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Friday, 28 December 2018

Has science killed philosophy? (Short answer: No.)

Is philosophy past its sell-by date now that we have science to find out the definitive 'truth' about the universe? Well, as you can tell by the fact that I put 'truth' in quotation marks, my answer is “no – don’t be ridiculous” and here is why...

This blogpost is based on a talk that a friend (who is a doctor of philosophy) and I (a former philosophy teacher) gave back in 2016, when it seemed to be particularly common for those of us into philosophy to be fielding questions along the lines of “Isn’t philosophy pointless now we have science?”, “What has philosophy given the world compared to science and technology?” and “Isn’t philosophy dead, like jazz or guitar rock?” Having both found ourselves on the wrong end of such frustrating pub conversations – and worse, having seen similar arguments coming from high-profile science champions such as Bill Nye The Science Guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson and even Stephen Hawking (RIP) – we decided it was time to gather up our 'beefs' and air them. Now it’s almost three years later but these 'beefs' bear repeating, so here goes.

In the first instance it’s tempting to take “What has philosophy given the world?” at face value and argue back with “How about all of politics, or ethics, or formal logic... or SCIENCE ITSELF?” but this doesn’t tackle the accusation that philosophy has "served its purpose so can now be retired” and kind of misses a more fundamental issue – that to suggest science could replace philosophy is to fundamentally misunderstand the difference in what science and philosophy respectively do.

I would be the first to admit that many of the 'classic' philosophical questions and quotations that get trotted out again and again are creaky old obsolete BS (the 'mind/body' split anyone?) – but that kind of undergrad cliché stuff is no more representative of the cutting edge than an apple falling on Newton’s head is of the current state of physics. I would also be the first to admit that that academic philosophy seriously needs to do more to fight the tendency to retreat into an ivory tower of needlessly impenetrable jargon and navel gazing, and needs to engage and communicate with other academic fields and wider society more – but that doesn’t mean philosophy in general is dead and buried.

Bill Nye The Sceince Guy's special journey

Bill Nye’s arc is an interesting one, because in 2016 he posted a video in which he pooh-poohed philosophy as pretty much useless, and not worth bothering with, compared to science.

As Olivia Goldhill in Quartz put it: “The video, which made the entire US philosophy community collectively choke on its morning espresso, is hard to watch, because most of Nye’s statements are wrong. Not just kinda wrong, but deeply, ludicrously wrong... Nye’s remarks, which conflate ideas from completely different areas of philosophy, are a caricature of the common misconception that philosophy is about asking pointlessly ‘deep’ questions, plucking an answer out of thin air, and then drinking some pinot noir and writing a florid essay.”

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in The Week pointed out: “To argue that philosophy is useless is to do philosophy... More to the point all of the institutions that make modern life possible, very much including experimental science, but also things like free-market capitalism, the welfare state, liberal democracy, human rights, and more, are built on philosophy. All of these things are cultural institutions: They exist because many people find certain ideas valuable and decide to act on that basis... If the ideas that underlie these cultural institutions become lost, or misunderstood, those cultural institutions might malfunction. This is very much the case of science.”

But in 2017 Nye revealed the backlash had led him to a complete about-face on the issue after “months” of sleepless nights as he decided he must learn more about philosophy – and he now believes everyone would benefit from a more 'philosophical' outlook, stating “I’ve come late to this. Now I’m all about the philosophy. Bring it on.”

For those of you baffled at Bill Nye’s new-found enthusiasm, still convinced that science makes philosophy pointless, I urge you to ask yourselves the following:

1) What do you imagine philosophy is?

Because it has such a long and diverse history, and the term has been used in different ways at different times by different peoples, what exactly we mean by 'philosophy' is tricky to pin down. The word itself, of course, derives from ancient Greek: 'philo' meaning love, 'sophos' meaning wisdom – hence, literally, “the love of wisdom”. The Oxford Dictionary definition is: “The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.”

For the Greeks, philosophy started as a combination of the semi-mystical with what would later be called 'natural science', with questions such as “What is the universe made of?”; with Plato, Socrates and Aristotle the emphasis shifted to practical and moral questions such as “How should the perfect society be arranged?” and “What is it to live a ‘good’ life?”; the term has been used to cover all manner of religious thought and theology from cultures all over the world, from Middle Eastern mysticism to medieval Christian scholarship to European alchemy to Buddhist spirituality to ancient animism and everything in between; it has been concerned with what exists and what the nature of what exists is; with what we can know and how can we know it; with how language works and how logic works and mathematics works and how such things relate; with the human condition – psychology, consciousness, free will, existence in general and our place in the world; with the study of cultures and cultural criticism, what is actually going on in our society and others and whether that could or should be different... which leads us back to politics and ethics once again.

The above list only scratches the surface but what should be clear is that philosophy is NOT one method, NOT tied to any particular subject, NOT tied to any particular time or culture and NOT tied to a functional end goal or practical application. It is also absolutely NOT just a matter of “what I believe” (Marilyn Monroe quotes, touchy feely platitudes, unquestioning religious or political dogma, random cute 'thinky thoughts' that are not pursued or subjected to any scrutiny). If anything distinguishes philosophy, it is that it is recognizable as rigorous, structured, analytical thought – even if you think that it is misguided or plain wrong. What philosophy is, is a catch-all term for the history of analytical human thought. 

Now try asking again: “Isn’t analytical human thought pointless now we have science?”, “What has analytical human thought given the world compared to science and technology?” and “Isn’t analytical human thought dead, like jazz or guitar rock?”... See? You get my point.

2) What do you imagine science to be?

Unlike philosophy, science is a method. There may be multiple schools, stances, methodologies and disciplines within science, but generally speaking, to be identifiable as science, there needs to be an empirical basis to how knowledge is arrived at. A testable theory is drawn up, then tested in some way and accepted, rejected or tweaked depending upon the results... then the theory is developed further for further testing and retesting in a cyclical and continual process of model-building and refinement. The scientific method has certain accepted philosophical underpinnings, though these have been argued over (and continue to be argued over) by theorists and – yes – philosophers, to ensure that how we do science is as rigorous as it can be, and that we can be as sure as we can be that what we are gathering from the process (and how we interpret what we have gathered) is as valid and reliable as it can be.

But science is not as united as the layman thinks – all fields tend to be deeply divided by rival schools with different outlooks competing for supremacy; much of what is taken as 'hard fact' by the layman (because a man in a white coat said it) is not taken that way in the academic field – there is a lot of uncertainty, theorising and 'best fit' interpretation going on with a only a relatively small core of undisputed 'fact'. Furthermore, the facts themselves do not tell us what meaning we should take from them: interpretation and meaning is put on by us afterwards, in applying how the facts relate to us and what relevance they appear to have to our current lives, given our other knowledge – other knowledge which in turn is filtered by interpretation.

