Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Great expectations - and utopian dreams

So, the 'festive' period is, thankfully, over.

It's all been said before, of course, about the season of 'merry' exhortation: the financial stresses and emotional strains of Christmas; an event supposed to be about religious, rather than commercial, deliverance.

I try to maintain a kind of 'convivial detachment' from it all - a more balanced 'participation' laced with rejection of the High Street madness. Maybe it's my low expectation of the event which makes it seem manageable.

My lovely wife and friend, whom I lost to cancer just over two Christmases ago, used to delight in the present-wrapping ritual around the tree. For her, it wasn't about crass consumerism, but the simple art of making others feel nice; that more human little act of giving and receiving we can all still partake in without resorting to craven materialism. A gift in itself, which she had in happy abundance.

In that life-affirming spirit, I note a pleasing number of more maternal expectations this coming year among family and friends. Maybe it's the greater appreciation of life one sometimes gains through personal loss, but I rather delight these days in news of imminent bambinos. I also recently learned of an old, lost friend who has just become a mum. And it lifted my heart to think of her happiness at the lovely event and of all her experiences of parenthood to come.

Sadly, safe and happy delivery are much less likely for expectant mums in places like Gaza and the West Bank, many having miscarried after being detained at checkpoints and refused timely medical attention. Things that are expected and taken-for-granted in the affluent West are never so certain for women living under oppressive occupation.

Yet, whatever the difficulty, there's something quite wonderful about the untainted arrival of innocent life and observation of infant development. I witness it in my own little grand-daughter as she surveys the world of a five-year-old, from the simplicities of painting happy flowers at her easel to the complexities of market life around her.

I also hear of other parental expectations seemingly sullied by disappointment and concerns over the behaviour of kids. Much of this is typical fare; all those little life 'crises' where parental anxieties and youthful delusions often collide in a kind of emotional explosion - usually without too much 'collateral' damage. An ongoing learning curve for all concerned. When all said and done, nothing, from my experience, at least, is a better lesson than experience itself.

And yet, what a challenging set of market-driven pressures and competitive social messages our kids have to negotiate these days. The pressure to 'excel' at school. The pressure to be an early-teenage 'adult'. The pressure to binge drink and do other narcotics in search of confidence, escape and kicks. The peer and media pressure to be attractive and desired. The pressures to attain economic 'status' and be 'successful', increasingly measured, for many, by the 'high-peak' of 'celebrity'. And, overarching it all, the pressure to 'realise' that most elusive of life goals: 'happiness' itself; a state of being increasingly conditional on 'securing' much of the above.

These kind of pressures have always been around in one form or another. But there's a deepening intensity to which people, and young people in particular, are feeling the harsh, stressful pressures of what Oliver James calls "Selfish Capitalism".

Of course, capitalism is, by its very 'logic', driven by selfish impulses. The market system prevails not just as a mechanism of competition and profit, but elimination and greed. Which is why even Adam Smith's notional "invisible hand" of 'market efficiency' has been appropriated by arch free-marketeers as the leitmotif of unrestrained capitalism.

Yet, while James rather-too-simply idealises those countries he sees as preserving a kind of "Unselfish Capitalism," he is correct in identifying Selfish Capitalism's (read, neoliberalism's) more corrosive effects on society. Selfish Capitalism, for James:

"stokes up relative materialism: unrealistic aspirations and the expectation that they can be fulfilled. It does so to stimulate consumerism in order to increase profits and promote short-term economic growth. Indeed, I maintain that high levels of mental illness are essential to Selfish Capitalism, because needy, miserable people make greedy consumers and can be more easily suckered into perfectionist, competitive workaholism."
From middle class insecurities to underclass despair, economic hope and expectation plays an obvious part in how able we are to lead relatively happy lives. Anyone who claims otherwise is negating the most standard evidence correlating poverty with poor health, mental illness and early mortality. But, as James also asserts, this is quite distinct from the delusional promise of material happiness and the 'failure' of individuals to realise it:

With overstimulated aspirations and expectations, the entrepreneurial fantasy society fosters the delusion that anyone can be Alan Sugar or Bill Gates, never mind that the actual likelihood of this occurring has diminished since the 1970s. A Briton turning 20 in 1978 was more likely than one doing so in 1990 to achieve upward mobility through education. Nonetheless, in the Big Brother/ It Could Be You society, great swaths of the population believe they can become rich and famous, and that it is highly desirable. This is most damaging of all - the ideology that material affluence is the key to fulfilment and open to anyone willing to work hard enough. If you don't succeed, there is only one person to blame - never mind that it couldn't be clearer that it's the system's fault, not yours." (Ibid)
Here, in stark, yet incisive, contrast, is how Matthieu Ricard seeks to understand happiness:

By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it." (1)
Yet, all that can seem such an idealistic indulgence when we're busy negotiating the 'real' world of market-inspired living.

And hyperbolic marketing knows no limits in that process of expectant dreams. Thus, a housing development on the south side of Glasgow invites prospective buyers to come live in 'luxury' apartments built by Utopia. Maybe one of Thomas More's relatives will be the first to snap-up a set of penthouse keys.

Nothing, these days, is regarded as pristine or off-limits by developers and the politicians who follow them as market visionaries. To object is to be seen as some kind of time-warped recalcitrant, resistant to that most standard private sector expectation: that everyone, from governments to town councils, be 'open for business'.

This 'promise' of developmental nirvana can be seen in Donald Trump's current plans to build a billion dollar elite golf course and hotel complex on a protected beach area in Aberdeenshire. Overturning the regional department's legitimate planning refusal (with it's honourable vote-casting chairman sacked, in the process), the Scottish Government has "called-in" the Trump Corporation's application for 'closer inspection', claiming that it's potential economic 'benefits' are too large and important for it to be 'judged locally'. In short, big money talks - and it expects to be listened to.

In similar vein, take a close look behind the 'shimmering vista' the market seers have in mind for Penang.

This is the ideology of growth which automatically equates market opportunities with social and economic improvement. And it's propagated as the societal norm against which we're encouraged and expected to understand and pursue personal economic 'well-being', or, to borrow from our 'visionary' builders, 'Utopian happiness'.

The selling of branded lifestyle is, of course, the very stuff of corporate psychology. But the more predictable outcome is dystopian unhappiness, a state of mental delusion and disillusion, a constant cycle of expectation and dejection as we seek and fail to find that notional happy state.

For Ricard and other Buddhists, the principal reason for that despondency and disappointment lies in our conditioned inability to recognise, accept and embrace all emotions and life experiences:
"There exists a way of being that underlies and suffuses all emotional states, that embraces all the joys and sorrows that comes to us...The Sanskrit word for this state of being is sukha [which] manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and afflictive emotions." (2)
This, as Ricard reminds us, is the cultivation of an inner mindfulness that vastly surpasses ephemeral moments and passing pleasures:
"Genuine happiness - as opposed to contrived euphoria - endures through life's ups and downs." (3)
Ricard offers this useful Tibetan proverb to simplify the point:
"To know how to be satisfied is to hold a treasure in the palm of one's hand."(4)
Encouragingly, we are hearing kids talk in more informed and earnest ways these days about environmental calamity, the desperate problems of the third world and the West's crimes against humanity in places like Iraq. And it suggests very strongly that while we have become browbeaten and inured to the 'reality' of market relations at every level of our lives, we still retain the capacity to reject its delusional language and promises of happy deliverance.

Maybe 2008 will see a gathering expectation and relative realisation of peace, justice and inner contentment for more in our war-torn, greed-ridden world. Always, as they say, expect the 'unexpected'.

Happy new year to all.


1. Matthieu Ricard, Happiness (2007: Atlantic Books), p 19.
2. Ibid, p 25.
3. Ibid, p 163.
4. Ibid, p 174.

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