Ex Die in Diem

by duncan mcnicholl

Shiny Happy People

I’m not the first person to notice a correlation between people who have the kind of intelligence that leads to high IQ scores and a propensity towards poor mental health. That sentence very nearly ended with the word “outcomes”, until I realised what a weird way of thinking about mental health you must have to consider mental health outcomes to be a viable term. Regardless, the archetype of the troubled scientist/mathematician is well established.

I have an odd relationship with the idea: it often seems like the same kind of fetishisation of mental ill health that leads artistic people away from seeking help as they aspire towards the example of van Gogh, thinking that without the impulses that drove him to self-mutilation and suicide he might not have produced the searing beauty that he did. Even laying aside the idea that beautiful paintings could ever be worth an actual human person’s life, it strikes me as a false dichotomy. The art expresses the pain, but the pain is not the art, and if we can minimise the pain we should minimise the pain. That’s why it hurts, to remind us.

But then again, I’m high-IQ-clever and I struggle to cope with things sometimes: my wheel spins too fast, or I tumble down the slope a ways, or I get stuck in the way things were. I don’t think that there’s any need to have one to have the other, but like with so many things in life, more important than the components is the whole. The interaction of one trait with another, or one person with another, or one idea with another, is where the magic lies. It’s the same idea as the overlap: connection is the truth of things, and if you try to strip away the influences you aren’t left with a pure example of the form. Instead, you’re left with nothing.

The interaction of interest here occurs when a person prone to thought spirals and reactive anxiety is called upon to think about The Big Things. It’s a hobby of physicists to engage in metaphysical conceptualising, because the process of studying and researching fundamental science is one of breaking things apart into their more basic components, understanding those components and rebuilding them to produce a model that works similarly to the observed world. The metaphysics comes in the choice of more basic components, because when one is not constrained by ideas (or realities) of irreducibility, eventually one comes to the most basic components, about which little or nothing is known and understood.

Before I fall too far down a hole of speculation and unknowability and end up at Gödel’s (horrifying) Incompleteness Theorems, I’d like to return to the idea that I’m trying to explore here. In studying these ideas it becomes possible, perhaps even unavoidable, to engage in metacognition regarding the importance of thoughts like these, and the impact that thinking them has on the thinker, and what this means in terms of a search for meaning or a sense of discomfort with ourselves. And if you throw anxiety or depression or negativity or loss of control into that mix, you end up down in that hole with Gödel anyway. And that’s not where you want to be, believe me. You don’t want to be pinned under these thoughts and ideas, wondering about questions without answers, as your resilience drains away.

The thing is, just avoiding thoughts about the universe is like walking around with your eyes cast down, never looking up, never seeing the sky. Exploring the world, even in your mind, is a bright and beautiful and exciting and exhilarating practice, and might just be at the heart of what keeps me ticking over. Like perhaps all of the greatest experiences in life, it carries an element of risk. Too much, too fast or too far, and I risk overbalancing and starting to fall. None at all, though? Unconscionable.

Shiny Happy People was published on a

Umbra

The nature of existence is not a question with a scientific answer, I don’t think. It takes a lot for someone like me to admit that, because to say that there isn’t a scientific answer is to say that we’ll never know for sure, and knowing things for sure is my comfort blanket, my way to take the experience of living in a cold, uncaring universe, and put up a painting, add some cushions in that corner and a throw over the ennui so as to make a space more comfortable for living in. Everybody has a comfort blanket of one kind or another, I think: believing in fate, or destiny, or the kindness of strangers, or god. Mine is knowing, and I hope that I can smoothe over the offense no doubt caused by referring to religion as a comfort blanket by reiterating that knowing is what forms the core of my being, my ability to experience.

Descartes said cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am. Philip K Dick said reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. Lewis Carroll said ’twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. My point is people can say stuff, but that doesn’t make it true. So now I’m going to say some stuff.

The way that sight seems to work is that your brain makes up a version of the place where you are, and occasionally checks the input from your eyes to see if it matches. When it doesn’t, your brain normally adjusts the picture a bit, but it keeps all the bits that haven’t been contradicted. This is why you can’t see the part of your vision where your optic nerve attaches to your retina: your brain has filled that bit in with its made up picture, and there’s nothing from your eye to say that it’s any different. If that sounds unfamiliar, find a piece of paper, draw a dot on it and a cross about ten centimetres to the right of the dot. Now close your right eye, look at the cross, and move the piece of paper closer and further away from your face. At some point the dot should just vanish. Welcome to “your brain just makes up what you see”. That’s also why things coming from behind sometimes seem to just appear some way into your peripheral vision: the made up picture in your brain extends quite far beyond your actual sight, so unexpected objects will skip past all that edge.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, the made-up world in your head. It’s different to the made-up world in my head, and not just because mine doesn’t include the inside of you and yours doesn’t include the inside of me. We’ve lived different lives, you and I, and I disagree with what Pudge says at the end of Looking For Alaska: if you take my body, and you add all my experiences and memories to it, you absolutely do get me. There’s no spiritual extra: my soul lives in my body, and you simply can’t have one without the other. So my lived life has made me a different person to you, and so the worlds inside our heads are different.

