Regrets I’ve Had a Few

I am currently on holiday (in the sun) in (on?) Crete. Yesterday we did something we rarely do when vacationing, we went on an organised excursion. I really don’t know why we have seeming steadfastly baulked at such adventures in the past. Probably because of the children though they may have been a comfortable excuse as they have been for many activities we had no heart to participate in. We went on a Cretan Safari. I know, it does sound vaguely shit and we may never have plumped for it had it not been for the recommendation of Julie, the receptionist at the very splendid Mythos Suites Hotel. The previous day we had taken a splendid walk through the hills around Rethymno in the company of some fellow ‘Happy Walkers’, again on her personal recommendation, so we were on fairly solid ground we felt.

We got to the pick up point to be greeted by a very jovial Cretan named George who informed us that we would be on a virtual private tour in his Land Rover Discovery due to there only being 4 of us travelling with him today. This, clearly, could be a good and a bad thing – no one gets to schlep around in the back of the vehicle but what if you don’t get on with the others in the party? As it happened our fears were allayed when we picked up Paula and Diana from their hotel and after exchanging some pleasantries we embarked on our intrepid safari together.

The reason for telling you this story is to introduce you to George and to contextualise the various musings he shared with us throughout the day. From the start we knew that George was going to be a talkative kind of guide, he wasn’t going to just drive us to the designated stopping points, he was determined to give us the full world according to George and boy what a world that is. The first significant pause in our journey was to look around one of the 2464 (approx) churches on Crete. It is the custom in Greek Orthodox places of worship to light candles for ones prayers, symbolically casting light on the dark areas of our lives – death, suffering etc., but this was not Georges reasons for doing so. George would light 3 candles; one was for the living, for each and everyone of us, the second for peace, if we can all learn to put our differences aside then we can all live together, and finally for memories. We are the product of that has gone before and we must continue to acknowledge and pay due diligence to those stories and thoughts from the past. Nice thoughts from what was clearly a nice man. The rest of the day followed a similar pattern. We did have a rather surreal period just after lunch during which George’s duet of ‘My Way’ with Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, segued into a story of his love and tragic loss of a white horse in the hills around Spili. He showed us his Facebook profile picture to attest to his equine devotion. We were moved and all thoughts of Father Ted and My Little Horse were quickly expunged from our minds.

Towards the end of the day, the Raki had been duly administered in almost lethal doses so we were all feeling a little mellow, George pulled up on a hill over looking Rethymno and it was here he was to impart his great idea, his magnum opus. In the grand tradition of Land Rover based Greek philosophy we were about to make a great discovery of our own.

“Do you know where civilisation began?” He asked. He probably nudged me at the same time as I was in the front of the vehicle with him and he was what can only be described as a ‘nudger’. “Er, Ancient Greece” I opined. “Nope”. “China?”, “Iraq?”, “the Middle East?”. Every one of our increasingly desperate attempts to provide a viable response were greeted with solid Greco-Cretan “Ochi” (No).

“Civilisation was not created in the mountains where everything is fixed and final – a tree is a tree, a mountain is always there, no, my friends (we were at that level by now) civilisation was born on the beach”. Oh, we all thought, not quite sure where he was going with this. “On the beach, what can you see?”. We were getting used to these rhetorical questions from George, I am not entirely sure he intended them to be but we certainly had no answers that satisfied him. “The horizon!!” Was the answer. He continued “the horizon is different for us all and it is ever changing, always out there, that, my friends, is freedom, that is civilisation”. I would like to say that with that he put on his sunglasses, turned up whatever Sting song was currently playing from his USB stick and thrust the Land Rover Discovery into gear before wheel spinning away.

Alas, he didn’t. He carried on ‘explaining’ his theory though never quite clarifying it further. Eventually, he returned us to our hotels and we all parted, in the way people do now, amidst promises to perhaps become Facebook friends.

Like most I tend to take pictures while I am away and this year is no exception (I shall post a link to the Flickr album when I am back). What I am doing slightly differently is using a fixed 50mm lens on my Canon DSLR.

There are two reasons for this; one is practicality – the lens is small and keeps the camera handier to carry, the second is a bit more esoteric. The thing with a lens of fixed focal length is that you cannot make adjustments for distance that allow you to capture more, or less, in the photograph. If I want to change my perspective I literally have to do that and move closer or further away. I like this idea, in effect it means that I must bend my will to that of the world. The move can only be mine to make.

There are many ways in which we can distort our viewpoint, our perspective, to make our interactions with the world a highly individualised experience – to do it ‘my way’ – but I wonder just how sustainable and beneficial many of these are. The very fact that I am in Crete in May is to allow myself to enjoy some sun and warmth at a time when it is in scarce supply back in the UK will have a harmful impact on the planet as a result of my flying here.

There are few fixed things in this world of seemingly constant change, but, as George pointed out, there is a permanence that the trees and the mountains have. Our seemingly insatiable western demand to have things the way we want them is causing untold damage to both and before long we may only have the featureless horizon to look at.

The horizon is generally used as a symbol of the limits of our imaginations, seemingly endless and open to all possibilities, and many would use something of this in their definition of freedom. There is another way to look at it and it could well be that the limitless possibilities, far from being liberating, are actually constraining. The pressure to do anything, the idea that we are able to do and be who we want can be tangible and oppressive. For most people in the world this is just simply not the case and never will be. Might it not better to experience the world as it is – a world of semi-permanence and constraint, a world in which true freedom might be experienced in knowing ones responsibilities and having the capability to fulfill those obligations?

I confess that there are times (I’m sure you knew) when I like nothing more than to lie on a sunlit beach, basking in the warmth of its heat and dreamily staring at the distant, unchanging horizon but then I go home unchained but not unchanged, back to doing what I need to do and, hopefully, doing some of the things I want to.

Take a Cha Cha Cha Chance

I posted this picture along with several others in a post last night about it being Anne’s birthday. I wanted to highlight this image though and explain a bit about why it is significant.

The first thing to note is that we are all there at the allotted time and place. We planned this meal out at Evuna in Manchester’s Northern Quarter some weeks before and we have not always executed such plans as well as we did this day. We make do – someone forgot to make the booking, someone forgot the date and arranged something else – and we make the best of it. But not this day, we booked and we all turned up.

We all got on really well. Some of our recent efforts at family social time have been fraught to say the least. No family get on with each other all the time, that isn’t how families work and some of the tensions cannot be suppressed, no matter how important the occasion is, and they inevitably spill over. When that happens we make do – we make the best of it.

We are nearly all wearing sunglasses with only Tom wearing my reading glasses. This is somewhat ironic as three of the pairs the rest of us have on belong to Tom. No one is really sure why he owns so many but the really annoying thing is that he looks pretty good in all of them. We were trying to ascertain which pairs suits the rest of us.

There is someone missing. Katy’s partner, also called Tom, had his own family commitments that day and was unable to join with us. We enjoy a really good relationship with Tom and he has become a much loved member of the family so we were saddened by his absence but, you know what we did, we made do – we made the best of it.

As punts go this was clearly not most risky but then they don’t have to be to blow up in your face. It is almost always easier to avoid situations that might go in a direction you would rather they didn’t. But when you take a cha cha cha chance it’s invariably worth it.

Except when it isn’t, but then you make do – you make the best of things….

The Past is Our Knowledge

Part of building this site has involved me going back over a number of posts from as far back as 2006 when I started writing the original blog. It was a strange exercise.

In 2006 blogs had really become the thing. Twitter was just starting out but there was only really Jonathon Ross and Stephen Fry using it. The blogosphere was where it was (still) at. I followed a number of bloggers who were so successful they were offered book deals on the strength of their periodic postings. One of my favourites was a paramedic who regaled us with tales of life, death and everything between. I can only remember that detail, I have no idea what the blog and subsequent book were called.

The idea that one could turn their blog into a book was one that I was drawn to. I can write and have done so for many years, if I got the content right then the offers would just pour in. The naivety of such thinking hit home hard yesterday as I trawled through my musings. There are some half decent ideas and they are still here if you care to delve further into the site, but on the whole it was pretty bad.

