The stories we share

My friend Chris Phin has blogged about what he calls a really simple idea:

Everyone around you, indeed, everyone all over the world, has a story that brought them to today, to this minute, this second, that is as rich and internally consistent as yours.

That reminds me of my beloved This Is Water, in which David Foster Wallace notes that as you don’t know what people’s stories are, you might as well assume the best of people: you’ll never know one way or the other, so you might as well go for human warmth and empathy. You’ll have a much better life if you do.

(If you missed it, I wrote about this last Christmas in a post covering all kinds of things including how I stopped being a snob about Christmas lights on strangers’ houses.)

We humans are a storytelling species. This, in Time magazine, caught my eye:

Now, a new study in Nature Communications, helps explain why: storytelling is a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms, and it pays valuable dividends to the storytellers themselves, improving their chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support and even having healthy offspring.

It’s a really interesting study: researchers studied “forager cultures” and found that their tales “carried lessons about social cooperation, empathy and justice, and many taught sexual equality too.” It’s a small study, but I love the fact that it found “storytellers were chosen over people who had equally good reputations for hunting, fishing and foraging — which at least suggests that human beings may sometimes prize hearing an especially good story over eating an especially good meal.” I bet the storytellers were offered exposure rather than any payment, though.

Not everybody wants to share their stories, or read others’. I think in particular there’s a generational issue, where some people who grew up before the internet don’t understand why on Earth anybody would send their darkest thoughts into the public sphere. But for those of us who grew up with social media, or were introduced to it fairly early on, it’s perfectly natural.

As the late Douglas Adams so excellently put it:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

My very first article, some 20 years ago now, was about the then-new phenomenon of “journalling”: people posting about their lives online. It seemed strange then; today, it’s normal. And I think that can be powerful.

As Chris says:

I’m currently – today – feeling hopeful. Because around me, in the friends I have in cyber- and meatspace, and the media I chose to be exposed to, I see people much more willing to be emotionally vulnerable and honest. To allow people, in other words, to read that story inside each of us, and not to be afraid to show the world that we’re not the 2D cardboard cut-out people we usually feel we have to present as.

There are many problems with social media, but it has many positives too. Reading other people’s stories has helped me make sense of my own, has provided support when I really needed it, has helped me see beyond my bubble.

Chris again:

I’m seeing people using social media to articulate and own their issues, their problems and their insecurities – their stories. They’re prepared to show the workings-out of how you become a good and kind and whole person, rather than persisting in the fiction that they’re already complete, autonomous adults. And that’s marvellous, I think; I have become closer to friends who have embraced their chaos and their fuckups, and I believe people have been drawn closer to me when I’ve purposefully dismantled the façade I so carefully built from my teens on.

Storytelling is valuable to the storytellers as well as to the readers or listeners. I’ve been quite open on this blog, possibly more than some people would like, but I find the process of writing my thoughts down and putting them out there is useful. And I’ve had many real-world conversations with people about things I first talked about here. Sometimes all you need is a little “liked” icon to tell you that somebody found what you wrote useful, or interesting, or valuable, or funny.

Like Chris, I built a facade in my teens. And like Chris, I find I’m much happier having dismantled it. Being open online is part of that. It means I’m showing my authentic self: an imperfect human who’s trying to be better.

“The body blow of wishing”

 

I really like Kirsty Strickland, one of Scots media’s more interesting columnists: she’s funny on Twitter, incisive on politics and occasionally devastating on Medium.

Here, she writes about how grief is part of Christmas for so many people.

Because for all the joy that Christmas can bring, its braying decadence and opulence can also provoke harsher, sharper feelings — separately and intertwined with one another — like the scalding heat of freezing fingers.

One of those is certainly grief. It’s a place where your happy memories and treasured times with a departed loved one collide with the body blow of wishing beyond anything else that they were still here.

I love the imagery in her post, grief as a wound that “will fade over time to a silvery scar.” She’s writing about death and loss here, but of course death isn’t the only kind of loss. Some of us will be experiencing Christmas alone after years of family life, or with parents who no longer remember who we are, or with diagnoses predicting horrors in the days and months to come.

Our streets will be still on Christmas Day and all the ordinariness of life will grind to a halt. This gives us time to think and to remember; to rejoice and, yes even to grieve.

As Strickland notes, if you’re struggling and need somebody to talk to then the Samaritans are available 24/7 by calling 116 123 or emailing jo@samaritans.org.

