tales from urban dilettantia

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The map is not the territory, but today it will suffice.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of my maps.  And now there are two!

The first is a picture of something I’ve been working on since January; namely, the idea of sovereignty.  The idea is a work in progress, and the map is one of many spanning that progress.  I am posting it for Nathalie and Jaunita, who are right there with me when I need them.

The second is a picture of change.  Once upon a time I was the girl who could not walk across campus without tensing every muscle for fear people were looking at her.  The girl who would blush and stammer rather than hold a conversation.  The very queen of awkwardness, the non-phone-answerer, the one who declined every invitation.  Twenty years on, I am the woman who will pounce upon a friendly looking stranger with a ‘hi, I’m an enormous introvert; pleased to meet you!’  How did this happen you ask?  Still trying to work that one out, and I am posting this map for a dear friend who is on the journey too.

Pictures make me feel less mopey about the ten half-finished blog posts in my notebook. Let’s all forget about those posts and enjoy the shiny.  Or else.

Tiny Seeds & Long Shadows

Some days, I am fortunate enough to stumble across sparkling little ideas and quotes that are Exactly What I Need To Hear at the time. Recently, at a time when I was feeling pretty wretched about a number of things, Havi posted this on her blog:

When you encounter a bully, they seem so big.

They seem so big because you’re also seeing the shadow of every other bully you’ve ever encountered, at the same time.

They seem powerful because you are remembering vulnerable. They seem threatening because you remember being threatened.

And it sparkled (and by sparkled, I mean it shouted ‘hey woman, pay attention – you need to know this’) because I realised that – while she is ostensibly writing about bullying – the underlying concept translates so well to other things.

Relationships seem so overwhelming and powerful, because I am remembering being vulnerable and hurting and exhausted. Projects seem so overwhelming because I am remembering being let down by others and overwhelmed. Social engagements seem threatening because I am remembering being threatened or harassed or otherwise encroached upon.

My sense of overwhelm, my fear and my near-constant catastrophising are products of my bringing Every Single Thing That Has Ever Happened To Me to new experiences. It’s time to start realising that new experiences are just that – new – and only tiny seeds, neither great, nor looming, nor foregone conclusions.

To borrow from the late, great Bill Hicks (and if you haven’t seen American yet, you should), it’s a choice, right now, between fear and love. And tiny seeds grow into better trees with love.

Day Two: On should, need to, ought to, guilt and language

Being Day Two of the Festival of Miss Dilettante Posting Things About Her Happiness Project That She Didn’t Post Last Month or Indeed Last Year, which really is a fairly awful name for a festival and may need to be revised.

In the process of looking at language, communication and mental health, I’ve also come across some of my other ways of speaking (both internal and external) that haven’t been particularly healthy.

By far, the most pervasive of these has been ‘should’ (and other ways of saying should – need to, ought to, and so forth). For a born perfectionist and procrastinator, these phrases are the devil. For me they carry loads of guilt, obligation, resentment, self-blame, pressure and expectation. I’m learning to say ‘I will do x’, ‘I’ve chosen not to do x’ and ‘I would like to do x, but don’t have the capacity right now, so I’m putting it on my ‘maybe-someday’ list’. Do or not do, there is no should!

Is this anything more than semantics? Perhaps not, for some. But for me, the improvement in my quality of life is dramatic when I’m not playing ‘should’ and spending every second moment cringing in indecisive guilt.

Part of this, I think, is to do with the sheer weight of indecision, and part to do with the paralysis of perfectionism, but there’s another part too. It comes from the knowledge that committing is to take a side, to make a decision, and to accept that not everyone will agree with my choices.  It’s about not camping on the fence, and not spending my life chasing an unattainable goal of juggling the happiness of others.

Day One: On better ways of talking

Being Day One of the Festival of Miss Dilettante Posting Things About Her Happiness Project That She Didn’t Post Last Month or Indeed Last Year, which really is a fairly awful name for a festival and may need to be revised.

One of the most useful books I read last year was Nonviolent Communication. It’s most likely to be found on the self-help shelves, and you know how I feel about the self-help shelves. Nevertheless, I stumbled across a reference to it on the internet it when I was stuck and full of anger and pain, and was searching for a way to talk without lashing out at others. Indeed I think I only noticed it because I’d heard kvratties mention the name in passing. (And indeed I’m still feeling a little shy writing about it here, as I have a quiet horror of becoming Tim Robbins’ character from High Fidelity. ‘Conflict resolution is my job, Laura.’ Oh dear.)

