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Archive for July, 2012

I’ve been involved in a couple of retreats recently, and one of the themes has been the importance of having a contemplative heart even in the midst of activity, of trying to keep an inner stillness even when you are racing around. Not always easy!

Usain Bolt relaxing before a race

It was fascinating to read this Olympic piece by Andy Bull about the inner peace that needs to be present in great sprinters. At the 1972 Olympics the Ukrainian Valeriy Borzov, like Bolt in 2008, won the 100m and 200m double. In an interview recorded after his victories, Borzov revealed the favourite training exercise of his first coach, Boris Voitas.

We made paper tubes and Voitas would order us to run 100m holding them in our teeth. The one who did not bite or squeeze the tube was considered a sprinter. The rest were considered to be simply runners. This helped me develop the main quality of a sprinter – the ability to relax.

Bull goes on to explain:

Tension inhibits speed. The moment a sprinter starts to worry about what the man next to him is doing, his muscles tighten and he starts to slow down. Lewis was guided by the principle, taught to him by his coach Tom Tellez, that “human beings can run full speed for 10 metres”, which made it pointless to try and run flat out for the full 100. His rivals, he felt, were so obsessed with getting ahead of him at the start that they began to decelerate by the time they reached 90m, and would tighten up more as they felt Lewis come up on them.

“Don’t worry about anybody else in the race,” Tellez taught Lewis. “Just worry about what you’re doing. If they are ahead of you, don’t worry, just keep accelerating through 60m to 70m in the race, they will come back to you at the end.” Bolt has a similar approach. “Last 10 metres, you’re not going to catch me,” he says. “No matter who you are, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how focused you are, no matter how ready you think you are, you’re not going to catch me.”

“In the 100m,” says Lewis, “a single mistake can cost you victory.” He was not talking about technique – Bolt’s, for instance, is infamously poor, with too much lateral movement, which pushes him sideways off the blocks rather than propelling him down the track – but the negative thoughts that slip into a sprinter’s head during a race. Take this example from the Briton Harry Aikines-Aryeetey at the recent European championships in Helsinki, when he found himself level with the eventual champion, Christophe Lemaitre, in the semi-finals: “I panicked a bit because I was actually with him until about 60m, and I was thinking ‘Oh my God, I haven’t been here for a little while – what do I do?’ I think I tensed up before the end.” He scraped into the final, where he finished fourth.

Bolt has never seemed to worry about anything much, least of all what anyone else is doing. Plenty has been said about the advantage his height gives him – his legs are so long that at full speed he covers 10 metres in three and a half strides. But it is Bolt’s temperament that really sets him apart. Pressure runs off him like water off wax. His shenanigans on the start line at the Beijing Olympics, when he struck poses and played up to the crowd and camera, showed a man at ease with himself and the situation he was in. His finish, when he was beating his chest as he crossed the finish line, was so insouciant that some athletes actually found it offensive.

I’m sure it applies to a lot of other things as well.

It reminds me of one of my favourite poems, by WB Yeats, Long-Legged Fly

That civilisation may not sink,

Its great battle lost,

Quiet the dog, tether the pony

To a distant post;

Our master Caesar is in the tent

Where the maps are spread,

His eyes fixed upon nothing,

A hand under his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence.

 

That the topless towers be burnt

And men recall that face,

Move gently if move you must

In this lonely place.

She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,

That nobody looks; her feet

Practise a tinker shuffle

Picked up on the street.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

Her mind moves upon silence.

 

That girls at puberty may find

The first Adam in their thought,

Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,

Keep those children out.

There on that scaffolding reclines

Michael Angelo.

With no more sound than the mice make

His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence.

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People are still arguing about the root causes of the riots last summer, but no-one seems to deny that they reflect some kind of profound dysfunction or social malaise. You don’t loot a sports shop or set fire to a furniture warehouse just because you are bored or want a pair of new trainers.

I’ve just finished reading Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat. I found it terrifying and heartbreaking in equal measure. Terror at the realisation that this violent underworld is an ordinary part of so much contemporary urban life. Heartache at the suffering and alienation of the teenagers whose lives are documented here.

It reads like a thriller, and it’s packaged under the label ‘True Crime’, but it’s really a piece of investigative journalism. Knight spent two years ‘embedded’ with the police, talking to social workers, interviewing gang members and disaffected teenagers – slowly building up a picture of life on the margins of British society. The book is written as a non-fiction novel. It speaks about real experiences and real people, in their own voices; although many names have been changed, and one or two characters are cleverly created composites.

Here is the blurb:

In Moss Side, Manchester, detective Anders Svensson is on the trail of drug baron Merlin and his lieutenant Flow, a man so dangerous his type is said to appear only once in a decade. Among the bleak housing estates of Glasgow, where teenage boys engage in deadly territorial knife fights every Saturday night, police analyst Karen McCluskey is on a mission to bring a new understanding to the most violent city in Europe. And in Hackney, 19-year-old Pilgrim has made himself one of the most feared gang-members in East London, wanted for attempted murder and seemingly condemned to a life of crime – until he starts to help kids like Troll, a Somali child-soldier turned enforcer, who runs drugs through the Havelock Estate in Southall . . .

In Hood Rat these narratives interlock to create a fast-moving experience of a contemporary British underworld that ranks with Roberto Saviano’s bestselling Gomorrah. Gavin Knight was embedded with frontline police units and has spent years with his contacts; here he tells their stories with sharp observation and empathy.

Knight has been criticised for his style (present tense narrative; short sentences; jumping between viewpoints), for the lack of social context, and for the fact that this kind of ‘factional’ documentary writing is more fictional than it cares to admit (the composite characters, etc) – see these thoughtful reviews from the Guardian and the Scotsman. None of this ruins it for me: I like the urgency of the style; I think the aim is not first of all social context but seeing the reality of individual lives, and then drawing some wider conclusions from that; and he is honest about the creative element in the writing. It doesn’t take away from the authenticity.

It’s been more than a good read or an eye opener for me; it’s disturbed something deeper inside me. It’s made me see how naive I am about the reality of day-to-day life for many young people and families in my own city, and in other cities around the country. And it’s made me wonder what on earth can heal this kind of social disintegration, and what can help the ordinary families trapped in these cycles of dysfunction and despair. There is very little hope in the book, despite the last chapter about pioneering work from Boston to help deal with gang crime in Glasgow.

Andrew Anthony gives you a taste of what the book is about:

Throughout history, young men have fought senseless territorial battles, but over the past two decades Britain has seen an alarming growth in lethal youth gang violence. Stories of drive-by shootings and teen killings, once thought of as distantly American, now arrive with dispiriting regularity from our own inner cities.

In the majority of cases the perpetrators are male and black (as are their victims) and almost without exception they are products of dysfunctional backgrounds with poor expectations and limited education. Often the most reliable employment for young urban Britons is the illicit drug economy, with all its inflationary brutality and social corrosion.

But once these bald facts have been established, where can the story go? There are arguments to be made about reforming drug laws, improving housing, raising educational standards and fostering a stronger sense of social inclusion. But what can be said of the gang members themselves, their core values and codes of behaviour, that doesn’t simply rehash gangsta rap cliches?

Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat is an unflinching account of life and death in the sink estates of Britain. It penetrates environments that most of us only glimpse in local news reports, and addresses the kind of people that we fear encountering on a dark night or, indeed, a bright afternoon. The question is, does it amount to genuine insight?

The book contains plenty of shocking anecdotes but few if any surprises. Anyone, for example, who followed the recent case of Santra Gayle, the north London 15-year-old who was hired to kill a stranger for £200, will be aware of the phenomenon of teenage hitmen. That’s no reason not to look deeper into the circumstances and motivations that lead adolescents to become assassins, but Knight seems less concerned with depth than focus.

