Tag Archives: choice

Nature, Nurture, Environment and Choice

How the balance between nature and nurture shapes us is something psychologists have been arguing about for about as long as there have been psychologists. How much of who we are comes from the genetic material we inherit, and how much comes from the environment we are exposed to? Faced with these two great forces, do we have much free will at all, or can we only be products of our biology and experience?

Once we become old enough to act for ourselves to any degree, we become active co-creators in making and choosing our environments. What we let ourselves dwell on, what we look at, listen to, go back to repeatedly – these are all things that shape us environmentally, and we do get a say in them. There’s a lot of practical difference between reading a book of nature poems and reading a fascist newspaper, for example. Why we choose one over the other may have a lot to do with where we came from, but at any time, any of us can choose these experiences, or refuse them.

Do you go for a walk in the wood or do you stare at your phone for an hour? Are you listening to music you love or is there some kind of wallpaper noise on in the background? Do you pause in your day to appreciate the good things and to express gratitude? Do you make time for self care or do you treat yourself like a disposable resource? How much time do you spend on things that give you joy, and how much time do you spend doing things you think are pointless, boring, or unpleasant? Do you go online to seek out inspiration, or to pick fights?

It’s in our smallest choices within a day that we construct the environment we inhabit.  It is easiest for us to do the things that align with where we’ve come from, but it isn’t inevitable. A little curiosity to explore what we don’t know can open up our choices no end. A willingness to notice what we feel good about and what we don’t and take action on it can lead to radical and powerful life changes. Often it’s the things we do with least thought, as habit, as what people like me do, that define us without our knowing it. No doubt some backgrounds and experiences make it harder to be the kind of adult who can look at how they live and make deliberate changes. Harder, but not, I think, impossible.

We are all shaped, one way and another, by where we come from. It’s easy to mistake that starting point for ‘real’ self. We are all full of far more potential and possibility than we can explore in one lifetime. We all have the scope to be more than we are, and other than we have been. Real freedom comes from owning that, taking total responsibility for who you are, and then living from a place of choice rather than habit.

 

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Misery is a choice

‘Misery is a choice’ is one of those splendid positive thinking memes doing the rounds at the moment, and while it’s mostly true, it’s offered in a way that suggests all the wrong things. Misery is a choice so you should choose not to be miserable, and anyone who is miserable has no one to blame but themselves, is the impression it creates. So, let’s be very clear. If your brain chemistry is awry you may have no choice over being miserable. Further, there are a lot of times in life when misery is the best, healthiest and most honourable choice you can make.

You can only be hurt in so far as you care. The easiest way to avoid misery, is therefore to go through this life not caring about anything. The things you love, value, and invest in have the power to hurt you and let you down, but the person who doesn’t care is spared from this. It seems to me a very drab, joyless way to live. I would rather love fiercely and accept the inevitability of heartbreak.

Grief is a process. We can all expect to be bereaved as we go through life. We will lose jobs, friends, homes, we will move from one life stage to another, and not everything will go as we wanted. The process of grieving is the way in which our bodies and minds deal with profound and life altering loss. This process is important, but you can choose to repress it. Sooner or later, that repression will fail to hold up, and you get to move from choosing not to be miserable, to serious mental breakdown where you probably won’t have much control over your mental state at all. Feeling misery is a part of having a healthy mind, shut that down and you store up trouble.

Pain is part of the learning process. We all mess up. We all do things that it is reasonable to regret or wish we had done differently. Feeling misery over this helps us learn to do differently. If we have to be happy about all our choices, actions and all the outcomes we get, we do not allow ourselves to learn or change. Hone this skill long enough and it becomes a condition called covert narcissism, which will then poison every relationship you have. But you never have to feel miserable.

Cognitive dissonance is the mind bending process of having to think things that do not add up. If you have an abusive partner but are practicing the art of not being miserable, you may stay, choosing to see the best in everything, and not dealing with the damage you are taking. If you can’t acknowledge misery, you won’t leave the stifling job, or necessarily take on any other discomfort in your life. The more time you spend choosing to be happy and tuning out the things that really should be recognised as problems, the more trouble you get into and you can entirely break your mind this way.

The worst thing you have endured is the basis for your ability to empathise with other people who are struggling and suffering. The person intent on avoiding pain, is less likely to be able to develop compassion or understanding for others. In some very privileged lives, avoiding misery is just about recognising that what you have is pretty good. If your misery is your inability to feel gratitude, that’s something to work on, but it does not follow that everyone else who is miserable is also incapable of feeling gratitude. Their partner may be dying, their child may be sick, their job and home may be on the line. There are plenty of real things out there to be afraid of, and in working to understand our own misery, rather than ignoring it, we can build empathy for others and do more to support each other.

Mourning the planet will make you miserable. Thinking about climate change, extinction, hunger, and deprivation in the world should make you bloody miserable. Yes, you can choose to ignore all of this and carry on in your own sweet way, but frankly if you do you will be part of the problem, not part of the solution. Our misery in the face of human destructiveness is the thing that could yet save us.

If you use the recognition that misery is a choice to help you get out of miserable situations and to make real change in the world – that’s a good choice to be making. If you chose to switch off that capacity within yourself, you may feel more comfortable in the short term, but you are likely to become toxic to those round you, and deeply dysfunctional within yourself such that your future choices may be sorely compromised. It is better, surely, to choose to be real, than to make sweeping judgements that reject parts of your life experience.


Beauty in limitation

One of the concepts that runs through John Michael Greer’s recent Mystery Traditions book, is the way in which it is limitation the both defines a thing and gives it its power and beauty. Without limits, he points out, we would be nothing more than sludge. The limits of our biological structures both define us, and give us life.
One of my favourite poetic forms is the haiku, which is the perfect expression of this concept. Three lines, with a tight syllable structure, a thought has to be perfectly crystallized to be expressed in this way. I like flash fiction, where again the tiny form requires total precision of language. The same could be said of blogs. I aim to write under a thousand words each time, so that these make good bite-sized reads, and that structure helps keep me on topic and focused down to one specific concept. There is, after all, a great deal that can be written about, and it is in the creating of shape, form, structure and limitation that formless everything becomes the meaningful something.
So, where else can this way of thinking be applied? Almost everywhere, I think. I’m very conscious of the relationship applications. I spent a number of years in a polyamorous situation, where fidelity was not a feature of my primary relationship. The reasons for this were many, but that primary relationship was not with someone who considered monogamy valuable. In my experience, humans generally aren’t that good at monogamy, it’s not as natural or as easy as our social structures prompt us to assume. To fail on this one, is to be very human indeed. But when a relationship has the strength and depth to demand all of your attention, when it has the richness to invite total dedication, then fidelity becomes really powerful. I’m not talking about martyrdom or any kind of suffering here. Having been for some years now in a totally monogamous relationship, I have no desire for anything different and I don’t find it restrictive, but that focusing on one person is only viable when that relationship in and of itself, is enough. In this way, the beauty of the thing and its limitations actually feed each other.
If the limitation does not result in beauty, or in something discernibly good, then it can readily be identified as a not-good limitation. The limitations that create a poem are very different from the life sapping limitations of abject poverty or crippling disease. Not all limitations are a good thing, although many limitations can be made to work for us, is we are determined to harness them.
There is also that which we choose to give up, or do without as part of our spiritual dedication. Anyone who chooses limitation in order to be greener and more responsible, is also choosing a path of beauty. There can be no choices without letting something go, giving up certain of our options, and it is out of these choices and renunciations that we have the scope to bring beauty into our lives. I really like this idea. Many aspects of modern thinking take us towards, more, bigger, faster in our desires. To seek less, to focus down, is to make what we do more intense and more powerful. Limitation can be a gift in this way; one that we bestow upon ourselves. It also helps define the edges, the boundaries, and once you know where the edge is, you also know where the liminal is, and that’s a whole new adventure.


Balance and the equinox

Although I perceive the lengthening of nights speeding up around the equinox, the event itself doesn’t register with me at an emotional level as an event. I know it happens, but I don’t feel it in the way I do the solstices. As far as I know there’s not much evidence for it being celebrated historically, but it does balance the calendar nicely, so – why not?

The idea of balance is an interesting one. It can, on the surface, look like a restful, peaceful if not downright static sort of state. Physical balance like any kind of balance in life is often more about having all the tension pulling just so in different directions so that the thing in the middle stays still. Walking is the fine art of not quite falling over, in a controlled way. Muscular strength vies with gravity. One slip, and gravity wins. We talk about work-life balance and that’s not passive either, it’s an active kind of juggling.

Is balance a good thing? Is it inherently unsustainable, underpinned as it so often is by opposing forces? There is the continual potential for one of those forces to gain dominance and drag that stability off in a sudden new direction. A bit like a guy rope going and the whole tent falling over. Does balance lull us into a false sense of security, making us blind to the emotional guy ropes pulling hard on us, keeping us in place?

Looking back, I had exactly that kind of balance in my twenties. I think most of the time I was able to put on a decent public face as a consequence of it. Being stretched almost to breaking to point, pulled in many directions, I somehow managed not to fall over. To a degree I created that situation, using other demands on my time and energy to offset things that were unbearable in my life. Using one tension to distract from another. Creating an illusion of stability that meant no one on the outside questioned what was going on with me. I was just very busy, to a casual glance. But I was stable, so that was fine. Except it wasn’t.

This last year I’ve mostly lost my balance. I have entirely lost all illusions of circumstantial stability, and all ability to maintain the relentlessly good face in public. No more stiff upper lip for me, and that’s probably a good thing. From the outside I don’t look terribly in control, or balanced any more. Some of the pulls and pressures in my life took control, and now where there was something a bit like stasis, there is instead a wild, chaotic rush of movement. It’s a bit like surfing. There are days when I am on top of the waves, and days when the waves are on top of me, and despite what I’d imagined such chaos to be like, I haven’t actually drowned yet.

Coping, is all about balance. Holding some kind of stillness in the midst of the storm, staying afloat, or however you choose to articulate it. Coping is the fine art of balancing all the tensions so that you stay upright, and don’t tear apart. It’s the tent metaphor all over again. But living and coping are not the same thing. Truly living, engaging with the world, doing new things, permitting yourself to feel and express – none of this lends itself to that perfect, centred balance. In much the same way that walking is the fine art of not quite falling over.

For a while this was all just happening to me, but like a child learning to walk, I’m getting a bit more choice in the process now. How fast to go, and when to lie down, rather than having lying down happening because I’d not mastered the ‘not quite’ bit of not quite falling over. It’s very different when you choose it. And pushing the metaphor out a little further, it also means I get to choose when to run, and why.

The kind of balance I had, was soul destroying. It was wrecking me in a way that was almost completely invisible. On the whole, I like this staggering about not quite falling over stuff better. It feels good to be moving. I have lost my balance, and found my feet, found the possibility of walking, and living.


Looking forward, looking back

Janus is the Roman god of doorways. Two headed, he looks to the past and the future at the same time. I mention him because that’s a really good image.

It occurred to me yesterday that no amount of examining in the past will enable me, or I suspect anyone else, to move forwards. What happened to me along the way got me to here. Looking back, I might be able to unravel and make sense of some aspects of that. I might find any number of reasons, explanations, excuses and justifications. How useful is that?

The cliché of the therapist asking about our childhoods is an obvious one. Did anyone have a perfectly functional and happy childhood? Of course not. The process of being alive is full of disruption, challenge and upset. If everything was perfect, we’d come out of childhood with no idea how to cope with setbacks, and we could tell the therapist all about how ill equipped we are…

I could look back and find/invent any number of reasons for why I am the way I am. There are things I don’t know how to do – therefore I didn’t learn them when I should have done. It would be easy and tempting to go ‘I can’t help this, it’s because of my upbringing, it’s the way I am.’ Psychologists talk about nature and nurture in shaping personality, but they don’t talk about choice. We are not merely the accidents of youthful experience. We can choose who to be. The more time you spend looking back, the less time you spend looking forwards. Life is lived somewhere between the two, mostly.

How do I go forwards? How do I become the person I want to be? Not by looking backwards. There are no answers in my past. There’s the potential for explanation, but that only tells me how I got here, not how I continue.

I think it can be useful to understand how we got to where we are – easier not to repeat the mistakes of the past once you know about them. Easier to see the patterns, recognise assumptions for what they are, see the scope for change. But to change it’s also necessary to let go of that history, to decide not to be led by it any further.

There are other answers that lie ahead rather than behind. Answers that we craft for ourselves, that we work towards, rather than being driven by. And as soon as it crossed my mind this could be so, all the possibility opened up. The answers I want aren’t behind me, they are in front. I will find them by going forward. I don’t know who I am any more. Fine. I will not learn that by looking at who I have been and what has been done to me. If I can go forward, living, doing, finding my own way, who I actually am will emerge over time if I give myself space. If I explore how I feel and what I want, then that will tell me about my preferences. All the past can give me is the clarity that not feeling free to want or express was not very helpful.

How much does the past dictate the future for any of us? How many patterns are inescapable once set in motion? How many choices do we never get to remake? The more I think about it, the more certain I feel that most of the time, there are second chances if we look for them. There is scope to go a different way, to reject old assumptions and experiment with new ideas. All it calls for is the belief that there can be change. Things will not always be the same. If we can hold that idea of change within us, then we have the scope to make it real. Nature and nurture may have got me this far, but it’s choice and decision that will take me forward.


Guest Blog – Jay Lancaster

Author Jay Lancaster offers some startling insights into recent UK news and politics, along with some profound thoughts for the quiet revolution.

Yesterday, HMP Lancaster Castle closed.

Yeah yeah – who cares – bunch of criminals.

You should care. This was done to save YOU, the taxpayer, money, apparently. Let’s put aside the 700 years of history. Let’s put aside the fact we were top performing Cat C in the North West. Let’s look at money.

We were a specialist drugs rehab jail. We ran various programs, NA, 12-step, meth, counselling – whatever was needed by the individual. Guys would ask to come to us. They knew they could get clean here. A drugs worker told me that for every £1 spent on getting these men sorted, it’d save the taxpayer £4.

The taxpayer: you and I.

So today we closed. The Ministry of Justice owes on the lease though: the castle belongs to the Queen. For the next 3 years, a sum of money in the millions will be paid for renting an empty castle. 12 Support Staff and the Works Team are being kept on for maintenance. Of our team of 26 in Education, 11 are redundant and paid (by Manchester College – ie by the Learning and Skills Council – ie by YOU the taxpayer) a pitiful redundancy. Other staff, the healthcare, probation and prison staff are either redundant or moved. When moved, the prison staff will be paid travel expenses. £80,000 over the next year in travel alone.

But hey this saves you, the taxpayer, money RIGHT NOW. Apparently. I don’t think you’re going to notice this saving. You will of course notice the long term effects of this. Half my friends list is redundant or at risk of redundancy now. Where are the jobs? In the worlds of New Model Army – “nobody needs morality when there isn’t enough to eat.” So the crime rate is dropping? Do you think that’s a trend, or will they just keep adjusting the way they record the figures so it looks like it’s dropping?

They don’t teach the Civil War in schools. “What civil war?” The one in 1642-1649 which changed British and European history. I believe this is because they do not want YOU, the public, to realise that the government of this land – parliament or monarchy – is subject to OUR WILL. They do not want us to realise we have the choice. We are pacified by television, placated by consumerism, befuddled by the smoke and mirrors of mainstream media. You are probably all thinking people who get angry about what’s in the papers – but you don’t choose what is reported. You’re only angry about what they want you to be angry about.

Big society? Total bollocks. What can we do? Vote: a mish mash has got into power. But to not vote is an insult to those who have lost their lives for the privilege of democracy, so not voting is not an option. So, keep voting… BUT…

Small society. That’s the answer. Always has been. That’s why they try to destroy it. Homogenised high streets, corporate branding, advertisements and standardisation and towns with no heart – it keeps you all separate with the illusion of community.

Real community is not because you all shop at Tesco and you all buy hummous and you all think about Fair Trade and you all subscribe to the Guardian and you all worry about food miles. That’s how they’ve tricked you. 

Small society is when you walk out of your house and buy food at the greengrocers and talk with them. It’s when you chat at the bus stop, and nod at the old lady across the road, and keep an eye on the post piling up in your neighbour’s porch. It’s when you make the effort to seek an alternative. It’s when you place more value on a connection than on the money or the time – it will take 1 hour to whizz round Tesco, and you can spend the rest of Saturday watching tv. OR you can spend the whole morning at the Farmers’ Market and miss out on some tedious cookery programme.

It’s little things. One change a week. You don’t throw out your technology and knit your own muesli and sneer at the hardworking family who HAVE to shop at a supermarket. But you do make thoughtful choices, as and when you can – you do read the papers with question in your mind. You do discuss the local planning policy with the bloke in the newsagents. You do offer to show a younger family member how to go blackberrying. You join a local LETS scheme, you volunteer at a school – independently, not to boost Cameron’s figures on Big Bleeding Society. You do it for the kids. You get Freegle-ing and Freecycling. You make your voice heard.

Do you remember your grandparents? Then they remember theirs – and one jump before that – and a jump before that was the seventeenth century – it’s not so long ago. Four leaps of living memory, when we killed a King. I’m not advocating violence now – just an awakening to the power we hold as a group when we decide what’s important and what’s not.

They put an end to 700 years of history today. History is a dangerous thing – you can learn from it.