Sidetracking in the direction of John Cusack-alicious films notwithstanding,  the implicit premise of the book is that, for many of us, common use of language and ways of speaking tend to escalate conflict. Assignment of blame, failing to communicate our needs and making demands of others are habitually embedded in the way we speak to one another. Rosenberg proposes a very simple – almost awkwardly so, on first read – practical methodology to deconstruct our ways of speaking to one another and replace them with more functional language.

When I first read the Wikipedia entry for nonviolent communication, it all seemed a bit simplistic and unsubtle, but for me there’s been much value in it. Most significantly, it’s been a tool that’s forced me to articulate (to myself, even) how I really feel, what I really need and what practical things I can do or ask for to get there. And, for someone who previously left these things floating in a fog of inarticulate ‘grrr’, ‘hiss’, ‘rawr’ and ‘purr’ feelings, this has been a huge leap of self-awareness.

I’m unsure much value there may be in nonviolent communication for anyone coming from a family where this kind of healthy interaction was the norm, but for those of us who didn’t, simply learning to say ‘I feel angry’ or ‘I feel invisible’ or ‘I feel sad’ and asking another person if they are willing to help with that – and respecting their response – can be an intensely vulnerable experience.

It’s fundamentally about honesty – about being clear with yourself and with others about what you feel and what you need, and being able to express that without implying expectation or asking more of another person than they are willing to give.  And so, ultimately, it becomes about opting-out of playing games – and if you abhor games and disingenuity as much as I do, that looks like a pretty big win.

The Thing About Happiness

While I haven’t written about it in some time, my fascination with happiness and optimal human experience continues. Two years and counting, in fact.

After all this time spent dabbling in psychology, philosophy, psychiatry, ethics, politics, communication, the productivity movement, the Slow Movement, passion, creativity, genetics, sustainability, love, life, the universe and everything, one would hope that I might consider myself a fundamentally happier human being than before. And so I do. But in the course of reading countless books and engaging in more conversations and debates than I can recall, I also seem to have run headlong into my happiness project’s elephant in the room.

The thing I’ve noticed about ‘happiness’ is that we each mean something different when we use the word. (‘Love’ works the same way, sometimes leading to a whole lot of hurt and misaligned expectations. The ancient Greeks did a little better, distinguishing philia, eros, agape, storge, and xenia.) And yet so few authors, both of the positive psychology genre and otherwise, take adequate space to define what they mean when they use this slippery word, and so few conversations make time for the parties to confirm that they’re both talking about the same thing, instead leaping straight into the talking at cross-purposes.

While reading What Makes Us Happy? over at The Atlantic earlier this year, I noticed that psychiatrist George Valiant uses the term ‘happy-well’ instead of merely ‘happy’. Although a little clumsy, I appreciate this because it not only aligns reasonably well with my own usage of ‘happiness’ but also represents an understanding that the term ‘happy’ alone is profoundly ambiguous.

So…happiness. I’ve seen it used to refer to hedonic pleasure, an absence of suffering, sustainable well-being, an absence of negative feelings, an abundance of positive feelings, the experience of a sense of purpose and meaning, euphoria, balance, contentment in the moment, a more fundamental sense of contentment or ‘rightness’ about one’s life, inner tranquility, complete fatalism or submission to a higher power and more, not to mention that warm feeling induced by a glass of wine or five. And, when you think about it, some of those are very different things indeed.

Reading that list, it strikes me that there’s simply no way that I’d dedicate my time to pursuing some of those user-defined experiences of happiness, nor encourage others to do so. The ‘happiness’ in my happiness project would more accurately be defined as ‘maintaining a sustainable level well-being, physical, psychological and otherwise, through both joy and sadness, with realism, rationality, courage and the conviction that my well-being does not exist in isolation from that of my environment and fellow travellers’. This, of course, makes a crap name for a project. ‘My happiness project’ is much catchier, particularly given that my brain has a damn short attention span sometimes.

However, in spite of its essential ambiguity I still like the word ‘happiness’, just as I appreciate the awkward, elusive, often-tricksy concept that is ‘love’. It’s a big, interesting umbrella-term that’s full of all manner of ideas – many of them contradictory. My happiness project may not be your happiness project, nor even encompass your understanding of happiness, but given that I personally find happiness in complexity and sometimes in contradiction, that’s all well by me.

(crossposted from LiveJournal)


Resources

Some Happy iPhone Apps (Depending On Your Definition of ‘Happy’):
Gratitude Journal
Live Happy
DoGood
I Can Has Cheezburger

Gretchen Rubin’s new Happiness Project Toolbox

My recent del.icio.us links tagged ‘happiness

Flickr


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About

@dilettantiquity is interested in an unreasonable number of things, including the wide and wonderful universe, happiness, well-being, wine, optimal human experience, non-violent communication, complex systems, existential nihilism, rationality, technology, grassroots organising, cacophony, music, creativity, learning and love.