It has slowly dawned on me that one of the obstacles standing in the way of human beings finding peace is, among other things, that it is boring.
Allow me to highlight some recent observations that may further illuminate what I mean. First, I have a girlfriend who has had some really shabby relationships. Going through the mill with yet another unsuitable suitor, we had a discussion about what a healthy, happy relationship might look like. Be like. Feel like. Her conclusion? Well, maybe that would be nice, but you know, just a bit boring.
Second example, while working in one band I regularly used to travel to gigs with one band member who, without needing a degree in medicine could fairly be described as a functioning alcoholic. On one such trip to a gig he was rather confused by the fact that I don’t drink or smoke, that I take regular exercise, eat well etc. He exclaimed, ‘but isn’t that a bit… boring?’
My third rather tenuous example is of a well-known yogi on social media who always posts very lovely, floaty, motivational statuses. Flowers, sunsets and messages of peace and hope are the majority of her content. On one occasion though, she got into a bit beef with some peers and wrote about it and do you want to know something? I have never, ever seen a larger response to her posts than on that occasion. Peacetime needs no reaction, yet when there was a bit of drama, suddenly everyone had something to say.
This is all anecdotal of course and proves nothing but my last example is historical. When hosting an event about the 2011 riots, I had my tutor, a historian who taught my module Poverty, Crime and Protest, on the panel. In our module we quite obviously focussed on crime and poverty and riots. At this event, I asked my tutor what he believed caused the riots and he turned my question right back on itself. The question maybe should be, why don’t riots like this happen more often, given that the conditions we attribute to their cause are often always existent. My tutor brought to our awareness the tendency to potentially overstate these events. Because history is made up of ‘stories’, ‘happenings’, ‘changes’, when we focus on this, it is easy not give those consistent moments, those times when everything was fine thank you very much, equal prominence. There were moments when people lived quite peacefully and rubbed along nicely. Yes, that too did happen. So why might we not focus on those periods in our historical studies? Have we nothing to say about that? Do we inflate these occurrence-based narratives beyond their significance?
These examples are far from definitive but I think what they show is that human energy and action can often be directed towards what I personally call, ‘jumpy-jumpy excitement’. You know, when ‘stuff’ happens and it’s exciting but often at the expense of other more mundane activities of which great and simple pleasures could be extracted. I do not want to be misunderstood here though, what I am talking about should not be confused with youthful exuberance, pure motivation or even energetic gusto as contrasted to more mature and leisurely activities. So going now in a more esoteric direction to explain, I believe it is more like something that is found in the Devil card of the tarot deck. The Devil card in tarot has no religious inference, it simply alludes to energy, but clearly there are analogies. Now, without attempting a comprehensive breakdown of the meaning of this card, we could simply just say that it pertains to mental bondage to ‘lower’, ‘darker’ and more ‘morose’ energies. These energies are powerful and give us a sense of ‘aliveness’ but they are illusory, fleeting and impermanent. In the card itself (depending on the deck), it shows a man and woman in chains. What is interesting though, is these chains are not locked or attached to anything. This represents self-inflicted, mental bondage, because release and liberation can easily be attained, should the querent want it. But here is the thing, should liberation and peace be your desire you can make it a reality but my simple observations suggest that is not (to generalise wildly here) what people want. It is like it is immensely simple and immensely hard, all at the same time. Often, the issue here is what constitutes ‘happiness’ for different people is something that isn’t lasting fulfilment but excitement of a fleeting kind. One can appear to be having a lot of fun, whilst simultaneously also enduring a lot of pain too.
‘If by happiness is meant a continuity of highly pleasurable excitement, it is evident enough that this is impossible… with much tranquillity, many can find that they can be content with very little pleasure: with much excitement, many can reconcile themselves to a great deal of pain.’ – J.S. Mill
Mill is not the first philosopher to write on this subject and many have been concerned with it since. Why does the volatility of drama, excitement and chaos have such a pull on us? Why is it deeply embedded within our psyche that it is somehow associated with the attainment happiness? The well-respected and phenomenal writer Zadie Smith alludes to something similar in her essay, Joy. She writes about the ‘terror, pain, and delight’ of joy. It is dangerous, almost something to be feared. After the great soaring heights of elation, how can anything else compare? Anything below that must be a crash, a comedown and a soggy disappointment that eventually gives way to cloudy contemplation. We must start over again on the first rung of the ladder.
Anyone who has read my previous blog about anger or who knows me well will have some idea about my own personal battles with demons and of the imperatives that forced me to re-evaluate my own lifestyle and choices. I was having a lot of fun but also inviting a lot of pain. Eventually I made the decision that, for me, that pain did not justify the excitement and that lead me to find other kinds of pleasure. These became more even, steady and permanent kinds of pleasure that at the height of my crazy phase would have seemed awfully tedious. So this blog is not written to preach or to cast judgment on the choices of others but merely to highlight something quite real. That is of our equating of peace with boringness. Or even with nothingness, something hardly worth mentioning. Now I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I’m not saying that you cannot have any excitement at all in life without pain I’m merely trying to point out that often particular kinds of seemingly exciting activities are illusions. They have the appearance of something exhilarating and life affirming whilst being inherently destructive to the human soul.
Sometimes when playing out these thought experiments I use death as my sobering parameter. When thinking about my inevitable demise, I imagine how I might judge my life. How I might wish I’d spent my short time here on this little earth spaceship. I use that as my litmus test for my actions in this moment. For me, it’s likely that I would look back on my life and wish that I had been kinder and more patient, with myself and with others. I’ll wish that I’d learnt more about the world I live in, shared that knowledge and did more to help others. I’ll wish that I’d been more true to myself and a bit more brave. I’ll wish I’d loved a bit more and shared it and showed it to more people I admired and cared for. But how does one characterise these qualities? How can one make such qualities exciting and competitive? Well, unfortunately one cannot. Attempting to determine the difference between contentment and peace, happiness and excitement, is not a straightforward task but philosophically there is a great difference here and how we conceptualise human nature is key.
Maybe my last story can elucidate further. On a cold, November evening after a Saturday night gig and sitting in a kebab shop in Putney, I remember the conversation vividly. Our friend had become a Christian and told us of his new life and devotion to his work as a missionary. Others around the table balked at his new, chosen path. They could never do such a thing. I mean, it’s a big commitment, right? We concluded our conversation with the simple observation that, being bad is fun but being good is more rewarding. And therein lies the crux. As humans we paradoxically and rather selfishly, would probably like to have both.
Thank you for reading.