[This piece was started some months ago, before I wrote the poem Fortune, featured here on the Into The Bardo a few weeks ago. That poem and this piece focus on a common theme, which is, perhaps more than any other in my writing life, a constant thread of philosophical thought for me. This is that, however much we may be short on fortune, there is never cause to give up on our hopes and dreams, or more realistically, our ‘visualisation’ of what we want from this life.]
“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!”
(Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17.
Scottish author and novelist: 1771 to 1832).
Some days are better than others . . .
The better ones allow me to indulge myself in my passions. I could have walked the dog and come back feeling refreshed, or have attended a rehearsal with the Waldershelf Singers and feel utterly uplifted, or complete a piece of prose or, better, a poem and feel a sense of release. On other days, I feel disillusioned, cynical, angry, like throttling public figures (politicians) to within an inch of telling them what a bunch of useless, self-interested, lying, cheating ne’er-do-wells they are! … which they are, almost to a man (and woman) …
Why is it that, once human beings attach themselves to an organisation, an establishment, a business, a company, a corporation, a religion, or they declare their political affiliations, somehow, they lose the ability to tell the truth, assuming their integrity would allow them to differentiate between the truth and a lie, in the first place. They become overly deferential, assume the organisation’s rules are right and, worst of all, become somewhat apathetic and are inclined to assume the ‘elders’, senior leaders of the organisation are right and therefore entitled to our undying respect.
This subjugation of self, a denial of the person that was borne into this world, through that infinitely variable process, driven at its lowest level by chemistry and physics, in turn determined by the relevant genetic ‘pool’ and nurtured by the geographic, economic, demographic, societal and political environments it is our fortune, or misfortune, to have grown up in, is undeniable. This denial of the uniquely wired ‘self’ and its particular talents and aptitudes, opinions and attitudes, and the ability to discern right from wrong, truth from the lie, and I mean the real truth, the kind that only you yourself will know deep inside, is almost guaranteed.
Does it have to be this way?
I think that I’ve come to hold this position rather late in life. Questioning authority is the stuff of rebellious youth, isn’t it? When we didn’t know any better, few had any time for the opinions of young people, anyway!
Is it so, because we are too shallow? … I don’t think so, not for everyone, anyway.
Is it because we are too lazy or unable to think for ourselves … almost certainly for some.
Is it because we have to earn a living? … inevitably a contributory factor.
Is it due to the fact that, as human beings, in spite of our incredible capacity for ingenuity, we are still very insecure; none of us are ever entirely in control of our lives and I mean NONE of us, given the uncertainties of our own health and particularly of the natural world and what Mother Earth herself can throw at us! We therefore have to enwrap ourselves with a protective external blanket, woven by someone else’s dreams or designs, at one extreme by the premeditated manipulation of tyrannical leadership or, at another, simply by the desire to ensure the annual bonus, a generous pension, public honours, a knighthood … or simply the reassurance of knowing from where our next meal will come?
Is it because we are all limited in our capacity to take on too much information, store all the factors affecting any number of problems that face us each day; wrapped up in life’s complexity that sometimes threatens to overwhelm us, wouldn’t we prefer to take an easier option and permit others to make decisions for us, which acts as a perverse kind of freedom? Herein lies a major truth. But it’s not easy for managers and leaders either.
Contrary to the impression we might receive from those in stations so elevated, it may act as some comfort to those who aren’t to know that the higher up the ladder of success we go, in whatever field of human endeavour, the more insecure we get. Why, you ask? It is because we have our limits, all of us, and some of us are more limited than others; that is our birthright, given the variable abilities, with which we are endowed, the tactics and strategies we have learned and been taught to cope; it is the way we are wired. The higher up the ladder of success all this leads us, the stronger becomes our inclination, consciously and unconsciously, to hang on to whatever we’ve got; the more inclined we become to develop further selfish strategies to aid this survival process. That’s what it is to be human, well, at least to be an animal. Being human does, nevertheless, endow us with an extra ability: high intellect and, with it, a great responsibility and, yet, this tendency, this seemingly irresistible force, does inevitably lead to greed.
So what happens!
We get our heads down and graft, manoeuvre, wheel and deal, whatever it takes to gain influence, fame, attention, success, with whatever vanity or hope or need that has the greatest hold on our hearts, minds … and stomachs.
At some future moment in time, we then find ourselves, well, what’s the best word to describe it … trapped, yes trapped by our ambitions, needs, material greed, more than by hopes and dreams.
I should say something about dreams. Before you think I’m about to crush them, I’m not. As one who writes poetry and pieces of prose like this, I find dreams are just as important as the ambitions of a professional footballer I know, who learned, early on in his journey through that precarious profession, that visualising your goals (figuratively as well as literally in his case), that is imagining yourself scoring the goal, over and over again, is a truly powerful and effective way of motivating yourself to feel better about your abilities and potential. This is, for me, an unexpected way in which to feed the creative imagination; such is the process that leads to the products of human ingenuity as well as understanding and success. But, a word of warning about dreams! They can also be manipulative! They can be induced and ‘used’ by others to manipulate control over lives – take advertising, particularly on the television, as one example! We need to learn how to distinguish good from bad dreams, your own from other people’s dreams, just as we should be able to tell the difference between good and evil.
Now, I’m not necessarily talking about conspiracy theories here, about demons and evil people, who sit in back rooms and scheme to overthrow regimes or gain control of whole populations. No, I’m talking, for the moment at least, about the demons inside our heads; the ones that lead us to the point of paranoia, the fear of not being ‘successful’, wearing the right ‘fashion’, living in the right district, driving the right car, appearing in all the right ‘places’, doing what’s apparently ‘right’ in society … tricky concept this, but I’ll try to explain my thinking.
If you were to ask a child of five or six to tell you their dreams of how to make the world a better place, wouldn’t they give you magical answers, which involve the charm of fairy tale characters and imaginative, not to say unusual (and, sadly, unlikely) conclusions to their stories?
If you were to pose that same question to a child in their mid ‘teens, wouldn’t their answer be tainted with a little more realism, perhaps even a touch of hopeless, hormonal cynicism, whilst still retaining some of that childhood naiveté, a lack of what we grown-ups would call wisdom?
If you were to ask a grown up poet or a philosopher, I think their answer would come out in one of several subtle ways, but one thing is for sure, any poet, with integrity, that I know, would try to address all of the issues that confront us head on, in an honest way. This is perhaps because they rarely make a living from their writings and, therefore have no vested (financial) interest in it, other than for the integrity of their material and perhaps for a bit of recognition!
Even Poets …
Yes, even poets and philosophers have to live and pay their ‘rent’. So, somewhere along the path of life, we have to align ourselves with an organisation or two, toe the line and obey the rules. We most certainly should obey the law and, if we don’t agree with it, don’t break it, lobby to change it! There is nothing wrong with toeing the line, provided there is a fair share of integrity within the organisation; provided that we don’t lose sight of our own personal integrity, justice, beliefs, values and, above all else, what we know, deep down inside, makes each of us unique individuals, our identity.
For those, who are born with a genetic code that, given the right environment, encouragement and education, predestines them to a life of leadership and possibly even greatness, let us not forget that for those of us, who remain, whilst we may not have had the good fortune of the same faculties and opportunities, we do nevertheless represent the vast majority of the population of the world. So, if we do still have a vote in what can reasonably be described as a democracy, then we must use it or lose it! If we have the ability to write, we should do it! We must make our mark upon the paper, make our feelings, our values and beliefs known. Whilst we still have the freedom to do so, we have the ability to depose those in power who do conspire to deceive us, who have been corrupted by their privilege and who would continue to weald the power they have from such privilege for self interest. Otherwise we get what we deserve. If that happens to be a comfortable life that we’ve achieved by subordinating our own integrity, it is our choice, but, from where I am now in my life, I know that I would sooner follow and trust someone who refused to allow themselves to be trapped by the material rewards of compromising complicity, than one who, in the fullness of time, would be racked with regret, that they didn’t follow their conscience and their dream of a better life … a better world.
It would be wrong of me, however, to leave you with my totally cynical outlook, without mentioning that, thank God, there are some remarkable people in this world, who, at and on all sorts of levels, do remarkable work on behalf of their fellow human beings. Whether they be local community charity workers and volunteers, international aid workers or the likes of the inspired Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity foundation, they are all driven, by some degree of selflessness, to improve the lot of the less fortunate and I have nothing but admiration for them.
If there is a moral to my tale, this long and rambling piece of prose, it is that I believe life can become much less complex, when we stop trying to satisfy someone else, when we discover the very best in ourselves. However unfair, unjust or unreasonably difficult life seems to be sometimes, we should never allow ourselves to give in to the pessimism that results from a state of despair at the world, to roll over on our backs with our legs in the air! We must never believe that someone else, whether it be a single person or a large faceless organisation, either has control over us or is beyond control by the voting, lobbying, plural us. For writers and poets in particular, as long as we can breath and weald a pen, we can do something, however small, and collectively we are able to make a difference, even if we don’t feel we can hop on the next flight to Africa, we musn’t allow ourselves to believe that we can’t still bring something to the table from our own unique armoury of intellectual skills. We can, above all, in our own way, be winners. It takes courage to step out of the crowd, but courage comes in many colours, one of which is being true to your innermost convictions. Fortune really can favour the bold.
[If you don’t already read it, you could do worse than by starting to read poetry now. Good poetry should open the eyes that are shut, elevate the spirit that is depressed and enrich the soul that is impoverished. Good poetry is the highest form of literature, which should tell us the way it is and feed us with deep insights that we would otherwise not experience; and I mean insights and creative thought that will enable change, not only in your own life, but also others.]
– John Anstie
© 2013, essay and (below) portrait and cover art, John Anstie, All rights reserved
JOHN ANSTIE (My Poetry Library and 42) ~ is a British poet and writer, a contributing editor here at Bardo, and multi-talented gentleman self-described as a “Family man, Grandfather, Occasional Musician, Amateur photographer and Film-maker, Apple-MAC user, Implementation Manager, Engineer and general all-round good egg.” This he tells us with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Add grace and humor to the list.
John participates in d’Verse Poet’s Pub and is a player in New World Creative Union. He’s been blogging since 2011. John is also an active member of The Poetry Society (UK). He says of his work, “Much of my writing and my poetry focuses on the future and the important part that our children, and the way we treat them, play in this. It also spans a diversity of life’s experiences, some moving war poetry and particularly observations of life for a modern generation.
Also a member of Grass Roots Poetry Group John steered their anthology, Petrichor* Rising, into publication. It is now in print and available for purchase. “Petrichor Rising takes you on a journey that exposes you to the full spectrum of emotions, from barely concealed despair to hope, from love to sorrow, with a clear appreciation of nature’s value and humanity’s shortcomings. It rides a roller-coaster that moves you to consider many of life’s challenges from a different perspective, as all good poetry should. It is at once haunting, yet shocking, with aching nostalgia alongside enchanting stories of dragons. It gives you optimism and hope tinged with shadows of doubt. It writes about places never seen and humanity’s uncaring nature, in prosodic social commentaries and observations of the minutest details of life, mood, atmosphere and romance. It contains clever writing that brings you close to the edge of society, still capable of moving you, but not pulling any punches. It has poetry with a universal appeal covering subjects as varied as the loss of a cat or a harrowing account of the 7/7 London bombings, poetry that focuses on the roots of all that makes us respond to life and long for something better.”
* Petrichor – from the Greek pɛtrɨkər, the scent of rain on the dry earth.