There is a certain romantic appeal about lost things.
Ships that have been lost at sea haunt the imaginations of storytellers for generations, and lost aeroplanes set all sorts of elaborate theories in motion.
Lost people, too, have throughout history and literature carried with them a certain romantic appeal: Coleridge’s wandering narrator in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the ranger Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, and Tove Jansson’s wandering vagabond Snufkin all have many devoted followers. In the music world too, a fascination with the idea of living life as an endless tour – or ‘nomading around’ as a friend of mine recently described it – allows us to romanticise the demanding and sometimes mundane routines of musicians.
It is perhaps strange then, with so much admiration for the history, literature, and entertainment value of lost things, that in day-to-day life there is a common tendency to treat things that are left unfinished, or our own feelings of being lost, with harshness.
We adopt stern labels like ‘quitter’ and ‘drop-out’ – often against ourselves – and reprimand ourselves when books and other tasks are left unfinished, as though these somehow signal a weak character.
In conversation with all but our closest allies, we fear that any hints of possessing a deep-seated feeling of uncertainty will be interpreted as a sign of being unfairly dissatisfied and unjustifiably fussy about our lives. It can sometimes seem as if feeling lost is acceptable only when it is a deliberate move, done intentionally as part of a holiday.
Today, therefore, I would like to examine whether there is any way we might bridge the gap between the admiration we feel for the literary lost and the contempt we often reserve for ourselves. Losing, feeling lost, leaving things behind – these are all deeply humanising, and it may be wiser to treat them not with impatience, but with more careful consideration than our instincts usually permit.
It seems appropriate to begin with Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things. Catholics are said to pray to him for aid in the recovery of lost items, and many refer to him as the patron saint of lost souls as well. But one needn’t subscribe to any religious beliefs to appreciate that there is something extremely consoling about the idea that losing something, or being lost, was once treated with a holy status.
According to legend, Saint Anthony became the patron saint of lost and stolen things after an annotated book of psalms that he relied upon for teaching – a highly valuable item in his time – was taken by a student who later returned it in repentance after Anthony prayed for its return.
But perhaps more appropriately than this, Anthony was not unfamiliar with the feeling of being lost himself: during a voyage to Morocco when ill health forced him to turn back to his native Portugal his ship was blown off-course and Anthony found himself washed up on the shores of Sicily. Evidently making the most of the unpredictable whims of fate, he travelled from Sicily to Tuscany and then Bologna before eventually settling in Padua.
Today, Anthony is remembered for his rhetorical powers, which in itself is a reminder of the romantic sway that being lost can have over us in fiction but less so in our personal lives. When in need of a missing item, Catholics are said to chant:
Dear Saint Anthony, I pray,
Bring it back without delay
Something’s lost and can’t be found,
Please, Saint Anthony, look around.
However, as comforting as it may be to suppose that someone will help you find the keys when you have misplaced them, or that someone will tell you what career to steer yourself towards, or even that someone will offer you a suggestion for what you should do with an idle afternoon, the idea of finding a peaceful resolution – or even any resolution – to a feeling of being lost may be a misunderstanding of one unchangeable condition of human life: you may feel lost forever. The questions then becomes whether this need necessarily be a bad thing.
As well as being the patron saint of lost things, Saint Anthony is also said to be the protector of the elderly. And it seems either a strange coincidence, or a deliberate acknowledgement of this same conundrum; that the feeling of being lost may extend into old age. Perhaps without even realising it, Saint Anthony is encouraging us to see that feeling lost is not necessarily a bad thing, but rather, just another part of life.
Think for a moment of what your life would be like if you knew every day what you were expected to do and then had no choice but to go and do it. If, when you made your way towards the next year, you were never allowed to meander along and slow your pace – or even get blown off course – towards the distractions that life offers us every now and then. Life might quickly become unbearable.
Over two centuries ago, the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that bad times have a scientific value because they are occasions a good learner would not miss […] They prompt us to pause, reorient, continue doing what we always did, or change direction
– Barbie Zelizer
When you don’t have options, even desperate or less-than-ideal options, with which to decide what is and what isn’t important to you – when you feel forced to follow a rigid plan, even one of your own devising – the days can quickly start to feel suffocating and become difficult to enjoy. If you are not allowed the option of getting lost from time to time, your life may quickly start to feel as though it belongs to someone else.
Of course, it would be unrealistic to say that we can always embrace this feeling. Feeling lost can be terribly disorientating and unsettling. But I suspect that the harshness with which we treat the idea has something to do with how we suffer under it. In this, expectations and comparisons are the enemy, for when we subject ourselves to both it is easy to feel that we have come up as having failed somehow, without quite understanding why.
So, in the effort of bridging the gap between the romantic appeal of the literary lost, and our own, seemingly unjustifiable, everyday feelings of being lost, I’ve rewritten, without permission, the prayer to Saint Anthony, in order to remind me of the value of being blown off course every now and then. Keep it and remember it when your instinct judges you harshly.
Clouds are frequently considered for the information they can give us about the weather, about what types of crops will fare well, and about what clothes we may wear comfortably. It is less common, however, to find clouds consulted for the wisdom they may offer us about ourselves. In fact, even saying so aloud can seem ridiculous. In popular culture, appeals to keep one’s feet on the ground and one’s ears close to the ground undermine some very practical lessons we can learn from the skies, while expressions like down to earth, and pie in the sky create the impression that gazing upwards is a dangerous hobby – only for the foolish, and something that should be avoided at all costs. It is not surprising, therefore, that despite the presence of clouds in our everyday lives their wisdom has become easy to overlook, for rarely does it feature on billboards, in the pages of popular magazines, or on highly-rated television programs. It is for this reason today, that I would like to examine more closely what clouds may teach us about an important and complex question often faced in modern living. One which regularly haunts the subconscious thoughts of many down below. The question is that of retaining one’s sense of identity amidst a large and sometimes confusing crowd.
We are reminded often that the world as we know it has become far more interconnected than ever before. As each day passes our exposure to other people – both in real life and through digital media – increases so phenomenally that it becomes difficult to comprehend exactly how many people actually exist, each living lives as complex and intricate as our own. But with this knowledge there occasionally appears an unwelcome feeling of being small, ordinary, or of following the same pattern as everyone else. On the worst days – when crossing a busy city street amidst the hustle and bustle of peak hour – it is easy to feel as though one’s sense of identity is quietly slipping away, that amidst such noise and movement one is merely inconsequential, and that if one is not careful, one may disappear. Nor is it uncommon to find oneself feeling far lonelier at a crowded dinner table than alone in one’s bedroom eating chips and pottering about. But it is here, I believe, that clouds may help.
A visible mass of condensed watery vapour floating in the air at some considerable height above the general surface of the ground.
It even contains an entry that reads simply ‘a type of the fleeting or unsubstantial.’ And although there are three major categories into which clouds are classified, it remains true that no two clouds look alike. It also remains true that crowds function primarily in groups: in speech, when we name a cloud, we use a singular term to refer to what is actually a multitude of countless raindrops and ice crystals. This reveals how natural it is to think of clouds as singular rather than separate entities. In short, even the Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps without even realising it, agrees that clouds are far more mysterious than it would seem at first glance.
