Have You Noticed?

So many human interactions are enhanced by paying attention.  Indeed, the opposite is also true.  A human interaction can be rendered utterly worthless, bereft of content and destroyed forever, if you don’t pay attention.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that what humans need most, to thrive, are high quality relationships with other human beings.  We’re almost hard wired to seek them out.  No matter how much of anything else we accumulate, it’s always a high quality relationship that we ultimately seek.  No rich man, on his death bed, called for his favourite debit card to be brought to him, to handle, fondle, caress and hold, in his dying moments.  Those accumulations of material gains are a proxy and keep alive some vain hope that somebody, somewhere, will be impressed enough with “all that stuff” to give their undivided attention.  It’s the love that they really want.  It’s the obsessive accumulation of stuff that guarantees they never get it.

I think there is something deeply healing in a high quality human relationship, too.  That connection, I am pretty sure, changes the makeup of your stress hormones and triggers different factors in your body to rebuild, recreate and reconstruct any damage that might have been inflicted on your body, at a cellular level.  Hugs have power.  Understanding can be all it takes to begin to recover.

Older GPs and physicians knew that, when a patient presented with symptoms, some of the most important communication and healing took place when the doctor paid full attention to the patient, listened sincerely and gently touched the affected area, in an act of human solidarity and genuine concern for what might be ailing the patient.  That engagement, alone, began the recovery.

In a modern consultation, it’s all a little more remote.  Sometimes the doctor won’t lay hands on the affected area at all.  Sometimes they won’t even look at, let alone touch your ailing body.  No sympathy or empathy is communicated.

Also, whereas once upon a time, the doctor would make notes about your consultation after your visit, today, the computer is open and notes are typed directly into a database, during your short consultation.  The consultation reduces, at least in large part, to you and your doctor staring into a database application screen, trying to decide what to say about your condition in as few words as possible and spotting the spelling mistakes and typos of the doctor doing the typing.  Suddenly, the focus of attention, during the consultation, is not the patient, who needs treatment and help; it’s the database whose needs take primacy.

At the end of the all too brief session, the doctor presses “print” and a prescription rolls out of the laser printer.  You’ve had all the care, attention, sympathy and understanding of a battery hen, at just one more stage of the production line process between your existence on earth and your demise.

That’s perhaps a little harsh, as doctors have extreme time pressures on them and can’t help but suffer some level of compassion fatigue, but when the physician spends as much time with their face in a screen, or looking at dials, as they do actually listening to you describing, sometimes inadequately, what you’re experiencing, it can make the visit feel quite depersonalised and mechanical.  You aren’t as likely to wax lyrically about your symptoms.  In fact, it encourages you to just shut up about them.  Nobody’s listening anyway, so why talk?  Many important diagnostic symptoms must undoubtedly remain unarticulated, because of this self-censorship.

With all the emphasis on early diagnosis being the key to successful treatment of so many very serious and life-threatening conditions, you would think there would be more attention paid to not shutting down what the patient is saying about what they are feeling, at the very earliest stages.  It must be of the utmost importance to keep the patient talking, but doctors dissuade you from telling the full story about everything you are experiencing.  They want you to focus on one ailment and set of symptoms at a time.  You are forced to triage.  How often do you leave the doctor’s office feeling you didn’t really say everything you thought was important to say?  Sometimes, it is the connections between seemingly unrelated conditions that point to the common, more serious, root cause, but that is so often missed, when the doctor wants to type a three line summary into a database.

I think this is true of almost every human interaction I can think of.  Taking the time to pay attention, to genuinely listen and to respond in a human way, is becoming a rare occurrence.  You can observe this for yourself.  People interact in distracted, impatient and superficial ways.  They have their own concerns and gadgets to get back to, their own agendas to pursue and their own self-interests to defend, in a dog-eat-dog society, so there isn’t any time or inclination remaining to suspend all of that activity and to take on board somebody else’s concerns, life story, issues, etcetera.  We never extend the helping hand or soothing hug.  We’re too busy.  It just detracts from our screen time.  Heaven forbid, the affliction might be contagious and where would you be then?

It doesn’t surprise me that loneliness is on the increase.  We have machines designed to train people to cut the people around them out of their consciousnesses entirely, to render directly addressed questions to mere background noise that can be tuned out, to place the entire real world into our peripheral vision, to partition our attention and parcel it out in very small rations and to ignore anything that doesn’t further our own self-interests.  The irony is that developing high quality, mutual, deep and loving human relationships is in our ultimate self-interests.

There is a direct and linear correlation between how much a person claims to love their gadgets and how little genuine attention they pay to other people – especially people beyond their immediate family circle.  This same self-identified group struggles to pay enough attention to the ones they love most, so strangers barely get a look in.  It is through this inattention to the plight of others that we can come to believe that it is possible to actually live on the minimum wage, for example.

It’s not just their relationships that suffer, either.  If they communicate, via any art form, be it painting, writing, music or any other medium, their lack of skills in connecting with people at a deep level betrays itself in superficial, un-affective art, which conveys no emotion or meaning and which an audience cannot connect with on any emotional level, because there is nothing there to connect with.  They sterilise and render impotent their own artistic outpourings.  How tragic it is to be shouting loudly, while saying absolutely nothing.  How even more tragic it is if you say something of importance, but there is nobody prepared to listen.

I wonder if you’ve noticed.

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Which Apple Is The Juiciest?

