Opinion & Thought

Filling the void

I guess it’s my professional background that is to blame – you can’t really function as a teacher without thinking of the issue of ‘life chances’. When you do a job that largely lacks a clear relationship between inputs and outputs, it is necessary to understand one’s purpose in the longer term. But I’m far from certain that the notion enjoys wide currency amongst those about whom teachers spend so much time thinking. I wonder how many people would consider themselves to be living a life which is mostly of their own determining.

I have recently been trying to help a long-standing friend deal with mental health difficulties, who seems to have had just such a problem. Having “been there” myself, I feel that only those who have been, can really understand it. But it doesn’t make being helpful much easier; the essence of such difficulties is that they distort one’s perception of everything else. Unlike, say, a stomach-ache, where at least one can identify the source of the distress, mental pain projects itself onto everything else, and conceals its true self behind that. It is like wearing a pair of grey glasses: they make the whole world look grey – but it is all too easy to forget that the problem lies with the glasses, not the rest of the world. Hence part of the problem with mental health can be identifying its true source – which may not lie where you think it does. And in turn, this can make it all the more difficult to identify what needs to be done: the temptation is to aim at the smoke rather than the flame…

Such difficulties may be a mixture of inheritance and background. There may not be much we can do about the former – but I suspect that we do nowhere near enough about the latter. As with physical health, we need to set up good habits early in life. But for all the talk about mental health, I wonder how much is being done to make that possible. Prime amongst these should come encouraging people to understand that they can act positively to develop their own selves, where they can cultivate all aspects of their personal identity and needs.

The neglect starts young: many young people are supervised by ‘helicopter’ adults for every moment of their waking lives. My friend seems to have had an early experience of this: she attended a minor public school which, by virtue of its boarders, operated a seven-day week, and made almost as many demands on the day-pupils (of which she was one) as those who lived ‘in’. From an early age, her life was dominated by the externally imposed demands of not only academic work, but sporting and musical life. Combined with high parental expectations, this perhaps leaves little opportunity for young people just to be alone with their thoughts, to learn to understand themselves, and to explore their own tastes and priorities. I suspect that the relief from the treadmill that many say they experienced during lockdown tells an important story here.

My friend was successful, eventually gaining an Oxford degree, and entering a demanding profession in which she has worked ever since. Even from a distance, I could see that her work dominated her life (not that mine as a teacher did not try to, as well…). She admits that her work came to be her main, even only, source of personal validation. In my case, I refused point-blank to let that be the case. There is just too much living to be done to allow that – and I never did see the point of living to work. After all, our masters, who urge us to do so often do not practise what they preach…

The problem with living to work is that those “life chances” become externally-defined – the meeting of targets, the acquisition of wealth and status, the progression of one’s career – or at very least, the pinning of one’s self-esteem solely on the competence with which one does one’s job. As with schooling, the modern workplace leaves precious little time for people to create their own meaning of Self.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much, if one is content to live one’s life on others’ terms. Be they inherited from one’s family, or the work-ethic inherited from one’s schooling or workplace, if you narrow your horizons and close off your curiosity, it may provide an adequate if pedestrian life, so long as you Play The Game.

But sometimes, The Game plays you. In both my friend’s case and my own, we found ourselves in workplaces whose toxic culture knew no limits, that ate people whole, chewed them up and if they resisted, spat the remains back out again. The stress of this experience is enough to endanger anyone’s mental health – and that, in both of our cases, it did.

The day when one can no longer do one’s job, a huge hole opens up in life; not only the loss of direction or a defined “role”, but also a large amount of time that needs to be filled. Particularly if one is struggling mentally, this can be difficult; as some found during lockdown, it is frightening how willingly the underoccupied mind fills that void with all sorts of terrors.

This is where the lack of prior thinking can be problematic. If you have become a live-to-work type, you risk having invested so much in that aspect of life that you neglected the rest of it. Who and what are you – really – when you are not at work? When work fills the day (and the mind) you can avoid this question for years, but when work stops, it can be hard to ignore.

My friend thinks that it began early in her life; even during school holidays, the conditioning made her struggle to cope with the absence of ready-made, work-orientated routine. Even her musical and other activities assumed the status of quasi-work – a mad rush to fulfil a large number of commitments that she had felt she had to accept. Listening to her some years ago, even non-work had started to sound like an extension of her job.

Perhaps many people live their entire lives like this: on autopilot. Filling their lives with busy-ness to avoid ever having to address the existential questions about their own meaning. Leisure sounds good, but in reality, can be a problem, unless you take active charge of what you do with it. I suspect that the British psyche adds problems: it is all too easy in this country to conflate positive living with social climbing or the precious pampering of the celebs. Outwith a certain privileged and self-obsessed minority, it is just not done to be too upbeat about how one lives. As a nation, we seem obsessed with the perceived grandeur of superior lives, and yet we often take little care with our own.

