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Is That All There Is?

PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 3:26 pm
by Charlie
My Istanbul friend Kevin Robins forwarded this piece from The Times (a paper I don't read, but perhaps ought to consider, if this is typical of its content)

From The Times

May 21, 2008

Gordon Brown - is that all there is?

You spend your life fighting for the top job - but when you get it, you don't enjoy it. Why melancholy often follows a career-defining triumph

Matthew Syed

It has been a bit of an ambition to write a cover story for times2, so I was a little surprised by the sense of anticlimax when I finally hit the send key. I had expected a frisson of anticipation at the thought of my comely words provoking spasms of pleasure on commuter trains and invitations to appear on the Today programme. Instead, I get an e-mail from the sub-editor to tell me that the copy has arrived and I think, is that it? I think Gordon Brown - on a much grander scale, of course - is feeling a bit like that.

Here is a man who had his lifetime ambition snatched from under his nose by his best buddy and who spent the better part of the next 13 years plotting, scheming, agitating, conspiring, hustling and conniving to snatch it back. And when he finally gets his hands on the shiny keys of No 10, what does he find? That the job was not everything he had so fondly imagined. His current difficulties, I would suggest, are not so much a function of ineptitude as of existential confusion.

Shakespeare would have had a lot of fun with Brown's personal tragedy, but is his predicament so very unusual? I spent 15 years playing ping pong for a living (yes, really) and there was little more terrifying than getting my hands on a coveted prize. A defeat offered such a pleasing variety of options: vengefulness, stoicism, anger, resignation, sadness, exasperation. But the metaphysical hollowness associated with a long-desired triumph is something nobody can prepare you for. The champagne I swilled after winning my first Commonwealth gold medal was not so much to soak my euphoria as to anaesthetise a spiralling sense of angst.

Have you been there - not the ping pong, the emptiness? Bedded the man of your dreams only to wake up feeling hollow? Bought a shiny convertible only to glimpse its superficiality? Won a promotion only to discover that the job was not all you had dreamt of? I bet poor old Gordon wishes he were back in the bowels of the Treasury aspiring to the top job rather than being lumbered with the damn thing. As Robert Louis Stevenson, a man who knew a thing or two about the ironies of the human psyche, wrote: "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive."

It is an insight, the truth of which is revealed time and again in relation to those who have striven for success. I spend much of my time conducting sports interviews for this newspaper and have become well accustomed to tales of despondency after career-defining triumphs. James Toseland wept in the privacy of his hotel room after winning his first Superbike world title.

Martina Navratilova was afflicted with bouts of melancholy at a number of supposedly high points during her illustrious career. Marty Reisman, the table tennis hustler from New York's Lower East Side, was driven to proclaim the futility of sporting achievement after his triumph at the English Open in 1952.

Rather more serious bouts of depression have afflicted many major figures in politics and business including Alastair Campbell, who wrote candidly about his struggles with mental illness in his Diaries and Lord Stevenson, the chairman of HBOS, who went public last year with the inner turmoil he described as "hell on earth".

Darian Leader, a psychoanalyst and author of The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression, says that we tend to feel a sense of depression when we attain an ideal, but that when this turns into full-blown depression, other factors are usually present. "As well as the loss of desire, we must search our own histories for the answers," he says. "For one politician I knew, who at last attained the office he yearned for, the resulting mystery was the sign of a trespass: his father had failed in his own career, and this one felt unconsciously that he had no right to succeed." But we would, perhaps, be wise to distinguish clinical depression from the milder disorientation that seems to be affecting the Prime Minister and which is familiar to many who have accomplished a long-cherished goal.

One of the most famous episodes of anticlimax, sporting or otherwise, was that which descended upon Harold Abrahams after he won a gold medal in the 100m of the 1924 Olympics. In some of the closing scenes of Chariots of Fire, he is portrayed in the privacy of his dressing room with his head in his hands, refusing to talk to anyone. One of his friends, who had lost in a previous race, asks what is wrong. "Maybe you should try winning sometime and you would understand," comes the response.

I have often wondered what life would be like if we could eliminate this perplexing facet of the human condition; if we could somehow get the emotional highs without the lows; if we could arrive at our chosen destination - No 10 or otherwise - without falling victim to the echoes of anticlimax. Psychologists, who are inclined to regard all disagreeable mental states as viruses that should be deleted from consciousness, would doubtless embrace this vision. But would it really make us happier, healthier people?

