I finally have some free time, so this will be the first of a few update posts that I want to write. Last spring, towards the end of my third year of university, my school’s disability advisor put me in touch with a study skills advisor, to work on presentation skills. However, we got talking, and it turned out that she was also a counsellor, and was fairly understanding of my SA. She even went and did some research on it, and printed out a couple of journal articles about it, even though she wasn’t in any way required to do that as part of her job as a study skills advisor. We actually spent very little time talking about presentation skills, but spent most of our sessions having deep conversations about things, or acting as counsellor to one another. She actually said, after our first meeting, that it was the deepest conversation she’d had in a long time, and that the conversation would stay with her for quite some time. I don’t even feel that my words were particularly deep, just genuine. And genuine conversations (where both people can remove the “mask” that they are so used to presenting to other people) are so rare in this world. She seemed to “get” me, to an extent.
We spoke about a whole bunch of things, really. There was our mutual dislike of small talk and how fake it is, such as when people ask “How are you?” in a disinterested and scripted tone, and you know that they couldn’t care less about how you or other people are actually feeling or getting on in life. Of course, you’re just supposed to politely say “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?”, and they’re supposed to say that they’re equally fine, so it becomes an utterly pointless interchange, devoid of sincerity. It’s really bizarre, when you step back and look at it. If you were to tell them how you were REALLY doing, most people would look at you as if you had three heads. I know that people just do this to be polite, and out of habit, but it makes me wonder…why are we all so afraid of showing who we really are? We compare our “behind the scenes” to the “mask” and grand performance that others present to us, especially in modern times, with social media, which turns life into a popularity contest. I think this only serves to make us feel even more alienated and alone. People may have hundreds of “friends” on facebook, but the truth is that most people only have one or two true friends – who truly care for them and would stick by them if everything felt apart – if they’re lucky. When it comes to friendships, we seem to, as a society, favour quantity over quality. I remember around the time I was being assessed for autism, a couple of people said that it’s strange to not like small talk, and implied that I must be autistic if I dislike small talk. I don’t think it’s that I don’t understand small talk, it’s just that I have no interest in it and don’t really see the point. I will partake in it out of politeness, for the sake of others, and to hopefully get to the stage where I get to know someone better and the conversation becomes more genuine (though I never really seem to get to that stage), but I find no enjoyment in it. Who truly likes to say an awful lot about nothing at all? Anyway…sorry for my little rant there. I still wonder sometimes if I do have Asperger’s. Is it really that unusual to not enjoy small talk? Maybe I just don’t fully understand it. There are a couple of things about small talk that confuse me, but I don’t that’s to the same extent as it would be if I was autistic. Maybe it’s just lack of social experience/ social skills? Still…in spite of how much I hate it, I know that I’m going to have to become good at it if I ever want to make offline friends.
There was also our vehement dislike of job interviews and how phony and pretentious they are. (It’s essentially a bullshitting session where whoever can bullshit the most convincingly is employed by an even better bullshitter). The study skills advisor/ counsellor actually told me about a time when she’d picked her (then 10-year-old) daughter and her friend up from school after they’d been doing something about careers. Her daughter and her daughter’s friend were discussing job interviews and her daughter said “So what they’re really asking us to do is to lie”. My thoughts about interviews exactly. It’s as if interviewers abhor anyone who can think for themselves or actually be genuine. However, the study skills advisor went over some interview questions with me (and essentially helped me become slightly better at bullshitting), which I think did help a lot, and is one thing that helped me to finally get a job. There was our mutual love of dystopian novels, and the genius of Orwell and Huxley in so accurately forecasting the future. (I think ‘1984’ was definitely the most accurate during, and immediately after, World War II, but ‘Brave New World’ is definitely the most accurate with regards to modern times).
I felt like I could be myself around her. And she obviously felt that she could be herself around me. I discovered that she was going through a tough time as she had recently split up with her husband. I also found out that she didn’t have a very good relationship with her mother, and barely knew her father because he left her mother when she was very young. This then led on to one of the few things that we disagreed about: her hatred of men. In her eyes, even the most wicked of women had some redeeming feature, but men were all evil, selfish, and uncaring creatures. Of course, it’s understandable that she had this viewpoint, given her recent separation, and lack of relationship with her father. Despite not having the best experiences with men myself, I definitely don’t share her views. I think some men match that description, but the same is true for some women. I generally distrust and fear men due to my experiences, but I definitely don’t hate them. The study skills advisor said that this was probably because I have/ have had male friends, whereas she never had. I tried to explain to her the preposterousness of her belief that all men were evil, selfish and callous, given that she had probably met less than 0.000001% of the world’s current population of men. She didn’t seem to listen or change her mind though.
