Limitations of notions

Artist: Fernando Sanchez

What moves, may also rise

Richard Pevear, Foreword to Notes From Underground

Through a fear of failing, we limit our reach as we feel that this will allow us to keep our balance, maintain our clean record, keep the fantasy of ourselves intact. Instead we prefer to stew in what we know, deriding those who bumble on, but who bumble forward nonetheless, as fools or failures. This is the enemy of progress because it restricts movement away from an imagined ideal of excellence, in turn creating an unwillingness to engage in new activities or to push yourself into difficult situations that may challenge fixed notions.

Nothingness, or no-thing-ness?

Artist: Cecil Touchon

If you take a step toward your soul, you will at first miss the meaning. You will believe that you have sunk into meaninglessness, into eternal disorder.

Carl Jung

How could anything meaningful grow out of nothingness? If nothingness is the grounds for nihilism, and nihilism is the rust gradually disintegrating society, then wouldn’t an encounter with nothingness will lead to the hollowing out of our sense of value and meaning?

In Zen Buddhism, nothingness can be better understood by hyphenating between the conjunction of the two words, ‘no-thing’. The Zen tradition understands nothingness as an encounter with the absolute of emptiness, a dropping away of the self-referential concepts and thoughts that make up our sense of self, our usual conscious experience. Through the disciplined practice of mindfulness, the cultivation of the present moment, Zen practitioners can experience the dropping away of self-consciousness, an experience described as a vast nothingness or emptiness.

Self-consciousness, the consciousness we have of our ‘self’, the ‘I’ in the drivers seat of how we experience the world is occupied from morning until night with the definition, categorisation and association between ‘things’ in the world and their meaning. We have evolved like this for the purpose of survival – to master our environment, as well as to map out and manipulate our social worlds. Most importantly we have turned this capacity inward, onto ourselves. We have become objects for reflection and assessment, as ‘things’ in the sense of ourselves being an “I”, an object that is perceived as having experience, a ‘me’ that is constant across time. This ‘me’ that we spend so long thinking about and referring to is a classification of our mind, a classification that has emerged from the intersubjective meanings we have attributed to relationships, objects and places that we encounter.

It can be reasonable to understand how an encounter with nothingness can lead to nihilism. These experiences can reinforce the emptiness of concepts and striving and as such the delusion of attributing any meaning or value to anything. If concepts and thoughts are empty constructs, ‘no-thing’, then a logical view would infer that any concepts and thought of meaning and value are also empty. This groundwork then sets the scene for a kind of cynical, spiritually destructive path for life. The famously cynical character of Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has the famous line “everything is permitted”, however this world view may also express itself in a more insipid and pernicious way, leading to a general inertia and banality. A life that is unaware, distracted, uncritical, mindless – easily placated by the packaged entertainments, bullshit work and sedating pleasures of modern life.

Taking a purely logical view, this also seems to be a rational way to behave. If there is no meaning or value to be found in the nothingness, then why not just zone out and allow yourself, in the words of Kierkegaard, to be “tranquilised by the trivial?” This Philistinism, which is recognisable across any age, may grow out of this encounter with nothingness. No appreciation or interest in spirituality, the arts or culture, because of a view that none of it matters, or that none of it is real. So much of the science, business, media, and political mainstream implicitly or explicitly encourages or propagates this view. Selfish genes, the God delusion, the orthodoxy of utilitarian progress, the fashionable ideologies that attempt to replace the concrete with abstract frameworks of secular ‘shoulds’.

These concepts are then set against each other in a never ending ‘what-about-ism’ shouting match that serves as its own distraction and entertainment. This is now our daily experience and the vacuity we feel, arises out of there being no common ground to any of it. No common axiom, no Maypole to dance around. The implicit shared meaning of the village commons has been discarded as valueless and now everything needs to be made explicit. This explicitness, the minutiae of having to explain every grain of detail is the chaff that is clogging the mills of our society.

What is the alternative?

The Zen concept of nothingness refers not to a black hole of meaning and value, a wasteland of being, but rather as an absolute emptiness, a formlessness that is embedded in being itself. Freud referred to this state as oceanic consciousness, the conscious experience before thought and concepts. This sense of emptiness is experienced because our categorising, classifying, comparing ego (self) has dropped away. There is nothing there that can do the ‘thing-a-fying’ that carves our world into distinctions, creating a matrix of things and associations, which includes our own sense of self.

