lofty ideals

Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk

– Carl Jung

The Imp spent some interesting time doing things she didn’t like this summer. And as a (chronologically) grown-up creature, I’m not so used to that. I’d forgotten that Doing  / Wearing Things (from haircuts to buckle shoes and long socks) That You Don’t Like was a major feature of my childhood.

We adults (by which I mean probably western, and therefore relatively ridiculously affluent) have a great degree of autonomy over our own lives. That’s especially so if you’re dependent-lite (no kids) and obligation-wary (renting, cash- not debt-led) et cetera et cetera. Indeed, yay and verily, this Imp has been known quietly to compare herself with the lotus-eaters: indolent, addicted and apathetic, lounging in luxury’s lap. Here’s some Homer (Odyssey IX) to tell you something about Lotus Eaters (translated by Samuel Butler):

I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-Eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches.

Or as Nick Cave’s version put it, “Sapped and stupid / I lie upon the stones and I swoons”….

But away from this indulgence and back we go, to the issue of the autonomy of grown-ups (western and well-to-do). If you’re in such a fortunate position, you live pretty darn near the top of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Need”. Think of a triangle. At the base are the most essential things you need to survive; as the triangle narrows, the needs become less essential to survival and more about personal growth and satisfaction:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

So, as an adult, once our survival needs (food, shelter, water and sex) are met, we strive to fulfil other needs, such as safety (financial, personal, health), then social needs such as friendship, support, a family, intimacy. When social needs are not met, depression can set in, leading to self-neglect, where the lower needs (comfort and survival) are threatened. And top o’ the pile are the self-actualisation needs (“I want to be a train driver”) and peak experiences – spiritual, mystical, and other such insight-giving moments of the life-changing variety.

Doing things you don’t want to do is not good for many reasons – the potentially negative impact on self-esteem being key. What I mean by this is that if an adult feels that they are not in control of their own experiences over a significant period of time, then they can be reduced in their own mind to the status of a child  – powerlessness – by whatever circumstances are making them endure the bad experience (unemployment; a bullying partner; manipulative friends etc).

But of course, an adult does have free will and self-determination. There is always (in the Imp view of the world) choice, there are always alternatives. There might not be a golden ticket out the door, but there’s always another way. I hear philosophers screaming (but if I can’t see them, are they real?). But bear with me: even if it’s only changing your perspective, surely if that act changes your experience, then it is an alternative (and one that is self-determined)?

So, does it follow that Doing What You Don’t Want to Do can actually be a thing that strengthens you – aiding self-actualisation? Adversity is – I would argue – surely necessary if we’re to rise to the challenge of being proper adults (not just chronological ones)?

What’s important is that we see the tests and accept them – that we don’t just peep at them and roll over, weeping. We need to address the things that challenge us – how else can we grow?  OK, it might not be a ten-day shamanic ritual of tiger-hunting, but swallowing pride, finding the positive, or seeking a better way (of action or perception) are all the kinds of behaviours we expect from grown-ups; not running away, refusing, shutting the mind and throwing our weetabix against the wall.

It’s good, this grown-up thing – after all that hard work in getting here and putting up with being a child, don’t miss out on all it has to offer!



L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.”

(Man is born free, but everywhere, he is in chains) – Rousseau

Always skin-shedding – chain-shedding, we worrying people. But….

No sooner do you pat your own back for getting rid of some self-limiting rubbish (you know, like a salary, or feeling you ought to be nice), than you find you’re saddled with another heavy yoke (usually of your own devising) that you’d never even noticed before (like wanting to look acceptable, you know: living free of pustulating sores, for example).

Ok, ok, so I have salted it up a bit.  But pause a second. When you kicked a bad habit, you freed yourself. When you deliberately lost weight, or learnt a new skill, you freed yourself. When you accepted you got it wrong, you freed yourself. When you did something that scared you shitless – you freed yourself. Every time, you changed. You became something additional to what you’d been before.

It would have been very weird, however, if you then said, “Right, that’s it! I’m done! I’m perfect now!” and didn’t allow yourself to make any further changes; stopped yourself spotting any further “chains” or from doing anything about them.

And perhaps that is the nature of life. Perhaps it’s even a defining quality of life? That once you stop unchaining yourself every day, you may as well be dead? Because in all other senses – morally, spiritually, intellectually – you are dead once you stop changing?

I thought this up – to start with – when I spotted that I chain myself to this computer rather too much. It hypnotises me into not leaving it, into not doing all the things I should……


Assumption is the mother of the screw-up

– Angelo  Donghia, New Yorker and interior designer

I had an idea today – or perhaps it was a thought. I almost wrote, “just a thought”, but realised that would put ideas above thoughts, and that’s just a false promotion.

