Do You Deserve To Be Loved (feat. Regina Spetkor)?

We often think that we deserve to be loved. For example, take the person who has been in the ‘single wilderness’ for so long, y’know, the place that smugly coupled folk tell us is the worst place ever. So, we’re there, in that forest battling the brambles of loneliness, the ditches of bad dates and the poisonous berries of awkward-pauses-in-conversations-with-friends until we see them, the one! Suddenly the dates are fun and we’ve got so much to talk about and then it’s six months later and we’re partnered, hurrah! And after all that time of being single, as we lay down our head next to that of our partner’s we might engage in an indulgent sigh and think, “I deserve this.” But what if we don’t?

In a previous post I wrote about doing away with the concepts of earning and deserving, and now I’m going to apply that idea to love. The verb to deserve comes from the Latin deservire, ‘serve well’, itself made from de-, ‘completely’ and servire, ‘to serve’. And all this talk of serving just makes me think of servitude and slavery (which was very big back in Ancient Rome). Deserving requires at least a two-way relationship between the person who has done something of merit and the person who owes them something in return. In other words, to deserve something means you’ve got to earn it. Yet all of these words are inherently and historically economic, they are about transactions and I’m not convinced that love can be rendered in a spreadsheet. Love is not a calculation.

Of course, love does involve give and take: we all make changes in our lives to suit our partner/s and the hope is that they will do the same for us. But underneath all this there is a different sort of love: love as an intense, wonderful, biological and metaphysical experience. Love as that feeling when our whole body scintillates at the presence of the person or people we care for. Love as something that sends us to the moon and back. And there is something else that love is: a choice. It’s not just about feeling amazing it is also about taking responsibility for our actions, keeping promises and ensuring that intense feeling translates into something our loved ones can cherish. Or at least that is one way of looking at love should you choose to drop the ideas of deserving, earning and owing. Love is too great to be reduced to a calculation and whilst the idea that we all deserve to be loved is very prevalent I think we can drop the economics and instead choose to love, as simple (and difficult) as that. We can make love a fundamental part of the human experience and hope others will do the same. And I reckon it starts with the  simple act of standing in front of a mirror, looking ourselves in the eye, not flinching and saying those three magic words. And we’ve got to mean them too (and if we struggle, we can get a friend to help).

T2 Trainspotting And Why Men Can Be Idiots

So, T2 Trainspotting is happening. Twenty years after the events of the original movie and that loveable bunch of drug taking Edinburgh-based rogues aren’t faring too well. What ensues is another ride of exceptionally dark comedy, musings on ageing and a wee bit of drug taking on the side. The lads are struggling with the whole growing older thing and are stuck between emptyish lives and nostalgia for a past they only part remember. I shan’t spoil any of the plot but if you loved the first movie then you’ll like this. The soundtrack is also pretty kick-ass. Instead, I want to refer you to a brief clip from the Graham Norton Show in which the team behind T2 were interviewed including director Danny Boyle and lead actor Ewen McGregor.

It’s a fascinating clip especially because it’s about two men who fell out and then took years to forgive one another. As Boyle says “it’s one of the things weirdly the film is about…trying to express emotions.” Of course, what he doesn’t specify is that it’s about men trying to express emotions (most likely cisgendered men and probably heterosexual), indeed, the majority of the film is about men being men (and fucking it up) with the odd women doing a cameo appearance.

As Boyle and McGregor explain they fell out over a “misunderstanding” about the former not casting the latter in the very successful film The Beach. However,  McGregor acknowledges that “it was never about The Beach it was about [their] friendship” but the incident led to years of them not talking to one another. However, as time passed their views changed what with McGregor doing a wonderful speech about another hit film of Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Boyle describing feeling a great “shame” about how he handled the situation. And years later there they both were in 1st class on a plane back from Shanghai, the only ones still awake on their luxury beds, and McGregor thought the time had come – the time to get up, say sorry and mend the past. Of course, that’s how it would play out in a movie (because in movies people tend to learn their lessons) but in reality neither of them spoke to one another and there was no heartfelt reunion. And, my god, is this just another example of how men can be so terrible at communicating. I was raised a cisgendered man and there was scant little education in understanding and expressing my emotions and feelings. I didn’t quite fit the mould of typical masculinity but it was still the predominant lifestyle option and, boy, was it lacking.

