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At the end of my Year 9 school year, I developed glandular fever.
I was flat on my back for the entire summer holidays; unable to frolic, make my usual mischief, or generally participate in life.
(The lethargy cruelly resolved at the very end of the holiday period, allowing me to promptly return to school in the new year. There really is no justice in this world.)
At the time, it felt like my life was over. All of my usual sporting and outdoor activities demanded more energy than I could muster and were thus out of the question. A long, dull summer stretched ahead of me.
In the absence of my usual hobbies, I started drawing. And once I started, I couldn’t stop.
By the end of summer, I had filled an entire art folio with sketches. My bedroom (from my supine perspective in bed). The backyard (from my supine perspective on the couch). Wonky wine glasses. Unflattering depictions of family members.
Out of boredom and illness, my passion for art had been born.
Now, I’m not one of those people who believes everything happens for a reason. On the contrary, the idea that my life is in the hands of some all-powerful human puppeteer with an agenda kind of creeps me out.
What I do believe, however, is that we can find purpose in almost anything. And that it’s this ability to find purpose that can transform the steaming piles of crud served up by life into manure that will fertilise new soil and let beautiful stuff subsequently sprout.
I’ve met people who have initiated reconciliations with long-estranged children after suffering near-death experiences. I’ve worked with exercise-averse alcoholic smokers who have quit all the sh*t and upped their self-health post-stroke.
Paradoxically, it often seems to take a distasteful dose of disaster to shove us off our dead-end tracks and onto more promising pathways. Which kind of makes sense. When everything is trucking along without incident, what catalyst is there for change?
If it never rains, status quo reigns. You have no reason to cancel your nice-but-nothing-special plans if the weather is always ok.
Of course, it takes more than a simple shot of calamity to get a life upgrade. Indeed, hardship has the propensity to drop us to our knees more often than it gives us wings.
So what makes the difference between those who flounder and those who flourish when the hard times hit?
I reckon it takes two special ingredients.
1. Internal locus of control
It seems to me that most people can be separated roughly into two groups; those who view themselves as defenseless victims of circumstance, and those who believe they are the masters of their own destiny.
In the world of psychology, these mindsets are respectively known as external and internal locus of control.
Those with an external locus rarely manage to catch – never mind grow from – the curve balls life throws. If they get sick, they rely on external supports to get better. And they’re generally too preoccupied wallowing in deep, soggy puddles of self-pity to identify any opportunities arising from their seemingly rotten change in circumstance.
Those with an internal locus, on the other hand, tend to respond quite differently. They’re great candidates for therapy, taking control of their own recovery and putting in the hard yards they need in order to get better.
Even if they don’t fully recover, they generally find ways to be ok anyway. These are the double amputee dudes you see scaling sheer cliff faces; the ones up on stages giving motivational Ted Talks.
The ones winning the poker game of life despite the lousy hand the universe dealt them.
2. Ability to identity shift
The other factor that seems to influence the flourish vs. fail equation in the context of adversity is whether we’re willing/able to adapt our self-concepts.
We all have identity characteristics by which we define ourselves. Mother. Sex god. Vegan.
And sometimes, due to circumstances outside our control, these identity characteristics get abruptly and violently smashed into a million tiny pieces.
A mother may lose her children. A porn star might develop erectile dysfunction. A zealous vegan may be forced to eat steak every day to manage her severe intractable anaemia.
In the wake of these traumas that threaten the very essence of who we are, we have only two options.
We can eternally mourn the loss of our precious identity and sink into a life-long depression. Or we can seek out a new self-concept. A new way to see ourselves. A new way to contribute to the world.
There’s an old saying that the only things certain in life are death and taxes. But I think there’s one more certainty: that crappy stuff will inevitably happen at some point.
The only question is how we’ll deal with it when it hits.
A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at work, slogging through some clinical notes, when a song popped into my head. Being the distractible sucker that I am, I started humming it as I worked.
“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene Joleeeeene. I’m begging of you please don’t take my man.
“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene Joleeeeene. Please don’t take him just because you can”.
The song stuck firmly in my mind and repeated itself on loop for a good half hour. I didn’t think too much of it.
Suddenly, as I rifled through some papers I had been working on earlier, I noticed with a jolt that the client whose note I had just written had a middle name.
