Last night I stayed in university accommodation for the first time since I lived there in my first year, over four years ago. I just caught myself thinking that now, finally, two years after having graduated, I feel just about ready to start and appreciate that undergrad degree. But then my thoughts happily drifted to the realisation that, actually, the experiences I had during those three years and afterwards have made me this person, a person who feels more confident of how and why they want to go, or could have gone about things. This was one of those reassuring ‘you don’t actually need to be so hard on yourself’ moments. Almost all of my close friends from university have said they’d do things differently if they were to start again as a fresher, but far from being a depressing indication that you completely wasted your time (let’s be honest, every student experience requires at least a healthy dose of procrastination and stupidity), it’s an uplifting sign that the paths you’ve taken over the last few years have led to positive transformation. You can be safer in the knowledge that you’ve changed enough to move onto whatever comes next, and that every stupid move you make from now on can be, in fact, a valuable contribution to your personal development. Now there’s an elaborate justification for locking myself both in and out last week if ever I saw one.
The Rabbit is suffering from an array of ailments ranging from Stuck-in-Limbo (which can’t be good for the metaphorical back, I’m sure, as well as my literal mental health) and another case of ‘Rabbit in the Headlight’ Syndrome. When life stops massively sidestepping my version of ‘normality’ I can’t wait for the rabbiting to resume.
After spending much of 2010 pondering whether it is at all worthwhile coming up with new year’s resolutions only to be overwhelmed by the weight of self-expectation and inevitable failure, I eventually hit upon the only lifestyle guideline that could, I think, actually make a difference. The ‘Golden Rule’ (that is, ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’), though of course entirely admirable and ever applicable, would do well to be turned on its head and viewed from another perspective: Treat yourself as you would treat others (that is, others who you love and care for most of all, not those who make you wish medieval torture methods would make a comeback in 2011). This at first sounds selfish and relatively inconsequential compared to the glowing and enduring Golden Rule, but if we think about it…
It’s very easy to treat yourself badly. Staying up until the wee hours (the irony of writing this at 3am has not passed me by – my blogclock is still on Eastern Standard Time), consuming too much too often of substances that would be dangerous used as fertiliser let alone ingested, telling yourself that you’re simply not good enough. But would you ever dream of advising your best friend to act and think the same way? Or, for that matter, would you accord your relatively helpless goldfish such disrespect? I hope for your sake, and that of your nearest and dearest, that the answer is a resounding no. And it follows that if you have enough respect for yourself to lead the life that deep down you wish you led, then you’ll be in a far better position to respect those around you. And thus begins the cycle of true reciprocal respect. The Golden Rule, it seems, is the most selfish of the two; the motivation for being civil to others is to receive top-notch treatment yourself. On the other hand, the Goldfish Rule (as it is hereby named) uses self-respect as a starting point for wider happiness; surely the most genuinely utilitarian of the two. And utilitarianism should be for life, not just for new year’s resolutions. Do unto yourself as you would do unto your beloved goldfish and, who knows, you may not feel the need to source those gallows after all.
As a consequence of my new attempt at self-respect, and with my back turned to a less-than-ideal 2010, I resolve to continue regular blogging activities after three months of sad silence and exactly one year after they began. And on that note I wish you and your goldfish (plus a shout out to my neon tetra Pablo and glofish Calypso) a happy, golden and respectful 2011.
Posted by Sophie | Posted in Miscellaneous | Posted on 23-09-2010
Everyone should have a pet. Everyone should talk to said pet for at least a few minutes every day. It’s amazingly therapeutic, alarmingly revealing and even a fish can instantly enhance your sense of purpose. Talking to a human is obviously far less easy, unlikely to bring out the full truth for fear of being judged, misunderstood or even fully understood, and therefore it’s ultimately less productive.
There’s been plenty of research about the physical and stress-related benefits of having pets around, but I don’t think enough is said about the ability of a cat to take or even rise above the place of a priest in a confessional. Get a rabbit and discover your true perspectives, minus the catholic guilt.
I’ve found myself recently telling several people to watch Alain de Botton’s secular sermon \'On Pessimism\'. When I’ve suggested that watching a video on negativity would put an invaluable positive spin on my friends’ less-than-happy situations I’ve not just been given suspicious or pitying looks but have been almost angrily shot down, such is the widespread fear of publicly admitting to struggle and suffering. Just like coming into contact with powers far greater than ourselves (see ‘Car Crash Effect’ post), approaching life from a pessimistic point of view can, paradoxically, lead to the most uplifting sense of optimism. Have a watch, make up your own mind and we can discuss it over half a drink.
