Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Eulogy For A Loyalist

I've recently been coming to terms with the passing of our West Highland Terrier, Scotty. The death of a pet is a strange experience. There are no sympathetic callers, no funeral arrangements, no formalities. The reactions to his death have been both sensitive and indifferent. As a result, I am sometimes unsure about how to feel myself. But when I devote any kind of thought to him, I realise just how sad I am. As such, the following is some kind of acknowledgement of his short time on Planet Earth.

Since St. Patrick's Day 1998, when we took him from his protesting but helpless mother, Scotty had been an integral part of our family. He lived with us until last year when he took up sticks with my sister, after a new family home was deemed spatially insufficient for him. Scotty wasn't the typical obedient and always adoring dog. Like we all fall out with each other, each of us fell out with him on more than one occasion. He wasn't always restrained in his protestations to something that was bothering him. Wicked would be a good word to describe his darker moments. In fairness to Scotty, this became less common as he got older. Though he did retain the threat of violence through his customary growl. However, he also had another more human way of expressing dissatisfaction. The most striking example of this was his refusal to have anything to with my mother after she accidentally stepped on his paw. His temporary rejection was especially strange because he usually displayed the utmost respect and admiration of her, possibly because she fed him whilst the rest of us were at school, work or wherever. She even went to the length of actually requesting his attention, something previously unthinkable. All in vain, Scotty must have been trying to make a point. He made classic amends by choosing to forgive her on Christmas Day whilst the family exchanged the annual pleasantries. He must have known there was an above average supply of food under her control that day.

Scotty didn't get on with many people outside the family. Many of my friends often told me how much they didn't like him, presumably because of the frosty reception they received upon arrival at the house. There were, however, some people that he did warm to. They understood that Scotty's friendship was a journey more so than a destination. Scotty often won over his opponents by demonstrating his ability to watch TV, something I deeply regret not capturing on video. He was especially fond of animal documentaries and horse racing. He did show his intellectual limitations by trying to follow the animal off the tv when they ran off screen, only to find that they weren't running across the room as he had expected.

Despite his sometimes lukewarm attitude, Scotty's true colours often shone bright. He rarely went beyond 100 yards of the house, proudly patrolling the garden against the perceived threats of low flying crows and the odd feline. He would be especially fierce in these pursuits after we would give him the verbal command of 'Go on Scotty, Get Him!', as if trying to impress the superiors in his pack. Despite being accused of cowardice, he often stood determinedly against the daily 'threats' of the postman and unfamiliar visitors. These confrontations were usually fanned by the stranger's frantic kicking, fight like stance and constant retorting of the immortal phrase 'Goway you little fucker!'. Scotty's finest hour came when he alerted my brother and I to the ailing condition of my very elderly grandmother as my mother tried to prevent her from fainting to the floor. With the TV volume at high level, it was Scotty's yelping and scratching of the living room door that drew our attention to what was happening.

Despite this dramatic example of just how worthy a dog can be, it is his more subtle friendship that I will miss most. These were much more apparent when one spent some time in the house alone. The cliché image of an owner using their dog as some kind of sounding board for daily thoughts and concerns is one that I can greatly identify with. Of course, he never answered, even if I sometimes imagined he did. But he did look like he was listening, even if he was probably just scanning for the words 'dinner', 'walkies' or 'Duxie' (Scotty's local canine rival).

I often wonder what went through Scotty's little brain when he was alone in the house. I wonder if he ever worried that we wouldn't come home. I always hoped not and tried to tell him, as we left, that would we see him later. Just weeks before he died, I took him to the vet for a haircut and a check on the worsening state of his ears. As the procedures required Scotty's anaesthesisation, I had the uncomfortable experience of having him plead for me, from the inside of his cage, not to leave. It was with reverse emotion that he greeted me upon return. Scotty was given a clean bill of health and sporting a new clean trim, he looked well below his 12 years. When I left him back to my sister that evening, I told him I'd see him later. He didn't take much notice. It was whilst I was out of the country these past few weeks that Scotty's deteriorating mood and turning of his head to one side forced another trip to the vet. This time there was a tumor found growing inside his ear. The vet warned of an increase in suffering and a consequential cutting of Scotty's relatively short fuse. My sister, who had a particular bond with Scotty, was forced to take the painful decision.

I wasn't sure how to take it. I had told myself after our last day together that he had another few years in him. After hearing of why and how he had died, I sat on the couch. As the above memories surfaced, I couldn't help but let go. I'm still reconciling with the fact that I've lost one of my best friends. A fellow sentient that saw me at my best and my worst, my surest and most doubtful, my happiest and saddest; Scotty knew me as the whole package, the complete human being that I am. And I will miss him alot.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Confessions Of A Recently Qualified Driver

I learned to drive this year. Yes, it took me until age 24 to finally get behind the wheel. I started not under the guidance of a parent, sibling or friend, but under the tuition of a stranger through driving lessons. I wanted to learn from someone I didn't know. When I was younger, I remember my two older brothers bitterly exchanging words over a failed project, where one had tried to teach the other how to drive. The student in this situation had warned me not to learn to drive from someone I know. Apparently, the whole event was marked with derisive sarchasm, insecure defensive snaps and intermittent automobile movement between sudden stops. In fact, seeing the car behave in such ways is something I can recall from my cautious peeking through the curtains at this particular 'lesson'. I always remembered that.

12 years later, I decided that it was time for me to face my fear of taking control of an automobile. My first driving lesson went quite well. My instructor had scoffed at my suggestion that I might not have been ready to get out on the road on the first day. I was thrown straight to the wolves in a
novice negotiation of a spacious commercial estate. The wolves though, didn't bite. I surprised myself. It all came to me so quickly. 'Ok. Foot gently off the clutch, simultaneously applying slight pressure to the accelerator. That's not so hard. Ok my braking probably shouldn't jolt me forward like that. Ok. I stalled a bit at that junction but the driver in that car behind me didn't seem to mind. I'll get better. Hey! It's only my first lesson. I can do this! Top Gear Baby!'

Over the following months, I steadily progressed. Hill starts, reversing around corners and 3-point turns became almost bi-daily exercises as I prepared in focused anticipation for my driving test. My confidence grew and grew. I was ready! My driving test took place in late June. Despite a few hiccups, such as leavin
g my provisional licence in the car after I had gone inside to begin the oral test, I felt the test went fairly well. I even asked that the examiner put on his seat belt after he sat in to the passenger seat. Upon return, after the 45 minute tour of Kilkenny residential estates, I was DELIGHTED to have him tell me that I had passed. In fact, I was so happy that I offered him an enthusiastic handshake, something he clearly wasn't used to. My other memory of that day is returning to my car as a fully qualified driver, beaming with pride. As I unlocked the door, I noticed another candidate who had taken his test simultaneously to mine with a different examiner. He and another man, presumably his father, sat in his car, somberly looking over the test score card. I really should have had the presence of mind to refrain from making any gestures toward him, but before I knew it I was offering two thumbs up, backed up with a elemental smile of excitement. I don't know what I was trying to communicate. I think it was something like 'How did you do? Mine went well!!'. The glum expressions that they returned signaled to me that they wanted me to leave their field of view. Immediately.

Brazenly, I took to the roads as a fully licensed driver. Without the spectre of the test hanging over me, I started loosening up on the road. I felt like an equal now; liberated of those almost self-derogatory L plates. Passengers would compliment me on my 'assured' driving and congratulate me on the relatively short period of time it took me to get a full licence. I really started to enjoy driving. I still do. I haven't quite gotten over the novelty of being able to drive people from one place to another. Once, a friend of mine cringed when, mid-drive, I turned to him in the passenger seat and said 'You know what Michael, I really enjoy driving'.

Of course, such self-assurance could only yield some kind of grief. One day, as I creeped down a busy urban street, I started day dreaming. It gets boring travelling at a speed of 5km/h. In heavy traffic, the power of the driver diminishes, unless one wants to cause carnage, and reep the consequences. On this occasion, my mind wandered away from my location. I was probably thinking of something menial, like what I was going to have for dinner or what my next blog entry was going to be about. It was only when I casted my eyes back onto where they were supposed to be that I noticed how the car in front was really close to my bumper, and getting closer.My mind suddenly awoke from the day-dream. Too late. THUD. 'Fuck'. Fearfully, I noticed the driver of the struck vehicle angrily scan his rear-view mirror as he applied the handbrake, opened his door and stepped expressively out of his car. I pre-empted our little chat with some apologetic facial expressions and 'guilty as charged' hand gestures. I measured him up. He was middle-aged man. His car looked newish. I was scared. He looked closely at the point of collision and turned to me for an explanation. I felt it important to get my apology in first. 'Sor..Sorry..Is it bad?'. His reply was swift. 'Have you no brakes on that thing'? I giggled a little at his sarcasm, hoping to find some basis for harmony. I explained what happened. 'Look, I'm really sorry. I just lost concentration'. When he heard that, he seemed to let his guard down a little, as if he had some understanding. His tone of voice became less aggressive. 'I'd say you were away with the fairies were ya?' I seized upon this, 'Yeah.... I'm really really sorry... Sorry.' I got the feeling that he was actually a nice guy and was only behaving in this confrontational way because he had watched too many episodes of Top Gear and was trying to do what Jeremy Clarkson would do. He turned back to look again at the damage. I asked him if it was 'okay?'. Resuming his previous posture of indignation, he told me 'I hope so' in the least nice possible way.

