In preparation for a class last night I found myself reading the thoughts of Paul Jose, a New Zealand-based American psychologist, on the psychology of happiness. He divided people into two groups – the ‘savourers’ and the ‘dampeners’, their names reflecting their relationship with positive experiences. Very simply, the happier among us savour the positive moments in their lives and store up the associated beneficial thoughts and emotions like so many happiness credits. The dampeners on the other hand, rain on their own parade, diminishing their positive experiences to such an extent that they fail to recognise the brighter moments, those Wordsworthian ‘Spots of Time’ that would otherwise sustain them when the darkness is closing in.
I have heard this distinction reduced to another demographic classification, that of ‘radiators’ and ‘drains’. I’m sure you can work that one out for yourself; let’s just say when you’re looking for illumination and a warm, cosy feeling you don’t stick your head in a sewer. No doubt rats and cockroaches would beg to differ but that debate is for a different blog. Jose related successful ‘savouring’ back to the concept of ‘authenticity’ which he defined thus:
‘‘Authenticity’’ – having the courage to convey who you are and what you feel to other people.
‘‘I think to be authentic is to live. We have only one life, so let’s live it, rather than try to dampen our experiences or our reactions and just walk like a robot through life. At the end of your life you’re going to be lying in bed thinking: ‘What have I missed?’, and that’s too bad.
His concluding note may evoke Dylan Thomas’s stirring Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night but for now I’d like to focus on the idea of ‘having the courage to convey who you are and what you feel to other people’. This is no small thing. For a start it presupposes you have the first clue about who you are and what you feel. Nor does it stop to suggest that this particular brand of self-assurance can come in many guises, not all positive and contrary to his thesis, not all authentic. People strike poses of authenticity all the time, cladding themselves in armour that best suits their purpose. Who in their younger incarnation hasn’t embraced some ideology or other, become a devotee of a particular band or musician or unashamedly donned the uniform of their chosen sect? I confess to having gadded about in trilby hats and trench coats in a naive attempt to emulate the characters of classic Hollywood gangster movies. To my mind it was authentic but to the outside world it was simply a fashion death-wish and perhaps an indicator of premature dementia.
Ironically at the same time that I was doing my best Alan Ladd and Humphrey Bogart impressions I was giving full vent to my loathing of ‘phoneys’ – the cool, detached poseurs for whom the merest ripple of expressed excitement was the ultimate in gauche soul-bearing (I shared this distaste with one Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger’s young protagonist from his novel The Catcher in the Rye, my identification with whom smacked of my middle class comfort; or so I was told by an acting contemporary in Dublin who wore his working class background as a superior sneer directed at those less authentic than he!). My ideal that we should all be allowed to be who we wanted to be didn’t extend to those smart-arsed cynics. That disdain for killjoys and arch anti-‘expressionists’ survives healthily to this day and it is rooted in that same sentiment described so succinctly above by Jose. Life is expression. It is the shared experience. And crucially it is the ability to allow yourself to be moved.
Phoneys and poseurs (and should I include today’s much-loved hipster?) resist movement. They reject it. They patently abhor the revelation of emotion. Theirs is a refusal to be inspired for if you are above it all, how can you be uplifted? Their passion is anti-passion. They are biological studies frozen in formaldehyde or stifled by camphor, butterflies and moths pinned in glass cases, their cold perfection immortalised. But it’s not living, is it? So where is living to be found?
That’s a question I have been asking myself quite methodically over the last year and my current conclusion is that it lies in inspiration. Although it will be a touch repetitive and possibly unoriginal, I’ll share my little list of things that inspire me for the sake of comparison with your own itinerary. Here it is.
- My wife’s continued ability to surprise me
- Our baby daughter’s smiles
- Being in open sea water at first light
- The spark of connection in a friend’s eyes
- Catching a rare glimpse of my brothers’ love
- Standing on top of Lugnaquilla, Wicklow’s highest peak
- Witnessing a gesture of care, comfort or love
- Guiding a student to a breakthrough
- The passion of others, especially when connected to artistic endeavour
- Great art – this is totally subjective, I know!
- Good karate
- Learning something new, especially when it leads to greater insight
- The ability to genuinely apologise
- The absence of ego. This is also known as the presence of humility
Inspiration is everywhere. Your success in finding it depends simply on whether or not you are looking for it. That was a point I meant to mention in my last post when I was talking about the shepherds and the Magi journeying towards Bethlehem. They knew what they were looking for and it led them to what they sought. How can we find something if we don’t know what we’re looking for?
Because I still see myself as an artistic person I am greatly affected by the passion and excellence of other artists, no matter their chosen medium. Most recently I have been inspired by three different artists – a photographer, a director and an actor. The photographer was Bill Cunningham and his life’s passion – beautiful clothes and high fashion – is captured beautifully in the documentary Bill Cunningham New York. He subjects himself totally to his art and his purity of purpose and his palpable wholeheartedness are gut-wrenchingly moving. The director was video artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen who was interviewed in The Guardian and spoke with refreshing honesty and some uncertainty about his artistic process. The actor was Philip Seymour Hoffman and like many others I have been stunned today by the news of his tragic passing. His tributes will be many and glowing but all I would like to add is that he had no equal amongst modern American actors and he was one of very few actors who could be truly thrilling in his capacity for chameleonic reinvention. Without resort to prosthetics, extreme accents or exaggerated ticks he brilliantly presented humanity in all its vulnerability and frailty, in all its beauty and its ugliness. He was utterly believable and he excelled in the two areas I value most in an actor; he never patronised his characters. And he never played cute. He has left a hole in the American acting landscape that will not soon be filled. May he find peace wherever he now resides. Here‘s a clip of one of my favourite of his recent roles.
Inspiration is a guide for excellence. Let it in. Let it move you. Let the tears flow. Let a smile transform your face. And like Van Morrison sang, “Let your inspiration flow“. Shatter the rictus of certainty. Damn to hell the conservatism of superiority. Embrace your ignorance. Savour your innocence. Regard the world anew. Have you really seen it all before?
Where do you find inspiration? Do you value ‘spots of time’? And am I unfair to hate the hipsters?