I had a nice, juicy apple for my lunch today.  It was bought from a supermarket and it had the word “juicy” written on the bag.  And it was a juicy apple, but not actually the sweetest apple I have ever tasted.  Still, it was a nice apple, all the same.

I’m old enough to remember a time when there wasn’t yet a supermarket in my home town.  Buying apples involved going to one of three or four local fruiterers, who knew you on sight, by name.  In those days, the fruiterers woke early, bought their stock at the wholesale markets, and then brought their goods to their stores, to put out on display.  The food was very fresh.  There was no refrigeration.  Considering how recently it had been harvested, there wasn’t really the time to refrigerate it.  Most of the good stuff would be sold by midday.

If you wanted a nice, juicy apple, you went to the fruiterer you had come to trust, over the course of many small purchases, and simply asked for one.  He didn’t have to read the bag, to find the word “juicy” on it.  He knew which apples were like that.  If he didn’t, he’d cut a few open, with you sampling a wedge of each, until you were satisfied with the apple you were going to choose.  That seems like a cost, but in fact it built trust – something you can’t as easily do by writing “juicy”, in attractive letters, on a fancy, printed bag.  As a cost of sale, it was miniscule, when averaged over all his sales.  The fruiterer knew you would be back for more and were on your way to being a loyal and valued customer.

I find this with so many things, today.  If you go into a chain store art supplies barn and ask which green dries up fastest in the tube, the assistant (if you can find one) will either look at you blankly, as if what you had just asked isn’t even a question, or glibly state. “These are the greens we have”.  As a piece of information, it is both true and of no relevance or use to you, whatsoever.

Occasionally, one will point you toward the web site of the paint manufacturer, where various grandiose claims of shelf life will be made, without a shred of corroborative evidence.  A question like, “what does this green look like, when mixed with that yellow?”, or, “which yellow has the greatest covering power, when thinned with a medium?”, will once again draw a blank, a panicked shuffling toward somewhere else they really need to go, an instruction to consult the web site, a lie or the information that these are the greens and yellows they have for sale.

One of the most popular blog posts I ever wrote is about how to blend acrylic paint.  That post regularly gets a handful of readers per day.  I wrote it because that was one of those questions I wanted to answer for myself.  I wanted to know how to blend acrylic paint and so I had performed some experiments with various brushes and paint manufacturers’ products and wanted to report what I had found.  I was pleased to learn that you could blend acrylic paint, but you had to time things more tightly than with oils.  I swear I am still going to do a demonstration video on this subject, one of these days.

What people who read that post are, in effect, asking is: “what works?”  Spare me the experimentation.  Please point me in the direction of success with acrylic paint blending, so that I can attempt it, with a modicum of confidence.  Some people become so afraid of wrecking their painting or of getting into a right old mess, that they fear doing the experimentation, I suppose.  Others probably want to compare notes and chuckle to themselves about all the tricks I missed, which they already know.  In any case, what people come to find is information, which is little different, in character, to asking for a recommendation for a nice, juicy apple, from somebody who might reliably know.

I think this is the danger, when artists’ materials and tools are sold by people who never use them, or when the data you need simply isn’t made available.  You can probably think of a thousand situations where you are left in the dark, as a consumer, with nobody to ask, because anybody close would not know.  It is inconceivable to believe that the minimum wage salesman on the shop floor would know the difference between USB1 and USB2, or be able to tell you what incompatibility issues might arise.  We have been dumbed down.

Once upon a time, you could go into a tool store and ask for a hammer and be presented with half a dozen options.  If you wanted to know what the difference was, the assistant could tell you and you could make your choice.  This hammer is cheapest, but it’s likely to break, this hammer isn’t weighted very cleverly for swinging all day with (you’ll do your shoulder in), this one puts too much shock back into your hand, but this hammer can be used all day and feels like a Stradivarius, in use and can be passed down to your grandchildren as a working heirloom, in a hundred years’ time.  They could tell you, because they knew, because they used the stock, or at least tried them all, or else they were in constant contact with customers, many of which were serious, professional users of tools, that shared their feedback on each one.

Now that nobody knows the answers to the questions, nobody asks them and so you are left to buy one of each and see what happens, or else there is no longer any differentiation and justification for the higher-priced item, because nobody understands what that is, so everybody buys on price.  This is why the makers of the best hammer go under.

It seems to me that if you sell anything and you care about it, you ought to be knowledgeable about the products you represent.  After all, what you endorse says a lot about you.  You are lending your reputation to it.  Your information, freely shared with a customer, is a cheap and easy way to build trust and loyalty with your own customers and your good reputation will spread, by word of mouth.  As a marketing technique, this remains the Holy Grail.  Being able to guide your customers to what will definitely work for them, rather than leaving them to do the guesswork on their own, adds genuine value and enhances your personal brand with them.

You ought to be able to go into an art supply store and ask for the easiest-to-clean brush for oil painting, whose bristles will wear slowly and whose ferrule will not loosen due to wetting of the handle.  The assistant should be able to give you the green that mixes best with the particular yellow to make the colour of larch leaves.

When asked, “Which apple is the juiciest?” it pays to know.

 

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Depleted

Can you create yourself to death?  Is it possible to try so hard, for so long, to reinvent yourself and to produce creative things, of quality, that you perish in the process?  Everything you make takes energy.  If you keep pouring your energy into your work and into creating the best self you can be, without any tangible return, reward, recognition or success, can you burn yourself out and grind yourself into the ground?  Can you simply use up all your resources, however you classify those, before you replenish them?

I think you can.  I think it’s a real danger.

I think if you put enough of yourself out there, for a long enough period of time, with nothing much coming back to you, you exhaust yourself.  You just begin to literally cease to exist – certainly as far as the rest of the world is concerned, in any case.  The ability to create may, in fact, run out, for entirely practical reasons.  When you are running on empty, you become detached and unresponsive.  Your friends and family can no longer reach you.  The path is one that leads to extinction, or at least extinguishment, ultimately.  It’s possible to reach a point where there is just nothing left to give of yourself.  It’s a very hollow and worrying feeling.  You’re drowning, not waving.

Encouragement, appreciation, kind words and praise can fend off the full depletion of your creative energies for quite a while (even a long while), but unfortunately, it won’t sustain you, in a material sense.  Practicalities encroach.  You still need to eat.  People still depend on you.  If you are doing your best, making your best things, as diligently as you possibly can and there is no material benefit to doing so, you let everyone that depends on you down.  They suffer for your lack of traction.  They might begin to push back on that.

The more they need you to produce and provide, the worse you feel.  They demand more from you, when you have less and less to give and there is no understanding that there is nearly nothing left.  Well-meaning people, who love you, will try to distract you and ask you to pay attention to them, your health and happiness, and on experiences and relationships, but that has the effect of making you feel like your meagre creative outpourings are simply being lessened and minimised.  Your talents were not enough, when working as hard as you could and now you have to find a way to continue to create, at the same level, while spending less actual time creating.  It doesn’t seem like working less hard on your creative projects will cause them to be appreciated and rewarded more.

It also feels like people never thought much of your creative powers and their ability to sustain life, in the first place.  In other words, everything you love to do best isn’t good enough.  Your everything isn’t enough.  Your finest work is not good enough.  At least that’s how it can feel.  It feels like total rejection.

We’re always told to be the best we can be and to try, each day, to better what you did the day before, without reference to other people’s achievements or judgements, but if you put everything of yourself out there, vulnerably, with heart and courageously, yet there is no appreciable place in the universe where your contribution is wanted or valued, it means that you have bet everything and lost it all.  You placed all your own faith in yourself, done an honest job of presenting that to the world and had it utterly ignored or rebuffed.  Talk about making one feel surplus to requirements.

I don’t think any creative being can keep doing that.  I understand fully why so many creative people come to an end, with their creative endeavours and never pick them up ever again.  It becomes too painful to face.  There isn’t enough self-confidence or heart left to try harder or try again.

Maybe the magic ingredient you needed was some kind of “unobtainium”, which try as you might; you just don’t know how to get.  It remains elusive and scarce.  You don’t have enough of it to make it.   Depleted unobtainium.

What’s the answer?  Give up and go back to conforming to a world that values none of what makes you special, but will pay a nominal amount, if you do work that you don’t care particularly passionately about, but which you can do competently?  Or do you just keep going until you drop?  Not great choices, are they?  Do you redouble your search for your own particular unobtainium, in the hope of stumbling over it, by sheer dumb luck?  Do you accept the indifference that your work is met with?  I don’t actually know the answer.

Doing your best and giving of your best can leave you bereft and depleted, until there is absolutely nothing left.  It’s a real danger and not one that the popular, self-help, psychology books acknowledge or offer advice on.  Nobody offers any practical, useful advice for how to deal with the complete and absolute exhaustion of your creative powers and I am afraid I can’t offer any either.  I don’t think the available choices are very attractive.

This is a bleak post, but it’s a bleak reality, for many artists.  Everything they make is met with a resounding “meh”.  Nobody wants or cares about the best they have to give.  The time to improve, to a point where people do, simply runs out, for purely prosaic reasons.  They never get a chance to bloom, quite literally nipped in the bud.  Meanwhile, the sacrifices and priority calls they made along the way, in order to focus diligently on their creativity, all mount up and the piper must be paid.  Obligations reassert themselves.

Maybe the last things you produce will be the best things you ever make.  Perhaps that will be noticed, one day, but maybe too late to prevent you perishing, as an active artist.  There may be some wistful nostalgia for the work that you made, just before you no longer could, but that doesn’t take you very far.  It’s not much good to you, after it’s all over.

I wish I could offer some good answers or some hope, but I just don’t have any to offer.  I can’t see the answers.  There might not be any, in a society that so massively and consistently undervalues creativity.  Each artist in this position may simply be one of the inevitable casualties of a world that thinks it can easily live without any more art, innovation, beauty, invention and creativity.  Maybe it can.  Maybe there are more than enough of those things to go around and anything additional truly is surplus to requirements.

I doubt it, though.

 

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Grace in Motion

Do you feel graceful?  I have to confess that most of the time, I do not feel graceful.  I feel clumsy and like my very presence is out of place, wherever I am.  I’m sure I would starve, as a hunter.  I blunder about, relative to a prey animal’s stealthy, svelte movements.  About the only time I feel graceful is when I play guitar.  That’s my element.  That’s where I merge with the instrument and just play.  Even then, I am positive there are players that play with more grace and dexterity than I ever will be able to, but it’s the closest I get to feeling poetic in my movements.

