Hackney to Holborn: from feminism to wedding fever

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beanie-hat

I enjoyed going to Caitlin Moran’s recent talk immensely, which took place in a tiered Hackney theatre full of sweating bodies on the hottest day of the year so far.

Not surprisingly, it was about feminism, shame and insecurity, as well as her new book How to build a girl. Standing up and proclaiming the power of my womb with a room of a thousand other women and a few dozen men was a highlight of the evening.

Perhaps it revived the feminist in me, who went to sleep when I left the intellectual battleground of university and started working in my most recent job in Holborn, which is the least misogynistic place ever (apart from perhaps the Feminist Society).

Every single director in my office is female, and every one of them is currently off on maternity leave, having all recently had babies.

Wedding fever

At work, every time someone gets engaged, married or has a baby, we celebrate. I’m not an idiot; I can appreciate people getting exciting by these rites of passage, but I usually find it hard to muster the same enthusiasm.

Give me a gorgeous piece of poetry, a truly heart-wrenching story, or a thrilling new personality typing system, and then I’ll start waxing lyrical.

I’m happy if other people are happy, but the idea of wanting to get married so much amazes me. I’m wondering if this notion will fade over time, when the real possibility of dying alone filters properly down to my subconscious.

Right now, though, while the jury’s still out for me, wedding fever seems to have gripped my small team of nine. There have been two engagements in the past couple of weeks and another looms imminent.

I hope I don’t sound bitter but I’ve never *truly* appreciated how keen girls are to get married until now – though I’ve dimly noticed it through the diatribes of feminist rhetoric.

A classic game

It’s almost like a set of dominoes. Obviously, once one is knocked over, the rest soon follow in an unstoppable chain reaction. Perhaps it’s conditioning, and perhaps I have an unadmirable need just to be different from the herd.

Despite personal doubts about the authenticity of my opinion, I still have an unshaken conviction that I don’t want to find a boyfriend and get hitched – but a negation is not the same as a desire.

So what I really desire is to be independent and free, free to choose exactly where I move to, how to spend my days and exactly when and how to follow my countless passions.

I suppose one would say that if you find the perfect partner, they could do those things with you, but then they wouldn’t be your passions anymore, would they? Further, why is a romantic union the highest ideal we can aspire to? Certainly they are incredibly fun, at least for a while (in my experience).

Following your passion

This could be the bitterness of a recent dumping talking, or my youthful age of 25, but I feel that even though as a society we prize getting married and settling down as an ideal, when really there are many more worthy things you could be spending your time doing.

You could find a complete cure for all disease. This idea is terrifying, because we all need something to fight against, and surely eradicating disease would result in a new problem for humanity. We’d probably implode in nuclear fashion, instantly.

But truly, the idea of having a ring and buying a house and a wedding doesn’t fill me with any particular longing, though maybe I’m in denial.

What I can say is that publishing a book that changes someone’s life and touches their heart does. Living in Brighton and owning a teashop does, as does the prospect of spending days by the sea with the wind in my hair.

Hoping your sister ends up alone, too

Perhaps romance does fit into that. I certainly would like to think I won’t end up totally wizened and alone, but I don’t envision a typical path to getting there. Wedding fever really has baffled me; I am both intrigued and a little terrified.

Maybe all girls are secretly waiting for their handsome prince to come and rescue them from fading, slowly, on the shelf. Fuck changing the world; it’s doomed anyway…! Or perhaps not as important as self-gratification.

In terms of my work, I wonder what will happen next? Will someone soon announce their pregnancy and group conception will follow like wildfire, in some kind of fertility osmosis? The possibilities are endless, surely.

Read this incredible article from my favourite website Brain Pickings about how love and sex don’t always go together.

Re-watching nineties teen movies as an adult: Drive Me Crazy (1999)

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Drive Me Crazy (1999)

So you know when you re-watch films from your childhood and you get that feeling of, wow, I did not get this film when I was a kid. I wasn’t quite expecting to have that feeling about Drive Me Crazy (1999), ostensibly a romantic teen comedy about two neighbours who pretend to fall in love as a way to manipulate their respective love interests (both have been spurned). Essentially, it stars Melissa Joan Hart, the actress who played Sabrina the teenage witch, and some other people.

Whilst I remember being distinctly unimpressed when I watched this film all those years ago, it turns out I may have just been confused. This time, I loved it. Aside from being side-splittingly funny and satisfying my feminine craving for a dose of romance, it imparted a deeply resonating moral that I simply wasn’t expecting.

As a writer, one dimension of character development (whether that be in book, film or on TV) that particularly interests me is how two people can have a transformative effect on one another – especially if the two characters are complementary opposites. Though this is probably most simply described as ‘character tension’, I am interested in how one can go beyond simply creating dramatic tension and instead exploring how two people, ostensibly clashing, can actually enrich one another, given fertile circumstances.

So, in this case, Melissa Joan Hart’s character is nicknamed “Miss School Spirit.” A girl called Nicole, her passion is high school and her ambition is to stage the centenary alumni dance (alumni are graduates of a school or university).

The story kicks off when her bitchy friend indirectly causes her love interest, Brad, to ask a cheerleader to the dance instead of Nicole. Now, while the concept of teenagers asking each other to dances is distinctly American, I think we can overlook this bizarre cultural convention in the interests of narrative analysis.

Paralleling this turn of events, Nicole’s neighbour, Chase, is dumped by his girlfriend for refusing to attend a protest against animal testing. In contrast to Nicole, Chase is a self-consciously-styled social anarchist who enjoys disrupting and mocking mainstream high school life. Nicole and Chase are neighbours, and in order to save face, Nicole insists that Chase take her to the upcoming dance – which will also serve as a way to make his ex-girlfriend jealous, and hopefully take him back.

So, to cut to the chase, whilst the two main characters initially hook up with one another as a means to an end, [spoiler alert] they ultimately end up transforming one another, and enabling each other to live more authentic, happier lives. I particularly like the character dynamic of Chase as a complex, brooding, disaffected youth being ‘loosened up’ by the peppy Nicole, who nevertheless has a slightly ironic, quirky, edgy side to her. She shows him the value of participating in wider society, whilst he imparts a sense of pride in the individual and being true to oneself.

The conclusion of the film, after the prerequisite emotional drama, is that Nicole and Chase’s mutual respect and trust for one another can override traditional social cliques, fostering a genuine human connection. Humanity and kindness are shown to be more important than tribalism, though the film displays unusual depth in that the ‘jocks’ and cheerleaders are not presented as sociopathic – rather, slightly unthinking and moronic but relatively good-natured.

Another moral of the film is that individual identity is not shackled to the temporal traits of personality; rather, the self is fluid and ever-changing. I think it’s incredible that the filmmakers manage to express this idea through a teen romantic comedy, which I spectacularly failed to grasp at the age of twelve.

The sophistication of this film, I think it’s fair to say, is breathtaking. I love characters – especially in romantic contexts – who relate to one another through tension and opposing worldviews. This opens the doorway for a reconciliation of opposites, through the medium of paradox: a process which I find uniquely satisfying.

Some of my other favourite literary and cinematic examples of this character dynamic are:

  • Eliza Bennett and Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (eighteenth-century novel by Jane Austen)
  • Lyra and Will from His Dark Materials (children’s fantasy series by Phillip Pullmann)
  • Kat and Patrick from Ten Things I Hate about you (romantic comedy film by Gil Junger)
  • Suki and Eric from True Blood (vampire TV series by Alan Ball)
  • Rick Castle and Kate Beckett from Castle (comedy detective TV series from NBC)

The core of the relationship between the characters in Drive Me Crazy, and similar narratives, is based not on mutual reinforcement of familiar values but unswerving challenge of each other’s status quo. Neither character will compromise their independence, but both are willing to grow through a mutual exchange of ideas and support. I strongly recommend this film to everyone, though I may have oversold it a bit.

I’d really like more suggestions of films, TV shows or books where this transformative character dynamic is done really well. Any ideas?

NB: This blogger didn’t agree with my analysis in 2011. I’m not particularly surprised!

New Age Hippies in 2015

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Zen

It seems reasonably common for people to be quite sceptical of what they perceive as ‘new age’ practices. I certainly was the same as a teenager, considering activities like meditation, yoga, vegetarianism and spiritual development as mainly for kind of crazy people. A few years ago, anything to do with ‘spirituality’ was generally rather negatively portrayed in the media, and associated with rather unflattering stereotypes like ‘hippies’ and ‘spiritualists’.

If you watch old TV programmes like Jonathan Creek now, it becomes even more clear just how negatively these kinds of quasi-religious people used to be seen in society – ranging from morally bankrupt fraudsters to complete idiots. And yet, well into the twenty-first century, perhaps what would have formerly been called ‘new age’ practices (at least they were when we studied them in sociology) display an even more diverse and rich variety.

Whereas once I saw no distinction between extreme religious cults – whose members believed in the supernatural, and the second coming of the prophet (actually, perhaps not so extreme) – I am now able to recognise a whole subculture of spiritual activities.

I recently started attending a meditation class at a centre called Inner Space, which is located near my work in Covent Garden, literally in the centre of London, and run by the Brahma Kumaris. It’s incredibly popular, and attendees are overwhelmingly composed of white female professionals in their twenties and thirties, apparently all interested in attaining peace of mind and inner calm. There are a few men, too.

I am shocked at the popularity of something that, I feel just a few short years ago, one would have been too embarrassed to go to, for fear of being thought rather eccentric. Indeed, religion is currently getting an extremely bad rap – at least, in the form of Judaism, Roman Catholicism and Islam.

I’d be interested to know the cause of this shift against religion, which has nevertheless revealed a persistent need for ‘something more’. As is typically opined, could it be that the rise of digital technology – and the consequent acceleration of the pace of life – may have caused people to seek some way of releasing the pressure? Perhaps our exposure to alternative cultures through television and the web, particularly ones in Asia (where meditation originated), makes us more tolerant of and open to these kinds of practices.

Vegetarianism also seems to be on the rise, with lots of my friends already foregoing meat, or intending to try going veggie, and is probably partly to do with concern for environmental issues, health consciousness and the availability of different types of food. Yoga classes abound in every gym in London, and most other people would know the meaning of the phrase ‘downward dog’. Books on the topic of spiritual healing and self-exploration (not just traditionally ‘religious’ texts like the Bible or the Qu’ran) are taking up quite a bit of space in most bookshops/on internet shopping pages.

I could spend a lot of time exploring particular factors that have caused these trends, but is there some kind of over-arching shift that has taken place? With a lack of any kind of empirical research, I’d guess that perhaps the recession, and our hangover from the eighties, has made people disillusioned with purely material satisfaction.

So, all things considered, I definitely think we need a new word for this kind of lifestyle – what I would define as an interest in pursuing something off the beaten track, in activities formerly the preserve of both hippies, and actresses living in LA. New Age? Spiritual? Self-development, maybe.

Perhaps I’m just late coming to the party, but it seems to me that where religion once served the purpose of nourishing our inner lives, its mighty influence has now mostly receded, at least in Britain. Those who openly confess to being religious are deemed rather unusual (am I wrong?), and, in consequence, something else had to evolve to take its place.

I’m now a staunch believer that, if you neglect your inner life, you’ll end up regretting it. Whether it results in something definable like depression, anxiety, or generally feeling unfulfilled, the undesirability of these states of mind means it pays to spend more time on yourself.

Perhaps it’s maturity (I’d like to think!), but I feel a lot happier since I worked out that we not only have to develop our outer selves, but the inner self is just as important, and alternative practices can really help with that goal. Now, just what to call it?

Black Friday, Indeed

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PresentsThis is my run-up-to-Christmas post.

Stop reading now if you wanted to read a fluffy article about the importance of family and being together in the festive season – and presents. You’ll be disappointed.

This is the culmination of a few weeks’ worth of observations and opinion-forming. I’ve never been a huge fan of Christmas, since my parents split up on Boxing Day when I was ten years old – but let’s not let personal experience get in the way of truly rigorous analysis.

Sometimes my blog posts, to put a very grand spin on things, are like weeks’ or months’ worth of preparation (or, gestation), that eventually result in the birth of an idea (not in any kind of weird or inappropriate way). I’ve been thinking about this one for ages. Usually the time to write occurs whilst I am on my way to work, and if I don’t write the post down instantly, I’ll forget the words in a kind of creative stillbirth (not a real one).

Walking between Waterloo and Holborn helps to stimulate my creativity, and I also see a lot of homeless people on the way. As the temperature relentlessly drops, and having any bare skin on show in the icy wind is unacceptable, I am struck by the fact that there are still so many homeless people living on the streets. Some of them sell The Big Issue – a magazine published on behalf of and sold by homeless or vulnerably-housed people.

I bought one today, although I’ve been meaning to for ages. I have to stop and hunt through my bag for my wallet, so naturally that’s an excuse not to buy one, and I don’t always have cash. This week’s edition touches on one of the topics I’ve been thinking about: the consumerist nature of Christmas and of life in general. I didn’t realise that the Christmas Big Issue costs £3 – 50p more than usual – and it seems that the vendor was too polite to correct me, so I accidentally underpaid him. Luckily, I know where he works, so I can find him tomorrow.

As I write this, someone has just sent me a code for a free six-month trial of Amazon Prime – next-day delivery on all items – which I’m ashamed to say I did not turn down. This just shows that human beings – including myself – will usually take the easiest and most beneficial option available to them, and not necessarily live up to their own ideals. Christmas can also be fun, and I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell small children that they won’t be getting any presents this year.

It’s a topic that has been done to death, but this year is the first time I’ve been aware of Black Friday’s consumer dash. The media coverage was quite shocking, along with the grainy phone videos of people in shops literally fighting each other. This witty article by James Dyke on academic news website The Conversation aptly compares it to a zombie attack.

The context behind Black Friday is it’s the first Friday after Thanksgiving in the U.S., which means it is now widely regarded as the beginning of the Christmas shopping period. Retailers slash their prices and a huge sense of anticipation greets this largely made-up day. Ironically, it’s actually rooted in an economic crash in the 1800’s. Wikipedia mainly focuses on the social significance of Black Friday in the U.S., but it’s now reached British shores. Police were called to the Surrey Quays Tesco Extra, my local Tesco, among others, due to overcrowding.

What I want to know is how people can fight each other over a flat-screen television when there are so many people without a home? It’s hardly surprising that people turn into animals in this kind of hyper-consumer environment, in the midst of the crowds, faced with products that have been relentlessly marketed at them wherever they look.

Consumer bullying is excessive. My heart sank when the extremely popular Frozen song, ‘Let it Go’, sung by children everywhere, was used on a Christmas advert for Virgin Media. Well done, Disney – still getting ‘em young. We’re trained from a young age to value “stuff”, and treated as ‘consumers’ rather than people, or citizens. We’re then all emotionally blackmailed into spending money at Christmas in order to show how much we love each other.

I’m not an economist, but I understand our capitalist model of economic growth is heavily dependent on the amount of money people spend on stuff – especially at Christmas. But this model is not sustainable– especially considering all the carbon emissions and waste that are produced every Christmas. Suddenly, it’s not so heartwarming.

It’s up to the individual to break out of this vicious cycle, and become more mindful.

Something I find particularly hard is how we’re only supposed to show how much we love our family and friends at Christmas, which is an exclusive inner circle restricted to a few individuals, and actually diminishes our connection to society as a whole. You could donate some money to a homeless charity instead of buying presents… but why don’t we? It doesn’t make quite as picturesque a scene as exchanging presents under the tree, but at least it really does mean something.

Being anti-consumer a difficult position to hold at this time of year, not least because celebrating Christmas is so value-laden. The day is strongly associated with childhood traditions, as well as notions of family and belonging. Zen Buddhist, blogger and author, Leo Babauta, shares this inspiring set of tips on how to give thoughtful presents at Christmas that don’t cost a thing. My own goal is to be more mindful about the presents I’m giving – perhaps affirming my relationships in different ways – rather than heading online for a bargain.

Image: “A Sack Of Christmas Gifts” by Mister GC

Thoughts On Liberty

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Telephone

Image: Vintage Telephone by Daniel St. Pierre

I attended a very interesting lecture yesterday at Morley College called ‘On Liberty’ by Shami Chakrabarti (which, since it only cost a mere penny as part of the ‘Penny Lecture’ series, was partly a shameless plug for Chakrabarti’s new book, of the same title).

That probably is a good thing though, as Chakrabarti is the director of Liberty, a campaign group for the defence civil rights that protests against things like ‘the snooper’s charter’ and increased invasion of privacy (not least due to the prevalence of technology and surveillance equipment). It was refreshing to hear from a young (-ish, in her own words) woman from an Asian background, if only to counterbalance the abundance of old white men we usually hear from (compelling and articulate, though they are).

I was speaking with my boyfriend, James, who accompanied me to the lecture, about what I’d write a blog post about, should the mood take me. This is it. There are so many angles you could take to approach the topic, but I’ll probably go for just one.

This one facet of modern life that has become murkily interwoven into this debate on human rights and privacy: technology. It has been partly caused by the spread of the internet and social media, which now connects and exposes us all in ways hitherto dreamed of only in science fiction.

Ordinary people rely on technology to get around, to do their jobs, pay their bills, and stay in touch with their friends and family.

It is used by violent groups in countries outside the western world, which are rising up to overthrow a perceived – whether real or fictional – oppressor. They use technology to communicate, to recruit new members, and cause terrifying amounts of damage to their own countries and others.

Technology is also used by security organisations to survey the public, as well as by the news media to produce a continuous steam of stories and images of ‘terror’. Technology is a medium that is used and abused by all.

Even under these circumstances, it’s still quite frightening that people are so willing to allow the erosion of their basic rights and liberties because they are half-asleep. We are so used to being poked and prodded by marketing companies and government that it’s only a tiny step further.

It’s easy to dismiss basic invasions of privacy when you are still enjoying a fading liberty, sure that they’ll be surveilling someone else, and not you, or even because you are terrified of what might happen to you and the people you love. The citizens of the republic of China, North Korea, Nazi Germany, and the USSR probably felt the same.

Racism and xenophobia appear to be on the rise, with the popularity of political parties like UKIP (which now has two local seats), the move to tear up the bill of Human Rights (in favour of ‘British’ rights) and the backlash against immigrants who are believed to be ‘leeching’ our resources. This is surely, in part, an unconscious backlash against a far more sinister and uncontrollable threat: global terrorism.

I agree with Chakrabarti and many others that the powers the government is attempting to give itself are completely out of proportion to the threat, and with dubious efficacy. As Chakrabarti says, it is impossible to wage war on an abstract noun – and, if you can, you will never be able to tell when it has come to an end.

Quote from Shelley (used in the lecture):

“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number-
Shake your chains to earth like
dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many-they are few.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Masque of Anarchy: Written on Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester

Carl Jung’s Theory of Personality

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I really like the Myers-Briggs system of personality typing, but I often feel like the whole topic is shrouded in a quagmire of misconception – even by those who devotedly follow its “creeds”. This is especially true in forums like PersonalityCafe.com, which I love, but threads can be largely made up of people posting declarative statements which are factually untrue, and partaking in reams of over-indulgent self-analysis.

