We really do need to talk about blame.

We really do need to talk about blame.

We really do need to talk about blame.

Here are some recent news headlines:

“Right-wing figures blame Matthew Perry’s death on Covid vaccine.”

“Britain in crisis, blame Gary Lineker.”

“Tyson Fury tells fans “blame me” after lacklustre Francis Ngannou showing.”

“Putin says the West is to blame for anti-semitic mob storming Russian airport.”

“Hamas leader to blame for collapse of Gaza, says Israel.”

“Israel to blame for Hamas massacre, says Iran.”

Reading these headlines, I have come to a conclusion: blame is lame.

Blame doesn’t actually help anyone. Before you blame me for trying to absolve people of responsibility, hear me out. I will explain below why blame is often antithetical to responsibility, accountability, or peace.

Blame is reactive. It is the process by which a human mind loses nuance and context and collapses complexity into good vs evil. This process has its roots in childhood. Humans are born the most vulnerable creatures on planet earth. This vulnerability comes with a a lot of fear, as American philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes:

Fear is our earliest and also most primitive  emotion…infants, thrust into a world of need and pain, fear that the good things  – food, a secure embrace, bodily comfort – will be withheld, and our  experience of hunger informs us that the world is erratic and unpredictable. Our reaction to this painful situation is to try to grasp  at the sources of good things, and that means controlling others. This  reflex – from fear of deprivation and pain to the project of controlling  others – persists as an undercurrent, even while we develop  sophistication and begin to understand the world.”

This reflex was given shape by the great Child Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who described a primitive defence mechanism in infants where – to protect themselves against overwhelming anxiety – they split the world into good and bad (or ‘good breast and bad breast’). Klein calls this the ‘paranoid schizoid’ position. In healthy human development, the infant moves from this binary splitting of experience into a more integrated, nuanced view of reality. Now the infant can intuit that  objects and people (and mother’s breasts) can be both good and bad. Klein called this the ‘depressive’ position, because there is a sobering melancholy or grief when we accept that reality is more complicated and less morally neat than previously believed. Once we arrive at this more nuanced view, the mother, or her breast, or other external objects can no longer be easily blamed for every frustration or setback.

You may have seen a meme doing the rounds that asks the algorithm to “please show me people who can hold nuance and complexity.” Nice meme. Definitely did not work for me.  Social media thrives because it taps deep into our paranoid-schizoid selves. These algorithms show us content that is binary and blamey.

Blame is a defensive shield against vulnerability. When people feel powerless, impotent, or ashamed, blaming ‘others’ protects from these feelings, and gives a clear, simple and direct target for overwhelming emotional energy. Brene Brown dug into the psychological research on blame and concluded: “Blame is the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Accountability by definition is a vulnerable process.”

Blame may give us the illusion of control, but it is just that: an illusion. When we collapse the world into good and bad, our ego and our identity gets fortified, and we may experience temporary relief from feelings of fear, impotence, or grief. But those feelings continue to haunt us. Beneath the fortified ego lurks the fear that the world is chaotic, confusing, and scary, and we have way less control than we imagine.

Writing of the politics of blame, Nussbaum explains that “In politics, fear-driven blame provides the illusion of control without actually facing and solving the underlying problem, and it is a source of great danger, since it can lead to dehumanization and even violence. When political leaders tell people that there is a target, and that  they are not simply helpless, they feel a lot better. Converting fear  into blame, they feel that they have a plan of action. In this way, fear  feeds and underlies retributive anger, and anger is the dangerous  offspring of fear.”

The energy of blame puts people onto the defensive, and fuels cycles of anger, hatred, and violence. Think of an argument with a partner or a co-worker where you were blamed for something going wrong. Mostly, when we feel blamed our nervous system is triggered and we go on the defensive. Blame doesn’t lead to resolution. Blame doesn’t lead to peace.

Blame is contagious. Research shows that when we see others blaming we end up doing the same. A Stanford University experiment had 100 participants  read a news clip about a failure of  Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with one group’s excerpt including a  statement in which the governor blamed special interest groups for the  failure and the other participants reading a statement in which he took full ownership of the failure. Later, participants wrote about an  unrelated personal failure and had to explain what caused it. Participants  who read about the governor blaming others for a mistake were twice as  likely as the other group of participants to blame someone else for  their own slip-ups.

