Date of writing : 14/05/2014
“To educate in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society” Theodore Roosevelt
Prison gives a person a lot of time to think. Of course that can be a double-edged sword, but I feel in general that I’m making positive mental progress – albeit with the occasional troubling but probably necessary furlough to the edge of mental coherence. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way I think: in particular what comes naturally to me, and what doesn’t. I thought I’d write a little about it here, so if you’re not fond of my introspections, you may want to skip this and wait for the next post!
Having spent something like 22 years in what passes for formal education, you’d think I’d have learnt a thing or two. I have of course learned many things, mostly about science and mathematics and computing. Facts and methods, algorithms and coding, numerical problem-solving – all very useful: I didn’t get where I am without them. I did, however, get where I am today without paying much attention to the other end of the spectrum. And you know where it is I am today.
By an accident of genetics, I was largely able to cruise through school without putting in too much effort. To the continued frustration of my teachers (and sometimes my fellow pupils), I was lazy and often disruptive in lessons, but usually managed to pull it together when I knew it counted. “Could do better”, and “Has a tendency to rest on his laurels” were phrases mentioned in school reports and at parents’ evenings. This pattern continued well into my undergraduate years, and the irony of my occasional low-level disruption during teacher training sessions was not lost on me. In short, for a long time I didn’t really have to grow up and put some actual effort in: I just carried on cruising and getting away with it. I became used to not having to work particularly hard at anything: I assumed I was just naturally good at stuff. There are some things, however, that don’t get tested in exams.
Permit me, if you will, to divert for a moment in order to better explain myself. You may or may not be familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI. This is a kind of ‘personality test’ that breaks people down into one of sixteen types, with particular innate preferences in terms of the way they look at and handle the world. Naturally, there are more than sixteen kinds of people; the reality is of course nuanced and complex. But in my eyes, the MBTI gives a useful framework for describing and working with people’s preferences. Having encountered many personality profiling schemes over the years – from Enneagrams to Belbin Team Roles, to obscure things little better than horoscopes – I could not have been more sceptical when I was first introduced to MBTI, around ten years ago. However after experimentally applying its principles in practical contexts with positive results, I gradually became a convert. Those of you who know me well will know I have a bullsh*t detector that, if anything, is somewhat over-sensitive. So, bear with me if you’re raising an eyebrow at this.
I won’t give a fully detailed description of MBTI here, as a quick search will turn up plenty of info if you’re interested. But in essence, it’s based on establishing on which side of four dichotomies a person falls. In brief these are: –
Introversion/Extroversion (I/E) : Where do you get your energy from: are you energised by social interaction (E) or do you seek time alone to recharge (I)?
Sensing/Intuition (S/N) : When taking in information, do you focus on the details (S) or the big picture (N)?
Thinking/Feeling (T/F) : When making decisions, do you predominantly use facts and logic (T), or do you consider the feelings of those involved to be more important (F)?
Judging/Perceiving(J/P) : Do you plan things well in advance and have a tidy desk (J), or do you wait and see what happens as you go along (P)?
With at least one of these you’re probably thinking, “Well, a bit of both – it kind of depends.” I, for example, am relatively middling on the I/E scale, but if pressed would come down on the side of Introversion. However, when it comes to the T/F dichotomy, I generally come out on the extreme T end. In each case, it’s about what you prefer to do, and being able to work outside your preference where necessary is a desirable thing. I‘ve personally found that the older people get, the more difficult they tend to be to pin down on the dichotomies. Moreover, I’d go so far as to suggest that a balanced position on these scales might be indicative of maturity and could possibly be something for which to aim. I do believe however, that people retain the framework of their preferences even as they learn to be comfortable working outside of them.
