Tag Archives: wisdom

Weltschmerz

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I received an email from a friend a while ago saying:

“Whoops. A student cried in my lecture today because the world is so unfair and we can’t change it. We were only doing the media representation of crime but we started talking about politics and the effects of everything on everything else. She’d NEVER realised that media is biased. She hadn’t questioned stuff. Her whole understanding of the world just shattered in my lecture. She got so totally overwhelmed by how difficult it is to know what’s right and also how dangerous irresponsible media is that she literally sobbed out loud.”

My friend wasn’t sure how to feel about the effect her lecture had had on this student, and nor am I. The part of me that still believes in education as a liberating force thought, ‘that was a powerful, eye-opening lesson. That’s what education is for – to make people more aware of the world around them and then to hopefully give them the wherewithal to make wise choices.’ This was the leftover idealist in me speaking – the tiny bit of me that still hasn’t been smashed to splinters on the shipwreck that is our current education system.

But the thought of this student sobbing for her lost certainty is actually a very sad one. It’s been rubbing like a pebble in my welly ever since I received the email because I had a sore spot there anyway. Part of what had been bugging me for a while was the question: what has knowledge ever done for me? When I was young I read a lot. I read about the slave trade, the (then) nuclear threat, the world wars, Hiroshima, Vietnam… and I took it seriously, that knowledge. I absorbed and pondered it. I let it affect me emotionally. And if you take this stuff seriously it does affect you. It probably should affect you.

So what then are you supposed to do with the emotional detritus this kind of knowledge creates? How do you cope with the monumental sense of powerlessness you’re left with when you finally understand that most things are a bit insane? It seems there are three ways to deal with it. The first way is to go into politics or education or whatever is your particular interest and try to change things from within. The second way is to ‘drop out’ and try to change things from without by attempting to build a life outside the mainstream and engaging with protest movements. The third way,  (the way my friend took when she boycotted all forms of news because it made her sob to the point of meltdown), is to hide from it all and try to spend your life in your happy place (or just live your life perpetually off your face on drugs/alcohol).

I tried the second method for many years until I finally realised there really is no way to build a life truly outside the mainstream in the UK if you have no resources. I also realised that protests have very little effect unless they are gigantic and relentless and, again, you have resources. Nobody listens to the truly powerless. So I decided I’d join the education system and try to help things from within. Ten years later I, along with many wonderful colleagues, am battered, broken, disillusioned and exhausted. I have never developed the capacity to turn my mind away from things I think are wrong and just get on with life. I’ve never developed the capacity to shut my gob, either. And you can’t just live in your happy place when you have to go out into the wrong every day and earn a living. So that’s where I am now: stymied. I can’t change things, I can’t run away from things, and I don’t have it in me to ignore things.

So I UNDERSTAND my friend’s student’s response to the horrible realisation that the world is not as manageable as she first thought, and I hope she finds somewhere in her brain to file this stuff so she can walk the tightrope between unhappy knowledge and ignorant bliss much more confidently than I do.

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Learning to listen

miner and moustacheI haven’t been writing lately. I’ve been reading the Internet too much again and I’m not sure why, but for the last few months my brain has not been processing the data I’ve been inputting effectively enough to produce any writeable trains of thought. I think I may be suffering from Toffler’s ‘infoxication’, or information overload. Someone may need to invent a new idiom to cover this state of affairs because I bet I’m not the only one experiencing it. How about: Too many opinions spoil your convictions…?

Ok, that’s embarrassingly lame, but it’s a start.

Anyway, while I have been unable to settle on any firm opinion about anything, and have also been wondering what the hell I want to do with my last 30 odd years on the planet, I have been working relentlessly on my other blog. This blog involves me walking around Cornwall with a camera permanently glued to my hand and a notebook and pen in my back pocket, accosting innocent passers-by and forcing them to talk to me.  As I’ve relaxed into the process of approaching a stranger, explaining what I’m doing and then asking their permission to photograph them, I have become more and more addicted to the whole thing. Only a few people say no, and these people usually have a very good reason to want to remain private, although the occasional older Cornish person still has a fear of the Internet based on not quite understanding how it works. One man today explained carefully to his wife, that if he had his photo on the blog, it would be seen by millions of people all over the world. If only that were so.

A serious and elegant lady I met in Falmouth this week

But what is so compelling about the whole thing is learning firsthand how almost everyone has something interesting to say if I can relax them enough to talk to me, and how moving even the most seemingly ordinary lives actually are. Although I tend to approach people who stand out to me in some way, often those who are more discreet in their appearance are just as interesting as the more noticeable ones, and on more than one occasion they have been much more interesting. I have always been someone who has faith in people, but doing this project confirms every single day that human beings are fascinating, funny and innovative. I met a man who is building a replica in his garden of one of the first planes to ever fly successfully, a homeless man who writes jokes on William Hill betting slips and keeps them in his rucksack, a woman whose husband accidentally asphyxiated himself on the back of a door and a man whose job it was to clean up drowned animals from Cornwall’s beaches. To name a few.

The home-made Penny Whistle of a busker in Penzance
The home-made Penny Whistle of a busker in Penzance

But I realised today that although I have been listening to the stories people have been telling me, I maybe haven’t been really listening. I mean listening in the sense of actually drawing things from these stories that could teach me, or remind me of, things of importance. I’m not the sort of person to start getting all I-Ching or anything, but it struck me today that I could draw things from what people are telling me. Last night, for example, I couldn’t sleep until very late because my brain was exploding with thoughts about what I want to do with my life. I have some business ideas that seem very difficult and out of reach, and I haven’t really focused my brain on making them into something real. So I (like everyone else probably) am feeling trapped and frustrated creatively which is making me lethargic. I woke this morning, tired and confused and went out to do some food shopping for the family. As usual, I had my blogging kit with me and ended up talking to two people. The first was a lady who told me about how her grandmother brought up four children all on her own while running her own small business and ended up owning three houses through sheer determination and hard work. The second was a man who talked about the ways he had come to terms with life in a Czech prison.

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Now, if I WAS a New Age type or spiritual person, I could start thinking some sort of higher power is trying to tell me to get off my arse and grab life by its testicles. Or at least its handlebars. I’m not one of those, though – but what I do think is that if we listen – really listen – to things people are saying to us, our brains can focus in on bits and pieces that we need to hear.

So I’m off out tomorrow with my camera and notebook. I wonder what the people of Cornwall have to teach me next.