Saturday, 5 November 2016

Children on Elephants

Confession: I'm happier than I used to be.  Significantly so.  There are a number of reasons for this. And I'm reading a book called The Happiness Principle, by Jonathan Haidt, which is sparking a lot of thought (and feelings) about it all.

I used to hang onto my sorrow, discomfort and dissatisfaction like a flag.  Like there needed to be a guy, standing there, saying "No.  This is all bullshit.  We need to be more real.  We need to do this right.  We need to pay attention.  We need to look after the people who are falling between the cracks.  The ones we're shoving out, between said cracks."  But after having written a couple of books and done other such things, I feel like I've planted that flag, and I don't actually have to wear the t-shirt every day, or even stand outside the gates anymore.

And yeah.  I'm reading Haidt's The Happiness Principle.  A lot of it seems terribly familiar, and goes over very old ground, prompting me to want to say "Get on with it!  Give me something new to think about!"  It's surprising that I'm reading Haidt's book.  Any book with this title, actually.  There are many, many books out there on the subject, and with similar titles, and I have learned to avoid them.  Because when I've tried to read them, I quickly find that I haidt them.  They convince me more deeply that happy isn't something I can be.  That it's for other people.  That the only thing holding me back is me.  (Horrible thing to tell people.  Go peddle that in Africa or Syria, why don't you?)  But this book is being so "me" right now that I'm getting bored with the well-worn paths and want to see what's next. Want to think something new.  I agree with him about the stuff he's disagreeing with, because I've been disagreeing with it too for a long, long time.

But I'll try to explain one of the key reasons I'm happier lately.  I think, being middle-aged, I've lost a whole lot of hope in the idea that people can change.  Significantly.  Deep down.  I've seen too many people die, rather than change.  And I've seen some that seem to be killing themselves in extreme slow motion.

So now?  I genuinely don't think people change.  Not really.  Not at the core.  So I don't hope for it.  And that's very, very freeing.  Because I've gone straight through my life always feeling like I need to change.  Need to be someone else.  People have leaped up to tell me the same thing.  That I need to become someone who is less pessimistic.  That I need to become someone who is less withdrawn.  Someone who is more of an extrovert.  That when I don't want to participate, I need to become the sort of person who wants to participate more, who wants to indulge and placate others more.  That when I get over-eager and talk too much, I need to become a person who will want to participate less, and again, want to indulge and placate others more.  That I need become someone who cares less.  That I need to think less. That I need to smile a lot. That I need to flinch less obviously when touched unexpectedly.  That I need to hug people more.  That I need to show "positive" emotions (ones people like) more.  That I need to get happier. (or, failing that, act cheerful.)

And after all of these years, I have slowly come to really hate all of that.  Not just a little.  See it as the enemy.  See it as the key to unraveling me when I'm busing being who I am.  But I used to hear it more than I do now.  One thing about being middle-aged is people lay off you.  That pressure to change starts to subside a bit.  You know that pressure.  To be a person others will like more.  So they will hire you, and trust you, date you and otherwise socially, financially and romantically reward you.  Because we're not ok the way we are, apparently.  Nope.  We are inconvenient and embarrassing.

Melancholy and philosophical?  Introverted? Quiet at times?  Solitary? Dissatisfied with "the way things are"?  Apt to sneer and mock at fake stuff that clearly sucks, but somehow always seems to demand a whole lot of praise and attention and recognition from every single one of us?  Lacking in emotional affect and response?  All of the above?  Not ok.  We need to change, apparently.  To be happier.  Or to fit in better, anyway. To make ourselves easier to accept.

And of course, you can see where I'm going with all this.  It turns out that "just being" makes one happier than being burdened with constant negative feedback from others and continual attempts to adjust, correct and control one.  Especially if one buys into the idea that one needs to care deeply about all of the above.  No, the opposite is what makes a person serene, content, at peace.  Happy, even.  Oddly, a person being themselves is far easier to accept than someone who is miserably trying to be more acceptable to others. There's something right about it.  We can't help but accept authenticity when we see it, even if it's packaged up in a person who's a bit crusty, or who comes with some sharp edges.

So I'm done listening to people who feel I ought to do everyone a favour and change.  I'm doing the very opposite: I'm not even pretending I'm going to change, on a deep, psychological level, mainly to meet the expectations of others.  I don't recommend it.  I recommend clinging to one's identity instead, and running with it, instead of from it.  Be it more.  Be it deeper, higher, broader and more richly and maturely than anyone dreamed was possible.

"Everybody" wants you to get a specific haircut or smile more or lose weight or be excited about some sports or Internet thing or wear some wristband or colour or whatever?  What works for me is the bone-deep, decades-old abiding accustomedness to simply recognizing that yeah, there are always people like that, who seem to want and need that from every single person.  Like junkies on street corners with their hands out.  You can spend some time or money trying to make them happy if you want to, or you can not bother with them.  One thing that's sure is that nothing is really going to take the edge off that keening need in their blood to shoot up heroin or tell you about the environment or require you to use the word "issues" instead of "problems" or love Ke$ha or whatever it is.

There's them, needing something, and there's you, possibly with the power to maybe to choose to stop and give them what they claim they need, or not.  And "not" is just as viable an option as giving them what they think they need.  Because sometimes what people are looking for isn't something you can give, or isn't going to content them anyway.  

I have learned to no longer confuse growing and maturing, on the one hand, with changing, on the other.   God put me in the world and I'm a very specific design that you sure didn't order from a sampler with various options and dropdown menus, available in your preference of sizes, colours and fragrances.  I am growing and maturing, but I'm not going to become anybody else.  Not for me, not for you, not for anyone.  Because it's not possible.  I'm just me and I am only getting more "me." Deal with that.  Wisdom of middle-age talking.  It gives contentment and peace.  Try being.  Life isn't all becoming.  And it sure isn't about ceasing to be various things.

Any person who has struggled with depression, or who is grieving or whatever, will tell you the same thing: people all seem to have stupid advice.  Freely given.  And it's all the same.  They tell you "smile."  They tell you "be happy."  They tell you not to think about it. They tell you to care less.  They tell you to enjoy stuff you don't.  They tell you to feel and think differently.  My favourite?  They tell you to "Move on."  To "Walk away."  From stuff that's literally inside your skull.

Mostly it adds up to "Be more like me by doing what I do, the way I do it."  

Sometimes this is because they themselves are beautiful, young, white, rich, happy or whatever, and they genuinely don't get why every other person on the planet can't just be more or less like them.  "Be like me.  You can do it.  By your choices," they feel.  This all dodges the matter of why they need you to be more like them to begin with.  (Bigotry written small)  

Other times, people tell you to be happy or wear red, or cheer loudly or join their thing or whatever it is, because they see a potential for them to lose their thin facade of pretend, functional, daily cheerfulness. If we're all going to just go around being real and everything, instead of doing others the favour of hiding our psyches away for the day, what could happen? They're willing to paint the cheery on thick, so what makes you so special that you won't return the favour?  Their facade is so think there's no telling who's beneath it.

Maybe not pretending to be cheery is an important first step in embracing genuine, deeper, eventual happiness.  And maybe contentment and serenity are far more valuable than superficial cheerfulness. 

Jonathan Haidt is writing in the part I'm at right now about his own favourite way to imagine the stuff that St. Paul, Freud and a bunch of old Greeks saw in all of us: Haidt imagines we are like little children (our thoughts and decisions and self-control) riding huge elephants (the rest of our personalities, which we are little aware of, and certainly did not create and do not daily maintain, ourselves).  You know?  Part of what God made.  (Haidt doesn't believe in God, but is an honest enough atheist to have done his homework and is able to cite books which seek to explain the universal phenomenon that evolution and the ecology and the universe and so on seem to be not only designed, but designed to maintain and upgrade themselves.  "Design with a designer" is what he's hugging to his bosom right now to explain that big elephant in the room.)

So, an elephant?  Your past, your hormones, your genes, and millions of factors of which you are not presently consciously aware, Haidt imagines, are all working together right now to form this huge, ancient elephant that is as much a part of you as the little part on its back that tries not to respond sincerely and honestly when someone you don't like much tries to chide you to smile when you're not happy.