"In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Surely the same analysis applies to "negative" moods and emotions, that have evolved over millions of years to deal with specific kinds of opportunities and threats? Anxiety facilitates escape from dangerous situations and helps us to avoid them in the future. Mild depression enables us to disengage from unattainable goals.

Humiliation is triggered when we are faced with the threat of losing social status. Sexual jealousy is aroused by the imminent (or perceived) loss of a partner's undying fidelity. Perhaps the phenomenon of anticlimax is a bit like that: millions of years of evolution have sifted sequences of DNA just so that we can feel bloody miserable in the aftermath of winning the Lottery. And so the seeds of ambition, the hunger for victory, are sown all over again. Anticlimax is nature's way of focussing the mind on the next challenge.

In the case of an Olympic gold medal-winning athlete, it is the emotional lull that lays the psychological foundations for the next tilt at gold. In the case of an award-winning writer it is the melancholy that provides the creative impetus for the next great literary adventure. If goal-fulfilment induced indefinite periods of unadulterated contentment, there would have been little progress towards civilisation - a point made, albeit in rather self-serving circumstances, by Harry Lime.

Whether Gordon Brown will overcome his current difficulties remains to be seen, but viewed through this lens it is possible to understand why he was so much more disorientated by his transition to No 10 than Prime Ministers such as Thatcher and Churchill. Brown viewed elevation to the Premiership as the be all and end all of his political career: it was the goal towards which he was striving from the moment he conceded the leadership of the Labour Party to his close friend. Anticlimax was inevitable.

Thatcher, on the other hand, was no less ruthless or determined, but her guiding ambition was to change Britain. Becoming Prime Minister was, in her schema, a stepping-stone to a grander destiny. No great psychological adjustment was required until she was ousted from office, losing her raison d'etre in the process.

This placing of emotion in an evolutionary context is not intended to imply that all negative emotions are advantageous: Brown's arguably terminal political predicament proves as much. It is worth remembering that natural selection has been a bit of a slouch when it comes to keeping up with the dramatic changes in the world that have occurred since we lived on the savannah. Much disease results from this disparity: diabetes and hypertension, for example, are rare in hunter-gatherers. The problem is in identifying the emotions that are genuinely, rather than usefully, negative.

In the Western world, argues Oliver James in his popular book, Affluenza, we are governed by superficial values such as how we look, how famous we are and, most importantly of all, how much money we make. In other words, the material goods that we strive so hard to obtain turn out to be irredeemably anticlimactic.

This lament is familiar among "happiness economists". Richard Easterlin identified the striking paradox that bears his name back in 1974: despite significant increases in wealth the rich nations of the world have not become any happier. But there is a correlation between wealth and happiness within nations. Easterlin resolves this paradox by arguing that only relative income matters to happiness, by virtue of its effect on status. Thus, if every person in an economy worked like crazy to double his or her wealth, there would be no increase in overall wellbeing, because relative wealth would be unaltered.

Economists have recently questioned Easterlin's data, but his analysis hints at an important truth: our systems of emotional regulation were designed by natural selection to suit gene-propagation rather than to benefit individuals or the species. Even if extra income does buy a little extra happiness, few could dispute that our exhausting genetic pursuit of status is less conducive to wellbeing than alternative activities, such as attending to family life. This rather pulls the rug from under conventional economic theory, which assumes that decisions are always directed at enhancing the wellbeing of the individual.

Those of a religious persuasion will doubtless be screaming at their newspapers by now, proclaiming that the true route towards happiness (and away from damaging, as opposed to useful, negative emotions) is not to be found in the writings of Darwin, Oliver James, Easterlin or any other mortal. And they may be on to something. Even atheists such as myself read the New Testament with a sense of amazement at the wisdom embedded in the teachings of Christ. "It is better to give than to receive," he said, something that must have sounded like a wind-up to his long-suffering disciples.

But it is a teaching that has been corroborated by successive experiments in the social sciences. The paradox of hedonism, first noted by Sidgwick, tells us that subjective wellbeing cannot be obtained directly. As the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it:

"Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself." Whether willing subservience can provide immunity from the deeper problem of existential meaning is, however, for each individual to answer.

The view from the top

Success, we think, should preclude misery, but clearly this is not the case. Sometimes, indeed, success exacerbates or even causes misery.
Successful people have a high suicide rate. Why should this be? Why should achieving all that you have striven for years to achieve sometimes result in the severe deflation of depression? Take Alastair Campbell and Lord Stevenson as two obvious examples.

The reason is obvious. The striving, ambitious kind of person is always imagining that if only he could reach point x or y on the greasy pole, his life would be completely satisfactory: that he would be much happier than he is now, and all the reasons for his discontent would evaporate.

Everyone knows, at an intellectual level, that every state and stage of human existence has its own anxieties, but ambitious people ignore this knowledge when it comes to their own behaviour and do not act upon it. Instead, they idealise their future life once success has been achieved, and then discover that not only has that success brought new pressures with it, but old miseries have not disappeared either. An unhappy marriage remains unhappy, recalcitrant children remain recalcitrant.

Moreover, there is always someone who is more successful than oneself, whatever success one has had. The temperamental competitiveness that brought success in the first place prevents the quiet enjoyment of it:
as the Haitians say, behind mountains, more mountains. That is why enormously rich businessmen rarely retire to a contemplative existence of luxury, but go on striving to the bitter end.

However, the realisation that success is not all that one has cracked it up to be can lead to a collapse, for success is like a balloon that must either be continually inflated or shrivel to nothing. What is the point of it all? Not only does the future look bleak if it becomes clear that further success is not going to bring what success already achieved has failed to bring, namely happiness and peace of mind, but the past begins to look bleak too. One has spent one's life trying to reach a goal that was never intrinsically worth reaching. This is how depressed people come not only to see the future as hopeless, but their own past as nothing but an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.

Successful, striving people tend to be intelligent, and many of them cannot disguise from themselves the insufficiency of their lives, and the goals they have pursued. The higher they climb, therefore, the farther they fall. As Robinson Crusoe's father pointed out to his son, it is the middling sort, perched contentedly between brilliant success and outright failure, who are the most fortunate of mankind.

When the only way is down

When people finally achieve something that they have desperately wanted to achieve there can often be a mismanagement of expectation and outcome.

Our expectations are huge these days. Since the 1980s, we have been told we can have just about anything that we want, that we should aim high and we work the longest hours in Europe to get there.
But just because someone might be capable of getting to the top, it doesn't necessarily follow that they will be able to cope with the success once they are there. I would liken it to climbing a mountain - just because you can make it to the summit doesn't mean that you could manage living up there.

This can manifest itself in a classic physical burn out. In a small way it is a bit like when people work themselves into the ground, then go on holiday and immediately fall ill. We need to learn to pace ourselves.

But there are also those who lack the emotional stamina and resilience to cope with the pressure of continually having to succeed. We live in a society which is very goal orientated. I worry about this with "helicopter" parents who put huge pressure on their children to achieve goal after goal - SATs, then GCSEs, then A levels, then the best university. The markers of success have become externalised and superficial - big salaries, a big house, an expensive car - but we are not teaching our children how to handle that success with an internal sense of worth.

Some children are put under tremendous pressure to be the best, but we are not thinking about how they will deal with that. We need to think about what happens next.

As my father used to say, when you are at the top of the pile the only way is down. If you win, say, a Booker prize at 24, where on earth do you go after that? Do you spend the next 40 years trying to be even better? And what if you can't? Sometimes the brightest people can be the most vulnerable.

You see this with gifted and talented children who are incredibly intelligent but often emotionally quite immature. I have worked with two such children who are extremely clever yet they have screaming tantrums, almost like a toddler. Sometimes, if you have an abundance of one set of attributes (thinking), you are lacking in a different set of attributes (coping). Just because you are capable of getting to the top doesn't mean you have the tools to deal with the reality of staying there.

PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 4:11 pm
by will vine
Life is an absurd joke as we all know in our heart but can never quite keep in our head.

"You got what you wanted but you lost what you had." is a phrase that comes back to me on an almost daily basis............I think it's a line Dylan uses ....oh, and another theme that crops up a lot in his songs is
"when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose."

On a superficial level..
Getting what you always thought you wanted is part of the joke. This is why I've referred in these threads a time or two to the fact that in searching the shops and market stalls for that coveted piece of vinyl the worst that can sometimes happen is that you find it.

This is the first thread ever where I've been able to celebrate the apparent good sense of my appalling lack of ambition........Trebles all round !

