Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Beating up the self ~or~ Habitual self-flagellation over trifling piff-puffs

When you’ve spent the afternoon rattling around in your tin and despite the best of intentions not quite managed to set foot beyond the paving slabs of your front yard; when you have failed get a haircut, to make a number of important (but not urgent) calls, or to really sort anything out that would constitute progress towards making changes in your life that really need to made, but instead have just cooked, eaten and washed up, ironed, tidied and busied yourself with any number of brainless domestic chores you could have done at any time; when you realise then that it’s really too late to make a start on anything, or go see anyone, and the night is tick-ticking away but you’re not tired and don’t really need to be up early so you decide it’s a good idea to have a drink, because why wouldn’t you...?

This is when you like to slump down and enjoy a touch of habitual self-flagellation, just to see the night out.

So, it strikes you, y’know, you’re not really sure you actually enjoy life much at all anymore. How did this happen? You always thought your way was right. You’re always shaking your head and tutting at the follies and stupidity of others and the way they go about things. So let’s look at where being smart and “different” and a wise-ass has got you, huh? Let’s look at what you’ve attained.

You’re a massive success in your chosen field, right? Looks at slippers.

Well, ok, but at least you’ve made some money, yes? Shuffles slippers awkwardly.

Ah! But you’ve done important things that have changed lives? Frowns at wall to the left.

You do enjoy what you do though, more than other people, yeah? Shrugs. Sighs.

Mmn. Well, you’ve made a home for your loving family and that’s what counts, huh? Blank stare.

Nevermind. You’re a bohemian-ish sort, eh? You've always got the simple pleasures of your books and your art, hmm? Faint but perceptible grimace*

*For a good four or five years now it has been clear things on this count are to some extent in decline. It’s a natural and normal thing of course, as one approaches middle age and responsibilities increase – work, families, and just the million little chores of doing the adult life – we all have less time, energy and even money to devote to those purely selfish, immersive pursuits. The days of wiping out whole weekends in pursuit of the learning or the creative urge – which is kinda necessary to properly getting into the zone and completing something impressive – seem long gone. Nowadays getting more than a couple of hours at a time to block out the world and crack on, before you need to attend to something worldly, is pretty rare - and when (like today) you finally get some time, you’re so tired and distracted and out of the habit, you struggle to start anything. You used to be the most prolific producer of creative stuff that you knew, chucking out an unstoppable torrent, and hoovered up eclectic knowledge like a sponge. With a hoover. Your interests and inspirations were varied, your approach oblique, your thoughts never obvious, your path never pedestrian. Life was all about playing, experimenting, learning, analysing, assimilating, re-combining, crafting and throwing something back into the world as a result. Perhaps it was all youthful pretention, and perhaps you were (ironically for someone so averse to cliché) a cliché – but you at least felt like somebody interesting and idiosyncratic, intelligent and insightful, doing things in your own interesting and idiosyncratic way, with something intelligent and insightful to say. Now you just feel like a man. Another adult person. You go to work, you come home, you eat, you sleep, you do your washing, you pay your bills, and you occasionally enjoy the same social activities and entertainment as everyone else in your demographic. Another man, dealing with the demands of every day modern life, struggling basically not to be shit – a shit employee, a shit friend, a shit family member, a shit adult – with what you often suspect is a very modest success rate. You don’t seem to have the time, money or energy to do much else. You still dabble in creative pursuits, and read the odd thing, and still enjoy it, but the last few years you have begun to wonder recurrently – are you over the hill, a spent force? To pretend “your art” is these days any more than a thoroughly unremarkable bourgeois hobby, or that more than a handful of faithful old friends should give a shit about checking out what you produce, is stretching it. To pretend you're still in some way academic, the same. In conclusion: When we were younger, it used to feel like it was us against the world. The world won.

Um... hmm... gosh, now. But, but, but, y’know – ah! But you’re HAPPY, yes? Looks appalled and starts to cry.

And that’s only the start of it, a springboard into endlessly circling worries over money, work, relationships, people, the troubles facing friends and family, health, the future, the state of society, the state of humanity... and soon everything fills you with bleak revulsion and despondency.

You know what you’re doing. It’s what the cognitive school would call a triad of negative biases –

-          Thoughts about the self: anything good about you or what you’ve done is nothing special; anything bad is a sign of your plentiful smorgasbord of major, contemptible flaws.
-          Thoughts about the world: anything good about it is either a mirage or a rare exception; anything bad is just the norm, the way the world works.
-          Thoughts about the future: anything good that happens is a one off and it won’t last; anything bad that happens is the way it will always go. D:Ream were wrong.

It’s a rut, a stuck record. Driven by the misplaced urge to be realistic, to be honest, to be under no illusions, you forget this shit-tainted self-absorption isn’t entirely realistic, honest nor under no illusions - since it’s biased, selective thinking, making sweeping generalisations that just aren't warranted.

Your friend reacted with disbelief to that whole Robin Williams thing (which, whatever your view of the outpouring that followed, certainly got debate going about depression, which is really not to be sniffed at) but your response was not shock, just a sad “Oh no”.

A lot of people were aghast that someone so successful, wealthy and loved could possibly feel worthless, trapped or depressed. But you pointed out to your friend that you both had just spent the conversation wailing and gnashing your teeth about your lots and staring bleakly into the existential void. Such vague malaise may be a trifling piff-puff compared to the crippling, empty, black-hole despair of real depression, but what your friend was saying about Williams having it all – and therefore not justified in being depressed – could equally apply to the two of you, from the perspective of a poverty-stricken, bedridden old man living alone in a shack in Sierra Leone.

The poor old thing would say: “How can you two be miserable? Go cook yourself a nice steak in your nice kitchen, play one of your five guitars, go for a drink with your mates and get out there and do one of the million things you are young, healthy, wealthy and free enough to be able to do.” The point was supposed to be that it doesn’t matter how much you appear to have from the outside, no one knows your inner world, your demons and what it’s like to be you – and no one is immune to depressive, obsessive thoughts.

But the analogy backfired a little because, on the other hand, you’ve got to admit the poor old thing would still be very right.



  1. I'm a bit late to this party. And what a party! Woo hoo. Good job I brought my dancing shoes.

    Seriously though... It's a good piece and lots of bells ringing, and it deserves comments, where are the comments maaaan?

    I think you could be suffering with Fuckimnotspecial Syndrome. I know I am. A combination of introspection and the urgent need to understand how not to fuck up my own children has lead me to thinking a lot about this stuff. Being given the impression as a wee un that I was a bit clever (and that this was the the best & most important thing one can be), a bit different, 'had promise', didn't give me wings - as I'm sure my lovely family and teachers intended - it's given me an adult life of crashing disappointments that I haven't made any momentous contribution to society. The hyped up expectations I had for myself, and the reality that I'm soul-suckingly average in every respect, has been more than disappointing, it's well and truly buggered my sense of self.

    You may have achieved nothing of note (yet?) tinkering by yourself but at least you've developed your talents. I'm still running around like a beheaded chicken looking for mine, and it's looking very much like there's not a lot to be found. In fact what I've found is that I was right all along (infuriating! The only time I didn't want to be right!): my talent is the ability to give the impression of having talent. I can't pretend it hasn't been useful, but it's not what you'd call... fulfilling. So, off on the road to acceptance now. Maybe see you there?

    And your African fella would be right if 'happiness' was predicted by external factors, but I think the evidence says it's not (it just alters how trifling - or not - the piff puffs are)

  2. Sorry Anna (that is you isn't it?) I'm late to THIS party (comment) having neglected my own blog for a few months (as I regularly do). "An adult life of crashing disappointments that I haven't made any momentous contribution to society" due to an inflated sense of my own uniqueness is a good way to put it and a large part of it. I'm arrogant enough to still cling to an idea that I indeed am reasonably talented in some unusual ways, but basically have failed to use those talents to any great effect which is a bit of an ongoing rankle - but then, who doesn't feel that? One of the big revelations of the past few years has been that there are good reasons for this which are also rooted in am personality - While I've pottered about endlessly I haven't really gone all out to push anything I've done out there. I've been lazy on that count and a chronic procrastinator, imbued with a comfort-junkie's aversion to risk and a cripplingly self-effacing aversion to self-publicity... and it's a deep rooted part of who I am, I don't really think I was ever going to be any different. "Success" in the world is not just about being talented or bright, it's as much about being savvy and pushy and singe-minded and relentlessly persevering... so I've only got myself to blame. But a lot of me is actually fine with that, if I'm honest...