voice away from yourself like Ariel in the Little Mermaid. Trading your voice for legs, or your rhythm for words is a devils bargain.
Everything in life is flow. The constant rotation of celestial objects; the stream that ripples over stones, later to cascade down cliff faces; the grace of a dance, the movement of notes in a symphony, and the rhythm that comes forth, as Ursula Le Guin said, like a ‘wave in one’s mind’. You cannot beckon the wave , you can only wait, patiently, and ride it to the shore.
David Bohm in his essay ‘On the Relationship of Science and Art’ wrote that a scientist (but really any of us), before he can verbalise his thoughts, will “feel” a new idea. “These feelings are like very deep and sensitive probes reaching into the unknown” which, if contemplated with a patient mind, will return with something creative and new. Virginia Woolf said it perfectly,
Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.
Writing to Vita Sackville-West,
16 March 1926