The feeling of no-thingness or emptiness that results in the dissolution of the concept bound self can be the grounds for a new concept of freedom. Without the subjective I, there is nothing to anchor the grasping, taxonomist nature of our self and what is experienced is the void of pure awareness, a black hole of concepts and associations. This can be a very anxiety producing condition, the Christian Faith refers to it as the ‘dark night of the soul’, the wilderness, the desert. As mentioned this experience of emptiness can be framed as nothingness, a field of absence, but it can also be viewed as a field of presence, the presence of the implicit value and meaning of life as it is.

The philosopher and physicist Henri Bortoft talks about the active absence of encountering no-thingness, or the whole of awareness. Paradoxically he refers to the awareness of the whole becoming known through the complete attention of the subjective ‘I’ with all of the parts (or things) of awareness. This is the practice of mindfulness. A broad, all-encompassing awareness of the myriad parts within consciousness. A mindful, open concentration on all the parts of our awareness ultimately can overwhelm and dissolve the self-referential, egoistic part of our minds, revealing the whole of being. This inexhaustible fecundity of being, shows us that we and life itself are implicitly valuable and meaningful. The tone of a sunset, the enveloping sound of rustling leaves in a forest, the Kookaburra’s laugh in the rising dawn, all these experiences are all still happening, regardless of the machinations of our self-obsessed, re-presentational thought. They do not rely on our subjective concepts to be meaningful, they are inherently meaningful for their own sake and carry on without our self-obsessed thinking.

When we realise this, when we become attuned to it, we realise the value of all life as an end-in-itself, rather than as an instrument we can leverage for a purpose we have momentarily conceptualised. Far from being the empty hole that nihilism grows out of, nothingness can be thought of as a connection with the whole of being that refreshes us and, in a Copernicus-like revolution, de-seats our sense of self as being at the centre of our conscious universe. Encountering nothingness in this way shows the inexhaustible wholeness of being, of life itself.

Holding Time

Originally written August 2021

Holding my son is the physical embodiment of love. An inchoate eros, simultaneously one with the more passionate expressions of sexual love and the embodied, energising form of it. A grounding love as opposed to the head spinning, hedonic love that led to his conception. 

Holding him at times I feel a brief melancholy as I realise he won’t be a baby forever, that he will gradually carve himself away from me. I feel this despite every new phase, every new sound, noise, facial expression being my new favourite – superseding the last. 

I feel as though I am physically holding time – and that despite his reassuring weight, his smell, the rhythm of his breathing, that time is slipping through my fingers.

Beyond Randomness

Image: Shinchi Maruyama, Kusho #1 T, 2007; © Shinchi Maruyama, Courtesy Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York

Not every end is the goal. The end of a melody is not its goal, and yet if a melody has not reached its end, it has not reached its goal. A parable.

Friedrich Nietzsche

What people mean, when they say that life is meaningless, or has no purpose, is that there is no goal or final end point that we are progressing toward. Taking Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” notion as the reason for having a nihilistic worldview seems to lead people toward a view of the universe as somehow also dead. The belief of an ordained purpose (God) dissolving under the march of scientific progress has left many people believing that everything is determined by an infinite chain of causality. A world of randomly colliding matter, precluding any notion of free will, or purpose. Interestingly these views both fall within a deterministic paradigm. The medieval worldview held that everything was determined by God, and our increasingly modern worldview holds that everything is determined by the random machinations of dead matter. 

‘Life’ does not need to be progressing toward some final end goal in order to have meaning, or be meaningful to live. Life, moment-to-moment, is imbued with an inexhaustible well of meaning in our everyday experience. The transient apricot streaks of cloud during a spring sunset. The pattering feet of your happy child running down the hall to greet you. The feeling of warm rain, pleasantly drenching you in a summer downpour whilst you are going for a walk. This inexhaustibleness of life itself, life as it is, gives meaning to every moment of our lives and the lives of all living things around us. 

Our instinct, desire or perhaps expectation for some kind of teleological end point that we are working toward or can finally rest in, is the extension and projection of the subjective narratives that form the carapace of our ego. We are creatures driven by narrative. We are an organic creature that is born, lives, breathes and eventually dies, but we also experience life as a ‘self’, a self that spans through time with a capacity to reflect on and think about, it-self. Narratives are linear threads with a past, present and future and are by nature teleological, they are working toward an end. Narratives are a story, a collection of symbols i.e. language, that allows us to maintain a constant subjective identity of who we are. This self is intersubjectively dependent on our relationships through the various stages of our social development, an intersubjectivity mediated by the exchange of symbols, the exchange of language.

The projection of this purpose-driven narrative onto metaphysical assumptions, is the extension of our own ego development and anthropomorphism onto the cosmos. However, the opposing assumption that the universe is completely dead and we are all just subject to the random meaningless-ness of causality, appears to be just another projection of a modern kind. This modern view claims there is no intrinsic purpose whatsoever to life behind the propagation of life itself. The removal of an extrinsic purpose (a deity) has been met by the subsequent removal of all intrinsic purpose.