The parts where they overlap with each other are the parts we can be confident are real: that’s why you ask “did you see that?” when something incredible happens. If it happens in the overlap, that makes it credible, makes it part of reality rather than just your imaginative brain. We check in with each other the way our brain checks in with our eyes, confirming that we’ve not strayed too far. Our internal thoughts are often just our own, forming a sort of penumbra around the more solid truth that we can divine from the overlap. Whether that penumbra is small, like that of a laser partially blocked, or vast, like a city street at night where only tiny patches evade the light of at least one street lamp, I think that it is where imagination lies. Perhaps strait-laced people simply have a more tightly-focused mind, and dreamers more diffuse.

The point of all this metaphysical speculation is that we, as people, exist not exclusively within ourselves, but spread across all the people who include us in their made-up version of the world. The way that they think of us may not feel correct or resonant, but reality lies in the overlap, and the penumbra is only imagination. My understanding of who I am is perhaps greater than yours, because I’ve thought about me more than you have, but it’s still only one of the versions. I can surprise myself, so my version must be incomplete. Perhaps between all of us we are each contained, but in any of us lies only a fraction.

And that in turn means that if you take anyone out of the equation, not only does a little bit of who everyone else is go with them, but a fraction of themselves too. I take comfort from the understanding that I’ve come to, that it’s really only a fraction: they’re meaningfully still here as long as any of the other fractions is. It’s hard when someone leaves, but it’s harder for them to truly go than we might think.

Umbra was published on a

Unspoken

There are some things that you feel like you want to say to people that you just don’t need to.

It is perhaps in the nature of love to be indescribable, but even within that context there exists a whole glut of things that refuse to bend to the language we attempt to use to describe them.

Love is an easy word to say and a hard word to define: this declaration is hardly original, but originality is not the driving force here, honesty is. And if I’m being completely honest I don’t know what to do with it. With love, I mean. and when I say I don’t know what to do with it what I mean is that I don’t know how to talk about it. I’m pretty sure that I know what to do with love when it’s given to you and by you and it fills your heart - what you do with love is hang on to it at all costs, and trust it and let it be in your life with you, because it’s when you do that that your life happens.

But when it comes to talking about it, I think we don’t, or we can’t, and so we talk around it and to it and about the things that it’s like. There are times when that’s all we can do, because it’s precarious and might be knocked off course or kilter by being spoken about directly, and there are times when that’s all that we allow ourselves to do, because it’s just too big and too important to face directly.

At this point, as I pause for a mental breath, I am realising that this truth that I’m trying to bring to the surface is itself the reason that it’s so difficult. Maybe examples would help to make the point that I’m trying to make.

There was a time when you could sit in silence on the phone, and the person at the other end could hear your silence, and you could hear their silence, but connecting more people in more places and more ways has led to digitisation and the loss of that comforting silence, and now if I get quiet enough, the person at the other end hears literally nothing at all. But that silence was always an important interaction, and a part of loving someone, and maybe now we have to find more modern ways of saying nothing when we mean everything.

Another, a different, time when you just don’t say anything is when you’re right on the edge of things, balanced precariously and hoping not to fall the wrong way. You breathe in to give yourself the air you need to say what’s in your heart, and at the very top of that breath you pause, and you feel it. That “it” is almost telepathic, a synchrony with the person you would be saying it to, a certainty that they already know, and that your fumble-fingered attempt to explain is only going to muddy the waters and let doubt and misunderstanding in. The crystal clarity of understanding-without-saying can be difficult to trust, but when it’s true it’s a beautiful and precious thing. So when you’re brave, and when you can, you pause on the in breath, and you release the out breath without words in it, because love doesn’t need words.

It gets big, too. Your world can change, recentre, and the things you feel don’t seem to fit into you any more. There’s a word in Portuguese that’s just unrelentingly beautiful: saudade. It means… well, it means a lot. It’s melancholy, and nostalgia, and a recognition of how good things were, and acknowledgement that they may never be again but a joy that they have been. It’s “the love that remains”. There’s a core, when you have loved someone, that doesn’t shift when circumstances change. You can lose them, or move away, you can find another love, you can watch your whole life become different and realise that what you had will never be again, wouldn’t fit into your life even if it did, and that core still remains. That’s where the saudade comes from. Even when your life has grown and changed beyond that love, something is there, and if called upon to do so, you could and would walk over hot coals and broken glass to help and heal and be there for those you’ve loved. And when you feel that way, you don’t talk about it, because how could you? People wouldn’t understand.