This means that when scientists start banging on about the 'meaning of life' or the 'ultimate truth', they are leaping beyond what science is supposed to be about or equipped to do and in fact engaging in (often pretty amateurish) philosophy. Please do not confuse pseudo-philosophical bluster by scientists with actual science – it's perfectly possible for a researcher to do perfectly good, solid science and then gush a bunch of shoddily-thought-out philosophy around it, without even really being aware that they're doing it; because they haven't bothered to even glance at the fruits of thousands of years of rigorous, rational, analytical thought that has thoroughly mapped the problems and pitfalls of certain arguments and ways of thinking because “Isn’t philosophy pointless now we have science?” I mean, FFS.

3) Do you think it's pointless to be self-aware about the way we think and the concepts we use?

If philosophy was only about discovering 'objective facts' about the objective world, then – Yes! – science does that much better. But even the most dry, 'objectively' framed science is riddled with everyday assumptions and concepts that are virtually never analysed outside of philosophy. As every philosopher knows, even our most basic concepts – about life and existence, space and time and number and identity and logic and knowledge and consciousness and cause and effect and everything else – often start to unravel on scrutiny, proving to be much more complex than assumed, as elusive as trying to catch a cloud, or simply liable to fall apart all together. These concepts underpin everything about the human condition, the human world, the human experience – and are the product of 'us' in relation to the 'world'. As such thinking and talking about them is a perfectly valid way to unpick and analyse them, for greater understanding. The focus of philosophy is not simply on pinning down objective facts – rather it is about analysing the very concepts that make up how we engage, experience and interact with the world and others. Philosophy is about humanity’s self-awareness. 

As put by Cambridge don Raymond Geuss in his recent alternative history of philosophy Changing the Subject: Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno: “Confronted by a standard question arising from a normal way of viewing the world, a philosopher may reply that the question is misguided, that to continue asking it is, at the extreme, to get trapped in a delusive hall of mirrors.” One of the most characteristic things about philosophy is that it questions the questions, which may seem infuriating but is actually the unique strength of it – it never takes things at face value, always analyses the underlying assumptions and attempts to bypass or overhaul conventional ways of thinking, to find new ways to look at old and entrenched problems, or explore a deeper, more fundamental understanding of the concepts involved. 

This is best illustrated by the fact that, the deeper you go into philosophy, the more 'meta' the questions get. You may start off asking whether, for example, abortion is morally justified or morally wrong; then you move to asking if you can logically 'think out' morality, and come up with a system that will tell you whether any particular moral question (e.g. concerning abortion) is right or wrong; then, when you get really 'hard-core', you start asking what the concept of morality even is, where it comes from, what it’s based on, how it functions and plays out in the world. These are different levels of thinking and arguing – and notice the more 'hard-core' philosophical questions get, the less 'practical' they are. The impracticality of philosophy is something I will vigorously defend – philosophy at its most fundamental should be free and abstract, removed from the pressures of having a particular purpose. Just like art, having a particular functional goal (for example to push a political idea, sell a product or appeal to the tastes of a particular demographic) tends to limit, warp and bias the results. Philosophy, like art, is defined by being removed from practical concerns – in fact a focus on practicality can undermine it.

It’s about the journey, man, YOLO

Philosophy and science are not two rivals both racing to get to the 'facts' on the same racetrack – with science the younger, fitter, better equipped competitor. They’re not on the same racetrack at all; they are different beasts in different games. And yet they are inextricably linked. Philosophy not only begat science but is weaved throughout its methods and theorising today in ways that still need to be regularly unpicked and paid attention to keep the engine of science well tuned (It should also be noted that both are also bound up with a third Siamese twin – the realm of mathematics, statistics and logic).

Certainly, you rarely get a 'right' answer in philosophy, but you can certainly uncover 'wrong' – ie. arguments that simply don’t work, concepts that are inadequate or flawed, and scientists really should pay attention to this before going beyond the data and espousing wider metaphysical theories and interpretations about life and the universe and everything. Philosophy, though, is really not just about bagging a fact as an end result, it's about the journey: the deeper understanding gained by analysing and unpicking the concepts we use and assumptions we make – it is about the structure of our thought and the world as we experience it.

But the lack of a particular, practical end goal does not make philosophy pointless. Think about it: If you say hard-core philosophical questions are pointless to think about, you are essentially saying it’s pointless for individuals, societies, cultures – or even humanity as a whole – to be self-aware.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Some rambling middle-aged thoughts on ‘cool’ ~ or ~ I'm sure nothing very interesting is happening ‘in da club’

First a confession: I was, in my teenage years, ever the one to sneer at trendiness or any cooler-than-thou airs and graces I caught whiff of – and therefore, of course, I was hypocritically very concerned with my own brand of anti-fashion hipdom and authenticity. Now the whole fight of fashion and anti-fashion has ceased to matter much at all, the battlefield long left behind. Thank cripes. The closest I come to the trendiness trenches today is perhaps a semi-detached toe-dipping flirtation with this year’s tie fashions or a Pavlovian grimace of disgust at what these identikit twenty-something vloggers are doing with their hair. Ironically I have better style awareness, now it matters so little to me, than I ever have. But whatever, without further ado, here are some more recent musings on fashionableness and ‘cool’ from a middle-aged man who is neither.

Cool is charisma, not po-facery

We’ve all met ‘em when moving in social scenes when we were young adults: those effortlessly stylish types who kind of hang around and say very little, seem to know all the most prestigious and popular people and be in the most prestigious and popular places – and never EVER crack a grin. At anything. Maybe you didn’t actually want to be them; but you felt as if society felt that you should be wanting to be them – and the fact that you weren’t like them at all was enough to give you a vague but permanent inferiority complex. You know, those gits.

You may also have had the joyous revelation, possibly after encountering these young po-faced cools when you were into your thirties and less easily impressed, that the reason these people say very little and crack no grins is that they are either really rather dull or really rather insecure. That is what all that style and aloofness is hiding. You continue to run into them, but now they are younger than you and they look positively frightened by your give-fewer-shits maturing confidence and wise-cracking ‘real talk’ about, like, actual life and stuff (or maybe your jokes are just bad).

Either way, the equating of cool with po-facery is bullshit. There is this kind of basic trope on comedy shows and in perfume ads that cool people all strut about pouting behind shades; but outside the rarefied fantasy world of high fashion, it’s nonsense. That cliché of 'cool' is rather like that kind of British soap opera idea of 'sexy' which involves actors of limited range laying on the fake cockiness with a shovel and an alarming leer, that in real life would make you think they were cheesiest, cringiest, creepiest dick ever to attempt seduction – the glib media stereotype is an unconvincing caricature by people who don't quite know how to capture 'cool' or 'sexy' as it actually comes across in real life.

The people who actually make a lasting impression of cool, the people that people really want to be like – say, George Clooney, Beyonce, Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Mohammed Ali, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Jackie O, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Bowie, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Lou Reed, Siouxsie Sioux, Kurt Cobain, er, Kim Deal out the Pixies – are cool because they have charisma and talent. That may be charisma and talent that taps into something particularly zeitgeist at that point in time, like punk rock or film noir or break dance or a retro Parisian lifestyle, yes; and yes, these people most often look good and dress well (though not always); but that is not enough. What makes Tom Hardy cool is not his looks or his muscles or his clothes – countless forgettable Hollywood himbos have that – it’s all the other stuff about his manner and presence and energy and all that, and also his sheer acting chops. What makes Lady Gaga cool isn’t that she’s aloof and (yes) poker-faced (haha), it’s her otherworldliness and bonkers out-there creativity combined with that high-style stuff. These people have something of a different order to those cooler-than-thou but thoroughly mediocre mimics that just aloofly ape their surface details.

It should also be said that fashion (even high fashion) and trends (even serious ones) should be fun and exciting, otherwise what’s the point, what’s the draw? And also: sense of humour is most often utterly key to charisma – there are very few 'cool' people whom you could subtract the wit and playfulness from without removing all their power. Joyless cool is poison. Cool without fun is kryptonite. Those po-faced posers looking cool in their cliquey cool bubble at that cool party you went to when you were 23... you know I’m not sure now that they were ever really that cool. They certainly thought they were; we don’t have to believe them.

Nothing interesting or exclusive is happening in da club

Certainly one of the elements involved in young people’s idea of 'cool' is lifestyle – that cool people are so cool because they are constantly going around having these amazing cool experiences with other amazing cool people in amazing cool places. Anyone familiar with the humblebragging, holiday selfies and filter fetish of people’s 'look how great my life is' behaviour on social media should know that much of this is an illusion: at most fleeting high moments selected from the complex and difficult maelstrom of everyone's lives, pinned like butterflies as if they’re representative of every species of their experience. Us jaded oldies have been around long enough to know, for example, that excessive flash is always hollow and fame is certainly not all it’s cracked up to be.

There is this sense that cool people party harder (and still wake up looking gorgeous the next day) because they are wild and free and sexy and dangerous and having mind blowing high times that us mere mortals can’t even imagine... but the more I think about this, the more I think this trope is just the lingering remnant of our naive youthful excitement when we were yet to experience any of this. Because I don’t know about anyone else my age or older, but 'partying hard' gets more and more repetitive and yawnsome with every year that goes by. Sure, this feeling is in part because the hangovers are now like having two days of Australian flu, so it just doesn’t seem worth it; but it’s also because you’ve been there and done that so many times and frankly it doesn’t change much, that kind of activity, wherever you are or whoever you’re doing it with – you just get physically more battered and more like a broken record doing it. I would not change my younger experiences for the world, and I do think I learnt a lot about life, myself and other people from them, but hedonism can only take you so far when it comes to revealing esoteric knowledge and the secrets of life – before you’re just befuddling yourself and repeating the same old shit, addictively, like an ageing Britpop covers band who still think Oasis are the most relevant band in the world.

A case is in point is the ridiculous trope of 'da club': that paragon of exclusivity where all the rich and important and gorgeous party animal people go and sit around looking cool and gorgeous and guzzling champagne and snorting powder and dancing all sexy and hooking up for amazing sex. You do know it’s just a darkened room with the music turned up loud and lots of people off their tits in it, don’t you? Acting like people always do when they’re off their tits... like nobs. Don’t you? That is all it is. Beyond the flashy veneer nothing very interesting or exclusive is happening – I'm pretty confident that rare and valuable life-transforming experiences that hold the key to lasting enlightenment and happiness are not thence; deep and meaningful knowledge that will reveal the true nature of this existence is not being imparted behind those intimidating club doors – there’s just some wankered wankers flashing their cash and egos around and trying to get in someone’s pants, or trying to grab a little more over-priced 'high life' for themselves with their gasping little hands. That’s all. If I had all the money and time in the world there are certainly lots of new and fascinating experiences I would seek out; that isn’t one of them. It’s just some people off their mash in a dark room, with some beats.

Fashion is, and has always been, silly

The standard stance on the cool fashions of young people is that, at the time they are 'cool', they are indeed the most exciting and interesting ways of being: cutting edge, hip and completely appropriate. But as time marches on they become tired, dated, inappropriate, naff and silly, which is why you look back on your old self and go “Ha! Ha!”

But here’s an idea: what if the main issue is not that culture has changed, but that you have? What if those cool fashions always were silly, but you were just too young to see it? It strikes me that the way you cringe and sneer at what you thought you was cool when you were 16 is very probably much the same way your dad reacted inside to the very same stuff but at the very time it was happening. Your olds knew that “That’s radical, dude!” was ridiculous coming from the mouth of a 19-year-old from rural middle England, just as your Gran’s mum knew that “I dig that hep sound, daddio!” was ridiculous coming from the mouth of anyone who wasn’t a jazz musician and your Dad’s dad knew that “Whoah, those are some heavy vibes, man!” was ridiculous coming from the mouth of pretty much anyone at all... and just as you know that “That’s bare sick!” is frankly nonsense coming out of the mouth of a skinny pale teen on the 'you' tube – or your own 13-year-old step-daughter. To some, mullets, leg warmers and shoulder pads never looked good, so it must seem to them like everyone else only finally got the memo 10 or 15 years later. To some the skinny jeans, big-shouldered blazer, Mr Whippy hair and hipster tattoos combo has always looked teeth-grinding. To use the parlance of our times, “Just sayin’.”

By jaded middle age, image and transitory fashions matter less – or at least should matter less – and over-earnest idealism looks naive and pretentious – or at least should. The issue is not only a generation gap of understanding, but a time gap of credulity and maturity. You get better at seeing beyond surface, more cautious at getting swept up in enthusiasm for all-talk-and-no-trousers bullshit. A poser is a poser no matter what clothes or words they are affecting, or who is hanging around them or 'bigging them up', and you get better at spotting them for what they are.

This means your relationship to old idols can change. For example, on re-watching a daytime TV interview with John Lydon (née Rotten), conducted just after he had quit the Sex Pistols and formed his new band Public Image Ltd, it struck me in a completely different way 20 years after I first saw it: when I was 21 the fact that he stormed off in a huff mid-way through looked like a furious, edgy call-to-arms against the stupid, stifling mediocrity of a corrupt and square society; now I’m 41 it looks like a pompous, self-important wallflower being a dick to some nice, straight-forward people for doing their jobs – getting disproportionately angry that he is not being asked the 'right' questions about his art. I just thought “Pick your battles John” – there is lots to get righteously furious about in this world, and “Oh they asked me about my former band when I told them not to” is not one of them.