Behind the curtain of the ego is the emptiness that lies behind our subjectivity. The emptiness of the present moment. To gaze into the abyss of this nothingness is to have these conceptions of the ego (the narratives, symbols, language) fall away into nothingness. This is what is meant by the Buddhist term of ‘no-self’. It is not to say that you don’t experience yourself as a ‘self’ or that a ‘self’ isn’t valuable for living in the world, it is to say that the self is intersubjectively construed across time by concepts of the mind. The cultivation of the present moment is thus a way to see beyond the past, present and future narratives that sustain the self, making contact with the emptiness behind the self or ego. This emptiness can be met with despair, it can be misconstrued as ‘fact’ that there is meaningless in life. But it can also be the grounds for a reframing of meaning. A meaning beyond mental concepts and self-reflective story. A meaning grounded in the everyday experience of our being-in-the-world, implicit in life as it is.

Personality: A process of learning?

How the diametrically opposed views of B. F. Skinner and Carl Rogers point to learning processes as explanations for personality development.

Psychologist and personality theorist Hans Eysenck believed that personality was the fundamental enquiry of psychology1. Our personalities are the patterns of characteristic thoughts, behaviours and feelings that mould individual differences and the identities we cling to. For many of us, personality seems fixed, like an essence, the fully formed ‘me’ that sits in the driving seat of consciousness. But what if personality was more heavily shaped by learning and environment? And what would the implications of this mean for someone’s ability to change?

Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner, two giants of 20th Century Psychology with antithetical views to one another, both viewed learning as critical to the development of personality and personal growth2. If we look at learning experiences as behaviour modification via interactions within a person’s environment3, we can begin to build a picture of personality as more malleable than commonly thought. This essay will argue that personality can be explained as the sum of a person’s learning experiences by exploring Roger’s and Skinner’s differing philosophical assumptions and how these informed their theories. It is argued that a marrying of their views can explain personality in the context of learning experiences with beneficial applications for coaching, counselling, and psychotherapy.

B. F. Skinner was a key figure in the psychological movement called Behaviourism, which originated at the start of the 20th century out of Pavlovian conditioning and remained predominant until the 1960’s. For undergraduate psychology students, B. F. Skinner is often perceived as a villain, the stereotypical “man in white coat” that was pilloried in novels such as Brave New World, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Clockwork Orange. Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning held that all elements of human behaviour were shaped by reinforcers in the environment4. According to this theory, positive reinforcers (rewards) increased or strengthened a behaviour, whereas negative reinforcers (punishments) decreased or weakened a behaviour.

Skinner’s behaviourism rejected the rival Freudian view that subjective unconscious and conscious “minds” were the agents’ driving behaviour, and as a result dismissed the concept of personality entirely.  Skinner believed that all learning experiences were objective, and that the development of what others call personality, was in fact the culmination of a complex process of reinforcement that shaped behaviour. Skinner didn’t deny that we had thoughts and feelings or propose that people were indistinguishable. Instead, he claimed that what distinguished one person from another, didn’t emerge from subjective, internal states, but from learning experiences in the environment that shaped patterns of behaviour.

In contrast to Skinner, Carl Roger’s view of personality held that the subjective experiencing of an individual was basic and fundamental for their own understanding of who they were and how they should act. The warm, avuncular figure of Carl Rogers and his development of person-centred therapy stands in stark contrast to the lab-coat image portrayed of Skinner. Carl Rogers is one of the most influential people in psychology and psychotherapy and one of the leaders of the Humanistic Psychology movement that grew out of opposition to Behaviourism’s in the 1960’s.

As a psychotherapist and researcher with decades of clinical experience, Roger’s had observed that individuals have the power, given the right conditions, to change their own lives. Roger’s concept of the fully functioning person posited that there was an ideal self within everyone. This axiom implied that a person could achieve a congruence with this self, and drive personality change by learning from their subjective experiences of thought, feeling and emotion5.  This type of learning he referred to as ‘true subjectivity’ and he viewed his responsibility as therapist to facilitate the right conditions for this learning experience to take place and personality change to occur6.

What is important to consider here is that these two leaders of psychology both viewed learning experiences as being critical to personality development, looking at these processes on either side of the objective/subjective divide. By synthesising the views of both we land at a view of personality that incorporates both environmental determinants and the inner thoughts, feelings and emotions as learning experiences that shape personality development.