In general, a lot of people seem to be interested in the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) because provides them with an easy way to typecast people and stick them in comfortable boxes. This is a criticism I hear often from those who are against MBTI. Also, most people encounter the system through their workplace, where it is normally used in the context of team-building. I actually find that use of MBTI reasonably dull, although it is always revealing to hear what personality types my colleagues think they are. Ultimately, who cares that much about work?

What I actually find really interesting about MBTI is the theory of the eight cognitive functions, and the role they play in personal development. The basic context behind the functions is that Carl Jung (a contemporary and colleague of Sigmund Freud) came up with his theory of personality based on a premise of opposites. At its most simple, “introverts” gain their energy from the inner world of the psyche and “extroverts” are energised by the external material world.

In addition, extroverts and introverts can also be classed as either “sensors” – someone who prefers to gather information about the world through their five senses – or “intuitives”, those who prefer to inhabit the abstract, cognitive realm.  Finally, on top of introvert/extrovert, and sensor/intuitive, a person can display either a “thinking” preference – meaning they are better at rational or logical activities than interpersonal relations – or a “feeling” preference, or that they are more comfortable dealing with people rather than the impersonal.

This idea is Jung’s grounding for his theory of human personality, which was built upon in more recent years by Isabel Briggs Myers and Katharine Cook Briggs. They added a fourth preference – whether a person prefers “judging”, meaning that they favour their decision-making function, or “perceiving”, meaning that they prefer their information-gathering function. These four ‘categories’ result in a combination of four letters, denoting your personality type. In my case, “Introvert”, “Intuitive”, “Feeling”, Judging” – or, INFJ. Myers and Briggs developed a test that subjects could take to determine their type.

This probably all sounds a bit complicated and a lot of people naturally have no interest in delving into type theory. They just want to know their type so they can either reinforce their opinion of their own good qualities and rationalise their not-so-good, and make quick judgements about other people that they know. A perfectly valid way to approach it, if that’s what you find fun.

I mainly care about the potential rewards of type theory, if researched properly – which are twofold. A) I think it can be used to delve more deeply into the psyche by providing a system and language for such a purpose, resulting in increased self-knowledge, and, B) it can encourage personal growth by affirming that everyone is different and providing real tools that anyone can use to develop their abilities, and relate more effectively with others. It hardly needs to be stated why these two ends would be desirable!

So, in a nutshell, that is why I like MBTI so much. I think Carl Jung was an awesome psychoanalyst, thinker, writer, and all-round great person who contributed so much to our understanding of human nature. He was a mystical and superstitious individual who believed in the interpretation of dreams, the power of coincidence and signs and symbols.

Type theory is an exciting field which is un-established – often mocked – and full of possibility. I will continue to use his personality theory to inform my understanding of myself, and others. It has helped me come to terms with a lot of things about myself, and accept both my strengths and failings (largely). Reading about it on the internet is also great for procrastinating.

If you want to find out more about MBTI, start with Personality Junkie – A.J. Drenth’s writing style is incredibly accessible. 

Image: Carl Jung, credit: Orlonponzo

Top mental health tips for World Mental Health Day

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In honour of World Mental Health Day 2014, organised by the Mental Health Foundation, I have compiled a list of my top tips for mental health for anyone who’s interested.

It’s a lot easier to maintain mental health than it is to recover it. The body and mind cannot be pushed to it’s limits without compensation coming from somewhere, but the the perfectionists among us may take a lifetime to learn this. Unfortunately, most people only become aware of their mental health once it has been lost. I have assimilated a layman’s body of knowledge about mental health over the last few years, and I thought it was time to distil it into a set of ‘top tips’ – a short handbook for maintaining mental health. I have written it to coincide with World Mental Health day.

There are a lot of internet writers who have helped me on my mental health journey – including zen buddhists Leo Babauta (a professional writer) and Alex Lickerman (a physician), and ‘happiness’ author Gretchen Rubin, to name but a few. The internet is an amazing source of knowledge and inspiration in this area, and in many others.

Society in general focuses very little on mental health, despite its significance, expecting our brains to keep ticking over rather than destroying us from within. Unfortunately, this hardly ever happens. The mind, like the body, needs to be maintained. We assume the mind will innately function, ticking along with no conscious intervention, but people are naturally prone to all sorts of unhealthy habits.

In fact, the mind must be treated much like the body: it should be used, developed, and have its needs tended to. As humans, we are drawn to indulge in destructive behaviour, such as self-gratification, insecurity and egotism (especially, but not exclusively, in youth). This tendency is a barrier to good mental health and, therefore, happiness.

Some, if not most, of these tips will hopefully resonate with lots of people. In the hierarchy of needs, first defined by Abraham Maslow, the need for mental health is above basic needs like food, water and shelter. We are very fortunate to have the freedom to think about these higher needs – so, please, read on.

To maintain good mental health, you should pay attention to your:

– Need for understanding. If something is bothering you, try to identify what it is. If you feel like it’s nothing in particular, it will either be a few things, or your conscious mind is not yet willing to admit to it. Write how you feel in a journal, talk to a close friend (who is a good listener!) or go for a walk. You’ll figure it out.

– Need for connection. You can find connection with a strong group of friends or family. If people are not readily available right now, or you don’t feel like hanging out with anyone, art can help. Regularly absorb great art, whether it’s poetry, painting, film, music or literature. Also make sure you watch the news or the latest popular TV programme to stay connected with wider society.

– Need for fun. It sounds silly, but the more industrious among us sometimes forget to have fun, so make sure you squeeze it in for at least an hour a day. Have a walk in the park, see a friend, cook a delicious meal, or read an absorbing book.

– Need for inner peace. Meditate regularly. This will build up a sense of mindfulness that will prevent you from becoming too involved in your anxious or worried thoughts in a destructive way, and help you make the most of every day. It will help you clarify your feelings, even intense ones, and allow you to go with life’s flow.

– Need for purpose. This could take many forms, but, broadly speaking, a sense of purpose is something that gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning, show up, and care. Purpose can be provided by a pet, which is something dependent on you that you need to take care of. It could also be a plant, volunteering role, or taking part in an event.

– Need to help others. I’m not really sure why, but our own troubles are put into perspective when we expend energy helping someone else. Perhaps it enables you to feel a deeper connection with humanity or the universe, which, when missing, makes you feel hollow and alone. Offer to visit an elderly relative, cook for someone, or read their CV.

– Need for creativity. Everyone is creative. I have no patience with that awful phrase, ‘creative types’. As human beings, we are all capable and, what’s more, we need to create new things to feel novelty, inspiration and joy. You could try cooking a new dish, taking up drawing, sewing blankets or writing a short story. It’s more about the process than creating an impressive end product.

– Need for meaning. There’s a reason why religion is so popular. It seems fairly obvious to me that there is no god; or, if there is, he or she doesn’t really care about us, but you can still derive meaning from so many other non-religious sources. Immerse yourself in spiritual teachings, learn as much as you can about science, or spend time in nature.

– Need for physical well-being. Mental and physical health are inextricably linked; this cannot be overstated. Eat as many fruits and vegetables as you can, have regular meals, drink water, exercise, and get enough sleep. You’ll look better and feel better. Your mind can’t function well if you don’t take care of your body. Take up a sport  you enjoy, like swimming, aim to eat a different coloured vegetable every day, and create a sleep routine.

It may seem overwhelming to read all of these things, despite this not being a comprehensive list, but there is no pressure to do all of them at once.

In Buddhism, one of the central teachings is that life is a constant state of change, and so must we be if we are to live well. So, a good rule of thumb is, no matter what you’re doing, make sure you retain a sense of riding the wave, and building momentum. Like Walt in Breaking Bad, the news of his cancer is his reason to strike out and live for the moment. You don’t have to be as extreme as Walt, and you shouldn’t do anything illegal, but adversity is the biggest catalyst for change. Use it.

Women who eat (angrily) on tubes

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I think I have some insight into why there was so much backlash from the so-called ‘feminist community’ and women at large against the guy who started a Facebook group by posting photos of women eating on tubes. Several women complained about their photos being used, but he refused to take them down for a long time. There was lots of media interest in the issue, but no one could really pinpoint why this was apparently so sexist.

To focus solely on women and their relationship to food touches on a nerve, which men probably don’t notice, because there isn’t the same stigma attached to eating for men.

Most women will be able to identify with the awkwardness of eating at work – snaffling your lunch in front of other people, and having others pass judgement on what you’re eating. ‘Oh, you’re so healthy.’ ‘What – crisps? At 10am?’ ‘Why aren’t you eating any cake?’

I don’t think men tend to take any particular interest in the eating habits of their peers, but the opposite is certainly the case for women. I think this partly stems from the immense pressure on women to tightly control their eating habits, in an effort to reach that svelte size 8 – which is in reality out of reach for most women, or would be unhealthy to attain.

For women, life is a constant battle to look thin, while resisting the tidal wave of marketing and advertising from the food industry. From the cradle to the grave, we are assaulted with images of stick-thin women, from Disney princesses, to models and actresses. Ironically, the UK food industry is currently worth £175.4 billion and still rising; some people are obviously getting rich by making us fat.

It’s a special paradox that women are charged with the impossible duty of being painfully thin, and yet constantly deluged by adverts that urge them to consume.

Typical ‘subconscious’ messaging behind an ice cream advert: Eat this chocolate ice cream – it’ll make you look and feel sexy and meet the man of your dreams.

On the other hand, from women’s magazines: Don’t eat ice cream – Kate Moss doesn’t, and as a result she is sexy and happy.

How many women can look at a picture of a Big Mac without their mouth watering? And how many count the calories in that burger?

I think this originally ‘banterous’ Facebook group, which is still online (with all but one of the photos removed) inadvertently taps into women’s private torment, and subsequently unleashed the fury of millions of beleaguered women. This man and his acolytes were not just bantering about women eating on tubes – they were, in a way, pointing cruelly at the hell that exists between women and their food. It is hard to enjoy eating without guilt, and the woman who genuinely does is rare.

We must eat – but not too much, and not on tubes, it seems.

Freshers’ Week

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Freshers' weekTaking place now in universities across the UK, Freshers’ Week is a time of great ritualistic importance for many. 

It is like the country’s biggest party for (some) British teenagers, heralding the arrival of adulthood, and affirming one’s academic excellence.

It’s also the chance to get really, really drunk.

It’s also a marketer’s dream. We love to buy into images of ourselves, and especially positive ones; soaking up the right clothes, films, books and activities. Finally, we feel as though we fit in – are among a fellowship of peers.

And, it’s true. We do fit in. Freshers go to the students’ union, drink Carlsberg, read the course books (or, some of them), make friends in halls, and sometimes become politically aware. They adopt left-wing views, become disillusioned, and boycott things.

Freshers’ Week has the potential to be a lonely time, too. Beyond the traditional image of the eager, excited fresher, hungry for new experiences, there are also those who feel homesick, overwhelmed by the difficulty of the work, or the stress of suddenly managing their own life.

Being a fresher is like a mad rush of all the good things in life: the chance to carve out a new identity, experiment with ideas, substances, relationships, and to feel a sense of belonging.

However, this sense of belonging is something that springs from the inside, and should remain with the individual throughout his or her life. With a few exceptions, a person will always belong to their family, friends, partner, volunteer groups, work, and to their society (for better, or worse).

Freshers’ Week is a baptism of fire, but the lessons and meanings derived from it should last a lifetime. So, by all means, freshers should throw themselves into university, get involved, and make friends – while not forgetting that which will continue to be there – long after the last pint of beer is drained.

P.S. With the wonderful benefit of hindsight, my friend Alex and I drew the above comic when we were cynical third-year students at the University of Southampton (though we weren’t allowed to publish it in the student newspaper in case it offended people). I feel it has only increased in resonance.

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