The last time we saw each other, she gave me a copy of ‘The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are’ by Alan Watts, which I thought was a slightly odd thing for her to do. I’m not at all a religious or spiritual person, and wondered if she was trying to convert me. Some of the book was maybe a bit too “right-brained” for me/ not based on science, and so I took it with a fairly large pinch of salt (though I don’t think that much of the book is to be taken literally). And some of it was complete nonsense, such as Watts’ belief that women can be conditioned for painless childbirth. Perhaps women can be conditioned for a slightly less painful childbirth/ to better cope with the pain, but as a species which has its pelvis size constrained by bipedalism, and which possesses a large cranium, I see no way that childbirth is not going to be excruciating. Would he believe the same about men being repeatedly kicked in the testicles? Parts of the book were quite misogynistic, though it was difficult to tell if those parts were Watts’ own views or simply the views of the religious texts that he was discussing. Nonetheless, I did find the book a fascinating and enjoyable read, and I’m glad that the study skills advisor was nice enough to give me the book. I very much enjoyed thinking about the metaphors/ parables that Watts provides the reader with throughout the book. The rest of this post is simply going to be about my own thoughts after reading the book, and I don’t think I’m going to be very good at expressing my thoughts, so if you’re not interested, then stop reading here.
The main idea of the book is that there is no such thing as a separate individual, but that we are all simply pieces of the universe becoming aware of itself, and everything is part of the same whole: “God” (as Watts sometimes refers to it), or the universe. Watts states that we came out of this world rather than into it, which (as someone who studies biology), I agree with. He also states that the universe and existence are like a Möbius strip, without beginning or end, and death is simply the freeing of oneself from the illusion of separateness. While I take this with a pinch of salt, it did get me thinking a lot about death, religion, and what exactly an individual is. I’m not a religious person, but all religions have metaphors and parables, and I think that if you step back and look at them as metaphors, all religions have kernels of truth. I find it fascinating that it seems that what separates humans from other animals is our need for meaning in life and an understanding of the universe and our place in it. Even today, there is still so much we don’t know about the universe, and maybe there are many things that we will never know. And I think that’s the reason that religion is so widespread throughout the human species: it gives people an explanation for how everything came into being, their place in the universe, and gives them a sense of hope and of unity. I don’t think religion is for me, though, even if simply for the fact that I have never been able to believe in any of it. I imagine that religion, and the promise of an afterlife, brings great comfort for religious people during tough times, and also when loved ones die. However, (and I mean no offense or disrespect to religious people when I say this) for me, it’s like trying to believe in Santa Claus. And I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell except as states of mind/ being. Without trying to sound like the beginning of ‘The Lion King’, I do take some comfort in the fact that, much like Watts discusses, we don’t truly die, but cease to be the individual that we were. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but is simply transformed from one form to another.
In addition to this (again, without trying to sound like ‘The Lion King’), I think little bits of our relatives and friends live on in us. Whether that’s in the particular opinions and beliefs we have, our mannerisms, our taste in music/ films/ books, and so on, skills and knowledge that was imparted on us, or simply just in the memories that we have of them. ‘Cultural evolution’ (in which the “meme” rather than the “gene” is the unit of selection) would appear to support this, at least on the larger scale. I might do another post about this in the future but I will not say any more about it at the moment, or I will never get this post finished. Watts also briefly alludes to this, as he states that we cannot be separated from the society that we were born in/ grew up in.
“There’s no such thing as an individual, we’re just all a collection of each other’s influence on each other. Everyone says things to each other, the television, your parents, your friends, that’s all we are, is a collection of intermingling ideas as a collective.”
– Matt Bellamy
I also very much agreed with the part of the book in which Watts mentions that the western world is considered to have become very materialistic, but he disagrees, in the sense that we aren’t even particularly good at getting great enjoyment out of material goods. Everything nowadays is designed to become obsolete, and so as soon as we’ve tried a new object, we want something even better. In that case, is one of the answers to having a more enjoyable life to learn to be happy with what we have, and to be more thankful for it? I also agree with his view that wealth is unfortunately seen as the most important thing/ as the biggest sign of success in life, in the western world. I think it’s very sad that we value monetary gain over our own happiness and wellbeing. We even value money above the health of our own planet. We are destroying our planet and ourselves in our greed. It’s ridiculously stupid (or at least, to me it is) when you step back and look at it. Everything is about making more money. And as a society, we are constantly sacrificing our own health and happiness for It. Furthermore, like Watts says, most people don’t even get to truly enjoy the fruits of their labour. We are always thinking about the future, and never actually living in/ enjoying the present.
“Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible nature. Unaware that this nature he’s destroying is this God he’s worshipping.”
This is why I have never been interested in becoming rich. Of course I want to make enough money to pay the bills, but I have absolutely no desire to join the rat race. As Watts states in the book, we can’t gain or lose anything from life, so to me, it seems ridiculous to value wealth over the enjoyment of life. Those are the key things that I took away from the book. Life is voyage of discovery. Life is a game meant to be lived and enjoyed as much as one can, given one’s circumstances. And being ourselves – an ephemeral but unique and unimaginably complex expression of the universe – instead of trying to be a copy, is one way of making the most of life, and a way of keeping the universe interesting.
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
– Hunter S. Thompson
Wow…I fairly nattered on there. I’ve spent the best part of two days off writing this post. I imagine that after reading this post, you’re all probably sat there wondering “Gemma, what the hell have you been smoking?”, and have been staring at your screens with this expression on your face for the entirety of this post (or maybe every post I write on this blog?):
I’m sorry if I made no sense at all in much of this post. Like I said, I found it quite difficult to express my thoughts for much of this post. Or maybe I just need to stop being such a perfectionist. More updates/ other posts coming soon.