And blame divides. When we cast blame we create an ‘other’ who becomes the repository for our hurt feelings. In this process of ‘othering’, blame prevents us from seeing the role we might have had to play in the problem. Blame prevents us from seeing the shadow that lies in our own hearts. The creation of a villain necessarily implies that of a hero. A binary. Good versus evil.

So what can we do?

It’s simple. Whenever you notice the energy of blame arising in yourself, say hello to the tender, vulnerable part of you that is terrified of things spinning out of control. Know that every single human being alive on this planet feels that same primitive terror. It is one thing we all have in common. 

Before you cast blame, ask yourself: ‘is this energy leading to peace?’ If the answer is no, then try a different approach.

And see if you can find a place in yourself (we can call it the depressive position) that is open and available to the complexity and nuance that is reality. 

Real problems are difficult to solve. They require dialogue, co-operation, an environment where people are willing and feel safe enough to accept personal responsibility and to accomodate competing narratives. One of my favourite phrases from the world of compassion-focused therapy is:

“It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.” 

This is the energy we need to cultivate right now. 

Less finger-pointing. More personal responsibility and compassion for all.

Tick Tock – A Poem For When We Feel Anxious About Time Passing

Tick Tock – A Poem For When We Feel Anxious About Time Passing

Tick Tock – A Poem For When We Feel Anxious About Time Passing

a poem about the passing of time

I don’t care how spiritual you are,

Or how much cosmic consciousness you radiate.

The truth is,

Our time is limited,

In this one precious life.

Tick tock.

How we spend our time matters,

Matters so much,

We avoid thinking about it.

And just plough on,

Headless chickens.

Tick Tock.

How should we spend our time?

Each moment, a possible decision,

A cutting off of possibilities.

Peter Pan does not like this.

The crocodile is chasing us.

Tick tock.

We don’t like cutting off possibilities,

Because what if…?

What if we made the wrong choice?

What if we are focusing on the wrong project?

What if we are with the wrong partner?

What if we are wasting our time?

What if we don’t succeed?

Tick, tock.

The only way to stop the clock

Is to stop.

Just stop doing things.

Just stop chasing things.

Just stop.

Find that place of stillness,

Where the blossom falls gently,

Effortlessly.

Let your next step be guided

By the whisper of a wisdom that knows,

Nothing really matters in the end.

Apart from Love.

Ask yourself: what would Love have me do now?

 

We need to talk about the word ‘mad’

We need to talk about the word ‘mad’

We need to talk about the word ‘mad’

We need to talk about the word ‘mad’.

They edited ‘mad’ out of Roald Dahl books, along with ‘crazy’. 

So:

‘The Oompa-Loompas were all rowing like mad’

has become…

‘The Oompa-Loompas were all rowing frantically’.

And in the BFG:

“Boys are crazy,” Sophie said.’

has become…

‘“That one was weird,” Sophie said.’

The word ‘nutty’ has been allowed to stay, which is good news for the Nutty Professor.

This does beg a question: 

Is this political correctness gone ‘mad’? 

These edits are certainly making lots of people mad.

I wrote a book called ‘How The World Is Making Our Children Mad, And What To Do About It’. A few people on the publishing journey were uncomfortable with the ‘M’ word. But on balance, I think it is the mot juste.

Louis Weinstock’s book 'How The World Is Making Our Children Mad, And What To Do About It'

A brief history of the word ‘mad’

Before I explain why – a potted (potty?) history of the word ‘mad’.

According to the etymologists, the word ‘mad’ comes from late 13th Century Old English gemædde – “out of one’s mind”. But by the early fourteenth century, it had already picked up the meaning of “being beside oneself with anger.” In Henry IV, Shakespeare’s Hotspur says: “To be so pester’d with a popinjay, Out of my grief and my impatience, Answer’d neglectingly I know not what, He should or he should not; for he made me mad.”

smiling children posing in front of the Roald Dahl museum in the UK

In the 18th century, the first ‘mad-doctors’ began treating patients in ‘madhouses’, which were mostly private houses that held people ‘disordered in mind, who seem disposed to do mischief to himself, or another person’.