Millions of years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors learnt to walk softly on the land and to notice minute details about leaf falls, delicate sounds, disturbed earth, distant rustling in the long grasses and the feel of their own bodies.  They could sense their own balance, feel and absorb the minerals from the earth upon which they walked, move with suppleness, precision, silence and strength.  They could endure long distance walks in blazing sunshine, without breaking a sweat.  Their minds were attuned to their bodies and their bodies to the environment, in a holistic oneness that meant they felt intimate connection to nature.  They could read their own breathing.

We’ve lost a lot of that delicate sensation.  We wear hard-soled shoes.  When we commute, we jostle, rather than move like a fluid.  Our children no longer climb trees or play sports in the street.  Today, few of us can even write longhand legibly, anymore.  Our fine motor skills have atrophied.  We clunk at indelicate touch screens, composing texts with our opposable thumbs, rather than our fingers.  In the digital age, we’ve forgotten to use our digits.

Dancers and other artists have retained some of this grace and presence of mind in body.  Those that practice Tai Chi, which has been called “meditation in motion”, rapidly learn to sense their own centre of gravity and to move with strength and fluidity.  It’s very difficult and physically demanding to move slowly, supporting our own weight and that of our limbs, as if everything were actually weightless.  Movements and extensions can form utterly charming shapes in space.  We can build strength around movement and with it, refine those movements until they are graceful.

These body sensing skills play an important role in professional sports, where hand to eye co-ordination and economy of movement translate into advantage.  Strength, endurance and grace are also important for musicians who play an instrument and for painters who must make precise, deliberate and delicate brush strokes, holding their brush effectively in free three-dimensional space, while the paint transfers to the canvas, according to its own rheology and flow characteristics.  The viscosity of the paint and the subtle movements of our hands, fingers and wrists work in concert to make exactly the right mark.  Sculptors, I think, have a very special relationship with centres of gravity – both their own and that of their work, as they bring their piece to life.

As we age, becoming aware of our movements and our centre of gravity can be an important protection against falls.  Those with inner ear disorders and balance dysfunctions can train to lower their centre of gravity, slow down their movements and place themselves more deliberately on the earth, with their feet.  Taking steps (literally) to strengthen your legs and your leg muscles allows you to tread more softly.  You can become more aware of the point of contact between the sole of your foot and the surface you are stepping on.  Muscle stiffness can be held at bay by slowly and gradually transferring your body weight onto different muscle groups, then releasing again.  Injuries and muscle weaknesses can gradually be healed by this gentle repetition of loading and unloading.

Learning to move with grace, whether through Tai Chi, or via other methods, helps you maintain your sense of peace, too.  It can relieve stress, help you to unwind and relax and keep your blood pressure low, due to the meditative concentration that graceful movements require.  You become more aware of when your body has been destabilised, when your centre of mass is not supported well and gain confidence, through your more precise reactions to destabilising situations.  Smooth, slow, gentle, circular movements of wrists, ankles, arms, legs, neck and torso all train your brain to know the extent of your body, in any surrounding space and hence prevent you inadvertently bumping into things.

As a relaxed, supple, strong, durable human body, then fine motor movements, such as those required in the elegance of dance or in virtuoso playing of musical instruments, can be honed and refined.  If your joints flow like a fluid, through space, you can appear to be beautiful, even when feeling tired, old, worn or depressed.  The ability to synchronise these movements with other people, in an ensemble, such as is achieved in dance training or in Tai Chi classes, brings another level of refinement to graceful movements, that pays great dividends for artists wanting to play in bands, or otherwise synchronise movement to rhythm.

The human body is an astonishing machine.  No robot can move with quite the poetic fluidity, with the same strength and delicacy, for as long, without requiring serious maintenance, on as little energy, as the human body.  It makes you wonder how some people can be so blind to this amazing and unarguable fact that they will abuse bodies, punish them physically, place them in harm’s way in wars, treat them as mere pack animals and restrict their movements and available space in which to move.  What’s the attraction in a sedentary office plan?  Why do we glorify the clumsy, indelicate, blundering, jerky movements of machines?  Can’t we see how elegant and efficient muscles are and how wondrous the curves traced through space of our extremities, as we move?

How can an organism, capable of such breathtakingly beautiful movement, such economy of energy utilisation and such precision and strength ever be considered to be a useless eater?  Why would we replace them with brutal machines?

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What Is Fiction For?

Today’s post is for all the writers, reporters, film makers, pundits, story tellers, news readers, public relations professionals and anybody else who deals with narratives.  I began reading a book, a recent birthday gift, called “Sapiens”, by Yuval Noah Harari, subtitled “A brief history of humankind”.  There was a fascinating section, in that book, about how primitive societies organised themselves, their use of language and the cognitive leap that occurred, causing our ancestors to be able to speak of and communicate with each other about imaginary events and entities.  The question posed, by the book, is why this intellectual facility should have evolved.

That’s a very interesting question.  Why should we, uniquely as far as we know, have evolved a communication capability that does more than warn of danger or the location of food?  What was the necessity of inventing myths, legends, spells, laws, ceremonies, shaman, priests, religious tales, Gods, allegories, fables, prayers, homilies, sagas, epics, dramas and so on, or entirely fictional entities like money, corporations, contracts, empires, armies, navies, kingdoms, debt, securities, nations and their like?  Other animals communicate.  Some even lie, for advantage.  A green monkey, for example, will issue a call to warn about eagles overhead, so that a rival will hide and leave their bananas unguarded, which the liar quickly makes their own.  As far as we know, though, there is no animal equivalent to the human capacity for fiction.