So, it’s not weird at all that T2 is about men failing to communicate with one another and living pretty sad and often scary lives as a consequence and nor is it a surprise that a similar turn of events happened in the lives of the real people behind the film. Of course, they’re big dog Hollywood millionaires but that doesn’t mean they’re rich in the ability to communicate. So, men, I really think it’s time we learnt our lessons and realised that a greater awareness of our emotions is not a weakness or something to be ashamed of, it is actually empowering because the human being is basically one giant bundle of feelings that occasionally thinks. And sure, there would be less plot devices for movies because men would start getting things right and stop trying to kill each other so often but at least we’d get happier endings in real life, preferably without a twenty year time gap.

Grieving With Regina Spektor

The Light, it’s an incredibly simple song by Regina Spektor. The lyrics are not complex, they tell of someone falling asleep into familiar dreams and then waking up to the light of morning. They talk of sunlight, stars, memories and the wisdom of the morning. Yet I find this song incredibly sad and whilst I do not know quite how to interpret the lyrics they wake in me a grief for things lost. “So many things I know,” sings Spektor, “But they don’t help me. Each day I open up my eyes and start again.” And there is something in that – the notion of waking up to another day and starting again. For that is something the aggrieved must do, wake up and live on, despite their loss.

My last surviving grandparent, my gran, died a few years ago. I remember getting a call in which I was told that she was close to dying. So I got on a train, headed north and stood at the side of her nursing home bed whilst she slipped away into death. It was a surreal moment especially as the woman I stood next to looked nothing like the woman I’d known as a kid, who would chase me up stairs, put plasters on my cuts and generally be as silly as I was. I remember the train journey home after the funeral, I was looking out the window with tears streaming down my face trying not to freak out the passenger next to me. I just didn’t get it, I just didn’t get why I was crying so much. That was until someone close to me said this: “when someone you love dies, it’s just sad.”

And it’s as simple as that. When you love someone they are wound around your heart, embedded in the fabric of your being. You might see them lots or only occasionally or not have seen them for years but memories persist, especially the ones that are born of love. When that person passes away the part of you that is them suddenly aches. All those memories you shared, as taken for granted as they may be, suddenly reverberate with loss and the knowledge that no new memories can be forged is heart breaking. And it breaks my heart that it took my gran passing away for me to remember quite how important she was in my life. Still, I am grateful for all those memories and the fantastic woman that was my gran. I don’t know how to interpret The Light by Regina Spektor but it awakes a sense of grief in me and for that I am glad. And like Regina those who have lost must wake up every morning over and over again until, perhaps, normality is returned to. But not the normality of old but a new normal in which love and loss are now intertwined. It’s often a very sad world we live in and to pretend otherwise I think is to deceive ourselves. I consider this song an honouring of grief, as devastating a process as it is I think it an important one. I speak only for myself and do not wish to make glib comments about ‘moving on’ or to dictate to anyone how they should experience their grief. Yet maybe something in what I say rings true and you recognise some of your own experiences in mine and maybe the song evokes something for you too. As I often do I’ll give Regina Spektor the last word.

That Night I Met Loneliness

I’ve known loneliness for years now but there is one night in particular back in the summer of 2015 that sticks in my memory. My life seemed a bit discombobulated at the time – I wasn’t getting a lot of work, I’d recently moved and things weren’t really slotting into place. And it was one of those evenings – I was out at dinner but wasn’t really connecting with the people around me and didn’t feel very listened to. I said goodbye and cycled over to see some newish friends in a pub but it was too late, I was slipping away and those stories were coming home to roost. The stories of how I had no friends, that I was pointless and worthless, that what I was doing wasn’t really contributing to anything and that I wasn’t living the glamorous 20s lifestyle I was supposed to be. The stories were coming and the cracks were opening. So I left the pub, got on my bike and cycled away.

