Letter for the new year

Dear all,

Let me start this post, and this new year, by apologising for not writing anything in December. I have been rather busy, thoughtful and confused. Today, I shall honour my original quest to share reflections starting from my own experience and to record my progress in this year in which I have ‘taken time off’ to look after myself.

I started this adventure by testing out a life of routine: work, family, yoga, therapy, reading, writing, no travelling, no household and financial responsibilities, not much going out. In fact, not much of anything that could hinder the quiet balance of my (I now realise) overly-structured daily pattern. In doing so, I succeeded in not losing myself in the depths of deep depression or mania.

However, three months into this new lifestyle, I started getting irritable. Familiar faces started to annoy me terribly and my disgust in humanity increased: the old woman who shooed the dog, the people who wouldn’t let me pass on the zebra crossing, the people walking about aimlessly in shopping centres, getting in my way and stamping on my feet, the people who complained about bombings in Paris, and did nothing in their lives to make the world a better place, those who moaned about a corrupt government and were masters of fiscal evasion. Badly dressed people, people speaking loudly, people saying stupid things, people frowning… everything was painful to my eyes and ears.

And then I started getting anxious: why was I so irritable? I needed to control myself, not seem strange at work or at home. They’d start to think I was manic! My hands started shaking and my insides bubbling, when I was alone with myself I didn’t feel very well. Towards the end of November a woman sped through a red light and very nearly crashed into me and my friend. A series of ‘what if’s’ instilled themselves into my mind. What if my friend hadn’t been so quick on the brakes? What if we’d been a couple of inches further down the road? What if my friend had died and I’d been left with the guilt of having asked her to drive my car cause I was tired?

And finally the fear crept in: I spent ages in my car, how many times had I evaded death? I started seeing ambulances on the road, every day for a week. Cars speeding in the rain, water on my wind shield. I started flashing images of myself dead and bloody, a road kill. My hand clutched the steering wheel and my ears pounded. Nightmares started haunting my sleep: I killed my loved ones cause I didn’t drive carefully, I lost complete control, became insane.

What was happening?

The structured balance which had worked so well in keeping the craziness out was somehow giving in. I wasn’t, of course, spiralling out of control or losing touch with reality: my anxiety seemed to be limited to car journeys and I could control my irritation. Most importantly I was aware that something was going wrong. I talked to my therapist about it, who suggested it may have to do with the fact that I had been ‘living the life of a cloistered nun’, as she put it.

That woke me up. I realised all at once, that the routine I had mistaken for balance, was far from it. I had gone from being all over the place, full of ups, downs, interests, enthusiasms and responsibilities, to a life deprived of anything that could trigger an emotional response of sorts. I wasn’t learning how to deal, and live, with bipolar disorder: I was avoiding it. Of course I felt balanced: my mum made me coffee in the morning, I had no responsibilities other than work and I avoided nights out, alcohol, drugs, people, situations were I could spend money, PEOPLE. I wasn’t crazy and spiralling out of control, but I also wasn’t ME.

Maria Popova, author at brainpickings.org writes: ‘the structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalises us. A full life calls for both — too much control, and we become mummified; too little excitement and pleasurable discombobulation, and we become numb. After all, to be overly discombobulated is to be dead inside — to doom oneself to a life devoid of the glorious and ennobling messiness of the human experience.’

So I decided to test myself: I brought a plane ticket to visit old friends and started going out more often. I spent time with people, old friends and new ones, had a few drinks, listened to some great music and had a good time. But most of all I felt like myself again. And sure, I may still be a bit overenthusiastic when doing things (stuff like being overly affectionate towards everyone or spending 38 quid on scientific magazines while waiting for my train, oops) but I’m not bat-shit crazy and I feel real again.

And this is what I need to learn how to be, one step at a time. I realise now that what I have to do, what I need to do, is a lot harder than I had anticipated. Avoidance is boring but fairly easy, self-control and patience are a whole different matter.

So here’s to a year in which my top priority is learning to live with myself: a year of patience but not avoidance, of adventure and spontaneity, but not recklessness and carelessness. Here’s to savouring the things and people that make me happy, and not skimming past them in a frenzy for more.

Keep an eye out in the coming week for a more technical account of self-control and willpower and what it really means to implement them in real life.

Happy New Year to all,

Alisha:-)

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Combating Workaholism – Why Leisure is Important and How Our Society Neglects it

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive,”

Seneca, On the Briefness of Life.

Within our modern culture of productivity and consumption, the concept of ‘leisure’ is not considered as a fundamental right and essential component of being human, but rather as a privileged luxury, or as a colossal waste of time.

In 1948, German philosopher Josef Pieper published Leisure, the Basis of Culture – a manifesto for the importance of leisure in an age when we have mistaken making a living for having a life. He highlights the origins of the word leisure: the Greek word σχoλη, from which derives the word school – the institution for learning and contemplation.

Under the tyranny of workaholism, the human being has forgotten the value of leisure, and has been reduced to a functional piece of a much bigger machine, and our work has become the only thing that there is to our existence. Pieper writes how our culture has effectively normalised working as a mere obligation:

‘What is normal is work, and the normal day is the working day. But the question is this, can the world of man be exhausted in being “the working world”? Can the human being be satisfied with being a functionary, a “worker”?

How is it that we have come to view work as a necessary evil that is needed for our survival and leisure as a luxury we cannot afford? And how is it that we have come to see these two activities as entirely distinct and mutually exhaustive?

To answer this question we must look into mans basic desires and expectations in life, and how these have been manipulated over time. The common modern perception is that the main purpose in a persons existence is to find happiness and to live a good life. The debate over what constitutes the notion of ‘good life’ and ‘good society’ is secular: financial security, access to a variety of goods and services, leisure and entertainment, equality, peace, good health care, life expectancy, literacy, cultural development, political rights and freedom, social civility, are only some examples of the criteria argued to contribute to individuals and societies happiness.

Because many of these aspects are obtainable through financial means, Ray suggests that a minimal requirement for the good life of a society is that the ‘physical quality of life be high’. Based on these assumptions, we can quite easily sum up man’s relationship with work:

I want to be happy
I need money to be happy
I need to work to earn money

Conclusion: a workaholic society where leisure has no room.

Thus, according to this logic, work becomes a simple means to an end, in which the human spirit finds no affirmation or

growth. However this reasoning rests on the entirely generalised and constructed premise that material goods = happiness, as well as excluding some rather significant variables, such as time and health. If we dedicate all our life to the means of our objective, and then no longer have the time, the mental enthusiasm and the physical health to benefit from it, what indeed is the point? As Dostoevskij put it: ‘when each man will have reached happiness, there will no longer be time.’

Another question I could ask is: why is it so evident that we have to sacrifice a whole chunk of our lives, in order to find a smidgen of happiness in what’s left of it? Our modern work etiquette rests on the underlying assumption that work and leisure live on planets apart and are mutually exclusive. All you need to do is look at the basic microeconomic model on individual preferences which contrasts leisure and income, placing leisure as a dis-utility and putting us at a fork in the road when there ought to be an intersection.

E.F Schumacher underlines this concept in his masterpiece Small is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered’. He highlights how traditional Western Economics have shifted us towards a reality where “goods are more important than people and consumption is more important than creative activity.” He writes how:

There is universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labor. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labor” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.

Leisure as an affirmation of the human spirit is not a ‘taking time off’. It’s not switching our mind of from our every activity. It
is not laziness. It is being able to give the activities we pursue the time and value they deserve. It is being able to sit still and373875b767aa1f93377f44119b06f29csoak in all that is around you, listen to your feelings, and breath in your own life. It is not detachment, it is full immersion and affirmation. It is distraction, observation and uninfluenced attention. It is that feeling of immensity when you listen to music, look at the stars or listen to a lover’s heartbeat. Leisure feeds our minds and souls, gives us ideas, and puts purpose into our life and into our work. It allow us to be inspired by all that is around us and to let loose the creative spirit that is part of man’s nature. It is a joyful celebration of who we are and what we do, and a quiet meditation on what we desire and believe. Without leisure, the job you choose and the life you live are meaningless, unsatisfactory and deprived of any form of self-awareness.

Leisure may not be what makes you survive, in this world of frenzied and money-hungry busy bodies, but it sure as hell is the only thing that gives value to your survival.

To conclude, here are a few more beautifully written word from Pieper’s manifesto:

Against the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as effort, leisure is the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit. The inner joyfulness of the person who is celebrating belongs to the very core of what we mean by leisure… Leisure is only possible in the assumption that man is not only in harmony with himself … but also he is in agreement with the world and its meaning. Leisure lives on affirmation. It is not the same as the absence of activity; it is not the same thing as quiet, or even as an inner quiet. It is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.


References

Dostoevskij Fedor (1873). I Demoni. Feltrinelli, Milano: 2000

Pieper, Joseph. (1948) Leisure, the Basis of Culture. Pantheon Books. San Francisco: 2009

Ray, Debraj (1998). Economic Development: Overview. Development economics. Princeton University Press.

Schumacher, E.F. (1973) ’Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. Vintage Books. London: 2011.

Seneca, Lucio Anneo, La Brevità della Vita, by Alfonso Traina, BUR Milano: 2010

Vabba, Alisha (2014) Economic development, Globalisation and Human Well-being. Development Economics. Lancaster University.

Special Glasses

And I wear my special glasses
On this fortress by the sea
A broken sax and both of you,
No one sees things like we see!

By the river in Boston
Where the little white boats
Are like stars in the blue,
No one feels like I do.

On the rooftop where we kissed
And made movies of our lives,
All the silly things I miss,
No one knows like you and I.

And I wear my special glasses
When I wonder by myself
Through the fields and through the trees,
As I hide behind these leaves.

On the cliff behind the island,
All alone, while the violence
In the world breaks into waves
And I swirl within its blues.

When my lids are heavy
With departures and arrivals
And I feel the frenzied blood,
As it pulses through the terminals.

And I wear my special glasses
When I think and sip my tea
When I smile at all of you,
Or swim naked in the sea.

And I slide through many faces,
Through the laughter and embraces
I feel colourful and free,
All these eyes, they dance with me.

And I tingle as my skin and mind
Are drenched in eau de glee
I am golden, I am wild,
Warm as honey to these bees.

There is only song and colour,
Silly details make me smile
This confusion is perfection
And it all makes life worthwhile.

And we do not need the music,
We can hum and we can write
I can hear things through my eyes
As I’m gripped in life’s big bite!


Cheers to my friends Meg, Elle and the broken sax.

A Storm

The air smells like South America
I am cold and damp and the sky is lilac,
Lit up like the fields in Valensole.

(And I suddenly miss something that’s not there.)

The wind shakes the trees,
A neighbour’s drain gurgles distinctly
and I always loved the smell of the rain.

Oh, to be unlimited, to be free!
To flutter in the reality of possibilities
I’ve discovered for myself out here.

(I close my eyes and smell the air.)

And I’m running now,
With my feet on the damp grass
Alongside my discomforts and fears.

On the tepid sand of a beach somewhere,
With Northern Lights flashing above me
And christmas lights burning within me.

I do not care now.
Those distant judgements and colds,
cannot touch me, cannot hurt me!

I slip into memories
Of humid walls, sex and adventures.
Of bright white mornings without sleep, yet at peace.

(And I float back, into the stormy green.)

Five trees: I never knew there where five trees.
I wonder why I never count the things around me!
And the lonely nails on the wall

where the wisteria climbs in the spring,
All the way to the roof top where I lay.
And time shifts into darkness, but I feel no fear.

I am immense, and for a moment
the world is imperfect like me.
My finger tips tingle and my ankles sting.

I feel myself, wet and eternal
And for a moment, just a moment,
I am free.

Post #13 – On Relationships

A person I love very much once told me: ‘if you want to be happy, you need to surround yourself with people who make you feel happy, and eliminate relationships that cause you negative emotions’. At the time I didn’t agree with this person. I believed that suffering for those you care for and sharing their pain was an act of love and affection. For this reason I have often put other’s happiness before my own. Today, after much consideration, I have decided to follow this person’s advice. The ironic element of my decision, is that it is precisely this person, or rather the world he lives in, from which I have decided to distance myself.

I still believe what I did a few years ago: the word relationship, whether it be referred to romance, friendship or family, implies a certain duality and interaction. If this interaction is one sided, it is not a healthy relationship. The world we live in is far from being perfect and I believe that everyone has their issues and their suffering. A relationship occurs when both parties are prepared the take a bit of the edge of the other’s pain, and take a bit of their weight upon their shoulders.

However when this weight becomes unbearable, and comes at the cost of severe personal unhappiness, the relationship is no longer healthy. I do not believe in long term obligations and commitments, or in forcing these to persist against all odds. Helping those we love, and sacrificing other aspects of our lives for them, ought to be an act that in some way makes us happy, and has a cathartic effect on our existence. Seeing the pleasure that our actions cause on another’s face ought to light us up and not drag us down. When our sacrifices put us in a place where we are angry, scared and become more of an obligation than a natural act of kindness, I believe our negative disposition may hinder rather than enforce the relationship, making the other even more unhappy and guilty for making us feel their pain.

Distancing ourselves from these negative environment is perhaps, the only way we can safeguard the relationship. I believe that fear makes us cling to situations we no longer have under control. Forcing relationship changes us, and can lead to anger and envy. Of a painless existence, of easy air to breathe. Today I have decided to recognise the forcefulness of this inauspicious situation and take a step back, not just for myself but for us and everyone involved.