Finding the good things you weren’t looking for

 

I’ve been writing a lot about “discovery” recently, the way in which apps attempt to find things you might like based on what you’ve liked before. But the best discovery is when you find things that aren’t just based on your purchase history or listening history.

For example, over the last couple of days I’ve discovered all kinds of fun things: the beautiful glass jewellery of Rachel Elliott, the gorgeous voice of Courtney Lynn, the hip-hop artist Becca Starr and the stunning folk/rock of Annie Booth.

I came across all of these things by accident. Elliot was selling her stuff in a one-off market in the downstairs of a pub; Lynn just happened to be playing in a bar chosen at random for a quick Sunday drink; Starr was performing in a venue where some of my friends hang out and Booth was played on a radio show I don’t usually listen to.

It’s a great demonstration of why it’s important to explore, whether that’s physically – going to places you don’t usually go – or in a less physical sense, by being open to new things or experiences.

There’s a word for encountering great things without going looking for them: serendipity, which means happy accidents: when things occur entirely by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Some of my very favourite things in the whole world came to me through serendipity. I don’t believe in destiny, the idea that everything we do is somehow pre-ordained. But I do believe in serendipity, that some of the word’s greatest joys come when you aren’t looking for them.

I love the origins of words, and this one’s particularly great. It was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 in his Three Princes of Serendip, a fairy tale where the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

I wasn’t planning to look into the origin of it; I just wanted to see if there was a better definition. So the delight I have in that little nugget of information is serendipitous too.

“Be yourself, man. Whatever that is.”

It’s international men’s day today. This, on masculinity, is very good.

There’s nothing wrong with masculinity. But to be a man often means trying to live up to a very narrow definition of what masculinity means, and that can be suffocating if you don’t fit that definition.

Fraser Stewart articulates it very well in this video: by all means be stoic and strong if that’s who you want to be, but don’t try to be somebody you aren’t.

These expectations [of strength and stoicism] are dangerous for the men who feel sad, or feel lonely, or anxious, or depressed, but who have been told throughout their life that to be a man you have to bottle up your feelings, that this is an intrinsic part of your masculinity.

It’s not easy to be a man or a boy, but sometimes we make it harder than it needs to be. It’s okay to be vulnerable, to be sad, to be a man who doesn’t fit in a narrow box marked “stiff upper lip”.

What if we didn’t keep so many secrets?

My friend Chris posted an interesting question on Twitter last night.

What would be the worst outcome of your innermost thoughts – not literally ‘your internet history’, but it’s a decent proxy, I guess – being made public? What would be the best?

I’m thinking a lot just now about how we hold onto unvoiced concerns about ourselves, internalised, received-wisdom self-hatred that we daren’t interrogate, making them all huge and black and important… while most people wouldn’t give a damn.

The corollary to ‘everyone around you has a story as rich and deep as yours’ and the implication that this might come as a surprise is that ‘nobody around you thinks your story is particularly important’, and perhaps that can be a catalyst for honesty and growth.

I can answer some of that, because of course my darkest, most terrible secret is no longer a secret: I’m – surprise! – one of those trans people the papers warn you about. And what happens is your fear loses its power. You move from being terrified of anybody even suspecting the slightest hint of your secret to moving through the world without really giving it much thought. Fears lose their power incredibly easily.

So the glib answer is: your life gets better. Not necessarily easier, but better because living a lie is really hard work.

But that’s a pretty extreme example. What about the day to day things, the smaller things we don’t say out loud? As I responded to Chris:

…a lot of secrets are really hard work too. For example, the classic “I’m in love with them but I’m too scared to tell them”. I’ve lost half my life to that one :) 

But there are also everyday ones, the things we don’t always articulate. The love we have for our partners, our friends, our children. The sadness we feel at accidental or not so accidental cruelties of others. The times we’re barely hanging on and desperately need a shoulder to lean on but can’t bring ourselves to ask. 

[total honesty] would also mean people I quite like hearing the less pleasant things I observe about them, so it’s not all good. But my gut is that we silence more valuable stuff than bad stuff. Maybe :)

How many times have you bitten your tongue at something that’s really made you sad, or wanted to tell someone how much they matter but just went red instead?

What would happen if you stopped pretending, if you didn’t censor everything? I don’t mean not censoring anything – I’d be barred from supermarkets if I vocalised what I thought about my fellow shoppers sometimes – but the important things, the things that make you feel things.

What would happen if you were more honestly you?