In primitive societies, cohesion of the group was found to confer an evolutionary advantage.  These societies, usually organised around an alpha male, or else a matriarch, developed their own hierarchies and the head of the hierarchy kept the peace, through menaces and threats, or via intervention, when violent conflicts amongst lower caste members got out of hand.  The reward, for the group, is that more of the population remained healthy enough, for long enough, to breed and multiply.  Our genes became more widespread.  For that privilege, the heads of these hierarchies were afforded the best foods and mates.  At a primitive level, there is evolutionary advantage in keeping the peace and paying a high community price for that peacemaker.

Unfortunately, the model doesn’t scale.  After the group grows beyond around one hundred and fifty members, the one-to-one personal relationships that glued the primitive society together begin to strain or become nonexistent.  The peacemaker cannot be everywhere and not everybody in the larger group recognises the alpha member’s exalted role.  Fights between groups, of about one hundred and fifty, break out instead, often to the bitter end, where one group is completely annihilated.  A mechanism had to evolve that allowed groups larger than one hundred and fifty to enjoy peaceable cohesion, in order to evolve as a species and develop beyond those little, primitive troupes.

The invention that permitted this was the fictional higher power or authority.  An imaginary alpha male or matriarch, depending on your tradition and ancestry, was invented and stories about the higher authority told, so that each member of the much larger group could develop trust in, and loyalty and fealty toward the higher power, based on a shared and mutual respect for their ultimate authority.  It meant that you could meet another member of the much larger group, who you may never have met before and still both trust each other to defer to the imaginary higher power.  The actual higher power imagined was invented differently, many times over, but the same basic concept applied.  There was an imaginary alpha member of the group, to whom the real members of the much larger group all deferred to and obeyed.   We sometimes call these tribal stories our spiritual beliefs, but they have the same motivation.

So far, so good.  Interesting invention.  That one idea, or evolutionary adaptation, has permitted the development of much larger societies, which lived mainly in peace and thrived.  We now have cities and nations.  Our successive fictions, whose ideas and ideals we spread via language, have enabled humankind to become the dominant species on the planet.  That’s a pretty high evolutionary return for a relatively simple invention – the ability to tell stories about imaginary entities.

Of course, it didn’t entirely quell our default method of dealing with perceived threats or other entities that we felt we could not trust.  We still killed them.  We still do.  Complete destruction of “others” is still a feature of our human minds.  Why do we do that?  We’ll come to that question shortly.

So, fiction exists because it was first used to scale-up human cohesion.  It was the foundation of a larger society.  By telling tales that the whole, wider group could believe in and uphold, a very much larger group of humans could remain viable and continue to thrive and evolve, instead of killing each other.  It prevented a single group of one hundred and fifty humans ultimately wiping all others out.  If evolution has any imperative at all, it is to propagate the genes.  Imagine if fiction had not been invented and the population of humans had remained at the one hundred and fifty remaining winners.  Call them the one percent, just for fun.  That would be a precarious number that had significant risks militating against their survival.  A single natural disaster, like a volcanic eruption, or a famine, could wipe that small a group out in a short space of time.  It’s no wonder that we evolved a capacity to survive, living amongst each other, in much greater numbers.

The bigger question is why threatened animal species have not evolved this capacity for fiction.  Numbers of tigers and bears, in the wild, are now low enough now that extinction is a real possibility, for example.  Why there is no tiger higher power or bear sky authority, ruling over these animal kingdoms remains a mystery.  I don’t think we have the answer.

The key to a story that galvanises a society into stronger cohesion is its believability.  Either the story has to be credible or the vast majority of those that hear it have to be credulous.  Sometimes the credibility of the story teller is enough to make the story believable, or at least for the majority to suspend disbelief.  Sometimes, though, the believability of the story is enforced, by threats, menaces and violence, so that those that hear the story don’t dare disbelieve it, for fear of the consequences.   Indoctrination and deliberate programming are often used to form our beliefs.  Our freedom of choice in choosing what to believe is very often denied to us.

The most credible stories, though, turn out to be the ones that embody an objective truth.  This is double-edged, though, because a single truth can smuggle in a raft of outright lies along with it, piggy-backing on the credibility of the grain of truth.  Perversely, the most believed stories are often the biggest outright lies.  All too frequently, we will cling to a belief even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.  Proof of a belief’s falsehood is no guarantee that we will change our beliefs, unless the story told by the proof is a more believable one, which is more widely believed and even then, many resist, for fear of destroying the precious social cohesion that the disproven story upheld.

What we choose to believe, as a society, seems to be what we think serves our ends best, not what happens to be true.  Being fictions, truth often has nothing to do with it.  We buy into the story we think serve our best interests, but the definition of our best interests is, itself, a fictional story, open to manipulation and distortion.  What we believe are our best interests and what actually are our best interests, from an evolutionary point of view, can often be very different.

The reward for believing in the fictions we create is that it allows wider trust networks to be built.  If we both believe in the same things, then we can trust each other to think and act in predictable and similar ways.  There are fewer nasty surprises.  Zealots know where they stand with other zealots.  Blind faith has the advantage of creating a uniform society which acts in very reliable and obedient ways.  Whether or not that group behaviour is objectively dysfunctional appears not to matter (to us – it does to other species).  The important thing seems to be that we can tell what’s going to happen, if we meet strangers that hold the same beliefs in the same fictions that we do.  We find safety in our numbers, even if our group behaviour is, in fact, very risky.

