Monday, 11 March 2013
My fairy tales - 11.03.13
I live in a narrative universe. I am constantly talking to myself, analysing and chronicling the events of my life. I think verbally – in fact, as I discovered while I was learning new languages, if I can’t verbalise a concept I can’t really properly think it. There is a point when my brain is transferring operations from a language to the next when my thoughts are annoyingly unformed and muddled. Until I develop enough of a vocabulary to express myself, I end up thinking baby thoughts, without clarity, depth or intensity. This experience makes me agree wholeheartedly with George Orwell on the importance of precise language. I read “1984” in a single sitting when I was about fourteen because the sheer horror of it kept me awake. What terrified me the most was not the repression or torture, but the concept of Newspeak. I fully agree with the theory that if you oversimplify language, you end up oversimplifying thoughts. It may be interesting to see where the current fad for Textspeak will take us, as a matter of fact. I am pretty confident that it will not be a good place to be.
People in this country seem increasingly contemptuous of words such as “contemptuous”. I am noticing more and more often that people respond negatively, almost aggressively, when I use less common words, even when they are necessary because of the lack of a precise synonym. Rather than being curious about unfamiliar terms, people seem offended by them. I really do not get it. I get so tripped out on words. Language is such an essential part of what makes us human, of what sets us apart from the animal world. It is a gift and a tool, yet some people can transform it into an art form. Beautifully turned sentences captivate me. I often find myself reading them again and again, savouring them, trying to hear them in my head. Sometimes I like to read them aloud for the music and poetry in them, even when they are allegedly written in prose.
Maybe I get so passionate about language because I have no other means of expressing myself. I cannot make music, draw, sculpt or dance. I have tried and I felt impeded, as if someone had cut my fingers off or stitched my mouth shut. The concepts are in my head, but they refuse to come out, or they come out clumsy and meaningless. When I try to draw or play music I mumble and stammer. I am a lot happier with words. I can explain myself clearly then, or at least I know that I can give it a good go. Without language I would be wholly isolated, trapped alone in my own, unexplainable reality. I could not make contact with other humans. Precise, expressive language is the closest thing I have to telepathy. It’s no wonder I am so entranced by words, so impressed by and jealous of those people who can make sentences that cannot be improved upon. There are sentences out there that are so definite, clear and beautiful that they will live forever, unaltered, independent of any context. Language can just be so beautiful.
For whatever reason, I can’t leave words alone. Every time something happens I internally describe it to myself. I am effectively telling myself the story of what is happening to me. In doing that, however, I am shaping my reality. I am setting my point of view and creating my own version of events. My experience of my reality becomes irreparably linked with the way in which I have described it. This would not be a problem if it was not for the fact that I am a pathetic weakling with a completely unrealistic view of life and an overblown, unjustified sense of entitlement.
I tell myself stories all the time. Due to some form of arrested development, however, I seem to be telling myself fairy tales. This would be ok if it meant that I have absorbed our cultural archetypes about dangers lurking in the dark, whether it is the dark deep in the forest or inside people’s hearts. But no, I have been suckered into believing in the sugary happily-ever-after of Disney-style fairy tale abortions. In my skewed, infantile world bad or difficult things, when they happen, are a deviation from the norm. They happen for a reason. They are only a phase leading onto better things. Disney is not the only culprit either, although I do love to diss him. Moralistic, optimistic tales are all around us. When I was a young child I was madly in love with “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I read the story so many times that I knew whole sections by heart. It is a lovely tale, in fairness, about a girl coping with extreme adversity without being crushed or coarsened by it. However, it still treats misfortunes as an aberration, as something that will sometimes be over. You will suffer honourably and shine all the brighter for the pain you have endured. You will walk through the dark woods and come out at the other end rewarded and recognised for your efforts.
The truth of the matter is that if you come out of the woods at all you will most likely be hurt beyond belief. You might be altered to the point of being unrecognisable, even to yourself, and not always for the better. You may be bent; you may be broken; you, as you knew yourself, may be dead. You may have discovered a fabulous inner strength, but chances are that you are going to be so bloody sore that you won’t give a damn about it. You may have learnt how good people can be in times of trouble and really appreciate the value of those around you, or have been hurt by people so much that you may fear letting anyone close ever again. You might fear to trust in anything or anyone ever again, including yourself. And, even worse, it isn’t over yet; your trials will not be over until your life is. Chances are that there will be more woods to cross, and you may or may not see them coming. There is no happy endings – there are no endings at all, bar the final one. There is just life until death, and until then all bets are off.
I tell myself stupid stories. When bad things happen, I tell myself how they have developed and why; I try and explain to myself what I have to learn from them; I try to give them a significance and a reason; I try to understand and justify them. I connect bad things and good things, making it sound as if the good things were the rewards or results of the bad things. The problem with stories, you see, is that they have a meaning, a moral and a structure. Life doesn’t. There might never be a climax and a resolution. Life will just throw stuff at you, good and bad, and sometimes it is not even possible to tell which is which. Sometimes joy and pain are so mixed up in a single experience that you would need to arbitrarily label it in order to make any sense out of it. Sometimes things change from being one thing to the other so quickly that you can be blindsided by the shock and pain of it. You can’t sensibly tell if something is good or bad until the end of your tale, and that never actually comes until your end comes.
Our lives are so interconnected, too, that details of someone else’s life can affect us in radical and shocking ways. I was recently talking to a friend about “what ifs”, and we worked out that if one of his exes had not split up with him I would not be where I am now. My life would be so entirely different that I could not even guess how it would have turned out. The chain of events is so convoluted that it would send you to sleep, but essentially this third party, whom I have never met, made an entirely personal decision which completely changed the course of my life. Even seemingly innocuous decisions on our part can have serious long-term consequences. If life has a scriptwriter at all, he might have been influenced by Tarantino.