After a couple of days of increased concentration and appreciation of the dangers of complacency, I managed to regain any confidence lost. Soon, the angry middle aged man was a distant memory and driving was enjoyable again. Allowing old people to cross the street, giving attractive girls the right of way and of course, giving every one a lift. It made me feel important, like I was making a difference. Driving had really improved my life. It was with such aplomb that I approached a long-distance journey this past week. The requirement for such a journey was a meeting with fellow stammerers in a hotel in Mullingar. The two-hour drive up went very well. I even got out on the motorway for the first time. No problem there. The hotel parking was a bit tight but I manged to squeeze my Opel Astra into an awaiting space. Sprightly, I jumped out of the car, immensely satisfied with yet another a smooth running journey. As I entered the hotel, I fleetingly thought about how it might be a little tricky to reverse out of that space. 'Nevermind', I thought, 'I'll worry about that later'.

Four hours later, I exited the back entrance of the hotel in a similar way to how I had entered. The day had gone well. My stammering demon was silenced. I wasn't having those toxic thoughts of self-consciousness. I really felt in control. Like, more than ever, this life is mine to live. It was one of those moments where one felt genuinely grateful. I looked at my car as I approached it. 'And now I get to drive all the way back to Kilkenny!'. As I sat back in for the 2 hour return journey, I noticed that an orange jeep (I don't know what brand) had parked perpendicularly behind me, in his own imaginary parking space. In the rear view mirror, I noticed that it was actually fairly close. 'Shit, I hope I can get out here'. At this point, I probably should point out that parking and negotiation of tight spaces is something I still haven't quite got the hang of. It was with such background thoughts that I started to reverse out. I tried going one way. Nope. Then the other. No. Two cars, parked closely on either side meant I wasn't able to avail of the turning space I needed to compensate for the lack of room I had to reverse straight out. I kept trying. To no avail. 'Bollocks'.

After a good ten minutes of trying various turning combinations, I decided I need to step out. I looked at the jeep that was causing all this and cursed at it. 'Fuck you. Fucking...Jeep'. I walked around the back of my car, and surveyed the situation. 'What do I need to do here?'. I tried to gather my thoughts and dispel the frustration that was starting to cloud everything positive about the whole day. The liberated feeling of ten minutes earlier was quickly subsiding. I was out of control again, falling into the vicious circle of doubt and angry frustration. It was at this frail time that I noticed the sound of knocking on a window. The car park was at the back of the hotel and in perfect view of hotel guests in their rooms. 'I really hope that's not for me'. I looked up to see where the noise was coming from. On the top floor, I noticed three girls, of similar age, waving down at me from the top floor. Yes, I had an audience. They looked giddy, possibly drunk. They were probably part of a hen party or something, getting ready for their 'big night out'. They must of thought that this was all great 'craic'. 'Oh look a man who can't park!'. Unsure of how to handle my new followers, I decided to start playing along with their amusing points of view. I gestured to them in that familiar 'what can I do' stance. They all laughed. I pretended I was 'having a laugh' at the whole thing. Of course once I turned around and my face was out of their view I was quietly willing them to 'Fuck off'.

With the onlooking females and their birds eye-view now very much part of the equation, I decided I needed assistance. 'Get someone to back me out! Yeah, at least that will make me look less alone in all this'. I walked around the car park looking for the nearest man. There were already enough women involved. Eventually, I came upon a smoking hut filled with about seven hotel staff. As I approached the hut, I noticed the familiar sound of employee banter. I didn't want to have to interrupt their sacred escape from work. At this stage though, I had no choice. Hesitantly, I filled a rare silence in their chatter with a meek 'Sorry would someone be able to give me hand backing out down here, there's a jeep blocking me in and I can't really..'. Before I could finish, there was a man on his feet accompanying me down to the car. He was around the same age as me. Yet, I kind of got the impression that he was unsure of how he was going to help me. Maybe he thought I would tell him what to do. He wished. As I returned to the cockpit(sometimes I imagine i'm a pilot), I had some hope that I might actually get out of there.

And so we began to co-operate in this temporary alliance. 'Yeah..yeah..come on...keep coming....STOP'. Move forward slightly. Repeat. Despite the efforts of my new friend, I soon found myself in laughable angles, wedged diagonally between the two cars on either side. I was literally moving milimetres, forward and back, trying to seize any turning space I could. His barks of 'STOP' became ever more frequent, suggesting that the whole thing was becoming painfully futile. I felt so ridiculous. Every now and again he would say things like 'Now, just move up there and you should be able to get out'. 'Move up where?' I thought. 'Haven't you noticed that there is nowhere to move!'. Of course, I didn't say any of this to him. Instead, I replied with macho utterances like 'Right so' and 'No bothers'. Eventually he realised that we weren't getting the desired result. He stood my window, with his hand on his head, confusedly looking at the angle. I was just about to offer him a go when we heard the distant shout of a female voice. 'Turn back the other way. That Renault is too big!' The girls from above were now offering their advice. The man looked at me, almost as if he came up with it himself, and told me to 'Try going back the other way'. I knew it was no use. I had already tried that. But just to placate the awkwardness of the situation, I decided to go through the motions. When that was over, and the girls were quiet again, I asked him if there was anyway of finding out who the jeep belonged to. If I could get them to move out of their self-made parking spot, all would be well. 'Go into reception and give them the reg, they might know who owns it'. Off I went.

Inside, I relayed the details of the whole situation to the girl at reception. I was terrified that I'd see one of my friends, who had stayed on, and have to explain why I was still at the Hotel an hour after I had bid them farewell. It's funny, I have no problem opening up to these people about something as deep set and emotive as a speech impediment, but I wouldn't want them to know that I wasn't able to reverse out of a tight parking space. The girl at reception wasn't sure how to handle me. She asked me to point out my car on her CCTV image of the car-park. 'Why?' I thought. 'Do you not believe me?'. Eventually she decided to contact the boss. He would figure it out.

I waited around for a few minutes before he showed up. It wasn't hard to spot him. He was moving through the lobby at lightening speed, like only a Hotel Manager would. It looked like he had ten different things to do. He was already talking to me from about 10 feet away. 'Now, are you broken down is it?'. Obviously he hadn't picked up the synopsis from the girl at reception. 'No, I can't get out of a space there because there's a jeep parked where it shouldn't be parked'. Of course, he didn't mind that. He's managing a business that relies on customers. He would let them park on the roof if they could get up there. 'Right, shir I'll go out and have a look at it'. I knew what was coming. The final stage of my humiliation. He was going to do it for me. At this stage, with my pride so wounded, I was content with that. When we got outside to the car-park, I pointed it out to him. He wasn't even nearly phased. He never actually stopped moving. 'I'll have a go at it there'. I handed over they keys. 'Yeah, you'll have a go', I thought. As if this was going to be some sort of challenge to him. There was no go to be had. He was going to just do it. He sat into the driver's seat and revved up the engine aggressively. Now here was a driver. I looked around to see if my new girlfriends were still watching. Thankfully, they had dispersed. 'Maybe they'll come back, see that the car is gone and presume that I finally pulled it off instead of getting a 'real' man to do it'. As I watched him manouvere the angles, a part of me hoped he would have similar trouble to me. No chance. Within about 30 seconds, he had achieved what I had spent the past hour aspiring to. I'm not sure what he actually did. It all happened so fast. He jumped out and enthusiastically handed control of the car back to me. 'Got it first time'. We both had a big laugh. His laughter was filled with 'There you go now you retard, don't forget to come back again and pick an easier spot'. Mine was charged by a simple attempt to divert the pain into the laughter, thereby surviving that horrible moment. I quickly looked back up at the girls' window, just to confirm they hadn't seen the final shaming. They had. I didn't even wait to see what they would do. I took my control of my freed vehicle and scurried out of Mullingar.