That isn’t to say that I don’t still love many of my former heroes, or don't have many of the same passions I’ve always had, or don't hold close and fondly the things that I identified with and that gave me joy when I was pupating; only that I tend to take them less seriously. In fact some of the people and things I could not bring myself to like for cool or fashion-tribe reasons when I was more credibility-selective I have now developed a fondness for, or finally actually get. In fact I’m not down on fashion at all, really – in its glorious silliness, its variety and restless inventiveness, its pomp and nonsense, it’s a sheer delight that I love to hate; that persuades my po-faced face to crack a big grin every time I talk about it. Dig it, daddio.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Ritual ~or~ why horror movies get it all wrong

In horror movies a ritual is something with unique and frightening power - you say the right words, do the right movements, with the right props in the right place and time and BAM! Something happens, something extraordinary. But the idea that certain rituals could, say, summon a demonic spirit or open a portal to another blasphemous dimension is not just heightened reality - exaggerated, oversimplified and tweaked into the fantastic - the idea is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a ritual even is. Let me explain:


We tend to think of religion when we think of rituals because that's where they appear at their most deliberate and obvious, and it's this link with the divine, spiritual, mysterious and awe-inspiring that of course has led to their inclusion in horror and supernatural fiction. But they are everywhere in life, often completely unconscious: from the order and manner in which we do things before leaving the house or when we come home from work; the ways in which we greet each other and say goodbye (language is full of ritual features); the motions we are expected to go through when buying an overpriced coffee or haggling over a Turkish carpet; motions we are expected to go through at a job interview or on a date; the games that we play for sport and what we do watching them; how we perform music or drama or comedy and what we do watching them; to what we say and how we move when we gather to celebrate, commiserate or protest... These traditions, habits and expectations are part of the functioning of a society, a shared language of symbols and behaviour through which we can understand each other, and the world, and navigate our way through it.

I have always been a bit sniffy and dismissive of ritual in everyday life, I know; perhaps sometimes unfairly, as traditions and rituals do serve an important purpose in social cohesion and stability, and even our ability to make sense of the world. But at the same time there is something maddeningly knee-jerk and brain-dead about how we can often all simply fall into step and thoughtlessly repeat the same old actions - long after they have ceased to actually do what they were designed to, long after they have come to symbolise something quite different from what they profess to, or long after they have become simply empty and impotent gestures that have no remotely rational purpose. And there can be something maddeningly pompous in how we can take tradition and ritual all so seriously. But I know my behaviour is chock full of habit and ritual too - and a ritual is, if nothing else, a comfort.


Which brings me back to what rituals are not. The idea that doing a ritual just once could produce some new and startling effect - the idea of a ritual as the catalyst for some a creative and dynamic action such as opening a portal, casting a spell or conjuring a demon - is kind of the opposite of what a ritual really does. Rituals are an attempt to KEEP THINGS THE SAME - to solidify and make concrete an idea or behaviour by repeating it again and again. Think about where rituals are deliberately done - religious services, marriages, funerals, remembrance services, awards ceremonies, military parades, seasonal celebrations, or even superstitious behaviours and OCD-like ticks - and it is obvious that these are repeated symbolic actions that are designed to try to leave a lasting mark on the ever-changing maelstrom of life as it flows by - a bid for reliable regularity in a transient and uncertain world.

Rituals mark a milestone, remember past lessons we do not want to forget or keep an idea or belief alive; they codify a useful way of doing things - knowledge, skills and strategy through practice; they train social behaviour or create a norm for how to act and what to expect; they try to exert control or comfort where it is sorely lacking. If we want to sombrely remember Archfiend Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies, or maybe celebrate His Satanic Majesty's 13.8 billionth birthday, or maybe ensure that Cthulhu's heart-warming life advice or innovative guitar technique are never forgotten, by all means, lets get a ritual going. But as for actually summoning those guys and making new things happen, forget it. The only effect ritual actually has is on human psychology and behaviour.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Tooling up in the struggle to live: How my view of mental health has changed

Last week was mental health awareness week. Appropriately, I was aware of this, and yet I still seem to have missed the boat on posting these choice few words on how my view of mental health has changed over the years. Ah well - since choosing to point my career* firmly in that direction in recent times (after years replete with many a "hmm" and also a "ha"), every week is mental health awareness week for me now, so let's crack on.

Figure 1 - What it's not, quite, really

When I was a young man, even after initially studying psychology, I suppose that I saw mental health and mental illness in terms of Figure 1. Broadly speaking, I thought, most people - normal people - cruise along happily untroubled by mental health issues, beyond perhaps a bit of neurotic emotional navel-gazing if they're the over-thinky type that watches too many angsty TV dramedies. Mostly, normal people (I didn't necessarily think I was one) get through life being relatively functional, happy and successful without ever having to deal with their "brains going wrong", I thought - but a minority of poor souls have periods where bad times happen or their chemicals go wonky and they fall off that normality wagon and things get all messed up. With treatment and time these poor souls can get better; though for some even poorer souls they get stuck in that messed up place of "mental illness" for life. 

Very, very generally, of course, that outline is not completely wrong... it's not that it's without a shred of truth, but it comes nowhere near doing justice to how things actually are, or how life actually feels for the majority of people - it's far too simplistic. For a start, where are these normal, functional, happy and successful people, untroubled by mental health issues? I seem to be discovering that they are a much rarer beast than I imagined, the more I get to know people in general. In fact, to me, normal people just don't appear that normal anymore - by which I mean both that everyday "normal" folks are choc full of strangeness and dysfunction (and in that I include myself); and that these fabled paragons of unwavering good mental health that you hear of in myth are just not normal. The older you get the more aware you become that your family, friends and colleagues are all a bit peculiar in their habitual ways of being, and so are you; people's relationships are even more peculiar, riddled with questionable quirks, unhealthy habits and habitual irrationality; and people's mental health is not consistent and smooth, it rises and falls with circumstance, sometimes dramatically and alarmingly.

Biology and context

I don't mean to downplay the experience of those with more severe mental health challenges here - a "we're all mad really and that's just fine" attitude is lovely in sentiment, but it really is a bit insulting to compare feeling-sad-for-a-bit-too-long-after-your-pet-died to the full-blown staring-into-the-abyss-with-the-weight-of-a-mountain-on-your-back-24-hours-a-day-for-months of major depression; or being-a-bit-of-a-clean-freak to the hundred-life-crippling-little-rituals-you-HAVE-to-carry-out-before-doing-anything of severe OCD. We have to be able to distinguish, certainly.

That said, I don't think the general public realises how uncertain - and how thinly supported by hard science - many of the current categories of mental illness that you hear about really are. Currently not a single mental illness is diagnosed solely by looking at the brain or biology. That means the assertion that we know for sure that many diagnostic labels are definitely, basically, mainly, simply just down to brain wiring and chemicals and all that, is not a safe assumption to make - because actually we don't know the mechanisms by which the biology is linked with what are by definition behavioral and psychological expressions. Certainly some conditions must have a heavy influence from things like genetics and brain changes, as the biology and the behaviour appear together - but as for how exactly the nuts and bolts of it works, a huge damn lot of that is still "black box": we know there is a relationship but we don't know exactly how it works.

For many other disorders (depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD) the role of biology is often overstated well beyond what the current evidence can tell us, and there is just as much empirical evidence that environmental and experiential factors - as well as purely psychological therapies - affect the associated biology. Many mental health issues arise in a particular social, environmental or personal history context - e.g. trauma, poverty, work stress, bereavement, bullying, childhood abuse and neglect to name but a few more obvious examples. By analogy, suggesting we could adequately explain language by looking only at what happens in the brain when we use it would be absurd - to understand language, how it arises, functions and is transmitted we need to understand social interactions, developmental context and even human cultural history - which is not to say the mechanisms of the brain involved in it are not also massively important.