I have since written a draft of a book. It was hard, hard graft. Enjoyable and rewarding but the biggest challenge I think I have elected to attempt. I am currently effectively rewriting the whole thing. The ideas are good but the readability is not there.

One of the really positive effects of looking back is that I can se how far I have come. I think I still have some way to go but I reckon I will get there.

As Nick Cave demonstrates, we have to practice, practice and practice more, we have to keep turning up and being ready for when the idea, the inspiration, comes along so we can do it justice. This is one of the reasons for the site and I hope I will be sharing something enjoyable and occasionally inspirational with you all.

some more writing

Hair Brushed and Parted…

At the weekend I attended two separate events. The first was a football match and the second a music concert. I was thinking during both of these that I would not describe myself a typical attendee of either. This then led me to ponder just what a typical football support of gig-goer was like.

When we consider ‘types’ we hold two concepts simultaneously in mind; the archetype and the stereotype. The archetype is the ideal, the perfect and therefore unobtainable, version. The stereotype is the commonly denominated representation of the type or form. Neither the archetype nor the stereotype actually exist, the are symbolic, they represent our idea of the thing we are considering.

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Leaving aside the archetype for a moment, I wonder what your stereotypical football supporter is? In this case I am referring to a Manchester City fan. If you were being generous you might recall that their supporters all come from Manchester and were for many years prefixed with ‘long-suffering’ so you might consider that they are now fortunate to be in the position they are. A cross between Jack Duckworth and Noel Gallagher. If you wanted to be more critical and judgemental you would suggest that they are all glory hunting ‘plastics’ who only started watching them in 2008. Whichever stereotype you chose you would invariable be wrong and would find it difficult to find a real example of such a person. But we know what you mean; typifying them in either way works to the extent it needs to.

The archetype of either a Man City follower or a John Grant fan (for it was he I saw in the evening) is a bit more of a challenge to come up with. Trying to describe an archetype inevitably merges into a stereotype as the two are inextricably linked in our brains – a sort of can’t have one without the other situation. Even if we were to be more general and attempt the exercise with a person that is a fan of any kind of music, it is still problematic. We might suggest that in order to fulfil the criteria they have to know everything the artist has released, we would even suggest that they must own it. They will go to every gig on a tour, they will have all the’merch’ and probably a few tattoos. What I just described there though is a fanatic rather than a fan and that pushes the argument in a whole other direction.

When we examine ourselves and try to analyse the person we are, we end up in similar territory. We have an idea of self  – our self – that may bear only a passing resemblance to who we really are.  One reason for this, and one I touched upon in my last post, is that we are not necessarily the best person to make this kind of judgement and we should leave it to others. The second reason is that our identity is an elaborate construction intended to allow us to feel that we are in some way in control of the process of becoming. We build our identity based around three elements – our beliefs, our convictions and our announcements. I think City are the best team, I go to the match and I sing my support of them. I still did that when City were far from the best team so that is a very subjective judgement on my part. There are some songs that I won’t join in with, again a subjective decision, and I don’t go to all the games. Clearly I am not archetypically the best City supporter there is but equally I am not, stereotypically, one of the worst.

There is a third ‘type’ that perhaps speaks more to our human plight. I am a prototype of me. There has never been a version of me before, I’m the first of a very short line of Steve Priests. Whilst I have reached a nice number of years on this planet, I have never existed in this place at this moment before and I have no way of knowing what will happen in the next. I might have a good idea based onthe previous 54 years of moments that have passed but how useful is that knowledge in this brand new time and place? Moreover, in trying to work out what’s next based on what went before am I closing down eventualities that I cannot currently comprehend? Seduced by the illusion of control my present brain denies my future self and stunts its potential.

The reality is that the only command or influence we have is the choice to relinquish the notion of control and open upto the possibilities that present themselves. If we are able to view ourselves and each other as the prototype of what we are to become then anything and everything is possible.

 

 

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Now That’s What I Call Me

20180428_082432There is a radio station called Greatest Hits Radio. I confess that I haven’t brought myself to actually listen to it so I shall refrain from being too critical but if there was ever a radio station for our time this has to be it.

I am not a great lover of the greatest hits album. Don’t get me wrong, I have many such records in my collection and they can be a good introduction to a band’s music. My suspicion though is that they are the precise opposite to that. I reckon people buy the greatest hits to prevent them having to wade through the regular musicians output.

Let’s be honest, the greatest hits, the golden greats, the essential collection is more a product of the record companies marketing department than the creative side of the business. There is one thing worse than this though and that is the various artist compilation album epitomised by Sony’s 1983 introduction of the Now That’s What I Call Music (known simply as ‘Now!’ now). For those of you fortunate to have never listened to one of these abominations, the Now! series, which currently stands at 101, is a collection of the ‘best’ songs from a particular period of time. There have been many themed variations on this: Now That’s What I Call Xmas/a Party/Dad Rock/Skiffle/Yodelling etc. There is also a web site now where you can enter your birth date and they will take you to the nearest Now! release from that time (mine was Now! 1 – I suspect I am not their target demo-graph).

So why am I writing about this 80’s phenomenon today in 2019? It struck me that our activity on social media is a bit like the greatest hits compilation; we post the highlights of our life, the good bits, and we avoid the experimental b-sides or the problematic third album. This is perfectly understandable, why would you want to paint yourself in a bad light? The difficulty in doing so is, to my mind, two-fold. On the one hand it is clearly an inaccurate representation of who we are, it isn’t really us, none of us are only our best bits we all carry some blemishes and scars. Worse than this though is that I might not be the best arbiter of what constitutes the ‘essential collection’ of me.

When I have purchased a greatest hits album that has drawn me further into an artist’s repertoire I rarely go back to it. I find more interesting tracks buried in their back catalogue. I buy their latest offering to see which direction they are going artistically. I take the opportunity to see them live if they are playing in my town. I enter into a relationship with them and invest my time in getting to know them better and understanding what makes them tick.

If we want to use Facebook or Twitter or Instagram to seriously engage with one another then we need to be more open, honest and trusting in what we choose to share with people. We might find that unflattering picture or dubious idea that we don’t like actually wins friends and influences the people who see it.

At the same time we need to treat other people’s highlights as just that, this is not the whole story of who they are but it is an opportunity, an invitation, to get to know them better. So let’s not be too critical of the photoshopped image of our friend, let’s not complain of people virtue signalling and use their posting of what they consider a worthwhile article to build a relationship and get to know them better.

In making small changes to the way we treat ourselves and each other we open up possibilities for us all to become better informed, better connected and, just better.

Now that’s what I call progress.

some more writing

Culture (Book Extract)

Hey there Mrs lovely moon

You’re lonely and you’re blue

It’s kinda strange the way you change

But then again we all do too

Devendra Banhart “Little Yellow Spider” 2004

When I gaze upon the night sky and wonder at the beauty of the stars, twinkling away, it is easy to understand how the picture they portray has been described as heaven. It is a beautiful thing to behold and utterly different from anything we might encounter here on Earth. The movement of these celestial bodies in relation to our planet offers little evidence as to which elements are fixed and which others are shifting around in accordance with the demands of the gods that control them. The moon waxes and wanes and appears all over the night sky but wherever, and however much, it reveals itself, when we cannot even see it for ourselves, we are somehow aware of its presence. The lunar cycles exert a strong, unseen influence over much of the natural world. It is most evident in the ebb and flow of the seas, the power of which we can only marvel and, at times, quake before. The same cannot be said for the other astronomical elements. The light from these stars and planets set off on its journey to our senses so long ago that the source may have long since burnt itself out and ceased to exist. When we look to the heavens we are not so much looking though space as through time. We are witnessing the past in the present.

It is the same story when we examine the impact that culture has on our lives. Throughout the entirety of human history patterns of behaviour repeated to the point where they have been imprinted onto the circuit boards of our minds. They have become instinctive and we mistake them for some innate primal human trait. I am firmly of the opinion that there are have been a number of very significant periods in our time on earth that have brought this about. In the first part of this chapter we will look in some detail at those times and we will then go on to examine their impact on our psyche before we open up our response to them.