As I drove nervously through the midland night, I tried to absorb what had just happened. The embarrassment was immense. I decided that I would never go to Mullingar again, or possibly even Co. Westmeath, for fear of meeting some of the witnesses. Then, I thought about how the guy that had done his test at the same time as me would have loved to seen this newly qualified driver guillotined with humiliation. I could almost see him and his dad on the road in front of me, laughing at me and mockingly imitating my two thumbs up. I thought of how the girls would tell this story for years to come. How they had watched 'this chap trying to back out of a space for an hour'. And how all their boyfriends would laugh and point out that the driving test isn't hard enough if it allows 'lads like that' on the road. The middle aged man who's car I had bumped was there too, pointing me out to Jeremy Clarkson who was making shitty jokes at my expense to his sheep (audience). Of course, the humor of it all was also beginning to dawn on me. Now, having reflected deeply on the whole experience, I can appreciate more than ever the healing power of laughter. What a wonderful thing it is that can strip me of so many of the vices that I've written about in previous entries. Pride, doubt and anger don't seem so strong in the face of the ability to laugh and not take it all so seriously.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Black October

In these recessionary times, lots of numbers get thrown around. 34 billion to bail out Anglo-Irish Bank, Government deficit of 32%, unemployment rate of 13.7%. The problems we face are so much bigger than any one of us. Our country, like many others, teeters on the edge of financial abyss. We are witnessing one of the most defining moments in our history. But what can we do? Without our swollen wallets, we feel so powerless. The human consequence of our depleted economy has been to drain us dry of any semblance of hope. Television and radio seems to be offering an endless re-run of national despair. There's a lethargy in the air, a distinct atmosphere of paralysis. And yet, there is no better time to change the future. It's in these uncertain times that new attitudes and ideas can be woven into the public psyche. Now would be a worse time than ever to succumb to our doubts and fears.

A few weeks ago, I watched Harry Barry, a doctor who deals with mental health issues, warn of the dangers of the recession on our mental health. One of his observations centered around the notion that there is a tendency amongst many Irish people (and probably many others) to evaluate their personal worth on their level of employment. If this is true, which I suspect it is, imagine the battering our self-worth is taking in the current climate. What must we be telling ourselves? The collective stream of consciousness must be awash with a vile negativity. Such assertions correspond to a 24% rise in suicides in 2009 from 2008, representing the biggest ever surge in the national suicide rate.

Of course, as mentioned in a previous entry, we would be naive to think that a swift correction of our economic woe would alleviate us of this concern. It's probably more accurate to suggest that the financial crisis represents a triggering mechanism for self-doubt, a sentiment already well-nurtured before the current situation arose. Without a job, people may feel that they have lost their purpose, that they have become a dreg to society. The simple remedy would just be to go out and find something else. Not in this recession. International economist, Paul Krugman, warned in April 2009 that Ireland is really and truly without options until there is an international recovery. In October 2010, he seems vindicated. Without the constant stream of employment that flowed through the previous decade, people may find themselves in an unfamiliar state of idleness. When combined with various pressures, like putting food on the table and keeping up with mortgage payments, some people may find this stagnation too much.

The impact of the recession has been all the more dramatic because of the context of what went before. In 2005, The New York Times described this land as the 'Wild West of European Finance'. The idea seemed to be that Ireland's rapid economic growth had fostered the growth of a dangerous laissez-faire attitude toward the financial sector, on both public and governmental levels. But it didn't matter, questioning wasn't in fashion back then. The vast majority of us weren't interested in why we seemed to becoming so wealthy, only that we were. Alot Done, More to Do. That sounded more like it. The year before the collapse of the economy, we elected Fianna Fáil to their third consecutive reign in power. We really did believe that they were in steady control of all our fortunes. It wasn't until late 2008 and early 2009 that we realised just how ignorant we'd been. Our failure to properly regulate the banking industry, described by Thomas Jefferson as the most dangerous threat to liberty, left us sifting through the rubble of our previous prosperity.

Recently, the Minister of Finance, Brian Lenihan, has been at pains to explain why we must sacrifice so much to ensure the confidence of international bondholders. Watching him on Prime Time a few weeks ago, I noticed how he dealt with a question on how he could justify public spending cutbacks to ordinary people who find themselves in desperate situations. In short, he didn't. Instead, he turned our attention to the national deficit. He saw it as more important to soften the blow of future cutbacks then to tend to the wounds of previous ones. This kind of diversion corresponds to a broader government strategy in recent weeks of trying to dissuade the pessimism now rife in the country.

Forward thinking. Turning the corner. If we pull together we can do it! Enough of all this Pessimism! National consensus! Come on get on that green jersey! We can have our economic independence!

And the bondholders can have all their money back. For what? Just so they can lend it all to some other maverick Government that will leave some other nation in peril? And so we can start blowing some other bubble that will eventually just burst again. Yes, it all makes perfect sense. For me, that has been the lasting impact that this recession will have. The absence of fairness and triumph of big business over the rest of society. Sometimes I wonder how we're supposed to retain any moral outlook in the shadow of what is happening. Our propping up of the very same institutions that landed us in this mess signals just how free we really are not. And don't be so quick to blame capitalism either. If the free-market was genuinely free, the banks would have been left to sink. But you wouldn't want to know what would happen then!

Therein, lies the real moral dilemma of the crisis. The banks and financial institutions have always championed the free-market. The less interference exercised by the State, the more
money there is to make. When the banks are benefiting from the free-market, the rest of us play along. We take out mortgages, borrow excessively and pay high interest rates. Yet, when the free-market no longer favours the banks, and exposes their gross levels of greed, they can hold the rest of us to ransom with the threat of their non-existence and the subsequent impact on our society. And so we comply. Banks are returned to the playing field of the free-market, their existence guaranteed by the state. For the rest of us, there is no half-time. Instead, we are left to run ourselves into the ground trying desperately to hang on to our futures. It's no wonder we get terms like 'patriotism' and 'consensus' thrown at us. If we are going to affect the future for the better, we cannot rely on it from the top down. Change has to come from the bottom up.

But do I really want to change this? Sure, if I was losing my home or getting jailed for falling behind on electricity payments, then I might get revolutionary. But do I really have the stomach to come up with credible alternatives to the way things work? Who am I to speak up anyway? I'll just keep my head down and hope that I can stay afloat. I'm sure neo-liberal economics will smile on me again. I might even get rich some day.

The rationale is strangely familiar. Caution, passivity, fear. Defensive coping mechanisms, repressing the difficulties we have with the world around us, in the meek hope that it might come good some day. The relationship between our collective and individual behaviors isn't so blurry. But what a bleak picture it is. It may not be just the recession that is vacating us of hope, it could also be our sheer inability to be anyway constructive about it. Just as we feel unmoved to confront our own personal fears, we are just apathetic about our collective problems. Does this explain the correlation of higher suicide rates and the continued descent into further financial trouble?

The truth is that there actually is so much we can do for ourselves. Broadly speaking, we can try
and ensure that we prevent, to the best of our ability, a similar situation in the future? This means education. Not an education that leads to degrees or doctorates, but one that empowers us as citizens. This means an individual responsibility to learn more about the world we live in. Economics would probably be a good place to start, since it bears such relevance to our existence. Personally, I was lazy about understanding economics because of the terminology involved. Now I can see that it is precisely such lazieness that allowed things to get as bad as they are. By taking that particular plunge, we can find out about things like Roosevelt's Glass-Steagall Act, enacted after the Wall Street crash to dissuade the fusion of investment and depositary banks, and to control financial speculation. By acting individually, we can also encourage the creation of stronger and more resilient communities. At a time when charities are over-run from the fallout from the economic collapse, there is so much we can do to contribute, and so many ways to do it. Our political system reflects how involved we are in it. If we have problems with the way the state is run, it is up to us to change it. That is the essence of a democracy. If there is no-one worth voting for, then spoil your vote. Let your voice be heard. No matter how small or seemingly irrelevant. If enough people agree with you, you'll eventually get a politician who listens.