One of the key assumptions of Skinner’s Behaviourism is the notion of determinism; that every observable behaviour is determined by some preceding event7. Determinism is closely linked with the objectivity of the physical sciences, and so it should come as no surprise that Skinner viewed all human behaviour (and any notion of personality) as determined by prior experience. Skinner’s response to Roger’s view of the fully functioning person, would be that feelings of incongruence are a negative reinforcer, a kind of internalised punishment, which leads to changes in behaviour. This change in behaviour moves the individual to greater congruence with their true self, subsequently removing the negatively reinforcing feeling of incongruence. The individual then learns from this satisfying outcome, modifying behaviours accordingly and ultimately shaping personality through the accumulation of these behaviours.

Rogers viewed the fully functioning person as the type of individual most likely to learn and adapt to changing environmental circumstances, but only when psychological freedom had been maximised8. In direct opposition to Skinner, free-will was a fundamental assumption for Rogers, believing that human beings were future-oriented, and it was the goals set in the future, which influenced how they responded to learning experiences. This future orientation was encapsulated in his notion of the ‘self-actualising tendency’ within each person, an innate drive toward the true potential of the ideal self or healthy personality.

Rogers suggested that this drive was based on learning experiences, with the innate, subjective processes associated with the self-actualising tendency evaluating and learning in accordance with what propelled a person toward this ideal. Rogers believed that this learning could only take place if the client had the psychological freedom to move in any direction, a freedom obtained by learning to fully experience their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

From either side of the determinism/free-will divide, Skinner and Rogers both emphasise that learning experiences are fundamental to understanding personality. The views of each, whilst diametrically opposed, complement each other by providing insight into how personality can be explained by the responses to learning experiences we can control and those that we can’t.

The view that personality can be explained by the sum of a person’s learning experiences has important implications in the field of coaching, counselling, and psychotherapy. Firstly, this is an optimistic view which implies that personality is not fixed and that given the right circumstances, people have the capacity to change. This is critical to the process of coaching or therapy, the success of which according to Rogers is to facilitate change in a way that concords with an individual’s goals9. Secondly, by investigating the views of Skinner and Rogers in how learning experiences shape personality, it has been shown that both objective observable behaviours and unobservable mental processes, along with the environmental processes within and without a person’s control, are critical for understanding personality development. By attending to the reinforcers in their environment and their subjective states of thoughts, feelings and emotions, individuals can become more aware of that which is satisfying or dissatisfying, moving toward a state of positive development and wellbeing.

On the surface, the views of B. F. Skinner and Carl Rogers in relation to how learning experiences shape personality, appear to have little in common. However, the dichotomy of their philosophical assumptions, when combined, provide a useful framework for understanding how personality can be explained as the sum of a person’s learning experiences. By incorporating both views, coaches, psychotherapists, and counsellors can bring a holistic view to how conditions in therapy can be manipulated to maximise learning experiences and facilitate desired personality development for clients.

Time constraint

Artist: Étienne Gélinas

Time is what we want most, but what we use worst

William Penn

Sometimes when I am napping or day-dreaming, my mind creates little stories, similar to the kind of stories you inhale when reading a book. Visually they are a fuzzy representation of words on a page, as though I am reading and creating those words simultaneously, without any conscious control. The stories are stripped of any real colour or depth, they are more just vignettes of type and page, auto-dictating out into the dark edges of my semi-sleep. The dialogue in these stories, held by this twilight of consciousness, flows so effortlessly, but can never be caught when fully awake. Slipperier then a normal dream, these little scenes disperse as soon as my eyes open. 

These twilight moments between sleep and wake have been happening more recently, a factor of the amount of time I have on my hands, an abundance that will soon be at an end. When working we spend so long aching for time, aching for the thing we don’t have, so that we can invest in activities that reflect who we ‘truly are’. How many people say, “If only I had the time I would do X,” but they never take the steps to make the time for the thing they want, and when the time does present itself, often it is wasted; shredded into pieces of confetti by Instagram, Netflix, social obligations. 

I think the reason why people don’t take the action required to get what they say they want, is because time scares people. Time opens a window to the self-referential part of your mind, the part that likes to daydream, make little stories. Time allows this part of our mind to stomp around and peer over our shoulder, second-guessing every thought or action. Time provides the space for you to try something new, to make decisions and mistakes, mistakes which can foster learning, but can also diminish your own sense of competence and confidence. When time presents itself we try to fill it, as though its emptiness might let in some unknown horror, and by filling it, often we waste it. We talk of ‘doing time’ or ‘serving time’, we dread moments where our control of time is taken away from us. And so instead we scurry around in busyness, frittering away sequences of moments that could be used to cultivate a deeper sense of well-being.

I am one of those people who always preferred to be moving, busying myself as a way of deflecting a deeper psychological malaise that was illuminated by stillness. The last 12 months have been the first time where I really allowed myself to slow down, observe and smell the roses, and even then a significant part of me, that incessant voice at the back of the head, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this period of calm. It wasn’t really until I passed the halfway mark of this time away that I finally let go. 

My experience of time as a result has changed. My threshold for boredom has significantly lowered as my general state of arousal/excitement has also lowered. I feel healthier, whilst also being less stressed. However, I have noticed that despite my significantly reduced levels of stimulation, my overall, subjective experience of stress hasn’t fallen that much. This has been an interesting aspect of this period, that despite all of this time available to do whatever I wish to do, the subjective experience of day-to-day stress, whilst lower, is only slightly so. 

It has made me realise how much this stress reaction is just a part of me and that it requires a channel into some outward physical activity before it is redirected internally as rumination and worry. The fact that the level of stress hasn’t changed much and that it has essentially shifted its shape is a good lesson for future times of stress. That it is a part of me, that it needs to be managed by practicing techniques like mindfulness and that it isn’t going to go way by making big sweeping changes. I have also noticed at this time how being cut off from people, exacerbates this stress. My mind seems to think that it likes to be alone, which is true at times, but the truth is that I am almost always happier in and following (most) social engagements. This kind of misguided, short-term view of what I think I want, feels a bit like the reluctance of going to the gym, only to feel so much better once you have gone. 

I feel as though I have been on the run for the last twelve months or so. I can see now that part of the reason for my running was a fear of the success I had enjoyed at work; fear that this would lock me into who that successful person was forever. There was a sense of guilt about this success, as though it had come too easy. In truth it was a shallow kind of success built on a wobbly foundation of gritted teeth and a blinkered focus. Whatever it was, the time for self-sabotage is over and whatever happens next, there won’t be the same freedom of time to simply cast it away. Perhaps that is what is really needed, constraint of time, so that you are freed from the worst impulses of your own ego.

Presumption and folly

Revolutionary Road Front Cover, Vintage Books

No discipline will turn one man into another, even in the least particle, and such discipline I call presumption and folly

William Blake

The quote above from Blake, is from the novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk. For some reason it reminded me of the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, a novel I have such vivid memories of. Memories as though I had actually been there, watching the couple Frank and April. Strange how a page of words can project self constructed images that embed themselves as memory; memories that are often more vivid than what we do in our daily lives. Extraordinary really. Just words on a page. Meaningless as individual squiggles of ink on paper, carrying such weight as a whole. 

I read Revolutionary Road on my honeymoon, much to the concern of my wife. I knew the ending to the story, as did my wife, hence her concern. I read it as a cautionary tale of what I perceived at the time to be the lesson in the story; the dangers of complacency, conformity and fear. There was something in the two characters that spoke to me, especially the male character Frank. Frank was an idealist, a romantic I suppose, who having come back from the Second World War, found himself in a post-war America that felt alienating and shallow. 

Frank wakes up at the age of thirty and realises that, despite his and Aprils’ youthful intentions, they have become trapped in the vortex of the 1950’s version of the American Dream. Married with two children, in a large house, in a respectable suburb, both Frank and April feel asphyxiated by their coddled circumstances and the deadening effect this has on their spirit. Frank holds onto the notion, seeded from his time in Paris during the war, that life is happening elsewhere, and the people in these places are ‘truly alive, not like here’. It is April, who suggests they act on a long dormant fantasy of moving to Paris. 

Both Frank and April, surrounded by what they perceive as borish neighbours, always had a view of themselves as exceptional, as somehow special, separate from those who through time and habit they increasingly resembled. This idea of Paris, was a way of manifesting this specialness, a dramatic, grand gesture that would prove their exceptionalism, transforming them into those special people they imagined themselves to be. 

The grand gesture, whilst dramatic and often perceived as bold, is often the low road to transformation, a bypass of the difficult lived experience that is essential for the new sequence of habits that we call a new life. For years after reading Revolutionary Road I had always interpreted it as a tale warning against the moral cowardice exhibited by Frank. Whilst I think that cowardice plays a large part in the couples downfall, the real lesson here is the danger of self-deception. The couple believe, despite any supporting evidence, that they are somehow special, different, separate from those around them. 

