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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Maps and tropes

In a matter of weeks I will be 40 and, actually, it feels about time – so much so that I am writing this blog post early.

The shift in world view from late twenties to mid-thirties I documented here but it’s now clear that was only half way through a decade-long process of jettisoning and upgrading youthful ideas and attitudes – and actually, that process is ongoing and will likely continue, until I lose my mind or turn up my toes, whichever comes first.

Trying to explain what feels different over these past four or five years is hard to pin down (there are hints of it here and here) though a lot is in line with the expected 'life begins' trope: I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have; I know myself better than I ever have; I have learned to value and enjoy the little things more; I give fewer shits about appearance, ego and cool; I have less patience with fluff, bluster and bullshit; I am much more inclined to view things pragmatically and with a calm scepticism than idealistically and emotionally; I have less faith in prevailing wisdom and the judgment of powerful people, because I have seen well-qualified authority figures make demonstrably bad decisions a few too many times; and I have discovered jazz, dressing with a colour palette and the joys of interesting architectural design.

But there's more, something more I'm still struggling to pin down...

The slow process of disillusionment

I started this blog in my early 30s and the tag line “Life: Or ‘the slow process of disillusionment’ as I call it” has been floating around on it for most of that time, supposed to be humorously downbeat but also heartfelt ­– it did feel like virtually everything I thought was true, good, exciting, reliable or even attainable in my youth was in the process of turning out to be more complicated, ambiguous, problematic or simply more mundane as adulthood progressed. Your childhood maps and expectations of the world slowly prove to be flawed and insufficient and you have to update them with amendments in untidy, ugly scrawl or chuck them away completely. How sad, I thought, but them's the breaks.

Then I thought that was a sad thing. Now I thinkThank God for that. If there’s one major thing I would like to point out about my 40-turning feeling it’s this – because if I hadn't got rid of those quaint old maps I'd have been stuck with them.

Because I have been noticing more and more and more in the past half decade how it’s not just me – everyone has these maps of what the world is supposed to be, ranging from basic childhood values to the received horse-sense of adult society – and all of it is a little cock-eyed, riddled with misleading myths and assumptions.

And in tandem with this I have been noticing more and more and more: The world is not how you think it is. Everything is more complicated than you are led to believe. Your maps and expectations are all wrong. Not just mine, not just yours – all of them.


I still don't feel like I'm making myself clear enough. So: Let's talk about tropes. By which I mean recurring devices and themes in things like art and literature, especially salient today in film and television.

What happens when a car goes off the edge of a cliff in a film? It explodes. What happens when someone is dangling over an abyss but instead of climbing up to safety they try to reach for that golden amulet on the nearby ledge? They plummet to their death, the greedy nobs. What happens when an authoritarian society creates a 'game' for public entertainment, where people are forced to run or fight to the death? The participants band together and spark revolution, of course!

These recurring ideas and motifs can be anything from a common type of scene (the heroes peep over the edge of that rocky outcrop/hidden balcony to conveniently observe an evil ritual below that reveals the full horror of what is going on!); a basic pairing of things that always go together (aliens = ancient Egyptian imagery, right?); to a full-blown complex narrative (Google 'The Hero’s Journey').

These things are outlined in exhaustive and mind-boggling depth at the wonderful TV Tropes website, which says: “A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes may be brand new but seem trite and hackneyed; they may be thousands of years old but seem fresh and new. They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience. In fiction, it can even be impossible to create a tropeless tale.”

In life also it can also be impossible to create a tropeless tale about how you think the world works. Because this stuff doesn’t just happen in entertainment, this is how we think in general ­– in our social interactions, our politics, our culture, our everyday expectations and judgements. Our lives are full of stereotyping, narratives we have invented or absorbed from the world around us, and unexamined 'zeitgeist' assumptions. Some are fairly overt and obvious, but others go unrecognised for what they are – nothing more than shortcuts and habits of thinking that may actually not reflect reality all that well. Because actually, in reality, the car most often doesn’t blow up; it just crunches and comes apart and that’s it.