If you're sighing at what you have just read, then I've beaten you to it. It's that 'doubt' problem again. I can't believe how 'preachy' I sometimes sound. I can't quite get used to idea of actually having something to say about all this. I've already visualised your eyes raising toward the heaven. What chance do I have of doing something when I carry all this baggage of fear. It's a problem I have with my perceptions. In Werner Herzog's film, Wheel Of Time, the Dalai Lama remarks how the centre of universe is at the subjective viewpoint of each individual person. Essentially, the world around us exists only as we are seeing it. This suggests that necessary abolition of commonly held inaccuracies. Learned inaccuracies. Take, for example the 'employment/self-worth' example mentioned earlier. If we choose to believe that we are worth no more than how much we are being paid, we are putting our lives in the hands of the fickle economy. Our existence is relegated to contingency on the self-serving whims of investors and bondholders. Is this a sane way to exist? Change won't come easy. But it starts within.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


A friend of mine once told me how he had lost hope. In the middle of being irked about nothing in particular, we started to discuss the origins of our doubts.

It's like when you're young, you're told all this stuff and you think the world is all orderly and fair...With a God in heaven and Santy at Christmas... And then you grow up and you realise life is actually beyond understanding..Totally unfair.. And dominated by people who just really annoy you..

I agreed. He didn't have to explain why he had arrived at that conclusion. I understood. Though it troubled me a little, I enjoyed the honesty. And besides, the philosophy it bestowed on us was an easy one to live by. Sure we might have been succumbing to some sort of eternal misery, but at least we were admitting it. It shrouded the deeply set pressures of life like pursuing a career, and led us to believe that nothing really mattered. By recognising the fallacy of what we'd been told, we were somehow above it. All we needed to do was doubt. We didn't need all those standards and etiquettes. And if we did, in some small way, bemoan our rejection of conformity, it wasn't our fault. It was theirs.

Them! Parents, teachers, the government, society! All they ever did was lie to us to us about how fair and rewarding this world is. And at the end of it all, we were supposed to nod back smiling. As if we were understanding of why they had built up all our hopes, only to have them shattered by the inadequacies they hadn't told us about. And what? Now we're supposed to conform and repeat the whole process just like they did. Fuck that! I'm the victim here! I don't owe anything to anyone!

Ah yes. The bitterness, the anger! It was almost a way of life. I kept myself busy being angry. In many ways, I still am. Arghhhh!!! Though not as much as those later teenage years. My view was askew. I chose to see things that fed my disillusionment with the way things were. Being 'right' offered some satisfaction. Cynicism, however, is an infectious thing. Once you start looking for the bad side to everything, it's hard to see anything else. Maybe there's something in it. After all, I probably wouldn't have bonded with alot of people the way I did unless we had some sort of common dislike to bitch about. Isn't talking about what we don't like one of the most common forms of bonding? Nevertheless, it eventually came to me that I was probably being a little close-minded. I always felt threatened by people who didn't agree with what I had to say. Sometimes I would stumble upon something worth saying but most of the time I was just spewing anger. I wasn't really contributing anything in particular to anything at all. Like calling myself an atheist, not being able to wait before telling everyone exactly what I didn't believe in. Wouldn't it have been better to come up with something more positive? Something that said what I did believe in. Instead of attacking so vehemently what I didn't.

Now, I've changed! I see the world so much more clearly now. What we need to do is....No, that's not it. My doubt's not finished yet. The truth is that the world can still look as troubling as ever. And trying to change that or even talk about it seems so pretentious. In fact, I have to confess a considerable amount of doubt in even writing this entry. It's so self-indulgent. Talking about myself and my intellectual development as if I was some kind of modern Voltaire. Who do I think I am? I'm only 24 and I write these blogs like I've seen it all. As if I've spent time carrying out rigorous analysis of the human mind. I haven't! It's all just pseudo psychology. Put together from my biased observations of the world, each one complimenting my ego-driven beliefs. Besides, I've been noticing a lot of defects to this whole thing. Like the other day when a friend told me that he had read the last entry on Pride. That was fine. However, we just so happened to stumble into a big discussion/debate/argument about something. Afterwards, I couldn't help feel that the whole discussion was tainted by my previous admission that I sometimes help turn heated discussions into matters of egotistical pride. I felt bad. This feeling was compounded when someone else described parts of this blog as 'preachy'. Doubtful as I am, I suddenly feel myself self-righteous and hypocritical. Like a real idiot. The way things are going, it won't be long before someone tells me what they really think of me and tell me what I can do with my 'blog'. That word. Blog. I hate it. It's so...Western! Who doesn't have a blog these days? It's almost as bad as the 'singer songwriter' epidemic. What? You have a guitar and wrote some mediocre songs and now we're supposed to take you seriously and 'hush' while you play? No, I don't think your heartfelt and sentimental. Ha! I doubt that very much. You're just an insincere attention seeker, clinging to the latest trend to try and make yourself relevant. And what about tweeting and status updates? The Internet has given people the undeserved privilege of having an audience for their stupid observations and half-witted ponderings, as if they deserved to be heard. And if they're not doing that, they're telling us what menial task they are currently engaged in. Why? Why?! Because that's the way it's going now? This is our evolution, is it? The relegation of communication to the most bland and mundane things we could think of. Like anyone GIVES A FUCK. Don't we have better things to be doing? To be finding out? Like how to survive this messy monetarism, in this downward spiral into some sort of economic wasteland. And here I am, joining in, writing about things like Pride and Obsession. Typical intellectual bullshit.

Ok, I think I'm done. Yep. So there it is, my doubt in all it's glory. I have to say, I noticed myself getting a little excited there. I was typing that little bit faster. I felt I had that little bit more to say. Words came easier to me in my state of doubt. There were so many easy targets. I was in such a rush to put everything down. But now, having said all that, I actually feel like I haven't really said anything at all. It was all just a big rant about how everything disgusts me. And what do I have to show for it? Nothing. I don't feel any satisfaction. No gratification or vindication. No solace. Nothing. Empty.

Listening to the radio the other day, I heard a man paying tribute to his father, who had recently reached 100 years of age. Asked about what he thought kept his father in good health, he said something that struck me. Rather than appraising dry brown bread and sugarless tea, he instead communicated that his father could always find the positives in everything, especially people. When someone was out of favour, he would always seek to understand rather then condemn them. I thought of my grandmother, who herself lived until 100, and noted how I had never heard her talk down anyone. Maybe these people live so long because they don't carry around all the begrudgery mentioned earlier. They decide not to ware themselves out with tiresome indignation. They're not looking for the next thing to whine about. They are contented and secure people with no chip on their shoulder. They live and let live. (And die, eventually)

We all have our grievances. At one time or another, we feel as if we've been let down or cheated. By someone or something. It's hard to be serene in a world that sometimes seems so unfair, on so many levels. Of course we're going to get a little distrustful from time to time. But what happens when we bury ourselves in our defence mechanisms? Life just becomes a roundabout of derision, spitefulness and self-consciousness. Why, instead of trying to find the falsehood in everything, don't I look for things that I can relate to? Some kind of common ground. Wouldn't it be much more interesting if we could try and see ourselves in each other? Instead of trying to highlight how we're so different from each other. And how I'm on that side and you're on the other. And that's what makes you WRONG! And me RIGHT! Maybe If I refrained from all that meaninglessness, I would feel less compelled to complain about things that I'm not even sure annoy me that much. Maybe If I gave myself a push and tried to disprove my insecurities, I wouldn't fall into that hostile disposition toward everything else. Maybe. Maybe not. Actually, that's what I doubt the most.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Sitting forward, his arms crossed in defense. His head slightly cocked, turning horizontally, back and forth. He talks with such aggression, as if there is a lot riding on the outcome of this debate. I know, as I make my point that it's all so futile. He's not going to change his mind, and even if I did manage to alter his perspective in any little way, he would never admit it. Look at him there, his eyes glazed over with his cynicism, looking at me with feigned condescension. Trying to make me feel small. Trying to frighten me off with his whole demeanor, like a cat that arches it's back at the sight of a curious canine. It all ends in tension. It got personal. He made it personal. Trying to personalise an argument, the hallmark of a bully. Littering the interaction with attacks on my character. And so I rose; thinking attack was the best form of defence. I sunk down to lower levels and calculatedly moved in on his weak points. After a while, I'm not sure either of us were really sure what we were even talking about. It was harder and harder to concede that he actually had made some good points; things I hadn't thought of before. In the end, a third party had to intervene and change the conversation topic because we had both become too annoying to listen to. It felt so unfinished. Nobody had won. Nobody ever does. And so we sat there bitterly, stewing in our own miserable pride.

The pitfalls of pride have long been recognized. According to Sacred History of Profound Things, by Charles Panati, it was the Greeks who first assembled a list of man's most dangerous behaviours, a list that would later be modified by the Christian Church into the seven deadly sins. Evagrius, the Greek author in question, was so worried by pride that he put it right at the top of his list. When Pope Gregory devised his seven cardinal sins, he retained pride as the most dangerous. Gregory's definition of danger arose from the degree to which the sin interfered with love, of God presumably. Accordingly, pride was seen as the sin from which all others arise. As with all the seven deadly sins, pride became associated with a particular animal (horse) and colour (violet). It was also afforded it's own specific punishment. Those guilty of excessive and unrepentant pride would do their time on the breaking wheel in Hell.

So it's obvious that pride is no modern ill. It's stigma stretches across millenia. But you wouldn't need to study ancient Greece or the early Christian period to know that pride isn't something others always take to. Pride isn't one uniform set of behaviours. It's meaning and implications are varying. The old scholastic interpretation was pride as self adoration. Self-adoration was and sometimes still is associated with someone who sees themselves as being above others. It's seen almost as a denial of humanity; a rebuttal of imperfection. Those bearing this kind of pride need not say that they consider themselves better. Instead they communicate it through their demeanor, their body language, the way they treat others. This kind of pride is probably the most blatant. A modern example would probably be best captured in Cristiano Ronaldo. Those who follow soccer will be well acquainted with the Portuguese attacker. For those of you don't, he's the one who changed clubs at the cost of 95 million euros and currently gets paid almost 250'000 euro each week. A week! Ronaldo's self confidence is beyond measure. Earlier in his career, he was criticised as a show boater who was more keen on showing off his individual skill as opposed to working for the team. Yet he overcame many of these criticisms by becoming an integral part of a well decorated Manchester United team. It took him a while. I remember watching him do truly embarassing things like doing multiple step-overs over the ball only to pass it straight to an opposing player. Showing off got him into trouble. His pride seemed like his Achilles heel. I remember many people disagreeing with me that he would eventually turn into a world class player. 'Too cocky' they said. But it was that cockiness that made him the player he is now. Ronaldo never let all the embarassing mistakes dent his confidence. He didn't care what anyone else thought. His lack of humility and total belief/worship of himself carried him through. He's good but he thinks he's the best (which he isn't). Cristiano is pride personified. He has his pride to thank for getting him where he is now. If Pope Gregory was right, he'll be doing a few eternities on the breaking wheel. But that might be a little harsh.

Being proud doesn't always mean being as big of a poseur as Ronaldo is. There are far much more subtle ways of considering yourself above others. In many ways, implicit pride is much more obstructing and annoying then the overt type. People with this kind of pride can be identified by doing things like refusing to admit they're wrong in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In an argument, they are very unlikely to say things like 'Yes, that's a good point' or 'I suppose I hadn't thought of it like that'. Instead, they become aggressive and condescending. Yet, when one looks deeper, it's seems more like they are defending themselves. Concession must be too threatening. It's like as if they have nothing else. Nothing else to lean on, no peace of mind. All they have is their pride. They would rather antagonise, be unreasonable and put others down than admit that they might not be 100% correct in what they are saying. I think all of us have been guilty of such behaviour at some stage in our lives. I also think that we can admit (those of us who are that little less proud) that it wasn't always our convictions or belief in what we thought was right that cemented our refusal to budge. There was something else. We felt as if we were under attack. We didn't ask for the fight.

He started it, thinking he could shove all his bullshit opinions down our throats. And what? We're just going to listen to that? Accept that? I couldn't let him win. He can't get away with that. We trade some blows. I can't be wrong. He can't be right. The thought of him thinking that he won this battle, that he defeated me is something I just cannot allow to happen. That's not the way it's supposed to be. Never.

What happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object? Too many times we find ourselves in the stalemate of an argument of attrition. The interjection of a third party pleading for us to stop. It's hard. A heated argument fueled by our sickly pride leaves us charged with a bitter feeling. It's so hard just to let go.

We've gone too far. There has to be a winner. Yet we both know there won't be. I hate you now as much you do me. We're never going admit our weaknesses. This is pointless. So we'll turn away, trying so hard to escape this horrible situation that our stupid pride got us into. But it's so hard. I look at you there trying to put a calm and indifferent face on you. As if anything I've said hasn't even registered with you. As if all your thinking about is what you're going to have for dinner. When really, I know your just as charged as I am with this bile of pride. I'd love if you fell over on your way out of the room. I'd love if you dropped that cup of tea your drinking and let a little girly scream out of you when all the hot tea landed all over your stupid t-shirt. I'd love to watch you blush in humiliation. Anything just to take you down off that high horse of yours. You fucking....

I like to think of myself as a reasonable person. However, too often, though not as often as before, I still find myself in these deadlocks. I find myself portraying arrogance because my pride is too important. It's not what I want to be. I want to be open-minded. I don't want to think like I have it all figured out. But I don't want anyone else to either..

That, perhaps, is where the problem lies. When we are confronted with a stubborn pride, we often feel the only we can respond is to reflect our opponents behaviour back to them. We want them to feel as frustrated as we do. Trading insults designed as argumentative points perpetuates itself. We could go on forever with this. It won't achieve anything. It just entrenches bad feelings of each other. Yet the truth is that we don't really resent each other. Deep down, beneath all the armour, we may actually find a profound respect for the other person. Eventhough we detest admitting it, we actually do appreciate their points of view. We can understand why they think the way they do. We regret the fact that we are locked in this bitter dispute.

Over what? I can't even remember what we're arguing about. No you said that...No I didn't say that..What? No I meant...You did? No? Oh....

Sometimes we get so bogged down in the act of arguing that we forget what even started it all. Pride truly has taken over. Even when we realise that we were actually in agreement all the time, it makes no difference. The damage has been done. The most remarkable thing about our pride is that it turns us against people we normal consider friends or allies. Maybe we're just not happy with our smoothly running friendship. Too many things are perhaps, being left unsaid. We need some excitement, some conflict. Or maybe we feel pride is more of a necessity. Our last line of defence in the great war of ego's. And all the while, I sometimes notice that we rarely talk each other up. We're almost afraid compliment each other, even though we actually do appreciate each other. Recently, I heard someone say that Irish people show affection by mocking each other. I can certainly relate to that sentiment. Yet, if true, it also means that our affection and derision may become somewhat indistinguishable. The mixed messages of such behaviour means we can sometimes be unsure whether someone is expressing their like or dislike for us. Either way, it wouldn't hurt to let each other know that we actually do think they're good people and that we appreciate them. How do we do that? I don't know. Let go of your ego, cringe a little bit and let some nice words flow out. The other person will probably reject the compliment; calculating that you are being sarchastic because you've spent your whole friendship avoiding being openly supportive. Eventually, they might learn to say 'Thanks'. Perhaps then, we would not need to fall back on our solitary pride as the only way to provide us with some sense of self-worth. All those frustrating tit for tat arguments would be a thing of the past. We could actually discuss, debate, contend, concede, agree, disagree..We could be genuinely reciprocal, taking from and giving too each other our ideas without the threat of our personalities being derided. We would feel comfortable with each other, not defensive. And if this new appraisal starts to create some Ronaldo's in our midst, then how bad? At least we can rest easy anticipating them being broken up on the wheel.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


Teenage hood in a small town wasn't always easy to deal with. The pressures of ripening sexuality, childhood's end, increasingly suspicious parents projecting their own inconsistencies, the Leaving Cert. Nothing prepared you for it all. Narcotics and alcohol were like a God-send. They were an escape from the roles we had been ascribed. We could be different. We could be in another place. We didn't have to worry. No wonder we took to them with open arms. No wonder we were obsessed.

We don't like to think of ourselves as obsessed. With anything. Yet if we look hard enough, we see that obsession is all around us. As opposed to being confined to extreme cases of OCD, the irrationality is widespread and infectious. But where does obsession come from? Do we really get ridiculously attached to things because we really really like them? Hardly. Take for example, an addict of substance; the alcoholic. It contradicts reason that someone of sound mental health could become so attached to alcohol. I'm not anti-alcohol. I drink. However, I've never been able to relate to the continuous consumption of alcohol over a period of time. To me, it's just not enjoyable. My mood degenerates, my stammer seems uncontrollable and I find myself considering worst case scenarios that are barely even plausible. Luckily, an obsession with alcohol just isn't for me. For others, the benefits outweigh any inconvenient side effects. Some people look at alcohol and see potential rather than poison. For hours at a time, it can provide the much sought after feelings of confidence, indifference and self assurance. It can alter a personality so much that the drinker may seem unrecognisable to those around them. Someone shy and reserved may suddenly appear as outgoing and extremely friendly.The chances of sexual encounters increase ten fold in a drinking environment (how couldn't someone be obsessed with alcohol?!!). However, alcohol has another dimension. Just as easily as it inscribes all the above positive feelings, it can also solicit negative and destructive ones. Depression, self-pity, disillusionment, anxiety, anger, rage.. The darker side of alcohol can unlock a vault of emotions buried inside. Such powerful feelings often reveal themselves in drunkenness because of how much they are hidden in inhibitive soberity. Obsession with alcohol is born out of trying to escape from these inhibitions. Instead, it becomes a web of addiction, denial and destruction. In limbo between sober reality and the tinted glasses of intoxication, the obsession poisons the life of the alcoholic and those around them. Family and friends are left negotiating the uncertainty of which person the alcoholic is on any given day. Even when not drunk, the alcoholic displays the malice of obsession by exercising control, deceit and manipulation of those around them. They use all means to protect their love affair with drink. Simply put, it becomes the most important thing in their life. Obsession finds few avenues more brutal than that of alcoholism.

It would be easy to point to alcoholics and drug addicts and exclusively describe them as obsessed. As dramatic and obvious as their obsession is, it is but one of many ways of escape froma negative self-concept. Another notable form of obsession comes in the form of romantic infatuation. Just as alcoholics are addicted to substance, those displaying infatuation centre their obsession around a particular person. Before meeting their 'perfect match', these people find themselves in a cauldron of self-doubt relating to the lack of love they feel directed toward them. As one of the most ecstatic of feelings, reciprocal love represents one of the most elusive concepts known to man (and woman). Proponents of Freudian theory argue that our understanding and definition of love is formed by the relationships we have with our parents. Accordingly, if a girl feels some way rejected by her father, she is likely to be attracted to men who treat them in similar ways as a grown woman. Such people often find themselves in the torture room of unrequited love. Worse still, they may even continue to choose the wrong person over and over again, enforcing the template of rejection formed in early childhood. They are, perhaps, unaware that their infatuation is merely a playback of the childhood yearning for parental affection. Consequentially, they become obsessed with trying to win the heart of the person they chase because it matches with their template of rejection. Obsession manifests in the thought that if they can secure the affections of the person they want, everything else will fall into place. This even happens in established relationships where one side is loving more than they are loved.These relationships are shrouded with doubt, distrust and jealousy. Yet when threatened with losing their partner, the obsessed person will panic, certain that being half loved is the best that they can do. They calculate that losing the one shred of love they have will force them to face the problems that they have as a person. Rejection is unfathomable, too painful and simply not bearable for the romantically obsessed.

It doesn't stop there. The epidemic of obsession has still more ways of expressing itself. Let's start mildly(but annoyingly), with the attention seeker. Friends, fans and popularity are the craven goals of the try hard status seeker. We've all met these people. They're the ones who laugh excessively at a joke you didn't even make, desperate for you to give them your approval. Or if they don't consider you a worthwhile project, they're the person who is using you to get closer to someone else, someone more important. They're the empty vessel not even listening to what you're saying as you realise that your simply a pit stop on their navigation of social circles. Thay talk the loudest, want to be in every picture, make the shitty jokes...Yet, because of all their lame acts, they usually find themselves with few real friends. Instead they have to make do with a plastic popularity; obsession often confuses quality with quantity.

And then there are those who keep busy by trying to meet their own obsessive standards. The problem is these standards are usually set against the almost impossible task of accepting themselves as they are. These people usually obsess about correcting something they as see as wrong with themselves. In an aesthetically inclined world, most of these self-obsessions relate to body image. The obvious example are eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia where the obsessed defy natural animal behaviour by avoiding eating and voluntary vomiting. This control type of obsession probably arises from childhood experience of non control. In a way, it is the most tragic type of obsession because it places the obsessed at the mercy of themselves rather than another, where there might be the chance of some sort of benevolent intervention to break the obsessive's delusion. Having to convince yourself of the flaws of your obsession isn't easy.

It has the most subtle of beginnings. However, if left unchecked, the downward spiral of obsession is truly crippling. Good mental health is centred on a rounded treatment of our physical, psychological and emotional needs as human beings. Obsession is a rejection of this need for moderation in life. It pathologically excludes the variety of life so that it can feed an excessive amount of time and attention into one specific thing. The common factor in obsessive is the desire to escape. Obsessive's are on the run. From themselves. Yet they can never truly escape. What they run from is always inside, ready to emerge. It's the drunk alcoholic eying the river he is about to jump into. It's the rejected infatuate 'balling' at the horrible reality that the person they long for just doesn't like them. It's the attention seeker's loneliness when they have nobody to turn to. Obsession is a regressive coping mechanism. It's just another price we pay for treating our minds as if they were incommunicable. As if anything we had to say wasn't worth hearing. As if we didn't matter one bit. As if we weren't worth it. As if.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Snap! (You look like an idiot)

Abusive.. Derisive.. Bitter.. Just some of the words I would use to describe my behavior. How could I sink so low? I let myself become everything I hate; the repulsive side of the human condition. The ugly act of preying on the weak, making oneself feel strong. Wanting to make my target submit to my will, to beg for me to cease this tyranny, this destruction, this madness.. Yes, that was me. And yet I could not succeed. My victim did not speak, nor cry, nor beg. Instead, it lay on the ground broken, it's contents spread amongst the glassy debris. It took me a few seconds to realise that I wasn't dealing with a living thing. Instead, I had launched my furious tirade against a jar of mayonnaise; Helman's Mayonnaise. This particular jar had made the fatal mistake of jumping from it's position on an overcrowded fridge shelf after someone had tried to squeeze a carton of orange juice along side it. Shattered on the tiled floor, it's last moments witnessed a grown man pointing, swearing and stamping on the floor with widened eyes and and a reddening face. How attractive.

Anyone who knows me may be surprised to learn that this gentle soul is capable of such moments (although a few will not). From an early age, I've been prone to lashing out ferociously against something that challenges the plans i make, be it big or small. I can recall several occasions where my brother, five years my elder, would imitate me being in a frantic state. Even at the tender age of seven or eight I would wince at the thought of myself in these blind tantrums. This, perhaps, contributed to the fact that such outbursts remained confined to the homestead. In school, in the company of many a child with the same tendencies to lose control, I never even approached the same level of frustration. Probably because I was good at steering clear of trouble and confrontation. Indeed, the older I got, the less any people would witness these episodes. Instead, they became more common when people weren't around. As a result it was inanimate objects that would suffer the consequences of my inability to stay calm when the littlest things went wrong. It's only been in the last year or so that I've began to consider what is really going on during these moments of rage.

What is it that anger seeks? What is it yearning for? Control; order; security. Concepts that have eluded and continue to elude mankind since the advent of civilisation. As a longtime student of history, I've become well acquainted with the fact that human society have always struggled to produce genuine stability and security. It has also become apparent how common it is for human beings to overestimate our capabilities to control the world around us. Take for example, the fact that the world's only hyperpower, the United States, cannot plug a leak at the bottom of the ocean, resulting in the worst environmental catastrophe in living memory. Or closer to home, where the people of Ireland have painfully digested the fact that the Celtic Tiger died a whimpering death after being neglected by those entrusted to protect it. Consider that on one sunny day, in Wordsworth's sacred Lake District, an average, everyday Joe Soap decided that he would end the lives of whoever happened to be around. The erratic nature of unfortunate happenings isn't just felt on a collective level, on the contrary, it is reflected in the individual lives of every man, woman and child on the face of the earth. Phrases like 'Shit Happens' and 'Everybody's fucked up' wouldn't carry any weight if they didn't resonate with our perception of life and the lives around us.

Even with such universal truths abound, there remains a distinct inclination in many people to try and exact a stringent control over their lives. Such behaviour is probably a response to previous psychological trauma, usually in childhood. As children, we may have found ourselves in some sort of turbulent environment, helpless to arrive at a feeling of security. At the most impressionable time of our lives, a mental template of intense fear and fundamental absence of control is formed. Fearing that such suffering might replicate at sometime later on, the mind resolves to operate much more cautiously. Day to day existence becomes an unnecessary negotiation with a threat that is only very minimal. Rather than realising that our previous turmoil can be explained, understood and dealt with, we instead repress the experience and maintain our veneer of content. Our whole approach to life is one of self-defense. Our days become dominated by fear and the rewards of risk remain permanently out of reach. And yet our sense of being in control is fundamentally weak. It is a control full of doubt and underestimation of ourselves. It's raison d'etre is to prevent us from feeling vulnerable. Inevitably, we do eventually find ourselves in situations where we feel helpless. As our self-perception of being in control crumbles around us, the haunting vulnerability of before returns. Surrounded by the feelings we sought so hard to escape, our thoughts and actions lose all rationale. Snap!

