Tuesday, June 07, 2005

On elephants, anchors and crutches 

I’ve often found it slightly worrying – alarming even – how thoughts and moods, without anything to hold them steady, will often drift unfettered. What you might call horizontal drifting – just aimlessly wandering around the surface of the ocean – seems harmless enough (although not very productive); after all, one set of waves is much like another set; but that’s not really what worries me. It’s vertical drift that bothers me, mood swings up and down. Bubbling up into a place of energy, enthusiasm, peace, joy… or sinking down into the depths of lethargy, resignation, cynicism and victimhood. There are no walls between these extremes, no barriers to cross between one place and the other; it’s quite possible to wander unimpeded, almost without knowing, across the boundary, since the boundary isn’t real, it’s just some point on the scale between extremes. Without something to hold you steady, some kind of anchor, there are no brakes and if momentum builds, in any direction, it’s not easy to stop.

So given such complete freedom, why is it that the direction taken is so often down? Why does it take energy and commitment to keep rising above a status quo that hovers around mediocrity?

Perhaps it’s simply that, by definition, that’s where the mean lies, halfway between the euphoric and the suicidal. That’s where, on average most of us spend most of our time. Sure, there are excursions either way but for Mr or Mrs Average those deviations tend not to be long-lived. And if mediocrity is where we mostly live, that too is where we are most comfortable. So the urge not to rock the boat, not to stand out, not to suffer the tension of being different might be one kind of anchor that keeps us in this grey middle place.

Oh, but I’m assuming something. Well, many things probably, but one thing in particular. Do any of these states – the high, the middle, the low – have any link with reality, whatever that is? Can we really say our mood is a direct product of our circumstances? I suspect that at any time, for any of us, there are plausible reasons why we might be in almost any particular mood state. There are always, as Ian Dury’s song said, reasons to be cheerful, always reasons to be gloomy, and always reasons to ignore both cheer and gloom and just get on with it – whatever it is – regardless. The balance will vary, but we have a degree of choice. So is it all a matter of selective vision – am I just keeping my eyes selectively closed, and all I need do is take a more balanced view? Or maybe a more unbalanced view would give a rosier picture? No absolutes, more drifting…

This line of thought all got sparked off by a line in an email at work. Along with the entire workforce on supervisory grades and above, I’ve been taking part in an ongoing leadership programme. It’s run just over half its course now, so they are seeking feedback – asking in effect “How was it for you?” There was no reason not to reply honestly, so I did just that. Once upon a time, I said, I would have been fired by enthusiasm for such a programme. And to be fair, both to the leaders of the course and to myself, I was thoroughly engaged in the off-site elements off the programme. But it’s made little difference to the way I work; I’ve dropped into a resigned “what’s the point?” attitude towards it. As I said in the feedback, that’s not really like me at all. So why the downwards drift?

Part of it seems to be an eternal tiredness, sometimes verging on exhaustion. But where does that come from? It’s not physical, neither is it really mental; it’s more like a spiritual tiredness. Battles are exhausting and I seem to be forever fighting battles against a whole herd of invisible elephants that fill the room. Yes, I know, it’s a paradox – how can I be fighting something that’s invisible? Well, it’s a paradoxical battle, and that kind is much more exhausting than the real thing. I sense these elephants in the room; they follow me wherever I go, dogging my footsteps, laying their heavy trunks on my shoulders, hiding round corners. I could name some of them…

But I digress.

Where was I? Oh yes - selective visions and reasons to be cheerful… The trouble is, as I was saying, there will always be some reason, or at least some excuse, to feel just about anything from euphoric to suicidal and every nuance in between. Probably all at once. So, as the saying goes, whatever you focus on becomes your reality. Therefore it’s not reality itself that’s the problem. Choose joy or sorrow; pain or pleasure. Here’s the catch: you can choose any of those and there’s nothing – NOTHING – to stop you inadvertently, when you weren’t thinking about it, accidentally choosing another mood and before you know it, there you are, stuck in it. Crazy thing is, it can work both ways, both up and down, yet there seems to be some natural law that says, on balance, there tends to be a downward drift. Kinda ties in with the view that life’s a bitch, then you die. Not a view I subscribe to btw.

BUT but but… it’s not always like that, at least not for everyone. There can be something that restrains, something that stops that unfettered drift of moods. That something can either be preventative, a barrier that stops you going too far either way (yes, sometimes we get stopped – or at least I do – from getting too high), or – and here I’m at last getting to the point – it can be a fixed reference point, somewhere secure to which you can return.

The first kind, the preventative kind of restraint, might be fear – fear of being different, fear of losing control, fear of social or moral or legal consequences. Some interpretations of some kinds of religions work that way too – the rules-based “Thou shalt not” kind. But then fear can be neutralised; take it away and suddenly there’s no stopping and the entire spectrum of being is available. I guess hallucinogenic drugs can give that kind of experience.

But more interesting is the fixed reference point kind of restraint; more of an anchor than a restraint really. It might be all sorts of things; a relationship; a powerful self-belief, or in fact any deeply held unshakeable belief; even a place like a house or a hometown. Or it might be religion. Not the kind that sets rules but the kind that provides a secure anchor for belief. In fact that may be one of the things that matter most about a religion - not whether it’s “true” in any absolute sense, but whether it provides a fixed reference point, an anchor on which lives may be founded; a lighthouse, not to mark the rocks, but to light the safe path back to a place of spiritual security.

Religion may be one of the elephants in my room.

Of course, although I’ve called it an anchor, others would call it a crutch. But maybe those two views aren’t so different; just alternative ways of looking at the same thing - different labels that unfortunately carry very different associations. Anchors being something positive, necessary, good; crutches being only for the weak. It’s easy to get carried away by the pejorative associations of the label and forget the simple function.

Oh, but I digress again. I wasn’t intending to give a treatise on the place of religion in our lives, or its place in my life. I was just noting that, left unchecked, moods can all too easily fall to the level of the lowest common denominator, and the more that fall, the lower that common point sits. And since we all sit there together, nobody notices how low it is. We all think everything is quite normal and as it should be.

I need an anchor to arrest that fall, and take me back to that fixed point; that place of clarity, of understanding, where I say "Ah yes, of course, that's how it is...", and I sometimes find it hard to find one.

Music may be the closest I've found yet. Perhaps more on that anon.

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