But for the first time in a long time I did something different. I sang. I just started singing nonsense rhymes as I cycled, not because I’m much of a singer but because I wanted to block out the stories. I wanted to stop them creeping in and making themselves at home. So many times before those stories had destabilised me and often tipped me into periods of depression. I sang to stop myself from thinking. I got back to the random little house I was lodging in and got ready for bed. And there, in the bathroom, I felt something well up inside of me. It wasn’t a story because it wasn’t coming from my head instead it was a feeling in my chest. It felt like an emptiness, it was bleak and desolate, growing between the cracks, and slowly it pushed its way up from my heart and that’s when I started to cry. I cried a lot and hugged myself too as I washed my tears down the sink with toothpaste and Listerine. The feeling bloomed and I knew what it was – loneliness.

I thought I’d share this experience because I think that was the first time I ever psychologically and physically held myself through loneliness. Rather than just let it overwhelm me and flood me with its stories I acknowledged the feeling underneath. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, not at all, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but it was a feeling rather than a fact. And to let myself feel it, rather than push it away or succumb to its stories, felt like an achievement of sorts, as lonely as it was. This was by no means the end of the story, things didn’t magically get better and I didn’t suddenly feel fine. I’d need much support from my friends and family (and for once I had the guts to ask for it) and I would need to start slowly, slowly changing the things in my life that were bringing me down. I started with those oft-repeated stories, the ones that thrive off the potent and powerful emptiness of the feeling of loneliness. I had to keep reminding myself that they weren’t true and that I wasn’t worthless. But I guess the real reason I’m sharing this experience is that I’ve heard many people tell me that they fear loneliness. And, yes, it is not something nice and for many it is devastating and can’t just be witnessed and ameliorated. However, for others including myself, it is a feeling and it does pass. And it’s also perfectly normal, a part of all of our lives, and that’s why I was very proud of myself that night I met my loneliness. And now for a suitably melancholic song from Regina Spektor’s new album (yup, I’m just trying to get her to retweet me, one day).

The Problem With Couples

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love couples. There are some great couples out there like Paul & Mary, Ben & Jerry, Brad & Angelina…oh. But sometimes couples can be problematic and here’s one of the ways I think that’s true. So, picture this: six nice people sat around a table at a restaurant having lunch. They’re all catching up about their lives, eating lettuce and sipping smoothies, something like that. They each take it in turn to talk about their lives and it turns out the first four are all straight and in relationships. They’re waxing lyrical about their partner, s/he is just fantastic, s/he just swam the Channel, s/he just invented a cure for cancer, etc. Wonderful. Isn’t that nice. However, person number five is straight and single and when it’s their turn things get a little awkward, they’re not in a relationship after all. As for person number six, they’re single and queer, so that awkward silence just got awkwarder. You get the gist right, let’s take a closer look.

Our society is just rammed with narratives that pressure us into believing in and aspiring to certain things. A big one concerns relationships. Rom coms, billboards, novels, magazines etc all encourage us to find that perfect partner. Alongside getting a job, getting enough money and finding meaning, finding ‘the one’ is just another box we need to tick on that all important list of ‘things you need to do to not be a total failure’. And it’s a huge relief when we finally find someone to settle down with (or endure for a year or so). It’s like a big weight is off our shoulders and we’ve just avoided a grim, sex-free future of loneliness and isolation, not to mention no grandkids. Phew. It’s understandable that if we believe in this narrative we will be relieved once we’ve found a partner and we’ll be happy as well, it’s fun having someone to share your life with, do stuff with and alleviate your insecurities. Ideally a best friend we can sleep with. Naturally, we want to tell our friends all about our new lover (finally, something interesting has happened in our lives).