But not too long ago, I stumbled upon another dictionary.TheDictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a project dedicated to identifying and naming the nuances of sentiment not yet adequately covered by the English language. Its founder, John Koenig, has created the beautiful word sonder to refer to the realisation mentioned earlier, which often occurs amidst a large crowd:
If one were to pay too much attention to things like advertising, or the fashion pages of magazines, the idea of sonder may seem a horrible prospect. Be more, be better, stand out, do the never done proclaim so many adverts, adding fuel to a distinctly modern insecurity about being too much like anybody else. Or worse yet, being only an extra on complex and crowded stage. When one compares the fervent promotion of individualism (and I speak here primarily about individual expression, not individual rights) in the contemporary human world, to the slow and measured pace of clouds as they drift thoughtfully and patiently through the skies, it is difficult to deny that clouds seem to have accepted something that we humans have not. For the idea of sonder – though at first glance it may seem cause for despair – is really an eloquent acceptance of the complexity of the world, and an acknowledgement that the stranger next to you is just as complex as yourself. It can make us more appreciative of, and respectful towards, the unique experiences of other people. It reminds us too that we are not, and needn’t be, the centre of the universe. Sonder is far more in line with the melancholic wisdom of clouds as they pass silently above us each day, making no demands for attention and no loud calls for an audience.
Like sonder, clouds acknowledge the occasional necessity, or inevitability, of the crowd. They understand that bearing occasional resemblance to others needn’t negate one’s individuality. They do not trouble each another with patronising accusations of adhering to a ‘herd mentality’ when it is uncovered that one enjoys something that has perhaps become suspiciously popular, or when it is revealed that one drives the same car as somebody else. For even in the fanciest of cars you must spend most of your time driving cooperatively within the lines specified upon the road.
Clouds do not use the same false dichotomies as advertising, with its assertions that if one is not a leader, one is inevitably a follower. In fact, I have just realised whilst writing this, that the word “cloud” very closely resembles the word “crowd” – and yet, because of the endless shapes and formations into which clouds can transform themselves at the blink of an eye, it is far more common to think of them primarily as creatures of independence and not conformity. This is despite the fact that they are, by their very nature, bound to a larger group. Clouds understand that when we rely too heavily on only one term or concept to define ourselves, unfair generalisations become far too easy, as does the risk of missing the finer details that cannot be captured in a cursory glance. Labels may help us to understand the world and each other, but it is important to remember that they often overlap, interact with one another, and should not be taken as the definitive measure of anyone’s identity. As if to prove the point, just one minute ago I spotted a cloud drifting by that resembled an extremely detailed and terrifying monster, but which then quickly and unexpectedly took the form of a shoe.
As well as this, clouds are content to let us think of them what we will. Despite how often we might picture them as sprightly creatures of lightness and grace, clouds are far denser than they appear. And if we can move from the literal into the figurative for a moment, the same can be said of the people who make up a crowd. The Cloud Appreciation Society has made note of this, and reminds us in their manifesto that clouds, like people, are far more than they may at first seem:
We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.1
Since 2005, the society has devoted itself to bringing the wisdom of clouds to a wider audience. On their website members elect a cloud of the day, share images of the shapes and creatures they have found in the clouds, and are currently writing a proposal to create the world’s first museum of clouds. For as they point out, clouds remind us of transience, of expressions or states of being that come and go, and that needn’t be used as the only means of defining oneself or another.
Now, having said all this, I arrive at one of the more serious problems of crowds, and one that I do not wish to overlook in this piece. As far as I know, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard did not pay an unusual amount of attention to clouds, nor write anything in praise of the numerous characters they assume as they shift endlessly across the skies. He did, however, recognise one of the major reasons behind a general distrust towards crowds, and one that accounts for the widespread, contemporary distrust towards them. In his essay The Trouble With Crowds, Kierkegaard explains that much of the tension surrounding human crowds is not so much to do with the fact that they exist, but more to do with when they are treated inappropriately as a source of authority and a means for determining the ‘truth.’
There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth [for] a crowd – not this or that, one now living or long dead, a crowd of the lowly or of nobles, or rich or poor, etc., but in its very concept – is untruth, since the crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision. […] A crowd is an abstraction, which does not have hands; each single individual, on the other hand, normally has two hands.
Here Kierkegaard is writing specifically about the means of determining truth – while I am writing about the tension that arises when individual self-expression is compared to the inevitable fact of belonging, at various times, to crowds and groups of different sorts. Writing against the ‘decisive importance’ that is more frequently given to the group rather than the individual, Kierkegaard argues that that truth becomes corrupted when it is agreed upon by too many and then subsequently mistaken for truth. In the following passage he highlights the tension between not only the crowd and truth, but also a perceived tension between the crowd and individuality:
Never at any time was even the most cowardly of all single individuals so cowardly, as the crowd always is. For every single individual who escapes into the crowd, and thus flees in cowardice from being a single individual, […] contributes his share of cowardice to “the cowardice” which is: the crowd.
There is much truth to what Kierkegaard writes, for feeling as though your mind has been made up for you, against your will by a larger force around you is never a good thing. When Kierkegaard writes that in being part of a group one’s responsibility is made only ‘a fraction of his decision’, he acknowledges the need (or perhaps inevitability) for compromise when dealing with multiple parties. To never submit to compromise is to dictate, and the modern suspicion that our status as an individual will diminish if we accept too much compromise is one that is prone to overstatement. (For an interesting discussion about this in the contemporary media, see The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen). Clouds too understand this need, and calmly address it when required. Discussing how clouds are able to remain in the sky without falling down, the Free School informs us that ‘individual droplets are not heavy enough to overcome the resistance of the air below them until they join together into much larger drops,’ producing what we recognise as rain.
But as well as understanding the need for cooperation in serious endeavours, clouds also possess far more wisdom than humans for another reason. In understanding that it is sometimes necessary to remain in a group, clouds know too that there are other times when it is wiser and more necessary to break away from that group if it ceases to properly represent them. Clouds accept that identifying occasionally as part of a group does not threaten their status as a freethinking and serious individual, not do they let only the crowd or their status as an individual define them. They move seamlessly between each mode with the stoutness to accept when each is necessary, and the courage to leave when it is not. For (as Kierkegaard suggests) there are times when it is far wiser to leave than to stay, depending of course, on each particular context.
Kierkegaard and clouds both remind us that it is sometimes wiser to calmly and with consideration break away from a group that no longer represents one’s values or identity. In fact, their ability to move from one mode to the other is exactly what is so enchanting about watching them. When the poet below writes that his clouds are ‘now gorgeous, now sombre, then fading away,’ he captures the way in which watching the skies can prompt the same calming pleasure that we get from watching a crowd from the window of a train – somewhere where we are close enough to see the details in the paining before us, but not too far for them to distort into a picture of what may otherwise seem like monotony. And when it comes to whether or not such scenes should be seen as a threat, clouds are wise enough to not care for the question and to never ask it, avoiding much of the anxiety it creates in the modern world.
The other day I revisited Mount Dandenong with a friend of mine, and came home once again astonished by the natural beauty of that mountain.
Specifically, we visited the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens, and as we sat under a tree enjoying our picnic I was struck by a strange but not unfamiliar, very disruptive kind of angst.
I want a garden like this
I thought to myself obnoxiously, with the moodiness of a sullen teenager. Why can’t I have a private garden like this? And I sat there in the beautiful sunlight, with a calming breeze whispering through the trees, brooding over the cruelty of being able to imagine my own master-garden – a garden so magnificent that I would never have to set foot into a supermarket again – and the knowledge that it would never be so.
Now however, as I sit at my computer writing I am actually laughing. I am reminded vividly of Veruca Salt and her annoying decree that her father by her a goose that lays ‘at least a hundred [eggs] a day!’ Golden ones, and no less. Veruca Salt, who shouts at everybody and disregards the wonders of the chocolate factory already around her in favour of imagining one even better. Who is not content with one tonne of ice-cream but demands, in a singing and dancing tantrum that would be hard for any parent to ignore, ten thousand tonnes of ice-cream.
Recently (as you may have noticed from my frequent, sometimes obsessive mention of tomatoes) I have been attempting to cultivate my own small vegetable garden. Truthfully it is not that impressive, but even with the time that I have now I can only just manage this small patch. Even just thinking about the shovel outside and the cuttings that need to be potted reminds me that I really do not need a private forest, no matter how Edenic it might be.
But as we drove away from the mountain and back into the world of traffic lights and stop signs (there are hardly any on the mountain) and my mind slowly adjusted itself back to reality, I could not help but feel that despite the ridiculous fantasy I had concocted, I had hit upon something worthy of note.
The desire to have everything, to do everything 150% and not to settle for compromise is one that we are sold often, almost every day when we are told to reach for the stars, that anything is possible, that ‘the only thing holding you back is you’. These sentiments can be useful at times in discovering unseen potential, but it can also be very easy to forget how idealistic they are. Tied up as they are with concerns about status, or what is and isn’t seen by others as successful, they can acquire a potency that makes life more difficult, more bittersweet than it needs to be. Human instinct seems to jump towards wanting all of something rather than a small piece. I wanted that whole, unmanageable garden rather than my own cosy – and most importantly, manageable – version of it.
I suspect this is a common feeling, and happens silently in connection with various things and for various lengths of time. In contemporary society it is perhaps fair to say that two of the most common areas in which one can too-easily feel slighted by the absence of perfection are in one’s relationships and in one’s career. But you need only consider this instinct for a moment to see the danger in it.
Relationships can easily be suffocated when people are not given enough space. We love our friends dearly but we do not necessarily need to live with them to enjoy their company. Inviting your best friends over to live with you may turn out to be a mistake when you discover that one does not like cleaning up spills and that the other spends far too long singing loudly in the shower. Romantic relationships too can be destroyed by a possessive desire to keep a person as one’s own rather than to accept them as a separate entity, driven by their own individual preferences and ambitions. Such a desire to possess does not often come from a bad or wicked place, but its effects can be disastrous. In the words of Alain De Botton,
the quickest way to stop noticing something may be to buy it—just as the quickest way to stop appreciating someone may be to marry him or her.
Alain De Botton, Status Anxiety.
In our careers privately we look with distaste upon the idea of being a maverick rather than a professional. A lack of external recognition of what we are pursuing can seem something unattractive, something better combated by one of the many professional qualifications that are now on offer for every area imaginable. Not that long ago whilst browsing through part-time jobs I was disheartened to see that the minimum requirement for a cleaning job was a formal Certificate III in cleaning services, whatever that is.
I myself cannot claim to be impervious to this feeling, but the desire for perfection is an instinct I try to watch closely, for it can become disruptive when left unguarded. And sometimes of course, this will be easier than other times. For example, very recently – after watching all of Tales From the Green Valley, Tudor Monastery Farm, Secrets of the Castle and the other historical projects undertaken by the genuinely delightful Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn, Alex Langlands and Tom Pinfold – I realised with horror that my undergraduate degree in History and English had been a terrible, terrible mistake, and that I would have been better off studying archaeology, doing a PhD, making my way over to the UK, and sneaking my way onto the set in order to eventually be rewarded for my enthusiasm with a position on their team. This is completely laughable, and should probably be a little embarrassing, but for more than a few weeks this proposition occupied a sizeable share of my thoughts. Watching and reading obsessively had not been enough, and it was with a disappointed melancholy – again, the self-indulgent angst of a surly teenager – that I realised I would have to accept that I am not a professional historian, that such jobs are hard to get, that I do not live anywhere near those historical sites in England, that those documentaries were made years ago, and that my plan was actually, bonkers. But such is the potency of our dreams when we think of pursuing them to the very ends of possibility.
Of course the idea of perfection is extremely potent. The thought of possessing, experiencing, or achieving something to the fullest of its extent is a response to our implicit knowledge that the conditions of life necessarily include imperfection and disappointment. This is why looking back to dreams of paradise or forward to visions of utopia have been so compelling throughout history. But while the drive towards perfection can be a useful one, the idea that perfection should or even can be a defining feature of every new undertaking is questionable, and often more disruptive than not.
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
– Practical words of wisdom from Arthur Ashe.
So in the interest of questioning the instinct to want all of something rather than what may be less glamorous but more attainable, I would like to remind anyone reading that your passions do not need the attention of the entire world in order to have value. Obsessing over what is not runs the risk of diverting our attention away from what is available and precious to us, and can even induce unnecessary anxiety.
In his fascinating video-essay Painting in the Dark Adam Westbrook addresses a closely related idea: the idea that in order for a creative activity to attain value it needs to be recognised externally by the rest of the world, or at least by somebody. This is a message contrary to much contemporary dialogue surrounding the creation of art and the value of the arts in general, and an issue that deserves much more discussion. In short, this is a video well worth watching for Westbrook reminds us that even despite the insistence of modern society – with its preference for certificates and trophies, business awards and tangible signs of success – one does not need the recognition of the world to be an expert or an enthusiast in one’s passion. It is tempting to think that if our passion is not at the forefront of our lives – that if one is a banker rather than a beekeeper, which is where one’s heart truly lies – that a failure has occurred on some grand scale. That if one is a florist but would rather race motorcycles, one has somehow let oneself down. Such suspicions are compelling, but they are not so. What one does to earn money is not always reflective of one’s true talent, and that dreaded question that strangers often ask each other upon their first meeting – so, what do you do? – needn’t carry with it so much frustration at the spotlight it throws on all the things one hasn’t done. Even florists can race motorbikes on the weekend, and even the most unassuming of bankers might be a first-class expert in beekeeping when he is not in uniform.
So suddenly, amongst the pruning and washing and all the other tasks that seem to taunt us with their lack of glamour, when one is interrupted with a moment of realisation of what life could be and one finds oneself wracked by the devastating realisation that you should have become a tour guide and travelled the world – or that really, you should have studied botany more closely at school and become a savvy tomato farmer – it is important to watch our instincts very closely. For from here there arises a choice to either collapse in despair that one will never really, let’s face it, be able to restore a medieval castle and turn it into a history museum (this is what all the cool kids dream of) or that one might not reach the level of professionalism in one’s career which can seem so appealing in the posture of the university professor.
In short, to cultivate contentment with an unfinished garden patch is a wiser idea than being seduced by dreams of a private-mountain forest. In the perfect world we can create in our heads reality can seem awfully full of shortcomings, even when it is not, when it needn’t be, and when we are already far luckier than we perhaps realise.
The other day at work – as is the polite but often tiresome custom when working in retail – I found myself making small talk. What are you doing for Christmas this year? I asked the man who unpacks boxes and marks off stock at the back.
Just the same thing as last year!
His reply was exasperated, with the exclamation marks included, and I found myself unsure whether to feel relieved or disheartened that his response reflected the level of disinterest that I also found myself reaching. What to make of this thing called Christmas?
The question was again brought to my attention when I was on the way to the supermarket a few days later, and I found myself confronted unhappily with this:
I’m not trying to be nasty, it is nice that some effort was made, but I couldn’t help but feel an unpleasant pang of sadness at such a failed attempt at festivity. If this tree were a person it would have been on the stocks.
For, however well-meaning they may be, modern attempts to encourage a festive atmosphere at this time of year often fail – partly because traditionally Christmas trees are not supposed to look as though they have been abandoned on a busy street by someone who had something nicer to put in their living room, and partly because nobody really likes to be told to be cheerful on cue.
I suspect that, like Scrooge (who is not entirely bad after all), something of my colleagues’ frustration with Christmas was to do with the dashed expectations that are realised when Christmas turns from a childhood fancy in which everybody gets to pat a reindeer and eat cake, into yet another inconvenient chore in a busy schedule. The difference between an exciting holiday remembered from the Christmases of our childhood, and the frantic reality of the last month of the year is what leads many adults to a Scrooge-like cynicism when it comes to the Christmas cheer advertised so tediously in all those Muzak carols.
Indeed, it is often said that democracy is a euphemism for capitalism, and it is during holidays like Christmas that it can be difficult not to suspect the truth in this statement. ‘I have to do my Christmas shopping’, for many, becomes a euphemism for ‘I have to go and die now in this corner’. Others express a sense of shocked disbelief – even outrage – that the year has betrayed them so treacherously by arriving at Christmas this rapidly, without having allowed any opportunity to prepare. Just yesterday, I saw a giant billboard hovering over the Monash Freeway encouraging those who have not yet finished their Christmas shopping to consider online shopping, courtesy of Australia Post, who tell us that they ‘love delivering’, but who would also like to increase business. What we see in happy snow globes can, at times, seem a whole world away, for unfortunately in the modern world, when something becomes commercialised the ideas behind it can also become lost, and the thing that was most interesting in the first place is quietly pushed out of the way.
So, unwilling to adopt the level of harsh disapproval possessed by Ebenezer Scrooge – who pronounces at the beginning of A Christmas Carol that ‘every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart’ – this year I am attempting to reconsider Christmas from a few different perspectives. Historically, Christmas has been full of weird and wonderful activities, phenomena, superstitions and games: in order to reinvigorate the next few days of daunting festivity, I have listed three of the most interesting below, to keep in mind when decorating even the most plastic of Christmas trees.
1. The origins of Christmas: the Saturnalia
Although there remains some doubt as to when Christmas was first celebrated on 25 December, there is agreement among scholars that elements of Christmas as we understand it today are descended from the Saturnalia, a Roman festival that honoured Saturn – the agricultural deity responsible for bountiful crops and sunny fields.
The Church selected 25 December because, not knowing Jesus’ actual birthday, it was canny enough to choose a time when pagans had traditionally celebrated the winter solstice.
In pagan Rome this meant the Saturnalia, a seven-day holiday starting on 17 December when all business was suspended, executions postponed and gifts exchanged. During this natalis solis invicti (birthday of the unconquered sun) slaves were given temporary freedom and were served by their masters.1
The Saturnalia is said to have been a period of unrestrained festivity, something very different to the experience of Christmas we find here, in this painfully accurate rendition of a modern Christmas by those masters of merriment, The Wombats.
During the Saturnalia, roles were reversed and social norms were overturned for a temporary period of merrymaking and revelry, in which one could experience the world through the eyes of another. Tom Hodgkinson writes about this in his book Brave Old World:
In Saturnalia, Lucian writes about the custom at parties of electing one of the assembled company temporary ‘king’. This king gives silly orders, ‘telling one man to shout out something disgraceful about himself, another to dance naked, pick up the flute girl and carry her three times around the room. In this sense, wearing antler horns, falling over and photocopying your naked behind at the office party is very much in the true spirit of Christmas, and the Malvolios who would sneer at such vulgar activities during the season are missing the point.2
The Saturnalia is fascinating precisely because I cannot decide whether it would have been turmoil or some kind of wonderful carnival. I myself am more of the sit-down-and-read persuasion, however, even I can see the appeal of a temporary suspension of the norm – a time in which slaves could insult their masters and be free of punishment, and in which society’s underdogs were freed from the restrictive social system they were normally obliged to follow. The closest thing that comes to mind when considering the frenzy of the Saturnalia is the modern experience of Christmas shopping. Shopping, however, leaves many feeling frustrated and hassled, and very far from liberated. Therefore, to liven up this Christmas, consider creating your own version of the Saturnalia, perhaps with a king of fools or a hired jester, or someone assigned to make merry trouble and divert any mention at the table of politics or the weather into a jest about the cat.
If, however, the Saturnalia is too chaotic, consider this tale about the origins of a popular Christmas ritual for another lesson in how to deal with the frustration that comes with Christmas preparations:
Early Germanic tribes [celebrated] the winter solstice by butchering slaves and male animals and hanging them (or parts of them) on the branches of trees, thus anticipating the Christmas tree ornaments of today. At the beginning of the 18th century, St Boniface (actually an Englishman named Winfrid) went to Germany to covert the pagan tribes there. According to legend, one day he came upon a group about to slaughter a child to adorn an oak tree in honour of the god Donner. Enraged, he chopped it down (or, alternatively, knocked it down with a single punch), only to have a pine tree spring from its roots, which he took to be a sign from God. Along with Christianising the Germans, St Boniface urged them to continue the ritual embellishment of trees at Christmas, but with fruit and nuts rather than body parts and to use cone-shaped pine trees because their triangular shape represented the Trinity.3
Because many modern Christmas celebrations can feel vapid, meaningless and over-commercialised, and because trees made of tinsel can be terribly depressing things for the soul, we should be eager to remember St Boniface, who, calm and unruffled, offers a valuable lesson about how to manage our frustration at Christmas: when one is feeling irritated by the alienating nature of the modern Christmas, and perhaps wants to smash something down in a rage, follow the lead of St Boniface and direct your anger at something that actually needs smashing. Perhaps a branch that has been blocking your driveway for some time, or perhaps that old broken chair that you keep tripping over at the front door. Productive smashing may liven up Christmas when it is done with the elegance of a saint.
2. Christmas superstitions
Another way in which we might resurrect some of the appeal that has evaporated from modern Christmas celebrations is to re-enact some ancient superstitions – such as this one, popular from the 17th to the 19th century. I believe this one would be the most richly re-enacted in the interior of a busy shopping centre, right in the middle of peak Christmas shopping time. You may, of course, have to substitute a pear tree for a plastic one (they seem to grow best in shopping centres), or if you are feeling particularly adventurous, you can bring your own pear tree with you.
Walk backward to a pear tree and around it three times on Christmas Eve to see the spirit or image of a future husband.4
If anyone should ask what you are doing, inform them simply that you are nobly re-injecting some life into Christmas, and then perhaps give their shopping bag a dirty look. After all, the bursting shopping bag and the suffocating shopping centre come Christmas time are painful reminders of how even festivities with the most interesting origins can become unpleasant when appropriated too deeply into the commercial world. If this, however, is too difficult, perhaps leave a colander on your doorstep in memory of this Christmas superstition, designed to combat the capricious Kallikantzaroi from ruining Christmas and, well, destroying the world:
Re-enacting this one comes with the added bonus of being able to tell people that you are not being weird, with your colander-vigil, you are actually, saving the world and that, if they really believe in the Christmas spirit they should abandon the overheated family discussion inside and join you on the doorstep.
3. It’s beginning to look a lot like Krampus…
The final Christmas mythology I would like to mention is Die Krampus. If what I have mentioned so far seems all a bit too light hearted, and you have heard one too many jingle bells and seen one too many adverts for the holiday spirit which you are just not feeling, then perhaps you should consider doing some research into this folkloric figure. It may not make you merry, but it may reinvigorate your perception of Christmas once again, as something that is actually worth considering. If you’ve just got no Christmas spirit in your bones, then the Krampus is for you.
The Krampus originates from the Alpine counties, most notably Austria, where he is said to accompany St. Nicholas as he rewards good children with presents, and leaves naughty children to be punished by the Krampus. Or, if they have been really terrible, St. Nicholas leaves them to be carried off in a basket to be eaten by the Krampus, which apparently elicits only a mild amount of interest from siblings and other nearby members of the family;
There is some debate as to whether the Krampus predates Christianity and has his origins in pagan mythologies, for he does bear some resemblance to a faun. Albeit one gone horribly, irretrievably, feral. I personally believe that he crawled up from a cold dark crack, deep within the subterranean bowels of the earth when he heard that nobody had invited him to decorate the tree. He since appears to have remained ever-bitter, and harboured a hatred of festivity at this time of the year.There is however, one thing for which I must thank the Krampus, for there is something very interesting to be learnt from his terrifying figure.
When one is confronted with the images that appear after even the most cursory Google image search for ‘the krampus’, one finds oneself feeling inadvertently protective of Christmas, and of small children hanging baubles off trees and making merry in the snow. Even when the carols in the street have all become too much and one wants to disappear into the house and never hear any mention of Christmas again, one need only look to the Krampus to see that there is actually something worth valuing at this time of year. From here one realises that some attachment to Christmas from childhood must remain, even if it has nearly been destroyed by the hustle and bustle and general stress that comes with its preparation in the 21st century. When one considers the savage delight with which the Krampus ruins Christmas, even the smallest spark of outrage can be cultivated into a new appreciation of the festive season, and a willingness to be appreciative about something come the 25th December. Whether it is the uncomfortable family dinner or merely the opportunity to learn about how this occasion is celebrated in different parts of the world, there is definitely a lot of room for enthusiasm at Christmas. Oddly, perhaps the Krampus has the most to teach us about Christmas, even as he tries to destroy it by hogging all the fruit and stealing all the children.
So with that in mind, Merry Christmas to those reading, and may you stay safe from the Krampus and his scorn this season!
Spring arrived recently, and as such I have been trying to grow an avocado tree.
After watching numerous videos on Youtube that suggest that the process is actually a relatively straightforward and simple one, I assembled my three pronged, alien-countenanced avocado pip on my windowsill. And then just in case it didn’t work I assembled four more, to better my chances that one will produce fruit.
The idea is to suspend the avocado seed half-in and half-out of a cup of water using toothpicks to hold it in place. The seed is then supposed to split in half and grow roots from the bottom, and a stem from the top as can be seen here:
However, when yesterday passed the two month mark and still only one of my avocado seeds had split, I began to narrow my eyes at the jars on the windowsill.
Where is the stem?!
This pip is making a fool of me, I thought gloomily to myself. The instructions online had trees growing in less than two weeks! And I even named mine! I gave it a name and it won’t even grow! What kind of insolence is this?!
The avocado tree is a tricky creature. From what I have heard it can take anywhere between three to twelve years to produce fruit, and some apparently never do. It is also said that trying to grow an avocado from seed will produce fruit of a lesser quality than the parent, and when they do grow they are said to reach around 60 ft. Not really something that will fit in my backyard. So with all this in mind it seems foolish to attempt the challenge, and far wiser to leave it to the experts.
However, just as I was contemplating throwing out my stubborn plants and clearing the windowsill of jars I was seized by a suspicion. For a long time now I have entertained the theory that there is wisdom to be extracted from everything, even the most unassuming objects – and as such it occurred to me that perhaps this uncooperative tree was trying to teach me something.
In an interesting article about different cultural conceptions of time Richard Lewis highlights the differences between the general understanding of time in Eastern and Western cultures.
He also includes a diagram which illustrates his point: that time in the popular Western conception is something that moves quickly forward and that therefore must be consumed carefully:
Conversely, Lewis writes about ‘multi-active time’, and ascribes it to mostly Mediterranean cultures such as those of Italy and Spain. This view questions the linear understanding of time as something that shoots forward in a straightforward manner, as something that can be organised and plotted in a predictable fashion.
“I have to rush,” says the American, “my time is up.” The Spaniard or Arab, scornful of this submissive attitude to schedules, would only use this expression if death were imminent.
My favourite conception of time in Lewis’ article however, is the idea of cyclic time. Wise use of time in this conception involves making space in one’s timetable for reflection as wellas action. Lewis ascribes this view of time to predominantly Buddhist cultures in which time is viewed as a cycle: of day following night, life following death, and rejuvenation following deterioration. He describes it as a ‘pool one could gradually walk around’ while one considers all the options within.
Similarly, in Issue 41 of The Idler, edited by the gentlemen from Q.I., there appears an article entitled ‘The Truth About Time’. In this article Brian Dean address the same idea as Lewis:
The view of time as a precious commodity seems to have roots in the Protestant beliefs which drove the Industrial Revolution. American business culture was the first to have workers compete against the clock to finish tasks in ever-shorter times. It was the birthplace of time-and-motion studies and Fordist assemble lines – an obsession with measuring production by stopwatch.
As Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars point out in their book The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, this obsession comes from the Puritan cultural heritage: “The Puritans were not, like those of other religious persuasions, awaiting the afterlife in quiet contemplation. They had God’s earthly kingdom to build and, given seventeenth and eighteenth-century life expectancies, a perilously short time in which to build it […] Time is the Puritan’s Great Disciplinarian and Cost Accountant.
Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars identified two predominant culture conceptions of time. they surveyed 15,000 managers from around the world and found that in the US, UK, Sweden and the Netherlands time is largely viewed sequentially, as a “race”, whereas in Japan, Germany and France, it’s viewed as a synchronised “dance”.
“Sequential time”, they argue, is seen as a threat, as it’s running out fast. The resulting anxieties lead to a preference for short-term profit-making, with paper entrepreneurs favouring creative accounting and tax avoidance over longer-term processes such as manufacturing.
“Synchronised time”, on the other hand, is seen as a friend. The past and future are but our memories and anticipation synchronised as ideas in the present – an eternal “dance” of possibilities recurring in the moment. Thus Japanese culture (which leans towards a synchronised view of time) tends to be the most long-term in its outlook.
(Brian Dean, 2008, ‘The Truth About Time’ in The Idler, issue 41, p. 32.)
Obviously both articles speak in extremely general terms, and of course there are good and bad things about both views. A disregard for the past as something that is simply over is never a good thing, but neither is it always wise to have too much faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, bringing with it more time to complete everything we have left unfinished. Ideally we can incorporate elements of both into our day to day lives to avoid an imbalance in either direction.
And this, to return to my woefully slow-growing avocado tree, is precisely the wisdom that I suspect it is harbouring in its stemless seed. The jar on the windowsill reminds me almost mockingly that time is not something I can command. As much as we might like to order the days around, and as useful as graphs can be in arranging important tasks into manageable segments, it is important also to remember occasionally that that time cannot bullied by our timetables and wishes, and that action as well as reflection are important in any life if an imbalance towards either inaction or frenzy is to be avoided.
