Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘existence’

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!)

Read Full Post »

It’s an old trick, and a common childhood game – to cut out an adult head from a magazine photograph and paste it onto the body of a baby. Evian use it on their latest bus-stop advertising campaign.

The first visual message, very boring, is that if you drink a litre of Evian water you will be as stunningly beautiful and alarmingly thin as this model. The second message, slightly tongue-in-cheek, together with the Live Young caption in the corner and the baby’s body T-shirt, is that you will retain the youthfulness, innocence, playfulness and perfect skin that you had when you were a little baby.

The subliminal pro-life message, paid for by Evian, is philosophical: whatever you think about the ‘personhood’ of a baby, this baby is you; you are the same human being; it’s one continuous life; looking backwards – once you were a baby and now you have become an adult; looking forwards – this is the baby who will become (if it survives) an adult.

When I look at a photo of myself at 15 years old, or 5 years, or 5 months, or when I look at an ultrasound scan image of myself at 36 weeks, or 24, or 12 – I say ‘this is me’. It’s a hugely different me, but it’s still me. I ‘identify’ (at a personal level) with this image, with this human being, because there is an ‘identity’ (at a biological and philosophical level) between me today and me back then; just as I identify with the me who existed 2 minutes ago. Identity doesn’t undermine difference – of course there are differences. It just allows you to affirm, at a deeper level, a continuity of existence, and gives you a sound reason for saying ‘that’s me’ or ‘we are the same person’.

The poster reminds you of the continuity between the adult ‘you’ and the infant ‘you’. It doesn’t take much to then make the link between the infant ‘you’ and the ‘you’ in the womb. And that reminds you of the importance of remembering that the human being in the womb is another ‘you’ and not just an ‘it’.

Read Full Post »

I’ve always liked Ron Mueck’s hyper-realist sculptures – his gigantic ‘Boy’ was the best thing in the whole Millennium Dome. His latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth consists of just four pieces, but I spent a good hour entranced by just two of them, ‘Woman with Sticks’ and ‘Drift’, which form a kind of diptych. Taken together they offer a profound meditation on what it means to be human.

In the first, a naked middle-aged woman grapples with a bundle of sticks twice her size. She’s weary, but strong. Her body is marked with the scratches of the struggle. Her face glances to the side, betraying her exhaustion, but also a defiant joy, an impish delight at having achieved, finally, the unreasonable task set before her. The curve of her body, arching back against the weight of the load, meets the line of the branches, the woman almost merging with creation, and in geometric terms creating a glorious organic tangent – you know how much I like tangents!

What is this task? We don’t know. The exhibition notes talk about the woman tackling ‘the near impossible tasks set in fairytales and legends’. For me, she seems to represent the human person struggling with the self, with creation, with existence itself. Her back is bent almost to breaking point, but she is still standing – and that’s the defiant point. She is Atlas carrying the world. She’s the ordinary person, and the Olympic warrior. And if the sticks represent a more specific symbolic task, like in a fairytale, I was imagining her collecting them to provide thatch for her roof, or kindling for a mighty conflagration. In other words, she could have been building a home or lighting a beacon or setting the whole world aflame; she could have been embracing either life, or death. And going further, perhaps because this came up in our retreat last month, she was also Abraham and Isaac taking the wood up the mountain for the sacrifice, unsure about where they would discover the sacrificial offering.

The second piece, ‘Drift’, is described in the exhibition notes as “a small-scale sculpture of a lightly tanned man sporting tropical swim shorts and dark sunglasses, lying on a lilo with his arms outstretched. Instead of floating in a swimming pool, ‘Drift’ is installed high on the gallery wall, seeming to disappear off into the distance. Held up only by a puff of air and a sheet of plastic, the precariousness of ‘Drift’ provokes questions of the brevity of life.”

It’s a middle-aged Jack Nicholson, with the same Nicholson smugness and self-satisfaction. He is completely indifferent to the world, almost comatose with leisure. Or he is just a loving and hard-working man at the end of a busy year getting his well deserved rest, freed from the cares and responsibilities of the world. I’m not sure. There is an air of disengagement, even of anomie, reinforced by the title. And remember that this three-quarter size figure ‘lying’ on the lilo is placed vertically on a huge wall of turquoise. You confront this sculpture as a secular crucifix – he is there, high above you, in a cruciform figure. He is crucified by his own inertia and indifference, by the nothingness of his surroundings, by isolation and meaninglessness.

She is alive – gloriously alive – in her mythical battle to the edge of death. He is dead – existentially dead – in his holiday coma. She is taking her prey home in a clumsy march of triumph, staggering under the weight of her struggle. He is drifting up to the ceiling, into nowhere, weightless, without direction or purpose. What a beautiful meditation on what it is to be human, on the poles that we drift between over a lifetime, and sometimes within a single day. I could have stayed there for hours, and I am determined to go back before it closes. How heartbreaking that these pieces are for sale, and they may well end up in private hands, never to be seen again!

I don’t think Rachel Campbell-Johnston was fair in her Times review to say that Mueck’s sculptures, for all their phenomenal detail, have no soul, and that the spectator gets stuck on the surface. I can’t explain why, but my response to his work has always been very different – to ‘Boy’, to the wonderful National Gallery exhibition when he was artist in residence there, and to one or two other pieces I have seen over the years. I find myself drawn into the mystery of these oversized or undersized human beings. The detail doesn’t become a distraction for me, it’s more like a doorway. The figures are so lifelike that you almost feel you are in conversation with them. There is a presence about them, and an inner stillness, that is unlike any other representation in art that I can think of.

In fact the memory they bring back is of the Tilda Swinton exhibition in Rome in the late 1990s, when I was at seminary there. I missed the original sleeping beauty performance in the Serpentine in London, but in Rome she lay asleep in a glass exhibition case for a few mornings. Yes, it was voyeuristic – by definition. But it brought the same sense of presence to another person, in their sleep and hiddenness, that Mueck’s sculptures bring. The size helps as well. I prefer the three-quarter size figures, because there is a distancing – as if you are looking at yourself from the corner of the room – without any significant diminishment.

You can see that I am a fan. I wish there were more of Mueck’s work to see publically. I wish these two sculptures could be bought for a British gallery somehow, and put on permanent display. I’d love to buy them for a church, or maybe a church foyer; but I’m not in a church at the moment, and I don’t have the money! The exhibition is on only until 26 May. Details here. It’s easy to get to, at 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET, not far from Oxford Circus or Piccadilly tube stations.

There are two other sculptures. ‘Youth’ is magnificent, but I’d need another visit to give it time, and another post to write about it. ‘Still Life’ (a giant dead chicken) I don’t much care for – it loses the human, obviously! Despite all the metaphors and meanings, it doesn’t draw me into the soul of the person as the others do. Three out of four isn’t bad.

Read Full Post »

I started reading Anthony Kenny’s Ancient Philosophy yesterday evening, volume 1 of his A New History of Western Philosophy. It’s a great introduction, because he has a hundred pages of chronological history, and then nine thematic chapters that synthesise the key insights of the period (logic, metaphysics, ethics, etc).

Ancient Philosophy - New History of Western Philosophy v. 1

I won’t bore you with every discovery I make over the next few weeks (if I keep reading), but this one delighted me:

Since Xenophanes believed that the earth stretched beneath us to infinity, he could not accept that the sun went below the earth when it set… He put forward a new and ingenious explanation: the sun, he maintained, was new every day. It came into existence each morning from a congregation of tiny sparks, and later vanished off into infinity… It follows from this theory that there are innumerable suns, just as there are innumerable days… [p12]

What a wonderful idea! That a new sun is created each morning; that here on the eastern horizon is something seen for the very first time; that this is not just another day in an endless cycle of days, but an adventure in being that has never existed before. It highlights the sense of wonder experienced when we catch ourselves reflecting not on what something is but on the sheer fact that it is and that it need not be at all. The opposite of Groundhog Day.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: