Consider the Source

1352 Relax and Succeed - Opinions are other people's realities

A local afternoon radio drive show wanted to know what their listeners thought of the star-based rating system for plays or movies. Opinions came down on both sides, but which opinion someone has is irrelevant to this post. This is about how human beings routinely and unwittingly demonstrate the flexibility of reality.

What separates choosing using reviews vs choosing based on those with the most stars, is that the star system presumes a universal reality. 5 Stars is seen as a fact for anyone to experience, and yet we all know one person can love a movie or play and another person can hate it.

A quick example easily illustrates that using the star system has an invisible and significant qualifier attached –the person assigning the stars may have little in common with many of the people using them.

Let’s say that someone sees a play in a Fringe Theatre Program. Let’s imagine it’s called “Ugly Business” and the description says, “The sale of a family company and the arrival of a long lost sister complicate a family’s feelings over their roles and what they believe they are owed.”

Some of them will read that and think to themselves: Ah! I’m more of a creative person, I’m not interested in stories about business or people fighting over an inheritance. Plus it only got two stars.

And if they think that, then they often won’t think it’s relevant for them to read the full description or any reviews. And yet a review might be half way through before it says something like, “I was largely disappointed because this wasn’t what I went in expecting, so consider that. It takes place in a business, but it’s really more of a complex emotional story about the assumptions humans make about their roles in families.”

“Maybe if you’ve been adopted and had a reuniting process go badly this play might have depth I can’t feel, but this reviewer couldn’t find her way into this material despite very able performances and direction.”

1352 Relax and Succeed - Value happens within us

Now, let us also imagine that both the playwright/performer and the person picking the play share the fact that they were both adopted at the same age. And imagine their experiences attempting to reunite with a birth parent went terribly.

Add the fact that the performer and the prospective theater-goer are around the same age and will have shared many of the same major social and cultural experiences and suddenly that feels like the perfect play.

This is the connection all performers want with the audience, even in a comedy. If a play can establish any form of genuine empathy with us, rapport can easily build between the performer and audience. That effect can easily turn something from a two star rating into a five.

People have preached efficiency and brevity and ease as though they are religions. But as things like the Slow Food Movement, pedestrian based neighbourhoods and the resurgence of things like board games and dinner parties demonstrate, many people are more interested in connection than efficiency.

In movies or plays or restaurants, star systems have a real validity. But using them –along with other abbreviations of complex life experiences– threatens to alter the notion of ‘value’ in the same way that facebook accidentally changed and shallowed the definition of ‘friend.’ Those kind of redefinitions are not things society can double back on.

We can use stars if they work for us. But no matter what ‘systems’ we use to ease our decision-making in life, there will be trade-offs. Any decision can be fine depending on the individual and context, but we should know not only why we’re making any given decision, but also why we’re not making the alternate decisions.

We can’t just look at the upsides of something, we have to ask what price or consequence goes with each system or decision and weigh each one on the basis of both realities.

Choosing to use stars to judge art by is completely legitimate. That legitimacy is made wise if we also use that system knowing full well that our approach may cause us to occasionally miss out on value that can only be found by slowing things down to a speed where we can read life’s fine print.

peace. s

Know Thyself

1335 Relax and Succeed - Where do our choices come from

I’ve noted before that one of the advantages of working with younger people is that they’ll often play video games, and there will be patterns to which games they are attracted to. This can tell me (or a parent) a massive amount about how that kid sees the world and their place in it.

Do they like cooperative games, or ones where it’s every person for themselves? Do they like to destroy enemies, or co-opt them? What kind of avatar do they use? After all, that is the face they chose to show the world. That is how they want the world to see them. That might be a facetious use of a character or wishful thinking, we have to listen more to know. But the things we’re interested in say a great deal about who we are.

This applies to fashion, hairstyles, what movies or series we watch, what books we’ll read, and what sort of jobs we’ll take, as well as what people or organizations we’ll invest energy in. Despite the fact that these are completely guided by how we see the world, it is amazing how few people even begin to look for patterns in the things they consume.

Why do we like some characters in stories and not others? Why do we like some kinds of stories and not others? What do our tastes tell us about our view of the world?

And what about those closest to us? Parents, siblings, spouses, children, business partners, coaches etc. What do they like and what can that tell us about them and how can that knowledge improve our relationships?

Some people (like me) prefer to spend time with people smarter than us, and different from us, who can challenge us with ways of thinking we haven’t encountered before. Others are more intimidated by new information or change and prefer to associate with only those that already agree with their current world view.

Do we like books about weak individuals? Are our favourite movies all about little people defeating big people? Do we dislike ambiguous endings and abstract art, or do we prefer it? Do we like games where we build things, or destroy things?

1335 Relax and Succeed - The things we're interested in

Do we like board or card games that require tricking others, or by negotiating in good faith? Do we avoid playfully spiteful board games or card games (Aggravation and Spite and Malice have those names for a reason), or do we prefer games with multiple ways to win?

Maybe we like shocking hairstyles or fashion that helps us gauge how open new people are. Or maybe we’re a teacher, and we prefer the quiet studious kids to those that are more kinetic and that might become ballet dancers or athletes. Knowing that can help us make decisions about our joy and our growth.

Since knowing ourselves can add value to our lives, let’s take the rest of the week and let’s look at our own lives. Let’s study our bookshelves, music collections, wardrobe and even our relationships etc. And then let us ask ourselves what these things say about how we see the world and our place in it.

While no way to be or set of interests is right or wrong, these things do influence which decisions we’ll make, and therefore which challenges we’ll face in life. They’ll also inform where we’ll feel comfortable, or where we’ll experience more stress. These represent our ‘crosses to bear.’

The aim here isn’t to improve ourselves or others, it’s merely to know ourselves and others better because that creates more empathy and better relations.  And that knowledge can help us enormously when it comes to making decisions about our future.

For those that engage in this seriously, if you’ve never thought of yourself in these terms before, prepare for some surprising self-discoveries along the way. We’ll all likely find patterns that we didn’t even know we subconsciously had chosen.

All this being the case, let’s all take the rest of the week and get to know ourselves. After all, we’re worth it.

peace. s

Nothing is Something

1269 Relax and Succeed - They are the chosen onesThey were sitting in a coffee shop. The decidedly unsettled woman twitched a statement his direction. “I can’t paint.”

“You painted all of those beautiful paintings in your house, and quite a few hanging in other people’s houses too, like mine.”

“There’s no point.”

“You enjoy it.”

“Not like this.”

“This isn’t painting, this talking about painting.”

She was already done her coffee. She leaned over toward the garbage and ditched it. “This is a kind of torture, being stuck like this. Constant procrastination, no work. No achievement, no sense of self-respect. But how could I think I was gonna get that from something so fated? So pointless?”

“I like the paintings I own of yours. I take pleasure from seeing them. Don’t you enjoy people liking what you’ve offered?”

“Praise is uncomfortable for everyone. It’s too rare. Feels weird. And my problem is bigger than procrastination–although that’s huge–my problem is metaphysical. It’s… philosophical. It’s spiritual. It’s so huge it’s not even my problem it’s the problem. With everything”

“Oh oh. Then it’s a problem for me too. What is this problem we have again?”

“Everything comes from somewhere.”

“Why is that a problem?”

“It’s just a giant universe of pool balls, clicking and clacking away. We live inside a math formula.”

“What?”

She caught the eye of the bearded guy behind the counter then looked at her companion. “You want another one?” He signalled he still had 90% of his existing drink. She held up one finger and the barista nodded in understanding. “This whole thing. Everything in the world was predetermined by every other thing. It’s all just billiard balls.”

“I’m going to need a bit more detail.”

“Just think about it: why are we speaking English?”

“…Because we’re in Canada? Because our parents speak English?”

“Exactly! See! We had no choice. English came to us, we didn’t pick it off a list of German and Japanese and Italian and Swahili. Our lifestyles. Why do our Dad’s both own businesses–because their Dad’s did.”

“We’ve got friends who own businesses whose parents worked at jobs.”

“Yeah, but those people didn’t want to be like their parents, so in a weird way the parent still dictated what they did. It was all inevitable. All billiard balls. Every song, based on the notes developed by others, using the timing systems developed by others, and played on instruments invented by others. Everything is so derivative. There’s no point.”

1269 Relax and Succeed - Millions long for immortalityThat last statement shot the eyebrows of her companion up. He was thoughtful while she fidgeted even more, checking her phone. He broke her attention away from it when he spoke. “What if it’s not balls?”

“What?”

“What if it’s not balls? What if the reason it feels like there’s no point is that we’re not all individual balls in search of individual achievements. What if we’re all just one big flowing mass? Then aren’t your actions both kind of predetermined and also awake and alive? Isn’t it possible to be fully occupied with fulfilling our ‘own’ aspects of that flow? Doesn’t an ocean crash on anew on every shore? Isn’t that both ours and the–and part of the ocean of everything?”

She seemed genuinely impressed that it hung together in the end, but it didn’t line up with what she already believed, so her initial reaction was rejection. “That’s too easy. It ignores the nihilism of it all. I cannot paint with any kind of meaning. All anyone is ever going to get is just another reflection of every force I ever encountered as life unfolded me like a predetermined plan.”

“Can’t all of that be true and still leave you space to feel like you’re a part of a great oneness? Isn’t that what a muse is? The hand of God needs fingers right?”

Eyebrow. “Hand of God?”

“I was shooting for poetic.”

“Ah… no.” In the background the barista was foaming her latte.

“You’re the one going on about metaphysics and nihilism. I’m not even sure either one of us knows what those words mean exactly.”

“I just want my life to have meaning. Is that so much to ask from the universe?”

“How would I know? What’s meaning? Meaning changes as we mature anyway. I don’t see the crap we did at 10 years old the same way now that I did then. I can only assume that since everything else in my life is like that, now will be like that too. So what’s meaning? Meaning’s some floating idea we temporarily layer over an experience or a memory. But what’s so great about that? People have different opinions about the same book. Why can’t that be wonderful? Why do they have to agree on a meaning?”

“What’s the point?”

“That’s like asking for a meaning. Can’t life be the point? Can experience itself be the point? What do people who find out they’re dying want? They want more experiences. They might have had a lifetime of crappy ones and they’ll still want more when you tell them it’s over. There has to be something to that. Picasso was billiard balls too. I remember you getting pretty excited about Picasso. Wasn’t that joy real? Wasn’t that a thing? Isn’t that a point? To just…–live that? Doesn’t the universe need witnesses?”

This catches her attention. “Witness?”

“What if we’re not here to do anything? What if we’re just here to be? To see it. What if we’re just all witness-actors in the universe? What if this whole wondrous thing only happens because each part does its part, for every other part?”

1269 Relax and Succeed - A life worth living“Can’t be. I’m sitting here. I’m not doing anything. I’ve stopped the flow of the balls.”

“Ooo. Look at you. The grand ball stopper. The whole universe? Come on. But: what if this procrastination is just you misunderstanding that this is not when you’re supposed to create? What if you’re living this, but you don’t even understand why yet, like the Kierkegaard quote? But what if this is all part of that big flow? What if you being stuck is perfect? I don’t know art, but I’d bet another coffee that Picasso got stuck too.”

She’s thinking. This logical explanation has thrown a wrench into her nihilistic negativity. Despite herself, she’s finding some gleeful exuberance bubbling down low. “I dunno. Seems too easy. And where’s it leave us anyway?”

“Under that explanation there is no ‘us’ and no ‘where’ anyway, so it’s a nonsense question.”

The barista drops down her coffee and quickly swipes her cash card. While he’s going through the motions she continues her conversation. “Right. Oneness. Flow. That was good”

It’s as though he’s realising it more than stating it. “If everywhere is the same place then your lostness is inside foundness. Right?”

She’s confused herself. “Now you’re getting too deep for me.”

“You wanna get out of here?”

“Actually if it’s cool with you, I think I might head home. This actually makes me want to paint.”

“What’s the point though?”

She tosses a sugar wrapper at him. “My own joy of the doing.”

“That sounds worth it to me.”

“I’ll hate you during the hard parts.”

“What are the hard parts?”

“The parts on which there is no paint.”

“Ah. I get hated right to the end then.”

“I get a painting out of it though.”

“A nihilistic painting?”

“I dunno. I’m going to experiment with flow.”

“I guess I’ll wait to see it.”

peace. s

Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.