Depression is a whole other beast; it is not situation appropriate. Here’s something you get absolutely free with this illness: a real sense of shame; it comes with the package. And you feel such extreme shame because you think, ‘I’m not being carpet-bombed, I don’t live in a township.’
This book is dedicated to my mind, which at one point left town, and to the rest of humanity, who perhaps at one time or another might have misplaced theirs. Though I personally have gone on a rollercoaster ride of depression for most of my adult life, this book is not exclusively for the depressed. I am one of the one in four who has mentally unravelled; this book is for the four in four. It’s for everyone, because we all share the same equipment: we suffer, we laugh, we rage, we bitch, we’re all vulnerable, delicate creatures under our tough fronts.
In this book I am going to attempt to give a rough guide for where we (the human race) are at right now and offer some suggestions that might make our time on Earth a more joyful experience. I’m not talking ‘everyone in the jacuzzi’ joyful, I’m talking about the almost blissful state you sometimes have when time stops, your body feels like it’s home and the volume of those internal critics in your mind lowers. I know those voices well and so many people I meet recognize this dictator barking orders in their minds, keeping them up at night with that tormenting ‘I should have, I could have’ tape playing relentlessly.
Many of us suffer from the pressures in today’s world that drive us from burnout to depression. We are slaves to our busy-ness with an insatiable drive for money, fame, more tweets you name it, we want it. The problem is, it’s only in the last 50 to 100 years that humans have lived with such abundance. We’ve gone from scarcity (when we were probably somewhat normal and had appetites to match) to the limitless demands we have today.
You could say that multitasking has driven us mad; like leaving too many windows open on your computer, eventually it will crash.
We are simply not equipped for the 21st century. It’s too hard, too fast, it’s too full of fear; we just don’t have the bandwidth. Evolution did not prepare us for this. It’s hard enough to keep up with who’s bombing whom, so we have no room to understand our emotional landscapes; our hearts bleed because we hear of a beached whale while the next minute we’re baying for the blood of someone who stole the last shopping trolley.
The reason I decided to devote myself to this inward journey is because I wanted to find some shelter from the constant hurricanes of depression, which left me depleted and broken. Each episode got longer and deeper.
I don’t want to blame my parents but childrearing was not their specialty.
Friends would come over and there my mother would be, perched on the lampshade, a vulture with a Viennese accent, waiting for someone to drop a crumb. When they did, she would swoop across the room screaming, ‘Who brings cookies into a building?’ Everyone would run away terrified. It got much, much darker later but I am not going to talk about that here. My point is that this is the type of background that usually leads to a career as a comedian or a serial killer; I went for the comedy.
So, after some serious breakdowns, I decided to go back to school to study psychotherapy to figure out exactly what they were charging £80 an hour for. I used to leave my shrink knowing exactly who I was, until I got to the tube station and then I’d forget again. Also, as I knew nothing about psychology, therapists could tell me anything, so how could I tell if they were any good? Once, when I was on the couch, I caught the shrink behind me eating a pastrami sandwich, mustard all over his face.
So I went to study psychotherapy. I got a library card and never discussed my previous life again. I thought, ‘Let’s give something back to the world’ (I probably didn’t but it’s a good line). I’ve noticed that many women like myself choose to study therapy when they meet the wild surf of menopause; the hormones dry up and they realize the chances are low they’re ever going to be hit on again, so they find themselves wanting to care for other people or starting a rest home for stray cats.
A few years later, I decided to go further and learn about what I was really interested in: the brain. My thinking was, if I learnt how my own engine worked it might prevent me getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, shrieking for someone to come and fix me; I would provide my own AA service. I’d be able to lasso this wild beast of a brain, stop it from churning away over the same ground, keeping me up at nights; worrying, rehashing, regretting and resenting.
After much research, I thought mindfulness might help me best as I had heard it gives you the ability to regulate your own mind. (I would say it saved my life but I’ll get to that later in the book.) I decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth, to one of the founders of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, Professor Mark Williams, who told me that unfortunately I would have to get into Oxford University in order to study it alongside neuroscience.
I scraped together some old school records and managed to excavate my one or two decent high school grades, but most of all I give great interview, so I got into that masters course. The other 14 students in my class were very brilliant and looked at me on day one as if they were having an encounter with a third kind; but God dammit, I was there.
So after many decades of agonizing investigation, a masters in mindfulness, a degree in psychotherapy and even a small taste of fame, here I am writing this manual on how to tame your mind.
I’ll go into detail later but I want to mention one fact right away; the gold at the end of the rainbow is that:
YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR MIND AND HOW YOU THINK.
This is called neuroplasticity. Your genes, hormones, regions in the brain and early learning do not necessarily determine your fate.
Scientific evidence has shown that neurons (brain cells) can rewire and change patterns throughout your lifetime as a result of your experiences and how you think about them.
So your thoughts affect the physiology of your brain and the physiology affects your thoughts.
Think about sex for a minute. That’s Ok, I’ll wait. Once you get an inkling, a whole cascade of hormones is let loose in your body to get you ready to cha-cha. Sometimes it’s the other way around; you’re minding your own business, for no reason a hormone switches on in your brain and suddenly your thinking goes X-rated.
When your mind changes, your brain changes and because our brains are so malleable, the sky’s the limit. I remind you that I got into Oxford in my 50s even though I failed to get a diploma from Busy Beaver nursery school (look it up, that was the actual name) proving really anything is possible. But it takes time to alter your habits of thinking; it won’t happen with a weekend workshop on ‘How to Tickle Your Inner Angel’. It takes intentional concentration and repetition over time. You can change but only if you make the effort not to do the same old thing, the same old way, day in and day out. You, and the way you see the world, are the architect of how your brain is mapped. This is what scientists are giving us in the 21st century; way beyond what Psychic Madge can read in your palm.
You, and the way you see the world, are the architect of how your brain is mapped
The brain is like a pliable three-pound piece of play-dough; you can re-sculpt it by breaking old mental habits and creating new, more flexible ways of thinking. Gloria Gaynor was wrong when she sang, ‘I am what I am’. She will have to change those lyrics but it won’t be so easy to dance to. What rhymes with neuroplasticity?
The Inner You
If you can look inside your brain and roughly understand where everything is and how it operates, you might not be able to completely know yourself but with practice you may be able to fix yourself. Learning how to self-regulate means you can sense the early warnings before a full-on burnout or depression and do something about it. So much is known about this idea of selfregulation; it may (and I hope it does) shortly become the buzzword of this decade. We can, with certain practices such as mindfulness, actually have some control over the chemicals in our brains that drive us to stress, to anxiety and even to happiness. This remarkable organ in our heads holds infinite wisdom but so few of us know how to use it. It’s similar to having a Ferrari except no one gave you the keys.
The reality is that the demanding voice in our heads is not who we are, it plays a very small part in the big scheme of things.
What’s really running you is a million, trillion gigabyte-powered engine room in your brain, managed by your DNA, that instructs hormones, memories, muscles, blood, organs and really everything that happens inside you to ensure that you survive at all costs, and not that stupid inner monologue about why you’re too fat to wear tights.
My aim in this book is to show you how to become the master of your mind and not the slave. If you learn how to self-regulate your moods, emotions and thoughts, and focus your mind on what you want to pay attention to rather than be dragged into distraction, you might just reach that illusive thing called happiness. We all have it we just don’t know where the ‘on’ button is. The organ that allows you to realize the world understands so little about itself. (Yes Oprah, I’m available.)