He writes in an elliptical, impressionistic style, jumping around, stealing into the minds of young men and their police pursuers (we’re given access to a drug dealer’s concerns, a hitman’s internal monologue, a cop’s marital crisis). The book strives for a kind of urgent authenticity. The sentences are short and simple and framed in a relentless present tense that makes few compromises to chronology.

Knight is at his strongest in offering a gang member’s eye-view of the world, the sense of danger a street in the wrong postcode represents, the need to present a confident front, and the self-glorifying yet self-nullifying acceptance that career prospects are a choice between prison and death.

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I can’t believe it – this is my 500th post! (I’m not counting, but by chance I saw the ’499′ pop up on the last one). 500 scintillating insights; 500 pieces of finely wrought prose, where ‘every phrase and every sentence is right’ (almost Eliot); 500 breathtakingly beautiful bridges and unexpectedly daring tangents.

OK, maybe the prose is moving from finely wrought to overwrought; I could also have said: 500 half-formed ideas at the end of the day.

Let’s celebrate with some decent writing, about writing itself - with one of my favourite passages from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start…

And how to celebrate and reflect for this 500th post? Well, we certainly need a magnificent bridge. The banner image you have been looking at for the last three years, at the top of each page, is a shot over New York with Hell Gate Bridge in the background. Here it is in a much better shot:

And in order to allow a little bit of self-analysis for this 500-post celebration, here is the ‘tag cloud’ from these 500 posts. Remember, this doesn’t analyse the words I have used in the writing itself, but the number of times I have chosen to tag a particular post with one of these labels. Anything that has come up twelve times makes the cloud, so the tags with the smallest fonts below represent 12 posts each, and the largest numbers of posts (as you can see below) are about: internet (35), love (37), faith (38) and freedom (44). You can send in your psychoanalytical conclusions on a postcard.

If you want to actually search for these tagged topics, see the proper and updated tag cloud in the right-hand column.

Thanks for your support over these nearly three years, your loyal and devoted reading (or your random ending up here through an accidental search or a false tap on the iPad), your occasional comments. Thanks to all those whose beautiful images I have borrowed (legally I hope, and with due accreditation, usually via creative commons). Apologies that I haven’t always had the time to enter into dialogue properly with all the comments, as they deserve.

I’ve nearly always enjoyed the thinking and writing (and choosing pictures). I’ve sometimes felt the obligation to keep going for consistency’s sake – but soon I’ve been glad that I have. I’ve always wished I had more time to ponder and shape the ideas, and the words themselves.

It’s a strange thing, ‘airing your thoughts’. Strange for being both personal and public; the inner life and the life outside; the quiet of the computer screen as you compose the blog, and the clatter of each post landing on several hundred other screens and phones around the world.

I won’t say ‘Here’s to the next 500 posts’, because I’d hate to make that kind of commitment. But I’ll keep going for the moment.

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As you know, I’m a ‘late adopter’ when it comes to new technology. I hear about things late; I wait around cautiously to see where something is going; I tell myself how happy I have been for so many years of adult life without this dazzling piece of equipment; I hang on until the price drops a bit further; then – sometimes – I take the plunge. So it was with the Kindle, which I bought about six months ago.

What’s remarkable is how quickly it has become a normal, boring and almost indispensable part of daily life. In many ways it’s incredibly retro, even more so after the Google Nexus 7 comes out – dropping the price and raising the stakes for a decent 7 inch tablet. And I betray my own retro-ness in remembering the tipping point that got me pressing the BUY button: it was when I became convinced that the electronic ink pages really were as easy to read as a paper book.

Why do I like it? More to the point, why is it so normal that I have already forgotten it was ever a buying issue? Three main reasons.

(1) Legibility: I was worried it would strain the eyes, and it doesn’t. I can sit in bed and read the Kindle for 2 hours not noticing that I am reading an electronic screen rather than a book (not that I read in bed that long very often…). In fact it is even easier because you can change the font size.

(2) Portability: It goes in the inside pocket of a light jacket, so instead of taking a shoulder bag or a man bag out with me for the sake of carrying a book, I just take the Kindle. So it’s easier than carrying just one book, let alone a whole library of books and journals.

(3) Versatility: I mean the range of stuff that I am reading, and that slips into my pocket so easily. I knew I would use the Divine Office (from Universalis), and the ubiquitous e-Books – a mixture of freebies and paid for. But I’m also downloading journals and websites. And one of the most helpful features is the way you can email documents to your Kindle that then appear as short texts. There are documents, talks, websites, sermons, etc, that I keep thinking I’ll read one day, but never want to read on the computer screen. So I email them to the Kindle, and read them on the bus or tube. I’m actually catching up on piles of interesting reading without having to make an effort.

I’m sorry this sounds like an advert. I’m just delighted when something does what it says, and does what you want it to do, and also does much more.

My fear now is that my present version of the Kindle will be replaced by a higher spec, and the very reason I like it – it’s simplicity – will disappear. I know they have the touch screen versions, which I dislike, because I’d rather a simple click to turn the page than having to tap the screen; that’s why I bought the Kindle rather than the Kobo [correction: apparently there are clickable Kobos as well!]. My fear is that the ‘Retro’ Kindle (my version), like the magnificent, groundbreaking and never bettered Palm, will be overtaken by smart technology. Strange how technology can regress as well as go forward, or at least lose the simplicity and sophistication of its primary purpose in the search for secondary thrills. I said the Kindle was dazzling, but it’s actually the dullness that I like…

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I’ve been choosing some music that I can use during a retreat, to provide a bridge between the words of the input I’m giving and the silence of the time for personal meditation and reflection. I wanted to have a variety of styles, given the variety of participants. I’ve pretty much got the genres of Western polyphony and Catholic/Evangelical worship music covered by my CD collection, so it was good to explore some non-Western Christian music and take myself outside my comfort zone. Here are two of the pieces I chose.

You might say Rachmaninov is part of the Western canon, but in this setting of vespers he is part of a movement that is consciously trying to re-connect Russian sacred music with its roots in traditional Russian chant. This section is the Russian version of the Hail Mary, from All Night Vigil, Op. 37.

And the next piece, sung in Greek and Arabic, is an Easter Chant by Sister Marie Keyrouz, entitled “Christ is risen; in his victorious death he has given life to the dead…”

Sr Keyrouz, a Lebanese nun, is an extraordinary singer (lots of CDs on Amazon here). I first heard her music at a talk by Eamon Duffy, the Cambridge historian. He wanted to show how much of the culture and musical styles that we in the West might associate with Islam, in fact go back beyond the origins of Islam to a pre-Islamic culture. Many of the Eastern chants of Sr Keyrouz, he explained, would have stylistic roots – and possibly even some melodic lines – that stretch back to the 7th century and beyond. You certainly feel that you are being drawn into a profound and living tradition.

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Since my previous post about China, this came in from John Allen about the ‘war on religion’ that is underway in many countries. HIs first two examples are Chinese:

  • Fr. Joseph Zhao Hongchun, apostolic administrator of the Chinese diocese of Harbin, was taken into police custody July 4 to prevent him from galvanizing opposition to the illicit ordination of a new Harbin bishop orchestrated by the government. He was detained for three days and released only after the ordination took place.
  • New auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai was placed under house arrest in a seminary after he publicly resigned from the government-controlled “Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics” during his ordination Mass on July 7, which took place with the pope’s blessing.
  • Rev. Kantharaj Hanumanthappa, a Pentecostal pastor in the Indian state of Karnataka, was leading a prayer service July 4 when 20 radical Hindus stormed in to accuse the Christians of proselytizing, threatening them if they didn’t leave. A police complaint was filed, but no action has been taken.
  • The private home of Pastor Ramgopal, a Pentecostal minister in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was raided by police allied with the Hindu radicals. The pastor was reportedly told, “Either you go away and never come back or we’ll arrest you.” He was released only after signing a statement promising not to lead any more prayer services in the area.
  • A Catholic priest in Vietnam, Fr. J.B. Nguyen Dinh Thuc, was attacked by plainclothes police and thugs reportedly paid $25 a head to raid a missionary chapel in a rural area July 1. Their aim was to prevent the celebration of a Mass, part of what local Catholics describe as a policy of “religious cleansing” imposed by Hanoi. When the priest tried to make his way through the mob, he was beaten up, along with several laity who came to his rescue. Maria Thi Than Ngho, one of those laity, suffered a fractured skull in the melee. As of this writing, she remains in critical condition.
  • Abdubannob Ahmedov, a Jehovah’s Witness in Uzbekistan, saw his four-year prison term for “illegal religious activities” extended for another 30 months for alleged violations of prison rules.
  • Yelena Kim, a Baptist in Uzbekistan arrested in late June for “illegally teaching religion,” is now looking at three years behind bars after police raided her home and confiscated Bibles, hymn books and other religious materials.
  • Ghulam Abbas, a mentally disabled man in a region of Punjab under Pakistani control, was thrown into jail July 3 after rumors spread that he had burned some pages from a Quran. Before any investigation or trial could take place, a Muslim extremist mob stormed the jail, dragged Abbas from his cell and burned him alive. According to local observers, it’s at least the 35th extra-judicial murder to take place following an arrest under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws since 1986.

Deep thanks go to the Asia News service for bringing us these stories, which otherwise would be almost totally overlooked.

See the Asia News site here.

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Jonathan Watts has been reporting from China for the Guardian for nearly a decade. He has been there officially to report on the environment and development issues, but his journalism has ended up touching on most aspects of Chinese life over these last few years. He gives a summary of his experiences here, which ends up being a reflection on how China has changed over the period, and where it is going.

There are lots of positives; lots of unknowns; and one of the continuing negatives is the lack of freedom for journalists like himself, the authoritarianism, and the inability of the Chinese government to take criticism – both internal and external.

Criticism has rarely been appreciated. All too often, there have been flare-ups of anti-foreign media hostility. Some of my colleagues in other media organisations have received death threats. I never expected China to be an easy place to work as a journalist. For political and cultural reasons, there is a huge difference in expectations of the media. For historical and geo-strategic reasons, there is a lingering distrust of foreign reporters.

Run-ins with the police, local authorities or thugs are depressingly common. I have been detained five times, turned back six times at roadblocks (including during several efforts to visit Tibetan areas) and physically manhandled on a couple of occasions. Members of state security have sometimes followed interviewees and invited my assistants “out for tea”, to question them on who I was meeting and where I planned to visit. Censors have shut down a partner website that translated Guardian articles into Mandarin. Police have twice seized my journalist credentials, most recently on this year’s World Press Freedom Day after I tried to interview the blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng in hospital. When that happened, I debated with another British newspaper reporter who was in the same position about whether to report on the confiscation. He argued that it was against his principles for journalists to become part of the story. I used to believe the same, but after nine years in China, I have seen how coverage is influenced by a lack of access, intimidation of sources and official harassment. I now believe reporters are doing a disservice to their readers if they fail to reveal these limitations on their ability to gather information.

Yes, there is often negative coverage and yes, many of the positive developments in China are underemphasised. But I don’t think it does the country’s international image any favours to clumsily choke access to what is happening on the ground.

Treated like a spy, I have sometimes had to behave like one. At various times, I’ve concealed myself under blankets in a car, hidden in a toilet, waited until dark in a safe house and met sources in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

At other times, it is Chinese journalists and officials who pull the screen of secrecy aside. Take the foot-and-mouth outbreak on the outskirts of Beijing in 2005. I was first alerted to this by a Chinese reporter, who was frustrated that the propaganda department had ordered the domestic media not to run the story.

Foreign ministry officials often tell me China is becoming more open and, indeed, there have been steps in that direction. But restrictions create fertile ground for rumour-mongering. One of the biggest changes in this period has been the spread of ideas through mobile phones and social networks. The 513 million netizens in China (up from 68 million in 2003) have incomparably greater access to information than any previous generation and huge numbers now speak out in ways that might have got them threatened or detained in 2003. Microblogs are perhaps nowhere more influential than in China because there is so little trust of the communist-controlled official media.

It has been fun watching netizens create an ingenious new language to evade restrictions. In this anti-authoritarian world, the heroes are the “grass mud horses” (which, in Chinese, sounds the same as a core banned phrase: “Fuck your mother!”) while the villains are the river crabs (which is pronounced like “harmony” – the favourite excuse of the authorities when they crack down on dissent). But ultimately, a journalist wants to see things for him or herself. I will never forget the epic road trips – across the Tibetan plateau, along the silk road, through the Three Gorges and most memorably from Shangri-la to Xanadu. Along the way, I met remarkable people with extraordinary stories. True to the oft-heard criticism of the foreign media, many were from the “dark side”: a young man in Shaoguan who confessed – as the shadows lengthened on the building site where we had our interview – to killing Uighur co-workers at his toy factory because of a rumour they had raped Han women; a gynaecologist in Yunnan who argued with great conviction that it had once been necessary to tie pregnant women up to carry out abortions; the young boy who found the body of his dead grandmother who killed herself a year after his father – an illegal migrant – phoned her to say he was about to drown in what became known as the Morecambe Bay disaster.

Another thing that struck me in Watts’s report is the total lack of references to religion – absolutely nothing about religion, faith, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc (I did the word-search on the article). I know he is focussing on the environment, but he writes about many other aspects of Chinese life that catch his interest or come to find him as a journalist. Is this a Guardian blind-spot? Maybe I’m being unfair, and he was briefed not to write about religion because someone else in the office is on the case. It’s just striking that someone gives their impressions of a decade of change in China, and the growth in interest in religion isn’t mentioned.

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A friend sent a link to this article by Tim Kreider about our need to be busy all the time. Is he being harsh? Is it really all self-imposed? Are we really this dysfunctional, this afraid, this disconnected, this fidgety?

Or is this really about America, or about New York – and everything is fine here in London thank you very much?

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s  make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups. I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another’s eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

Read on here if you want.

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Have you had one of those moments – at work, in relationships, in sport – when you are full of confidence, at the top of your game, and suddenly everything goes pear-shaped. You felt perfectly natural and at ease, and suddenly you are afflicted with a paralysing self-consciousness, an inability to do simple things well, an outer clumsiness combined with an inner terror at the prospect of failure. It’s England at the penalty shoot-out; it’s every second romantic comedy when the guy fumbles his words on the first date.

Ashley Cole agony after missing penalty for England

This is the psychological experience of ‘choking’, and it’s in the news a lot simply because we are all going sport crazy at the moment.

Simon Haterstone gives some examples:

Britain is no stranger to the choke. Reading the newspapers, or overhearing pub conversations, you might well imagine it’s a national pastime. The England football team? Ach, we’ll crack up when it comes to penalties. Murray at Wimbledon? Wait till it comes to the crunch. The Olympics? More tears from Paula Radcliffe. Of course, this is an unfair generalisation. All those cited have performed at the highest level, and Britain has produced any number of champions. Yet it’s undoubtedly true that in a summer in which so many will be playing for the highest stakes, many of the great sporting hopes, from whatever country, will buckle under the pressure.

Not surprisingly, sportspeople don’t like the word choking. Some prefer to say they lost their rhythm, others that they played too aggressively or were outplayed. And there may be some truth in their analysis. But certain catastrophic chokes are indisputable. There’s Jimmy White, who lost six snooker world championship finals and failed to pot a simple black to secure victory against Stephen Hendry in 1994; Jana Novotna, 4-1 up in the final set against Steffi Graf, double-faulting her way to defeat and weeping on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent in 1993; French golfer Jean Van de Velde who could have made a double bogey in the British Open at the 18th in 1999 and still won – but failed. The picture of Van de Velde paddling knee-deep in Barry Burn, trying to hit his ball out of the water, is one of sport’s most comic and desperate images.

Matthew Syed reflects on his table tennis meltdown at the Sydney Olympics:

It’s like you’ve reverted to being a beginner again. You don’t think about how you’re moving your right knee and right elbow or wrist when you hit a forehand slice when you’re a professional table tennis player. And suddenly I’m thinking about it, and as you try harder and harder you get worse and worse. You can see it when someone is choking; they become very stilted, the integration of all the moving parts of the body becomes decoupled and it just looks pretty hideous. Before he knew it, he had been annihilated. It wasn’t a loss of form, it was major psychological meltdown.

And then he draws some wider conclusions:

Syed believes choking affects most of us at one time or another – whether it’s at a job interview, on a date, in an exam, or simply when we’re on public display. “When you walk normally, you never think about how you’re moving your body. But when you walk in front of lots of people, say to pick up your graduation certificate, you are paranoid about falling over and suddenly you’re thinking about how you move your feet and it feels incredibly awkward. You feel like a caricature of somebody walking. That’s kind of what happened to me at the Olympic Games.”

What is really happening? Steve Peters, sports psychologist, explains:

Peters says if we have to use the word choke, let’s at least accept that it’s an umbrella term for a number of things – athletes might go into freeze mode (runners sometimes stop at 250 metres in a 400m race because that’s when it gets painful); flight mode where they sabotage their chances (in 2006, O’Sullivan walked out of a match with Stephen Hendry when he was 4-1 down but there was plenty to play for); they might over-think or under-think; they might become self-conscious because they are playing badly or playing well, or because they suddenly become aware of the crowd or the significance of the moment. He mentions Novotna’s collapse at Wimbledon. “It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. You did really think this poor woman, she’s moved from aspects of the brain that automatically flow, to a part of the brain that is actively thinking and trying to work things out – how to put a good service in. Well, you’re back to somebody who almost doesn’t know how to serve.”

Peters is a high-level sportsman himself. He didn’t start sprinting seriously till he was 40, then won world titles at masters levels, and astonishingly was called into the Olympics training squad at 44 as an “up and coming” athlete, having finished the 200m in 21.9 seconds. His experience makes it easier for him to understand what goes on inside the heads of champion athletes and his job is to find the reason why they behave in the way they do, treating the cause, not only the symptom.

He has broken down the sporting brain into a simplistic model of “chimp” and “human”. When it is working well, it’s a computer. When problems start, either the chimp (emotion) or the human (reason) take over. “When I go to compete, my chimp starts kicking off. It’s all about me managing what my chimp throws at me, like, ‘I can’t lose this, I mustn’t look stupid, I’m not fit enough’, it’s the classic stuff I’ll get when I work with elite athletes. So I can relate to that and the intensity of the feelings. If the human wakes up you become too rational, analytical, lose spontaneity and you can choke.”

I don’t like this language/labelling: as if we are more like computers when things are going well; as if we have to disconnect out humanity if we want to succeed at the highest level. But the idea of not being overcome by emotion or analysis seems valid. See how much you can apply to everyday struggles, even if you are not sprinting at the Olympics this summer.

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A few years ago on All Saints Day I gave a sermon that went something like this: Most of us are not saints, but if we keep pretending we are for long enough, then it might just happen. The external ‘pretence’ will not just be a pretence, because it will involve actions that are in themselves good – being patient, being generous, etc. And these actions, this ‘charade’, will gradually transform our behaviour and our character. This is no more than a translation of Aristotle’s virtue ethics.

Richard Wiseman collects together empirical evidence from the last few decades to prove that the ‘change your way of acting’ self-help books are far more effective than the ‘change your way of thinking’ ones. (‘Fake it until you make it’, as one comment said after the article). Self-image and inner conviction – positive thinking – don’t make much difference, compared with just getting on and doing something you wish you could do.

It starts with smiling when you don’t particular want to smile.

Towards the end of the 1880s, [William] James turned his attention to the relationship between emotion and behaviour. Our everyday experience tells us that your emotions cause you to behave in certain ways. Feeling happy makes you smile, and feeling sad makes you frown. Case closed, mystery solved. However, James became convinced that this commonsense view was incomplete and proposed a radical new theory.

James hypothesised that the relationship between emotion and behaviour was a two-way street, and that behaviour can cause emotion. According to James, smiling can make you feel happy and frowning can make you feel sad. Or, to use James’s favourite way of putting it: “You do not run from a bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of the bear because you run from it.”

James’s theory was quickly relegated to the filing drawer marked “years ahead of its time”, and there it lay for more than six decades.

Throughout that time many self-help gurus promoted ideas that were in line with people’s everyday experiences about the human mind. Common sense tells us that emotions come before behaviour, and so decades of self-help books told readers to focus on trying to change the way they thought rather than the way they behaved. James’s theory simply didn’t get a look-in.

However in the 70s psychologist James Laird from Clark University decided to put James’s theory to the test. Volunteers were invited into the laboratory and asked to adopt certain facial expressions. To create an angry expression participants were asked to draw down their eyebrows and clench their teeth. For the happy expression they were asked to draw back the corners of the mouth. The results were remarkable. Exactly as predicted by James years before, the participants felt significantly happier when they forced their faces into smiles, and much angrier when they were clenching their teeth.

Subsequent research has shown that the same effect applies to almost all aspects of our everyday lives. By acting as if you are a certain type of person, you become that person – what I call the “As If” principle.

The same applies to confidence.

Most books on increasing confidence encourage readers to focus on instances in their life when they have done well or ask them to visualise themselves being more assertive. In contrast, the As If principle suggests that it would be much more effective to simply ask people to change their behaviour.

Dana Carney, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, led a study where she split volunteers into two groups. The people in one group were placed into power poses. Some were seated at desks, asked to put their feet up on the table, look up, and interlock their hands behind the back of their heads. In contrast, those in the other group were asked to adopt poses that weren’t associated with dominance. Some of these participants were asked to place their feet on the floor, with hands in their laps and look at the ground. Just one minute of dominant posing provided a real boost in confidence.

The researchers then turned their attention to the chemicals coursing through the volunteers’ veins. Those power posing had significantly higher levels of testosterone, proving that the poses had changed the chemical make-up of their bodies.

Wiseman writes as if there was a historical gulf between William James and 1970s behavioural psychology. But he forgets about Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. This idea that external action determines inner experience rather than the other way round is just the existentialist doctrine that existence precedes essence.

Sartre believed that emotions are ‘intentional’, meaning that emotion is not a fixed inner state that determines our action, but that we in part determine how we will feel through the choices we make about how to approach the world. So Sartre’s ‘existential psychology’, way before the 1970s, was all about helping you to take responsibility for your actions, and seeing how new freely chosen actions – and new goals – could transform who you are and how you feel. This was explicitly against the Freudian idea that you have to discover and open up the ‘inner life’ or the ‘subconscious’.

Sartre was very suspicious of the subconscious. In many ways he was an Aristotelian: character is what matters; and character is formed by making a commitment to a certain goal, and repeating actions that lead to that goal. If you want to know what someone is like, don’t ask them – look at how they live. And if you want to change your life, don’t think about it too much – just get on and do it. (If you are really interested, I have a book on this!)

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