From the nineteenth century onwards, an organised group of medical professionals emerged who claimed jurisdiction over mental disturbance. And as the treatment of madness became medicalised, the language evolved. Words like ‘neurosis’ and ‘psychosis’ were coined, deriving a different kind of authority from their Greek and Latin roots. 

Of course, these new terms weren’t suddenly free of agenda. Neurosis was largely used a replacement for the by then out of fashion term ‘hysteria’, used to describe women who Victorian physicians believed had ’weak nerves’- they were more sensitive and mentally and emotionally fragile than men.

Madness and mental health

The word ‘mad’ didn’t suddenly disappear under the white lab coats and latin suffixes of the new psychiatric sciences. To this day, the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is a popular figure. The term ‘mad as a hatter’ came from the hat-making industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, when workers in hat-making factories were getting tremors and hallucinations from the mercury used in the hats.

When I was about 10, I loved reading MAD magazine. I remember the naughty sense of humour, and those fold-in pages at the back where you would find the answer to a question by folding the back pages in and discovering it made a different (often rude) image with different words.

In 1999, the Mad Pride movement was started by four men who had all experienced mental health issues and wanted to reclaim their ‘Mad’ identity. One of the founders, Mark Roberts, explained that he wanted to reclaim the ‘M’ word in the same way black people had reclaimed the ‘N’ word. 

Similarly, today there are a series of online magazines like Mad In America and Mad In The UK that provide a platform for challenging the mainstream model of mental health treatment.

‘Mad’ is a word that has power. 

Sometimes the word is used to objectify and enslave another human, as in:

‘You must be mad, woman!’ from The Witches (now changed to ‘“You must be out of your mind!”).

Books by Roald Dahl. Some of his much-loved children's books have been altered to remove words such as "fat," "ugly," and "mad."

With the history of women’s oppression, with words like ‘hysteria’ (meaning ‘from the womb’) being used to ‘other’ and control women’s emotional states, most can understand the sensitivity here.

But, sometimes, the word ‘mad’ can be empowering, liberating, as in Jack Kerouac’s lines: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”  

Madness and society

What any particular society deems ‘madness’ can illuminate, as historian Andrew Scull explains: ‘madness reminds insistently of how tenuous our own hold on reality may sometimes be. It challenges our sense of the very limits of what it is to be human.’ 

When we edit out the wild, passionate, naughty, uncontained energy behind a word like ‘mad’, what possible reality are we saying yes to, and what are we saying no to?

And, sometimes, we can reclaim madness as having more intelligence, more wisdom than those behaviours deemed ‘sane’ or ‘rational’ or ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’, as is the sense behind Emily Dickenson’s gorgeous poem:

Much Madness is divinest Sense –

To a discerning Eye –

Much Sense – the starkest Madness –

’Tis the Majority

In this, as all, prevail –

Assent – and you are sane –

Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –

And handled with a Chain.

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Sometimes madness have more intelligence, more wisdom than those behaviours deemed ‘sane’, ‘rational’, ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’

What ‘madness’ can teach us beyond mental health?

And so, I don’t want to blanket edit the word ‘mad’ about of my book or out of the world. Mad describes the energy of the youth climate marches, millions of young people taking their anger to the streets to fight for a viable future. Mad points to the ‘divinest Sense’, the lessons a discerning eye can see in our children’s psychological suffering. What if they are simply responding to a world that isn’t meeting their needs. What if their symptoms (which are also our symptoms – stress, anxiety, depression, burnout) are unconscious, intelligent forms of resistance to a mad world.

Our children are growing up feeling like they are in some way mad, bad, or broken. But its this speeded-up, self-centered, competitive, polarised, race-to-the-bottom world that is mad.

I refuse to let this world make me feel like I am going mad.

I refuse to let that happen to the children I care for.

I hope you do too.

Redefining Success: A Sanctuary For Exhausted Souls

Redefining Success: A Sanctuary For Exhausted Souls

Redefining Success: A Sanctuary For Exhausted Souls

(Image from Izhar Cohen)

Whose definition of success are you following?

Do feel the pressure of life speeding up, the relentless struggle to keep on top of things?

Do you sense some kind of burnout or breakdown looming?

Do you ever wonder when this relentless juggernaut is going to stop?

Please consider these words that follow as an invitation – an invitation to slow down and tune into an inner sanctuary for your exhausted soul.

I was inspired to write this article when, at the end of 2022 I saw my news feed filling with people listing their successes – launched a podcast, wrote a book, sold a business, got one million subscribers on Youtube. At first, I felt a pang of not enough, and a feeling that I needed to try harder, work harder and achieve more in 2023. 

But then I felt pissed off. I was pissed off that no-one was declaring: ‘I smashed it in 2022, because I spent 50% more time with my child/partner/in nature.’ I was also pissed off because I too get hooked on these cultural messages that tell us the only way to find meaning in life is to ‘slay’ more (as the kids say), create more content, have more followers, be more productive. These dominant stories about success are like a global virus, spreading from one body to another and creating a world of exhausted souls.

Well, I am tired of chasing someone else’s definition of success. I am tired of being dragged away from my own sense of what is right and true. My soul is exhausted.

We live in an achievement society. The idea of success entrenched in our culture is about the lone wolf, the individual hero who has battled against the odds to rise to the top. We celebrate the influencers, the big hitters, the bestsellers. Have you ever heard the term ‘blitzscaling’? It is a term promoted in a book and podcast by Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linkedin, to promote an idea that the only way to be successful in business is to pursue aggressive growth at all costs. I think this term sums up the cancerous nature of our current paradigm of success. 

Behind the veil of our blitzscaled, achievement obsessions lies a different story – a story of collective burnout and breakdown. We destroy our habitat chasing infinite growth. We destroy our minds and bodies chasing infinite growth.

In this mad world, whatever we can do or be is never enough. In The Burnout Society, philosopher Byung-Chul Han says that ‘Depression reflects a humanity waging war on itself. The complaint of the depressive individual, “Nothing is possible” can only occur in a society that thinks, “Nothing is impossible”.’

When will it ever stop?

Many people I work with in my therapy practice have been brought to their knees chasing someone else’s definition of success. Fame, money, status, and even impact have not brought them to the promised land of everlasting joy. Surprise. Surprise.

I used to support an ex gang member who was setting up his own charity to dispel the myths around the life of a gangster. His slogan was ‘selling dreams, delivering nightmares.’ The same applies to the ideals of success that infect us today.

As we compulsively chase success, ramping up our productivity, we negatively impact those around us.

We surround ourselves with successful people, and lose touch with old friends.

We are so busy trying to scale our business, we don’t notice our child has been self-harming.

We are so focused on ‘growing our community’, we don’t help the elderly neighbour next door.

We grow our personal brand, and lose touch with our true self.

Enough is enough, I say!

We need to stop, gather together, and take time to redefine success in a way that feels true, authentic, and sustainable.

I don’t have all the answers. But I do know we need collectively to begin a gentle but radical inquiry into the roots of this deep and harmful pattern. We need to create an inner sanctuary for all the different parts of us that are engaged in this burnout dynamic.

So where do we begin?

Well, it helps to accept some basic facts about our human beingness. We are mimetic creatures, which means we desire what others desire, even if it’s not fun, not what we really want, and even if what we desire is actually bad for our mental health and bad for our planet. Philosopher René Girard called this ‘mimetic desire’. Let me explain it with a little story about my daughter Rose Gaia.