But I think there is a difference between self-indulgence and simply making an active decision to try to live well. It can equally be argued that to neglect active thinking about our lives is to waste the most precious asset that we have: life itself. Somewhere in there lies the contradictory legacy of a guilty, Puritan past in which pleasure was a sin… I suspect it lies in neither the entitlement of privilege nor the mindlessness of the herds that many seek to lose themselves in even when not at work; both are the antithesis of the balanced, authentic individual.

We cannot avoid having to dress, to eat, needing homes, interacting with our fellows, even consuming at some level. So we might as well do them well, gratefully, carefully and with enjoyment (however we define it). The mindful pleasure of doing something well generally far exceeds the saved hassle from not bothering. The problem is that this requires more effort than many seem either prepared to make, or to have time and energy left for. Somewhere, this appreciation needs an awokennness to the physical sensations of the world, which again exhaustion or distraction – or that protestant denial – so easily blunts in us.

My go-to psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi concluded that the principal source of human fulfilment is the self-challenge that leads to increasing competence and complexity of being. This is why it is worth taking almost any aspect of life beyond the basic. The problem in Britain is that the connoisseurs or cognoscenti who do so are regarded with inverted snobbery, rather than respected for their insight. True, affectation can reinforce a certain impression, but once again we confuse genuine expertise with social display. Yet such insight is open to anyone who makes the effort.

There are, of course, plenty of individuals who do take mindful care of their lives – but I suspect they are still vastly outnumbered by those who don’t. What is more, neglect seems to have become the definition of normality. The overwhelming message is “convenience” – for which read “anything that requires only the minimum of thought or effort”. Don’t try hard. (But let’s not forget that real sprezzatura requires effort….)

I feel thankful now that over the years I found I had to reject this thinking. It meant heading into fields that were, in terms of my upbringing, quite unfamiliar territory; drawing lines around my working life and sometimes stepping outside the norms of my peers. It is undeniable that this set up conflicts that eventually gave me problems. But I remain adamant that a balanced and thoughtfully fulfilled life is both a reasonable aspiration, and in fact makes for a more contented and productive working life as well. In the longer term, it served me well when my own working life collapsed and threatened to take my sanity and sense of self with it.

I pointed this out to my suffering friend; sadly, I got the impression that she rejects it as a kind of vanity – a form of fake “lifestyle” whose purpose is social display or furtherment.

I see it as a matter of authenticity. However, it is true that the similar calculations are done by some simply to impress and can indeed be inauthentic. They may superficially appear the same, but I think there are two differences. One is in the mind: a simple matter of personal honesty about one’s motives, whether other people understand or not. The second is consistency; a sure sign of inauthenticity is tastes that change with the winds of social status and fashion. They are likely to be characterised by superficiality, whereas true passions are ones that encourage you to delve deeper, to find greater complexity and discernment. Passing fads never achieve that.

An excellent example of this is male dress, from which this blog takes its title. There is a world of difference between a man who genuinely appreciates a fine, timeless aesthetic no matter what his means, and those who seemingly do the same things, but just to exhibit their wealth and status. The same can be said for food, travel, homes and almost any aspect of what for some is “lifestyle” but for others, just Life.

I consider myself lucky that I had somehow figured a lot of this out by the time my own zero-hour arrived. It didn’t protect me entirely from the demands of over-work; my professional life (and mental health) came crashing down about five years ago as a result of overwhelming workplace stress. But through all the difficulties that followed, I am certain that all the other elements of the life I have built were my safety net: the things that remained constant even as other things lurched all over the place. They anchored my sense of who and what I am and have continued to do so as I recovered. What’s more, my appetite for that life filled the hours that suddenly opened up in the space where Work had been.

This is not about specifying any particular way of life, but about settling who we are to our own satisfaction and fulfilment, rather than living to please or impress others, or just to keep them off our backs. In the end, it is a matter of being true to oneself; that includes drawing the line at those things in life that seek to take us over, to define us solely in their own terms, to the neglect of who we really are. It is not narcissistic to try to find a stable balance between our obligations to others and a delimitation of our own rightful individuality. All the more so when those others believe they can invade so much of our lives that there is nothing left for ourselves – and most of all at times of need.

Teachers spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about their students’ life chances; in reality, we might achieve better results by helping and encouraging more people to think harder about their own – and hopefully redefining them as something more than the live-to-work outlook that can do such harm.  I hope my friend is reading.

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