The couples belief in their own exceptionalism is a fantasy they hold, whilst simultaneously tying themselves in knots through the daily commitments of their real, conventional life. They pull away and isolate themselves from those around them, bored by the pettiness of their friends. It is this idealism that leads to separation, which in turn creates a deeper emptiness, that is filled, momentarily, by their desire to go to Paris. It is this delusional, idealised view of themselves, and the resulting cowardice to live up to it that creates such dissonance within and between them. 

The problem is that this ideal of ‘specialness’ that they wish to live up to is amorphous and ill-defined, but nevertheless hangs over them as a torment. The torment is exacerbated by the fact that they are unable to take the action necessary to get what they want, as it is so ill-defined. Part of the difficulty in their definition of their ideal is that it is often done in opposition to others around them. Part of an individual’s definition of self stems from their opposition to that which they are not. However, a ‘not’ is an empty space that doesn’t allow for any further guidance on what ‘is’, what one should move toward. Frank and April’s resentment is driven by this opposition to the other people in their lives who reflect their own conventionality and ordinariness. This reflection creates a distance, an inauthenticity, between what they do and what they wish to be. Frank and April’s unhappiness stems in part from this inauthenticity, a misalignment between their values, and actions. 

The fear of Frank becomes evident as their dream of Paris, mostly driven and manifested by April, become a reality. Frank pictures himself, six months into their move, sitting on a bed in a dirty bathrobe, picking his nose, paralysed by inertia. The truth is that Frank’s cowardice isn’t just in response to the move to Paris, but has been with him all along, leading him to be trapped in this life he resents. With Paris drawing closer, Frank consciously and unconsciously sabotages their plans. He does better at work, accepting a promotion, believing that the new title and small raise means something. He also manages to get April pregnant a third time.

Frank’s life is one governed by mediocrity, and this mediocrity is magnified by his self-deception of being someone special, better than what he is. The idea of American Exceptionalism, of the great man, has been internalised by Frank and now eats away at him like a devil gnawing at his soul. The difficulty of American Exceptionalism then and today is that people are modelling themselves on edge cases of successful individuals who sit at the one percent or 0.01% of a population of three-hundred-million-plus people. A perfect combination of personality, temperament, luck, drive and talent needs to converge to become the feted ‘success’. The openness to life that Frank saw in Europe, is in complete opposition to this blinkered, ambition for individual glory that is vaunted so much in America. The American idea of success, the myth of the ‘self-made’, the doctrine of positive thinking, is the proverbial carrot tied in front of the Donkey. Unreachable for most, and certainly unreachable for him.

Frank’s cowardice is justified in a way. His dissociation between ideal and actions is the result of a confusion between what he wants, which is a greater openness to life. His belief in his own specialness and exceptionalism is actually something that works against this openness, creating the fear that sees him pull away from what he needs, to live in a way that is authentic. April, who appears far more brave than Frank, believes that their Paris trip will help them define and realise what Frank is searching for, believing that through changed actions, will come changed thoughts. Ultimately though, Frank is unwilling to let go of their comforts, and cowed by a fear of uncertainty his actions lead to a spiral of dishonesty and resentment that leads to a tragic conclusion. 

The tragedy of this story lies deeper than just Frank’s cowardice, it rests in the mental folly of self-deception and the inner conflict that results. It also speaks to the limits of self-improvement and how the message of the great man or woman can be toxic, a recipe for dissatisfaction in the face of impossible standards. The final, underpinning element is Frank’s lack of self-awareness and acceptance of himself. His cowardice springs from the two opposing depths of uncertainty relating to himself and to his unarticulated ideal of the future. Deep down, Frank knew that he would never be an artist, or musician or writer, he was too conventional for that, too much like his father. Ultimately Frank is a conventional man who saw exceptional things during the war in Europe. His fall of innocence that resulted from this experience, separated him from his prior conception of who he was, and he was never able to bridge that gap again. 

The ‘aliveness’ he perceives in Europe stems from a ‘freedom in their bondage’ attitude, driven by a self-aware acceptance of suffering and the rejection of an individualistic, blinkered approach to success. The spiritual deadness he observes in America stems from this myopia, this chasing of either comfort or glory. The removal of these blinkers, allows the whimsy of life to rush in. What Frank wants is an openness to life, but his bravery to pursue this didn’t need to extend to moving away to Europe. Bravery could have meant pushing away the comfort of conformity where he was and living in a way that was authentic to him. A tiny, shining example of a quiet life, lived on its own terms with full awareness.

Thrown into inequality

Image by Korhan Kalabak

We are shaped by time and place as much as by heredity. The collective outlook of each generation is moulded by the interweaving factors of the time and environment we are born into. History is alive in the lives it has helped to forge. The “Generations” that the media love to demarcate and critique, are manifestations of being thrown into this time. The German Philosopher Martin Heidigger referred to this as “Thrownness”, saying that we are at the mercy of the past, the time and place we are born. We are also at the mercy of the present, one which is characterised by our moods.