Overall, I come out as an ISTP, also known as ‘The Mechanic’. As much as descriptions of this kind are prone to confirmation bias, I find it hard to disagree that I’m a pragmatic problem solver with sensation-seeking tendencies and a general disregard for rules unless it suits me and/or I can use them to my advantage. Interestingly, a small-scale study of inmates in US prisons showed a significant over-representation of my type (I’d provide a link here, but I forget where I found the paper and lack of Internet means I can’t look for it. Search for “MBTI and criminality”, or something). I’m not saying this is in any way excuses my position – MBTI is a description and not a destiny – it’s just an interesting observation.
So, where am I going with this? Well, it gives me a helpful language with which to express a few things. I’m beginning to understand that my extreme T is probably not a healthy thing. I have also been guilty of focussing far too heavily on concrete immediately observable reality, and ignoring my more intuitive side (i.e. disregarding N in favour of S). Psychiatric reports prepared for the Court highlighted my difficulties in empathising and a poor understanding of my own emotions. I’ve never been that great with eye contact either – the psychiatrist described it as ‘emotional response anxiety’. The phrase ‘autistic tendencies’ was used, but I’d sooner describe it as a lack of emotional aptitude combined with a lazy complacency. I would have probably done well to work on these areas of weakness, but instead I have been sadly blind to my ineptitudes.
The last year has been quite a rollercoaster, to use a cliché. My emotions became at times so intense that there was no avoiding them. Because that’s what I’ve often done in the past: rather than dealing with feelings, I’d dive into any kind of sensation-seeking to distract myself – even to the extent of making small explosions in my garden. I’d describe this as ‘cathartic’, but ‘avoidance strategy’ would be more accurate. (I should note at this point that I do hold a pyrotechnics qualification, and thankfully had tolerant neighbours, in case you were concerned about either). I also had other, more destructive avoidance strategies, which ultimately led me to a 12-step Fellowship last summer. Now, 12-step programmes are not much like the way they’re often presented on TV and in films: they all have a fundamental spiritual component, which can present a challenge to Sensing-Thinking (ST) types – like me.
Spirituality, I believe, comes most naturally to Intuitive-Feeling (NF) types: it’s not something that’s easy to rationalise – although that’s not to imply that it’s in any way irrational. But approaching spirituality from the same perspective one might use to solve an equation is like trying to understand what someone is thinking by dissecting their brain: you just end up with a messy pile of grey stuff that doesn’t really tell you anything. (You also tend to upset the owner of the brain – at least for as long as they retain the capacity to be upset.) My past attempts to examine spirituality mostly ran up against the rationality barrier: I couldn’t explain things succinctly as concepts that made any conventional ‘sense’, so I decided there was no sense to be had. Like an Englishman on a Calais booze cruise, I just shouted louder in my own language, and when I still wasn’t understood, I simply concluded that all Frenchmen were idiots.
I have had some successes though, most notably on one occasion when I was 14. I was on a family camping holiday in the Lake District, and a number of things fortuitously came together to give me what I’d describe as my first significant spiritual experience. Being the summer holidays, I didn’t have a great deal to worry about. I’d finished lower secondary school, and hadn’t yet started GCSEs, so there were no looming exams or ongoing work to worry about. I wasn’t entangled in any relationships, and things around me were generally harmonious. The weather was good, and I had little to think about but the here and now. I’d been reading parts of a book borrowed from my mother, called ‘Zen Without Zen Masters’, by Camden Benares (a name I’m now sure must have been made up as a mischievous message in true Zen style). It’s fairly accessible, as it’s in the form of short Zen stories – sometimes of only a few lines – and I spent a lot of the time at the campsite dipping in and out of it.