But why the jar of mayonnaise? Is one broken glass enough to unearth my feeling of self-control? Not quite. It would be more appropriate to say that such innocuous events only shake the foundations. Common sense would usually dawn on me only seconds after it had seemed the whole world was collapsing. After such episodes, I would usually struggle to understand why I had lost my temper so easily. And why lose my temper at all? It was only when a sibling related his particular thought pattern during his 'snap' moments that I realised what I was actually doing. Flowing through my mind in these few seconds was a mantra of negative thoughts and a slideshow of moments I would rather forget. Those few seconds of frenzy represented a boiling over of bubbling thoughts and memories. Even though the loss of control was minimal and basically irrelevant, the over proportionate reaction signaled to what extent I felt I needed to defend myself. Yet, the only abiding feeling I would end up with is one of sorrow and regret. Extreme anger is not a natural reaction; it is a regressive learned behavior that serves only to shroud, rather than solve, the problems that confront us. Happily, I can say that I have managed to gain a much better understanding of broken glasses, dodgy Internet connections or whatever else upsets the fluidity of my day. A quiet and simple 'Bollocks' seems to suffice.

Despite being an unstable, unreliable and unforgiving emotion, political leaders have often used anger to create an indignation that suits their pursuit of power. Would the Bush administration have been able to invade Iraq without stoking the anger of the American people with constant referrals to 9/11? Would the Nazi's have successfully carried out the partial extermination of the Jewish people without a systematic arousal of flawed antisemitism in the ordinary German? Ethnic 'cleansing' in the former Yugoslavia; the Rwandan Genocide; the cycle of violence in Northern Ireland, all examples of events perpetuated by the fanning of people's anger. To use anger as a political tool is one of the most grotesque and dangerous methods of exercising power. It gives precedence to passion in a world that desperately needs reason.

Thankfully, I never developed the habit of using my short fuse as an instrument of my will. Instead, I've developed a healthy sense of loathing for such behaviour. Now, it's hard not to look on people who get angry easily as somewhat pathetic. Even worse is the cultural glamourisation of anger as something quintessentially masculine and powerful. T-shirts carrying slogans like ' You Don't Want To Piss Me Off!' or 'Don't Fuck With Me!' capture this idiocy fairly well. And remember not to test the patience of those merry folks who 'just don't give a fuck'. We wouldn't want to draw them away from their important work. Or how about the Limp Bizkit song Break Stuff ? A song that warns those who test our patience that we have a chainsaw with which we will 'skin' their 'ass raw'. This macho rubbish becomes all the more laughable when one considers that all this anger is actually an inner child crying out for the love and compassion it never had.

How many times have you felt yourself on thin ice around people with the propensity to get angry? Whether it be parents; teachers; colleagues; friends or family, there is a familiar mode of appeasement we adopt when in the company of these individuals. Though they may not be bad people, their inclination to snap gives them an uncomfortable aura. We seem to grant them a certain privilege. We may be less willing to question or challenge them. Basically, we afford these people too much respect. Like spoiled children, people with anger issues can learn to use the threat of their anger to exercise their will over those who do not want to be on the recieveing end. In effect, they are rewarded for their over-zealous attempt to control because of the fear that they instill in others. In a political comparison, this is the same as submitting to the will of the mindless populism described earlier. If we allow our political and individual lives to be ruled by the fear, arousal and championing of anger, we are a miserable bunch indeed.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Maybe I Want To Give A Fuck

''I don't give a fuck''. The mantra of apathy. So proudly proclaimed by so many. Yet, there is an air of desperation to the statement. Something's not right. Why tell me that you don't give a fuck? What am I supposed to take from that? Am I supposed to be impressed? Is it really necessary for you to tell me how much you don't care? Ok, maybe I'm over-reacting. They are only 5 words after all. And i'm sure I've uttered them at many times myself. Yet, there is something I have often noticed in the eyes and voices of the speaker when the famous words are spoken. The eyes seem to widen a bit. Sometimes the speaker uses hand movements, gesturing toward the self, as if to clarify that it is definitely them who does not 'give a fuck'. The slight tremor in the speaker's voice indicate that the words are being carried by a certain amount of emotion. And why keep repeating it? I heard you the first time. Are you even listening to me? Hello?... Of course, it is good advice to command a healthy amount of indifference in life. If we allowed ourselves to be worried about everyone and everything, we would decay all the quicker. However, to overestimate our ability to be unscathed by the trials and tribulations of modern life is probably just as regressive.

I began thinking about this the other day whilst skimming over Facebook. During this all too regular act I took note of a new Facebook group calling itself ‘You cannot fathom the immensity of the fuck I do not give’. Upon further investigation, I was unsurprised to see that the group had received approval from over 500,000 users. Knowing that one should never seek to make too much sense out of Facebook and its’ environs, I just couldn’t leave it lie. Of all the places to profess the degree of one’s ‘don’t give a fuck’ attitude, Facebook seems like a strange choice. Like one great big scrabble for attention, Facebook is founded on the premise that people can advertise themselves to others (where else would I publish this blog?). Not lending itself to traditional ‘you can count your true friends on one hand’ philosophy, Facebook perpetuates the growth of an ever elaborate global network where one has access to an ever present audience of ‘Friends’ waiting to respond to whatever it is one wants to say or do. In a nutshell, it is the attention seeker’s dream come through. I recently heard someone expressing the idea that Facebook, Twitter and other internet based networking might serve to eclipse ‘old world’ prejudices such as ultra nationalism and racism, the idea being that hyper communication would render these concepts obsolete and meaningless. Without wanting to discount the notion, the sheer volume of emptiness evident in cyberspace seems to suggest that such an occurrence would be painfully slow. It appears as though we have to first wait for people to express harmony with the universal philosophy of ‘not giving a fuck’ and other important issues.

The reason for so many people being attracted to this sentiment of indifference is probably because they are anything but care-free about how other people see them. As social animals, relation and connection to other people is a fundamental part of our make-up. Individually, our lives are coloured through a quest for companionship. In infancy, we develop intimate relationships with our parents. As children and young adults, one of our primary concerns is the acquisition of friends and acquaintances. We also begin a new search for intimacy with romantic partners. As adults, we often work for ourselves and our families to become members of the wider community. The ability to communicate and form relationships with others, generally speaking, is probably the single most important attribute in people. The most dreaded outcome of our pursuit of friendships and relationships with other people is to be turned down. Even those of us who enjoy time to ourselves cannot claim that we would be content with social exclusion; spending too much time with oneself can be an uncomfortable experience. The fear that people have of social rejection can be very real. It probably emanates from a complex within us that there is something about us that’s repellent and rejectable. These feelings, as discussed in previous entries, are some of the most deeply buried and non-communicated of human experience. Yet, their influence on our personalities is profound. Perhaps it’s the denial and eagerness to escape these thoughts and portray ourselves as anything but worried about our lives that makes the spectre of indifference so appealing. Further still, maybe it's insecurity of this false indifference that forces our darker sides to the surface in strange and destructive ways.

Whatever our own troubles may be, we are also surrounded by the world we find ourselves in, where hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis can quickly erase hundreds of thousands of people out of existence. Aids, cancer and heart disease spread through the human population indiscriminately. If disasters and disease aren’t enough, we also have to contend with man-made problems like war, famine and environmental catastrophe. Just knowing that the human race is capable of inflicting such devastation is a worrisome consideration. There are also the more common threats we face in everyday life, such as the relatively good chance of being killed every time we drive on roads (traffic accidents are the world’s ninth biggest killer). Not only concerned with our own flesh, we also have to worry for those of whom we love and care for in this dangerous existence. There is also the matter of trying to comprehend that our whole existence is akin to the smallest of needles in a gigantic haystack, as the magnitude and complexity of the universe reveals itself. Yes, the context of individual life is alot for us to consider. The words ‘You cannot fathom the immensity of’ as employed by the previously mentioned group on Facebook would probably be better suited to precede ‘things you have to give a fuck about’.