It was bizarre. Prior to consciously reading it in print, I had no clue that the client even had a middle name, much less that it was Jolene. Yet somehow, my subconscious had quietly absorbed the information and directed my mental jukebox to the relevant song.
It got me thinking. What else had my subconscious silently sucked up without my awareness?
I heard on the radio recently, for example, that during the AFL football grand final earlier this year, television viewers were exposed to over 400 junk food advertisements over the ~2 hour course of the game.
These were not all classic in-your-face commercials; the obvious ads were surreptitiously mixed in with sneaky stuff that a subconscious mind might grab onto without our awareness or conscious consent. Logos on players’ uniforms. Banners around the stadium. Things we may not actively notice at the time… but that induce a seemingly out-of-the-blue burger hankering as we drive past Maccas on the way home post-game.
There must be some serious subconscious power over consumer behaviour. Why else would corporations continue to fork out epic volumes of dosh specifically to plant such symbols and slogans around the periphery of our awareness?
Indeed, studies have shown that consumers tend to choose subliminally primed brands; even over brands they had habitually consumed prior to the subconscious propaganda.
That’s some powerful sh*!t.
And apparently our governments know it. Between the 1950s and 1970s, subliminal advertising was banned in a number of countries including Australia, the US, and the UK.
Seems like a good idea, in principle. But as it turns out, the execution has been sorely lacking.
In Australia subliminal messages in advertising aren’t super tightly controlled. For example, the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) Code of Ethics, which loosely regulates the industry, makes no mention of a specific duration or number of frames for which an ad must be displayed before it disappears.
As such, perhaps unsurprisingly, the techniques have made a resurgence in recent years.
During the 2007 ARIA awards, 45 advertisements were flashed up for a total of 1/24 to 1/12 of a second each.
Following an outpouring of complaints from consumers who had noticed, Channel 10 was eventually slapped on the wrist by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. But ads shown for at least 1/8 of a second were deemed completely legit.
Such short exposures, while not strictly subliminal according to the definition, still teeter on the brink of conscious awareness. Seems like a bit of a cop-out technicality to me.
Then again, there’s lots of stuff our subconscious absorbs that can’t be regulated. Given that it’s physically impossible to attend to every aspect of our environment all of the time, there will always be incoming subliminal stimuli that we’re not consciously aware of.
The potential impacts of these subliminal absorptions are many, varied and often not overly helpful. And without locking ourselves inside our homes with the curtains drawn and no TV, internet, or interactions with any other humans ever again… we will, without exception, continue to be impacted by them.
Seeing as the ‘isolation’ option is neither particularly palatable nor feasible, alternative avenues of management are clearly needed. And if we can’t change our environment, the only remaining option is to change the ways in which we think about what’s going on around us.
Self-awareness seems to be the most powerful tool we have to counteract the subliminal stimuli bombarding our brains.
Not to try to be aware of everything around us, of course. That would be a direct pathway to insanity from over-stimulation.
But increasing our awareness of our own emotions and actions, and critically assessing them, might be a useful step.
“Why am I feeling annoyed or anxious? Is the radio in the background playing a particularly irritating advertisement that I can switch off?”
“Why am I heading to Hungry Jacks? I’m not even hungry!”
Maybe I’m a particularly susceptible sucker – who knows. But I have a sneaking feeling that no one is entirely immune to the power of the subliminal.
What have you noticed subconsciously influencing you?
Truth and reality are commonly assumed to be objective phenomena.
There is only one truth. There is only one reality. And anyone who suggests anything to the contrary must be rapidly sedated for the safety of themselves and those around them.
But in reality, truth and reality are not always so objective.
As children, for example, we were taught that colours exist on a spectrum spanning from (infra)red through to (ultra)violet. Which, as a model, makes sense. Any higher or lower frequency wavelengths of light can’t be detected by the human eye or interpreted by the human brain.
But does that mean that such other colours don’t exist? Surely, a being with a superior visual sensory system would view the world in richer tones than the ones you and I perceive.
Yet if some dude off the street were to purport seeing something that you or I could not, we would assume they must be disconnected from reality. Psychotic. Deviant. If it’s invisible to the majority, then it mustn’t be there.
Despite this, we know that the ‘consensus’ approach to reality is deeply flawed.
If 99% of people were to agree that the moon were made of cheese, it would (unfortunately) render the belief no more true. A silly idea believed by most people is, at the end of the day, still a silly idea.