Why We Need a Manual
What is our point on Earth? Everyone wants to know. So the question is not, ‘To be or not to be?’ The big questions are, ‘What are we meant to be doing while we’re being?’ and ‘How do I run and manage this thing called “me”?’
Our primary problem as a species (I leave out those with religious beliefs they have their own books) is we have no manual, no instructions that tell us how to live our lives. Domestic appliances have instruction manuals; not us. We’re born with absolutely no information, and are reliant on Mommy and Daddy who jam their USB sticks into our innocent hard drives and download their neuroses into us. As I think we’ve agreed, we’re all missing a manual, so I’ve tried to keep it simple.
Part 1: What’s Wrong With Us? For the Normal-Mad
In this part of the guidebook I will examine why we are all in the ‘flying by the seat of our pants’ school of thought when it comes to living our lives. We assume the next person knows what they’re doing; they don’t.
Part 2: What’s Wrong With Us? For the Mad-Mad
For the depressed, anxious, panic-attacked, OCD’d, over-eaters, drinkers, shoppers, compulsive list-makers, etc. The list is endless.
Part 3: What’s in Your Brain/What’s on Your Mind?
I will familiarize you with your ingredients: the hormones, neurons, hemispheres, regions etc. so that in Part 4 you’ll be able to understand what physically happens in your brain when you practise mindfulness; how it can enhance positive feelings, which ultimately bring happiness.
You are your own cookbook. How you work your brain determines if you’re going to become filet mignon or an old kebab.
Part 4: Mindfulness Taming Your Mind. Think of this part as Wisdom for Dummies. I’ll show you how to be able to self-regulate your thoughts and emotions to make you the master and not the slave of your mind.
Part 5: Alternative Suggestions for Peace of Mind
I would never want to be considered evangelical so if mindfulness isn’t for you, I’ll give you alternative practices that can change your brain.
I hope this book helps you let go of the image you have of yourself if it’s getting in your way; I hope I can encourage you to be brave and know that nothing is certain: life flows, changes and ends. Get over your fear. The only way to find any peace is to let it all go and jump into the unknown. Just jump.
About the Author
Arriving in Britain from the United States in 1977, Ruby Wax began her acting career with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She went on to write and perform in her own hugely popular television programmes for the BBC and Channel 4 and was Script Editor on all series of Absolutely Fabulous. Recently she has obtained a Masters degree in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy from Oxford University and spoke at TED Global. She has become the poster girl for mental illness in the UK.
What’s Wrong With Us? For the Normal-Mad
What Drives Us Crazy
There may be many observations in this part that do not resonate with you, but we only see the world through our own eyes. I know there are people out there who don’t see the world as I do but sadly they aren’t writing this book. So if anyone does not suffer from what follows, I apologize if it seems I’m painting the whole human race with the same pessimistic brush. I have reached these conclusions only because everyone I have ever met has complained that these are the areas of life that drive them crazy. I know from the bottom of my heart, they are what drive me crazy.
Why are we so mean to ourselves? What did we do wrong? Why, if we are the best that evolution has tossed up so far, are we so abusive to ourselves? Each of us has a nagging parent implanted in our heads: ‘Don’t do that why didn’t you, you should have but you didn’t’, on an endless tape. (My mother would say she was only telling me what a failure I was because she loved me.) If most of us ever compared our inner leitmotif, we would sue each other for plagiarism, as our internal themes are so alike.
No other species is as cruel as we are to ourselves. We’d never dream of treating our pets the way we treat ourselves. We whip ourselves to keep moving like we would an old horse, until it falls over exhausted; the hooves made into glue. I have asked so many people if they have ever had a voice in their head that says, ‘Congratulations you’ve done a wonderful job and may I say how attractive you look today’. The answer is no one. I’m sure they’re out there, I just never met them.
Once you get an attack of this selfimmolation, you’re on the slippery slope to a very unhappy state. Your brain just churns away chewing over a problem like a piece of meat that won’t go down. There will never be a solution to ‘I should have’ so you attack, guess who? You. This is why one in four of us is mentally ill.
It’s not our fault that we’re slave drivers to ourselves because biologically we all have this inbuilt chip that compels us to achieve and move forward. Before we even had words, we had an innate drive in every cell of our body to press on. (Google ‘selfish gene’.) All organisms, even worms, have this. It is how one cell becomes two, and two becomes three (I could go on but I haven’t got time). Cells keep advancing to the trillion cells that finally make up us. We strive to achieve. The problem is that now we use words and when we don’t ‘cut the mustard’ in our own eyes (which would really hurt) the inner voices begin: ‘I should have’ and ‘I could have’. That old familiar tune.
All of us internalize the voices in our heads from our parents, who probably meant well, but these sentiments stay in there for a lifetime. It’s because most parents want to protect their children that you get an abundance of ‘you shouldn’t . . . you should have’, otherwise the child might put their finger in a light socket and blow up. These corrective voices helped you survive as a child; later in life they can either drive you mad with their constant corrections and instructions or they can help you successfully navigate obstacles throughout your life, giving you a smoother ride.
There are parents who encourage their children with positive reinforcement and calming encouragement: ‘That’s right sweetheart, you did so well, why don’t we try it again and you’ll be even better?’ These children, later in life, may see a close friend passing by who doesn’t acknowledge them and their inner voice says, ‘Oh, too bad, Fiona must be pre-occupied and she looks so lovely, I’ll call her later’.
Those of us with parents trained by the Gestapo-school-of-child-rearing would react to this incident with, ‘Fiona hates my guts, that’s why she’s ignoring me. She found out I’m a moron, which I am.’
In my case, I would say the voices were somewhat harsh for a baby; they were less like suggestions and more like commando orders. My mother had a fear of dust so she’d have a sponge in each hand and two stuck to her knees (my mother was completely absorbent) and she’d crawl around behind me on all fours screaming, ‘Who brings footprints into a building? Are they criminally insane?’ She probably wanted to protect me, from what I don’t know, but I was hermetically sealed in my house as a child; everything was wrapped in plastic including my father, grandmother and the dog. Both my parents had to escape Nazi Austria in a laundry basket, just before ‘last orders’ was shouted and the borders shut down so no one could leave the Fatherland. This probably is what made her so unconsciously fearful, which she projected onto dust balls. (They’re easier to blow away.) Whatever the case, I picked up the panic in her voice and that sound has never left my head. So even though I’m not in Nazi Austria, the voices in my head are. Not anyone’s fault.
The Search for Happiness
We are all looking for happiness (unless of course we’ve already got it and blessed are those few that have). This is why we have so many self-help books enough now to cover the equator 78 times. Have you read The Secret? I didn’t read it but I know 80 million copies were sold. I did read page one, which informs you that ‘the secret’ was handed down to us by the ancient Babylonians and clearly it worked for them; that’s why there’s so many running around, you can’t move for all the Babylonians living in London. Next, the author tells you that Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Beethoven and Einstein were inspired by this book. I’m going to use that idea and give myself reviews from dead people. Apparently the next 200 pages are filled with advice that boils down to, ‘Think happy thoughts and your dreams will come true, just like Tinker Bell promised’. (I’m sorry to all you The Secret fans, I’m just very bitter about the 80 million copies sold. You can understand.)
All of this self-help was stolen from Walt Disney; he was the father of the New Age. ‘Whistle a happy tune; if you believe in fairies, clap your hands.’ From this philosophy flowed The Little Mermaid, Snow White and some early Mickey Mouse. Walt knew the secret of happiness. Too bad he’s on ice; we’ve got to defrost this guy to squeeze out some more wisdom. Walt knew when to make an exit.
This is a method we have devised in order to distract ourselves from the bigger, deeper questions; we have an obsession to keep busy. There is no time to rest and no time to think about what we really should be doing in our limited time on Earth. I’m not criticizing; I’m as driven as the next person. It almost got to the point where I went into labour while doing a TV show. The floor manager gave me ‘5-4-3-2’, someone cut the cord and yelled, ‘Action’.
Gandhi said, ‘There is more to life than speed’. Unfortunately he didn’t tell us what, he just left us hanging while he pranced around in his nappy.
To compensate for this undercurrent of uselessness, we pretend we’re all terribly important and that we have something to bring to the world. That’s why we have Twitter so we can check how many followers we’ve got. We can count them; 100, 1000 people you’ve never met, telling you what they had for lunch, now knowing you exist. That’s how we see if we matter. We’re like little birds, newly hatched from our eggs going, ‘Tweet, tweet, tweet’, looking for a little attention, a little love, maybe even a worm anything will do as long as they notice we’re here.
In reality we’re all as disposable as wax figures. Once you lose your job or beauty or status, which you will eventually, they melt you down and use you to make the next important person. I went to Madame Tussaud’s and there was Charlie Chaplin next to the loo while Nicole Kidman was melted down and made into 150 candles; an icon one minute, a candle the next. Jerry Hall must be on some birthday cake somewhere.
We run because we don’t want to look inside and see that there might not be anything there and that searching for meaning is a waste of airtime. We stay busy so we don’t have to think about how futile the running is; like dung beetles building a house made of manure, they don’t stop and think, ‘Hey, where’s this going?’
When I have a day off and wake up, I jolt up from the pillow, panicking that I may have nothing of any importance to do. Maybe this is why I, and people I know like me, have to keep busy compiling an endless ‘Things to Do’ list. For us, busyness is our God, we worship busyness. People ask me if I’m busy, I tell them, ‘I’m so busy I’ve had two heart attacks’. They congratulate me on this achievement.
We hold those who are on the tightest of schedules in reverence; the busier you are, the higher your status as a human being. For those of us who suffer from this phenomenon, we have sped up to such a frenzy of things ‘to do,’ we make ourselves ill just to avoid having to look inside and see that we might not have any point at all.
So who is ultimately the winner? The busy, running people? Or maybe it’s someone who sits on a rock and fishes all day or someone who has the time to feel the breeze on his face? Who is the real winner? Please, dear God, I hope it’s not the guy with the fish.
Here are some common answers to the question, ‘Are you busy?’
‘I am run off my feet.’ (Let’s picture it, someone somewhere was dashing at such a rate he/she literally cracked at the ankle and just kept going.)
‘I don’t know if I’m coming or going.’ (Someone once opened a door and just stayed there for the next five years trying to figure, ‘in or out?’)
If you have used either of these responses then you probably are an A-list person who is ‘living the life’ even though you are too busy to have one.
There are women in my neighbourhood in London who have nothing to do for a living and they are booked to the hilt. They do Pilates five times a week so they can make their pelvic floor strong enough to lift the carpet. Dyson could use them as hoovers. Then they’ll shop with their personal shopper (that takes up a few hours), have their hair blow-dried (that’s another hour), lunch (that’s a four hour filler). Then they have to pick up the kids, do their homework for them and then it’s time to get ready and go off to attend a charity event. You know what that entails? They go to a really fancy hotel and pay £2000 a plate to save a tuna.
These Pilates women complain that their husbands work until midnight and they’re left having to get their spawn into a nursery school that only takes kids whose IQs have six digits. I have (in vain) tried to tell them that marriage is a ‘negotiated deal’. I’ve even made them a little flowchart so they can get some perspective. I tell them, ‘if your husband is earning more than £150,000 a year, plus bonuses, as the wife you have no rights. You take care of the house and the kids. You must give him sex whenever and wherever he wants. And you have to stay thin and young till death do you part.
‘If your husband is making around 275,000 a year, you still take care of the house and kids but you may bitch about him up to 27 hours a week to your friends. If he does not help on the weekends, you can withhold the sex.
‘If he makes below £10,000, you can let the house and kids to go to hell.’ That’s all for when the husband is making all the money. If the wife is making all the money, say, she’s earning £150,000 a year, which is equivalent to £575,000 in ‘Man Money’, she will still have to do everything because evolution has not given men eyes to see details such as a hoof print on the carpet. But man does have a very important function and that is to stand there and gaze toward the horizon to make sure there are no wildebeests.
Shopping is Our Search for Love
This need to have more is not limited to the wives of footballers or head honchos of big organizations. We all, in our own way, never stop ‘wanting’, that’s why we need 20,000 feet of mall; big steaming mounds of galleria won’t be enough to satisfy. The shopping never stops; the label says it all. Our self-esteem drives us to buy a designer handbag that costs the GNP of Croatia which is why people with nothing will spend their last shekel on Dolce and Gabbana or a £300 pair of Nikes. If you have the tattoo of ‘CC’ on your handbag, you can get a nod of respect from everyone that passes, even though you’re homeless. I once saw a tramp in Miami pushing all his belongings in a shopping cart he stole from Bloomingdale’s. He was wearing newspaper and had a cap on his head that said, ‘Born to Shop’.
What we throw on our back is our new means of identity. People who wear Prada usually hang out with other Praderites and the same with all other brands; people seek their own level, their own tribe. Picture it, a whole gaggle of Guccis at the watering hole and some Primarks eating a carcass.
P.S. Proof of our insanity is that we actually buy Ugg boots. Where in the brain do we feel a need to look like an Eskimo, as if they ever had any fashion sense?
The ‘Fix’ of Happiness
Some people think to reach a state of joy, you need to dress in sheets for a lifetime with a dot on your head, on top of a mountain. Some wave crystals, eat turf, pray, chant and dance with the wolves. Contentment might even be possible, I’m sure it’s feasible to sit on a bench and feed a squirrel without getting antsy.
But the trouble is, we always want more. We’re the A-list of all species so we go for the Golden Chalice: happiness. It had to be a crazy American who said that we all have the right to pursue happiness. That’s why you hear them demanding a double latte caramel macchiato every morning with their smiling teeth just before they chirp, ‘Have a nice day’.
There are some lucky people who feel they experience happiness when they gaze at a cloud or walk on the beach but the rest of us only get that special tingly buzz when we’ve bought, won, achieved, hooked or booked something. Then our own brains give us a hit of dopamine, which makes us feel good. We don’t need substances; we are our own drug dealers.
The problem is, the hit of ‘happiness’ usually lasts as long as a cigarette so we have to continually search for the next fix. It’s as though as a species we have no brakes, only breakdowns. Mother Nature’s little joke on us is that the original object of desire isn’t so much fun when we get it, so unless we can up the stakes all the time, we can’t get that burst of internal fireworks we call happiness. Most animals just eat their fill and walk away but not us, we keep glutting ourselves even though the next bite never tastes as good as the first one.
The Hierarchy of Western Wants (According to Me)
– Food and/or water
– Normal car
– Second house
– Flying economy class
– Business class
– First class
– Private jet
– Private jet with jacuzzi
– Meeting Oprah
This failure to get what we want leaves us in a state of permanent desire. Magazines understand that they make us salivate for the unobtainable; the chase is better than the kill.
People who collect art pay £15 million for some semen on a cracker and then never notice it once it’s on their wall.
They’ll be back licking the pages of Sotheby’s catalogue for what they crave next. If we’re not wanting, we’re waiting. Waiting for what, we don’t know, but something and it’s going to happen soon. Waiting for our screenplay to be commissioned about a clown who falls in love with a squirrel and then decides to become a car dealer. Waiting for the money to roll in for an idea about inventing soup in a solid form; it’s all about to happen next week, next year, we don’t mind how long, as long as we’re in a suspended state of waiting.
A new phenomenon that arises from our insatiable appetites is the sense of entitlement; now everyone thinks they deserve to be a winner. This is why so many deluded people with absolutely no sense of shame have the audacity to try out for X Factor when they have the voice of a toad. Self-help books will tell you that the only thing standing in your way is you. ‘You can be beautiful if you think you are’, they say. This is why you see the truly selfdeluded paint their nails with tiny diamantes embedded in bloodbath-red extensions, as if no one will notice that they are the size of Tibet.
Once we humans have the basics for survival, i.e. food, water and mascara, you would think we should be on our knees, kissing the ground in gratitude for our aliveness, for being able to see through our eyes, hear through our ears, and best of all, eat. Let us have a moment’s silence to thank the Big Bang for making it possible that eventually we could experience the taste of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey Ice Cream.
But even with all these miracles we still suffer and it’s all because of our negative thinking.
Animals don’t have negative thoughts; they’re out there having the time of their lives, swinging from branches, mating with nearly everyone who comes up behind them. And us? We ruminate on things, worry, regret, resent; who picked the short straw, do you think? Most awful of all is that we can project to the future and figure out that we will eventually lose our looks and dare I say it, die.
See how there’s always a grenade at the bottom of the cookie jar? It’s so like the story of my life whenever I achieve a little something and am complimented, shortly thereafter I am swiftly kicked in the ass by karma. The more you have (looks, money, fame) the more you suffer when you lose it. There is always a bill to pay. Luckily, they bless people like Liza Minnelli with a dollop of unawareness so when they begin to crinkle and melt into oblivion, they’re the last to know and they just keep on kickin’ those ‘hoofers’ on ol’ Broadway, even though you hear the sound of their arthritic hips cracking in the effort. (This probably sounds judgmental but I get evolved later in the book so just bear with me now.)
Those of us who aren’t on the brink of starvation or elimination or living in squalor are condemned to a life of worrying about trivia. It all went downhill when we crawled out of the jungle. We just don’t know what to think about next after fulfilling basic needs; so we makeover our kitchens. In my neighbourhood all the surfaces in this year’s kitchens are buffed silver metal resembling what you’d find in mortuaries. You’re scared to open a drawer in case a toe hangs out with a label dangling from it. Now they are digging down below the kitchens to make more floors until they’re hitting volcanic rock. Some have lap pools they will never lap in. I know someone who is building an underground vineyard.
Bathrooms of Grandeur
My theory is you can tell how mentally deranged someone is by viewing their bathroom. If they believe they need a chandelier, an Italian marble tub and a toilet that performs more than three functions (now some of them play Rachmaninoff when you lift the lid and squirt you with lilac perfume after you pee) they are not a well person and have strayed far, far away from sanity.
Freud should have come up with a therapy where you interrogate the clients about how they envision the decor of their bathrooms rather than asking about sex. Sex tells you nothing. How you want your lavatory to look is the gateway to the unconscious. A bathroom is a place where you should have no airs or graces because it’s just you and it. There is no room in there for narcissism, this is merely a toilet, where you really see yourself for what you are and get a whiff of reality. On the toilet no one is a star. Remember that and you will go far in life.
Our Need to Be Special
Our status used to be based on bloodlines, on whether you were a Princess or a Pea. (See Battle of the Sperm.) Now we determine each other’s worth by asking, ‘What do you do?’ If you say ‘nothing’, people move away from you as if you’re a corpse. Our identity is on our business cards, and new titles emerge every year to define increasingly abstract roles. Job descriptions like ‘consultancy’ are ambiguous. (If everyone’s a consultant, who is left needing one?) These days ‘motivational speakers’ are also considered big shots. We confuse bravery with bravura. I’ve seen motivational speakers who are brought in to companies to tell you about rowing across the Atlantic with one arm. How is this helping the company? That person isn’t brave, he’s nuts. And these speakers are starting to get competitive; apparently someone has claimed he climbed Mount Everest using only his nostrils.
Each of us thinks somewhere inside we have a purpose. Long ago we didn’t have this existentialist angst; we were hunters or gatherers. A hunter hunted, a gatherer gathered (Jewish people pointed rather than doing either). Back then there was no such thing as individuality so you couldn’t distinguish ‘you’ from anyone else unless you wore a hat or had more hair but basically we were all the same: grunting and foraging.
In those days you didn’t need a manual. You were born, drove an ox around a field, multiplied and died. No one complained; plagues came and went smallpox, influenza, you name them you had them and everyone had the same attitude, ‘Shit happens’. Now it’s an outrage: ‘How dare some virus wipe us out? Do they know who we are? We’re superior beings, the creme de la creme of all that live and breathe; top of the food chain’.
It all went wrong when some deluded optimist wrote the words, ‘All men are created equal’. This is clearly not the case; some people are losers. He never even lived to see the can of worms he released once he wrote that with his feather. He just signed his autograph and let the chaos begin. (I’m going to name names. It was Thomas Jefferson another American.)
The Big Team Happy Days
We were at our happiest when we used to drive our yoke necklaced oxen around a field because then we were all working together as a big tribe, a team. Ok, it was tough but we had some laughs out there in the blizzard conditions. We needed to form tribes in order to fight off neighbouring tribes who tried to steal our oxen. Without an ox you’re nothing. After that, the numbers of people in a tribe diminished because along came the gun and then you didn’t really need a lot of people, just one guy with a good trigger finger. That’s why now we don’t have this sense of teamwork; we’re all alone hunkering in our corners, clutching our weapons.
The only time we do get a sense of belonging to a tribe is when we’re facing a disaster like a hurricane, Godzilla or a war. In the UK the only time everyone unites is when they’re reminiscing about the Second World War; when they get fuelled up on the Blitzkrieg spirit, they all start blubbing away singing those ‘We’ll Meet Again’ songs they heard on the wireless. Every Christmas, my husband’s parents would dress up as Luftwaffe and RAF pilots and run around the living room going, ‘We shall fight them on the beaches!’ and screaming, ‘We shall never surrender’, as they smashed into the TV set.
In my opinion, our downfall began when we started to think of ourselves as ‘individuals’. I read somewhere, don’t ask me where, that hundreds and hundreds of years ago there was no word for ‘I’. There was only the word for ‘we’. No one was lonely back then. The trouble started when the individual came into the picture. Remember the wheel? Back millions of years ago when we made the wheel? We don’t know who made it. There was no wheel by Chanel. Remember when we all worked together to make fire? We don’t know who lit the first match he was just some guy and he didn’t need his name in lights. Now agents and managers have to get involved and skim 20 per cent off the top for just standing there.
Simple animals have all the luck. They’re delighted to still work as a team. They’re delighted to be part of a gaggle, or flock, or swarm. Goose in the back row of the flying formation? He’s proud to be there. He’s overjoyed. It’s his job in life. Not us anymore. Our earliest instinct is to bond together and socialize; our very DNA gives us instructions on how to mingle. Natural selection is like a beauty contest, no one remembers who came in second. Nature is so cruel: one tiny weakness, a blemish, a flipper instead of an arm and you’re out of the running, gone.
You know who I blame for all this? Freud. If he hadn’t mentioned an ego, we would never have had one. Because of him it’s all about me. Me, I need to be the next Kate Moss. Me, I need to run Virgin. Me, I need to be in Hello and I’ll do anything to get on television. ‘You want me to eat my mother-in-law? Toss her on the barbeque.’
So this is the human condition: we’re living longer, getting taller, and are a push of a finger away from every other person on the planet and yet we do not know how to run ourselves.
Maybe we’re not supposed to know and when we’re finished filling the world with parking lots, muffin shops and Starbucks, our point on Earth is finished and with one big cataclysmic boom we’ll be gone.
Millions of years of natural selection, and this is what we’ve come to. We want to be the most famous, the richest, the thinnest and the busiest. Darwin would shit himself in the pants.
The Problem with Change
I have given you a taster of the good news already: WE CAN CHANGE. But here I ought to point out, as we are focusing on the problems of living in modern times, that when you do change, those around you won’t like it. People will not let go of their image of you, even though you have thoroughly redecorated your inner self. They want you to stay as they remember you so that they feel they aren’t changing either, that they are still gloriously youthful. This is why we don’t want to see an old movie star because it makes us think of our own mortality. Sometimes they will cast an ‘older’ woman (in her 50s!) but they’ll make sure she dies of something terminal halfway through. No one wants to see an ageing face on the screen, especially in HD. (I once saw myself in HD, I looked like a close-up of an elephant.) We run to doctors to fight off Mr Gravity for another year but it’s hopeless. We should tell ourselves, ‘The Christmas tree is dead already, stop trying to decorate it with fancy tinsel, it won’t help.’
I’m not leaving myself out of this; I give thanks every day to surgeons who have helped me look this pert long after pertness should have died. I’m sure my insides are like the old Dorian Gray, while my face looks all shiny and new. I once said to Jennifer Saunders wasn’t it amazing that you couldn’t tell I’ve had any work done on my face? She said that I was delusional and that it was obvious. I will never tell anyone how old I am. The year I was born will never pass these lips without water-boarding. Actually, I don’t even remember the year I was born. I set my burglar alarm to remind me. I’ve had my house robbed many times, the police come over and I can’t remember what I set the alarm at: 1971? 1932? 1995? Could be anything.
So many people want to label you as funny or aggressive or a mess. We are condemned by other people to stagnate in the image they have of us; held ransom by their expectations like a butterfly pinned on cardboard. I’m still asked by taxi drivers, as if this wouldn’t hurt me, why I am no longer on television? In the past, I used to have to choke back the bile as I felt that stab in my heart. I used to answer with, ‘Because I have terminal cancer’. That usually shut them up pretty quickish. I stopped doing that because I’ve learnt that if you let out your anger on someone, it comes back to you like acid reflux and you’ve poisoned yourself and feel toxic and nauseated while the taxi driver probably just goes back to his home and wife and has a lovely life.
I had to change, I didn’t have a choice as my career in television was pulled out like a rug from under me and I was replaced by a younger (but not as funny) version of me. Anyway I let it go and yes, it’s painful at first when no one looks at you. Fame is very addictive and as our spotlight fades, most people are desperate to cling on and we’ll do anything. ‘Please do a documentary about my gall bladder operation. I’ll even play a corpse.’
Eventually it’s quite liberating to not be noticed and you rejoin the human race. When you go on the tube and no one recognizes you, it’s a wake-up call; you realize how up your own ass you have been and that now it’s time to come out and smell the Circle Line. There’s a downside to becoming a normal person; when you tell the ticket guy at the exit that you forgot to buy a ticket and you think he’ll go, ‘Ha ha you’re the one from TV’, and let you off, you discover that this time he doesn’t and he tells you to get a ticket or you’ll be arrested.
When I decided to re-invent myself (which we all have to do in life at least five times, because we were meant to be dead by 30) and I went back to school to learn how to be a therapist, my friends said that the clients would think it was a joke. They would expect TV cameras to be following me into the room and either freak out or start auditioning. I was under the impression that the woman (me) who had that job in television was effectively dead.
The point is, we’re all changing all the time. You once found it hard to tie a shoelace and now you don’t even have to look. The change is so subtle; you think that whatever you feel like right now is how you always felt. Our brain can trick us into thinking life stands still. In the end this causes the human race the most heartache.
As you get older you don’t see many things as unique any more. Whatever we experience in the present, we automatically go back through the filofax in our minds to figure out what it reminds us of. We do this for the sake of survival so, say, we have had a bad experience with a man with a moustache, now we don’t trust anyone with a moustache. And, because we see everybody through the filter of who they remind us of, whoever we meet is therefore labelled with that image, frozen in ice for all time. We’re not aware of how biased our memories make us and how they affect our view of the world.
And as we get older, our lenses get more and more narrow and blurrier until we only see our own tiny pinpoint view; this limited vision eventually makes bigots of us all. This is why so many marriages fall apart. You meet someone, think that you know them, marry them and then ten years later you divorce them because they turned out not to be who you thought they were. They never were. I realized many years after I married that I chose my husband because he has the eyebrows of Jeff Bridges. Now, I have to live daily with the disappointment that it’s actually him I’m with and not Jeff. God knows who he thought I was.
It goes further. We then unconsciously create situations that back up our beliefs, just to prove our point of view is right. We all know those women who keep dating the same kind of guy just to keep up their image of themselves as ‘victim’ and to reinforce the fact that ‘all men are bastards’. They give you stories about how he seemed so perfect on the ‘Serial Killer’ website and yet, after leaving a grenade on the pillow, he never called again. Why?
It’s amazing how we will suffer pain and abuse to keep our lives predictable. We’ll let our inner voices brutalize us, rather than live with the possibility that we might be wrong about how we see things. We’ll think, ‘Well at least it’s a pain that’s familiar’.
Uncertainty is our biggest fear so we keep up the idea that our vision of the world is reality. We use our minds to construct a picture of the world, judging it, making sure it fits with our past image of things and then anticipating how our past behaviours might affect the future. We never see the world as it really is but only how we see it. And because we’re trapped in our own interpretation, we are prepared to go to war with other people caught in their view of reality and never the twain shall meet. All this is the sound of people embedded in their own lives, believing their reality is the only reality, thinking the things they think matter; it’s the sound of solipsism. This could be why the world is in such a bad shape. It is the nub of all our problems and until we realize how limited our views are, we’ll never agree on anything. We have to try to see what other people see, through their eyes, only then can we come up with some cohesive resolution. This is my statement on world peace: take it or leave it.
I don’t mind change. I come from a long line of unpredictability as my ancestors didn’t stick around for long in any one place. Maybe it’s because I’m the daughter of immigrants that I’m always ready to jump ship, to change my location fast in case we’re exterminated again. My fellow immigrants don’t get sentimental about things like furniture or heirlooms; this is because we’re constantly scuttling across borders, fleeing with pianos on our backs.
My fantasy is living in a simple hotel room, with no knick-knacks, only a phone for room service. I never get it when I see people waving their national flag, getting all weepy, singing some dirge about their homeland. Everyone sobbing for the old country (which is just a wet piece of peat moss) going on and on about how many generations back their people lived on this potato farm (said with an lrish accent) and how they loved it even though they’ve probably emigrated to another country. To me it’s dirt, to them it’s land: same thing. My people this, my people that. I have no real people except when I was in the mental institution and then it was full of them. They were my people, because they did not answer with ‘fine’ when you asked how they were. We didn’t need a flag.
My career ended with a bang in that I ended up in an asylum. We’re always surprised when something ends; everything ends, so why do we never think it’s our turn? One of my last interviews was with Ben Stiller who just answered my questions with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and I knew I had a car crash on my hands. Actually the very last interview show I did was with a star (who shall remain nameless) whose publicity agent only allowed me to go shopping with her in her friend’s shop where she wandered around saying things like, ‘This is nice’. Then we went to her Pilates class where I was allowed to film her doing a sit-up. She finally spoke at the end of the show in a coffee shop and I got a 45-minute speech about politics in Palestine or Panama or Bosnia; it was all my fault, the whole Bush administration was my fault. I knew the show needed some comedy so on the way out of the coffee shop I bought her (only in New York) a plastic donkey into whose behind you could put a lighted cigarette and watch the smoke come out of its mouth. She held it and looked at me as if to say, ’You are lower than a worm’. That was the last time I interviewed anyone. As I watched them try to edit in one useable sentence to save the show from the ‘Ben Stiller as a corpse’ and ‘Joan of Arc/nameless star’ interviews I knew it was over; I would be bidding a fond farewell to this profession.
On the way down the escalator of showbusiness, I finally hit the basement when I made a double suicide pact with Richard E. Grant by doing a show I hope you missed called Celebrity Shark Bait. Here’s a clue; the sharks weren’t the celebrities. We did it for the money and a chance to see Cape Town and we put the swimming with great white sharks in the back burner of our minds. Besides us on this show, there was also a girl (forgot name) from some soap (forgot name) who wore very low cut tops to show off her white, milky breasts. They filmed her most days and Richard and I were told they didn’t need us, so we told estate agents we were looking for a house to buy and snooped into people’s homes. Meanwhile, Milky Breasts was now being filmed (I’m not making this up) in a freezer where they hang dead pigs from hooks all around her while she stood freezing in her bikini. The point of this was to prepare her for the cold water. PS. We were going to wear dry suits for the dive so there was no point in the pig scene except to see her nipples.
The day came for the shark dive; an obese lesbian gave us instructions on the do’s and don’ts of how to behave in the shark cage. The woman, who had ‘Shark Lady’ printed on her red jacket, told us not to worry as she had been doing this for over 25 years and it was perfectly safe. As she tossed large chunks of tuna into the sea for chumming (getting some blood in the water to attract the great white sharks and drive them into a feeding frenzy) we noticed she only had two fingers. It turns out Milky Breasts wouldn’t get in the water she was too scared and so Richard and I were lowered down as bait. Suddenly something about 20 feet long glided at us, looked at us with dead eyes and swam away. The shark must have known our television careers were over and went off looking for an A-list celebrity. We became hysterical at the bottom of the cage, I laughed until urine came out of my rubber wet suit collar. Months later we saw the show. We were used as cutaways to the Breasts and when we were lowered in the cage they dubbed in screaming, thus not only humiliating us but making us look like wimps; two old has-beens sunk in the bottom of a tube. I decided to let go of showbusiness and begin again, slowly weaning myself off fame.
So I’m not nostalgic about leaving things. As far as my career or my university or my hometown went, I was on the bus out of town at the right time because I knew to walk away before I was pushed out. I never wanted to be the last one to leave the party. If you don’t move on, you get stuck and it becomes pathetic when you’re left clutching onto your past, remembering your school days, singing the old songs and boring everyone to death.
The ultimate freedom lies in knowing everything, including you, is in a state of flux; you’re never still, you’re always ‘nexting’; billions of your cells are born, billions die. In seven years you will be a whole new version of you and the old you, a pile of dandruff flakes.
Have We Overloaded? How Much Should We Know?
Our little brains are on a daily drip-feed of everything from fashion tips to traffic updates to terrorist attacks. Is there a limit? I’d like to know. I wish there was some kind of service that tells you how much your particular mind can take. What is your capacity? When is there too much information to hold in one head? Why can’t those of us filled to capacity hold up our hand and say, ‘I can take no more, please don’t tell me anything else’? I can only retain my Visa number. I cannot also remember my password for PayPal and Twitter, my brain floweth over. I had my brain tested a few months ago by a psychologist and he said that I had very little ram space so I can only hold about three numbers at once and I can’t build an argument because I forget where I started. I have other problems with numbers. I once called my husband from South Africa and told him I’d got a house for a steal, for 10,000 rand (£1000). I was three decimals off: it was 10 million (£100,000).
How much information are we supposed to be able to take in? I’m sure we’re only equipped to know what’s happening on our street and maybe the local deli, but if there’s a 3.6 earthquake in Kow Loo Toik, do I have to know? If the islands off Papua New Guinea flood, what am I supposed to do? Fly over there; get in a canoe with a hand pump and start draining? Ok, if you show me a photo of a maimed person, I will write you a cheque immediately, but most of the time what are we supposed to feel about these global disasters? I would probably like to know if my next-door neighbour gets shot but maybe I’m not so upset if it’s someone three blocks away. How close am I to the bullets? That’s what I want to know. I feel terrible saying this but it’s what I’m thinking.
When there was a hurricane in New York, there were huge headlines and 240 photos of every drop of rain, wet people being interviewed, for their first smell of fame (you can see a glint in the eye) aware they will be seen all over the world as they said something so original: ‘I was in my house and I heard wind and I ran out of my house’. New Yorkers were crying, screaming, kvetching (that’s what Jews do) that their cars stalled, their hair was blown off.
Yet, at the same time, Haiti was nearly devastated; 66 people died and hardly a flicker of coverage. You saw some black people wading in some water but no closeups.
I’m sceptical as to why people need to know about worldwide atrocities. I know people who watch CNN all day, particularly when working out on the StairMaster, buffing their butts while those headlines of disaster slap them in the face with an up-to-the-minute report on another high school shooting. You can see a lip-lubed anchor woman running over to an injured cheerleader, shoving the microphone in her face demanding, ‘How do you feel about the incident?’ giving her a little kick as she sinks into unconsciousness. ‘How do you feel?’ She has the look of a cat before it kills a mouse as she turns to the camera and says, ‘Well, Jerry, that’s all on the up-to-theminute report on the tragedy happening down here, back to you.’
In some deep, dark way we all become salacious around a disaster; our mouths water slightly when there’s a real emergency. Hurricanes, typhoons, wars, shootings, epidemics; we’re a little aroused because now we really have something to think about rather than our monotonous lives; something to take the focus away from our to-do list. We have a little break to think, ‘Well thank God it’s not me’. Then we forget again after a few days and get on with worrying about the pick-up at the dry cleaner and buying another light bulb. You can see the look of disappointment on people’s faces when the report comes that the hurricane has dipped from 3000 knots to a light breeze. We all love a disaster; nothing tastes as good. The savage still lurks underneath no matter what we’re wearing.
We the Emotionally Inept
We have created rockets to the moon, computers that can well, you name it, they can do it and Starbucks on every corner of the world, but the other part of us, the emotional bit, is still wearing nappies. Emotionally we are on all fours, grazing our knuckles on the ground, looking out naively from under our one big eyebrow. Many of us don’t even like to say the ‘E’ word (emotion) because some of us think it is a glitch in this otherwise perfect human machine. Emotions are to be eradicated as quickly as possible like a blemish or a laugh line.
But it is these lurking emotions that cause us the most trouble and we haven’t risen above them. We’re still slaves to them when they rear their ugly heads.
We used to hold in high esteem those who got the highest grades at school and they went on to be hugely successful. (Times have changed. There’s not some little guy at the top selling soap powder any more, now you need an MBA from Harvard just to put on your pants.) We’ve learnt that the brightest might be the very ones who screw us the hardest. They know the math; they feel they can rob the bank. We used to trust these guys, we thought they were like Superman. To relax on weekends they go helicopter skiing in Alaska, not just a double black run for them, they have to leap from a plane. To unwind, I chew a chicken bone in front of the television; they jump down a cliff.
Want my advice? If you’re checking out whom you want to do business with, ask what they do to relax on the weekends. If they say helicopter skiing, walk away, they are mentally not right. The most cognitively brilliant people usually have had to sacrifice their emotional selves. They live in a fog of facts rarely creating a new one, just regurgitating everything they’ve ever learnt and we’re supposed to think that’s smart. That’s a walking Wikipedia not a human being. This also might mean they’re not top of the class on the morals front. They feel nothing so they can squeeze you dry without a wisp of remorse.
This is my weak area. Even if in terms of success, I’m cooking on gas, if I suddenly see someone with more, I get that kick in the stomach, that stab in my heart that means I want him dead. I am the first to step forward and admit, I want what the next guy has. No matter what it is, I want it. Sometimes I get the lust for things I don’t even want. I’m so ashamed of this but in the throes of envy, if I accidentally pick up Tatler, Hello or Harpers and I see Lord and Lady Pomkelson Pompel Pomp sipping champers, with their smiling teeth yapping at some opening of something (I would shoot myself if I were actually there), I can’t help feeling that old gutter-rat sense of envy bubbling below the surface. If you ever hear me say, ‘I’m so happy you got that job I always wanted’, believe me, I not only want you dead but your whole family wiped out. I used to tear out pages of Hello magazine going, ‘Die, die, die’.
I’m always checking how many tweets other people have compared to me to make myself crazy. I look at Stephen Fry’s Twitter when I’m feeling particularly suicidal. He always inspires me when I need my envy stoking up. It’s like that spot on your gums that hurts when you stick a pin in it but you can’t stop doing it.
If only humans had a cookbook to see what our ingredients are. We could look up ‘envy’ and see that we all have it; it comes with the human package. It’s just one of those things that kept us alive when we roamed the ancient Savannah. It’s part of the survival-of-the-fittest kit, so that if one Homo erectus had an attractive pointed stone, we all wanted it and so we made our own pointed stone or even better smashed in his skull with a stick and stole his. It is in our biology, this reptilian feeling of wanting what the next guy has. We can see it in the ‘hubris’ of Greek drama. In every one of those Grecian plots, if someone got too big for their boots, divine justice would drop by and make them poke out their own eyes or accidentally screw their mother and then take poison. And now, we throw parties for people who have been promoted; though some of us afflicted ones hope they choke.
Your emotionally underdeveloped area may be anger, a very common ailment in the human psyche. It’s left over from when we were basic grunt, kill and mate apes. This is how it manifests itself now; you see yourself as a perfectly civilized person, law-abiding, popular with friends and a respected citizen. Then something in you flips and triggers some alien rage that turns you from Jekyll to Hyde in a second: could be a traffic warden, could be your secretary who forgot to give you a message, could be your husband/wife who got lost again because he/she can’t read a roadmap. Suddenly you’re unrecognizable: lips back, teeth bared, a terrifying vomiting bark emitting from your throat as you verbally bully your victim to dust. You want to hammer them but the fear of prison holds you back by a thread. Usually after the incident you get the backwash, the poison you shot out comes right back at you and you suffer the hangover of shame and guilt until they drain from your system or you ask God to forgive you.
Don’t be too hard on yourself; we are born with this one too. If we want something, we have the inbuilt skill to manipulate the situation in our favour. We can gazzump someone’s chances of getting the job, partner, money, you name it. We have the ability to outfox. We know how to smile but underneath we are plotting to overthrow them; talking behind their back, pretending to be happy for them and then hacking their phones. We are still animals under the skin; shifty and devious for survival’s sake. Evolution has even provided facial expressions to throw people off the trail so we can succeed with our deception.
Before we had words, we spread the news using our facial expressions and to this day no matter where you are on the planet, even if you’re born blind, by ten months you’ll know how to pull up both sides of your mouth and smile; a real one, not that thing airline stewardesses do when they give everyone ‘bye bye bye bye bye’ like they have a bad stutter. Nature in its brilliance made sure the first expression a baby learns is a smile because if it didn’t smile we would have tossed that screaming glob of fat (who can’t even go to the loo by itself) away. To this day people will tolerate and even love you if you smile. People in showbiz have this pummelled into them, singing to themselves, ‘Smile though your heart is breaking, smile even though you’re faking smile and the world smiles with you.’
Whether you live in Bora Bora or Detroit, the facial expression for anger remains the same. It can be recognized by a drawing back of the lips and showing teeth, which demonstrates to others that you could eat them if pushed. The exposed teeth were to show how sharp they were. How white they were was irrelevant. The growling was dropped once we learnt to swear. We show disgust by flaring our nostrils and putting our mouths in an ‘ick’ shape to show others around us that, let’s say, the fish is off. Fear is easy to spot: the open-mouthed screaming and bulging eyes gives a big clue for those nearby to run. Surprise is an intake of breath with an open mouth, warning others that something is not as it should be. It could be something bad or good; it’s sort of the human version of a yellow light.
Laughter begins as a half scream from the shocked response of seeing something unexpected, a man slipping on a banana. You’re about to express alarm but when you realize the danger has passed, that he’s still alive, your lips draw up and your eyes crinkle to show others that there is no emergency. Humour comes from shock followed by relief, expressed by a barking noise. It indicates that this is a joke, not an actual catastrophe and the bark is so ludicrous, so infectious, that others around you also bark and clap their hands, all joining in the celebration that the pie in the face was not serious. Everyone is so relieved they bark some more.
We’re born with the 47 facial muscles that create our expressions. All of our emotional states are viscerally connected to our facial muscles so we can read each other loud and clear, underneath language. Watch a silent movie and get back to me.
We developed facial expressions not just to read each other but also to deceive each other. For example, if you found food and you didn’t want anyone to get it, you could fake a look of disgust then everyone leaves and you get the meat. Those who were best at deception survived and the suckers fell by the wayside. This remains the same today. This schadenfreude face is one of the ugliest of all expressions. It means, I’m-so-happy-sorry-but-mostly-I’m-happy-you’ve-been-demoted-or-evenbetter-fired.
If you watch a face it will tell you everything. For instance you cannot fake a smile. There is a muscle under the eye called the periocular that will not become active if you aren’t genuinely smiling. The mouth is easy to upturn but if you don’t find something funny, that periocular muscle just doesn’t move; your eyes are dead as a trout’s.
Learning to read faces should be compulsory in schools so you can decipher what people are really thinking. Imagine if we could spot politicians right off the bat when they’re lying, they’d all be out of work in a week. Someone should have walked out of Bernard Madoff’s office and screamed, warning others (with his mouth wide open and fear in the eyes and then flared his nostrils to show disgust): ‘This man is a maniac!’ Then all those people wouldn’t have lost $50 bn. If we were taught in school how to read faces, we could have spotted those sociopathic mortgage lenders and noticed they had the eyes of lizards.
I wish we could express this emotion like kids do. If someone gets something you want, you just hit them over the head and snatch it back. That’s why children are so un-neurotic. They are doing what we only dream of.
The Road to Wisdom
First thing on the road to wisdom is to face ourselves honestly. People used to call it baring your soul, I call it looking in the mirror and cutting the bullshit.
Here’s how I read the situation. You may see it a totally different way but I’m the one writing this book so it’s pretty much going to be my opinion.
Because of this faulty plumbing, we’re anxious, angry, fearful, stressed and depressed and we try to put the blame on what’s going on in the world. We blame it on climate change, the Muslims, the Jews, the banks and whoever happens to be president or prime minister. The names change, they come and go; we hate them all. We love them in the beginning, then turn on them and say, ‘It’s all their fault we’re in a mess’. But I say to you, we put them in there, we voted for them.
The problem lies in us, we are always in conflict, and so that is how we see the world. Inside our heads there is always war. Bob Geldof says, ‘We are the world’. We are, he didn’t mean it in a nasty way but I do. It’s all our fault; no one else is in the driver’s seat, just us. Many people want to change the world; they don’t want to change themselves.
Wisdom isn’t something they ever write about in Vogue or can sell at Harvey Nichols. I wish it were, it would be so convenient while shopping for shoes. We used to have people we could ask these more existential questions. Where are they now? Out of work, like everyone else.
‘Life is meaningless, God is dead.’ Oh please, I’m depressed enough. Imagine if Sartre did stand up, the whole room would slash their wrists. Most of us don’t have old Shaman grandmothers sitting on their haunches, breasts pointing to the floor, handing down their knowledge. My grandmother couldn’t even tell me where she left her teeth, let alone any wisdom.
We spend a whole lifetime hunting for some wisdom. In childhood, it’s ‘happy days’, our biggest challenge is hitting the potty, after that the shit hits the fan. By the time you hit your 20s you’re fuelled with the stress that you have to end up as someone special. Clearly some give up and just take root on their sofas but most young folks feel they have to turn on the turbo and go for the gold. In your 30s you’re fighting to keep what you’ve got and by your 50s you know it’s going to get taken away. And this is where the road divides and you either turn into wine or into vinegar.
If you live long enough, a miracle might happen. If you make it to 83 and a 1/2, just when you look like a walking Lucian Freud painting, you might become wise. But it has to be that late in the day: you cannot be a babe and wise, it’s against the laws of nature. But if you make it to 83 1/2 and you don’t get overwhelmed by fear that makes you withdraw into your past, boring everyone senseless, and if your mind stays flexible and curious and you ask people questions and listen to their answer, and if you let all your narcissism, resentment, regret and envy drain out of you and you finally realize that the world will be fine without you, then you’re wise.
My Search for Normality
Perhaps I’ve come across as too negative in the book so far. I assume that what I’m writing about is our general malaise; what all people feel deep inside. I might be wrong, I’ve gotten things wrong before and I’ll admit I’m not an expert on what ‘normal’ people feel if they indeed exist. So I apologize if you’re sitting there going, ‘What the hell is she on about? We don’t think about any of these things. We live a happy and healthy life. Let’s give this book to Uncle Psycho.’
I didn’t mean to insult any of you. On the contrary, I am a great admirer of people who believe they are normal, I am fascinated by them. I’ve always thought, is it possible to feel the way Tony Robbins looks? Confident, positive, flowing with love for himself with his big wall-to-wall teeth and large genitalia. (I am guessing about this but he has a very large nose and I connect the two.) What makes him so sure he’s right? Does he really believe the script that is pouring out of his mouth? Is that normal?
I obsessively eavesdrop in public places (bars, trains, buses, restaurants) with my ear almost in the fruit salad in my search for who might be normal. I listen in to a conversation in a bar where a seemingly normal group of good old boys, teammates who work together, making valves for garbage disposals, are all out to celebrate the up-and-coming plumbing awards for which they have gathered. They seem so content with their lot; a happy pack at the watering hole, clinking glasses, toasting one another for the fact that they’re up to win ‘Plumbing Team of The Year’, fantasizing their names are being called out, hitting the air with their fists as they hear in their heads the music playing, ‘You’re the Best’, then each one of them makes a little slurry speech about how they couldn’t have done it without their team, posing for an imaginary photo, giving each other slaps on the back. Is that normal?
I’ve listened in to a girl at the next table in a restaurant, panting with excitement as she asks her friend to be her maid of honour at her wedding and the friend bursting into tears and blibbing on about how she’ll be the best maid of honour that ever lived and can’t wait to help choose the napkin colour. Is that normal?
I sit in a hotel lobby and listen in to two cigars with fat men on the ends yabbing about the price of housing, throwing out percentages of the increase or decrease of the market with complete confidence about how right they are. How does anyone accurately know how much a house price is going to rise or fall and who cares? Is that normal?
Everyone’s an Expert Except Me
At dinner parties, I hear people looked in debate about how to resolve the crisis in the Middle East like they’re experts. ‘Here’s what I would tell the Taliban.’ The president couldn’t figure it out with his advisors but these ‘if you ask me’ people presume to know. They base their extensive knowledge on the same newspaper everyone else reads; yet they have the answer. Where does that confidence come from? Around the world everyone is an ‘expert’. There must be at this very second 64 billion experts having coffee and giving their opinions on climate change, nuclear disarmament, obesity and the war on drugs.
I sat next to a man telling me what the Flemish were thinking during the Second World War. I was dripping in sweat thinking, ‘Should I know that information? Will he think I’m an idiot when he finds out I know nothing about the topic and is there going to be a quiz?’ I don’t even know where Flemmark is. I have to sit there, dying inside with self-loathing, while the Flem expert whips out more information like a swinging dick.
This exhibiting of ‘the one big dick’ memorized fact is how we unconsciously determine who the alpha is at the dinner table. Lecturing on Flemland to people who have no idea is the same as the chief gorilla beating his chest to show who is boss. This Flem guy somehow senses that I know nothing and I’m sinking in a mound of selfhatred, so he feels triumphant he’s won that round until he meets a bigger expert on Flem matters.
People find their scrap of knowledge and unquestioningly live their lives gathering their little pile of research then boring people senseless with the details.
To be honest, the main reason I listen in is to find someone, someday that might come out with some Earthshattering revelation and I will scream, ‘Aha! Bingo! That is the answer to why we exist.’ It hasn’t happened yet but I’m always on the look-out. My suspicion is that we’re all wondering what ‘normal’ feels like; all believing the next guy knows but not us. This may just be the way I think so forgive me if you don’t agree. I do know that we all want to be happy and we spend a great deal of our lives hunting for the key. No matter how powerful or successful we get, we still can’t figure out how to deal with a mind that keeps us up at night, driving us to exhaustion. This isn’t just for those who are considered mad, it’s for all of us. I wish we could just come out and say how we really feel;
I know I’d be so relieved.
SANE NEW WORLD. Taming the Mind
by Ruby Wax
get it at Amazon.com