Some fictions become more or less universal, at least for long periods of time.  There are moments in history where dissent almost completely disappears or becomes dangerously impossible.  There are also times when the body of ideas that are widely held is so interlocked and intricate, that disbelieving one or two of them won’t free you from the rest of them.  It’s possible to see through the deception or terrible flaws of one fiction and still be taken in by all the others.  Popularity, it turns out, stems from adhering to the most popular and universal fictions.  Challengers need not imagine they will be popular for doing so.  Their dissent is seen as an attack on social cohesion.

As a species and society, we have developed a massive infrastructure and technology for storytelling, fiction propagation and the steady reinforcement of the orthodox, prevailing imaginary ideas.  The Internet, itself, could be seen to be this, just as broadcast television and printed newspapers were, a generation ago.  We believe what we’re told are the right things to believe, by family, friends, people in authority and commentators in whom we place our trust.  This is how social cohesion works.  Fictions are viral.  We don’t leave believing in the community’s preferred fictions to chance.

Stories are powerful.  They exert a power over our consciousness that is strong enough to make us override our better instincts.  We can fervently agree that killing is wrong, yet happily believe in a fictional justification for war.  There is recent historical record of this.  Regrettably, knowing the power of our stories, there are those that are quite prepared to fabricate lies for their own advantage, at the expense of the community as a whole.  Fictions that do not serve our interests, but instead serve only the interests of the liar and his collaborators, are everywhere.  We are constantly manipulated by messages that seek to extract, from us, our labour (via our money), while short changing us in return.  The problem with “crying wolf”, in this way is that once the practice becomes widespread, it tends to demolish the bonds and networks of trust that our community fictions were supposed to build.  Rather than encouraging social cohesion, these lies actually undermine it.

When unbelievable fictions are created and told, such as official stories that defy the laws of physics, or are at odds with observations, or which clearly obfuscate or omit important details, this sets up a chain of events that is as predictable as it is protective of the original purpose of the adaptation to tell fictions to each other.  An unbelievable story is rightly seen as subverting the original purpose of fictions, which was to draw people together in peaceful co-existence, so that the species might thrive as a whole.  The incredible tale spawns alternative narratives and explanations, which are more believable to those that cannot accept the standard narrative as believable, at face value.  We call those alternative narratives, created in an attempt to replace an incredible story with a credible one, “conspiracy theories”.  The term “conspiracy theory” is actually a pejorative term, originating in the secret services of the United States, in an attempt to discredit the alternative narratives about the honesty and reliability of President Nixon, who turned out to be dishonest and unreliable, as history has shown.  The alternative narrative was right.

Instead of being used to draw people together, narratives are often used to conceal realities and to hoodwink a large population.  For example, prior to Watergate, the president of the United States was thought to embody the ideals of the fiction that had been created about the office of the president.  The man was thought to be noble, wise, honest and with his citizens foremost in his every decision and action.  Nixon was none of these things.  The population of the world had to confront the terrible, yawning chasm between the idea of the president and the actuality of the man serving as president.

Some people held that the president had to conform to the fiction, by definition, so despite his many crimes he must have actually been noble, honest and so on.  Others saw this evidence as undermining the story of the office of president as a stupid, unrealistic fiction that could never be matched by any real human in the office.  In any case, the result was a massive breakdown of trust, in global society and a net loss of social cohesion, the effects of which are still being felt today.  Some people don’t trust a president as far as they can kick him; while others hold that everybody elected to that office is magically transformed into the ideal, or has been selected from a huge pool of candidates, thanks to his natural conformance with the ideal.  In both cases, the office and persona of the president we created, as a story to ourselves, remain a fiction.

When the net amount of suffering and misery increases, for the general population and all other species, then our fictions are serving us badly.  The purpose of fiction, in evolutionary terms, is to increase social cohesion in large groups.  The price we pay for that turns out to be increased suffering and misery for the majority.  At some point, the suffering and misery becomes intolerable and the alpha figure in our prevailing fiction is challenged and ultimately overthrown.  A new fiction takes its place.  Ideally, the new fiction is more benign and produces less suffering and misery for all.  That outcome of revolution is seldom guaranteed, unfortunately.  When the Russian people challenged and overthrew the fiction of the benevolent autocrat, embodied in their Tsar, in favour of the communal ownership and empowerment promised by socialism, what they got, instead, was a maniacal, blood-thirsty tyrant, in the form of Stalin.  As ever, the man fell short of the fictional ideal that brought him to prominence.

Even still, there is a remarkable resistance to changing long-established fictions and ideas.  They ossify into something we call “traditions”.  People that go on believing in something, when everybody else has abandoned the story, are called Chauvinists, after Chauvin, a French soldier who continued to keep the faith in Napoleon Bonaparte, long after he was defeated, discredited and disgraced.  We sometimes hold to our fictions so steadfastly that we begin to believe (and want to believe) that our imaginary inventions are real, or represent immutable laws of nature.  We lose our ability to imagine alternative stories or to believe that life can go on, in the absence of our preferred fictional constructs.  The world will end in chaos, if our treasured notions, such as markets, capitalism, government, taxes, laws, money, interest rates, globalism and unfettered trade come to an end, we think to ourselves.  The reality is generally never quite so drastic.  A new set of fictions or intellectual inventions simply replaces the old, in time.