I once took Rose to a soft play in London’s Finsbury Park. This place had the best toys, hamsters you could feed, and a machine with two big, bright, red-and-green buttons that rocketed balls to the other side of the room. As Rose scanned the room, her eyes latched onto a green tractor in the corner. This was a supremely dull, coin-operated toy that rocked back and forth making dull, tractor noises. But . . . there was a boy on it, and so Rose wanted what he had. Rose ran past all the really fun activities over to the green tractor where I had to repeatedly stop her from climbing onto the machine. Eventually, the tractor stopped rocking and the boy dismounted. Now Rose finally had a seat. I put 50 pence in the machine. The tractor began its dull rocking motion, making dull tractor noises. Rose sat there looking a bit confused. She had been desperate to get on this machine, but now she was on it, she was clearly not having fun. But she refused to get off, she couldn’t get off the tractor, even when the tractor stopped its rocking motion, and even though the other children were clearly having loads of fun elsewhere.

We want what other people want. It is deeply ingrained in us. What green tractors are you riding in your life? I believe many of us are riding a massive green tractor called ‘success’. This tractor isn’t that fun, it leaves us feeling depleted and it takes us away from the things that can really nurture our soul. I suspect if you have read this far then you sense this to be true. But, it is hard to break out of the pattern. Words are cheap. We can say: ‘Oh let’s all just slow down, be more present, smell the roses.’ But this is not easy to do when the environment around us is speeding up, when our nervous systems are being relentlessly activated by messages leaving us feeling anxious that we are not good enough.

Here is a good question for you: How do we know when we are enough? How do we know when we have worked enough? Achieved enough? Grown enough? Healed enough?

We carry over from the industrial age the idea of an eight hour work day. I personally feel that if I haven’t worked a minimum of eight hours, I haven’t done enough. But now I want to deeply question these beliefs. What if an ideal day is spending four hours doing deep creative work in service to those who need it, followed by two hours of personal recreation and at least two hours spent with family, neighbours, friends, volunteering. Does this sound crazy or unrealistic to you? If so why?

I do realise I’m writing this from the privileged position of someone who has been able to set up a freelance life, where I can choose when I want to work, and don’t have anyone to report to in terms of how I spend my time. This isn’t possible for everyone, at least not immediately. But I do know that the same mimetic desires cut across our culture. When I ran a therapeutic school for teenagers with complex trauma, there were a group of boys who were obsessed with a brand of designer jeans called Ringspun Allstar. These jeans cost about £100 a pair, even 10 years ago. The boys couldn’t afford the jeans, so they got rip off ones instead. And one day they told me that a young boy in their hood was robbed for his Ringspun Allstar jeans, and got stabbed to death. 

It hasn’t always been like this. In Cannibals and Kings, anthropologist Marvin Harris explained that: “In most band and village societies before the evolution of the state, the average human being enjoyed economic and political freedoms which only a privileged minority enjoy today. Men decided for themselves how long they would work on a particular day, what they would work at—or if they would work at all.… Neither rent, taxes, nor tribute kept people from doing what they wanted to do.” This clearly a time before the internet, instant messaging, and always-on culture.

It hasn’t always been like this. The late anthropologist and activist David Graeber once said, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could just as easily make differently.” How might the world look differently, if we started to move into a different, more gentle, more collaborative, more self-and-other-and-planet-loving definition of success?

I have been particularly interested in the spiritual idea of the Sabbath. A day a week where it is prohibited to do any work at all. A day a week where the emphasis is on spending time with family, in community and in communion with the spiritual realm. I feel envious of orthodox Jewish people who completely switch off for a day a week. It is hard to do this on your own. Much easier when you have signed up to a community or an institution with clear rules and prohibitions. Without supportive community, it is really hard to make these changes. I loved hearing this idea that the Sabbath is a mutual non-compete clause. A sacred space and a time where a group of people decide to step outside the rat race and just be with one another. How might we nurture the seeds of a new non-compete clause with each other not just on one day of the week, but across our lives?

I have more questions than answers. I know that’s not the done thing in our current world of success. I’m supposed to have figured it all out, to have a list of 10 steps to redefine success, a proven formula that you can rinse, repeat, and scale. But I am content for now to sit with questions. There are a few in this article, and I will leave you with two more for now. I recommend taking some time to reflect on the questions, let them percolate, journal about them, dance with them, there is no rush to find the perfect answer, and in that sentiment perhaps there is the thing we seek.

  1. What are your biggest fears about letting go of your current, unhelpful ideas about success?
  2. What does your heart most long for? 

Love

Louis

 

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The Difference Between Effective Altruism and Karma Yoga – As Highlighted By The Fall Of Sam Bankman-Fried

The Difference Between Effective Altruism and Karma Yoga – As Highlighted By The Fall Of Sam Bankman-Fried

The Difference Between Effective Altruism and Karma Yoga – As Highlighted By The Fall Of Sam Bankman-Fried

Effective Altruism (EA) is a movement that seeks to apply rational thinking to decide the optimum way to help the most people. This is a quote from the effective altruism website: “This project matters because, while many attempts to do good fail, some are enormously effective. For instance, some charities help 100 or even 1,000 times as many people as others, when given the same amount of resources.”

Sam Bankman-Fried was a card-carrying Effective Altruist. He started his crypto firm with the specific mission to make as much money as possible, so that he could give it all away. He was following an Effective Altruism principle – ‘earn to give’ – which advises people to make a lot of money first, so that they can have an outsized philanthropic impact.

Many of the biggest advocates of Effective Altruism are Rationalists and/or Technologists like Steven Pinker, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Dustin Moskovitz (one of the founders of Facebook). One thing that unites these people is a belief in the power of human reason to solve humanity’s biggest problems. In a podcast this week, Sam Harris talked about empathy being a ‘bug’ in our human coding, not a ‘feature’. Humans are biased – we would prefer to help one individual we can feel a connection to, rather than one hundred people we only know as data and don’t feel an emotional connection to. If we can fix this ‘bug’, override our empathy, we can make more rational decisions and help more people more effectively.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting our charitable efforts to be as effective as possible. But I worry about the worship of Rationality at the expense of other elements of our human beingness.

If you see a child on your street who is starving, cold, and alone, you could take them into your home, give them some food and a warm bath. But if you know that in 10 years time, 1000 children in a different country will be starving, cold, and alone, and that you could help with the same amount of time and effort, you have a moral obligation to help them, not the child on your street.

This might seem like a simplistic and abstract example. But the Effective Altruism movement has diverted money, lots of money, to specific causes that are supposedly rationally calculated through research to be the most important and effective causes we should be giving money and time to. The movement has recently focused a lot of attention and resource into dealing with long-term existential risks, like the threat of AI and predicting future pandemics. These are important matters. But as Linda Kinstler writes in The Economist: “Bankman-Fried…was a proponent of the longtermist ethos, in which prediction and speculation are often indistinguishable and obligations to a probabilistic future outweigh those to the material present.”

This doesn’t mean we should abandon the idea of Effective Altruism. But we need to acknowledge that human beings, even the supposedly most rational ones, are driven by non-rational forces. Elon Musk can do a single tweet about crypto that sends stocks plummeting. A month later he can do a tweet that sends crypto stocks soaring. Markets are not rational, because they are formed of networks of human beings who are easily influenced by others emotions, and a single person’s opinion. Elon Musk is not a super rational machine.

I am grateful we have people thinking about existential risks that our children and their children will face. But I refuse to accept that my empathy or my desire to help the person in front of me is a ‘bug’.

Karma Yoga is in many ways the opposite of Effective Altruism. Karma Yoga is the practice of helping people without being attached to the outcome. In the Bhagvad Gita, Krishna says: “Therefore, without being attached to the results of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.”

When we are too attached to the outcome of our helping, we easily lose sight of the person in front of us who is suffering. In his book How Can I Help? Ram Dass says that: “At times, helping simply happens in the way of things. It’s not something we really think about, merely the instinctive response of an open heart. Caring is a reflex. Someone slips, your arm goes out. A car is in the ditch, you join others and push…You live, you help.”

Unlike the code on which Bankman-Fried’s crypto-bubble was built, life is often non-binary. We don’t have to choose between empathy and reason, or between effective altruism and karma yoga. Ultimately, who and how we choose to help is a decision based on our own values. And it helps to acknowledge that.

For me, I know that when I am focused on helping the person in front of me, letting go of attachment to outcomes, a certain kind of peace arises within me. And who can calculate the ripples that spread from us across time and space, when we operate from a place of peace.

 

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