Ending 2016 With Lorde

So, it’s the end of 2016, which at times seemed like a pretty apocalyptic year. Trump got in, Brexit got voted for, Syria still rages through war and not to mention the 6th mass extinction and resource depletion. It seems all those stories about humans conquering the world, about technology solving all our problems, about the forward trajectory of human civilisation, well, they turned out to be pretty shoddy stories with a shed load of plot flaws and inconsistencies. Fortunately, we’ve got Lorde, the singer songwriter, to offer us some guidance and it comes in her song Team.

The video and the lyrics go hand in hand as they paint a picture of faded grandeur. A city that’s slowly falling apart, the sort of place “you’ll never see on-screen, not very pretty,” – nothing like the Kardashians’ numerous houses. It’s a place where guys joust with baseball bats on motorbikes and grin chipped tooth smiles as the blood trickles down their noses. It’s an apocalyptic rite of passage as people get initiated into meaningless. “Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams” and that’s where we seem to be retreating these days, to inside our heads, far away from the dangers of the world, far away from the grim realities of climate change and refugee crises. Although even for Lorde that palace in her dreams is falling apart. It seems nowhere is safe anymore.

But maybe, in and amongst the debris, there’s hope. “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, So there.” Maybe Lorde’s bored of being told to give up and surrender, maybe she does want meaning in a culture that’s regularly telling her nothing matters and we should all just give up. Sure, the old stories might not make sense – that everything would end happily ever after – but the people telling those stories were clearly quite deluded (and probably very privileged). What if it’s this naive belief in stories – that life has clear and well-structured beginnings, middles and ends, like fairy tales – that’s the problem. What if finding meaning in today’s world will take more than a simplistic story structure.

“And everyone’s competing for a love they won’t receive, ‘Cause what this palace wants is release.” Lorde’s right again, we are competing, constantly hoping this life of high consumerism, economic reductionism and endless comparison will give us meaning as we shove one another aside to get what we want and get happy trying. That seems so much to be the dominant story of now. But beyond the credit card transactions and the debt, like Lorde, we crave release – release from these highly conditioning bonds of consumer capitalism. Or maybe this is just an exceptionally self-indulgent blog written by a directionless yet privileged millenial – a bit like the sort of people Lorde sings about perhaps.

But, as self-indulgent as I can be, I do want to do something about the mess we’re in, even if the contribution is small and it still all ends in apocalypse (bearing in mind that countless people are already living and dying through various incarnations of hell on earth). And I think Lorde’s song holds the key. She offers us the answer for getting out of this debt-heavy, meaning-lite existence because “you know, we’re on each other’s team.” Somewhere beyond the narratives of endless competition there is a story of teamwork, a more meaningful story in which we join forces and learn to share. And it will be so much more than a story, it will be real human experiences of compassion and community. Better to rebuild ruins together than be forced to live in them alone.

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Turns Out We’re All Insecure

We have a habit of projecting success onto others. We see our facebook friends’ holiday pics and assume their lives are just fantastic – they have the best holidays, they have the most fun friends and they have a monopoly on the sun. We see attractive people walking down the street and assume their lives are great – with a face like that they must get invited to all the best parties, have no self-esteem issues and have great sex. We see our hyper-successful boss and assume they’ve got it all sorted – a big salary, a big house with equally big happiness to boot. And all the while as we project success we internalise failure, telling ourselves our lives aren’t busy enough, we haven’t got enough friends and we’re just not good enough (or whatever our hook-ups are). But the thing is, it turns out we all do this because everyone’s insecure.

It’s not that we’re the only ones failing to find that abundant happiness we assume everyone else thrives in, it’s actually that we are all subject to the same slings and arrows of consumer capitalism. It makes us all feel inadequate, even those at the ‘top’ because there’s always more to buy, more money to make, the possibility of looking a bit better, having more friends, the list goes on. It’s a zero-sum game and there are only a few seats at the top table. But no one really wins and the very idea that society is predicated on the concept of winning, that it’s a competition, makes its inherent madness all the more obvious.

However, insecurity goes much deeper than the effects of living under capitalism, it goes right to the heart of the human condition. Regardless of how many holidays we go on, how often we shop and how ‘good’ we look, there are things universal to being human, namely ageing, illness and grief. We all get old, we all get ill and we all lose people we love. All of these are perfectly normal and natural but that does not make them easy. It’s not just that advertising campaigns make ageing a sin it’s also that losing things you once enjoyed is tough. Meanwhile, illness can knock us for six and, depending on its severity, change our lives forever. And loss. That empty feeling that can overwhelm our hearts when we lose a loved one and struggle to comprehend what death actually is, that is also very, very tough. Living, whilst often flipping fantastic, can also be devastating and difficult. Thus, interwoven into the very fabric of our being is the fragility and vulnerability of being alive. Our insecurity is part of who we are (not to mention the fact that we all die but that’s another blog, or book).