Categories vs continuum

So if mental illness is not diagnosed by looking inside the brain, how is it diagnosed? Currently by tick lists of symptoms. Which, clearly, is not an exact science. If you display a certain number of apparent symptoms on this list or that, that's what you get diagnosed as, even if you don't have every symptom on the list. This means, in some cases, two people can have more differing symptoms than the same symptoms, yet be diagnosed with the same condition. The same symptoms can also appear on the lists of different distinct mental illnesses, something called co-morbidity. This is not necessarily a problem - for example in physical illness, the symptom of "fatigue" may have many different ultimate causes, and appear as a symptom in many different illnesses. In mental health, though, due to our poor understanding of the mechanisms behind mental illness, it also means people can be given a different diagnosis at different times by different professionals for expressing very similar behaviour, sometimes with worrying potential consequences - they may be given an incorrect life-affecting label that they can't shake off and may never get corrected, or they could be given inappropriate treatment that may do more harm than good. In some cases the distinction between diagnostic categories may be artificial, more a result of us clinging onto past theories than what current evidence is telling us.

I admit I'm not too keen on the "categorical" approach to mental illness, that treats labelled disorders as strictly distinct from, and of a different quality to, the common mental health ups and downs in the general population. There are serious questions over how well supported such hard-and-fast category distinctions are by the current evidence. Schizophrenia in particular has been called a “failed category” with too wide a spread of symptoms and pretty poor support for it being a single, distinct and cohesive condition. For example, evidence is mounting that similar biological, social and environmental factors may underlie the symptom of psychosis - a key symptom in schizophrenia but also a symptom of mood disorders - regardless of which diagnosis category it appears under. And importantly the same factors underlying psychosis may be involved in less severe "sub-clinical" symptoms in the general population, such as social withdrawal, unusual visual and aural perceptions and magical thinking, that may reveal a proneness to psychosis under the right (or wrong) circumstances. Basically, there is co-morbidity too between defined categories of mental illness and also the more common mental health issues of the general population - the distinction may be a matter of degree, of severity, of extremity rather than a strict fire-walled difference of type, in at least some cases. The ramifications of this are huge, as it means the relation between good mental health and mental illness is more of a constant continuum or spectrum than we previously thought, rather than a bunch of different boxes and labels that do not overlap and should be treated separately.

Figure 2 - More like how I see it at present

Anyway, enough of that guff and back to my original point. I no longer see mental health as a straight-and-true track that most people are on and a poor minority fall off of. Rather we are all involved in the same kind of processes, bombarded with pressures and having to adopt often only half-successful strategies to deal with them. But some people, for some periods of their lives at least, have a lot more to deal with than others, whether that's a barrage of seismic life events; the awful way other people treat, or have treated, them; work, money and social pressures; ingrained and damaging bad habits that they struggle to break out of; the continued effects of trauma in the past; their own bodies malfunctioning; or, most likely, a toxic combination of more than one of those factors.

Life is complex and chaotic and living it is difficult. The purpose of most mental health treatment is not to "cure" us of our "illness" and set us back on the problem-free healthy highway with all of the other mentally healthy normal people. That highway doesn't exist. The purpose of mental health treatment is, as suggested in Figure 2, to arm us with whatever tools we can get our hands on to carry on the fight and get through life - which for many involves very tough circumstances - and perhaps even be able enjoy (some of) it. That is, tools to calm the symptoms that cause us distress and stop us from living well; tools to bolster our resilience, store up our support, preempt predictable problems; tools to help us learn about ourselves and others and learn how to manage ourselves and others; and tools to get strategies to cope that work and are not dysfunctional. In short, I didn’t decide to pursue a career* in mental health to "cure" people. I decided to do it simply with the aim of hopefully, somehow, some day, helping people to live. That is all. But in the broader, long-term view, we also need to take more seriously the task of addressing the societal and environmental factors that can apparently play such a key role in damaging our mental health - and not simply ignore them because it's easier to blame each individual's condition simply on the attributes of that individual themselves, in isolation from context.

*Speaking of categories, the rather "unique" combination of roles I have thus far undertaken may be too broad to call a "single, distinct and cohesive" career. Ho Hum. 

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Life goalz ~or~ 'what I found out': 2017

It’s New Years’s and also I’m 40 (in case you missed me mentioning that in every blog post this year) so I am going to take a moment to quickly review my LIFE GOALS. Now there are three that are so apparently amazeballs that we’re all supposed to want them 2 the Max, and if we say we don’t, we’re lying. Well, get a load of me:


I have worked in various roles in various spheres now and have become quite familiar with the lot of managers and bosses and the ladder and all that. Working in regional news I got to see behind the curtain of a lot more institutions and organisations and came into frequent contact with movers and shakers at various levels in various hierarchies. The more exposure I had to this the more it began to dawn on me: I actually don’t want much in the way of power. I’m happier working relatively independently and certainly have no desire to tell other people what to do; in fact that’s a headache I could do without. I really, really value my independence and freedom of expression – freedom to speak my mind honestly and critically without having to toe the line; to do my own thing how and when I want to do it; to turn off from work and turn my attention to other things once I’m out the door; to go about my business fairly anonymously etc – to the point I will retreat from anything that threatens these freedoms. People at or near the top of the chain in institutions may not have anyone specifically telling them what to do, but they are hamstrung and compromised in dozens of different directions that would make me recoil, and the further up the chain you go the more enmeshed you become – to have to tether your entire being to some corporate or public entity or enterprise; to be under scrutiny constantly; to be responsible for the gripes and security of an army of people below you; to have be publically accountable for a whole range of crap that may or may not be your fault. Urgh. No, ta. The very idea brings out my soul in a panic rash.


If power could in fact end up restricting your existential freedoms, that’s nothing compared to fame – what a poisoned chalice that has turned out to be now we have learnt of it, readers! I used to want to be a rock star. Phew, eh? What a lucky break that never happened. Naw, seriously though, like a sizable majority of the population I used to see fame as the ultimate success because, I suppose, it appears to be validation on all levels – that you are special, you are talented, your skill is recognised, you have influence, you are fundamentally an interesting person. Except that fame does not actually prove any of those things, but what will happen is that you and your life will become public property that is fair game for everyone to chip in on, and you and your life will become a business commodity that everyone will constantly want a piece of. And what then? Many are tied to the desperate Sisyphean treadmill of maintaining it, others are stuck with it but desperate to escape back to anonymity. Now: I am really not a public person and I really don’t want to be one. I was not even comfortable putting my face next to news stories I’d written, or getting too much attention on twitter (seeing as it has become the place that people go to be truly awful to each other these days); I could not cope with fame. Fame sounds amazing for about the first year or so, then it sounds like a hollow victory and bubble-like existence. Ta, no.


Now come on Thomas, really? Ok, yes, I would sorely like to be considerably better off, that is a given. Everything is just harder to do and maintain when you’re poorer, and having to count the pennies is depressing and grinds you down. Yes, I want to have the money to buy nice things now and again, live in a nice home, travel more, and not worry about the expense. But, in line with studies that suggest money does not make us happier beyond a certain point where we are out of poverty and into comfortable, reasonably flush security, I have no real desire for flashy excess at all – in fact I kinda think flashy excess is pretty much always a sign of vacuous amoral try-hard bullshit. Add to that that, unless you win the lottery, you don’t just get rich without strings attached (see Power); and that there are consequences for your conscience, relationships and sense of self; and that I don’t buy for a second that wealth is necessarily anything to do with merit and... well, a friend and I had wildly divergent responses to the Scorsese black comedy The Wolf of Wall Street, thus: I found it morbidly fascinating, a tale of vile people with awful inter-personal relationships and something critical missing in their souls cutting a destructive swathe through the world of high finance. “But wouldn’t it be ace to actually live like that?” my mate said, referring to their lavish lifestyles. Well... “Um. No,” I had to tell him. Whatever bit of people it is that craves superyachts and absurd shiny rollerskate cars and a house with 15 empty bedrooms and cocaine on your private jet and gold leaf on your f***ing ice cream obviously just isn’t in my peasant-stock blood. It just all looks like so much empty swank wank, wastage of existence to me.

So, if I’m pooh-poohing power, fame and riches for their distinctly turn-to-ashes-in-the-mouth potential, what kind of life goals would I push in their stead on this dawning of a new hopeful year?


Actually, end-state goals are a bit suspect in general I think, because the Buddhists were right – everything is temporary. I am old enough now to have seen plenty of people attain 'living the dream' status, and lose it again; to appear to have the perfect life one moment, then really not a few years down the line – and vice versa (the good news is while cloudless joy may never last, nor does lightless suffering, a mercy often overlooked but built into this 'time marches on' business). Things simply do not stay the same, and even if you can hold onto something, or keep doing the same things, the world changes around you and things go stale – so simply planning to achieve one state, one situation, one goal, and assuming that’s your happily ever after, is rather unwise; because then there’s the whole of the rest of your life to negotiate. I was once forced, at gunpoint (not at gunpoint), to watch 25 minutes of JoJo Bows, and her mum, repeatedly tell a TV camera about how she was finally living her dream and she never thought she would but she always dreamt of it and now she was living it and this was her dream and she was living her dream and this was great – and I got sad because I could only see impending child-star breakdown because what then, JoJo, WHAT THEN? No. If I am going to set a post-40 life goal a good one would be this: To strive not for any particular one end state, but for greater resilience, robustness and savvy to weather the slings and arrows, storms and changes that will be happening in life anyway, whatever. That takes an openness, a resourcefulness, flexibility, intelligence and, importantly, this...


Because they are everything. If I stop for a moment to consider it, it moistens up my ducts because everything about where I am now is down to the friendship, support, influence and companionship of family and friends. They have been my rock, my mirror, my focus group, my bed and bread, my entertainment, education and enlightenment, my shoulders to cry on, mentors, cheerleaders, life coaches, homies and my home – and much more. They make me proud to know them and want to strive to live up to who they want or need me to be, or think I could be. I can’t overstate it – I, Thomas, an acknowledged selfish, self-absorbed loner and misanthrope, owe everything to the good people in my life, and hope I can give something back to them all. In particular (it will come as no comfort to the lonesome) but hitching yourself to another human in a relationship scenario, if it works right, just changes everything: Suddenly there is a net of support, a bed of warmth and comfort, that makes all kinds of things possible that just weren’t before and in many ways allows you both to stretch out and become more confident in various directions, while simultaneously acting as a shock absorber and balm for those slings and arrows mentioned above. I'm sorry for the yuk, but it's true. That's why nurturing good relationships is a goal in itself because there's not much more that is so utterly impactful upon our lives. Also, you learn stuff.


Back when I was a philosophy teacher I used to try to explain the ongoing drive to ask those big, impractical questions by saying: "When you are born into the world you have no idea what you are, what the world is, or what on earth is going on. As a child you ask and learn more about this, but once you attain adulthood you’re just supposed put all that on one side and turn your attention to making money, being useful, making a family, making a name. Well, I never felt I got a satisfactory answer, so I’m still asking." That was fine for a while, but when I left teaching for the more worldly world of journalism I too had got a little tired and jaded with the inconsequential and unworldliness of philosophy, thinking “What does it matter? It doesn’t help you live.” I thought I’d reached the end of the road with all that deep thinky stuff, having arrived at a kind of mellow, world weary nihilism after endless circling on the same old questions. But I was wrong.

The past four or five years have thoroughly jolted and shaken me out of that kind of slumber and shown me without a shadow of a doubt, that as clued-up and wise-ass and jaded as I got, I still did not have life, or the workings of the world, or people down at all; because there were multiple surprises, twists and turns in store, both alarming and wonderful and, man alive, there was stuff to be learnt. The past couple of years in particular have unexpectedly transformed everything in ways I could never have predicted in my personal life, and have shown me you can explore those big questions not just as well as doing the work and family thing, but because of and through the work and family thing – it's all more life, and real with it. This has left me with a renewed thirst to learn more and more – I don’t mean just the accruing of facts or experiences, but the real stuff, the how-does-this-all-work: What we are, what the world is, or what on earth is going on. I feel both like I’ve made strides in that compared to my previous understanding, but also that I am newly confident in my capability to learn more, and newly confident in the value of it, even if it’s an endless task. It does matter, because it can help you live – with an intelligence and purpose that bolsters the above-mentioned Robustness. Of course, I will only get so far before I shuffle off: The Buddhists are right, everything is temporary. But in that time I reckon I can get a heck of a lot further than those who are dicking around, tunnel-visioned and half-sentient, chasing power, fame and riches for reasons and ends they don’t even really understand; and I hope that I can in that time pass on at least some insights that might help other people in the problem we all face every day – the problem of how we can happily live.

Happy 2018 n that.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The ideology trap

I thought twice about posting this because, basically, I am not remotely interested in debating your political or ideological agenda. At all. Sorry.

I’m no more interested in doing that than I am in arguing with a stranger in the comments section of a YouTube video (why the baffling Jesus does anyone feel that’s a worthwhile use of their time on this earth? I mean to say, really, what?). Don’t get me wrong, under the right circs I don’t mind an intelligent political discussion at all – I have in my time both studied and taught political philosophy, I was a journalist and maintain a general interest in current affairs... but these past few years, well, man alive! I mean to say, what?

I am tired. Hang-dog tired and dispirited at being flung other people’s ideology constantly on social media and, if you admit it, I think you are too. I get it – we live in very “interesting times” and everyone is trying to make of it what they will and desperate to stand up for their concerns and position in the face of hostile and baffling forces that have been robustly rearing of late. I too have found myself repulsed, frustrated and confused by the turn of world events. But before we go on I should make one thing clear: I continue to resist throwing my lot in wholesale with any pre-packaged political ideology, and I happen to think when abstract ideology becomes more salient and important than the concrete, personal, pragmatic and every day, then ugliness inevitably follows.

For transparency’s sake, I always used to consider myself vaguely progressive, but not vehemently so, vaguely liberal, but with a small ‘l’ – you know, like before it became a dirty word and synonymous with snowflakery – but with a sprinkling of bleak, cynical and realist opinions on human nature and society thrown in that would probably upset many progressive liberals. But I have no idea what I am anymore... except tired – and right now I’m really not interested in hearing about your particular gawdelpus crusade, reader, so I am not going to talk about my personal political stance much here at all really.

Rather I am going to make a few observations in general on ideology of whatever stripe:

1: It’s a trap.

People say it’s great that everyone is engaged with politics now but y’know, I’m not so sure it unambiguously is, because... well, of the radicalisation of my mates. I don’t think that’s too strong a word – with everything going on the past few years I have seen a fair few previously fully-rounded individuals with their own original and considered thoughts creep ever further apart on either sides of the political spectrum, convinced that there is some kind of ideological war at hand that we must take up arms in – and start flinging regurgitated, rigid-as-rock and shouty-as-shit views straight out of someone else’s manifesto. Like any war-of-two-sides it’s self perpetuating, because it breeds grievance and opposition and frankly I think we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated into it. When caught up deep and wholesale in political agenda or ideology, you are not engaging with the world directly anymore, but through a rigid, simplified model, which colours all of your interactions. Please stop it.

2: I don't trust crusaders, utopians or people who have all the answers.

First of all the world is complex and ever changing and it’s impossible to be certain about pretty much anything (I’m certain about that) – so how can these people be so bloody certain their way is right? Seriously, I like to think I’m an intelligent, informed and reasonably experienced human being and I’ve been trying quite hard to figure everything out all my life now and I’m just not getting this “certainty” business at all. Secondly, I always get the feeling crusaders will act on ideology at the detriment to what they're actually doing to people. Thirdly, their single-minded certainty = no open minded reflection = no genuine critical judgement. Beware.

3: Beware loaded ideological words.

Free speech and democracy are not simple ideas, or simple to implement, no matter what anyone says, and we have never had them in an uncut pure form anyway. Yes, everyone likes the idea of them. No, they do not, always and forever in every circumstance no matter what, have unimpeachably pure and "morally good" outcomes. Yes, people use them when it suits them and are hypocritical about it. No, no one likes elites or entitlement or totalitarianism or mainstream media bias. Every side uses this shit. On a related point, freedom, power and oppression are related on a sliding scale, you know – freedom for the pike is death to the minnows and all that – but if you are in any confusion or doubt over if there is actual oppression happening (as opposed to words being flung around as ammunition in the ideology war) ask – A) is there a power imbalance involved here, and in whose favour? and B) are any actual individuals getting stomped on here and why? Never mind the ideology and ‘isms – that will give you your answer.

4: Resentment makes the world go around.

"My pain is worse than yours, you can never understand me and you need to realise this and make me reparations." Alternatively, "Someone somewhere is having an easier time or getting stuff they don't deserve and I do." It does seem that in the political sphere both of these positions are the starting point for any debate, whichever side you are on. Resentment comes before reason. It is upsetting because I always took calmness, fair-mindedness, balance, reasonableness, intelligence, multi-facetedness to be the winning hand, but apparently it’s not. Shrill, shouty, self-centred, accusatory bullying is, apparently.

5: Ideology does not make you more “awake”.

Not everyone is motivated by ideology or sees the world through that kind of lens. That doesn't mean they're "asleep" either; in fact they may be more awake to the subtleties, uncertainties and ambiguities of the world precisely because of that. We’ve all heard the “Wake up sheeple!” spiel, from people who appear to have allowed themselves to be convinced that an off-the-peg world view constructed by someone else is now the most important thing in the world to the extent they can’t see outside of it. This, I think, is called irony.

6: Ideology is anathema to empathy.

Because it treats people's irreducibly complex lived experience as an ideal political abstract. When political ideology becomes the driving force and focus, outstripping the personal and practical, it pretty much always ends in someone getting stomped on and brutalised as their experience, wants and needs are disregarded for the “greater good” of some overly utopian f***er’s fantasy “good vs evil” bullshit narrative. Militant ideology is like those awful mission statements that businesses and institutions have: at best a simplified dream that describes what you want to reach for (though decidedly not a really accurate representation of the full, complex, organic, dysfunctional reality of things); at worst just a bunch of pretentious hot air that sounds great and inspiring but should really be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

7. Politics is about compromise.

Of course it bloody is. The whole set up is there, because there are multiple groups in the world who want and need different things but have to live together; groups and individuals who have different opinions, lifestyles and beliefs and all want a slice of the available resources. That's why politics exists, that's what it is – an ongoing discussion and action to resolve or at least manage this state of affairs. Politics IS compromise. It is not an ideological war for absolute goals. Get over yourself.

8: A political position in negative.

“No one has ever convinced me they know what is best for everybody else. No one has ever convinced me they want what is best for everybody else.”

Please don’t leave any discussion in the comments. I’m tired.

Monday, 22 May 2017

All the single fellas

At the risk of sounding like a male Beyonce (a curse I must endure in life in general), I want to say something to all the single fellas and it’s this: There is a good possibility there is nothing wrong with you, it’s just that the world of dating sucks.

Why I’ve been moved to speak on this is that in recent months I’ve caught various friends and acquaintances (actually both male and female) bemoaning their singledom – often in that “I’m just bantering” way that doesn’t fool anyone. I hear them over-analysing the situation, as you do when you’ve been alone for years and are exasperated and just want some kind of explanation: Joking about what wrong-headed unknowables women/men are; joking about how you, yourself, must be a pathetic freak. Lol jokes. Kinda. Kinda not.

I am out of that dating bear pit, thank The Lord, and now comfortably well into something strong and stable (a relationship, not a Tory government) but when I hear the just-mentioned bemoaning from my own kind – the slightly introverted, slightly intense, slightly “sensitive” kind of chap – the empathy glands start pinging away, the bad memories start surfacing and I can end up getting upset on their behalf. Having spent the vast majority of my life single, these are my people, and I feel their frustration acutely. The dating game is simply not set up for a certain kind of dude who tends towards the introverted, intense and “sensitive” – for the reasons outlined below...

Not yet

But before we get into it, I want to make it clear I’m not offering “advice”. As a single man there was nothing that boiled my piss more than someone condescendingly tossing crumbs of “advice” from the safety of the comfortable relationship that they’d lucked out by clumsily fumbling their way into back when we were young and it was much easier to hook up.

And I need to say, there is nothing wrong with being on your own, other than your own desire not to be. Actually, for me, as I got older I made my peace with the prospect more and more, to the point I was quite happy in my own company and really appreciated the freedom of being a free agent when I was. You become self-sufficient. I'd see younger types freaking out about being single after mere months and just think: "Amateurs! Get a grip."

But it's hard not to internalise society's assertion that you are something of a deficient misfit if you are on your own past 30, which is ludicrous as vast droves of society are. This meant my own recent experience shocked me – my current partner and me were both veteran singletons, but getting a relationship going was actually relatively easy and natural and straightforward. I’m not trying to be smug at you ­– what I mean to say is, contrary to what our hind brains may have been whispering obscenely to us in the long, dark nights, there turned out to be nothing freakishly wrong with us, we were not broken, nor terminally “difficult” to be with, we were just normal people who had had some shitty luck in the past. And, it turns out, most of that “dating advice” other people give you is, I can assure you, either completely irrelevant or utter hokem.