In telling myself stories, I am applying labels on events and circumstances which I cannot evaluate yet, for the simple fact that the story is not over yet. I then get shocked and hurt when things do not pan out as they “should”, when the patterns I have made up are not followed. I think I am trying to write a story in which there is a progressive move towards the light, towards self-actualisation and happiness. I am a fool.
Or am I? I could be doing far worse. The stories I make up may end up hurting or disappointing me when they take unexpected, unpleasant turns, but at least I am trying to write happy stories. When I label something as “happy”, I give myself the power to fully experience the joy it gives me. If I labelled it as “not sure”, I could only enjoy it with caution. If I labelled it as potentially negative, how could I enjoy it at all? I would be raining on my own parade.
The way we look at our world shapes our experience of it. I remember as a child reading a story about a man walking by three builders working on a cathedral. The man asked each of them in turn what they were doing. The first one said: “I am building a wall”. The second said: “I am working to support my family”. The third one said: “I am building a church to honour God”. They were all factually correct, but the way in which they interpreted their actions shaped their experience. They were telling themselves completely different stories, hence living very different lives.
I am fully aware of the current backlash against positive thinking as dangerous nonsense. I can’t say that I am surprised, given the absurd extents to which it has been taken. The positive movement started out encouraging us to stay upbeat. I can’t fault this at all, as being miserable is no way to get a happy life. However, it then went on to tell us that by staying upbeat we could ward off bad things, in a manner not dissimilar to the sympathetic magic of our distant ancestors. Believing in the “law of attraction”, as far as I am concerned, is no different from believing that you can catch warts from toads. It makes no logical sense and there is no scientific proof for it. Then again, if that’s what floats your boat, good on you. The positive movement went even further, though, by making us feel bad if we weren’t feeling good. I find this objectionable. For instance, a friend of mine is dying of cancer. She will leave behind a loving husband and a young daughter. To me, telling her that if she does not “stay positive” she is making herself worse, hence letting her family down, is tantamount to a criminal act. She has the right to feel upset, depressed, even desperate. She is fully entitled to experience negative emotions, because she is going through hell. I am not saying that she should wallow in the negative, particularly as her days are numbered, but by making her feel guilty about her very justified feelings the positivists are adding insult to injury.
Positive thinking can be stupid or even negative, that is a fact. Negative thinking, though, is negative all the time. It ruins everything it touches, which is everything. A pessimist is never disappointed, that’s a fact, but is never happy either. Bugger that for a game of soldiers.
We may not be able to force happy endings into existence, but we sure can help bad ones come along by having a negative attitude. One of my exes kept quoting Tristan and Isolde in reference to us. Sure enough, life got in the way and things did not work out. I am not saying that thinking negatively made life get in the way, but humans are woefully affected by their own attitude and by confirmation bias. If you believe that you are destined to lose the fight, you are far more likely to throw in the towel. That is why inspirational leaders have been historically so important – if you tell people the right things, regardless of whether they are accurate or not, you can put a fire in their bellies that will make them fight much harder.
The mottoes we repeat to ourselves can shape our attitude, hence our experience of our lives, our reactions and our behaviour. I think it is important to pick the most useful ones, the ones that can truly help us along. Take, for instance, the motto of House Stark from Game of Thrones, "Winter is coming". In the GoT universe, where winters are deadly bitter and can last for years, this is meant to remind us that, even if things are good now (“summer”), we must always be ready for the unavoidable dark periods when events will turn against us (“winter”). We should be prepared and ever vigilant. This is of course true, but, if you think about it, it is equally true to say "Summer is coming". After every winter, there will be a summer. Things will get better again; you just have to make sure that you survive up to that point. Which one you choose to focus on is up to you. Focusing entirely on the winter may help your survival, but it is bound to ruin your enjoyment of the summer. Focusing entirely on the summer, on the other hand, may leave you unprepared for winter, hence lower your chances of pulling through. The stories we tell ourselves can make us or break us, it seems.
A good friend of mine, far wiser than me, says that “the universe is a cold, dark place.” I sort of agree with him. However, I think it is cold and dark like a blackboard. It does not hold those attributes out of spite; it is not cold and dark AT you. It is an empty space, waiting for you to fill it with your own story. You can try and write on it anything you want. It is up to you to choose whether to write a tragedy, comedy, love story, epic trilogy or yet another book in the “Spot the Dog” series. Your story might not work out as you’d like, of course, but if you do not bother trying then you will definitely not succeed.
So, I tell myself stupid, childish, unrealistic stories, angling for a happy ending. I get hurt and disappointed along the way. So what? Hello, I am trying to write my own happiness here. I can’t think of a more worthwhile endeavour, even though it is fraught with difficulties. As long as I do not allow a nonexistent happily-ever-after ruin my kind-of-happy-for-now, what is the problem? I might not be able to call happiness into existence, but at least I am trying, and I am trying to keep cheerful along the way. If that is immature and foolish, I hope to be immature and foolish until the day I die.
 It seems to escape most people’s notice that Prince Charming is alleged to have lived happily ever after with Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Either those ladies where rather open-minded in their views on relationships, or “forever” is not that long a period of time after all.
 Incidentally, when one decides to write a romantic tragedy, one must be extra careful not to stray into the wrong book. Tristan and Isolde had it bad enough, but it is nothing compared to poor Romeo and Juliet, for instance. If you are not careful, you might be aiming for Tristan, overshoot and end up as Abelard. It’s not big and it’s not clever. Tragedies have a way of spiralling out of control. They are a parasitic life form which really should not be tolerated, let alone encouraged. Be told.
 Personally, if I had to choose a seasonal motto to encourage me along, I'd pick "make hay while the sun shines". It is both practical and positive.