How To Deal With Uncertainty, Part II

So, having welcomed all those feelings that my uncertain life was eliciting – the frustration, loneliness, sadness and more – I was in a slightly better position to experience my uncertainty. It didn’t make any of those feelings less pleasant but it did give me a chance to feel them as that is what feelings want – to be felt. Rather than try to deny or suppress them or coat them with endless stories about how much of a loser or failure I was, I just experienced them. In brief, I untethered, a little, my experience of my feelings from my explanation of my feelings (the two are very different). The former is a physical-psychological experience that (hopefully) passes with time as feelings come and go while the latter is an attempt to grab one of those feelings, pin it down and explain it. In welcoming all my feelings my mentor gave me permission to just be sad or lonely or unsure without all the extra baggage (no easy task but I’m glad I started it all those years ago).

Now, I am categorically not saying that we should all just feel like crap, deal with it and move on. There are times when we feel awful for very good reasons – perhaps someone close to us is treating us very badly or we are in a toxic situation at work – and the feelings are indicators that something needs to change. But there are other times when we feel bad in response to a perceived threat – i.e. uncertainty – that might not be as bad as we think. For me, I was feeling bad in response to the uncertainty in my life and was calling on all those other times I had felt bad and compiling them into some grand uber-narrative about how rubbish and awful I was. But in welcoming the feelings and just trying to feel them I managed to undermine the power of the uber-narrative. I genuinely think that while I still went on to feel bad I managed to avoid being pulled down into a prolonged period of depression like I had been before. One big difference was that I had stopped believing the stories I was telling myself. For example, feeling worthless didn’t actually equate to being worthless and I knew the feeling would pass, which made it easier to let go of the oft-repeated story of worthlessness.

In essence, I was trying to make my heart and head work more in harmony – the heart was doing the feeling, the really important stuff, while the brain was trying to make sense of these feelings, i.e. they’re just feelings, not facts (or stories). So I now had more room to observe and experience my uncertain situation rather than get engulfed and overwhelmed by it. This was a big step for me – mindfully and carefully I had approached uncertainty and, discovering it was not as fearful as I had thought, could venture out beyond the edge of my comfort zone. As a caveat, I didn’t just jump into uncertainty with reckless abandon – as I could have become very panicked or distressed – it was a much slower, gentler process than that and if ever I felt it was getting too much I could try and step back. More soon. Now here’s Lady Gaga singing about being on the Edge of Glory because, y’know, edge of comfort zone, edge of glory…perhaps. Anyways, she rocks.

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How To Deal With Uncertainty, Part I

In the autumn of 2013 I finished my MSc in Environmental Policy without a clue what to do next. Despite the Masters, I knew I did not want to carry on working in the environmental sector and, despite having rediscovered a love of writing, I knew that writers do not make a lot of money. I went back to live with my parents and slowly waited for that impending sense of doom to catch up with me. Having lived a life of lectures, seminars and essay deadlines I felt myself unravelling with the lack of a rigid timetable. The future weeks and months of my diary stared blankly back at me and it seemed all the things I had achieved in my past didn’t count for much because, now, I wasn’t achieving much at all. As expected, the doom arrived, and it took the form of a big black hole of uncertainty. I fell straight in.

Uncertainty scares a lot of us. It cannot be known, it cannot be controlled and it doesn’t offer any answers as to what to do next. In brief, it freaks us the fuck out. And when we’re freaked out we put up defences – some of us throw ourselves into work or travel itineraries or chocolate or endless Netflix series, all with the aim of staving of that unpleasant feeling of fear as uncertainty approaches. Back in 2013 I didn’t have much work and I certainly didn’t have a Netflix account (was it even a thing then?) and what my uncertain future told me was that I was worthless. All those age-old insecurities of mine like not achieving enough, not having a coherent life plan and not having enough friends came back with vengeance. My defences were down and I wasn’t happy.

As you can imagine things weren’t great for a while but rather than dwell on that (which I’ve done elsewhere) what I want to focus on is how I began to change my relationship with uncertainty. After my Masters I signed up to a course called One Year In Transition, for people who want to do a little good with the work they do but also don’t have a clue where to start. There were six of us doing it and occasionally we’d meet up or Skype, to check in and see how we were coping. I wasn’t always coping very well. As part of the course I was assigned a personal mentor who I would chat with every few weeks and who would give me advice on life stuff. The group was fab and so was my mentor and I will never forget what she said when I started telling her about how awful everything was, about all the loneliness, anger, frustration, insecurity, lack of direction etc. She said one word: welcome. As simple as that, she welcomed all those feelings, and in doing so showed me how to begin to deal with uncertainty. More soon. Not 100% sure this song fits but, hey, some of us get humans as mentors and others get demi-gods.

The Poem In My Pants

Last Thursday evening I was downstairs at Ku Bar in Soho for the last Let’s Talk Gay Sex & Drugs open mic night hosted by Pat Cash. I’ve been a few times and it’s ace (so is Pat). There’s usually a theme and everyone gets five minutes to do whatever they like – read a poem, sing a song, speak from the heart, plug a show, all sorts. I’ve tended to read short stories, something poignant about my experience of queerness and the queer community in 2017. I’ve usually edited and practised the story a lot in advance and love it when I get applauded at the end. The thing is though, I’ve kinda been hiding behind my stories, only revealing myself through the odd metaphor and simile. So last week I thought I would expose myself, which is why I stripped to my pants and read a poem.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0e/Boxer_shorts.svg/600px-Boxer_shorts.svg.png I did this for many reasons. Firstly, for those of you who don’t know Ku Bar, whilst it’s a fab gay bar, it’s also the case that each topless barman is basically a model and all the TV screens project images of hunky men with 8-packs. If you have any hang ups about your body it’s not the easiest of places to be. So bearing my hairy shoulders and my lack of a 6-pack, felt like a political act in itself. For too long I’ve cared about what others think of my body and I’ve projected my insecurities at people I think are hotter than me. I assume the world has only judgemental eyes and is critiquing every hair and mark on my body. But when I was up there reading my poem I stopped caring and just enjoyed my five minutes. If there were people in the audience thinking that I have an awful body or that I’m ugly, then that’s their problem because I imagine they still believe in a conception of beauty that prioritises toned, white, male bodies over all other forms of body. And to that iteration of beauty, I call bullshit.

I am done with the beauty pyramid that ranks us in leagues and fills us all with shame and self-loathing – whether that shame takes us to the gym everyday to work on our abs or that shame means we don’t go clubbing anymore because of the way people have treated for how we look. Instead, I think beauty is for everyone. We are all beautiful and we must give ourselves permission to be. Simultaneously, we must also give others permission to be beautiful no matter how ‘far’ they are from the norm of beauty we’ve been brought up on. Love goes both ways, as does shame, and I’d far rather be able to look myself in the mirror and like the person staring back at me while also letting myself have off days, be unattractive and just to be human. And yes, challenging and changing beauty norms is not easy and there is so much work to do but maybe it starts with shamelessly (and safely) showing ourselves to the world. In essence, I got on that podium for me – to turn all these ideas about beauty into an act, the act of stripping to my pants and reading a poem. Now I’ve done it, I don’t fear it so much, and maybe I’ll do it again.

The Origin of Love ft. Mika

When I was 21 I believed the world was a clock. I thought nature was a very complex machine and humans were just walking, thinking robots. Everything ticked, clicked and slotted into place. But there was one problem – consciousness – y’know, all those feelings and experiences we have, whether it’s the colour red, a surge of love or the taste of chocolate. How could a glorified wind-up toy experience these things? It took a thoroughly irritating philosophy tutor of mine (like, so irritating) and a genius biologist to upend this mechanistic view of the world. The philosophy tutor tried to convince me that the mind was immaterial (i.e. not mechanical) and mental experiences (like sights, thoughts, sounds etc) couldn’t be reduced to material things (like neurons, particles and clockwork). Meanwhile, the biologist, who I liked a lot more, told me that even though he did not hold the same view as my philosophy tutor, it still couldn’t be disproved. Maybe the mind really was immaterial and the world was so much more than a clock. Cue epiphany.

The soundtrack for my ensuing epiphany was Yael Naim’s song, Brand New Soul, and as I walked the sunny streets of Oxford I suddenly had this feeling that I was opening new eyes to the world. I no longer saw everything as predictable and mechanic but immaterial and spiritual. I visited a Church, did some Buddhist meditation and generally felt like my heart was exploding. It really was an epic experience and the closest I’ve ever come to a religious epiphany. There may also have been some correlation with the fact that in a few months time I would be experiencing my first bout of severe depression and feeling that my world was crumbling around me (more on that anon) but during the fun bit of my epiphany I had this sense that there was one force governing the universe – not clockwork, or the laws of physics, but love. I believed that love was at the centre of everything we did (hence the hanging out with Christians and Buddhists). I came to believe that even the most heinous acts had their origins, somewhere, in love and if only we could be allowed to connect with this powerful, universal force. Love was the origin of everything.