According to Heidigger, our being is always shaped by some mood or other. Mood is not a subjective veil that is draped over a “truer” objective world, but the essence of what it is to be in the world at all. Talk of being “in a mood”, rather than a “mood being in us” is an example of how each of us describes this sense of mental life being synonymous with life itself. This centrality of mood to experience explains how there can be a “public mood”, or a “mood of the crowd”. Examples of this include a crowd at a sporting event, a collective whose moods rises and fall with the fortunes of a team. A concert is a similar example, so is a political rally. People like to attend these events in person, rather than just watch them on TV, so they can share in the energy of a collective momentum, gyrating in response to a shared focal point. This is something that not only energises and provides catharsis, but also allows us to transcend our own individual experiences. 

The mood of a generation whilst more amorphous, follows in this vein. It is a vague collective feeling or outlook shaped by the time and place into which we are thrown at birth. The events of the last few weeks have been the flashing culmination of years of frustration against inequality that feels embedded and intractable. The tragic example of George Floyd is the tip of a centuries old problem of racial disenfranchisement that has its origin in early capitalism and colonialism. The mostly young protesters who have galvanised around the Black Lives Matter movement, have for years been burdened with expensive higher education, unreachable housing and employment uncertainty. Prior to COVID, this group of people consoled themselves with experiences, forming the basis of the ‘experience economy’. It is no surprise that the shutdown, the economic effect of which has removed this outlet and extinguished the employment that supports it, has led to this explosion of unrest. 

The sacrifice of the shutdown has been borne primarily by workers who have the least employment security, or those essential (i.e. low paid) workers who are putting their lives at risk so that the economy doesn’t completely collapse. These George Floyd and indigenous incarceration protests are a global movement of solidarity against racism, but they are also energised by a simmering resentment of growing inequality. 

The generation gap is always determined by chasms in time, chasms which result in difficult to understand attitudes and behaviours from one generation to the next. What those of older generations don’t understand when they criticise the protests is that they are beneficiaries of a system that is no longer working in the way that it worked for them. A lot of those who are protesting are doing so because they see in George Floyd and indigenous incarceration an inequality that is endemic and fundamental. 

Inequality’s natural mechanism is to compound itself. It compounds via the returns of wealth, but also in the regulations established by politicians to placate those with wealth. The validity of the Black Lives Matter protests is supported by the broader outcry against systemic inequality. The looting, vandalism and “defund the police” sloganeering is an excess that undermines the overall aims of the movement, but they don’t make the movement itself invalid.

The agony of acceptance

Cycle of Hercules by Francisco de Zurbaran (1634)

“It’s no good trying to get rid of your aloneness. You’ve got to stick to it all your life. Only at times, at times, the gap will be filled in. At times! But you have to wait for the times. Accept your aloneness and stick to it, all your life. And then accept the times when the gap is filled in, when they come. But they’ve got to come. You can’t force them.”

D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Why is acceptance so hard?

Part of the reason appears to be the uncertainty of what we should accept. We are often bound by the tension that exists between being grateful for what we have, and the desire to stretch beyond our current capacity. Acceptance isn’t about any particular situation at work or in life; it is coming to terms with who you are, and letting go of thoughts and behaviours that lead to self-sabotage

This kind of acceptance is recognising your frailties and flaws, whilst honouring your strengths. Ultimately, acceptance is self-awareness. Self-awareness can provide you with the confidence to act in accordance with your values, rather than being pulled by others expectations. Without understanding your own values, it is easy to fall for someone else’s. It is when we are pulled by a “should” that we descend into the morass of self-deception, and its resulting cynicism and resentment.

Acceptance is hard because it is uncomfortable. It is often confused with passivity, when in fact it is in direct opposition to passivity. Acceptance implies wrestling with uncertainty and contradiction; of accepting and coming to terms with uncomfortable truths. Through acceptance, there can still be change, however this change can only occur without being forced or pushed by fear. Fear of being inadequate, of not having enough, pushes us to distraction. This distraction manifests itself in the blind ambition and greed that tries to plug an emptiness that can never be filled, like Tantalus and his grapes. 

Acceptance appears to be a willingness to become who we wish to be, by having the willpower and patience to conform into who we think we should be. So much of how we think is determined by our social environment, and so we may not even realise that we are being led astray by the ‘Royal Should’. Putting up with the discomfort that arises from the resistance of ‘shoulds’, can open up the space needed to listen, examine and, let go. This process is uncomfortable because our thoughts and actions don’t exist in a bubble of isolation; it can be difficult to find the space needed to begin this process of uncovering. Indeed, we may even fear what lies underneath, instead choosing to distract ourselves with busyness, pushing away the pain that needs to be addressed.

