Saturday, 4 April 2015

why are other people so annoying?

Yes, why are other people so annoying? And why are other people so annoying? ... So, anyway, here I am, sitting in a cafe in York, having just visited the Minster and found it calamitously bereft of any spiritual or aesthetic interest whatsoever. And I'm wondering why I feel so massively irritated by this, why it at all seemingly matters so much to me that people get so caught up in nonsensical grandeur and pomp and kings-and-queens-history and ugly pretentious woodwork and twiddly baroque stonework and fussy- and unattractive-looking stained glass that oh-don't-you-know narrates the story of something that, well, would be better narrated in a short paragraph if at all... that they appear to forget to include anything that connects in a meaningful, living, opening-up, way to their faith - to the real human substance of love, to suffering, to hurt and forgiveness and joy, to hopelessness and hope, to birth and death, to living beauty and awe and terror and transcendence. I found myself thinking more-than-tetchily how much better the whole thing would look in ruins with sheep wandering up and down the aisle. And I begrudgingly wonder too if it isn't just that I'm not in the right mood to appreciate whatever marvels there are to be appreciated here.

There's also a state of mind in which others, their conversation, their decisions, their values, are almost inevitably experienced as intensely annoying. They are annoying just because they exist thus, so to speak; they don't have to be interacting with me. How can they be talking about something so banal, one wonders, I wonder, with growing irritation, listening with apparently unwilling but yet seemingly compelled attention to the couple at the next table in the cafe? It's particularly bad, I find, when the participants in question are running a range of defences against any real contact with one another - little spasms of nervousness at contact masked with pseudo-laughter, relentless subscription to the most They-like values of the They. Or the hopeless depressed quality of the couple without conversation, sitting together, but not together, looking emptily out of the window of the Slug and Lettuce, listening to lifeless pop music, half an eye on the shite pouring forth from the massive TV on the wall, wondering when they can get back home to the less emptiness-exposing identificatory rituals of immersion in this or that TV show or domestic routine. Do anything, I think, do anything but live thus (I mean: do anything but live as in that moment I gracelessly, arrogantly, imagine their life to be being lived) - get a fork and stick it in your husband's hand, at least something would then have been experienced, some contact would have been made, today.

So, the question is: how does this annoyed state of mind arise? It is clearly irrational since, however much one might not want to live the life of others, well: one doesn't have to! And instead one could right now be feeling gratitude for whatever is of value and meaning in one's own life. The explanation, I think, is to be found in a certain kind of laziness which actually betrays a similarity in the state of mind of the hater and the experience of the hateful. Thus rather than hold true to what I want, remain secure and confident in my own knowledge of this desire, in my own values, I tacitly hope to acquiesce in the values of the other. I am oppressed by the They to the extent that I fail to honour my own values and confidently live in authentic embodiment of these values. It is I who gives to the other the stick with which I then feel them beating me.

Sometimes people we are close to - family members - can be annoying because of the way they tend to impose their values on us, or fail to offer us recognition in our ownmost authentic values. It's not that they're annoying because they don't agree with us in our values, but because they fail to acknowledge us as having our own points of view and desire, and tend to assume that we are being daft to the extent that we act against what are actually their values. Parents often do this to their children, but children are often unaware about the extent to which they also do it to their parents. Anyway, let's be honest, this just is annoying, and the annoyance is at its best the form of a healthy self-protective assertive 'butt out'. Nevertheless, the annoyance can often spin off way beyond what we would experience when sober in other relationships under the same tacit provocations, and this shows the extent to which we are augmenting the interactional experience with our own emotional dispositions.

I walk along the road realising, after it has already gone on for probably quite some time, that I've been having an internal argument with my long-deceased father about whether I should spend such-and-such on this-or-that. (Mindfulness meditation itself often annoys me - but anything that promises and delivers on helping us get better at spotting such inner mood-wrecking ruminatory nonsense is surely to this extent a very good thing...) He of course is disapproving - he always tends to disapprove of the spending of money on anything other than immediate essentials or on things which would increase their value over time. I know this of course. And I, perfectly naturally, have different values. So, well, why not just get on and live in accord with my values? Why this apparent need to justify myself, to get riled up, in relation to my deceased father's imagined opinion? And it goes without saying that, were he still alive, I would be primed, hyper-vigilant, in my interactions with him, waiting for those moments of tacit or explicit value imposition, scoring false positives at fairly innocent remarks along the way, ready to fend off his critique, or alternatively depressing myself by acquiescing in it, and pretty much ignoring all the ways in which he offers me true acknowledgement. (Thinking about such problematics makes me want to remark: anyone who thinks they don't have a personality disorder probably simply has yet to encounter their own internal world.) The answer to the question is clear: I get into the annoying inner interaction because I have failed to own and confidently cherish my ownmost values. This is why I feel the need to convince him, why it matters to me that he might have thought differently.

It is useful to consider the case of a relationship with a deceased parent because it is clearer here that it is now really only oneself annoying oneself. But we can generalise from this case to our current relationships and the relationships with strangers. Other people are so annoying as such, I'm suggesting, because we tacitly give over our power to them in our imaginations, we unwittingly deplete and diminish ourselves, lose touch with our own values and self-belief, we invite them to squat in our mind... and then effectively we blame them for the consequences and make a big hoo-haa about their eviction. Perhaps we do this out of inner loneliness, or perhaps simply because character development is naturally pursued through identification for which we are therefore primed, or perhaps - I suspect this is the main reason - it's mainly a consequence of a defence against the anxieties involved in establishing self-identity. What I mean by this latter phrase is that, fearing we will not be accepted and acceptable as such in our ownmost values and cares, we give over to the allure of allowing ourselves to be defined by the values of the They, only then to be annoyed when the They don't return the favour. I find the banal private conversation of my cafe neighbours so annoying, ultimately, because I'm not quite sure that it's ok for me to be just so very uninterested in it. I find the Minster not only distasteful and bereft of spiritual meaning, but also aggravating in this defect, because I unthinkingly elect it to the position of what turns out to be a recalcitrant meeter of my spiritual needs.

This all says something important, I think, about how to understand the formation of the critical superego. We often think of the superego as a defensively motivated precipitate of relations to judgemental or punitive or withholding aspects of actual external objects. And that's not bad so far as it goes, but I think it misses a trick and risks playing into a purely caretaker-blaming model of psychopathogenesis. (In passing I ought to say that I've nothing against blaming blameworthy caretakers, that I very much doubt that everyone is always 'just doing their best', and there's little more annoying than one of those 'Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the mother caused her child's problems through all her dementingly intrusive critical demoralising verbal behaviour...' psychologist's woolly gambits.) For what such a model misses out is the individual's relinquishing of responsibility, autonomy, and his or her own failure of courage. Sure, I do develop the critical superego as a way to fend off the  pains of external critique, but what conspires with this is my failure of nerve to hold true to my own values - a hypocritical failure to show myself love and respect, and a rather shoddy giving up on myself. It's worth mentioning here that the other is, I think, often rather amazed that we take what they say to heart in the way that we do; they, at least, didn't expect to be taken quite so seriously.

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postscript

I went back to the Minster on Sunday morning. Archbishop Sentamu was leading the Easter day communion service. I was struck by how much easier it was to look for what was engaging and rewarding in the place having understood how much my annoyance was a function of having failed to confidently own my own values.

In the service we were all given cards carrying an image of the crucifixion. The lower strip of the card toggled between a message on the front and a message on the back. The message on the front said 'You gave your life for me and I don't give a damn'; the one on the back read 'You gave your life for me and I give you my all'. The Archbishop related a story of how a friend of his had been a young Jewish boy who was dared to go in to the neighbourhood Catholic church to make false confessions. The priest, realising what was going on, invited him by way of penance to go and say to the Cross the message on the front of our cards. Apparently the young boy first said it confidently, and then faltered - and then became a Christian.

It was utterly unclear to me what the intended point of the story was. (Partly it was, I suspect, intended to prompt a reaffirmation of faith from the believers in the congregation. And, well, that's fine of course.) Mainly it struck me as an exercise of the kind of perverse logic one might find in C S Lewis-style pop theology (you know, the kind of 'either Jesus was the Son of God, or a madman, or a liar' mode of (not actually) thinking about religious matters), or the kind of 'Hey I'm an intelligent, exploring, Christian' nonsense you get at something like the Alpha Course. First of all you are given a kind of choice that already has built into it what ought to be worked towards. In the present case this is clearly 'Jesus gave his life for me'. That presupposes a vast amount of quite particular theology to say the least!

How about, say, the idea that Jesus was a somewhat renegade Jewish preacher-prophet of a not-that-culturally-unusual sort (think John the Baptist and others), who ended up in a deeply unfortunate situation, who may have had odd ideas about the imminent end of the world which were again somewhat par for the day's eschatalogical course, who most likely didn't have any thoughts about me and my own spiritual predicament, or that of anyone else in our times and places, or who may have willingly laid down his life to make a point and help others (like many wonderful others from the thousands of recognised (i.e. martyrs) and unrecognised self-sacrificers throughout history and today), etc. etc?

I'm not saying that the banal and irreligious viewpoint I just sketched is right - in fact it seems deeply beside the religious point. My point however is just this: that if you start off from Christian premises, then it is no surprise that you get to Christian conclusions. The best converts - perhaps like the little Jewish boy in the story - are those whose understanding is already predicated, perhaps mainly through a powerful initial negation (think Saul), on the power and significance of the faith in question. From the genuine outside, though, it can all just look a little bit weird and disconnected from what is of real concern in human life.

The Archbishop is, I suspect, an intelligent man. But here he seemed, if I understood aright what was going on, to be falling into an elementary perversion of reason. And it's a really interesting question: why does this happen to someone like this? My own diagnosis of the 'intelligent evangelist syndrome', which seems to me to be rather antithetical to true spirituality, is that it is a product of a dark, shoddy, and primarily narcissistic, side of the Enlightenment. This side has it that human reason can enter more deeply into faith than we might otherwise imagine; the product is the idea of a religion which it supposedly makes sense to believe in. (For something so important as religious faith, however: why on earth would you want it to be extra-religiously justifiable, to make that kind of sense?) Rather than human reason being properly located within the workings out of a faith, it gets given a putative role in establishing and justifying the thing from the feet up. The result is, naturally enough, something which shares some of the pathologies of humanistic thought: a failure to acknowledge the essentially pre-rational emotional corporeal spiritual ethical nature of our access to and our embodiment of spiritual truth. That way, it seems to me, lies all those perversions - the chief example of which, in the theological context, are I believe the theodicies.

At any rate, I'm not myself a religious person, so who am I to preach?! What I can say something about is what I did find in this second visit to the Minster. The first thing was that once I'd moved past my own narcissistically-rooted dislike of their adornments, I found the sweeping pillars in the nave and tower to be awesome. Their huge upwards sweep moved my mind out of its everyday concerns, reconfigured my experience of my own significance in a helpful and settling and humbling way. Huge trees in a forest can do this too, I think, as can looking at a vast ocean or being on a large mountain. And whilst the kings-and-queens aspect of the place's history seemed to me a spiritual distraction, the sheer sense of the age of the place - just like the sense of the age of those vast forest trees - its unchanging spanning of many a human lifetime - also served for me that awe-inducing, perspective-shifting experiential function.

The second thing that moved me was how at the end of the service, as the clergy and choir processed about, the vast great solid wooden doors at the west end of the nave were opened. These doors are about three times the height of a person, so suddenly there was this incredible opening up to the outside. And outside it was, at that time, sunny…: and the sunlight just poured in. Once again this seemed to me - in my feeling rather than in my thought (which is only taking place now) to be a thing of wonder - to embody a kind of opening up of the ego to matters greater than it, a letting of light into the petty gloamy narcissism of the self. It is striking to me, now, how much I had to relinquish my frustrated desire for the place to nourish me in ways I wanted it to, and to confidently own and stand by my own values, before I could access what it truly did have to give.