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Another Californian self-help craze; part of the booming ‘happiness industry’. It’s called ‘Want-ology’: the science or therapeutic process of discovering what you truly want and setting you free to pursue it.

It's all about Me, by Randy Willis

Rhys Blakely interviews Want-ology’s creator, Kevin Kreitman (a woman…).

For $300 or so, a certified wantologist will quiz you for several hours, subjecting you to a process that is said to draw on psychology, neural science and cybernetics.

“We are only conscious of 3 to 10 per cent of our thought,” she says. “You think that you make decisions consciously, but it’s all underpinned by this hidden system.” When you find yourself in a rut, “it’s usually because all this unconscious stuff is tangled together like a knot”. The job of Want-ology, she says, is to untangle it.

Here is an example of the therapeutic process. A female client came to the therapist, thinking that she wanted a bigger house. The conversation went like this:

What do you want?

A bigger house.

How would you feel if you lived in a bigger house?

Peaceful.

What else makes you feel peaceful?

Walks by the ocean.

Do you ever take walks near where you live that remind you of the ocean?

Certain ones, yes.

What do you like about those walks?

I hear the sound of water and feel surrounded by green.

As Blakely explains:

Instead of moving, she turned a room in her home into a miniature sanctuary, with potted ferns and a table-top fountain. Her wantologist had steered her to a more nuanced understanding of what she really desired – inner peace.

And saved her $400,000 at the same time…

At one level, this is surely a good process. Not losing the $300, but having someone help you work out what you are really seeking, or what’s really bothering you. Our motivations can be incredibly complex, and the heart is a mysterious and sometimes deceitful thing. We think we want something or need someone, and then we realise – perhaps when it is too late – that we were just reacting to something, or acting out of impulse, or trapped in a habit, or replaying an old desire that didn’t actually exist any longer.

Usually, we do this kind of reflecting with a friend, the kind of friend who will be honest enough to say, ‘What’s really bugging you?’ or ‘What do you really want?’ And then we start untying the knots. Or we do it in prayer, in conversation with the Lord.

This is the whole thrust of Sartre’s existential psychoanalysis. Not, like Freudian analysis, to discover some unconscious and therefore unaccepted or repressed motivation. But instead to gain some clarity about the primary motive, the overarching intention, that lies within the muddle of our ordinary desires and actions. It’s not uncovering the subconscious, but making sense of what is within consciousness, seeing the pattern.

And this is not unlike Ignatian spiritual discernment, where you learn to recognise what is the deepest desire of your own heart, and what is God’s deepest desire for you, by reflecting prayerfully on those situations that bring spiritual consolation and light, and those that bring confusion and an unhealthy inner darkness.

None of this means, of course, that you should necessarily follow what you discover to be your heart’s one desire. Clarity is one thing (whether this comes through a Want-ology therapist, existential psychoanalysis, or an Ignatian retreat); but the moral wisdom to work out what you should do with this clarity is another thing. That’s why I wouldn’t endorse this kind of therapy, without knowing what its moral framework is.

It’s good, generally, to know yourself better; as long as the therapist isn’t going the next step and encouraging you to follow your dreams uncritically, heedless of the moral or spiritual consequences, or of the mess they might make to the reality of your present life and relationships. OK, mess can sometimes be good; but not always.

[Rhys Blakely writes in the times2, the Times, March 14 2013, p4]

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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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The Observer had a piece earlier this month about Britain’s relationship with its intelligentsia, and asked whether we ‘do’ public intellectuals in the way that the French seem to.

Jean-Paul Sartre: the archetypal French intellectual

You can read the views of ten influential thinkers on the topic here. And here are the opening definitions of four of them.

Susie Orbach:

Being able to provoke a different point of view to the standard current ideological or political perspective as played out in conventional newspaper or radio reportage is what a public intellectual does. But it’s not merely about being oppositional, because that’s too negative. Public intellectuals attempt to widen and deepen the public discourse, by adding further analysis and coming at issues in surprising or unexpected ways.

There’s a trend towards soundbites and simplification. We all desire clarity but a way to reach it means understanding at several layers, folding in different kinds of knowledges; in other words complexity. There is a craving for that thoughtfulness which public intellectuals are able to provide.

Will Self:

What the British seem to like are television historians and naturalists, not public intellectuals. You can’t help feeling that’s because one supplies narrative and the other supplies facts, and the British are traditionally empiricists so they/we have a resistance to theory and to theoreticians playing too prominent a role in public life.

Mary Beard:

I think the British have always had this view that France is full of public intellectuals and we are hopeless. I don’t agree. To start with, it’s an awful phrase. Have you ever met anybody who avowed to be a public intellectual? We don’t go in for pontificating to the nation, but if you ask whether we have a vibrant form of political, social and cultural debate in which people who are academic, intellectual, clever – and not just media stars – engage, we have loads of it.

Lionel Shriver:

I guess I understand a public intellectual to be somebody who moves public discourse forward. Someone who either says something new or says something that everybody knows to be true but is afraid to express.

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I’ve finally been to see the Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library. (Note: British Library not British Museum). It runs until 19th September, so there are still a few days for you to catch it. And it’s free.

They are absolutely beautiful objects, beautiful works of art in themselves. What came across to me very strongly was a philosophical idea that I pondered a lot when I was writing my Aquinas and Sartre book: As human beings, we don’t just see the world, we see our own seeing, and then we are able to look back at the world and compare this new mental/physical representation with what stands before us.

This feedback process doesn’t just affect the representation itself (which is obvious), it also affects the way we see this ‘objective’ reality we are facing. There is no such thing, in other words, as a neutral vision of what the world is like. It is always affected by our thoughts, our preconceptions, our culture – and in this case by our maps. It doesn’t mean there is no such thing as truth or objectivity. It means that we will only ever reach that truth through the medium of our own understanding and language.

Every map in this exhibition was created for a purpose – that’s what comes across so clearly. It shows your power (the boundaries of your land are clearly marked), your patriotism (other countries are seen in relation to your own), your military intention (you want to see what the hedges and ditches really look like, so you will recognise them on the battlefield), your faith (Jerusalem is placed at the very centre of the world in many of the medieval maps).

I took particular personal delight in examining a map of Rome by Leonardo Bufalini, a woodcut from 1551. It’s the first large-scale map of the city to have been been created since 200AD. Peering around the bottom half of the map, almost mid-way between the Vatican and Circus Maximus, just above the ‘VIA IVLIA’, I found the plan of a building marked ‘S. TOMAS’, which is the seminary where I trained to be a priest from 1992-97 – the Venerable English College. Fantastic to think that all those centuries ago this particular building, one of thousands in Rome, was caught in the gaze of Bufalini, and sits there now in the British Library. But this was just a few years before it became a seminary for English priests.

Here are some thoughts by Rachel Campbell Johnston about the exhibition:

The art of map-making is an ancient one. It’s hardly surprising: over the centuries, as cartographers crept their slow way across the surface of the planet, the pictures that they created helped people to fit the myriad scattered fragments of a sprawling geographical puzzle into place. But, as the face of the world has grown ever more familiar, have we come to think of the map merely as a literal translation? Accurate, objective and useful it may be but where, many may wonder as they anticipate the British Library’s latest exhibition, is the creative flare that can turn a dry topographical record into a fertile territory for imaginative exploration?

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art is a show to overturn such expectations. It leads the visitor — a bit like some erstwhile explorer — on a creative adventure around the back of that flat piece of paper we think of as the world. Drawing on the finest collection of maps on this planet — the British Library has more than four million to choose from, the vast majority of which are only very rarely, if ever, put on public display — the exhibition sets out to make clear that these pictures are about far more than mere physical description. They are a series of subjective images, each shaped by the beliefs and desires, the ambitions and prejudices, the passions and anxieties of its period.

The spectator looks at the world from myriad perspectives. “Which is more important — the Last Judgment or the correct placement of Birmingham?” asks the curator Peter Barber who, even in the 30 years that he has worked at the library, has probably managed to examine barely a third of its collection. What tells you more about a country: a picture of a dog-headed cannibal or a description of its coastline? The visitor is invited to wander through a world before it was charted, into lands where the unknown is as vivid as the observable fact. […]

Their artistry serves a purpose. Far from objective, scientifically created records, these images have an imaginative agenda. Together they tell a story of power, plunder and possession. They are made to keep watch over spreading dominions, to assert forceful ownership or project a sense of civic pride. Maps — from the medieval visions of a king as a godlike power to the blatant posters of the Bolsheviks — serve as propaganda. The more ornate, the more striking, the more pleasing they look, the more persuasive and easily swallowed their message becomes.

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Bridges and Tangents is one year old today. 365 days, 190 posts, 1500 tags, goodness knows how many words. You can read the first post here – about ‘wonder’ in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Amazing how a hesitant step into the unknown future quickly becomes a moment of nostalgia. The exhilarating adventure of ‘being-for-itself’, as Sartre would say, of reaching beyond, easily slips into the familiarity of ‘being-in-itself’ – the world that we know and depend on.

San Francisco, Bay Bridge

I am not seeking comments or accolades here, just letting you know that I intend to keep going, for now. Blogging in this way is simply part of life for me now. I enjoy the excuse to think (if one were needed) and to write; every now and then I’m delighted with a discovery and get huge satisfaction from sharing it; and the rhythm of reflection and writing isn’t too time consuming. The danger is that something once fresh will become staid; I’ll just have to watch out for that, and perhaps circumstances – or some new form of social communication – will take over before then.

Ancient clapper bridge over the East Dart River at Postbridge

The effects are still largely unknown, but it’s good to get feedback and conversation in the comments, and when I bump into people who have come across the blog. Thanks especially to those who have been reading regularly, to those who have recommended the blog to others, and to those who have taken the time to comment.

Tangent by Whatknot

To celebrate, as you can see, I’ve hunted out some beautiful images of bridges and tangents.

Tangents by Seth Anderson

Let’s see how it all develops over the next few months.

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A few months ago I posted about Jean-Paul Sartre’s faith and said that the story of his death-bed conversion is just an urban myth.

There is an urban myth that Sartre had a death-bed conversion, called for the priest, and died in the bosom of the Catholic Church. It’s not true. But it is true that in the last few years of his life he re-evaluated some of his core existentialist convictions, and in particular became more open to the idea of God and the significance of religion. He was undoubtedly influenced – some would say coerced – by Benny Lévy, a young Egyptian Maoist who was rediscovering his own Jewish inheritance at the time he was working as Sartre’s secretary and interlocutor. Their conversations were published just weeks before Sartre’s death.

M. A. Dean countered in a recent comment on that post, and I wanted to bring his remarks into a proper post here because they are so emphatic and controversial:

This conversion is not urban myth. When I was at Notre Dame in 1980-81, Father John S. Dunne, a noted writer and teacher, told me personally that a priest friend of his was called to Sartre’s deathbed, where the noted atheist confessed his sins and came into the Church. Father Dunne also claimed that a fiery article by Simone Beauvoir appeared condemning Sartre’s “fall into superstition” at his end. I have to find the article by Beauvoir.

Here is my reply:

I believe what you say, but I just wish it were better documented; and I wonder why there is so much silence about this event. I haven’t found any references in the many biographies I have looked at. And unfortunately the outbursts by de Beauvoir have been interpreted in different ways – most people take them simply as evidence of de Beauvoir’s unhappiness about the influence of Levy on the elderly Sartre, and Sartre’s increasing openness to God and the place of religion, and not as evidence of a concrete act of conversion at the end. So I wish we knew more! I’ll post about this to see if anyone else can fill the gaps. Thanks very much indeed for this piece of the puzzle.

Please do comment below if you have any other information, hard facts, or references.

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A follow-up to Tuesday’s post about creativity and the place of constructive criticism in communities. I happened to read this piece by the philosopher Julian Baggini about the importance of complaining in a society that wants to be just and fair.

Constructive complaints are not just an effective tool for social improvement, they reflect a distinctive capacity we have as human beings for seeing beyond the present to new possibilities. This is the link between complaining and creativity.

Being able and willing to complain is what makes us rational and moral animals, capable of seeing and articulating the difference between how things are and how they should be.

The kind of constructive complaining that Baggini discusses is not the same as simply having a moan. A good complaint always has a moral aspect.

I think most people associate complaining more with moaning, whinging or relatively trivial consumer matters than they do high principle. That’s partly, of course, because as a matter of fact, many of our complaints are just kvetches. We moan as ice-breakers, to bond, to express frustration, or simply to express our values. But as a practical activity, I think complaining has become too associated with rights of contract. We live in an entitlement culture, in which, if anything goes wrong, we look for someone to blame, someone who is legally responsible. Trip up in the street and the thought soon arises: who can I sue? Your insurance company will tell you never to admit responsibility if you hit another car, even though usually one party is responsible.

Too often, complaint is not about principled objection on moral grounds, but opportunistic objection on grounds of self-interest. To rectify this, we need to work on mastering the art of complaint. Constructive complaint requires only two things: that what you are complaining about should be different, and that it can be different. It sounds simple, but too often our protests fail this test. Most commonly, as anyone who deals with public complaints for a living will tell you, many of our objections just don’t get the facts straight. If I had a penny for every time I had been castigated for writing something I never actually wrote, I’d have £823.87 by now (and I can almost hear the next penny dropping as I write).

Wrong complaint comes in numerous other varieties. To take just one, there is the contradictory complaint, whereby our objections demand incompatible things. For instance: complaining that first-past-the-post hands power to parties with only minority support and then complaining when a coalition partner compromises on major issues. You can, of course, complain that the partner has compromised too much on the wrong issues, but to demand no movement on any issue of substance is incompatible with the complaint that governments in the UK should reflect the electorate’s wishes more proportionately.

This example is a good one because it shows how easy it is to complain sloppily, but also how important it is to get the complaint right. There is a lot to object to in the programme of this government, so it matters that we do not waste our energies making ill-informed, contradictory or otherwise mistaken complaints. So we should not listen to those who tell us we should complain less and be more “positive”. Rather, we should make complaints that are principled and thought through. A good society depends on its best complainers.

Jean-Paul Sartre bases his whole existential philosophy on this insight. He uses the language of ‘negativity’. The miracle of human existence is that we are not trapped in the present, we are always looking beyond – not just to what will be, but to what might be, what could be, what should be. We are always conscious of what is ‘not’, and our understanding of the reality in which we are presently immersed is determined by how we envision a reality that has not yet come to be. This reaching into the future is part of what makes us human, and part of our essential nature is to be dissatisfied. It doesn’t mean we are never happy, just that happiness will always (in this life) be provisional.

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