After all, an understanding of time as something marketable and strictly controllable contributes to questionable phenomena such as advertising how many words one can type per minute on one’s resume, self-punishment when all the tasks on the to-do list remain unfinished at day’s end, and a mass of overworked and undervalued employees whose time has been quantified into somebody else’s schedule of productivity. An example that springs to mind is that of Foxconn’s Chengdu factory in China, where employees are allegedly made to sign ‘no suicide’ contracts stating that in the event of their suicide their families will not seek more than minimum damages or take any ‘drastic actions that would damage the company’s reputation or cause trouble that would hurt normal operations.‘ Environments and attitudes that quantify time into a controllable commodity can do an awful lot of damage.
So. The avocado tree won’t be pushed. It will not grow according to mine or the weather’s or anyone else’s schedule. And in this there is something that can be learnt from it, especially if one is inclined to measure its productivity in narrow terms – if one defines it as valuable only for whether or not it makes fruit. On can spend years cultivating and caring for an avocado tree and it might grow to be 50ft high with magnificent purple leaves, and still it might never produce fruit. But does this have to mean that one’s efforts and the enjoyment came from the task were wasted? It doesn’t.
So if it grows I will keep it. If it lives for four years and then makes horrid fruit I should still like to keep it. Even if I labour away at it for ten years and never produces any fruit I will keep it. It will make a valuable reminder in the garden to reconsider my understanding of time every now and then, when I find myself in a hurry, with one too many assignments to finish, or a few too many errands to run. For although there may be no avocados, there is wisdom in the avocado tree.
It seems that in everyday life, much of our energies and efforts are directed towards finding guidance, a sense of direction, or advice for how to be a better person. We turn to work in order to cultivate personal and public success. We turn to university to expose us to multiple viewpoints for how to understand the world, in the hopes that one of them will fit – that its wisdom will ring true as an appropriate guide for living. But as informative as such things can be, I would like to suggest another example, one more accessible and easier to comprehend.
Rocks, unassuming and worthy of ignoring as they might seem, are powerful guides as to how we might live calmly in a desperately confusing world. Rocks are indifferent and unassuming. They respectfully do not care about the weather, the price of petrol, or the amount of time you have spent writing that unfinished novel. Their disinterest – when appreciated properly – can free us of the suffocating sense of self-importance that is a necessary, but often burdensome, part of our day-to-day lives.
A rock does not ask when its life is going to take off, when its career is going to propel it into unimagined swathes of personal satisfaction and riches. Instead, this most humble of garden fixtures spends its days cultivating calmness and endurance. Rocks are content to absorb the sun’s warmth and are not concerned with growing any larger than they already are. They do not understand promotions, fashion, or the economy, and nor do they try to be the biggest fish in the sea. For upon being cast into water, rocks sink, refusing to accept the rules and reality into which they have been cast. ‘I do not live here, you can’t make me swim,’ they say, refusing to perform in the role for which they recognise they are ill-suited.
Rocks do not conform because it is easier. They try to impress no-one. They are the same whether someone is looking at them or not and maintain their values and composure when being ignored just as much as when they are being climbed upon by restless children:
They may often be taken for granted and are studied seriously by only a few, but rocks remain stoic and hard in spite of this, uncompromising about what they are.
Rocks are straightforward and communicate their intentions clearly. They do not lie to you about who they are, they do not argue back with petty insults, and nor do they comfort you with false hopes.
‘Things will be alright,’ says the parent, who is then parroted by the teacher, and then the partner, and eventually the doctor. This should not be held against them, for sometimes one can think of nothing more to say. But frustration often follows such inadequate attempts at dealing with the most tiring problems, the ones for which life provides no clear answer.
If you pour your heart out in a shaded corner of the garden to a large boulder, it will not feed you these well-meaning but ultimately frustratingly empty words. It will instead listen patiently, with objectivity and a masterly calm. It will allow you – like the kindest of mirrors – to examine the words you have spoken carefully, think clearly about the deepest troubles to come out of your heart and then, in the guise of silence, it may offer you a piece of advice.
‘This,’ says the rock honestly, ‘is it. Make the most of it.’
And then it will go back to its customary silence, which it uses primarily for baking in the sun.
It is from here – with no false assurances, no flowery language and no impossible predictions about what the future might hold – that one is able to address one’s troubles realistically and without the pitfalls that come with too much false hope. Unlike the flowery lattice or vine-covered gate, the rock does not offer you a frustratingly romanticised or idealised view of the world as a predominately wonderful and beautiful place. It doesn’t shout out that ‘life is beautiful, let’s celebrate with a wine party in the garden’ but examines things moderately, in appreciative silence.
The rock calls your attention to the here and now. It is supremely honest, never boasting or jumping about for attention, it remains composed even though it is naked.
Even sailing stones – rocks that actually move without human assistance and that are among the more miraculous examples of the wonder of nature – do not shout loudly and demand our attention, but shuffle calmly across quiet deserts, content to wander where they will in silence, without an audience, without applause.
But these are not the only reasons why we should every now and then take some time to consider the humble nobility of the pietra. Among the other reasons are these: the rock does not contain commercials. Nor does it send you bills. Its wisdom is truly democratic, for anyone can look at a rock. One needn’t even own one in order to imbibe some of its wisdom. It doesn’t speak in an exclusive language, nor pretend to be any smarter than its neighbours. It does not care enough for such competitions, nor for rubbing anything into anybody’s face.
Instead, it stoutly and calmly holds in the shrubbery, without making a fuss or drawing attention to itself. With the stoicism of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the rock – that most reliable and unassuming creature – does its job and gets on with life. And before you say that this is stupid, that rocks couldn’t possibly teach us anything and they aren’t even alive anyway, click here for an interesting debate about whether or not rocks can be counted among the living.
Large rocks contain some of the wisdom of icebergs, in that what is visible at the surface is not all that there is to see. But, unlike icebergs, one does not have to travel thousands of kilometres in order to get a glimpse of one. Large rocks can be accessed in almost any backyard or street. And while the rock may often give you a vacant stare, it is an honest vacant stare, with no judgement in it, fundamentally different from one made of boredom or derision.
But, perhaps most useful of all, rocks remind us of one important similarity between themselves and humans that deserves more attention in day-to-day life.
As stoic and slow-changing as they are, rocks naturally give the impression of permanence. When you look closely at a rock, a large boulder, or at a grand stone building, you trust it to remain how it is forever, such is the fortitude of stone.
However, no matter how hardy it seems to be, the humble pietra – like human beings, and like humanity itself – is also at the mercy of time. A rock may give the impression of permanence, but it can readily be carved into elaborate sculptures and cities, or ground down into dust. This is a valuable lesson for a species that too often forgets its own transience in favour of an ill-founded confidence in our capabilities.
The central difference between humans and rocks, is that the humble pietra denies none of what humans do. It does not deny time or death, and it does not fill its schedule with an impossible amount of tasks in order to prove to the world how busy – and therefore how important – it is. The pietra does not proclaim loudly that it is full of insight from the past and brilliant plans for the future. It merely sits, and observes, and teaches us how to see. It shows us that there is more that can be learnt from even the most unassuming of objects in our backyards, in our lives, and of course – especially in our garden paths.
The other day as I was going through some of my notes from uni last year (yes, somewhat nostalgically – another thing all the cool kids do in their free time) I came across some notes for an English subject about Romanticism.
While I was taking this subject I remember more than one occasion on which people would ask me why I was bothering with a subject so dislocated from the real world – or to put it bluntly, so ‘useless’. How is studying the flowery pomp of people like Wordsworth and Shelley going to help you with practical things, like getting a job and progressing in life?
The conversation sometimes moved from there to questions about why someone would spend their time studying English at all, and how literary theories and different interpretations of the same thing could ever be a useful addition to one’s schedule. Often the conversation ended with “so are you going to be a teacher?”
This is nothing new. It is painfully familiar to any arts student. So in the hopes of addressing part of the question – why spend your time studying something so ‘removed from real life’? – I want with this post to point out the first of at least two romantic notions that have survived until the present, and to show how these can teach us insights about our present world and society.
The first is the figure of the Flâneur and his modern counterpart, the Hipster.
Defined variously as ‘a man who saunters around observing society’ or ‘an idler or a lounger’ the central characteristic of the flâneur is that of somebody both disengaged from but closely attentive to the world and people around him or her. The flâneur has one foot in the door, and one foot out, and it is this existence or individuality outside of society that allows the flâneur a unique view of the world.
This is, in a way, similar to the (caricatured) image of the professor in his ivory tower who watches the world but is not really involved in it. It’s an image many people dislike. Instead the flâneur has a bit more romance and familiarity to the everyday walker of city streets. The flâneur represents the perceptive but often exaggerated idea that in order to say something insightful about the world, one often has to remove oneself from some of it.
We see this in the hype around writers like J.D. Salinger and even as far back as writers like Nietzsche, Petrarch, and Socrates. All of these writers removed or isolated themselves from the world in some way in order to have a less clouded vision of it. The flâneur does this as he strolls around the city streets, appreciating the little moments and truths that might escape the more hurried and harassed figures who bustle down the street. In literature the flâneur is not a time-waster. He or she is the opposite of a time-waster. The flâneur is someone with a rich appreciation of even the smallest stitches of the city canvas, an authority on what it means to appreciate.
If you will allow me to wander a bit off-topic now (remember, the flâneur wouldn’t mind it), it is worth mentioning that this is also a recurring theme in the writing of Tom Hodgkinson, especially his magazine the Idler.In the Idler contributing writers repeat the need to slow down the pace and intensity of modern living, with issue titles such as War on Work and Lie Back and Protest speaking for themselves.
Hodgkinson’s writing is often criticised for being unrealistic, and impossible to implement on a large scale. The world as we know it would fall apart if everybody slowed down. Granted. But this I think, is misinterpreting his point. I do not believe Hodgkinson, with his cries of life is absurd, be merry, be free is attempting to reinvent society as a whole. He is trying rather to address an error in how we view the world when we do not allow ourselves any time to take a contemplative step back from it, but instead are convinced that our thinking must be directed towards productive rather than contemplative pursuits. He is trying to point out that the two are not so easily separated.
The flâneur helps us here, for he/she neatly represents both the productive and the contemplative. He/she points out this mistake in our thinking when we stop ourselves from ‘idle’ pastimes such as drawing, staring blankly out of windows to recollect our thoughts or strolling a little slower down the city streets are denounced as ‘useless’ or an interference with productivity.
Now to the modern counterpart of the flâneur, the Hipster.
The hipster can also teach us something about dominant views and values in modern society. In the same way that the flâneur only wanted to tell us to slow down, the hipster attempts a similar reappraisal of where our emphasis lies in assigning value.
The hipster is in on the secrets of the city. He/she knows all the hidden alleyways with the best artwork and cafes, and all the festivals and exhibitions that will soon be setting up, and which ones you’d better get to quickly, because they won’t be around for long. The hipster is in the middle of a project – perhaps a movie or a script that will be filmed locally and that will help us see familiar streets in a different light, perhaps in the way the flâneur would have seen the world on his solitary strolls, assisted by a notebook, or if especially brave, an unapologetic pair of binoculars.
The writer acknowledges that it is not always easy to tell a genuine hipster from an imposter. There is a whole other blog post there about why we copy the things we do, and how this can create a paradox about ideas about individuality and self-expression. For today it is enough to say that the genuine hipster is not always certifiable, and it is likely that there are tiers of hipster-authenticity one must navigate before being persuaded.
But when one manages to find a genuine hipster, if one is lucky one can discern a message similar to that of the flâneur; The hipster wants us to look at the creative and social side of life. Like the flâneur he/she reminds us of the difficulties of remaining an individual amidst a great crowd.
There is nothing wrong with being ordinary – far from it (see last blog post) – but the hipster and the flâneur both remind us to look carefully at things in our own way before making a decision about how to appreciate or value something. Both remind us to see always the creative and unique elements of life, those that are difficult to capture in a large collective or generalisation of values, modes of thought, or standards of behaviour.
The hipster is like the flâneur in how he comes to this realisation. He/she is likely good at making friends with strangers and has ‘awesome connections’ – but the hipster also makes time to explore the city and the world around them thoroughly before deciding to walk past anything.
But one theme in advertising that has been bothering me lately is this: That to be ordinary – to be anything remotely like anyone else – is unacceptable.
Advertising is something I try not to pay too much attention to, mainly because when I look at most ads the standards they imply through photos such as those above strike me as unfair and unrealistic. Like a strange pseudo-reality, or a fictional narrative in which one has to suspend one’s disbelief to get very far, ads frustrate me from how removed they often are from everyday life.
And yet, as frustrating as they can be, ads are part of everyday life. As Hank Green explains eloquently here, advertising functions on the premise of creating ‘need where no need exists’ – or in other words, on the very ability to get into our daily lives and show us how, in one way or another, we are missing out. And so, I hover between being frustrated by tag lines such as ‘Never Hide’ and ‘Do Not Dress Like Child‘, and interested in the ways in which advertisements can inform us about the cultures in which we are living.
When we look back to vintage ads like these below, we get a glimpse of what the dominant social values were in any particular time and context. Advertising provides us with valuable resources for understanding different times, cultures, and societies, as well as the dominant values, standards, and views of those societies. In this sense, advertising carries immense cultural weight:
Ads reveal what’s perceived as ordinary, or perhaps more interestingly, what should be considered ordinary according to the dominant standards of the day. But as well as this advertising can function also, for better or for worse, as an active cultural force: A feedback loop that reflects, but also sets and shapes the standards for how to live, or how to live ‘well’.
When musing on wealth and advertising in the South of France, Hank Green observes that ‘this is a place where people to go to realise how much they don’t have’. This feeling, however, when applied not only to what people have but also to what people are, becomes a frustrating and even destructive one. Ads that are designed to remind people how much they aren’t contribute to the notion that to be ordinary is not good enough. To be remotely like anyone else is failure.
‘People want other people to know that they are important, and that they matter, and that they are powerful and cool’ continues Green. But there are many serious downside of this, the first being that such thinking makes it easy for us to forget how extraordinary even so called ‘ordinary’ day-to-day life can be. The fact that we can buy what are effectively little heated and air-conditioned rooms on wheels and zoom around to the far corners of the country is actually….pretty insane. Especially when you compare it to when people had to walk everywhere. That we can walk around with bionic metal pieces in different parts of our bodies, that we can buy a ticket to board a flying metal tank that will deposit us and our families safely onto another continent – these things are actually really cool. In the midst of what we take to be ordinary there is actually some pretty amazing stuff happening. Every day.
So whilst browsing through pages and pages of highly polished models and shiny new products, after a while they all started, oddly, to look the same – even when reminding us to ‘be more’, be ‘extraordinary!’
I was reminded of this quote from The Plague by Albert Camus, when the narrator muses on a character called Joseph Grand. Grand is a modest man who joins a team of volunteers who try to combat the plague that sweeps Oran, and not much like a hero by today’s standards. Even as he is working with the volunteers, Grand becomes obsessed with the first sentence of a book he is trying to write. In his spare time he dedicates himself to getting this sentence absolutely, perfectly right, which might seem like a trivial goal to those with their eyes on bigger issues. Yet despite this the narrator tells us that,
…it is a fact that people like to have examples given them, men of the type they call heroic, and if it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal.
Grand obsesses over what is, in the grand scheme of things, probably an insignificant project. He has also, as the narrator tells us, ‘only a little goodness of heart’. And yet despite this there is something extremely heroic about him and his dedication to his task. There is nothing shameful about his ordinariness, and I think, therefore, that there is much that we can learn from him.
I’m not saying that it’s not great to have new ideas and be different – the world needs people who are willing to challenge dominant standards and ideals. But we are all also, in many ways, very ‘ordinary’, and there is a danger in setting our standards too far above this fact. All of us occasionally miss trains, trip up the stairs, and blurt out awkward things at parties. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, some of the best moments in life arise out of our very ordinariness, and even our imperfections.
How much more impressive is life supposed to get? This is the question that advertising has not a hundred, but a million answers to, and something that I suppose I am trying to encourage a wariness of with this post. In taking a step back from advertising, and in becoming aware of the feeling of manufactured discontent many advertising campaigns try to sell us, we open up our eyes to the world as it actually is, and ourselves as we actually are – as well as all that remains beautiful despite the imperfections. In the words, again, of Hank Green, ‘real happiness doesn’t come from being the biggest fish with the most people tripping over themselves to be like them, it comes from being personally secure in yourself and your life and your values and your future. That has something to do with money, but definitely not everything.
I found a zine I made a long time ago. Here it is. The photos aren’t that great, I am hoping to post better qualities photos soon. There is really something about holding a zine in your hands that is impossible to capture online…
“Goodbye” said a little voice on the tram the other day as I pulled my headphones out of my jacket pocket.
I had been staring out of the window ahead, seated on one of those singular chairs not joined to any others. The ones where the seat points in a different direction, where you feel comfortably separate, like you’re on a little island all of your own. But at the voice of a stranger I looked around me in confusion at the other passengers.
On the seat adjacent to mine a short man with bright blue eyes, perhaps in his mid-sixties, was staring at me. A peculiar little grin hovered at the corner of his mouth. As if daring me to contradict what he’d said.
“Sorry?” I mumbled in confusion. I had not really heard what he’d said, and was not accustomed to being spoken to on trams: They are a place for quiet and discomfort, where everyone avoids eye contact and pretends the carriage is empty. Right?
“I said ‘goodbye’”. The man grinned: “When young people turn those things on they disappear” he declared, pointing at my iPod.
I nodded and mumbled something like ‘oh, right’, laughing a little at how forthright this stranger was. I wasn’t really sure how to disagree with him. I wasn’t even sure that I did disagree with him.
“Everyone is stuck on those things” he continued, shaking his head. “And they are ruining the way people communicate”. He spoke in a mildly frustrated manner, very polite, but annoyed. The hint of a grin still hovered at the side of his mouth.
From there the conversation moved forward to how much time people spend behind screens, how this changes communication, how he sees this in young people he talks to in his experience as a businessman.
“It doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you can’t communicate you’ll never make it to the top. I see so many young people who will never be successful because they have not learnt how to communicate” he lamented, with his bright blue eyes sure that this was it.
He told me then of a recent trip to Mexico, where he travels every year to check that his factory is running smoothly. I told him I had been interested in Mexico, as something to study after my undergraduate degree. I’d always considered Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – as a potential honours topic. It was the differences in how Mexicans publically handle death compared to Australians (maybe Westerners in general) that I thought would make a good topic. The differences in how the two cultures deal with death can tell you a lot about how each culture deals with other things – communication, for example. When he spoke of his factory though, I couldn’t help but wonder what his idea of success was. But I understood the point he was making.
As communication technologies like iPods and the internet become increasingly central to modern life the danger that they are transforming human nature in ways that distance us from each other increases. In one way or another technology is supposed to be the undoing of us all. Tempting us to be keyboard warriors who in real life no longer know how to properly look a stranger in the eye.
In a study conducted by Bianca Lee and Lexine Stapinski the two researchers examine the hazards of excessive internet use, especially in those with social anxiety. The vulnerability of those with social anxiety in developing what the researchers call problematic internet use is connected to the perception of online communication as a safer means of interacting with others (Lee and Stapinski 2011, p.197).
The researchers do point out however, that personality traits also play a part in how susceptible one is to problematic internet use. Loneliness, depression, substance addictions, shyness, and aggression are cited as psychological vulnerabilities associated with problematic internet use (Lee & Stapinski 2011, p. 197). Reading their article however, I found much in it that I thought relevant to many people, and the point that this man on the tram was trying to make.
The internet is becoming a popular alternative for face-to-face interactions, in part because it is convenient, and in part because it is easier to avoid the unpleasant situations that occur every now and then in even the most established friendships. You can disappear online in a way that you can’t just up-and-run in real life. In my own experience an example would be when friends text before calling, asking if it’s ok to call. Texting presents a convenient but also more comfortable – less awkward – option, which seems to be replacing speaking voice-to-voice over the phone, where all manner of awkward silences can spring up.
In their study Lee and Stapinski conclude with preliminary evidence that online communication can hamper the development of effective face to face communication by providing us with a more comfortable mode of communication (2011, p. 198). The internet can provide us with a safer environment in which to communicate, one where we have more anonymity and therefore more control over the image of ourselves that we promote. We can circumnavigate the aspects of face to face communication that are more difficult to conceal – paralinguistics like body language – and limit the possibility for these modes of communication to contradict the image of ourselves as we would like to be seen. But alongside this comes the possibility of exaggerating the danger, discomfort, and risk of interacting with strangers in real-life social situations – such as sitting on a tram and wondering why on earth a stranger would just start talking to you.
Maybe we just need to practice, as this man was doing on the tram, and move outside our comfort zones.
“So every now and then I talk to people on the tram, on the bus, and see what they have to say” he continued after our conversation about Mexico. “I enjoy talking to people.”
“Do you usually get a good response?” I asked him, genuinely interested. He nodded his head from left to right, considering. “Sometimes. Sometimes people don’t know what to say. Many times I have good conversations and I can tell who’ll be ok….You’ll be ok” he told me, and I couldn’t help but laugh, not imagining myself a factory owner.
“Well this is my stop” he said eventually, looking ahead out of the driver’s window. It was nice to talk to you Pamela” he said, in his formal, polite manner. “Here is my business card, send me an email sometime.”
I smiled, nodded and wished him a good day, genuinely glad to have spoken to him. I stared into space again for a while with his business card in my hand, and eventually turned my iPod back on, switching to a podcast. I had tried to convince him that there were different ways to use technology, and that screens weren’t inherently bad.
And that, I suppose brings me to the point of this post – because all through our conversation I couldn’t help but think how it wouldn’t have started without the iPod. That something that is often a barrier to communication had in fact initiated a conversation I don’t think I’ll forget.
So yes, there are barriers to communication created by the internet, by smartphones, by having everyone there but really not there at the same time. But if we can take this man’s lead there are also opportunities for communication that wouldn’t have seemed obvious at first, in little niches on silent trams and awkward elevator silences. If we can find a way to practice, maybe we’ll be ok.
Lee, B. W. and Stapinski, L. A. 2011, ‘Seeking safety on the internet: Relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use’, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26, no. 1, pp. 197-205.