At my dentists they leave the radio on high volume. The receptionist claims it is because she loves BBC Radio 2’s blend of 60’s classics but I know better. I get anxious at the dentist, luckily there are lots of things to calm you down. Copies of fashion magazines and Men’s Health are spread across the waiting room. Many years ago they kept a copy of The Reader’s Digest, but that has now gone along with the toys for young children. What has replaced the toys and the Reader’s Digest is a fish, a goldfish to be specific. I watched it while waiting for my filling and the fish looked back at me. The goldfish and I didn’t connect on an emotional level, but we both knew that things weren’t as they seemed.
When I was a pretentious lefty I might have compared the goldfish to false conscious members of the ruled class. Swimming away, bobbing about, eating food and occasionally staring at its reflection. More recently though I’ve decided not to patronise the goldfish, but rather to identifying with it. The dentist’s goldfish is subject to forces beyond its control. It is reliant on power, drainage and dental systems completely beyond its comprehension. The only humans it hangs around with are anxious people, who are either in or about to be in great pain. It is easy to see why I and the goldfish have a lot in common.
Whether or not I and the goldfish are kindred spirits I do have a small advantage over it. I know the goldfish’s purpose in life: it is to calm me down and provide decoration to the dentist’s waiting room. Admittedly these ideas are beyond the fish’s conception. There would be no point trying to explain room layout or nervousness to a goldfish after all. So the obvious conclusion to draw from the situation of the goldfish is nihilism. If the goldfish’s purpose is beyond its conception then why would my life purpose be any different? Me and the goldfish already have a lot in common so why not meaninglessness? The difference between me and the goldfish is agency. While like the goldfish I have no power to conceive life outside my own fish bowl, I do have the power to organise it. Unlike the goldfish we can choose whether to pollute our environment. We can choose how we distribute the fish food.
The danger lies in conflating political decisions about how we organise the fish bowl with our personal struggle for deeper meaning. We risk suspending our conscience and abandoning our humanity in order to play an ideological role. I am his agent God will forgive me or I am just am servant of the dialectic of history. But danger lies not just in surrendering to ideologies about how we change the world, but also in surrendering to the conventional wisdom about how it is. In a world where ideas and political consensus’s are changing, pragmatism really is just another false god. Another word for accepting the limits of the neoliberal project. Dominant systems of ideas change, sometimes things aren’t as they seem. I know that BBC Radio 2 is on high volume in order to hide the sound of dental drilling.
It is true that we go into things with good intentions but ultimately find ourselves fighting fires and dealing with unintended consequences. Relationships fail, jobs don’t work out, friends let you down. When things don’t work out it is tempting to indulge crazy escape schemes or sip from bitterness’s seductive cup. However life is about taking risks, so when those risks don’t work out all you can really do is brush yourself off and leap back in.
I left a job I enjoyed on Friday, after only two months. In the name of having some professionalism and I’d rather not go into the reasons here, but quite frankly I feel terrified right now. This was supposed to be the dream job. The start of a great new career and there was no back up plan. I could be unemployed for a week, month or a year.
Despite my left wing values, there is something deep inside of me that says unemployment is something to be ashamed of. I simply can’t imagine what I will say to strangers now when they ask that terrible question: what is it you do? I dread explaining to friends why I left my job. Part of me feels like being unemployed means I don’t deserve nice things. I don’t deserve to go on holiday, have a girlfriend or even do anything that costs money because I’m not contributing.
I feel truly lost. Every other chapter of my life was framed around supporting a great cause. When I was 16 I was building myself up to become a Vicar, promote Christianity and bring society back to the values that made it so successful in times past. At university I supplanted Christian evangelisms for a kind of semi self-conscious Leninism. Since university this has mellowed out slightly but not by much. I exhausted myself campaigning for the Labour Party in 2015. I found myself facing daily arguments and confrontations for openly backing Corbyn in an office of card carrying, centre left, neoliberals.
While I still feel an affinity for utopian politics, Trade Unions and Jeremy Corbyn, this is perhaps no longer the focus of my life. The kind of manic, obsessive drive to learn more left wing theory, knock doors and argue with people about what philosophers our society should be built upon is now faded. It could just be a temporary setback, a loss of confidence maybe. But I think it might be a turning point. The life of active socialist is exhausting. There is something exciting about stepping into the unknown with no ideological compass, no faith, but a boatload of boatload of barely repressed cynicism to guide you.
A few years ago me and a group of my guy mates went on a big night out. Lad culture was all pervasive and despite being thoughtful and shy, I used make sexist jokes about “pulling sluts,” suggesting the word was ok because it was being used ironically. Now of course I was wrong and part of me knew this because I wouldn’t have dreamed of making the same conversation in different company, but I was also young, frustrated and confused. The group mentality of a geeky lad pack offered a kind of camaraderie, security and comfort blanket for those failed chat up lines.
At the time I really fancied friend of mine. Naturally we’d met up to go clubbing, hitting every bar possible along the way. It had been a good night by all accounts, but come half 12 my friend had drunken a lot and come close to passing out so I opted to walk her home. It wasn’t a long journey, but she needed support walking and was leaning a lot on me heavily. It was difficult getting her home. Really drunk people don’t balance well, they sway side to side. Luckily I ran into an acquaintance that helped me carry my drunken friend to her street. However before leaving me to help my friend into her home she warned me: Nick do not to take advantage of this situation.
I found the suggestion of me have bad motives a little frustrating. In my head I was doing a good thing and I went home straight after letting my friend into her house. However on reflection the concern of my acquaintance was right. Lots of women get assaulted at university and the perpetrators are often their friends. In trying to get my friend out of a venerable position, I’d put her in a different kind of venerability where I was the risk. When I think back on that night, I feel this tinge of worry. Is there a chance I might have behaved differently?
Men are born into a society in transition hung over from hundreds of years of sexist ideology. We benefit from inherited privilege and are told it is the natural order of things. This ideological hangover of inherent sexism affects our thinking patterns, habits and sense of humour. Feminism may be a movement about redistributing cultural and political power away from patriarchal institutions but it is also about personal development. Recognising our own inherit sexism is just the first step but acknowledging this makes it difficult for men to claim to be feminists in our daily lives. On that night I though I was a saint for walking my friend home, but actually being a good friend and not taking advantage of people when they are drunk is the bear minimum in life. Being a feminist about changing your attitude and unlearning inherited prejudice.
So I’m not a male feminist. This is not what a feminist looks like. I’m still culturally hung over from patriarchy, I still subconsciously treat women differently to men and at times my habits and attitudes are probably part of the ideological net holding back progress. But I’m confident that if I’m not a feminist I’m also not an asshole and am doing my best to be self-reflective. A male feminist isn’t something I am, it is something I’m trying to be. Unless you (reader) are some alt right, men’s rights person in which case: I am a feminist, smash the patriarchy.
This Christmas I found myself wide awake in the middle of the night writing furiously to a long forgotten friend who I’d years ago had a short fling with. What started as some pleasant reminiscing had erupted into a torrent of shame, hidden feelings and personally exposing confessions. I was writing compulsively, unable to rest and unable to stop.
Like all great romantic moments, my compulsion to write was over shortly. What didn’t end shortly was my feeling that a lot of people are like me, lonely dreamers who read too many books, spend more time in their own heads than the real world and are slaves to moments. People who crave deeper meaning, don’t have many partners and therefore are forced to find meaning in other in other things, in moments.
For most part finding romance in moments is a good and life enhancing thing. Less is more, you learn to take joy and find fulfillment in the simple things; nice dances, personal gestures and brief connection. In the small exhibition in the Byard’s Brain museum dedicated to extinct relationships, no old love however bitter goes forgotten or despised. The problem with enjoying moments, however, is they don’t last. You find yourself perhaps reading romance into times when it didn’t happen. Romantic moments after all in order to survive must live in a vacuum, while human relationships need to evolve change and die when their time is due.
Holding on to moments makes rejection a much bigger danger. It doesn’t just destroy any chance of future connection but delegitimizes and perhaps destroys the moments you did have. People who you don’t actually know that well can start having a disproportionate power and impact over your life. Worst of all, there is a danger of not taking risks with people in the real world to preserve the sanctity of the romantic moment living in the back of your head.
As a student of history I can confidently say that a romanticised past isn’t an accurate one. I can also confirm that when you pedestalise something it becomes much harder to reach. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy times in our life which at least if only through retrospect, make us happy. It also doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with enjoying a short sweet connection. The important thing in life and romance is to balance your own story with the requirement to treat yourself with kindness, treat others like human beings and drive your own progress by taking risks. Needless to say, I never did send that letter.
Yesterday, when walking home by the river I felt a strong urge to sit by the bank. I wanted to look out and take in the scenery. In my way was a three foot high fence. I pondered the fence for a little. I knew others had scaled it. Walking past that way before I had seen the grass marked black from campfires and discarded cans of beer. I stared at the fence knowing I could climb it. Knowing no-one would stop me.
Rather than climbing immediately, I reflected on the purpose of the fence. The river was near a residential area so this fence was probably there to stop children running into it. It was not erected to keep responsible people like me out. But at the back of my mind was this niggling fear that someone in the nearby houses would see me climb. Maybe they would report me to the police for fence jumping. Maybe they would come out and shout at me. Of course, all this was nonsense. No-one would care if I sat by the fenced off river. But still, I feared the consequences of breaking the rules.
Ideology is a lot like this. The physical barriers such as gates, fences and police, that stop us doing things, are backed up by much more powerful habits of thinking. The fences physical power to stop me entering the space by the river is much weaker than the psychological signal that the area is forbidden. As I am not someone in the habit of breaking rules, jumping the fence involved an internal mental struggle with the representatives of authority that live and lobby in my own head. The reward was freedom but the risk was to my own security.
Accepting security and routine is not always a bad thing. In our lives we often don’t fight for things we want, in order not to disrupt the other things we like and already have. Pursuing happiness can adversely affect your sanity and relationships with other people. Worst of all is when what you think your fighting for doesn’t actually exist in reality. We after all can make a habit of projecting onto people and object our own ideals and fantasies. Maybe I was projecting a false image of freedom onto the other side of the fence and the fight for it was at best not worthwhile and at worst disruptive.
Now of course, I don’t want to tear down river fences and risk children falling into the water. But I do see that state intruding into my head, and find myself a slave to habit and conformity much more than I would like. Living with this is perhaps just the cost of living in the world; the cost of being part of society. That is why sometime we just need to jump that fence, sit by the river and smile to ourselves while screaming internally fuck society! Yesterday, however, after pondering the fence for a little, I didn’t fuck society. I stayed on the path, crossed the river and went home.