The human brain appears to have evolved a mechanism for developing belief from emotional need and nothing more than that. Belief can be based on evidence, but very often it is not. This explains belief in clairvoyance and faith healing – activities that have been proven to be based on simple trickery so many times, that you would think the profession (if such it can be called) would have died out a very long time ago. But they bounce back time after time because people want to believe. Belief brings comfort when all other sources of hope appear to have dried up.
Belief also acts for many as a form of social cohesion. You spend money on your football team because you believe they are going to win. If your actions were only based on evidence there would be many Saturdays when you’d probably decide to save your money. Belief that runs counter to evidence in this way can also allow people to remain connected to those they have lost. Debbie Reynolds’ last words reportedly were that she just wanted to be with her daughter Carrie Fisher, even though humanity has seen no previous examples of such meetings taking place. Again it’s down to complexity. The feeling of a complex consciousness, with whom you have interacted in so many affirming ways, suddenly being excised from your life can feel too difficult to bear. Of course those coats and shoes have not been worn for the last time. That would be absurd: you’ll definitely see the person again some day. Before you know it this belief is shared and has collective rituals attached to it.
Paid work is in most cases a shared collective ritual. Belief in paid work is largely evidence based, in that if you don’t do it you can’t pay bills or treat yourself to that Ferrero Rocher baguette with chips and mayonnaise on a Friday night, washed down with a potato daiquiri of course. Aside from the hard evidence of money, this belief is helped along by the Protestant work ethic all the time telling you that any tasks you get through are self improving. So even a modest pension liberates you from all of that. The bonds are cut loose. But then inevitably you start wondering whether, if you’re not careful, you might lose contact with the forces that have kept you properly socialised until recently. This is where another form of belief comes in. You can go along to a local basket making club or volunteer in a charity shop, and your belief that these are self improving activities will sustain you. My problem, which I also had all the way through childhood, is that I’m very easily bored by organised predictable regularity. I belonged to a couple of sporting clubs when I was a child, but given that we were supposed to practise every week there were some weeks when I simply did not feel like going and got nothing out of it when I was there. This has in turn led me always to wonder why regular worship is considered a requirement of many religions. Belief, regardless of evidence, presumably tells you that the deity might in some way be displeased if you absented yourself. I’m more inclined to think she or he might be bored with seeing the same old faces every week.
So. How to avoid declining into that retired stereotype of a red faced old man with a comb-over, wearing a dressing gown with brown Jesus sandals and grey socks and laughing distractedly into his copy of the Daily Mail as he sips his pint of Jack Daniels at 10.30 each weekday morning in Wetherspoon’s? The likely answer is self-belief. Tricky, because a pre-requisite for self-belief is a degree of self-esteem, and I guess I will come out of the closet and admit that I have always had trouble with that too. But I now have some time to work on it, alone – which is probably a required state for beginning to deal with self-esteem. As I’ve said, being a teacher helped me a lot as a person, but I was never really wired for being enmeshed with the fates of so many people simultaneously with no real boundary to the process and no release from responsibility. I’ll now focus on tasks that can actually be completed.
An old notion of celebrity promotes the assumption that of course anybody would put up with the restrictions on and intrusions into their private life in exchange for permanent financial security. Who would not want to banish forever rent payment angst, and who would not want unrestricted holidays? For some years now though we have been living with a bastardised twenty-first century notion of celebrity promoting the added assumption that in order to achieve celebrity you don’t need to be able to do anything except manage your image or allow others to manage it. Fictional worlds ironically originating from a form known as ‘reality TV’ hold out the hope that fame is something that can come from publicly playing out very short term achievements and is something that doesn’t have to be linked to extraordinary ability, long term success or determination. If you’re already known to the public in some capacity you have a head start which might enable you to boost your public profile by learning a few dance moves; or if you have no public profile you could bake some cakes and then earn some money from sponsorship deals; or you could publicly try and convince a dinosaur emotionally stunted business owner that you may be his next high powered executive, whatever that is. Or you could sing your heart out on national TV. (Well, don’t actually do that, given how under-resourced the health service is now.) Anyway it only takes a few weeks of your time, and you need none of the attributes of those old fashioned twentieth century celebrities. Who knows? Through nothing more than pushing your image you may even become the leader of the world’s most powerful country.
I was minded of all this while watching the recent BBC documentary on the last five years of David Bowie’s life, having previously not been aware of the extent to which he hated his celebrity status. There’s an obvious sense in which the media attention focused on him was self-inflicted. Why would he play out so publicly and ostentatiously such theatrical scenarios if he hadn’t wanted to draw attention to himself? He explains that he was a very shy person and when he performs in public he feels even more shy. Adopting a persona helps with that feeling. I can relate this to my teaching experience. While addressing the class or even while speaking to an individual student, I would sometimes switch without warning to an alternative voice, an alternative accent or both. When asked why I did it, my usual reply was that it just got me through the day alongside my unwillingness to take anything seriously for more than a few minutes. But I now realise that I may also have been covering performance anxiety. Fame can ultimately bring the possibility of choice though, so during the production of his final two albums Bowie took part in no publicity at all: no interviews, no locking himself in a fake house with other celebrities, no toughing it out in a jungle a couple of miles from a five star hotel, no cooking his signature dish on television while a professional chef pretended to be critical of him, no fake press leaks or pretentiously self-effacing Twitter posts. In fact, many of the musicians involved in his final creative endeavours had to sign NDA documents before they were taken on.
There’s that old cliché of making sure you don’t look back near death and wonder why you didn’t get around to doing some of the things on your bucket list. Bowie had on his bucket list writing a musical and seeing it performed, reprising vicariously his character from The Man Who Fell To Earth. And the value of vicarious experience is not to be underrated if you ever get the chance to do any near-death reckoning of what you’ve accomplished in life. He returned to his his fave fictional character Major Tom more than once, commenting that he was his first so he held him in high regard. When asked why the preoccupation with space travel he said ‘It’s an interior dialogue that you manifest physically. It’s my little inner space, isn’t it, writ large? I wouldn’t dream of getting on a spaceship. It would scare the shit out of me.’ Often the interior version of the experience is enough. You don’t actually have to attach an elastic rope to your ankle and jump off.
Bowie also commented that the twenty-first century had so far been disappointing. Jury’s out, I guess, but he did live to see the availability of free personal micro-celebrity through social media. You can now repeatedly photograph yourself and share that image instantly with hundreds of people, in what must come close to an ultimate act of narcissism. Where previously it was the province of the traditional mass media to propagate images publicly, now pretty much anyone can do it. Your own face, your meals, your animals, what you are about to drink. Up to you really. It’s your Lazarus moment.
Early January is a time when many struggle psychologically. We’ve been on the emotional and commercial ramp that society pushes us up in the weeks before Christmas Day, followed by the sofa buying hiatus during which we are encouraged to look forward to a new start as midnight on 31st clicks over in our time zone. On January 1st, thoughts turn to renewal, with the realisation that daylight is extending by a couple of minutes a day, but thoughts also traditionally turn to abstinence and self-discipline. This sudden onset of abstinence and self-discipline makes little sense to brains and bodies that have been encouraged to conflate self-indulgence and expenditure with relaxation and happiness for the last ten days. There is also that nagging awareness that only the relatively affluent get to take part in the self-indulgence and compulsory happiness. And then the thought dawns that you’ll soon need to be back on the work commute to pay rent.
Not too surprising then that the first few days of January is a peak time for calls to divorce solicitors and debt helplines; holiday bookings too, as the next escape from reality is planned. I was also recently shocked to learn that domestic violence figures rise sharply during the Christmas period.
Four years ago today, at around 3.30 in the afternoon, my life changed in a seismic way. I don’t want to dwell on that though. Calendar dates are reminders, but the luxury exists now to at least consider a more teleological view of time.