We are all insecure and for so many reasons. We all have different histories, no two experiences of grief will be the same, just as ageing and illness will affect us all differently. As will enduring and attempting to thrive in the zero-sum world of competitive capitalism. And why is it useful to know this? It’s not to make us feel better by luxuriating in the suffering of others instead it’s to let us all off the hook a bit. We can stop pretending everything’s ‘fine’ when it’s not and ask for help instead. We can also be a little more compassionate towards others recognising that no matter how irritating they are they will have their issues and sufferings too. So if I am going to make any categorical statement about the human condition on this blog it will be this: that, on the surface and in our deepest depths, we are all insecure.

Jess Glynne Has Low Standards

News just in, Jess Glynne has low standards, very low standards, and it’s what’s keeping her happy.

There’s a lot of pressure on people to be happy these days: we’ve got to be seen to be busy doing fun things, always smiling, always making the most of life, always on top form, always posting exciting new pics on social media. But often the mask doesn’t fit the reality. “I came here with a broken heart that no one else could see, I drew a smile on my face to paper over me,” sings Glynne in her latest song, and haven’t we all done this before – hidden how we truly feel because we want to fit in. We’re ashamed of not being happy, of being sad, lonely, or bored. “I feel like I’ve been missing me, Was not who I’m supposed to be, I felt this darkness over me, We all get there eventually, I never knew where I belonged.” And Glynne’s right, all this effort we put into constructing an artificially happy self can detract from the often painful but very important task of getting to know ourselves.

But there’s hope and Glynne knows it. “I learned to wave goodbye, How not to see my life, Through someone else’s eyes, It’s not an easy road, But no I’m not alone.” Constantly comparing ourselves to others can be very stressful. When we compare it’s often with other people’s external lives – the stuff they post on social media and the things they feel comfortable talking about surrounded by others. And it’s easy to think that our life is failing because we don’t seem as happy. But other people are people too, they’ll also feel down in the dumps, have bad days and weeks. So it doesn’t make sense to compare our inner lives with others’ outer lives. Of course, comparing less isn’t easy, as Glynne points out, but it’s a good place to start.

“Learn to forgive, learn to let go, Everyone trips, everyone falls.” Yet more sage advice – we do make mistakes all the time and the trick isn’t to beat ourselves up when we fall, it’s to get back up again and learn from our mistakes, even if we make them again. It’s not easy but in time it can work, “But wounds heal and tears dry and cracks they don’t show.” Or maybe the cracks do show, as scars, the scars of living life (wrinkles in our skin if you like) but surely they’re just testimony to being human and trying to live the human condition. “I’m just tired of marching on my own, Kind of frail, I feel it in my bones, Won’t let my heart, my heart turn into stone.” And life can get tiring especially if you do feel alone and isolated, caught in the stigma that being unhappy, sad and facing difficulty is somehow wrong and a sign of failure. I certainly remember a vivid period of depression in my early 20s. I feared telling other people about it because I felt ashamed and confused. But then I made a new friend who was also suffering from depression and we spoke to each other about it, without judgement just with support, and it made all the difference. So the hope is that we won’t always have to march alone but can reach out to others for support.

“I’m standin’ on top of the world, right where I wanna be, So how can this dark cloud be raining over me.” Yup, even when we feel we¬†should¬†be happy because everything’s going well doesn’t mean we actually feel happy. But Glynne’s got a remedy: “But hearts break and hells a place that everyone knows, So don’t be so hard on yourself.” And that’s just it, we are often so hard on ourselves, we often beat ourselves up for not meeting certain standards of success, perfection, constant happiness, etc. Instead, maybe we could lower these standards and just let ourselves be fallible, fragile humans with hearts that our vulnerable and eminently breakable. We don’t have to be happy all the time and we don’t have to be mean to ourselves when we’re unhappy. So yeah, I’m with Glynne on this one, those standards – drop ’em.

MOLI – Missing Out & Loving It

We’ve all heard of FOMO – the Fear Of Missing Out – a phenomenon that’s on the rise given the proliferation of social media and all the ways we can discover what we’re not doing. There’s facebook to tell us about all the parties our friends are at but we’re not, twitter to point out all the job opportunities we’re letting slip by, tinder to remind us of all the people who aren’t that into us and instagram to show us all the beaches we are not sunbathing on. The sheer quantity of stuff we’re not doing can get overwhelming, indeed FOMO forms part of many mental health problems including anxiety and depression. Whilst this blog will not deal with these more severe and distressing instances of missing out I do want to offer a simple way of getting over mild cases of FOMO – it’s called MOLI – Missing Out & Loving It.

Suffering from FOMO can be a bit like the five stages of grief – first there’s denial: “I’m not going to Petra’s party but I’m fine with that, totally fine.” Then there’s anger: “Why didn’t Petra invite me to the party? What’s wrong with me, I’m fun aren’t I? Dam Petra and her party to hell!” Then bargaining, “Come on Petra, please invite me, come on Petra” (although this we’re more likely to say in our head rather than out loud). And depression: “I’m super sad that I’m not going to the party, *unhappy emoticon*”. And finally acceptance: “I’m not going to the party…oh…it’s already the next day and the party’s over.”