That was some nine years ago and, now, I no longer believe love is at the centre of the universe. I think gravity, atoms and other such things are very important and I think hate, anger and despair are also woven into the fabric of the human condition. But something I have been doing since reading lots of philosophy books at university and having minor epiphanies is getting out more. I have planted my feet into a foot of freshly turned soil, I have swum in very cold Welsh rivers and walked up a mountain. And it’s there – in nature – that I find soul (maybe just another word for mind), not way beyond my earthly condition in some immaterial plain. Love is still a part of this, not the only part, but a vital part. It is a both a source of energy – something that powers me in the good I do and in the better I try to be when I do bad – and it is a choice – I can choose to act in a loving way or not, and bear the consequences of my decision. As for the origin of love – I believe it’s us, in all of us, mirrored in the acts of the creatures we have evolved from and metaphorically represented in each nourishing ray of sun. Love does not have to be a literal constituent of atoms, as I once thought it might be, but it can be the guiding force for all that we do. Not a law of physics or a diktat from the heavens but a choice borne of mind, heart and soul. Not an easy choice either but one worth making if we can.

Thor: Hela Hath No Fury Like Cate Blanchett Scorned

When I was little I was always rooting for the baddies – Scar was just so much more fun than moralistic Mufasa and his arrogant son; Jafar was fab, even his facial expressions were more interesting than anything cocksure Aladdin did, and Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is fab. In hindsight, I think it’s because these characters oozed rebellion and camp, giving two murderous fingers to all those endless cis, straight men who ruled their worlds awfully but called themselves Gods, Kings and heroes while they were at it. Twenty odd years later and nothing has changed – boy, did I want Cate Blanchett’s Hela, Goddess of Death, to skewer Thor, God of cisgendered, heteronormative patriarchy and smash his home planet of Asgard into smithereens (spoilers). And she almost succeeded.

I went to the cinema for dramatic and colourful escapism and I got it – there were more rainbows in Thor: Ragnarok than in a well-lit museum of prisms and we got a fair few shots of Chris Hemsworth’s buff chest. Cate Blanchett’s arrival was epic – she crushed Thor’s hammer-penis-ego-extension thing with one hand. There was some funny bromance between Thor and the Hulk (tbh, Chris Hemsworth is really funny), Tom Hiddlestone grinned his way through one of Marvel’s only memorable villains – Loki, and Tessa Thompson’s character, Valkyrie, was an alcoholic, gambling warrioress who kicked butt on her own terms and answered to no man (until she suddenly changes her mind and acknowledges Thor as King at movie’s end). Of course, this is Hollywood and all the usual failings are there – why is there only one well-rounded female character in the group of male heroes, why not two or three (or y’know, the whole fucking group), and any trans or nonbinary heroes…nope. Why is the Grand Master of the bizarre planet of Sakaar a man, albeit a hilarious, exceptionally camp Jeff Goldblum? Why is Hela’s assistant a man? Why was the one scene that would confirm Valkyrie’s bisexuality cut? Why was Korg’s (a male warrior made from rocks) first love not mentioned, a first love who was a man? Why was Loki’s gender fluidity and probable pansexuality unmentioned? Of course, we know why and it’s going to be years before diversity triumphs over patriarchy.

But something I did enjoy was Cate Blanchett’s unashamed villainy. She is Thor and Loki’s elder sister and firstborn of idiot patriarch Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins). She reveals the sordid truth behind Asgard’s glory – that all the gold and treasure was gained through bloodshed and annihilation, with her being her father’s executioner (maybe an allusion to the US and its legacy of slavery and militaristic imperialism often papered over by photographable presidents…until Trump, who is just plain awful and too stupid to be considered a super villain). Yup, Odin trained his own daughter to be a psychopathic mass-murderer then banished her when her power grew more than his. So, whilst it’s hard to root for her genocidal intent I did get where she was coming from and struggled to see her out-witted by a group of men and a token Valkyrie (who doesn’t get an actual name beyond her race). But at least when Hela gets destroyed, Asgard, planet of sociopathic, patriarchal monarchy, goes with her. Unfortunately, the film still ends with Thor taking the throne because Hollywood isn’t ready to give up on white men running everything. But times are changing, incredibly slowly, and Raganarok – the death of the Gods in Norse mythology – isn’t over yet. The heroes of colour are amassing as are the female heroes and the queer ones – soon, cis, straight, white men will be the disposable, comedy sidekicks and we’ll get the rainbow warriors we deserve. Now here’s Jafar owning Genie, because even though that movie went straight to video it was still one of my favourites (although this was before I learned about post-colonialism and cultural appropriation).

