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 Unhappy Tomato

She was just your average tomato: red, rosy and often in good cheer. She loved living in the vegetable aisle. She had lots of friends – the carrots, who liked having a laugh; the outspoken aubergines, who always stood up for each other; the kind courgettes and even the cabbages. She didn’t get on well with the leeks, who were often the bullies of the aisle, but other than that she felt at home. It was a great supermarket as well because vegetables were the top priority and there weren’t that many fruits at all because the store manager didn’t like them. But that didn’t bother tomato and she was happy as she was, until the day she discovered something very important – that she was different – she wasn’t a vegetable after all, she was actually a fruit.

All along she’d been in the wrong aisle and now she was worried about telling her friends. Fruits were always the butt of the vegetables’ jokes and many veggies actively hated fruits, sometimes the potatoes would go round the fruit aisle and beat up a bunch of grapes. She told some of her closest friends and whilst one got all upset the others were supportive of her. But that still wasn’t enough so, one night, she snuck away and went to find the fruits. She didn’t regret it – she met strawberries, bananas, oranges and grapes, and had an absolutely great time as well as making a bunch of new friends. However, as time went by she realised that not all was well in the fruit aisle. Underneath the smiles and the peels she discovered that many of the fruits were damaged and bruised, it turned out being a fruit in a vegetable’s supermarket wasn’t so great after all. She even discovered that many fruits had given themselves up to become juice because they couldn’t take it any more. And so the happy tomato became decidedly unhappy.

Then a new store manager arrived who hated fruits even more than the last and it got quite dangerous for the tomato and her new friends. Nevertheless, they bandied together and prepared themselves for tough times ahead. But the thing that really broke the tomato’s heart was that when she went to visit the vegetable aisle, to see her old friends, they just weren’t that interested. They were so caught up living their veggie lives that they’d never really stopped to consider what it must be like to be a fruit. She tried hanging out with them but the carrots kept cracking jokes about bananas and the auberinges kept going on about how much they hated grapefruits. The friendly parsnip didn’t mind but didn’t really get it either, he even called her his BFF – Best-Fruit-Friend, which pissed her off no end.  And so it dawned on her that whilst she’d been on a long journey from the vegetable to the fruit aisle and made so many new friends, learnt so many new things and had a whole punnet of ace experiences, there were many that hadn’t been on the journey. Something had changed for the tomato and whilst she still had time for her veggie friends she no longer felt quite at home in a vegetable’s world.

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Why I Love/Hate Black Mirror

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life. These include pessimist, joyful cynic, misanthrope and just the other week, faggot. And sure, if you read some of these blog posts you’ll see I have a pretty critical view of the world. I’m not overwhelmed by the capabilities of world leaders, I’m not hugely inspired by consumer capitalism’s track record and I hate war. But despite this I still like to believe that on the best of days I’m an optimist. I believe that all the answers we need we already have, some of them might be technologies (including ancient ones) but most of them are in us, especially in our hearts. I think the human being has a profound capacity for boundless love, altruism and kindness, and I just wished we lived in a world that made those things easy. Unfortunately, we don’t and this is where Black Mirror comes in and why I love to hate it and hate to love it.

A quick, spoilerful recap of the new series, which I just binge watched. There’s Hated In The Nation, a futuristic cop drama about a bunch of robo bees subtly representing the ‘stinging bees’ of the twittersphere and killing a bunch of people. Loved this one and it had all the hackneyed tropes of police procedurals – cynical, tech-illiterate older cop works with young, tech-savvy cop etc. It also has a really nasty journo who thrives off her online abuse but she’s only around for a couple of minutes. San Junipero was also ace, basically about humans’ inability to just die instead resigning themselves to a seemingly paradisiacal purgatory of endless themed discos or terrible kink clubs (I think I’ll just die, thanks). Men Against Fire had lots of soldiers, shooting and a big metaphor about the dehumanisation of the enemy, i.e. migrants, refugees, people from other countries. Playtest was kinda Inception meets shoddy horror movies and a dig at selfish, gap yah millennials who never call their parents. Shut Up And Dance, a grim take on shame-based blackmail that cashes in on a he’s-a-paedophile-twist.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these were all exceptionally well written, well acted and not necessarily subtle pieces of TV drama, I just get a bit annoyed that Charlie Brooker gets loads of acclaim for glibly documenting how terrible the world is. Isn’t there enough cynical and depressing media out there without a whole series of Black Mirror reminding us how venal and brutal we all are? I mean, anyone for a little hope on television? And that’s why my favourite episode was Nosedive. Not only did it establish that I have a hidden love for Bryce Dallas Howard that I did not know about (maybe because I loved The Village all those years ago) but I just thought it was spot on because in and amongst all the jabs at how selfish and self-absorbed the facebook millenials are there was also redemption. After Howard’s character, Lacie, loses all her popularity and ‘disgraces’ herself at her friend’s wedding she hits rock bottom. Her life nosedives and she ends up unpopular, lonelier than ever and in prison. But it’s there she learns how to let go as she starts a game of insult tennis with the guy in the opposite cell. Wouldn’t we all just love to yell ‘fuck you’ at a world so full of needless insecurities and anxiety-inducing social media? That’s when the episode ends and wonderfully that’s when it seems Lacie’s story begins because she’s thrown off the shackles of pretending everything’s fine and trying to constantly impress others and is learning how to be herself.