Unfortunately, the flip side of this narrative is that it doesn’t work so well for ‘singletons’. Even the idea of being single implies we’re just a placeholder half-person until we gain meaning as a couple. We’re just biding our time and doing our best to ride out loneliness. Our lives must be grim. Which is why when lunchtime conversation shifts to us it gets awkward: if we’re single and unhappy then we affirm the narrative but also don’t really have a chance to talk about it because everyone else is coupled and happy. We’re often forced to pretend ‘everything’s fine’ even if on the inside we’re screaming. We do this because we want to fit in, because (coupled) people struggle hearing about others’ suffering and because we might believe that narrative too and think we’re failures. Next is the single but happy person, naturally, we’re considered slightly deluded because no one can be happy and unpartnered right, that sounds like far too much of a threat to this precious narrative. Then there’s the single, happy person who has lots of sex, also known as a ‘slut’ who just can’t settle down and hasn’t found the one. And then there’s the queer and single one, it’s highly likely we won’t even be asked about our relationship status because queer people don’t really exist right, we’re just some ‘exotic’ addition to a social group whose way of life is so different and alien to heteronormativity that it’s too hard for straights to get their heads around.

So, people in relationships, it’s time to step up. Yup, it’s great if you’re happy and in a relationship, well done, but please create space for people who aren’t in relationships be they happy or not. And please, if you believe that pressuring, deceitful narrative that life only means something if you’re partnered, please do not project that onto others. Basically, just do not become one of those smug and judgemental couples who will probably break up anyway because no decent long-term relationship can thrive off the mutual avoidance of fear (or maybe it can, I’ve never tried). Why not help out your single friends who want a partner by introducing them to other people (so they can enjoy the happiness of coupled life that you profess to) or offering some emotional support. And single folks, queer and straight, don’t single, be independent, and own it if you have the resources and the resilience. Also, if you need help, ask for it, even if you’re asking help from smug coupled people (they’re not that bad, well, most of them aren’t). Don’t give a toss about what they think because the priority is you getting the support you need and not pretending ‘everything’s fine’ if it isn’t. Anyway, I’m not single, I’m independent and if you find this blog challenges a narrative you hold dear then good. Here’s P!nk.

Inside Out: The Highs And The Lows

I just watched Inside Out for the first time. It’s brilliant, easily my favourite Pixar film to date, up there with Toy Story 3 and WALL-E (although I’m yet to see Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo, I’m a bit slow on the uptake). What a fantastic way to represent the inner workings of the human mind and brain, inspired. And what a great way to remind us that our emotions are a crucial part of our identity and form who we are. However, because I like to over-analyse things there are a few bits about it that I find a little concerning. So what follows is a brief review of the highs and lows.

High: Our Emotions Matter! Have you ever met one of those uptight people who are convinced emotions are the enemy – the sort of person who worships economics and thinks feeling should be expunged from the human condition. The sort of person who tells us that we should be as rational as possible and act like cost-benefit maximising automatons, thinking always what’s best for us in an objective and compassionless manner. Well, despite a mountain load of scientific evidence to the contrary now Pixar is on the case, showing us quite how wrong economists can be. I’ll let one of the scientists who advised on the film hammer home this point: “…emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations. But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

Low: Memories Are Not Objects. The film depicts memories as little multi-sensory orbs that display the events of the memory like a film. Each orb is coloured with the predominant feeling of that memory, e.g. yellow for happy, blue for sad etc. However, one current theory is that memories are not equivalent to discrete objects stored in our head – e.g. a neuron per memory – but are actually engrams – unique and distributed series of neurons that correspond to multiple-facets of that memory (e.g. the visuals, the sounds, the feelings). So, rather than an orb, imagine that a memory isn’t a single item but a series of neuronal connections throughout the body. This will include the different sections and layers of the brain (of which there are many) and our internal/external organs (which are also connected via neurons to our brain/central nervous system). In other words, it takes the whole body and the world beyond to make a memory (but trying to represent this as a visually satisfying metaphor in a kid’s film was probably not Pixar’s aim).

High: Sadness Is Important. Spoiler alert. At the end of the film the emotion Joy (one of those irritating types who tries to look on the positive side of everything…everything) comes to realise that Sadness (one of those irritating types who tries to look on the negative side of everything…everything) is vital to a healthy, emotional lifestyle. Sadness is crucial in helping us deal with the difficulties of the world – the loss we may experience when moving home or, indeed, the loss we may feel when we lose a loved one. Whilst it’s seemingly easy to pretend everything is ‘fine’, the tougher thing might be to admit it’s not. But by being vulnerable and being sad we make it more likely that we will heal and be supported in the process.

Low: The Brain Is Actually Organic. It’s fascinating that the brains behind Inside Out chose to represent the brain as a hi-tech HQ full of fancy equipment and flashing buttons resting above an arid desert. Even Riley’s ‘memory islands’, places that represent core facets of her identity such as the Family Island and the Goofball Island, are just uninhabited theme parks full of statues and machines. Now, it’s a great metaphor and it’s brilliant when key emotions Joy and Sadness get lost in Riley’s mind but it’s worth stating that the brain is an organ in our body and like all other organs it’s organic. It’s full of blood, veins and gooey grey stuff, and forms a vital element of our body’s ecology. It is by no means artificial or ‘unnatural’. So perhaps a more true metaphor would be something more ecological – ‘memory forests’ instead of built-environment memory islands that can grow greater diversity but are also prone to fires and being cut down. My concern here is that Pixar’s representation of the brain as mechanical could only arise in a time when humans are rapidly trying to distance themselves from their biological nature. But, at heart and head, we are animals, just animals with a profound capacity for intelligence and stupidity.

So, highs and lows aside, Inside Out is a fantastic film that reminds us our emotions form a vital part of who we are and how we understand the world. But the vivid nature of these emotions should surely also remind us of our animal and biological nature, one prone to great highs and great lows, rather than imply we’re just walking, talking machines.

Oprah Winfrey And Brené Brown Are Not Cool

And the funny thing is, they are totally fine with it. So, we all know Oprah – famous, American talk show host, but we might not be as clued up on who Brené Brown is. Well, she’s got a doctorate in social science and a few years ago blasted the world with a great TED talk on vulnerability and has an ace RSA short on empathy – how the ability to feel with people is hugely empowering for both the person in need of support and the one providing it. And now she’s telling us not to be cool. Why?

Because cool “is the biggest armo[u]r ever. It’s almost like disengagement is cool now. You’re not supposed to care.” And she’s right. Cynicism is pretty fashionable nowadays whilst actually trying to care about something is decidedly uncool. But the sad thing is that being cynical about the world and expecting the worst of people doesn’t actually make us right. Cynicism is a defense mechanism not an opinion. It stops us having to engage with the really terrible stuff that is happening in the world because that can be overwhelming and devastating. So we build walls around ourselves to stop the world getting in. But a further irony is that this cynicism distances us from others by making it harder to connect. We become more isolated and in turn get lonelier and sadder. And to protect ourselves further we get more cynical and we fortify those walls.

However, the tougher thing, as Brown would say, is daring to be vulnerable. Admitting that something makes us sad or that a certain state of affairs isn’t okay even if there’s not a huge amount we can do about it. So a crack appears in our armour and through that the world might get in. Unfortunately, it will hurt because there’s a lot of pain out there, as well as in ourselves, but we will also have access to other more positive feelings like joy and happiness. And now I realise I’m sounding like a self-help guru and you’ve probably clicked onto a different blog. But I’ll end with this. Being cynical and being cool do not equate to being strong. We can be vulnerable to our pain and the pain of others and still be strong because that strength will come from resilience (rather than sceptical resistance) which is an organic and human form of armour not an artifice of indifference. Of course it’s not easy and, if you’re cynically inclined, you’ll probably retch at the video below but surely what we need now are people who are uncool enough to care. Equally, we can just redefine cool to include being vulnerable because, hey, I have no intention of joining Brown and Winfrey on the uncool sofa.