Hello again! I hate to realise that I’ve just had the longest break from blogging since I began on the first day of 2010. I know now, though, that I was subconsciously building up to my ‘car crash effect’ post (17 June) for so long that since then I’ve felt I’ve reached blogging saturation. But now, spurred on by a combination of unexpected circumstances, an exhaustingly long period of indecision (revolving around the unavoidable dilemma ‘on which side of the pond shall I live for the next four months?’), an alarming number of train journeys, at last some post-injury cello playing (and consequently more listening now that I don’t have the irrational paranoia that I’ll never be able to play again), a bit of reading and a disproportionate amount of thinking, I’m getting, er, twitchy for some Rabbit action.
For a long time I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why I believe wholeheartedly, though I realise controversially, that music is the superior art form. First off there are some obvious general points that I’ve always thought about, for example that dance relies on music for its existence and that music is more widely accessible than any literature or language-based theatre. But then, whilst listening to music during my seven-hour wait at New York JFK airport for my flight to London back in May, I had a sudden thought that I’ve been revisiting ever since.
I sat listening to whatever music came up on shuffle on my iPod in the usually soulless departure lounge and watching the array of people milling around, who apparently had nothing in common except for a desire to be somewhere other than here, and immediately got the sense that the people and objects within this entire space were now unified. The temporal continuity and structural coherence of the music (we’re talking vaguely ‘conventional’ music here) instantly lent the space a reassuring unity or ‘oneness’, whichever way I turned my head. It was as if music was painting my surroundings, as far as my eyes could see, in exactly the same shade but, owing to the greater complexity and emotional depth of music, the connections I now perceived between space, people and objects became far more meaningful than anything a coat of magnolia could achieve. No wonder music is used in films, worship, football games, birthday celebrations, school assemblies etc. Its ability to bring people together and to create a (real or imagined) common purpose or identity is surely more powerful than any other means (legal means, in any case). Now to stick in my headphones and create an emotional bond with my poor unsuspecting fellow passengers. If it can happen in Taunton train station waiting room, it can happen anywhere.
Posted by Sophie | Posted in Miscellaneous | Posted on 01-08-2010
How do we know when we’ve let enough time pass that we’ve come to the right decision? Is there even such a thing as a right decision? Do we believe in fate in order to give us the confidence to commit to a decision?
Whatever your opinion, don’t be so sure. You’ll probably think the opposite tomorrow. I know I will. Or at least I think I will.
We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.
- Winston Churchill
We shape our world; thereafter the world shapes us. Or is it the other way around? And at what stage are we or should we be, and when?
Posted by Sophie | Posted in 'Philosophy', Music, Religion | Posted on 17-06-2010
I’m one of those people that finds the process of writing cathartic and somehow validating of thoughts. It makes sense, then, that I’ve been meaning and wanting to write about the car accident that my Dad and I were involved in, and the impact it has had on me, ever since it happened. But only now, almost 18 months on, having thought and thought to the point of brain saturation and, ironically, having just read the chapter ‘On the Sublime’ in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, do I feel I’ve done enough thinking and made enough connections to put fingers to keyboard. It’s amazing how reading what someone else has written, even if not directly related to your situation, can speed up the journey to perspective and understanding so significantly. On 6th January of this year, almost a year on from the accident, I wrote in my then six-day-old blog that I would try to explain what I called the ‘Car Crash Effect (or less sinisterly the CN Tower Effect) soon’. What I’m writing now is, finally, my first attempt to put these thoughts into words.
After the accident people sympathetically and understandably made comments along the lines of “you poor thing”, “what an awful thing to happen” and “I can’t imagine having to go through that”, and have usually been more than surprised when I’ve responded with “oh it’s fine”, “the recovery period was the happiest time of my life” and even “I wish that everyone could go through a similar experience, only with less pain, trauma and inconvenience”. Whilst lying on various beds during the weeks after the accident, and afterwards hopping around on crutches and being pushed around in my wheelchair by incredible and long-suffering family and friends, I felt an unprecedented and overwhelming sense of happiness and perspective that, at the time, made no rational sense. My ankle was broken so I couldn’t walk, my thumb was broken so I couldn’t play the cello, I was missing some of my final weeks in Cambridge, I couldn’t celebrate my 21st the way we’d planned and my Dad was in a worse state than I was. Quickly I decided there was no point in telling anybody quite how elated I felt, as the confusion felt by other people would have no doubt only made me frustrated through my not being understood, and others may well have come to the conclusion that I had been mentally as well as physically damaged. My Dad was obviously the closest person to understanding, and I’m sure he always will be.