The darkness

Photo by me

This is Glasgow’s city of the dead, the Necropolis. It’s also a brilliant place to watch fireworks, which is what the people in the photo were doing last night. I love this shot, it looks more like I’ve stumbled upon some kind of ritual.

Beware the radicalisation of nice white people

We’ve heard a lot about radicalisation in recent years. Radicalisation is the process of causing somebody to adopt radical – that is, extremist – positions on political or social issues. As The Guardian reported back in 2014:

people’s beliefs are rarely determined by good evidence and sound reasoning alone. There are all sorts of psychological biases that make us more ready to believe some things rather than others. [People] who believe they are seen as nobodies in their own country are bound to be attracted by the idea of being heroes elsewhere. And once inside the bubble of an online network dedicated to the same cause, all their pernicious beliefs are reinforced.

…once persuaded, we seek confirmation, not challenge.

There’s an element of racism to the term: as the same Guardian article notes, one person’s radicalisation is another’s religious epiphany. But generally speaking, the process goes a bit like this:

Person feels lost
Person finds new friends
New friends persuade them to hate a specified group
Person becomes immersed in literature and comment demonising that group
Person starts acting in a hateful way towards that group

Sometimes it’s triggered by a traumatic event. Some muslim men were radicalised by war. Some anti-muslim people have been radicalised by terrorism. Some people have become radicalised against particular races after being assaulted by members of that race, or have become fearful of the opposite sex because of bad experiences with that sex. And so on.

But sometimes it’s simply because somebody got caught making a mistake.

You see it in media. Somebody writes an ill-conceived, poorly researched or just plain piss-poor thing concerning some marginalised group; members of that group respond angrily; the writer feels under attack and doubles down, writing even more inflammatory things; the group responds in even angrier ways; the writer becomes angrier still and starts accumulating supporters who hate the group even more than they do, becoming increasingly convinced that the group is the embodiment of pure evil; and so on.

Somebody who started off as a perfectly decent human being ends up inhabiting a bubble of bigotry and becomes a frothing, intolerant, abusive arsehole.

I’m not going to name specific people, because the people I have in mind are notorious for searching their own names on the internet and sending their many thousands of followers after their critics.

It’s interesting and saddening to see: it’s a journey where mild ignorance becomes outright hatred. People just like you and me, ordinary, reasonably intelligent people, become howling bigots who obsess over the perceived evils of some minority or other. And because they have a powerful platform, whether that’s in traditional media or on social media, they can do a great deal of damage. Their platform becomes a bully pulpit.

It’s radicalisation, but we don’t call it that when the hate preachers are white and shop in Waitrose.

The Guardian again:

The truth is that what we currently call radicalisation is not some sinister manipulation, but a process by which people come to freely choose a dangerously and wickedly misguided path that they nonetheless perceive to be a virtuous calling.

There is nothing psychologically unique about this. The road to inhuman terror starts with all-too-human error.

Pronouns and elegance

My previous post about How To Write Good included some really inelegant pronoun use: I wrote about “she/he” in connection with an unnamed, entirely imaginary writer. That looked and read awfully, so I changed it to “s/he”. Which made it worse.

It turns out that it’s better to avoid gendering things that don’t need to be gendered. Instead of he or she, the singular pronoun “they” is much more elegant.

This is hardly a zany new thing. “They” has been an acceptable singular pronoun for the last 500 years or so, as the Grammarly blog points out:

Merriam-Webster includes usage examples of the singular they dating back to Shakespeare, with notable additions from the likes of Jane Austen and even the traditionalist W. H. Auden.

The blog also features this wonderful bit of trivia.

Unfortunately for prescriptivists, English is constantly changing—and always has been. Some words that grammar pedants scoff at as obnoxious neologisms were in fact coined as long ago as the nineteenth century. Take “dude” for example. Reviled by grammar trolls the world over, this term has provoked the ire of multiple generations of fuddy-duddies. But did you know that it has its roots in late nineteenth-century British dandyism?

One of the reasons we get so excised about gender-neutral pronouns is because of our old pal the patriarchy. Grammarly again:

Traditionally, he was the default pronoun for a person whose gender you didn’t know

He is the default because male is the default: you only need to specify otherwise if the person you’re talking to is not male. That’s just rude.

William Lily there, mansplaining in 1567.

…Using the singular they makes English a more efficient language, and it helps us to avoid awkward sentence constructions. More importantly, it allows you to avoid making assumptions about the gender of a person you don’t know.

It also makes my blog posts slightly better. Everybody wins!