And yet, in the midst of this chaos, we try to eek out some kind of purpose for our existence. The natural way of doing this is to procreate and serve the biological craving for passing on the cells that we have inherited. Parenting a healthy offspring, watching them grow as one once did into the people that they become, is probably one of the greatest sources of fulfilment for the human being. In my experience, I have found those exhibiting the most genuine and palpable ease with the world to be ‘post parenting’ parents of a happy progeny with whom they maintain a warm and reciprocal relationship. Perhaps it is because parental love, the most deeply set and immovable of human affections, has been rewarded with the outcome it so desperately sought. If any objective meaning to life can be extracted, this process certainly springs to mind. The road to such a feeling has been travelled with a careful, thoughtful, diligent and exhausting approach through the obstacles of life, i.e., very much ‘giving a fuck’. This is not an attack or attempted falsification of those who are self assured. To be self assured is to be comfortable with your ability to overcome the problems that you have or will have. It is to quietly, yet evidently, have faith in yourself. It is not to feign invulnerability and deny weakness. It is to acknowledge yourself as a human being, nothing more or less. It is, perhaps, what we should all aspire to be. So why pretend to be anything else? Go ahead. Give a fuck.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Talk About Stammering, Talk About Life

Have you ever had one of those dreams when you feel as if you desperately need to say something, only to find that the words just won't come out? People gaze at you, waiting for the words to come. Inside your head, you hear the words echo around, you push and push to try and make it come out, but the harder you push, the harder it gets. Paralysis. For most of us, this kind of experience will only ever occur in our sleep, in something that could be termed an 'anxiety dream'. However, for many, this kind of experience is commonplace in everyday waking life. Stammering, or stuttering, affects around 1% of the world's population. It usually begins in early childhood. The initial causes of stammering remain undetermined. It has been suggested that it relates to childhood trauma of some sort. However, this has still not been scientifically verified. Most children who stammer will 'grow out' of the disorder. For others, the stammer will solidify its presence. Just as the cause of stammering is uncertain, so too is any cure. People have suddenly stopped stammering but why this is so is unclear. The longer stammering remains present, the less likely it will be to depart. Those who still stammer at the onset of adulthood are likely never to be any different.

For the non-stammerer, it can sometimes seem irrelevant if someone stammers or not. However, even for those who display seemingly minor stammering, it is probably one of the biggest factors in their lives. In general, there are two types of stammerers. Overt stammerers are those who exhibit clear and present disfluency. Someone in conversation with an overt stammerer will notice frequent speech disruption in the guise of prolonged sssssssssounds, many r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-reptitions and severe ------------------blocks. Overt stammerers may also display diversionary behaviours to try and cope with their stammer such as erratic facial movement, eye closure, head jerking and short sharp breaths. The overt stammerer finds speaking to others a real struggle and will openly project this. Listeners may feel awkward and sympathetic and try and lessen the load on the stammerer by finishing their words or nodding before they have completed their sentence. Parents will often tell a stammering child to calm down or to take deep breaths. Such actions, whilst well meant, only serve to create and enforce the stammerer's sensitivity, leading to more and more disruption.

Covert stammerers are much less inclined to project physical struggle in speaking. They may let the odd disruption out here and there, but it is more than likely that listeners will view them as someone with a mild and irrelevant stammer. However, for the covert stammerer, the stammer is anything but irrelevant. Instead, they resolve to conceal the stammer at all costs. They cannot handle an open projection of their speech disruption; for they are too ashamed. Openly stammering is probably one of the most detested things a covert stammerer can do. Consequently, they undertake avoidance behaviour. This means that there are certain words and sounds that they will try to avoid saying. The problem is that the feared words usually represent important personal details like one's address, phone-number, and most devastatingly, the stammerer's name. Hence they will often try and communicate these details non verbally through e-mails, text messages, or the trusted aid of friends and family. They even develop ways of getting the person that they are talking to to say the words for them.

Whereabouts are you from?

Ah..just down there in the south east, beside wexford and above waterford..


No..It's beside that too


Yeah Kilkenny, I live in Kilkenny.

(It is often the case that hearing someone else say the word releases the tension the stammerer feels about saying the word)

This kind of avoidance enforces underlying feelings of sensitivity and anxiety and can also make the stammerer appear socially inept. When they do find themselves in the dreaded situations, where they have exhausted all avoidance and have no option but to actually speak, the avoided words will come out through severe and prolonged silent blocks, separated by visible facial distress and clear embarrassment. The covert stammerer is likely to feel disillusioned and even depressed after such an event. Despite their best efforts, they have failed to conceal their hated ailment. The trauma of 'exposure' leads them to work harder and harder to conceal future stammering. And so the cycle continues..

As someone who has had a stammer since early childhood, i have become well acquainted with all of the above behaviours. In my case, unusually, the stammer did not become a real source of anguish until i started 3rd level education. Adjusting to new surroundings, new people and an unfamiliar way of life had a dramatic impact on my speech. This was all the more distressing for me since i had come through primary and secondary school being reasonably confident in my speech, i had even captained a debating team. However, by the end of a stressful first year in college, i found that saying my name was becoming an impossible task. The more i had to say it, the worse it got. One particular telephone conversation left me feeling very down after it had taken me nearly one minute to identify myself. As a covert stammerer, i tried desperately to cover it up saying that the telephone line was bad and that i couldn't hear my co-converser. My first attempt to do something about it was to enrol on a well known programme that advertised considerable success. It focused mostly on breathing. I did quite well at first but soon found that the technique needed almost militaristic enforcement, something that i was just not ready for. Eventually my speech deteriorated to even worse than it had been before. I felt guilty for not keeping the technique i had been thought and as a result, I fell deeper into negative and repressive habits. Eventually, i became an overt stammerer because 'avoiding' was eroding my vocabulary so much that communication was becoming extremely difficult. I decided that being overt was the only, if painful, option i had.

The loneliest aspect of stammering is the fact that your concerns and anxieties are so alien and incomprehensible to the 99% of people that don't. It's difficult to explain why i can sometimes seem mostly fluent and at other times, practically mute. I can't really convey why it feels so exhausting to avoid certain words and replace them with others. Such things can never really be truly understood by people who don't have the problem. This sentiment creates mental alienation within the stammerer. Consequentially, you try and suppress the emotions involved in stammering because you feel that nobody can ever really understand you. The observation of this process led American speech pathologist, Joseph Sheehan, to compare stammering to an iceberg. He came to this by outlining that most of a stammering problem is psychological. This psychology is made up of all the negative thoughts emotions that the person associates with their stammer. Due to the isolation, lack of understanding, and sheer sensitivity being felt by the person, they decide that being open about stammering is impossible. Hence, their emotions are kept below the visible surface. They remain uncommunicated and fester in the person's mind. They are treated as unspeakable, both mentally and literally. They are the bedrock of the stammerer's anxiety and the driving force behind a stammering problem.

Recently, i undertook new therapy to try and escape this never-ending nightmare. The whole experience was profoundly relieving. The simple act of spending time with people who suffer the same problem was therapeutic in itself. We were asked by the the programme directors, all stammerers themselves, to open up and talk about our experience as stammerers. Slowly, the anxiety in my mind started to wane. It felt good to start melting the iceberg. The most profound thing I learned from the programme was another quote from Joseph Sheehan, the pathologist mentioned earlier. He classified a stammering problem as a 'false role' disorder. That is, the reason people struggle with stammers is because they are try to play the false role of someone who does not stammer. Hence, they are placing unquantifiable psychological pressure on themselves not to stammer. As a result, their physical speech is impacted and disrupted by the sheer force of mental pressure being self-applied. Logically, this suggests that if stammerers stop trying 'not to stammer', they will stammer less. Further still, it suggests that we should even stammer on purpose. Voluntary stammering is a psychological and physical technique of subtly advertising your stammer to the listener. It is c-c-calm, mmmeasured and controlled. By doing this, stammerers are defusing the tension that is always present every time they speak. It also dissuades the stammerer from the long and winding road of avoidance. Patience is required as it takes time for the mind to internalise new ways of dealing with stammering.

Another facet of the therapy was to encourage us to make a link between our stammering problem and other emotional problems that we may have had. The idea behind this was to recognise that as human beings, our problems are not isolated from each other. Rather, they are interlinked and overlapping. Therefore, the emotions that we experience from stammering are not exclusive to the stammer itself. The triggering mechanism may be different, but the emotions are not unique. This led me to consider that all the negative emotions I felt when stammering were may not be all caused by the stammer, and that some are instead, being facilitated by it. This pseudo-epiphany helped me realise that treating my stammering problem means that I am also examining other parts of myself that i consider problematic. Hence, I am obliged to look at myself holistically to try and identify sources of tension and anxiety, and i am all the better for it. In this way, I now realise that having a stammer may not be such a bad thing after all; it has helped me to take a long, hard look at myself and start tackling issues that I felt unapproachable. So even though this long piece has primarily been a step in stammering desensitisation, i hope that it is a practical example of me 'walking the walk' after the wordy rhetoric of my previous three entries.

For more information on stammering, you should check out the Patrick Kelly Stammering Course, just type into google. You can also look at the Irish Stammering Association's website at http://www.stammeringireland.ie/