Despite this, the power of consensus remains strong.
Back in the 16th century, for example, the accepted reality was that the Earth lay at the centre of the universe. This model appealed to the church (and thus the general populace), as it placed humanity as the focus of God’s creation.
This geocentric model was, in hindsight, not only mind-bogglingly egocentric but ultimately plain wrong.
A very smart dude called Copernicus knew it was wrong. In his private scribbles, he described an alternative model of the universe; one that placed the sun at the centre. But he didn’t bother to publish it until he was practically on his death bed.
Why Copernicus’ reticence to come out with his proposed new truth? We’ll never really know. But some might postulate that he knew the strength of peoples’ convictions in their existing beliefs. And the likely opposition he would face as a proponent of a theory questioning hundreds of years of dogma.
So here’s the question. If so many people could be so wrong about something as massive as the universe, how can we hold with absolute stubborn certainty onto any of our accepted ‘truths’?
Yet we do.
It all comes down to a psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias.
When we accept and support a certain idea for long enough, it can become quite central to our identity. If, suddenly, it becomes apparent that our long-held belief may have been wrong all along, our sense of identity becomes threatened alongside the idea itself. And it hurts.
Confirmation bias is the reason why doctors continue to demonise dietary cholesterol despite recent randomised controlled trials showing no effect on cardiovascular disease. It’s why the church was so reticent in their support for Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. Why it always sucks admitting when we’re wrong.
To protect ourselves from this pain, we seek out legitimate ways to tear down ‘out there’ ideas before they have the chance to hurt us.
The easiest way to do this is to write people off as conspiracy theorists; a label that immediately discredits anything they say that may contravene the status quo. Attack the person, and their ideas go down with them. After all – who would listen to a paranoid nutter?
Sadly, this fear and unwillingness to consider our own potential wrongness hampers our progress as a society. We assume our way of doing things is right, simply because things have always been done that way. We remain stuck with flawed operating systems. We dispense outdated health advice that makes people sicker rather than more well. We miss signs of danger before it’s too late.
The solution is not complicated, but nor is it easy to accept.
We need to put aside our fragile human egos. We need to listen – to truly listen – to what people say. Irrespective of who they are. And we need to evaluate each argument on its own merit, rather than accepting consensus as a proxy for truth.
Then, and only then, can we begin to gain confidence in the reality of our reality.
We’re all brainwashed.
Most of us are scarcely aware of it. Indeed, much of the propaganda is subliminal, hovering at the periphery of our conscious awareness. And yet, when we look for it, there it is.
The ever-present expectation that – one day – we’ll get married.
As bumbling toddlers, we were plonked in front of Disney movies in which the promise of happiness (ever after) logically concluded the final matrimonial scene. As teens we fantasized over which pimpled peer could be our one true love. As young adults, wedding dress advertisements began innocently popping up beside the cat memes on our Facebook feeds. And as present day de factos, we’re subjected to incessant and not-so-subtle nudges from well-meaning family and friends, casually inquiring about when we’ll finally ‘put a ring on it’.
It’s not even a push so much as an assumption.
“By jove! Those two humans have heard each other’s trumpeting farts, are intimately familiar with each other’s morning breaths, and still like one another. When is the wedding?”
It’s not altogether surprising. After all, marriage was historically the done thing. And for good reason.
Back in the day, when religion had greater control over peoples’ lives, no matrimony meant no (permissible) copulation. So failing to lock down a long-term lover had some serious repercussions.
Men would have no one to inherit their name or his estate. Not to mention a life-long case of painful blue balls.
Women would either be left bub-less, or up duff creek with no sugar daddy to finance their impending infant’s upbringing. Oh, and disowned by church, family and community.
Yeh… back it the day, the security offered by a long-term legal marriage contract was kind of important.
But it just doesn’t feel that necessary anymore.
Few these days obtain legal paperwork before moving in with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Most no longer seek a rabbi/preacher/mufti’s permission before acting upon carnal urges. And popping out kids is certainly no longer a privilege exclusively reserved for the wedded.
Which brings me to ask that terribly awkward question.
Unless you’re religious… why get married anymore?
When I floated my nonchalance on the subject with my (progressive) parents, I was astonished by their horrified response.