Our talent for large-scale social cohesion, through the invention of imaginary entities that rule over us, has given us a sudden and swift rise to the top of the food chain, in relative terms.  We were once in the middle of the food chain, but now that we have this cognitive apparatus, we are able to outsmart, outgun and outmanoeuvre the former top predators of our planet.  Lions and bears are easily conquered and vanquished by humans.  Unfortunately, due to our heritage as middle ranking food chain occupants, we have retained our more neurotic fears, driven by a once historical, but now largely absent, apprehension and anxiety of being eaten by predators above us in the food chain.  There are no predators above us in the food chain, anymore.  We’re still driven by fear, though.  To date, we haven’t evolved our self-confidence or the majesty and nobility that the previous top predators had.  We lack the wisdom and emotional stability to organise the planet, as the new top predators.  We’re still afraid of what might be lurking in the dark, or behind us.  We’re killers, often pointlessly, because we fear being killed.

Today, the Internet makes it possible for groups of humans upholding very different fictions to collide, head-on.  And so they do, with violence.  Anybody who has spent any time on-line will have witnessed incidences of this.  Arguments ensue and things get nasty.  Neither side is moved to abandon their own fiction and yet neither fiction, in truth, has any greater claim to legitimacy than the other.  Both are fictions, designed to create social cohesion amongst a wider group.  Consequently, both are rather arbitrary in nature.  Neither has any basis in reality, or the fiction would not have to have been invented in the first place.

The biggest problem we face, today, is that our own fictions, originally evolved as an adaptation to protect and propagate our genes, on a more widespread basis, have now become a threat to the survival and propagation of those genes.  Dogged adherence to our favourite fiction, profit, has meant that we have rapidly destroyed our ecosystem and our food chain.  Our survival, as a species, depends intimately on the health of both.  We have created fictions, originally designed to help propagate our genes, which now threaten the very propagation of our genes.  In that sense, the imaginary stories we tell ourselves, once an evolutionary adaptation, have become decidedly maladaptive.

As a consequence, increasing numbers of humans can no longer believe in the prevailing stories and fictions.  They no longer ring true to them.  More alarmingly, the fictions no longer do what they were supposed to do.  They no longer foster and encourage social cohesion.  Indeed, social cohesion has begun to break down and is under active attack by the people who lead the institutional fictions we created, for the sole purpose of maintaining social cohesion.  Could there be any greater betrayal of trust?  We, as a larger community, paid for our social cohesion with added misery and suffering and yet the people who embody the fictions we set up to guarantee that social cohesion are reneging on the deal.  We’ve become disenfranchised with politics because the story told by politicians is no longer credible.  Their political vision looks and sounds like a hollow lie.

We now have a divided populace, but not divided solely along sectarian or political lines, as indeed we still are.  Now, the new division is between those that uphold the old stories and see the dissenters as dangerous anarchists, bent on the destruction of orderly society and those that have seen through the old stories and believe that anybody who still upholds them is a mindless or cynical, unaware, uncaring, unfeeling, zombie, hell bent on species destruction.  There are, of course, people that uphold some, but not all of the stories, who take sides depending on which fiction is being discussed.

The human beings that were once the figureheads of our dearest-held fictions have been unmasked.  The truth about them and their real intentions has come out and we see that they were much less worthy than our fictions hoped they would be.  They simply didn’t deliver and often betrayed our trust and faith in them.  The social contract has been broken.  They have failed to live up to the dearly held beliefs and fictions they were supposed to represent.  We find ourselves discovering self-serving, thorough-going criminals, where we expected to find honourable men.

In situations like these, alternative narratives have a revelatory, restorative and healing power.  New and better imaginary inventions of the collective consciousness, to serve our species better, spring forth from the fertile imaginations of people programmed, genetically, to continue the survival of our gene pool.  Those that threaten it, through ceaseless war, environmental destruction, eugenics or mass genocide, are rejected.  A battle of ideas is currently being fought, between the old, discredited ideas, which large sections of our society still cling to by default and the new ideas about how our world can be better, but which still lack widespread believability.

Today, there seems to be no idea that we can all believe in, yet.  The idea that emerges, as our next protective fiction, needs to be an idea that we can all adhere to, especially those humans that we choose to be its figureheads.  The next big idea for social cohesion has to preserve our species, permitting our continued survival and propagation, but in so doing, also has to protect the biosphere in all its diversity, because our survival depends upon it.  These are no longer separate concerns, if they ever were.  Every other idea is up for grabs.  We also have to curb our fear.

What is leadership other than the ability to tell the most believable stories, which resonate with the most people?  We’re still learning to use our stories wisely and that is why some of our species are challenging our existing fictions and proposing alternative narratives.  We fall far short of using our stories wisely, at present.  The ones we have are extending our misery, suffering and peril of extinction.

People who have exceptional storytelling skills, the artists that incorporate strong narratives in their work, need to lead us out of the mess.  Our old stories are failing us.  New stories are desperately needed, despite resistance to them.  The time to invent new, imaginary constructs, which serve to preserve our species and all the elements of the biosphere that we depend upon, are needed right now. Above all, these new constructs need to be believable, so that we can place our collective trust in them.  Kingdoms, empires, sects, markets, monetary systems, political parties, globalist trade institutions, corporations and bureaucracies be damned!