The first trace of human activity on Earth is believed to have taken place somewhere in what we now call Africa. The world was a different place, for sure, but it would have been recognisable to modern man. It is commonly accepted that we share a genetic ancestry with certain primates. The point where we split from them is thought to have occurred when forest areas receded and our earliest forebears took to the savannah in search of food and sustenance leaving the apes in the trees.

Early human life was nomadic with small groups of hunters foraging to provide for the members of their tribe or community. These were non-hierarchical groups, another distinction from their primate ancestors. Groups of apes and monkeys collect around a dominant alpha-male. This leadership role entitles the holder to first pick of the females. They would not have been given a completely free rein though and would be expected to defend their position against any younger challengers. Life would be competitive and, invariably, violent.

If we compare this to the early human tribes the contrast is stark and revealing. The realisation that they all stood a far greater chance of success in the search for food and shelter, essentially survival itself, if they worked together cooperatively, was keenly understood by all. Indeed, if any male attempted to exert any power or influence over the rest of the group they would be ridiculed and ‘taken down a peg’ by the others. If they wished to stay with the group, this individual must change their behaviour or else leave and fend for themselves or try to join another community.

The land would have been relatively bountiful to these early hominids and if it wasn’t they would simply move on to pastures new. At some point in history this changed and groups started to stay in one place and work the land over time so that it produced food repeatedly. Thus the first great change in human history was realised, the agricultural age was born and, once established, would become the standard way in which humans organised themselves for thousands of years to follow.

The impact this had on life at the time was immense. Previously, whilst nomadically hunting and gathering, tribes would possess only what they needed. Why would you carry a surplus that would merely slow you down and burden you when you could more easily survive, thrive even, with a sufficiency. The newly settled ‘farmers’ however would take the completely opposing view to that. If the land produced more than you needed one year then the wisest thing to do was to store what was left over in case you were not so fortunate the following season. Better still, why not aim to produce more than you need and you can use the extra to trade goods or services from another member of your community. Now, of course, we are starting to rely on having a bit left over so we need to have more land on which to grow the additional crops. More land means we need more people to work it so our family expands and when that isn’t enough we take on extra help. What if someone else is looking to expand their ‘farm’ and they start eyeing up our bit of land with a view to taking it off us? We need to guard against that, so some of our people need to train themselves to defend our property. Hang on though, if they are strong enough to defend us from potential attack perhaps they could initiate a take over of a neighbouring ‘farm’ to provide us with even more land.

We can see the pattern emerging here. This is a pattern that will replicate itself elsewhere in ever increasing scope and scale until we have organised ourselves into hamlets, villages, towns, cities and, ultimately, countries and nations. Religion was key to this expansion in the size of social groupings. When a tribe was small enough for everyone to know one another, trust was not an issue. You knew you could rely on your fellow tribesmen to have your back. Once this intimate knowledge of the rest of the group was broken down by the increase in numbers a new system had to be put in place to ensure that the person you were dealing with was reliable. Hence, if they were of the same religious tribe as you then you could rely on them to a much greater extent than otherwise would be possible.

The effect was not only observed in the way in which we organised our communities but in our whole attitude to the world and our place in it. Whereas previously, the nomadic hunter gatherers would have seen themselves as part of the natural world, utilising the resources they found on their travels but not really leaving too much of a mark on the land they passed through, these newly settled groups of people were so reliant of the land producing repeatedly for them they had to attempt to wrestle some control of the vagaries and whims of Mother Nature.

Even with this newly identified need for control the prevailing view was still that the spirit world and the natural world were linked and that the cosmology was very much a pantheistic one – the gods were a part of their creation and all things were united by these spirits.

Whist the general thesis was similar there were differences in approach. The Shaman would take on the form of an animal in order to commune with the spirits to try to discern the will of the gods. These were spirits that would be found in the trees or the rivers and mountains of the landscape. Animals would also be employed by the agrarian settlers but the gods were much more likely to be entreated by their sacrifice.

The second major transformation, as these seismic changes in the way we live have been defined, occurred much, much later in our evolution. This time, unlike the agricultural shift which was almost universal in its adoption and development, the change came about in a specific way in a relatively small area of the world.

During the 17th century Europe embarked on what would be known as the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Reason or, more simply, The Enlightenment.

We will be exploring religious belief in more depth later in the book but we need to open our discussion here in order to contextualise the setting for the scientific revolution.

We perhaps need to remind ourselves that throughout the entirety of human history virtually every tribe in every part of the world would have engaged in some form of religious practice. Whatever the cosmological view was, the will of the gods had to be interpreted by a ‘religious leader’ in the community. The role of this person was to be the arbiter between the realm of the gods and spirits and that of the people in the world. This was a role that one didn’t select for oneself, if you were ‘chosen’ by the deities then you got the gig. We might use the term ‘calling’ now to describe the process.

This modern idea of bing called to serve the one true god is fairly widespread in its acceptance. Whilst many are sceptical of the very existence of this god, the vocational drive of those that serve ‘Him’ is rarely questioned. The single god of the major monotheistic religions of the world is a relatively recent phenomenon and was certainly instrumental in the push to define more explicitly and specifically what the followers must believe. The structure and strict doctrine of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions is in place for a reason and that is to keep everything and everyone under some form of control.

One of the earliest recorded periods of monotheism prior to the start of the Judaeo/Christian, took place in Egypt. Around 1600BCE there was a vurtual monotheism in place as the Egyptians, en-mass, worshipped a god called Amun-Re. Amun was the de-facto creator of all the universe and didn’t so much replace the other gods of the time as absorb them. This changed dramatically when Akhenatan, the father of Tutankhamen, came to power in 1353 BCE. Whilst his son, the famous boy-pharaoh who’s mummified remains traveled the world long after his death and entombment, might be better known to many of us, the force with which Akhenatan imposed the worship of the sun god Aten has gained a significant notoriety in its own right. Statues dedicated to other gods were ripped down, people found worshipping Amun-Re and others were forcefully and brutally prevented from doing so. In addition to introducing the world to religious persecution as a result of imposed monotheism, this was also the first shift to worshipping a god UP in heaven as oppose to one DOWN on Earth. Until this point all cosmologies – Shamanic and Agrarian – viewed the spirit world and the natural world as intrinsically interconnected.

The separation of god from the world, reflecting the Platonic dualistic idea of forms, has affected the way in which we in the west view almost everything as we shall see later but, for now, it offers an explanation of how we might cope with the constant changes in the world and in ourselves. We can now think in terms of certain things being unchanging, fixed ideals as decreed by god, that contrast with the messiness of our changing and changeable fortunes in life. Christians often sing songs about how god ‘never changes’, is ‘steadfast’ and ‘true’ – the implication of which is that we are the opposite of that and if we could just aim a little higher in our pursuit of these lofty, non-existent ideas then we might all live a better life together.

This, then, is the context for the birth of the Age of Reason. Europe was a dualistic, monotheistic place, largely under the control of the Church and the feudal lords and masters.

You are reading a book about identity, who do we say that we are and what is going on when we do. This chapter is about change, the change in the culture and its effects on our ever-changing lives. So far we have been exploring some of the more significant periods of transformation and the impact they have had on us as a species. The period we are now about to examine is the time in which the idea of the individual emerged and became prominent in how we identify ourselves.

The shape of Europe from the middle of the first millennium of the Common Era, was defined in the first instance by the various conquests of the Roman Empire but then further still by the adoption of Christianity as their religion. The reach of the Romans ensured that, in effect, everyone was a Christian, a catholic as we might now describe them, if not they would have been under the control of the many orthodox versions the religion. By this time church was a well established and orderly structured institution. The church leaders – bishops, cardinals and priests – were the only people who had access to the religious texts as, at this stage, the Bible was only available in Latin, a language that was not spoken or understood by the vast majority of European people. This meant that all interpretation of ‘God’s’ holy word was carried out by celibate men.

A state of affairs that endured for the next one thousand years until Martin Luther famously rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, as the Holy Roman Empire eventually came to be.