Yes

PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 6:45 pm
by Gordon Neill
At age 4, success is.......................not peeing your pants.
At age 12, success is.....................having friends.
At age 20, success is.....................having sex.
At age 35, success is.....................making money.
At age 60, success is.....................still able to have sex.
At age 70, success is.....................having friends that are still alive.
At age 80, success is.....................not peeing your pants.

success story

PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 6:55 pm
by Gordon Neill
Image

PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 7:36 pm
by Dayna
I think it's kind of a human thing to want to be successful at something. It would be great to at least be a successful doing what I love doing like most here have, with music & writing.

I know it isn't everything, but I've been in a midlife crisis myself, forever I think. I've always thought I must have some ability to do something, but it feels like everytime I've tried climbing out of my hole, I've ended up falling back in it, somehow.

Reprinted with my full agreement

PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 8:25 pm
by NormanD
I Don't Mind Failing - Malvina Reynolds

I don't mind failing in this world,
I don't mind failing in this world,
Don't mind wearing the ragged britches
'Cause those who succeed are the sons of bitches,
I don't mind failing in this world.

I don't mind failing in this world,
I don't mind failing in this world,
I'll stay down with the raggedy crew,
'Cause getting up there means stepping on you, so
I don't mind failing in this world.

I don't mind failing in this world,
I don't mind failing in this world,
Somebody else's definition
Isn't going to measure my soul's condition,
I don't mind failing in this world.

I don't mind failing in this world,
I don't mind failing in this world,
Never mind the custom suits,
The gentle hearts wear the dusty boots, so
I don't mind failing in this world.

I don't mind failing in this world,
I don't mind failing in this world,
Some people ride in a car so fine
While others walk on a picket line, so
I don't mind failing in this world.

I don't mind failing in this world,
I don't mind failing in this world,
Don't mind wearing the ragged britches
'Cause those who succeed are the sons of bitches,
I don't mind failing in this world.


Notes: words and music by Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1965 Schroder Music Company, renewed 1993. In the Notes and Comments to her songbook The Muse of Parker Street Malvina writes: "Reverend Stephen Fritchman, of the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles, gave one of his great sermons, 'The Fine Art of Failing,' in January 1964. Bud has distributed hundreds of copies, and I have done what I can to spread the message in this song. The ideas are Fritchman's, the wording is mine. For those that are put out by cuss-words, I'm sorry about the phrase in this, but that is the way the song wanted to be."

Ref: http://www.wku.edu/~smithch/MALVINA/mr063.htm

PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 9:13 pm
by Des
I always turn to Pet Sounds in times like these:

'I keep looking for a place to fit
Where I can speak my mind
I've been trying hard to find the people
That I won't leave behind

They say I got brains
But they ain't doing me no good
I wish they could

Each time things start to happen again
I think I got something good goin' for myself
But what goes wrong

Sometimes I feel very sad
Sometimes I feel very sad
(Can't find nothin' I can put my heart and soul into)
Sometimes I feel very sad
(Can't find nothin' I can put my heart and soul into)

I guess I just wasn't made for these times

Every time I get the inspiration
To go change things around
No one wants to help me look for places
Where new things might be found

Where can I turn when my fair weather friends cop out
What's it all about

Each time things start to happen again
I think I got something good goin' for myself
But what goes wrong

Sometimes I feel very sad
Sometimes I feel very sad
(Can't find nothin' I can put my heart and soul into)
Sometimes I feel very sad
(Can't find nothin' I can put my heart and soul into)

I guess I just wasn't made for these times
I guess I just wasn't made for these times
I guess I just wasn't made for these times
I guess I just wasn't made for these times
I guess I just wasn't made for these times
I guess I just wasn't made for these times'

PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 10:27 pm
by will vine
It is interesting to see you put up this non musical topic here Charlie. I know there have been other examples in the past, and this particular article is an interesting piece to ponder. I wonder if it is partly a reaction to the paucity of good musical topics offered up of late. Whether it is or not, it seems like a really good way of kicking off a discussion which may, or may not, instigate opinions which are illustrated with reference to music.

PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 10:36 pm
by nikki akinjinmi
I must admit that Allen Toussaint's "What Is Success?" as well as the old standard"..Is that all there is, my friend.." are songs that sprung to mind, when reading this thread of conversation.

Wearing my sandals on my sleeve

PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 11:41 pm
by Gordon Neill
Funnily enough, this topic strikes a chord with me (ching!). By mistake, I’ve been reading a book by Steve Biddulph called ‘Manhood’. I say ‘by mistake’ as I was looking for some guidance on parenting, and it’s one of his other books that deals more directly with this subject. But it was a happy mistake.

It’s easier to understand road signs when you already know where you’re going. So I suppose that’s why I found Biddulph’s arguments to be so easy to follow. Among various topics relating to modern industrialised man (and we are talking men here, Biddulph is a sort of Germaine Greer for blokes) he talks about the soulessness of so many modern jobs. The increasing remoteness from the physical work that we have evolved to carry out. The need to conform, to pretend to be part of a machine. The spiritual pointlessness of so many jobs (my kids still don’t understand what it is that I do - surely the mark of a meaningless job). The waste of retirement. He also questions the whole basis of our capitalist economy, the constant drive for economic growth, the striving for more and more money and status, and the costs to family and social relationships.

Part of his solution is to relax a bit and either find another job that your heart is in or, perhaps more realistically for most of us, find a bit of your job that you can put your heart into. This might be an area where, for example, you can help to train and develop others, or use your natural creativity (and everyone is creative, not just pop stars, everyone). I had my “Is That All There Is?â€

PostPosted: Tue May 27, 2008 12:41 pm
by Rupert Bear
'Is that it?' was exactly my feeling when GB took office in August last year and seemed to have delivered the fruits of his ideas within about the first day and a half.

But the point about Brown isn't that he became PM. The point is that Blair had him exactly where he wanted him for 10 years - champing at the bit and prepared to work like a dog in the service of its master. His current predicament is just the by-product of Blair's self-serving success.

PostPosted: Tue May 27, 2008 1:05 pm
by Charlie
nikki akinjinmi wrote:I must admit that Allen Toussaint's "What Is Success?" as well as the old standard"..Is that all there is, my friend.." are songs that sprung to mind, when reading this thread of conversation.

yes, it would be great if you could post the lyrics to both those songs

I suppose it's correct to call "Is That All There Is?" a standard, but it's a very young one, written in the 1960s by Leiber and Stoller for a Peggy Lee concept album that sank like a stone at the time. This song managed to come back to the surface, and has been done by many others (hence it feels like a standard) including a version by an avant garde New York singer which subverted the song so much, Leiber and Stoller were able to get it taken off the market. So I suppose my 12" single on Ze Records is a collector's item, although I'm fairly sure the recording has sneaked out on CDs since. Damn, what was her name? And what did she do to the song that upset L&S so much? It seemed to honour its intentions.

will vine wrote:It is interesting to see you put up this non musical topic here Charlie. I know there have been other examples in the past, and this particular article is an interesting piece to ponder. I wonder if it is partly a reaction to the paucity of good musical topics offered up of late. Whether it is or not, it seems like a really good way of kicking off a discussion which may, or may not, instigate opinions which are illustrated with reference to music.

Yes, Will, that was the general idea. It's no condemnation of the forum that we are going through a quiet patch. The archive includes so much good stuff, it can at times feel as if we have exhausted every topic. But I'm sure somebody will come on board and take us in another direction to prove that there is still more to discover and ponder.

PostPosted: Tue May 27, 2008 1:48 pm
by Des
Paucity. Magnificent word.

PostPosted: Tue May 27, 2008 1:51 pm
by Ed Howarth
Charlie the single was by Cristina and appears on Doll in the Box on Ze. As I remember one of the reasons that Cristina's great version was taken off the shelves, was that there was a Bette Midler version released at the same time and this was the one that was favoured (!!!!!!!!!!!!!??????). It wasn't entirely because of the subversion - more about money as I recall! Annie Nightingale used to play it death on her request show and I'm sure remembers the detail better than I do.

PostPosted: Tue May 27, 2008 2:06 pm
by nikki akinjinmi
Charlie wrote:
nikki akinjinmi wrote:I must admit that Allen Toussaint's "What Is Success?" as well as the old standard"..Is that all there is, my friend.." are songs that sprung to mind, when reading this thread of conversation.

yes, it would be great if you could post the lyrics to both those songs



I did think about doing this..but then changed my mind at the time.

I will post them, unless someone else does.