Here be dragons

These tropes, of course, combine into maps of what the world should be like, whether dealing with politics, romance, religious belief, social shiz or even work or business. Of course these maps are useful, usually contain at least some identifiable truth, and we have to have them to get by and get around. But while some are better than others, not a single one of them is complete or sufficient (no matter what all those self help and 'get rich, happy, healthy and successful' guides may try to tell you) – how could they be? Because the world out there is more bizarre, diverse and complex than any guide-map can convey.

Treating these maps like they are complete and sufficient is often the source of endless trouble and grief. The SatNav is never the territory – yet often people seem to prefer gluing their eyes to that rather than looking at the damn road and learning to take it as it comes. I see people everywhere, all the time, sticking to their maps and coming at life full of some certain 'faith' that it is this way or that, that this will happen or that must happen... as the SatNav drives them off the edge of a metaphorical cliff.

It’s not just that this attitude sets you up for disappointment, it sets you up for crisis – because when what you thought 'needed' to happen doesn’t, it’s a disaster – the entire world is cast as a dreadful hell because you can not even contemplate an alternative. All you have is what's on the map and “Here be dragons”. So when your map proves to be wrong – OMG, DRAGONS.

But the world is not a dreadful hell, it just is. Disappointment is a bummer, but if you think one scuppered plan ruins everything, you’re not looking properly. So it turns out life is not arranged around you having fun, or being successful and fulfilled all the time as your entitled destiny, after all. Boo hoo. That doesn’t mean you can never have fun or be fulfilled or successful, just that sometimes you will, sometimes you won’t, these things never last forever and you probably have to keep working at it. And no one is immune from bad things repeatedly happening that you have to soldier though – that's not the end of a fulfilling life, it's grist to the mill of it.

The biggest misunderstanding of the field of cognitive psychology is the idea that it's all about positive thinking and telling yourself to be awesome and happy. Yes, we should regularly remind ourselves of the good things – but simply running away from reality and telling ourselves 'positive' fairy tales is not a great strategy for sustained and robust mental health. Getting a more flexible and up-gradable map, learning to read it properly and using it more in conjunction with the actual, real, road is a better one.

Raw, strange and crackling

For me, at 40, it seems life is bigger, more complex and crackling with mystery and possibility than I ever imagined in my earlier adulthood. It's huge, raw, strange and unknowable. It may be stable and calm enough to map out in the steady spots, but it strikes me as unimaginably varied and extreme at the edges. The very nastiest, bleakest stuff does happen. So does the most beautiful and sublime. A lot of the time neither makes its presence felt. But time and again, I've found, whatever you think things are like, they are not necessarily like that.

I honestly don’t know how to communicate this, and will have to keep on trying because I don’t think I’ve done it here at all. I look at younger people and despair to think: “My God, you have so much to go through, so much to do, to endure, to have happen before you can see this," which sounds utterly pretentious, I know. Maybe that’s how my parents look at me still.

Whatever, I’m now so much more wary of over-reliance on maps and tropes, especially those that other people have decided everyone else should adopt – I do not trust the judgement of those who are navigating life from an off-the-peg ideology or overly-embellished narrative, set in stone.

For me, at 40, there is no grand plan. My life’s work is now just to navigate through whatever happens, seeking out the enriching things while trying to avoid the awful stuff, dealing with what comes at me and pushing to keep the good things good or make the bad things a little better, step by step. And most importantly trying to understand it better and deeper as I go – because that is the one project that makes sense of it all to me, though a project that will never be complete, until I... stop. At which point, I 'spose, it stops with me. But let's see how far we get.

That's how I'm seeing things right now. I have no idea what is in store any more – and I really, really like that. To fall back on a hackneyed old trope: 'Life begins', indeed.