Luther was a German Catholic monk who became increasingly frustrated at the way in which the church was behaving at the time. He was a keen biblical scholar and was finding himself unable to reconcile practices such as the sale of indulgences with what was written in the scriptures. Indulgences were a means by which rich people were able to reduce the time they might spend in Purgatory in penance for their sins, a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card of its day. Luther protested against the authority of the Catholic Church exercised by its priests and bishops. He famously wrote his Ninety Five Theses which, it is claimed, he then nailed to the door of All Saints church in Wittenberg. Luther never intended to take the church on in the manner that transpired but his actions lead to the Reformation and the start of the Protestant church in Europe.

The Reformation was to have many lasting implications and would be the cause of so much religious conflict throughout the following centuries as both the protestants and the catholics literally fought to claim how their understanding of god and what he wanted from his people was better that any other such claim. Leaving that aside, another crucial factor in our story is that the reformation was responsible for ushering in the ages of reason, the enlightenment could not have happened had Luther not felt so compelled to challenge the church’s authority in the way that he did.

This is especially important to us because this was the birth of the individual, as we might recognise the concept, and the sense that one had a self. Moreover there followed a concerted effort to try to define what that self was and what it meant.

Humans have always considered that they have a soul, drawn to the immortal notion that there was something inside us that might continue beyond our death. At various times this soul might be identified in proximity to the nature of an animal – in we were brave we might have the heart of a lion for example – but there was never any real doubt that we all had one and the fact that it might leave the body upon death did not alter the view that our souls were inextricably linked into our person, our body. Indeed the only means of separation of soul and body was in death, so tightly connected as they were thought to be.

It was only when a French philosopher, born in 1596, uttered, arguably the most well-known philosophical phrase ever, ‘Cogito ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’, that the separation of soul/mind/self from body was made. What Rene Descartes did was the same as Plato before him with his forms, he applied a dualistic model to the self and defined what it meant to ‘be’.

Descartes was not alone in trying to define what it meant to exist. His conclusion was that everything of who we are is contained in the brain and if that brain was able to think we could conclude that we existed. It must follow, therefore, that if something is unable to think then it cannot exist in the same way as we do. By existence I mean that there is a ‘self’, and identity, of which the subject is aware. As I indicated earlier, there were other philosophers at the time who examining what it meant to exist. Baruch Spinoza, a contemporary of Descartes, was very firmly of the opinion that there could be no such separation of mind and body, indeed he rejected the separation of God from His creation insisting that everything is connected by virtue of being derived from the one ‘substance’ (god), the only thing that existed in and of itself. His ideas did not gain the traction of Descartes and were not developed further, his major work – Ethics – was banned and only surfaced after he died. Thus the Cartesian model became the de-facto prevailing philosophical standpoint. We will come back to Spinoza later in the book but, for now, we must stay with Descartes and examine a little more closely what the implications were of his ideas being adopted so widely in Europe.

Much philosophical thought, at the time Descartes was contemplating his existence, was dedicated to prove the existence of God through reason. There was still an almost universal understanding that God existed and that He was responsible for the creation of the universe and all that was in it. What was different now was that it was not sufficient to merely accept this obvious truth, it had to be proven beyond all reasonable doubt. If science and reason were able to establish that the Bible had been right all along then we would all be better off living with that knowledge. We would know and understand the mind of God and have the answer to the age old question of what the meaning of life was. As we now know, it did not turn out quite like that.

The reasoned, scientific approach to establish the existence of God and understand the meaning of life failed and this lack of success can be understood to be for two reasons:

  1. There is no God.
  2. Life has no meaning.

I am sorry if either of these statements is shocking for anyone reading this but I thought I ought to get it out there now in case you were hoping to find the answers to the questions yourselves in this book.

The way scientific study has been conducted for virtually all of its history has essentially been an exercise in reductionist thought and experiment. We take something we don’t understand and we break it down into smaller, constituent parts until we reach a level that we are able to formulate some working hypothesis and we then extrapolate those result to give us the answer or we start putting the thing back together again. For many complicated things this approach works and has led to the discovery of so much that has helped human life be extended and enhanced beyond the wildest dreams of someone who would have been alive a mere 50 years ago. This success has enabled science to take over from God. We now hold scientific theory to be more reliable, believable and followable that any deity from our past. For some science is now infallible. We will always get to an answer if we keep breaking things down and examining them as closely as we are able to. This idea they everything is explainable through the application of a mathematical equation or a law of physics (natural law, as it is known) has introduced a new dualism into our cosmology. Previously we have had the platonic perfection of form that can never be realised through the imperfect actuality of that form. We have the steadfast, unchanging perfection of the gods in the heavens presiding over the fate of the fickle mortals struggling to cope with their constantly changing environment. And now we have the theoretical realm of science with its immutable laws determining how everything works and defining how we will live our lives. Each of these appears to supersede the one before it, offering a new way of seeing the world a linear progression from past to present and on to the future. Yet, ultimately, they all fail to sustain and they all fail to explain.

The reason for this, I believe, lies in a failure in their most basic understanding of what life is about. The dualistic, idealistic separation of things from the idea of things is inherently flawed.

Wow, that seems a fairly bold assertion from someone who only managed few o-levels at school, and it is but I do think I can back it up and you will be able to judge for yourselves over the coming pages and chapters.

I will give you a clue though and that is one word – complexity. That is all I will say for now and I would like to return to the whole business of change that we were looking at before.

So we had the enlightenment, reason took over from belief and science became a new religion. There has been a lot written over the years about this period and I would urge you to go and read some of it. But not right now, obviously.

This period ushered in such a lot of change over a very short space of time. We can look at some of the highlights (and lowlights, let’s be honest) of these events, all traceable back to the dawn of the age of reason.

The first really significant thing to happen was the Industrial Revolution. This period was, without doubt, one of the most creative in the history of Western Europe. The innovation and invention that took place not only drove the expansion of the British Empire into all corners of the world, giving birth to the whole of global capitalism as we know it, but it was the first time in thousands of years that there was such a significant population shift from the rural areas to more urban settings of towns and cities.

There were revolutions all across Europe in which the poor masses demanded a shift in the inequalities and disparate fortunes between the rich and poor.

Amidst the political upheaval and the shift in living circumstances there was more war than had been seen for centuries before. Not only that though, this time the wars were fought by ordinary men not just paid militias as they had been previously. The two major conflicts of the 20th century between them accounted for millions of deaths, devastating communities as their boys and men were slaughtered and for what?

War is so much a part of human history, as long as there have been settled populations there have been disputes over land ownership and property rights that have resulted in armed conflict. One of the major differences between the two ‘great’ wars of the twentieth century was the number of civilian conscripts that were enlisted to fight. It was unknown for the paid land and naval forces to be supplemented with ‘pressed’ men swelling their ranks but these two conflicts took that to a whole other level. Also the scale of the wars in terms of the number of countries involved was wholly unprecedented at any point before or, thankfully, since. There is also an argument to be had that certainly the second world war was one fought over conflicting ideologies in addition to the usual territorial antagonisms. One could justifiably contend that British land borders were under no immediate threat when the decision was made to side with the Polish and assist with attempting to halt the spread of Nazism that was taking such a grip of much of Western Europe. The conflicts that the west has chosen to involve itself in since the 1940s have generally been strategic in terms of the natural resources a country possesses within its borders (e.g. oil) or ideological. The so-called war on terror that has been carried out in the middle-east has managed to combine both elements. The more cynical amongst us may view ideological differences with regimes in oil-rich countries as something of a contrivance, though it difficult to prove this with any great evidence.

The is a problem with ideological conflict involving people for whom war is not a career choice. Most religions and moral codes have some common tenets that are accepted across them all; the sanctity of human life. How then do you convince someone that something they have essentially been told is an absolute no-no is somehow allowable under the particular set of circumstances that their country no faces? Of course you invoke the dualistic ideas of good and evil. You convince them that God is on your side and sanctions the taking of a life because that is inherently less important that the idea of that life. This was considerably easier to do when the world was a less monotheistic place, you could each have your god on your side, not so easy when there is only one God to go around. This pattern of understanding that has completely consumed western thought allows us to kill someone and feel good about doing so. We can distinguish so clearly between right and wrong – we can reduce complex moral dilemmas into straightforward binary decisions with ease and, more importantly, a complete lack of guilt and self-awareness.