It’s a difficult process to go through and often very unpleasant. However, I reckon MOLI can be employed as a means of avoiding stages one through to four and getting straight to the final bit, acceptance. Basically, everyday there are literally billions of things we aren’t doing, there are jobs we’re not applying for, new friends we’re not making, partners we’re not falling in love with, parties we’re not going to etc but rather than let these things overwhelm us we can get a little Buddhist on it and just shrug it off – “Sure these things are happening but hey I’ll just enjoy the stuff I am doing (even if it’s just chilling at home watching Bake Off and eating a Mars Bar).”

Consumer culture thrives off making us dissatisfied with our lives – always a new top to buy, the latest trendy bar to drink at, a new clique to hang out with – whilst actively discouraging us from finding pleasure and meaning in the stuff we do do. We’re constantly encouraged to look away from what we’ve got towards what we don’t have. But we can reverse this – we can look closer to home at the friends we do hang out with, the events we do go to and the things we do treasure rather than constantly comparing ourselves to others. It’s a gentle habit we can foster by making a point of enjoying the stuff we’ve got. We can certainly acknowledge the stuff we’re not doing but most of the time that’s fine, why not just let it go screw itself and enjoy what’s happening here and now.

If MOLI doesn’t work one back up plan is IPS – It’s Probably Shit – sure they’re all smiling in the photos and it’s sunny but think of all the stuff you can’t see – Paul’s suffering from a terrible stomach bug and has actually spent most of the holiday in bed/on the loo, Jabrill and Maya have just had another relationship row, Archie’s been drinking way too much again and Marie’s wondering why she got in so much debt for this shoddy holiday anyway. They might be putting on some convincing fake smiles but It’s Probably Shit.

So yeah, I’m Missing Out but, guess what, I’m Loving It. Unlike this woman…

Is It Just A Cake?

There’s something amiss in the Bake Off tent, not quite rotten but still not quite right. It’s visible in the eyes of the contestants as they wait nervously for Mary and Paul to judge their baking. It’s in the wringing of hands, the stressful sighs and the general air of fear. It bubbled to the surface most overtly when, in episode one, one of the contestant’s Black Forest gateaux kind of just fell apart in an oozing, chocolately mess. Minutes from the deadline she began to cry and comedian Sue Perkins came to console her saying “it’s just a cake” to which she replied “it’s not just a cake.” If this is indeed the case and it is not just a cake then that begs the question what exactly is it?

As the Court of Denmark in the play Hamlet comes to act as a metaphor for the entire body politic of the country, symbolic perhaps also of Elizabethan England, then perhaps there are ways in which the Bake Off tent is a metaphor for our own society. From birth onwards we are relentlessly judged – our parents/guardians/carers tell us how and how not to behave, our teachers deem us worthy by giving us marks and grades, professors at university do the same except the marks tend to be lower, our bosses tell us if we’re good or not via the medium of money (if we’re lucky enough to have a paid job), mainstream advertising likes to remind us that we’re not good enough, newspapers like to scapegoat and blame whole groups of people and even our friends and loved ones will often be there to remind us what we could be doing better.

It is from this societal context of relentless comparison and competition that the twelve bakers arrive at the tent. Judging only what I’ve been shown in the first hour-long episode it seems like lots of them have something to prove – they want to prove they’re good at baking, really good. This could be a healthy, competitive attitude but when one contestant explained that her mum had told her not to bother coming home if she got kicked out in the first round one does start to wonder. Furthermore, as Paul Hollywood reminds us, the contestants, whilst great bakers, are at “the bottom of pack of great bakers”. It’s so hard to be the best especially when Hollywood and Mary Berry seem to have a monopoly on bestness anyway, it’s an ever elusive goal that we can be goaded into pursuing even though we’ll never attain it. It’s basically the mantra of our society – work harder, be better, work harder still and one day you might be happy (oh, and don’t complain whilst you’re at it, all that stiff upper lip and ‘keep calm and carry on’ sort of thing).

And then there are the facial expressions. The grimaces of fear and anxiety as Berry considers the flavour and Hollywood judges the sogginess of the bottom juxtaposed with the sighs of relief when the baked goods have been judged worthy. It seems like one major ingredient in the Bake Off tent is desperation as contestants try to fill the holes in their hearts with nods of approval from Mary Berry and a delicious assortment of baked goods. The idea that these people may already be more than enough just as they are and don’t need to prove anything to anyone seems an alien concept when it all comes down to being the best.

At the end of the episode one of the contestants (the one whose cake collapsed) admits that she feels like she’s “been initiated into truly what Bake Off means”. What, then, is that? Is it to strive constantly to impress others hoping that their admiration will yield a sense of worthiness? Is it to chastise oneself for every soggy bottom and forget to celebrate every other solid bottom? Is it to whip guilt and despair with a tantalising sprinkle of unattainable hope all served on a dish of insecurity? If so it sure makes for compelling viewing!

Great British Bake Off
Judging you worthy: Bake Off judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry