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prisons we make for ourselves

The funny thing is: self-made prisons creep up on you unawares. If they didn’t you’d run a mile- after all, who wants to voluntarily lock themselves up in jail? Self-made prisons can occur anytime, when you least expect it. Prisons constructed from expectations we are unwilling to let go of. The feeling is familiar: when you can't get away from yourself, from your everyday life. You're trapped with a 'you' you don't like. Through ill considered habitual actions we slowly create walls we eventually cannot skip over without the aid of drugs and then not even with drugs…

Take the highly addictive habit of inhaling nicotine- as an at-risk but reformed smoker I found it at first a way of feeling a bit high, rounding out a good experience; but sooner or later the smoker realizes he is simply smoking to try and feel normal. This is something of a generalization but at its heart is the knowledge that the drug is not getting you anywhere you want to be. And the cost in mood swings is too high. One of the too little remarked effects of habitual drug use is the magnification of personality defects- especially anxiety and quick anger. I’ve just come back from the desert with a tour guide who started each day with a spliff. That seems funky and cool when you’re twenty- but this man wasn't, at 35 he'd been chilling for fifteen years and now he was a dogmatic, inflexible man who was quick to anger and remained in a sour mood for days unless appeased. If you transpose the situation to someone who needs a drink before they start work each day it sounds more desperate but is actually the same- you have an alcoholic who can’t cope with living with his normal mental landscape. He is already in a prison.

The key to the prison is not drugs- which are like a rotting rope ladder you can throw over the growing walls until it eventually isn’t long enough, or simply snaps- but to dismantle the walls as they get built and to leave doors in those walls.

One of the first walls we build is the one which shelters our sore points and perceived inadequacies from view. We get our knocks when young(ish) and we face three alternatives: improve, ignore, or avoid those situations in the future. Someone with anxieties about their lack of higher schooling, for example, may avoid educated people or go on the attack when he meets them. After a while there develops, ready for quick deployment when needed, a misshapen self that reacts habitually, is running, in these situations, his life rather than the other way around. And its usually obvious to all. Who hasn’t met the argumentative critic whose slick contrarian stance hides both a lack of knowledge and a lack of curiosity? Because that is where building a wall leaves you: unable to move towards a thing, unable, because it puts you in an uncool and perceived as vulnerable position, to even ask a question.

It’s hard to knock a wall down that is growing day by day when you can’t even see it! You stay in your comfort zone like a prisoner in the yard- then one day you can’t leave the yard…

It creeps up on people as they get older and have to ‘take life more seriously’. They have to appear ‘dignified’, ‘in control’, or the modern variants: ‘cool’, ‘independent’, ‘dominant’, ‘alpha male’.

Humour is of course the real bunker buster when it comes to the wall we build around ourselves. Those who take themselves too seriously, who cannot laugh at another’s joke or even make one about themselves, they are, in the words of author Lisa Alther, ‘people that scare me’. I sense a good sense of humour almost like a water starved animal sensing where the water hole is- I know it when I smell it, but when I can’t smell it no warning bell goes off. I spend days in the company of humourless gits and think there must be some defect in me- well there is- you have failed to detect what these people are really like. They don’t supply that valuable nutrition known as laughter and fun- so either create some or move on- but don’t blame yourself.

My forester pal Mark Antcliffe always tells me, “you’ve got to have a laugh at least once a day.” A laugh means more than laughing, it’s doing something a bit crazy, a bit unusual, a bit different- stretching that envelope and knocking a wall down in the process. An adventure of sorts, a micro adventure.

But why does it get harder as you get older? Montaigne recommended that men over 40 should drink wine as they are usually so burdened with cares only getting a bit tipsy will enable them to see life without its usual attached concerns. And it’s true, when you have people depending on you things aren’t quite so funny. You might crack jokes about teen pregnancy but find it less amusing when it’s your own daughter. That said, when your responsibilities have been discharged, you should be again a light hearted soul- but alas, by then those walls are just a bit too high and thick.

In the midst of massive responsibility and pressure one must remain light hearted. Without prozac if possible.

Mixing with people who are lighthearted and have different cares to you (the much younger  and the much older) is a good way out of heavy heartedness. Your worries aren't theirs, theirs aren't yours. Another is, when you are with people who wish to ‘outcool’ you and have little sense of humour, is to deliberately be a prat. Be a shameless prat. Their ‘cool’ act is there to get the kind of attention they habitually enjoy. If you refuse them attention it becomes a kind of icewar. If you try to outcool them then you are heading for the place where they feel most at home. Far better to engage your inner prat and deliberately say prattish uncool things and even do a few too. Your reward is endless since the cooler and more disapproving their response the greater this is evidence of the success of your prat act. If they want to be the coolest you will aim for prat of the year award. Both of you win- how refreshing! It’s even more fun when you don’t let on that you know you’re being a prat- that really screws with a cool dude’s head. But remember no half measures- full on prattish comments all the time, and the more toe curling the better.

Of course you should assess whether this person will subsequently fire you or something but usually, in my experience, anyone who wants to shut you down occupies a zone you want to avoid in future rather than revisit habitually.



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