Think about it.  The elephant is part of you.  You are not a separate part that is stronger than the elephant.  And the elephant remembers.  And the elephant has big ears and hears everything.  And the elephant is, in its way, wise.  Whipping the elephant is not, in the long term, a good idea, given its memory and its strength.  It has thicker skin than (the conscious) you do, clearly.  You have to work with it, not against it.  Accept it and learn to work together better.  Laugh at the very idea, tossed at you from the person riding her miserable, over-trained elephant across the tent from you, that what would really be nice, really be best, is if you whipped your elephant more, to make it smile. Or balance on a ball, or do tricks.  And that if you paint it pink, maybe people will believe you when you say it's really an adorable, cheerful little poodle.

They call out to you: Just be happy.  Just smile.  Just somehow find cheery music and perky people cheering, rather than deeply depressing and annoying.  Just hug people.  Just shut up.  Just forget.  Just don't care.  Just never mind.  (Just try to stop the elephant from being big, from heavy, from being grey, from having a trunk and a tail and two big ears.)  Get out that pink paint.

Thing is, if you grow to have a warm, familiar, accepting working relationship between the elephant that is part of you, and the rest of you, you don't need to whip and shout and cry and otherwise seek to bully it so much.  You start to realize it's probably worth it to stop and get it some peanuts or a cabbage or whatever from time to time.  What's important to it starts to become important to the rest of you.  And.... vice versa.

No one else has a hope of understanding what goes on daily between the part of you that is not the elephant, and the part of you that is.  Doesn't mean they'll shut up.  Doesn't mean you have to listen.

So never mind trying not to be you.  Grow.  Relate.  Do not try to change utterly.  Growing will change you in all the ways you need. Mostly by making you more, rather than less you.

Depression, inventor of cognitive therapy Aaron Beck, claimed, often looked like the rider of this elephant saying certain things out of frustration.  Ranting.  Crying with frustration.  You could, Beck felt, "script" how depression talks.  It's very predictable:

1.  I am bad, weak, corrupt, selfish and no good.  (I am not able to subdue the part of me that is this elephant. It is too strong for me and I am tired of shouting at it and beating it and otherwise trying to get that part of me under control. It is bad and I am a bad elephant trainer.)

2. There are few or no good things in the world.  Nothing we can get, anyway, that are going to be worth it.  (There is nothing in the world that the elephant and the rest of me can find to enjoy.  No peanuts.  No cabbages.  No rivers to swim in.  No sun to sun in.)

3. And there never will be.

Now this is, baldly put, wrong.  And #1 is the root from which all of this crap springs.  It tells an evil story: "I am bad.  I am not good enough.  I am not strong enough.  People hate me and won't help.  They're selfish. And they don't know.  And anyway, there's no good stuff around that someone like me can get and enjoy.  And so I have no future."

This is what a little child sitting on a balky, hungry, resentful elephant thinks, and then, feels. (or the opposite of that)  And the child, and the elephant, and everyone else, knows that all of this depression-scripted stuff is wrong.  It's just evil whispers in a black time.  It's something dark to tell one's self so one doesn't have to keep trying.  So one doesn't have to try something else.  To try to talk one's self out of growth.

We're dumb.  We think we would somehow have to change utterly, in order to be happier and stronger.  But we're us.  And we want to continue to be ourselves.  So we do a lot to try to retain our selfhood, even though we're miserable.  Because it's all we think we have.

We think we have nothing else.  But that's wrong.  We have an elephant.  In fact, it's a part of us that nothing and no one can ever take away.

And we don't have to change.  We don't have to listen to other people.  We don't have to achieve what they achieve, and do things the way they do them.  We don't have to mute, or stuff, or lock away our true selves.  The trumpeting, miserable, angry, despairing elephant.  Starved and locked in the dark.  Quite the opposite.

We have to listen and talk to the part of us that is the elephant.  Know and be known.  It is powerful.  It has feelings.  It has needs.  And it never forgets. Maybe it doesn't want to balance on the ball to make the kids laugh.  Maybe it wants to knock over the wall instead.  Maybe it's been telling itself that very thing in its dreams.  Freedom dreams of knocking over all the walls.  Well, it probably can.  And maybe it should.

And it doesn't need to transform into a trained poodle to do it.