Acceptance appears fundamental to the experience of the good life. It is also a key aspect of many psychotherapeutic techniques that are used to treat those struggling with mental suffering or illness. The difficulty of acceptance lies in its opposition to our intuition. Our mental life is so often focused on solving problems, moving from one to the next, that it can be very difficult to accept a problem, rather than trying to remove it. The problem that we rush to fix may only be the tip of a much larger iceberg of issues that we are unconscious of, and therefore unwilling to approach. Trying to fix problems without understanding their root cause is like cutting the head off a hydra. Acceptance starts with the psychological flexibility of making peace with contradiction and uncertainty. It can be the inflexibility and rigidness of our mental life that starves us of the vitality we crave.

Modern Sisyphus

Sisyphus, Antonio Zanchi (1631–1722)

How COVID-19 and remote working, demonstrated the inherent emptiness of corporate life and the unfairness of who gets paid.

So much of the meaning we get from work, comes from our interactions with each other in the office. The Coronavirus, whilst a boon for some, has brought into stark relief the meaninglessness of modern work for many. Triumphant forecasts of the demise of the office, may turn out to be true, which may only exacerbate the nihilism of white-collar professional life. Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway, recently wrote a nostalgic paean to the office, noting, “The most important thing — which should make the office less an employer’s white elephant than its biggest bargain — is that it gives work meaning.” What this period has really driven home, is how once the comforts of office life are removed, what many of us are left with is the maddeningly dull and Sisyphean nature of our work.

Part of this is due to the narrow and restricted nature of so much of the professional services economy, what sociologist Max Weber referred to as the “iron cage” of bureaucratisation. The sticky web of rules and administrative procedures that are required to manage the sheer complexity of the modern economy. A complexity that has spawned what David Graeber calls the bullshit jobs of ‘make-work’. Graeber defines this make-work as well-paying jobs that create a veneer of success, but if stopped tomorrow wouldn’t make a difference to the world.

We cloak ourselves in these peripheral pleasures of office life to drown out the tinnitus of existential dread that greets so many of us when we logon each morning.

This make-work is a result of the huge increase of professional services over the last century. With a significant amount of this increase being devoted to the administration of increasingly byzantine bureaucratic functions of corporations and governments. The inherent complexity of our global corporations and government functions, requires masses of people, with narrow skill sets to become well-paid cogs in the wheel, with little connection to the final output of their work. Often this lack of connection is due to there being no final output to be connected to, as strategies continually change, and projects are cancelled. This Hyperspecialisation of both industry, service and job, has become so narrow that many of us have lost any conception of how we actually make a difference in our work.

What made this dislocation bearable for much of the last century was the meaning that we got from one another when we were in the office. The ability to make friends (or lovers), share ideas, perform in front of our peers, develop the political rivalries and alliances that simultaneously infuriate and sustain us. We cloak ourselves in these peripheral pleasures of office life to drown out the tinnitus of existential dread that greets so many of us when we logon each morning. A dread that is likely to only increase as the professional emptiness of remote work becomes clearer.


The point of all this is that there is a greater evil underlying the banality of this professional nihilism. This is embodied by the cynicism of paying someone almost triple what a nurse gets paid, to stand around holding a traffic sign on government infrastructure projects, whilst these nurses risk their lives to fight the Covid-19 outbreak. A similar example in Australia of underfunded volunteer firefighting crews fighting apocalyptic bushfire conditions last summer is another testament to government fixation on the wrong things. This trend of rewarding bit players, in billion-dollar-white-elephant-projects, whilst undervaluing and ignoring, what is referred to now as “essential workers”, is generally appallingly. It is a function of the preference of governments to be seen to be ‘making progress’, ‘chasing growth’ or ‘balancing the budget’ at the expense of all else. Anything that is not within this framework of quantifiable progress, anything that involves community care or supporting actual people in the community, is equivalently priced as being worthless.

Post-Covid predictions like this one, have already become tiresome and will most likely be wrong. But what might stick is how many people may realise, after peering behind the curtain of their day-to-day professional existence, that there might be more to professional life. If this leads to a collective realisation, it might change our attitude toward how we reward our essential workers, softening the debate about deficit and surplus and move it forward to one of value and fairness. Perhaps we will wake up and realise that the nurse, school teacher and fireman deserve not just our applause and appreciation, but more of the spoils.