At some point, this got me into a state of mind that I’d describe as being incredibly present. I somehow felt such that everything was a joy. Even just sitting still was a pleasure: I even found myself volunteering to do the washing-up – and that‘s not a normal thing for a teenage boy to do, as anybody who has lived with one will tell you. But I took joy in the way the bubbles slid from the blue plastic plates, and the way the water sounded – even just the texture of the brush. It was an amazing state of mind to be in. Naturally, it came and went, and varied in intensity (my mother’s holiday diary shows I had my anxieties in that time too). But for a few days I managed to access the kind of peace that Eckhart Tolle four years later would describe as ‘The Power Of Now’. Of course, at some point external circumstances unaligned themselves, we went back home, and it was no longer quite so easy to keep the feeling. But the memory of it is still with me, heading for twenty years later.
In the intervening years I occasionally flirted with meditation and the like, with limited success, and even more limited commitment. As for religion, as I’ve suggested before, I went from almost hostility (probably as a fearful reaction to my lack of understanding), through bafflement, to eventual acceptance that it seemed to work for other people and I should probably let them get on with it. But I had a feeling of lack sometimes, in the background, which I usually tried to cancel with the wrong things. This comes back to avoidance strategies again – for me, spirituality and understanding of my own emotions go hand-in-hand, and empathy, compassion and creativity are all tangled up with it too. These are the things that properly feed the lack: the things that get me closer to the serenity of ‘Zen washing up’. So these are the things that I’ve been trying to work on to fill the gaps. All of which can be described as developing my withered and neglected Intuitive-Feeling side.
So, as I mentioned, last year I found myself faced with a flood of emotions I had no choice but to deal with. In talking with others in this time, my normal mode of Introverted Thinking often spilled over into Extroverted Feeling – something I’m not used to, and I’m not really very good at. Indeed, not being well practiced in handling emotions in general, I initially approached the problem fairly passively and tangentially. For example I’d sometimes listen to particular music that made me cry, because somehow that made me feel better. Not too long after that, I managed to sidestep into related creativity: I’d write songs that made me cry, rehearse them until they didn’t make me cry any more, and then perform them at Open Mic nights. (It was important to do it in that order, because tears as performance art require a particular kind of audience I didn’t think it likely I’d find in a city-centre bar on a midweek evening).
I also embarked on a photography project that lasted nearly six months. This involved expressing something via a new photograph every day, which I’d post to my Flickr page (I’d put a link here, but it would dent my anonymity somewhat). This had the advantage of getting me out of the flat every day, whatever my mood. It took me to some interesting and sometimes slightly unsettling places, including the darkness of derelict warehouses on the wrong side of the tracks, a disused railway tunnel, and a forgotten cave system under the city streets. But most of my subjects were more every-day: a reflection in a puddle, a muddy boot, or a discarded gift tag on a pavement. I found it made me look at things differently – on a good day it was as though I was seeing everything for the first time.
It was in the midst of all this that I came to the 12-step Fellowship. I have to say I’m glad that I was already branching out and exploring my NF side, otherwise I would probably have had a lot more trouble with the concept of ‘a Power greater than myself’ having anything to do with my recovery. It took me a long time to get past this language, and what it even means is still a complex question for me (as discussed in my Active Agnosticism post – 10th March 2014). As it is, my Higher Power certainly isn’t any traditional notion of what you might call God. But this is where my recent exploration of spirituality started, and it’s still very much an ongoing process, as you can probably tell. It has been instrumental in expanding my self-awareness, and I believe it’s helping to build my empathy too: 12-step Fellowships have a foundation of mutual support, and we help ourselves by helping each other. The detailed examination of our past behaviour and how it has affected other people is also a fundamental part of the Steps. Working on my Intuitive-Feeling side is probably going to be a lifelong project though. Sometimes it feels a bit like I’m learning to compensate for a disability … erm … is that what an autistic person would say…?
Anyway, I plan to write some more about the 12 steps – I feel I should try to counter the plot-assisting yet factually dubious presentations I’ve seen on screen. I’ll also be carrying on with my more journal-like posts at the same time though. I have quite a bit to write along those lines that I haven’t got round to just yet – I’ve rather got out of the rhythm recently.
Fear not! I’ll tell you all about my pet woodlouse in good time … …