“But marriage is important!” they protested. “Without it, there’s nothing stopping you from just abandoning a long-term relationship!”
I didn’t disagree. There was no question that matrimony makes it harder to leave a lover. More complicated. More time consuming. Definitely more expensive.
What confused me was the implied assumption of this difficulty being a good thing. It seemed to me that, if a dalliance turned sour, it wouldn’t be entirely productive to hang around simply because it may be inconvenient to leave.
In my mind, protracted separation meant protracted unhappiness. No option for a clean break and a fresh slate. Oh, plus the added insult of thousands in legal fees and taxes to ratify the relationship’s failure. Just in case each person’s face hadn’t been rubbed into the pain hard enough already.
And in an age where divorce rates are at 50%, it doesn’t really seem that the inconvenience is even helping to preserve the sanctity of relationships that would otherwise fracture. Sure, we don’t record the separation rates amongst long-term de facto couples, but I can’t imagine it would be enormously higher than 50%.
After all, if you like someone enough to tell them your deepest secrets, accumulate shared assets, and even raise children together, you’re unlikely to flippantly toss the relationship out the window as soon as the going gets a tad tough.
Chances are, you’re going to try and make it work. Just like a married couple would do.
Heck, it’s possible that de factos would actually try harder to preserve their alliance. Maybe the awareness that a shared future together is not a given actually encourages couples to put more effort and energy into maintaining a high quality relationship.
There’s no question that weddings are a lot of fun. And it’s undeniable that many couples derive joy, meaning, closeness and connection from their married lives together.
But would they be any less happily un-married?
When I first moved out of home, hard rubbish week was my favourite time of the whole year. During that magical September period, my previously aimless ambles around the neighbourhood were transformed into exhilarating treasure hunts.
Each curb-side heap held potential. Beneath an innocuous pile of broken chairs lay a pristine Japanese tea set, still sealed in its original box. Tossed into a rusty bathtub – a stash of popular children’s books that had seemingly never been read. Not with grubby hands, at least.
I fondly recall the day we wheeled/dragged our table tennis table along 1.5km of road to its new home in our garage. Heck, I once even spent an sweaty hour lugging an ‘as new’ 7-seater lounge suite up the street piece by piece (and smugly sold it on Gumtree for $300 just 24 hours later).
Yep. With the right amount of elbow grease, hard rubbish life was not just fun, but lucrative.
But as time went on, the shine gradually began to wear off.
The thrill of the chase became overshadowed by a realisation. That – no matter how sizeable-a pile any given residence had turfed on any given year – the following year, another gargantuan hunk of junk would again erupt on the very same nature strip.
Buy, chuck, buy chuck. Rinse and repeat.
It didn’t sit well. It felt like everyone had spent the preceding 12 months frantically shopping, only to reach their house’s ‘crap capacity’, forcing old stuff out to make way for the new.
But why? Why the compulsive urge to incessantly accumulate?
I blame two dastardly phenomena: perceived and planned obsolescence.
“That is so last season”.
The basic premise of perceived obsolescence. The system whereby we’re induced to feel that our current stuff is no longer current enough. And that it must necessarily be up-traded lest our status be downgraded.
How many of us have rushed out to get the latest ‘better’ model of phone… without really questioning what improved benefit it would bring to our lives? Bought new clothes because our current wardrobe is totally 2017? Traded in a perfectly good five-year-old car because the latest models are painted nail polish red and talk to us while we drive?
The problem with feeling satisfied with what you have is that it’s bad for business. Contented customers don’t buy crap. And if that happens, businesses can’t shift stock. The economy grinds to an abrupt halt. And no one likes a ground economy.
And so we’re induced to feel dissatisfaction.
Our seemingly shiny new item suddenly stops looking so shiny and new when held up against the next model. And everyone else has it. Why shouldn’t we? After all, we tell ourselves, the new one will make us happier.
We gleefully hand over the cash, and dance home to play with our new prize.
The economy blows us kisses. Mother nature snorts in disgust and flips us the bird.
Despite perceived obsolescence’s relatively high efficiency in maintaining the buy-chuck cycle, businesses don’t really trust us to be sufficiently wasteful all on our own. So they give us a little help in the form of planned obsolescence.