And I’ve certainly nosedived before: when I appeared to have lost so much of what I valued only to discover that what I valued was a whole load of bullshit. And even though it seemed like I’d lost everything it turned out that I hadn’t because I had to learn (the hard way) how to appreciate what really was of value in my life. I didn’t always get it right but I did try to learn from my mistakes. And I still have regular mini nosedives, never quite as bad as the ones before, but most of the time I know I can get through them and the low mood or period of difficulty will pass. If I’ve done it before I reckon I can do it again. And maybe little, self-contained nosedives can be useful for really reminding us what’s important. Nothing too big or too scary but a gentle wake up call to tell us to quit focusing on all the bad stuff, start recognising the good stuff and get back to fighting the patriarchy. Or maybe not and this is just me rambling. Either way, do watch Black Mirror. At times it’s violent and just cashes in on shock and at other times it’s joyfully cynical and just downright pessimistic but sometimes it has real heart.

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.

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.

The Play: It’s Complete Anarchy

It’s show time for Universally Speaking! Opening night is tomorrow at the Bread & Roses Theatre, Clapham, and it runs each night until Saturday (7.30 – 9pm). The actors have learnt their lines, the final props have been bought (including a 6 pack of ready salted and three mini primroses) and the tickets are selling. I’ve been doing my bit as producer and I can safely say that the process has been utter chaos. Yup, complete anarchy of the best variety…here’s why.

Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842 – 1921), a famous activist, philosopher and geographer defined anarchism as “a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional…for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being” (and if you’re interested in etymology it’s roots stem from the Greek anarkhos, from an- ‘without’ + arkhos ‘chief, ruler’).

No boss, a lack of hierarchy and lots of good will: yup, that sums up the production process for Universally Speaking. Whilst we’ve taken on different roles: Simon Jay directing, me co-producing, the actors acting, technicians teching, the writers writing and so on, there hasn’t been a ‘top dog’ telling us all what to do. We’ve taken responsibility for our own roles and brought our expertise to the table. We’ve formed an “interwoven network” and worked together to bring a piece of theatre to life. Kropotkin likens anarchistic organisations to organic life, “harmony would result from an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitudes of forces and influences”. And so the show has organically developed, often taking on quite a surprising life of its own (you’ll have to see for yourself).

Now, in an ideal anarchistic state (little ‘s’) there would be no money but sadly we haven’t managed to be that savvy. Instead, over 50 people donated to our indiegogo fundraising campaign and we raised £920. This is testimony to how great and generous people are. Kropotkin talks of mutual aid – “a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit” – and its a nice counterbalance to Darwin’s relentlessly selfish natural selection predicated on greed and constant competition (not that Darwin really described it like that). And the level of support we’ve had putting together the play has been heartblowing. Alongside the financial aid we’ve had people offer to promote the play and help with the lighting and sound. Meanwhile, the cast and director have given so much of their time just so they can make new theatre and the writers have waived their fees from their pieces.  However, because we don’t yet live in Anartopia of the £920 raised £100 will go to each actor and to the technician (the rest will cover marketing costs and props) as an exceptionally small thank you for their hard work. We’re splitting tickets sales 50/50 with the theatre and any profits we make will go to charity – the UNHCR and Mind, the mental health charity. As for The Bread & Roses, they’ve been great and it’s fantastic to have theatres so supportive of new writing.

Another important guiding principle of anarchy is love. And that’s why we’ve all been working so hard to ensure Universally Speaking is a great night out. We all love the arts and the different elements of theatre – acting, directing, producing, writing, teching, staging – and are under no illusions that we’ll be quitting our day jobs any time soon. As for the final piece of the jigsaw, it’s you – the culture hungry audience members who have already bought a load of tickets! It’s only £10 for an incredibly fun night (cheaper if you book online). So I do hope you’ll come along to enjoy this theatrical slice of anarchy and unlike in a competitive, hierarchical capitalist system this really can be a win-win for all. Prince Kropotkin might just be proud. See you there!