Anyhoo, it struck me, this notion. It was this: without a whole bunch of feelings and thoughts about the world – and more specifically, the people – around us, it could be very hard to function effectively. But they don’t – by any means – necessarily help us out all the time, either.

What sort of things are in this bunch of feelings and thoughts, then? It’s assumptions, empathy, sympathy, compassion (“feeling with” someone), anticipation of another’s wants, needs or feelings. All of these are about putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Neurologically, it’s partially about prediction of events (“if or when X happens, Y tends to follow” becomes “when her ice-cream falls to the floor, Suzie will be upset”).

That’s the logical side of things – but in terms of narrative, it lacks what would be the natural next step for the majority of people: to anticipate and then react to the other person’s need (compassion / empathy / sympathy), perhaps by putting your hand in your pocket to buy another ice cream, getting the hankies ready, or providing a distraction, like letting the ice-cream fall on your own head to make Suzie laugh, rather than cry…..because all of those would be a nicer thing for her.

Some people are very empathetic (watch out for people who ‘catch’ other people’s yawns) and in extreme instances can be irritating in their ever-readiness, meeting, matching, catching the needs of those around them. But they might be the ones who make the world go round, so I’m going to leave them alone.

And there are other people who choose not to “feel with” others, or choose not to at certain times (ranging from ignoring the whinger in your group of friends to “compassion fatigue”  – a term now used to describe the public’s weariness at hearing “too much” about suffering and donating less and less). And we all do this on occasion, whether for tiredness, boredom or other reasons, ranging from the selfish to the “it’s good for them” school of thought. And before you ask, I’m not going to address the issues of empathy and autism and Asperger Syndrome – others are better qualified.


…what interests the Imp today is how we walk around our worlds making all kinds of assumptions about other people; about their thoughts, needs,  desires, dreams. And very often, especially with those we flatter ourselves we know best, we don’t even realise we are doing it.

How often do we hear ourselves and others say, “he did it because…..”, or we explain another person’s behaviour away with, “oh, well, she’s jealous / excited / waiting / plotting….”? And doing this is not a bad thing – I think we need to do it to learn, to interact, but it can be ludicrously off the mark and lead to all kinds of misunderstandings, wrong judgements and rather unusual situations. We usually only find out we got it wrong when we get a surprise (which makes sense, doesn’t it?) or offend (prejudice being the bad extreme of this “thought-about-others” spectrum).

Alfred Korzybski, a profoundly influential semantician,  said that “the map is not the territory”. IE, it’s important to remember that what you believe to be the world around you is not the reality. It’s your perception of it. Others perceive it differently, constantly, and you can perceive it differently, too.

By extension, in the Imp world view (which is ever-changing, of course), it’s best always to be reviewing your map as you move through life – just as if the life ahead of you is uncharted. Because, of course, it is.

You have reached the pinnacle of success as soon as you become uninterested in money, compliments, or publicity

– Thomas Wolfe

Those in the UK, and perhaps further afield, might remember the tale of the Bristol man who decided to travel to India without cash, relying on the goodwill of strangers and his ability to provide services instead of cash for food & shelter. He got stuck in Calais, unable to speak French. Say no more. Except there is more to tell. He has now declared that he will live for a year without spending anything.

This chap, Mark Boyle, will use Freecycle, foraging and skill-swapping to meet all his needs cashlessly. And I hope he succeeds, so that people don’t thoughtlessly write off his ideas. You have to hand it to him – he is acting on his ideals; putting his non-money-based-currency where his mouth is.  I think I’ve found his blog, and you can, I assume, see how he gets on (and offer support) here.  As you’ll read there, a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death on Friday by stampeding crowds looking for a bargain in the ‘Black Friday’ (post-Thanksgiving) sales. We need to be rethinking our relationship with the market and with possessions, surely?

The interesting thing about Mark’s attempt is not necessarily whether he’ll succeeed, (can you really live without any cash?) but what he will discover as he tries. Attitudes, prejudices, people’s willingness to help or not – by taking out any recourse to using cash, he is exploring a way of life that the vast majority of people write off as the preserve of the desperate.

Money – hard cash currency – is, after all, only a metaphor. Notes and coins are ciphers, symbols, for the gold in the bank. So why is it that as the markets tumble, the news reports that people are buying, or investing in, gold ?  How thick am I being? Surely all our money is “in” gold already, as the cash is just promisary notes in any case, relating to ……gold.

Economists, please – anyone able to explain?

But to move on a tad: will people accept a different currency/metaphor from Mark? Will he be able to deal with people who do not normally live within his philosophy? (They with him, more accurately).

Who would be free themselves must strike the blow. Better even to die free than to live slaves.