I Got Sorted Into Gryffindor…Ugh

I had mixed feelings when I finished the Pottermore Sorting Hat test because it put me in Gryffindor. I’d always associated the house of the lion with arrogant upstarts like prefect Percy Weasley who takes far too much pride in his factionalism and being better than others. And, yeah, bravery and daring are great but not when they go hand in hand with a giant ego and even greater arrogance to boot. As for chivalry, I thought that was dead or at least extremtly unfashionable.  But the funny thing is, after a Slytheriny experience at boarding school and much Ravenclawing at university, I ended up getting involved in a bit of campaigning and activism. Sure, I was trying to make a difference but boy does the life of a “Social Justice Warrior” come with all the Gryffindor traits and not just the good ones.

As an SJW I cast myself as exceptionally brave and daring, taking on a corrupt and immoral system that gobbles most of us up. I talked about the environment a lot, went vegan for a while and met lots of ace people. Together we laughed in the face of the right-wing media as it labelled us ‘lefty loons’ and ‘deranged socialists’, whilst the Alt-Right and fans of Milo Yiannopoulos had even worse things to say. In response, we prided ourselves on being better than those greedy right-wing Slytherins, they were just a basket of deplorables after all who’d trade their grandma for a promotion. But the irony was that as us SWJs got a little too comfortable on our high horses so we inspired our opponents to do exactly the same. It was a war of attrition as each side tried to out-meme and insult the other. As for some sort of dialogue in the middle, nah, we were Gryffindor, the best, and of course our movement/campaign/action/protest/saving-the-planet-thingy was the most important one of all.

But I’ve never been much of a fan of cliques, recognising they’re just a tool to quell collective insecurities and blunt nuanced thinking. Cliqueiness sucks, whichever side of the political divide it falls on. And I think that’s part of the problem too,  just as the Sorting Hat ensures nice children become nasty factionalists, so splitting ourselves into simplistic political boxes such as ‘left’ and ‘right’ means we too easily ignore the things that we might have in common with others. Yet it is precisely these commonalities, be it a love of nature, a thirst for adventure, a passion for teaching, that transcend the political divide, reminding us that we are humans before we are SJWs, Alt-Righters, Gryffindors or Slytherins. The Harry Potter novels prove that the housing system is inherently flawed (why let a fricking hat decide childrens’ fates after all!?) and while we are still living through divided and hateful times I think it worth taking a moment to imagine a future without factions, houses and Sorting Hats (so many spoilers in the video below).

Why I Left Ravenclaw

Having worked super hard at boarding school (and I mean making extra revision notes from text books sort of super hard) I got a place at Oxford University to study Philosophy and Psychology. Hurrah! Off I went to the city of dreaming spires to spend way too long in libraries reading up on the likes of Descartes, Spinoza and Derrida. It was a world of books and my philosophically inclined chums and I enjoyed spending many an hour weaving up elaborate arguments about why Mill’s Utilitarianism was better than Aristotle’s virtue ethics. If we sound like super-nerds, well, no, we just loved books, like, really loved them. We were living out our Ravenclaw fantasies and that was absolutely fine…until we graduated.

It was a little bit of a shock to discover that being able to cite Aristotle wasn’t useful for navigating office politics and/or working the photocopier. But worse than my lack of practical skills was a severe lack of humility. Spending lots of time with ancient Greek philosophers may have led me to believe I was the sh*t (at least in my own warped world where essays on Plato were the benchmark for worthiness), especially when surrounded by plenty of other Type A personalities who believed the same thing. And Oxford University itself has a brand of ‘being the sh*t’ to maintain, so it’s kind of a collective delusion based on pro-plus, overwork, low self-esteem, self-loathing and plenty of mental health problems (ok, there’s a bit of world-class research that goes on there too, apparently). So it came as a nasty surprise to learn that lots of people didn’t actually give two hoots (of a screech owl) about Aristotle, Plato or any other random man with a beard that I’d spent far too long studying. Sure, those guys get their heads put on pedestals in museums but if there’s one thing us overly heady Ravenclaws need to do, it’s climb down off our self-styled pedestals before we’re knocked off.

So I graduated, made the mistake of going back for a Masters, finally learned my lesson, and left the shadow of the dreaming spires to do other things like write blogs and stories. Yes, my time at Ravenclaw was both brilliant and bonkers, filled with insight, fun, depression and various identity crises, but I think the trick to a happier life is to try and take the wisdom acquired from learning and turn it into something practical and accessible that can change the world we’re living in. Knowledge is for everyone and it’s not for the academy to hoard it and look snobbishly down on everyone who didn’t get a place at high table. Witty, wise and clever sounds like an ace personality combo but it’s what you do that counts not how many books you’ve read. Now, can you solve the riddle?