At the time I put my happiness down to the facts that my Dad and I were still alive, we’d emerged from the accident relatively and almost miraculously well-off and that I was surrounded by a network of genuinely supportive and caring people who had the very best brought out of them. I was also suddenly relieved of responsibility, since I was obviously not being expected anymore to perform the Schumann concerto (which I’d barely started learning) in a few weeks’ time or hand in a first draft of my dissertation (which I’d barely started thinking about). I had the sobering realisation that your complex chain of responsibilities is rarely broken until a major, and usually unpleasant, event occurs in your life which excuses you temporarily from functioning like everyone else. Of course all of the above was true, but I knew there was more to it, and this extra mysterious contributory factor to my happiness has become less and less abstract to the point where I feel it can be grasped, or at least blindly groped.
I knew I was feeling happy, uplifted and optimistic like never before and, despite my new disabilities, able to do more than ever before, which explains why I later felt the need to coin a new term, the ‘Car Crash Effect’. The ‘CN Tower Effect’, something I knew was somehow an equivalent, needs now to be explained. In the December following the accident I found myself driving with Andy and Abby from Rochester, NY to Toronto for auditions, and we decided we couldn’t leave the city without visiting the top of the iconic CN Tower, ‘the world’s tallest freestanding structure on land from 1975-2007′ (thanks Wikipedia). When we reached the top and looked out over Lake Ontario, the thousands of buildings, people and cars and beyond the land that we’d just spent the last three hours traversing, I suddenly sensed the feelings I’d experienced in the weeks after the accident being renewed. They had never gone away, but they were now instantly resurfacing. Why the almost identical extreme feelings on both a hospital bed and hundreds of feet above ground?
I believe that Alain de Botton, with the first clear explanation of the concept of the ‘sublime’ I’ve come across, has pointed me to an answer. The chapter explains that, over the years, writers have agreed on the idea that certain places of great ‘size, emptiness or danger’ provoke ‘an unidentifiable feeling’ (that of the sublime) that is ‘both pleasurable and morally good’. He goes on to describe the sublime as ‘an encounter, pleasurable, intoxicating even, with human weakness in the face of the strength, age and size of the universe’. He then discusses Edmund Burke’s theory that sublime landscapes are those that are ‘vast, empty, often dark and apparently infinite, because of the uniformity and succession of their elements’, and suggest ‘power greater than that of humans and threatening to them’. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that in my blog post of 25th March I wrote, having just seen a photo of Golden Gate Bridge taken from up high: ‘Healthy mental perspective can begin with beautiful, broad physical perspective. The world would be a happier place if we all lived on top of a green grassy hill’. Traditionally sublime places are entirely natural, but I know that in many ways my view from the top of the CN Tower could be described not just as beautiful but as sublime, however pretentious and contrived this may sound. In any case, writers on the subject in the eighteenth century, if transported to today’s increasingly built-up world, would surely agree that a largely manmade landscape could prompt an experience of the sublime. Like an ocean, desert or mountain, the Toronto skyline gave a very real impression of power far greater than the sum of its parts.
So, Alain de Botton summarises that ‘sublime landscapes, through their grandeur and power, retain a symbolic role in bringing us to accept without bitterness or lamentation the obstacles we cannot overcome and events we cannot make sense of’. Before reading this conclusion I had already started thinking: perhaps I am starting to re-evaluate my accident as a sublime experience. After all, the sublime is not limited to places, but it’s often referred to in, for example, more abstract realms such as music. Here is the final paragraph of the chapter which I think sums things up beautifully and which made me elated once more and probably a bizarre sight to behold when I read it on the train yesterday:
If the world is unfair or beyond our understanding, sublime places suggest it is not surprising things should be thus. We are the playthings of the forces that laid out the oceans and chiselled the mountains. Sublime places gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events. It is not just nature that defies us. Human life is as overwhelming, but it is the vast spaces of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us. If we spend time in them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.
I find it difficult to believe that anyone could disagree with this closing statement, whether religious or not. The accident was an event which, by definition, was beyond our control and certainly not driven (so to speak) by malicious intent, or indeed by any intent at all. It makes perfect sense, then, that the feelings provoked in me both after the accident and over Toronto resulted from a then-subconscious acknowledgment that I was limited by powers that were not suffocating and sinister but awe-inspiring, humbling and worthy of respect. Although we should never stop being determined to stretch ourselves, there is something both reassuring and empowering in coming to terms and being happy with our place in the world. By giving over some control of our lives to greater natural (or partially manmade) forces, whatever they may be, the weight of total responsibility and accountability is finally relieved. We can then happily begin to realise that all we can do is make the best of any situation to the best of our constantly evolving ‘imperfect’ human abilities.
Even if this makes no sense to anybody else, and although I tied myself in knots trying to make it coherent, I’m glad it’s been let out. In the interests of safety, perhaps each government of the world should sponsor trips to the top of their country’s highest building rather than skimping on salt on icy roads this winter.