– Merriam Webster dictionary.
- ‘A nation that draws too broad a difference between its scholars and its warriors will have its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards‘
Greek Historian (471-400 bc)
‘A girl called Johnny who, changed her name when she, discovered her choice was to change, or to be changed’
– Mike Scott & the Waterboys
‘A Girl Called Johnny’
When I started this blog I was advised that I should post (at least) every week, presumably to tell everybody how they should live and what they should put in their kale smoothies (kale probably, hope this helps). Not heeding that advice at all, I resolved to post when I actually had something to say. Having nothing to say in other words, it’s a good idea to ‘keep schtum’ and look a fool, than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.
Nevertheless, I have to admit having nothing to say is less often a problem for me than it should be. If I’m honest I’ve been caught for the last few months between opposing forces when it comes to writing this blog. In one direction I have, as I often do, experienced the disquieting feelings that frequently lead to a blog post. In the present case, I’ve been wondering about the tendency to seduce ourselves into thinking we’re making changes, so as to preserve ‘business as usual’ and avoid letting go of a false sense of security. So seductive is the idea, it was only a matter of time before I lined it up in my polemic crosshairs. I kept seeing examples of the idea everywhere, I simply could not get my mind around how I would do it in a single piece. So there was the urge to say something. However, I found myself restrained by other forces. My previous articles have been enjoying an increasing readership; there was a certain fear the next article I write may not be ‘up to scratch’ and I would be found out as the imposter I feel like most days.
The word ‘stasis’ leaped to mind. The tension of two opposing forces creating an unproductive stability. There it was. I planned a cautionary exposition against finding oneself comfortably stuck between two opposing forces, which I couldn’t seem to get started because I was caught in the kind of stultifying harmony I wanted to discuss! Caught by my own quarry, the irony was at my expense of course, so I admit to it here and get it out of the way. But I can’t go back, and I mustn’t stay here, so here goes. Dear reader, be gentle with me.
Stasis – the safety of the ledge.
It was only four inches of horizontal stone, about 12 inches wide, halfway up a vertical rock face. But to me, it may as well have been an aircraft landing strip. I’ve never been so happy to reach a ledge and rest (standing with my face into a cliff) in my life. A red cliff of smooth stone stretched down to the ground some 8 metres below me, 8 meters I had managed to scale with bloody minded determination and copious shouted encouragements from my belaying partner below, who literally had my life in his hands. Above me, the crux (the hardest part of the climb). If I didn’t fall off of THAT, I looked forward to another few meters of vertical wilderness before completing the task.
Some months earlier, in an attempt to cure myself of a terror of high places, I had taken up rock climbing. On this day I was tackling one of my first ‘leads’. Placing wedges and other devices in the rock on which to clip your rope as you proceed, you’re always climbing above your ‘protection’; meaning a fall has real consequences. If your protection holds the rope will halt your sudden and terrifying progress toward terra firma, but you will fall some way and not escape without losing a bit of skin, dignity, and – in bad cases – the content of your lower intestine.
So here I was, safely on my beautiful ledge. I’d made it to safety, the view was
wonderful, and my skin was intact. It was only a narrow ledge but it may as well have been a jacuzzi. And that’s where I got hopelessly stuck. What was ahead of me was at least as difficult as what was behind me, and going back (down climbing) is much harder than climbing up. Where I was, well that was nice. But sleeping there was always going to be problematic; I couldn’t lay down, I hadn’t brought any coffee, and even if it were an option I don’t think my climbing partner would have loved the idea. So I pretended to myself that I was getting started. I put a hand up here, and a toe over there. I even grunted a bit. I did everything except what I needed to do – LEAVE. THAT. LEDGE. I knew I had to climb, but I was not ready to give up the security of that ledge because no hold or position I found felt as good. So I postured and pretended to climb until I was exhausted, getting nowhere and using the energy I might have used to progress.
I’m pleased to report that I DID eventually leave the (perceived) safety of the ledge as daylight was failing and my belay partner began to resort (in desperation) to threats of dislodging me from my eyrie with rocks. I am happier still to mention I repeated the climb some months later, but THIS time when I gained the coveted ledge the feeling of relief and safety sounded a clear warning in my mind. You must not stay longer than you need to regain your breath. The safety is a trap. As a corollary, that means the safety was also an illusion; feeling safe was not the same thing as being safe. What was more curious, looking back, was that the psychological tension of actually climbing was less that the tension of trying to get myself to move up off the ledge.
It occurs to me the lesson I learned so viscerally is at play not only for individuals, but also for organisations and whole nations which are, after all just made up of the peculiar mammals we call humans. By the way, I recommend one never ever forget that all humans are just mammals – some mediocre, some excellent, but mammals all the same – the knowledge is a great leveller and clears one’s view of villains and heroes alike. Now, I don’t have any love for glib explanations derived from naturalistic arguments about human nature. I cringe when it gets wheeled out to defend everything from the vile excesses of toxic masculinity to fascism. However, I don’t think I’m falling too far into the trap I’ve warned others against when I suggest humans are rather attracted to feelings of safety and comfort. But look to the language there. Feelings of safety are attractive and easily confused with stability, both may be enjoyed even when one is – in point of fact – in terrible danger, while deluding oneself otherwise.
What to do? Well, at the risk of pushing the rock climbing example a bit too far, the first thing I needed to do was recognise that I was not safe. After all, staying there would have meant falling – not immediately, but it was inevitable. There actually was no safe option but to continue into the uncertainty from which I recoiled; a fact that I was keeping out of my consciousness deliberately. Now, gentle reader, you wonder to yourself how it was that I was able to keep the bloody obvious out of my consciousness even for a moment. Well, in reply, I urge you to humour me until you have read the examples I shall provide in the following posts. These include, but are not limited to, policy failures on climate change, the profession of psychology, the practise of the martial arts, and (perhaps it is just too easy, but) religion, which is at heart the ultimate resting point we are afraid to leave.
There’s much talk these days about fighting for what you want with courage, determination and resolve. But I will argue in the coming chapters that what is required is courage of thought first. The courage to examine our thinking, constantly looking for the facts that we are keeping out of our consciousness. Then include those facts in our reality, no matter where the conclusions that arise from this lead us. What better minds than my own call evidence against interest. An honest appraisal of the evidence of our senses, and rejection of anything that outrages reason, and the courage to follow where that leads us – even if that means leaving our cosy ledge. Courageous thought is the only thing that can allow for putting our fight where it counts.
If you’re curious, read on…. see in the next chapter. By the way, what’s your ledge?