Christopher Walken

I’m sure everyone could tell me why their pain and plight is so much worse than that of my hetero-male-privileged ass, as is apparently obligatory in these times, and I know in many cases they'd be right. But I can assure you the struggle for my type is real – the introverted, intense, “sensitive” male can do just fine in a relationship, but is at a sore disadvantage when it comes to actually getting into one in the first place, or even just a “hook up”.

I don't mean a bit of boo-hooing over how women are so mean and how it's so hard to find "The One": I mean periods of years and years without a sniff of anything at all other than rebuff and rejection; long swathes of time convinced there was something fundamentally wrong with me or that I was cursed; long stretches convinced I simply had no choice in the matter because it had come to seem unimaginable or impossible that any women would want to stay with me beyond a month or two before they went cold or got bored or freaked out and ran away; that is if I could even get past a second date; that is if I could even get a date.

I remember comparing notes on singledom with a female friend who astonished me by wishing it was as easy to get a good guy to stick around as it was to get sex. “Getting sex is easy”, she said, to my incredulity. OMG, the gulf in our experience, as outgoing female vs navel-gazing male! “No, no it isn’t,” I said. Sex for me at that point was an ultra-rare and poorly understood phenomenon that had occurred in the distant past a handful of times, which I had no idea how to make happen again. She didn’t seem to understand how things could be like that for someone, her experience being that men simply rocked up and asked for it, often as a nuisance, from her teens onwards.

Meanwhile, when my shacked-up friends cringed over the now-dwindling memory of their single years, I felt like Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter. In that film Walken and Robert De Niro have a shocking time of it as prisoners of war in Vietnam, but De Niro escapes and comes home, somewhat damaged, and slowly pieces his life back together and adjusts to being a civilian once more. Years later he goes back out to Saigon to track down Walken, only to find him still there playing Russian Roulette, like they were forced to do as POWs. All those years later and Walken never escaped that hell.

That’s me, I'd tell my couple-friends, that's what it's like to still be dealing with the dating scene in your 30s. "I'm still there, I've been there all along!"

So without further ado, here is how things got like that, at least up to around my mid 30s, for this slightly introverted, slightly intense, slightly "sensitive" male:

1 Opportunity

This is probably the major factor – you simply don’t get to meet a wide variety of eligibles. You live in a small town, most of your friends are male and quite cliquey with it, you were never an outgoing party animal in the first place and now you’re getting older your friends go out less and stick to their own when they do. People will constantly tell you you need to get out more, do more things, but this in itself is a problem – because you don’t really enjoy being the social butterfly, you just want to be having pleasant nights at home or with the people you know and love like many others your age do. Forcing yourself into a constant round of new faces and activities begins to feel exhausting and desperate, but if you don’t do that, you might get to have a conversation socially with maybe one new eligible female about every six months. It’s just not enough. Thank god for internet dating, though that has its own soul-crushing problems.

2 “You don’t try your luck”

This one is a revelation for you, but it’s so true – if you are a “sensitive” type you probably sneer at those sleazey, cocky, alpha-male wankers who are always thinking with their dick, pulling "moves" and dropping cringeworthy lines. But then you wonder: “Why does my delightful dry wit always miss out to the meathead who isn’t afraid to put his hand on her knee?” You write it off as women being idiots and falling for the transparent tricks of Neanderthal nobs, until a female friend takes you aside and berates you: “You don’t try your luck!” What she means is, it isn’t about slick moves or swagger, plenty of women see through that – but the meathead is at least giving a green light, and you aren’t. You are hard work. It’s about letting women know you’re actually interested and worth a shot, giving them a clear sign, an easy way in, something exciting to respond to – but no, there you are, too noble and “sensitive” to do anything but act the distant chivalrous friend and wonder why she’s lost interest when you finally ask her out two months later.

3 The laser focus

In line with your intense and idealistic nature you are also simply quite narrow-minded in what you think you want, and hung up on that, even though you think you aren't. And you've spent far, far too much time pursuing and weeping over people who it was just never going to work with. It can’t be helped, because you go a bit mad when those chemicals bite, but SMH, the wasted time! You just couldn't broaden your focus and realise what a wide and wonderful world of other lovely, fun and sexy people was out there while you spent, for example, a fucking year mooning over some dickhead you had convinced yourself was your true love even though you’d never shared much actual intimacy, they didn’t particularly give a shit about you and it's questionable if you would actually even get on as a couple. Amazing what the heart will do.

4 Intense reactions

One of the problems with not being used to a relationship is that, initially, your reactions can be a little over-intense – partly because actually getting to dating is so rare that there's a vast amount at stake and it's nigh-on impossible to take it lightly; and partly because you're so inexperienced at being in a partnership that you take your cues from films, fiction and your own imagination as to how you should be acting – and that is often way too heavy and intense, way too soon. You have a tendency to write looong emotional essays to the unfortunate objects of your affection at the slightest hiccup, and it never, ever, helps anything. You also want to talk “deep and meaningful” pretty much all the time. One ex told you: “Women just want someone fun who is there for them – not a psychotherapist!” Another revelation. The shame of it is, that's not even your everyday self, which is actually pretty laid back and goofy  but your date will be out the door before she knows that.

5 Don't bother

You give up, you stop making an effort and worrying about it. This is part learned helplessness, part self-preservation as otherwise it risks defining you, becoming an obsession and having a bad effect on your mental health. And this is right  you are a world unto yourself, there is no reason why you have to be tied to someone else and there is plenty to enjoy about being single. Ironically, of course, being desperate to not be single makes you less attractive so not being bothered may be good strategy; in practice, though, the idea "It'll happen when you're not looking for it" is sadly not true because when you stop looking, as you do periodically for long periods of time, you basically don't meet anyone (see 1) or "try your luck" (see 2), so your singledom becomes entrenched.

Don't freak out

But perhaps I’m getting perilously close to offering “advice” here and I said I didn’t want to do that.

All I really want to say to all the single fellas (and ladies) who struggle for the above reasons is: Don’t sweat it. Don’t beat yourself up too much, don’t write off all members of the opposite (or same) sex as cruel and shallow shits, and don’t think it’s all your fault.

Being single is tough and modern dating often a ruthless and soul-destroying pursuit. People are just shitty to each other when it comes to being respectful and considerate of the feelings of their potential or discarded matches. And also, as is very clear these days, no one really knows how to do it and there isn’t a right way to do it anyway, because everyone is different – so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

For the long-term single who doesn't want to be, your only “problem” is finding the right circumstances to meet the right someone, and being able to successfully navigate though that early awkward bit of a relationship without one of you freaking out and running away. That and the Herculean task of maintaining your self esteem through the rejections and apathy and patronising comments of your couple-friends.

When people look at you like you’re someone to be pitied and open their cake holes to dispense “what you need to do” platitudes, please laugh a light laugh and tell them, with the air of a wizened Vietnam vet: “You don’t know what it’s like out there, man.”

And if they persist, tell them, politely, to fuck right off.