Planned obsolescence is the reason why your vacuum cleaner dies precisely 2 months after the warranty period expires. Why 2017 charging cables don’t fit 2018 devices. Why, after 2-3 years, your phone starts running slower than a tortoise and a sloth in a three-legged egg and spoon race.
It’s not that the design people aren’t smart enough to make sh*t that lasts. But like contentment, sustainability is not an economy-bolstering concept.
If you build something so well that it lasts forever, no one will ever need to buy another one. And if no one needs to buy another one, your customers will stop being customers. Economies grind… blah blah blah. You get the idea.*
So stuff is designed specifically not to last. Meaning that even if you’re not the type to lust after the latest fashions… you’re forced to get them anyway. Because your old stuff is inevitably on the brink of extinction.
Clearly, this is not a sustainable model. No matter how big we dig our holes in the ground, at the end of the day, the Earth has a finite capacity for housing discarded debris.
But what can the average Joe do about it?
Planned obsolescence is a tough one. I don’t love my chances of convincing the CEOs of any major corporations to pursue a business model that will ultimately bring them less revenue.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to just give up on the items designed to give up on us.
Already there are organisations springing up to combat our crap crisis. This Repair Cafe in St Kilda – staffed by handy volunteers – will fix the broken stuff you bring them, free of charge. This website outlines where in Melbourne you can recycle the things you no longer love or can no longer use. Even the broken stuff.
And as for perceived obsolescence? Well that one is very much within our control. It’s merely a matter of mind over… well, matter.
So don’t let the meddling business bastards dictate what you do and don’t ‘need’. Be brave enough to admire without desiring. To embrace being ‘un-trendy’.
And to feel that dirty, dirty word.
Contented with what you have.
*I don’t buy the whole “but think of the economy!” argument. After all – there was a time in the not so distant past when products were created to last. And somehow, people held down jobs, earned money, and the world kept turning.
There seems to be an unspoken rule in modern culture: if you’re invited to something, you’re expected to go.
Sure, there are a few caveats. You’re grudgingly excused if a first-degree relative has been given three days to live. Or if you’re 8 months and 29 days pregnant and physically can’t fit behind the wheel of a car. And Ubers are surging at 4x regular rates.
Otherwise, it’s pretty much assumed you’ll make every effort to be there. With bells on, no less. Lots of bells.
The problem, of course, is that some people just don’t love socialising.
Sure, a person might not be ‘otherwise engaged’ or violently vomiting their guts out on the night of a scheduled occasion. But when they’re naturally reclusive and have an appealing book calling them from their bedside table, the 28th birthday party of a distant acquaintance might just feel like a frustrating barrier to their pleasant evening plans.
Even seemingly appealing events can become unappetizing under the right circumstances. Dinner with good friends might sound like a celebration, but feel more like an obligation when you’re feeling a bit knackered.
Indeed, many of the introverts I know are so drained of energy by the time an event wraps up, they have to lock themselves in a quiet room for three days to mentally recover. Heck, as a fence-sitting semi-extrovert semi-introvert, even I occasionally pay an unnecessary visit to the bathroom mid-party, purely as an avenue to temporarily escape the hubbub.
So while social events are heralded as the desirable leisure pursuit… let’s be real. If you’re not a veritable extrovert – and sometimes even if you are – socialising can be hard work.
But we all hate to offend. And we certainly don’t want to be judged critically for not being ‘sociable’ enough to make the effort.
So when we get that invitation, we make the optimistic promise. Lock in plans. Say we’ll be there… and then apologetically cancel last minute under the guise of unforeseen illness.* **
And it’s sad.
As the invitee, it’s sad that we feel the need to cover up our introverted idiosyncrasies with falsified cover stories. And as the inviter, it’s sad that when we throw events, we buy enough food and drink for the 30 people who initially RSVPed yes… but end up feeding just the measly 15 who didn’t cancel last minute.
Something’s gotta give.
So hear this call to action. If I invite you to an event and you don’t want to come, tell me you won’t be coming. You might be important to me… but I promise I’ll be ok, even if you’re not there.
And if I tell you I won’t make it to your event… don’t feel obliged to dig around to find out why. And pretty please – don’t be offended.
Because it truly isn’t you. It’s me.
* I’ve found this strategy to be particularly foolproof. Nobody wants you spraying your gastro-tinged mouth juices around the food table at a party, after all.
**Beloved friends; please don’t assume. Sometimes I am genuinely unwell!