Thursday, 6 September 2012

On the fundamental interconnectedness of all things

7 years ago, an 18-year old boy sat in a room in a hall of residence at The University of Sheffield and made a decision. 

How many times in life does one have occasion to tell another person that one is happy? There are very few social situations in which this kind of bold statement about emotional, physical, and general socio-cultural wellbeing is encouraged or even appropriate. Unless one is the kind of relentlessly cheerful human being who goes around telling people how happy one is (1), there are very few occasions in which happiness or lack thereof is openly discussed in the public sphere. The only circumstances I can imagine one telling another person that one is happy are comparatively intimate situations: to a loved one; at a family gathering; among one’s parents; etc. This appears to be because, despite being a resoundingly positive statement, discussion of one’s own happiness involves vulnerability and a psychological journey into the very core of one’s emotional firmament. We don’t want to look inside ourselves – we’ve seen the dark thoughts that have consumed us on long summer nights when it’s too hot to sleep; we’ve felt loneliness at the core of ourselves even when surrounded by a crowd of people whom we feel we should feel more affection for; we’re scared of what we’d find if we opened the Pandora’s Box of our minds (yes, there’s metaphorical ‘hope’ at the bottom but think of all the crap one has to get past to get there) – and we certainly don’t want to be responsible for making other people look inside themselves: asking probing emotional questions that cut to the heart of the questionee’s lifestyle and choices makes the questioner seem a. overly familiar, b. loaded with an ulterior motive, c. generally weird, or d. all of the above. And so, questions of happiness or unhappiness or, far more likely, the state in-between are not so much ignored as simply not discussed openly. It’s not polite and it’s certainly not British. 

The boy was away from home for the first time having been led along a path – from school to college to university – that he now realised, in the darkness of an October night, he hadn’t chosen and that had been laid in front of him since birth. 

And so, I found it unusual and – for reasons that may or may not become apparent later – significant that this week I was twice asked questions by people that forced me to answer, truthfully, “Yes. Yes, I am happy.” Not only does this represent an anomalous frequency of discussions regarding happiness or potential lack thereof but it comes while I stand on the cusp of an event that – as may or may not become apparent – is significant or at least – to use a less grandiose and more subjective phrase – important to me. Which is why, loath though I am to write a blog post which astute readers will have realised is essentially a lengthy way of saying “I am happy” and focusing entirely on personal matters and the ‘Personal Introspective Adventures of Simon Barron’ (2), I am writing this blog post about the situation in which I currently find myself and its potential significance (or not).

The people he saw on television shows were experiencing the ‘real world’ while he was stuck in a university experience that drifted further and further from the experience he felt he had been promised by friends, teachers, the very television shows he now took fresh advice from. He’d never had a job; never done the 9-to-5 thing; never not been in education. 

On Monday, a colleague at work – a colleague with whom interactions had previously been brief and transitory extending no further than jokes in the staff room – asked if this job was what I wanted to do. In that moment, it seemed strange and – horror of horrors! – uncool to say that I love my job and that I love where I am in my life. My social instinct told me that the more socially appropriate response was to complain: to say, ‘No, this isn’t perfect’; to say that I’d rather be an astronaut or a well-paid soccer player or a tall doctor; or to say any myriad number of responses that would leave me less emotionally vulnerable than the truth. But I didn’t say those things. I said, “Er… yeah. Yeah, this is what I want to do. I’ve wanted to work with ebooks and stuff since library school (3). This job is perfect for me. I’m happy here.” It was the truth. I love what I do right now and I love where I work right now and I’m not embarrassed by the fact that I’m perfectly content to organise ejournals and make spreadsheets and be happy to be going into work every morning. At which point my colleague said, “Aww, that’s good” and, on my part due to not knowing in which direction to take the conversation, we returned to our work. I felt I should ask the same question in return but found myself unable to bypass the aforementioned strongly ingrained social conventions against asking such a probing question. (4) 

The boy simply wasn’t having as much fun as people said he would or should be having and so, being scared and confused and alone, he decided to run. To run all the way home. 

Later this week, I was having a text conversation with a friend about the future and assorted life stuff: the kind of conversation that, in my experience, is easier, less personally uncomfortable, and much more enjoyable, over SMS text message (5). As I considered the future and my plans for the next few months, I felt so excited and so exhilarated. In terms of career, career development, future plans, possible life changes, and so on and so forth, everything seems to be in a perfect position. Like an alignment of the planets, this seems incredibly rare: that everything should be almost entirely as I want it to be. Again, I was forced to say that I’m happy. 

On that night in Halifax Hall in Sheffield, the boy decided to drop out of university and find a new path. It was, at the time, the biggest decision of his life and, more importantly, a real decision: a binary decision that he could either make or not make. A fork in the road. “Two roads [diverging] in a yellow wood…” A choice. A real choice. That he alone could make. 

How many times in life does one have the opportunity to see the outcome of a single choice? Life is such a network of different choices and decisions and events-that-we-have-no-control-over that everything becomes so mixed up and complicated that we can’t see which choice led to which path and why. Life is complicated and messy and beautiful and it’s a tapestry made of threads so closely woven that we usually can’t follow one thread from beginning to end. 

Next week, I’m returning to Halifax Hall to deliver a presentation on a subject that I care about deeply to an audience of my professional peers, many of whom I already know me from positive online interactions, and I will get to return to that building where I made that terrifying decision knowing, with as much certainty as I ever have about anything, that I made the right decision: that that decision – made under unhappy circumstances in 2005 in a small student bedroom – led me down a path that led to other places and other people and other decisions that led me to a point where I am happy with the present and excited about the future and that that decision was, unequivocally and absolutely, the start of the chain of cause and effect that has led me right back to the geographic location where the decision was made. I honestly never expected to go back to Halifax Hall: to that building in which I spent so many lonely nights as a teenager. How often does one get to see the consequences of decisions contrasted with such pristine clarity against the backdrop of the decisions themselves? How often does one get to see oneself utterly vindicated after 7 long years? 

My presentation is called ‘The Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things’: a title I proposed months before I learned the venue of the conference and its personal significance. Which I guess is the crux of this blog post: that the circumstance in which the presentation will be delivered serves to remind me of the presentation’s central premise which also happens to be the seemingly simple belief that is, notwithstanding and despite its simplicity, the only belief that I hold with any kind of certainty. 

What comes before determines what comes after. And therefore everything is connected. 

(1) Which, ironically, most other pop-psychology-savvy human beings would take as indicative of a distinct lack of happiness and/or personal fulfilment in a kind of denial-slash-wish-fulfilment kind of way. 

(2) Loath partly because I fear it is of no interest to anyone apart from myself and partly because writing about oneself seems at best lazy and at worst indicative of a narcissistic personality disorder. Or indeed may cause readers to attribute to me the denial-slash-wish-fulfilment kind of thing alluded to in footnote (1). (2a) 

(2a) To be honest, in writing the post, the purpose of the writing became less a case of sharing this personal story and more a case of experimenting with sentence structure. Style over substance. 

(3) Folk at library school called me ‘Simon ‘ebooks’ Barron’. A true story that makes me sound like the biggest nerd in library school: a not inconsiderable achievement given the aggregate personality characteristics of the average attendees of a library school.

(4) Footnote outside the main narrative flow of the text: It further seems significant that while writing this blog post and, as custom dictates, flicking between Twitter, Facebook, et al., I saw a Facebook status update from Adrienne ‘sphericalfruit’ Cooper which I hope she won’t mind me pasting verbatim here: “I LOVE MY JOB!” 

(5) SMS also allows one to consider one’s responses and only send the, as it were, cream of the crop thus making one appear more intelligent and articulate than one would appear if the conversation were happening ‘live’.


Richard Hawkins said...

I'm happy for you :)

Liz Brewster said...

What a lovely post. I never say 'everything happens for a reason' because it doesn't, but it's always interesting to see how everything happens anyway.

Simon Barron said...

Thanks guys.

I do say 'everything happens for a reason' but what I mean by that is 'everything happens because some event happened in the past to cause / allow it to happen' rather than the customary use of the phrase which tends to mean 'everything happens according to some preordained plan'. I guess what I mean is that nothing is random and events can be traced back to their source. Which ultimately entails that we have full control over our own lives.