 

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Appreciating is Good, Creating is Better

Something occurred to me, today.  It was in relation to music.  I had the thought that knowing how to make music is so much more satisfying than being a fan of music.  I’ve been a big fan of music all my life.  I love music.  There are so many talented people making music and I, for one, could watch anybody do anything, with excellence, all day long.

When I first started making my own music, it was frustrating.  It seemed like everybody could make better music than I could.  Worse than that, it felt like I could never reach the standard of music production of the music I liked to listen to most.  However, the longer I worked at it, the better I got.  Now, I am at a stage where I really like the music I make.  It turns out the way I intend it to be.  It’s exactly like the kind of music I would ideally love to listen to.

There is an existential joy in imagining music the way you would ideally want it to be and then being able to produce that in a tangible form that you can share.  It’s so much more satisfying than listening to the best music, made by others.  There is no nagging feeling that you wished the music was just slightly different, as often happens to me, when I listen to other people’s music.  My own music is exactly the music I want to hear.

It might seem to be like an ego out of control, but I find myself looking at paintings with an eye for what I would have done differently, in that painting.  Even when looking at masterpieces by acknowledged masters, I find myself wanting to change a colour, here or there, or move the odd brush stroke.  Knowing how to paint gives you a different appreciation of your favourite paintings.  Being able to paint more or less exactly what you envisage (I’m still in the “struggle” phase, on this) must be such a liberating feeling.

Consuming art as an appreciative audience member can be very satisfying, no doubt about it.  However, having the ability to produce your own art, to a standard that meets with your own approval, is even more satisfying.

It has been said (and you only have to observe for yourself) that the music and art businesses are particularly nasty.  They are populated with all manner of parasitic, predatory users and abusers, who don’t appreciate or produce any art or music of their own, but who are exploiters that are in the game solely to exploit the people that do.  All they want is the money.  This always makes me an uneasy spectator of commercial art.  I always wonder who is getting manipulated and cheated, and in what ways.  Is it the artist, the fans or both?  I feel for them.  For every musician I hear or artist I see, I wonder what price they are ultimately being asked to pay, to put their art in front of us all, for the larger profit of people that had almost nothing to do with its conception or making.  The enjoyment of commercial art, therefore, is a little tainted, for me.  It also needs to be said that these businesses promote and push a world view that I don’t agree with and don’t like.

When you make your own music or paintings, you don’t have to consume the agendas of the promoters and sponsors, as embodied in the images, lyrics, style, and public exploits of the so-called stars.  When you make your own, there is no distasteful and wasteful celebrity culture to have to stomach.  You are not subjected to any mind manipulation (to live a certain way, value certain things and buy the products incidentally being pushed at you).  There is no narrative of the loss of youthful innocence and the humiliation and degradation of the fallen, as there is in popular culture (unless that happens to be what the message of your art is – mine isn’t).  You are free from Autotune, if that is what you want and you don’t have to tolerate the whining sound, malign, cynical influence or unwelcome omnipresence of Simon Cowell.  These things are entirely absent from your own art, if you choose them to be.  (There is also something intensely satisfying about instructing your word processor’s spelling checker to “Ignore all”, in response to “Cowell” coming up as an unknown word.)

As a producer, rather than mere consumer, of art you don’t have to subject yourself to the constant, ambient “gaslighting”, used by the pop culture and contemporary art Svengalis to convince you, over a long period of time and through slow, imperceptible increments, that your values, world view, morals, ethics and perceptions are wrong, naive, out of date and no longer the norm.  There is no pressure to conform to the cool kids.  Indeed, the very concept evaporates entirely.  You can be as cool as you want, in your own musical or artistic world of coolness, if you choose, but you very quickly realise that “cool” isn’t even a thing, in reality and that it certainly has no value to you, only to those that want to sell you something or “remind” (i.e. convince) you of how inferior a creature you are, compared to a God-like Svengali.

If you had previously aspired to coolness, you realise, with a sudden shock, that you have been utterly brainwashed, for profit.  You were gaslighted into thinking it was a worthy ideal, when in fact it is a harmful and useless ghost.  You no longer feel the urge to have that next piercing or tattoo, to stay up all night taking class-A drugs, to wear ridiculous designer clothes in absurd ways or to buy over-priced and inferior-sounding headphones, because of their brand cachet.  You step away from the botox and cosmetic surgery ads.  You’re free from all that peripheral nonsense that attached itself, like some malevolent, contagious leach, to the music or art that you love.

More than that, you realise that you are enough.  When the stream of messages aimed at you, telling you that you are worthless and unworthy stops, you suddenly don’t feel so small or alone.  You feel included and special.  Suddenly, you find a place where you really belong and it was right here, all the time.

Not everyone is a maker, but everyone has the potential to be one.  The journey toward making things that you love can be long and frustrating, but no less interesting and satisfying, along the way.  If you reach the point where your own art pleases you, then you really can see from the summit that the products that were perennially pushed at you were no better, sometimes worse and always bundled with baggage that you don’t want or need.  I encourage everyone to have a go at being a maker.

There’s a lot to be said for folk art and folk music, not as stylistic genres, but meaning that it was music and art made by real, ordinary people for their own and each other’s entertainment and edification.  Today, that standard can be as high as you wish, since the means to make it so are within the reach of millions of people.  Too little of the art presented by big business, on the other hand, is edifying in any way at all.  It’s all rather degrading, in the main.

I think art that we make ourselves has more value than is widely acknowledged.  And that’s how the Svengalis want it to be.

 

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