– Frederick Douglass, American freed slave, abolitionist and reformer

So much of the “self-help” advice out there is about finding out what you “really” want. Related, much of the “happiness” advice is about not looking for it; it will find you, they say. And so much of the wider public discourse (often, ironically, wrapping itself around the happiness/self-help stuff) is about…

  • Just In Case
  • Don’t Be Too Different
  • Bad Things Happen to People Who Have Fun
  • Let’s Be Suspicious of Each Other (aka “Police My Back; I’ll Police Yours”).

Yes, I might well be thinking of The Daily Mail, but alas, that high-circulation bog-sheet does not have a monopoly on cultivating fear, narrow-mindedness, self-censorship, worry and discord. And it’s those things that are new equestrians of the apocalypse.

Problem is, this apocalypse is secular. I’ll go further: this time, it’s personal. Hell is no longer a fiery pit, separate, external and done unto you. Nor is it true, any longer, what Sartre acutely observed, that l’enfer, c’est les autres (hell is other people). No, hell is you and hell is now; none of that delayed agony mallarky. Really, that’s official. If there’s no god, no society (copyright Mrs M Thatcher), and mental illness is thriving, then it’s gotta be all my fault, hasn’t it? All my responsibility….?

Don’t believe me? But that’s what the dominant culture would have you believe. The subtext again and again is that YOU can make the change; YOU can do it; YOU can be master of all you survey. In fact the only reason that anything is wrong in your life is … Isn’t that what you hear? “Well, yes, when you put it like that, Imp, I see what you mean, kinda – but no, not really….” 😉

OK, OK: Let’s conduct an experiment. Let’s check out an internationally renowned and respected newspaper, The Times, and….yes, how about tonight’s TV schedule for the UK (the main 5 terrestrial channels)? Blimey, EastEnders isn’t on – I might lose….

The Times: UK news headlines

  • You can clone the new passports in minuteswith the best will in the world, Bin Laden’s gonna take your identity and you’re going to get banged up in a Libyan cell for terrorism next time you pop to Ayia Napa, you fun-loving, 20-days-holiday-a-year libertine/dilettante, you.
  • Home repossessions are up 40% – which sounds like 40% of homes are repossessed, but we know it ain’t so, but you had better WORK HARDER and keep that wolf from the door, because, let’s face it, we heard you boasting about the size of your mortgage, and you were a little bit greedy, weren’t you…? And we all know it’s not big enough anyway….
  • London won’t get an Olympic torch relaybecause it’s rubbish and frankly, that’s all we deserve
  • Rats are infesting British hospitalsbecause, again, it’s more than we deserve. We’re British. The NHS has gone downhill since Florence Nightingale.
  • Nine people on every BA flight lose their bags (I kid ye not). – Do I need to go on? It’s obviously green karma, or the ghosts of dead seals. Flying bastards. You, not the seals, obviously. Murderer.
  • Fewer 11 year-olds get top marks in the SATsThey’re your children. What do you expect? You made it so.

Wednesday night on the box – the Imp’s (subliminal) self-flagellatory / low self-esteem highlights

  • BBC1, 7-30: My Family. A middle-of-the-road sit-com which laughs at the family-based misery of people just like…. you and me. Accept your lot, know your place, Everyman.
  • Channel 4, 8pm: Location, Location, Location. Watch 20-somethings with a budget of £400,000 quibble over whether they should choose the house with the space for the pigs or the flat with the helipad.
  • ITV1 9pm: Trinny & Susannah Undress the Nation: See how fat and ugly the average Brit is, underneath their ill-chosen clothes (dealt with in series 1).
  • Channel 4, interminably: Big Brother. Need I say anything?
  • BBC2 (‘cos they’ve not sinned yet), 10pm, Room 101. Another Orwellian concept of pure genius not-at-all ironically turned into light-entz sap, where mere mortals like us watch famous people tell us why they don’t like blue jelly-babies, so we can gasp at their wit and be grateful for the licence fee.

Find your pleasures.

Worship and feed them.

Glory in what you enjoy

Apply only one principle – do no harm.

If something makes you unhappy, change it. No-one else is responsible for your life: not your kids, your spouse, your mortgage-lender or your boss. You openly, knowingly made deals with all of them, and the joy of that is that they can be renegotiated at any time. Don’t do blame: not them, not yourself. I bore myself with re-citing this piece of wisdom here, but as Bill Hicks said, it’s only a ride.

PS – need some persuasion? Read How To Be Free, by Tom Hodgkinson, ed of The Idler.

For those who would joyously march in rank and file, they have already earned my contempt, for they were given a large brain by accident when a spinal chord would have sufficed.

Albert Einstein

Well, first of all, happy Independence Day to all cousins over the water.

But (s)elfishly, this posting is about a more personal independence. Three years ago today, your imp founded a company, having told the bosses where to go (with no small grinning glee). It was accidental that it happened on this day, but there you go. And like all important anniversaries, it makes you think. In this case, about…?

  • the fear at the point of jumping
  • the concern in the parents’ eyes (coupled with nervous laughter)
  • the back-slapping confidence of friends
  • the blind and single-minded (laser like) determination that it would work, that if in a three-month notice period, you couldn’t make it work, then you were nowhere near as good as you thought you were…;)

I’ve gibbered here in the past about work-life balance (argh: foul phrase) – about the importance of trying to make work pay for life, and believe whole-heartedly in enabling people to find ways of making their passions pay for their lives. I had always admired people who worked for themselves – it seemed a terrifying thing to do. It can be terrifying. But as my dad wisely said (I’ve got no dependants and no mortgage – not because I’m rich but because I rent), “failure will be ending up on our sofa: how bad is that?”

I went through some interesting inner conversations: what was I scared of losing? What did I have to lose? I had been working a 70-90 hour week, on-call 24/7, for an organisation I cared about passionately, but increasingly for people I didn’t respect. I’d ended up in hospital for a week after an overworking-related seizure and thought I had neurologically lost my ability with language (you might guess that for the imp, this was not a good moment), unable to find the words for simple things like the stereo. I’d gone very skinny and very (worst of-) Bridget Jones and I cried on Sundays because I’d spoken to no-one all weekend, unless it was to an angry journalist. So what was there to lose?

Working for myself – and not employing anyone else – has been one of the best decisions I have ever, ever made. Not building the empire is an important part of that – I can’t be responsible for someone else’s mortgage; and I don’t particularly like managing other people’s time. If there’s no work, I want to go for a run; not create it, file, or have to make cold calls. Those things have to be done (I spy the in-tray, with its legal and tax paperwork), but at my pace.

The interesting thing – and one that still annoys me, although I should just let it go – is that people say how “lucky” I am. It’s not about luck- I don’t have medical insurance, I don’t get free loans, I don’t get paid when I go on holiday, I have to generate the work, and if I’m ill and can’t work, hard cheese. As I’ve said before here, if you don’t have obligations to others (kids, a mortgage the size of Vesuvius), then working for yourself is less of a risk. It’s about asking yourself where you could fall to without your current security blanket (and how secure is that?), and what you’re prepared for. You don’t go marching off into the woods with nothing but a t-shirt and a chocolate tea pot, do you?

Anyway, please join with me in this happy third birthday – huzzah for independence!

how do you make god laugh?

tell her your plans…

There was a strange moment of serendipity last week; I was sharing an idea – a theory – read in Eric Berne’s The Games People Play, a behavioural psychology (transactional analysis) book, which states at the outset that life is all just about filling in time.

Quite a bald, solipsistic statement. It depressed me at the time I read it, but it cheers me now, because I think it is so true that it’s liberating. The chap I was talking to said he’d read that book just the day before; how strange. That’s by-the-by; the truth I’ll take here is that all time is ours. Only I perceive my time; only you, yours. And that, I think, gives me every right (a selfish duty, even?) to reclaim my time wherever I see it being wasted.

Down on earth, the Imp’s been doing quite a bit of that: coming off committees, leaving membership groups, reviewing future commitments with a cynical eye, and leaving all else to the last minute. Ah, gotcha: there’s the rub (there had to be one): the Last Minute. Think about when you hear people talk about someone who leaves thing “‘Til The Last Minute”. It’s very censorial, isn’t it? Laden, judgmental, disapproving of some implicit dereliction of social duty. But every minute is last minute for something – just depends how you perceive it.

Peer to the edge, where you can see it, the last minute. It’s a gap in which Fear tickles us – Look! There’s The Bog of What-Ifs. The Bog of What-Ifs is full of stepping stones to ensure a safe passage, however. There’s one – Cleaning Your Shoes The Night Before Stone. And here, here is Ironing Three Weeks’ Worth of Shirts Stone. Over there is Booking My Holiday 11 Months Ahead Stone. You see, you can easily avoid the Bog of What Ifs. If you want.

Planning, say so many, is all about safety, knowing what’s next, being reliable. If you leave things ’til TLM, well, you can’t possibly also hold those values…Rubbish, surely! Remember, your time is yours – as long as you’re not taking away someone else’s (eg by making and breaking promises to others), then where is the problem? Why fill your time jumping across pointless time-filling inanities when you could be doing something far more fun…like wading in the bog, for example?

I’m off to make fondle my fishy dinner and practice some lines, shout at the radio and not worry about Friday’s deadline – it’s only Monday, after all….


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