If we can kill someone and claim it was done in the name of love then clearly there is nothing we are incapable of doing provided we are given the appropriate moral encouragement to do so. If there is one thing that ultimately defines the period of Western European history since the dawn of the age of reason it is this. There is name for this phenomenon, we call it ‘capitalism’.

Capitalism could not have happened without the introduction of capital – money. Interestingly the story of the emergence of money is not too dissimilar to that of the birth of religion. If we recall when humans were roaming the earth in their nomadic tribes they would ordinarily be in relatively small groups. The size ranged from around 50 to 150. Any smaller and they wouldn’t have enough people to sustain them. Any bigger and then the social cohesion of the group could be compromised. Dunbar’s number – 150 – was defined to be the optimal size for a social grouping. Beyond this number it is not possible to maintain any meaningful relationship. This cohesion was absolutely crucial for the hunter gatherers of early human history. If you didn’t have a relationship with your fellow tribesmen, if you didn’t know them well, then how could you trust them to maintain the order of the group? Consequently everyone knew everyone else in the group and they all knew what each of them was doing. Around 12000 years ago this changed as the age of agriculture meant that groups would now settle in one place and with this came the necessary growth we discussed earlier. Once the group size went beyond 150 ensuring that each member of the group was working for the good of all became much more difficult and so they had to invent some means of making people think that they were being watched at all times. What emerged from this was what psychologists now refer to as a ‘Supernatural Punisher’ but what most of us would probably call god. To make these ‘beings’ more believable they were given names and roles and great stories and myths were born that told of how these gods came into being and how they created everything and how grateful and, more importantly at the time, obedient we must be to them. From this rituals were maintained that demonstrably showed how dedicated worshippers of a particular god were and through these elaborate displays of faith, trust was built amongst the followers no matter how big the group became. This relationship, based on a shared religion, could span multiple tribes or groups across a broad geographical area. Things didn’t go quite so well when one faith met another but more of that later (or earlier??).

Trade amongst these peoples was initially quite straightforward. If you had some goods or a service that someone else required and they were able to offer a reciprocal item or function then you bartered an arrangement in order to make this exchange. The transactions would take place in a towns market and as the scale of them grew records started to be kept of the who was exchanging what with whom. As they would not have been able to transport all the goods they were exchanging to market on a given day they would have been given a something as a token of their value. Eventually these tokens took on a value of their own at first represented by what they were made of and subsequently how much of a given item you could purchase with them. The point is that there had to be some trust that the bearers of the tokens were good for the commodities that were to be exchanged by them. This was easier with coins as they had some intrinsic value but became more problematic when the currency used was not a precious metal but paper. If you look at any bank note in your purse or wallet you will notice that it is basically a promissory note from the issuer that you can redeem this piece of paper for the equivalent of its value in goods or services and that someone will be paid for it. Banks became the institution that fulfilled this function and they had to be trusted. Thus early banks were based around monasteries and churches as they were the trusted institutions of the day.

Wealth and power have generally gone hand in hand. Generally speaking, up until the period we refer to as the enlightenment, there were relatively few wealthy people in Europe. In a manner that reflects the way in which we are now seeing a rich, wealthy elite holding the reins of power, the lords of the various dynastic families that controlled Europe were a self-serving group. They would ruthlessly exploit the peasants that worked their land and kept them in the castles they built that would simultaneously protect them and ostentatiously demonstrate their wealth. It had to be this way, the technology of the time dictated that you needed lots of manpower to get anything done. With the still quite rudimentary tools available, lots of manpower equated to lots of men. This would not change until the agricultural revolution of the 17th century and the introduction of farm machinery that meant that less men were required to do the equivalent amount of work that was previously achievable. The subsequent industrial revolution had an even greater impact and shifted the wealth from the feudal power brokers into the hands of industrialists and, through more progressive structured tax regimes, into the state coffers. Putting to one side the social and economic turmoil that ensued throughout Europe, this shift from a situation in which money was passed from generation to generation with little or no disturbance to the systematic way in which societies function to an almost free-for-all money grab by the middle class industrialists changed everything over a very short space of time. Trade has been around for almost as long as humans have. Capitalism, the accumulation of wealth in order to invest in production, is considered to had its origins in the increased trade in this period. It can now be said to be the prevailing ideology in virtually every nation in Europe. This is a system that has brought about many benefits to those that participated in it. We cannot, however, ignore the harm that the drive to grow economies has brought about. The colonisation of great swathes of the rest of the world where the slaughter of native indigenous populations through both direct and indirect means wiped out thens of millions of people. If they weren’t killed at the point of conquer they might be driven to their deaths through enforced labour and if that didn’t get them then the introduction of germs and disease that they had no immunity from would. Slavery has been an almost constant in civilised societies and continues to be so to this day. Historically, a conquest of a neighbouring tribe, or village, town and country, resulted in the victor taking able-bodied member of their enemy as part of their spoils. These people would then serve their new ‘masters’ until they died. This was taken to new levels with the introduction of the ‘slave trade’ in the 16th century. This entailed ships from Europe travelling to Africa to exchange goods for vast numbers of people. They were forced onto the ships and stored in the most inhuman conditions imaginable before being traded and forced into work on American and Caribbean plantations. The goods that were exchanged for the slaves was then brought back to Britain where it would be sold for great profit. This ‘Triangular Trade’ as it became know was extremely lucrative and responsible for much of the wealth enjoyed in cities of the UK such as Liverpool or Bristol or Glasgow before it was abolished in the early 1800s.

Economic growth became the force driving all commercial activity. As I wrote earlier, trading with ones partners was nothing new but it was now taking place on, well, an industrial scale. Lots of people were becoming very wealthy, many more than at any point prior to this time. Many more people were not though and they became another commodity that the capitalist system used on the generation of wealth. Some of those that were exploited by the system rebelled. The ‘golden age or piracy’ if I may use such an expression, came about through disaffected sailors, many of whom were treated as badly as the slaves they transported, taking control of their ships and their destinies in an attempt to event things up a bit. These were men who accepted that they were going to die anyway so they might as well go down on their own terms. Back on dry land, the lot of the average worker was not much better. The possibilities for rebellion of any kind were limited. The ordinary common man or woman had no participation in the democratic processes of the time and so could not effect change in that way. When they did try to become part of the electorate in the way a large group of Mancunians did in 1819 in St Peters field they found out just how difficult it would be. A day of peaceful protest ended in the death of 15 of the protesters and extensive injuries to countless others. It was clear that the ruling classes were not going to give up their power without a fight. A very uneven fight in keeping with the whole system in place at the time. Over the following decades and centuries, through the power of collective organisation, protest and outright revolution things changed. Many people died and many more suffered but, ever so slowly, employment regulations were introduced, public health standards improved and, ultimately everyone was entitled to vote – to have their say in who ruled on their behalf. The capitalists and the system they upheld were not stupid. They were ruthless and in general cared for only one thing – profit. They realised though that in order to maintain their profits concessions had to be made along the way, so they made them where they had to. This was, as I pointed out, as a result of pressure being placed on them from below. It was also applied from above as governments, now elected by the very people who were previously being exploited, understood that they had a responsibility to the whole of their populations, not just those who had the money. In Britain the introduction of the welfare state and the NHS ensured that people were not abandoned when they became unable to provide for themselves or unwell to look after themselves. This did come after two of the bloodiest conflicts the world has ever witnessed so, swings and roundabouts and all that.

The working classes were kept alive so they could produce goods that the upwardly mobile middle-classes could buy and the profits (still) went to the upper echelons of society. A simplification but useful for illustrative purposes because this is how it was for many many years and the world of commerce gradually took over public life and became the measure by which nations were judged. For Capitalism, there is no such word as enough. There always has to be more and so when nearly everyone had everything they needed how could they be encouraged to consume more. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the trade unions – bodies set up to enable workers to wrestle better conditions of employment from their bosses – making a profit wasn’t such an easy thing to do when you had to pay people at a level commensurate with their efforts and no one need to buy your goods because they already had them.

This situation called for something extreme and resulted in what we now refer to as Neo-liberalism. For this new tweak to the capitalist system to be effective two things had to happen; people had to feel that they could and would profit from the economy and the economy itself had to keep growing, meaning greater consumption.

The American dream as it is called suggests that anyone in that country can be as successful as they want to be. The only thing stopping you is you and your will to make it happen. There is a grain of truth in that, there are examples in the US of people who have made good. They have, through hard work and a steely determination, managed to break out of whatever lowly situation they started out in and become that thing so beloved of capitalists the world over, the self-made man. But there haven’t been very many. This fantasy is not just reserved for people on that side of the Atlantic, in Europe and more specifically the UK the possibility that ‘it could be you’, as the lottery commercials put it, prevails. The suggestion, the myth, dream, fantasy – call it what you will, is very powerful. This fits perfectly with our dualistic view of everything. The reality for nearly everyone is that you will not make your fortune but the possibility that you might get up there keeps you working hard down here.

Two politicians in the 1980s ruthless exploited this trait. Ronald Reagan and Margeret Thatcher both created the situation in their respective countries whereby anyone could buy into the rampant greed that characterises that period in the UK and the US. The banks and stock exchanges became de-regulated and state-owned companies were sold off cheaply to allow everyone to have a stake, to own a bit of the wealth-making machinery. The state let go of the reins and allowed business through multi-national corporations to gain such a strong foot hold in the way that countries were organised and run that we will never be able to loosen their grip.

At the same time these same corporations continued to make stuff. This was largely stuff people already had so they needed to encourage people that they had to replace them. One method was to build in obsolescence, make things that would not last and would need to be replaced more often. The other was to break down family units by suggesting that the way they did things (together) was not as good as doing it by themselves. So we replaced the music centre in the home with a personal ‘Walkman’ and it is easy to see how that small change to our lives has brought us to Netflix and the iPlayer.

Everything is aimed squarely at the individual.

In the next chapter I want to examine more closely the effect these changes in culture have had on us, collectively but more importantly, as individuals. The question, ‘Who do I say that I am?’ Would never have been considered for much of our history and now seems to be the most compelling question of our age. Why is that?

Introduction (Book Extract)

We are born with very few innate faculties. Unlike most other mammals we are unable to carry out all but the most rudimentary of actions and activity, but the first one is to engage in the pursuit of attachment and connection to our fellow human beings. Eventually, we start to think a bit more and what follows is the process of discerning who we should and who we should not associate with. In short we form a sense of who we are, an idea of the person we consider ourselves to be and from that point onwards we use this idea of ourselves to pretty much determine everything we say or do and, moreover, who we chose to carry out that activity with. This process is open to massive cultural influence. We are led to believe that so much of how we behave in some innate activity that we have little control over. And yet even the most basic ‘instincts’, I would contend, are merely cultural constructs. If we use our more aggressive impulses to fight in defence of our fellow citizens and the protection of our lands as an example, it is very easy to see how this has become our modus operandi as a result of our having fellow citizens and lands to defend and protect. No land barriers, no nation states and we suddenly have nothing to fight for. What we are told are our primal urges are no more than reinforcements of cultural values and needs that are processed and re-processed into feedback loops that feel like unavoidable human traits and characteristics. And we, as individuals, create our own feedback loops in which we use our ideas – our beliefs – to inform our actions – the way we live – as a means of announcing to the world just who we are.

But it isn’t who we are, it’s who we think we are. There is a difference. That discrepancy will determine who we will become and will force us down paths we might not wish to go down with people we would rather not be with.

How does this process work? In this book, “Who Do I Say That I Am”, I aim to explain just what happens when we do this and, more importantly, how we can break out of this circular way of thinking and learn to establish better relationships with people based on common values and interests. In doing this we open ourselves to become more vulnerable, open, honest and happier people.

We are all Individuals.

The Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson makes this claim in his recent book “12 Rules for Life”:

“Your group identity is not your cardinal feature. That’s the great discovery of the west. That’s why the west is right. And I mean that unconditionally. The west is the only place in the world that has ever figured out that the individual is sovereign. And that’s an impossible thing to figure out. It’s amazing that we managed it. And it’s the key to everything that we’ve ever done right.”

When I first read this paragraph in a newspaper review of the book I felt very strongly that Peterson was wrong. Not necessarily wrong in identifying that the west has become more and more individualistic but most certainly incorrect in attempting to establish this as its most notable achievement. And yet the more I think about it the more I move towards his way of thinking. I am writing a book about who we say we are and in 99 times out of a hundred we will use one grouping or another to describe ourselves. This will be based on an alignment of ideas and ideals or on similar patterns of activity but surely there is so much more to us that that? We are all individuals, that is the basic unit of human being. We may operate better in groups of greater than one and we may prefer to live in arrangements that comprise a number of us collected together but we cannot deny that when we break those societal groupings down in a scientific way, we end up with one lone individual.

Science has gifted the world many great discoveries. We comprehend so much of the world down to the minutest particles of matter. In many fields of science the reductionist approach – breaking complicated entities down to their constituent parts – can lead to amazing breakthroughs in our understanding of how they work. If we take a very complicated thing, an airplane for instance, we find that there are many interconnected elements working together to create the whole. Indeed, if we were to take a plane apart completely down to the last screw and bolt we can work out precisely the function of each component and thus fully understand how, when put together, they work to create a flying machine. There are some things that cannot be better understood by this reductionist approach. Breaking them down to their constituent parts offers little or no insight as to how they operate when taken as a whole. Herein lies the difference between that which is complicated and that which is complex. A complicated thing like an aeroplane will not work if one or more of the components is missing or malfunctioning whereas a complex thing, like a grouping of individuals, will merely work differently if one or more of the members are removed. The scientific field of study for this is Systems Theory.

Wikipedia defines Systems Theory in this way:

“Systems theory is the interdisciplinary study of systems. A system is a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts that is either natural or man-made. Every system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose or nature and expressed in its functioning. In terms of its effects, a system can be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behaviour.“

So, if we accept that the west has managed to achieve some means of breaking down of societies and social grouping to the individual level then we must also accept that in doing so something has been broken.

Another way of describing complex systems is emergent. What this means is that the system is deemed to be greater than the sum of its individual components and will adapt to change. It is resilient. This, in turn, makes it almost impossible to break. Any attempt to do so will force adaptation and, ultimately, survival. Unfortunately the humans that make up societies are not so resilient and adaptable and so it is the people that will, literally, breakdown. We are witnessing record levels of poor mental health, personal anxiety and depression is crippling particular groups. There might be many reasons for this – it is a complex situation after all, but we cannot afford to ignore. It is happening and needs to be addressed.

On that basis the real issue with the way in which the west has managed to reduce societies and social groupings down to the level of the individual is that we now view everything as a personal issue. Thus our way of coping with a systemic societal problem is to treat our personal symptoms. This might be as simple as a daily glass of wine but increasingly it culminates in some therapy from a mental health professional.

I suggested at the start of this chapter that one of our most primal urges in life is to make connections with others of our species. For much of our history the opportunities for such social interactions have been abundantly available. Now that doesn’t seem to be the case and we are much more willing and able to do things on our own that we would previously have done together. Indeed, it could very well be argued that we are openly encouraged to do so. There are many examples of this – look at how we access entertainment. On demand services, such as Netflix and the BBC iPlayer, have picked up the baton from the early pioneering days of the VCR and allow us to watch television in a way that was never previously possible. If we couple this with the constant pressure to be individual, to tailor all aspects of our lives to suit us and only us, then we can see how our connective tendencies are deliberately suppressed and stifled.

Primal urges are stronger than cultural norms though and they will find a way to be satisfied. If there is a lack of actual physical connections available to us in the form of relationships that challenge and develop us, we take to more virtual means of building networks. In short, we connect with beliefs, with notions, with ideas, shared ideas perhaps, but ideas nonetheless.

Plato, through his theories on forms, believed that there was no such thing as, say, beauty. There were beautiful things but nothing that was beautiful fully ‘explained’ beauty. We shall revisit this argument later and, perhaps, expose the flaws in this way of thinking, but for now we find ourselves broadly in agreement with the father of (western) philosophy. If we apply Platonic thinking to social groupings, vegetarians for instance, it would fair and true to suggest that there is no such thing as a ‘vegetarian’. There are people who eat a vegetarian diet, there are people who are broadly sympathetic to the arguments over the merits of such a diet. However, there is no way in which any single person fully explains what being a vegetarian is. This may seem pedantic but, as we shall see later, it is a very significant distinction to make.

We are all a type of something. We might substitute the Platonic notion of ‘form’ for ‘type’.I will become a certain type of vegetarian. I won’t be the archetypal vegetarian, people won’t hold me up as the very personification of vegetarianism. I will be the type of vegetarian that does the things that that type of vegetarian does. I will almost inevitably strive to the be the best vegetarian there is. That is what we are encouraged to do; believe that there is a perfect archetype of, in this instance, vegetarian and measure ourselves up against that. We all know there isn’t such a thing and that we are destined to fail in our plight, but time and again we push towards this inevitable scenario of repeated disappointment. The other side of this is that I can expect to be lumped in with all the other vegetarians. People will assume that I do all the things that all vegetarians do and think in the same way as my ‘tribe’. In short I will become a stereotype. We will see a little later that the use of symbolic language, metaphor and even stereotype, is an essential part of how we communicate with one another and how we navigate our way through the world. The one thing that stereotyping does do is to reduce (there we go again) everyone down to a dismissible type that we need waste no more of our time on. We will discuss why this is the case, why we tend never to treat people as we find them or, moreover, we might occasionally try to but we don’t try too hard in case we really find them and don’t know what to do with them. There is another ‘type’ that we all are and, without wanting to get too ‘life-coach’, it might be helpful to think of ourselves in this way. We are all prototypes. There has never been another me and there will never be one. I am unique. The development of prototypes requires a lot of work and it is not work that we can carry out ourselves. We need each other in order for us to develop our prototype into a well functioning, finished product. This book will help you do that.

This connection to ideas and pursuit of type has resulted in too much of life today being spent in our heads. I believe this is directly attributable to the prevailing western dualistic thinking that has prevailed in virtually all the most renowned west European philosophies. The separation of mind and body, the divine from the earthly, science and nature has become the pattern if thought that we defer to. There is always a good and an evil, an up to the down.

I keep referring to philosophy and philosophers in a manner that might suggest I know what I am more well versed in these matters than is actually the case. I must present my distinct lack of credentials in this area. I must also declare that as a white, western male, the only philosophers I have made any reference towards, so far, are white men from the West. This will not necessarily be the pattern for the rest of the book except in the ways in which I attempt to debunk their theories and compare them to, say, the African Ubuntu philosophy. In contradiction to Descartes declaring ‘I think, therefore I am’ we have the Ubuntu notion that ‘I am because we are and since are, I am’.

One things we haven’t quite addressed yet is why, in the west, we behave in this way and, if it is as damaging as I am suggesting, why do we persist with it? This is the question we will be attempting to answer more fully in the next chapter but it is safe to say that our unstable state is beneficial to those with power and influence. Consumption is, invariably, the first response to the trauma we feel as a result of the isolation we are pushed into. Therefore virtually all advertising relentlessly quells our instinctive urges and forces us to literally buy into the alternative.

And so, on the one hand we have the forces of capitalism driving us to consider ourselves to be individual units of one in the way in which we behave. We easily accept that “we are worth it”, that we are deserving of whatever purchase will make us feel a bit better. Set against that is our urge to collect and to connect, one of our most primal drives from birth. How do we reconcile this basic and fundamental dichotomy in Western life? I believe the answer lies in the way in which we answer the question ‘Who do I say that I am?’. We draw on the deeply entrenched philosophical, cultural and religious dualism that has throughout our history created a mythological ideal of everything that is real. We construct a self rooted in this flawed ideology. This idea of who we are mistakenly connects with the constructs of religion and politics as a means of collecting with others and neglects the very real ways in which we are intrinsically joined in a basic and beautiful shared humanity.

How is this inversion, this perversion, allowed to persist and dominate any and all debate on identity and ideas of self? I will answer this question by breaking down (some reductionist analyses is still valid) what we do when we make claims on our identity. We will look in detail why we do it and what we have to do to satisfy any such claims and validate them. More importantly I will offer practical alternative ways to consider who we are and, more importantly determine who we are likely to become.

Culture is both the air that we breathe the water in which we swim. There is a joke about two fish swimming past one another. The first fish asks the second, “How’s the water?”. To which the other fish responds “What’s water?”. We are so embedded in our culture and it is so ingrained in our thinking that we are unable to distinguish what is fundamental to who we are and what has been constructed over time and played back to us in such a way that we take it as a natural part of life.

In the next chapter we are going to be looking at the cultural landscape and, more specifically, the way in which is has been shaped and changed throughout history. What are the key periods and events that have impacted our cultural understanding and then been recycled and presented back to us as the ‘way things are’. We will focus on specific times that I think have had the most fundamental impact on how we do things. We will also look at the increasing pace of change. This is important for two reasons. 1. Everything is in a constant state of change so we need to work out how that impacts us. 2. In general terms humans are not renowned for their love of change and therefore a certain scrutiny of our responses can only help our understanding. One of the main ways in which we try to cope and exert some control is in declarations of identity – markers by which we can measure the change around us and our resistance (or acceptance) thereof.

It is my contention that in order to fully make any such identity claim there are 3 basic criteria that must be met:

  1. We must share a belief in something
  2. We must state that we hold that belief.
  3. We must live in such a way that attests to the belief.

As an example I will be using vegetarianism to explore this thesis more fully. So, if we apply the 3 rules above, to be a vegetarian I will have to be sympathetic to the values a vegetarian holds, I must live life as a vegetarian and, finally, I have to tell people that I am a vegetarian. Failure to comply with any of them will invalidate my claim. For instance, lets say that I don’t like meat and prefer not to eat it. I have no interest in the welfare of animals and I don’t think that a vegetable based diet might save the planet anytime soon. Does that make me a vegetarian? I say not, I just happen to not eat meat in the same way that vegetarian does not eat meat.

ABC1

This is a diagrammatic depiction of the idea. The outer circle represents our being, who we are, and within that we have the three elements represented by the words Belief, Announce and Conviction. The arrows between these circles detail the interplay between the three.

The three elements are linked. The link between Belief and Announce is ‘knowledge’. Our beliefs inform the way in which we portray ourselves. This is shown here as a double headed arrow, as are all the other links, implying that the reaction to our claims might just as easily inform our beliefs. I don’t think this happens a great deal and, with firmly held beliefs, almost never. The connection between the identity declarations and the way in which we live our lives, conviction, is ‘validation’. We can validly claim something about ourselves that might not have manifest itself in the way we live. These are our hopes and our dreams and the validation, I see, as coming from those around us. This process can make the difference between our fulfilling our ideals and falling short. It is not always important that we complete this part, what is important is we realise that this is an activity we are all engaged in and we should offer one another all the support we can in the endeavour. A good example of this is a resolution to give up an activity that is harmful to us, excessive drinking or smoking perhaps. We might ‘fall off the wagon’ from time to time but with the aid of friends and family we can climb back on and try again.

Between belief and conviction, the gap between how we think things should be and how they are, we have ‘authenticity’. This is where we encounter phrases like ‘being true to yourself’ and this is perhaps the most contentious section of the diagram. Our beliefs are essentially personal and known only to us. We might share some of them with others, particularly if we adopt a specific belief system (religion), but at the point we adopt them they are ours and ours alone. Once we state that we hold the belief then the scrutiny between those beliefs and the lives we live begins. A lack of authenticity can be both damning and damaging. We laud those in society who we feel are living an authentic life, true to the beliefs they hold. We will examine this more closely in subsequent chapters, suffice it to say that the demand to ‘keep it real’ leads to anxiety and fear and stunts our growth and development, it prevents us becoming the person we might be. In truth, there are few people who deserve the level of scrutiny we put ourselves through. Political leaders are one such group, the rest of us should feel free to dream our dreams. I will be returning to this diagrammatical structure later to demonstrate that, with a few tweaks, we could approach things differently.

There will be a chapter on each of the larger circles, where we look in a bit more detail and explain what I mean by them. It is important to point our here that the order not significant. If I eventually become a vegetarian after a period of not eating meat and choose to look into vegetarianism as a lifestyle choice, that is not better or worse than to do so the other way round. Equally I can declare myself a vegetarian before I have actually bought into all the ideas around it and made the change to my diet. You get the idea.

Inevitably, the moment I stake my identity claim and plant my flag firmly in one camp or other I will come into conflict with someone from ‘the other side’. Not all conflict is inherently bad, we need to have our position challenged in order for us to understand our viewpoint more clearly. But, clearly, this can escalate fairly quickly if we refuse to bend our will and we entrench ourselves. A modicum of resistance to someone else’s views coupled with a willingness to engage in a level of constructive debate is the bedrock of any healthy relationship. So much of the discourse in western society today is between belligerent, unmoving and just plain pig-headed bigots from all sides of any ‘debate’. Can we avoid this or is it an inevitable consequence of ‘modern life’? I am firmly of the view that it is possible and the final chapter of the book looks at ways in which we might bring this about.

In so many ways, modern life looks and feels grim and, what’s more, the future offers little prospect of improvement. Just how did we let ourselves get into this parlous state? As with so many good stories, we have to begin our tale a long, long time ago in a land not so far away….

But You Find Out Life Isn’t Like That…

Yesterday I found the photograph on the left amongst some possessions left at their flat by my recently deceased mother and father in law. It is a beautifully captured moment when my son Tom was playing some sort of game with me in a hotel room during a weekend away to celebrate the Ruby wedding anniversary of Barbara and Cliff.

This picture could have had anyone of the children in it, when they were small they were forever jumping on me; wrestling or riding an imaginary horse, it was something I loved to do with them.

A few minutes prior to finding this photo I was horrified to find the picture on the right of the same child following a night out in town that had resulted in him getting beaten up for some unknown (to him) reason. Although he looks like he had gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson the injuries were superficial and fortunately he will be ok with no lasting damage.

It’s easy to think that you will always be able to protect your children from harm. If he were still living with us, whilst he might not be still sitting on me, I would be there to keep the world of drunken beatings away from him. Indeed we feel that if we were somehow able to go back to how things were then all would be well in the world.

When I look at the these pictures of the children the memories of playing games, the cute smiles and happy faces captured forever, I forget that there were equally as many, if not more, times when we weren’t all so joyous together. The times they cried, the times I got angry, the times we argued, none of which were photographed so we could look back on them fondly in years to come.

It seems that in our post-brexit, post-Trump, post-truth times everyone is looking back to a glorious time in ‘the past’ when everything was, well, better than it is now. We all felt safer, we all had loads of space in which to live, Summers were long and sunny etc. etc. blah blah blah.

Too much nostalgia for the innocence of my children’s youth denies the beautiful, ugly, clever, stupid things they have all done since. Letting go of the Tom on the left has allowed him to develop into the Tom on the right. I couldn’t have prevented him getting beaten up on Saturday night but I could have stopped him pursuing his dreams,  I could have denied him the chance to be the person he is now.

By grimly hanging onto a distorted vision of the past we deny ourselves, our communities, our nations and our world from going forward into a yet to be realised, but usually better, future.

We need to trust that what has gone before will deliver us to somewhere better in the future. We may well get a bloody nose and a black eye along the way but it has to be worth the risk.

 

Jai Guru Deva Om

“Nothings going change my world”

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I wonder what John Lennon meant when he wrote those words.  By all accounts he was lying in bed with his first wife sometime in 1967 and he was particularly annoyed by what he perceived to be her constantly going on about something and the words felt like they kept flowing into his mind long after she had gone to sleep. He went downstairs and decided to create a cosmic poem that, on waking the following morning, he completely forgot about. He has later described this as one of the best songs he ever wrote.

Early on in my relationship with my wife when we had the time to sit and listen to records and debate their meaning (something she was always better at than me, some things never change in my world) and we disagreed on our enjoyment and appreciation of this particular song. Anne hated it. “How could anyone possibly hold this view?” she’d ask me and at the time I was able to defend Lennon though for the life of me I have no idea how. I certainly don’t think that way now.

I am currently writing a book on identity and one of the areas I briefly explore is how our world is constantly changing. This is in both a global and personal sense. What’s more it is a positive thing, an essential part of our development is the acceptance of change and the affect that has on us. We are constantly changing beings in an constantly changing environment. We resist change from time to time, we crave a degree of certainty and so we place a stick in the ground and hang onto it. Eventually we realise that the stick is in the wrong place or we let go of it at some point but we will still retrieve it and place it somewhere else.

So was Lennon just plain wrong? I suspect that the refrain was written to describe what he felt his wife’s view of the world was or perhaps, like most of the other words in the song, it just sounded good.

Imagine that…

I’ll Find Out Over Time

I have recently finished reading an excellent book by Pankaj Mishra entitled ‘Age of Anger: A History of the Present’. The book closes with this:

The contradictions and costs of a minority’s progress, long suppressed by historical revisionism, blustery denial and aggressive equivocation, have become visible on a planetary scale. They encourage the suspicion – potentially lethal among the hundreds of millions of people condemned to superfluousness – that the present order, democratic or authoritarian, is built upon force and fraud; they incite a broader and more apocalyptic mood than we have witnessed before. They also underscore the need for some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world.

Mishra contends that Western Global Capitalism (WGC) and its accompanying ideas of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ that emerged from the enlightenment with the promise of freedom and equality for all has lead to a world that is increasingly frustrated and angry about the way in which this promise is fulfilled only for the privileged few at the expense of the many.

This is not a new situation. The enlightenment came about through the emergence of scientific and philosophical thought that challenged the prevailing feudal system of a select ruling class that owned and controlled everything – land, people, everything.

This system was enforced by the church in collusion with the nobles through religious observance to the idea that God ‘rewarded’ virtuous individuals with wealth and status and punished the rest of humanity for their weakness of body and spirit. There was no fairness and justice for the masses save for the fact that they were all equally badly off.

Scientific thought challenged and undermined the biblical stories of creation and miraculous holy interventions whilst philosophers offered a new way of thinking about who we were and how our societies were unfairly structured.

The shift came by way of privilege and  power now being bestowed on the captains of industry who, through the industrial revolution, built things that people could then buy with the wages they earned in the factories owned and run by the entrepreneurial business leaders.

This took a lot of time to come about and there were some serious ructions along the way (revolutions, dictators, wars etc.)  but the basic template was set 300 years ago and hasn’t really changed that much since.

The smart ones amongst you will have noticed whilst a lot has undoubtedly changed for the better the basic premise – that some people are more worthy than others – still prevails and the gods still reward some people and punish others.

I am currently reading another book called The Radical Enlightenment which looks in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail at some of the thinking that was going on around the enlightenment but didn’t fully catch on due to resistance from both church and state at the time.

These more radical thinkers were going much further and deeper into notions of religion, God and the fairness of the system embracing ideas of socialism (as we might now call it) and atheism. They were developing arguments on fairness and equality (racial, gender and economical) that it is very difficult to disagree with unless, of course, you stand to lose all your power, wealth and status as a result of their implementation i.e. the ruling classes and the church.

So these ideas were repressed or made more palatable to those who held the strings of power and are still in force now however subconsciously they might be acknowledged or not.

Immanuel Kant in answer to the question ‘what is the enlightenment?’ said this:

“Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment.”

This is a plea for independent thinking, as expressed in his call ‘dare to know’ (sapere aude). It is in this sense that Kant saw his own time as a not yet enlightened age, but rather an age of enlightenment. According to this view, the Enlightenment might well still be a work in progress.

WGC promises that through hard work and diligence we will be rewarded with money, property and status. Once we acquire these we can be happy. We don’t need to be happy we need to be aware – aware of who we are and what this world we live in is about and to claim our rightful place in it.

I started writing this in the mistaken idea that we need an new enlightenment, we don’t, we need to fully realise the old one and ‘have courage to use our own reason’.

I don’t know who I am or what my rightful place in the world is yet but I am learning and, in the words of Vic Goddard, I’ll find out over time.