They wouldn’t understand by thinking you’re mad to still feel like that, or they wouldn’t understand by thinking that the whole is left and not just the core, or they wouldn’t understand how it could be bigger than everything else but not as urgent, not as acute as what happens now. The difference between important and imperative never feels like it will translate, and so you keep it to yourself.

I think the real centre of what I’m trying to say is that even when it fills you and overflows you, love isn’t something that you speak about.

It’s something that you are.

Unspoken was published on a

Iowa

I woke up from a nightmare that I could not stand to see:
You were wandering out on the hills of Iowa, and you were not thinking of me

Iowa was published on a

Lullans

It’s a sair fecht

Translated directly, “it’s a sore fight”. Less directly, “it’s a hard fight”, I suppose. And what is meant by this fight? Life. Life is a hard fight, and when it’s getting tough, or promising you hurt, you can say that it’s a sair fecht, and be confident that you’re speaking to and as part of the tribe that we call scots.

The scots language is known as Lullans, or “lowlands”, to distinguish it from the language of the highlands, which traditionally was Gaelic. It’s an ongoing debate in linguistics (as so many things are) whether lullans is a language or a dialect, but of course it’s somewhere in between. Like almost all things, the way we speak lies on a spectrum that goes from language to dialect, or broad accent to RP, or lullans through Scottish Standard English to English, insofar as the latter has ever been standardised at all.

And of course it isn’t even that simple: we change how we speak depending on context, going from a high Latinate register when we talk about philosophy or politics to a lower Germanic register when we talk to and about our friends, or reduce our vocabulary to be understood by learners or run away with dialects in the company of those who we grew up with.

It’s tribal, and sometimes it defines exclusionary groups, an us that isn’t them, and sometimes it acts as a shibboleth, letting us know that we’ll be understood and what we share from the roots up. I can’t tell if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that we have these variations, and when I concentrate on it I start to suspect that like so many things it depends on how it’s used.

The way we are as people is subject to our control, as a group if not individually, and that’s why we have to choose to be good to each other. Not just good to the people who already know it’s a sair fecht, or those who sound like us, or who are part of the tribe. Good to everybody. As much as we can, and for as long as we can.

It’s the only way we’re going to get through the fight.

Lullans was published on a

The Slope

There’s a hill, or at least a slope, and when we walk through our lives it’s the slope that we walk. For the most part we’re following along the side, like a contour canal or a railway, and we meander back and forth to stay at the same height but keep moving.

We can’t stay still, and if we climb too high then the air gets thin and we start to lose touch with what’s going on back down there on the path. But it isn’t climbing high that’s been my problem lately, I don’t think.

Sometimes when you’re hiking and you try to stay level you come across a patch of scree or loose earth, where the sheep have grazed to bare soil and what earth there was has blown or washed away. If you’re sure-footed, you can navigate these patches, slow down and step carefully and get through it without sliding down too much. But that kind of walking is tiring and requires concentration and focus of the sort that you can’t alway manage, especially when you’re trying to juggle all of the other things you have to do while you walk. We can hope that as we get used to the juggling, as we practice it on the firmer ground it will become easier and easier, taking less attention away from walking, away from keeping that all-important footing.

There’s an element of grace to juggling.

In a beautiful essay called On the Marionette Theatre, Kleist explains that grace is a fickle thing: we can often do things by feel quite confidently, until we try to think about what we’re doing, at which point it quickly collapses and requires hard work and wisdom to regain. That’s the way it is with juggling, I think: we get used to it, and happily manage it as we walk along, but when we drop a ball or lose our rhythm, it’s back to the beginning and suddenly we need all of our focus just to keep the balls in the air, and now there’s nothing left with which to navigate.

But that’s only if we drop the balls, if we lose our rhythm. And what could cause that kind of thing to happen? Well, slipping and falling.

Because the thing about scree is that you can lose your footing so easily, but when you do it’s not just you that slips and falls a little, the scree goes with you, grinding a miniature gravel avalanche down the slope and taking you with it. And then you pick up your juggling balls, and you start to climb, and you start to juggle. The climbing is easier when you keep the balls and your arms still and out in front holding your balance on the climb, but that’s a luxury you can’t always afford. Even when you can, the climb can be so difficult: two steps forward, one step back as the slope shifts and slides underneath you, and you have to keep trying to climb, no matter how tired you are, because if you try to just stand still and catch your breath then maybe the slope will slip anyway, and instead of staying where you are you’re falling again, and you can’t tell if you’ve dropped a juggling ball or not: did you have four? No, I think it was three. It’s always been three, right?

Except no-one else was keeping track: they’re you’re balls, not anyone else’s. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that they have to keep track of their balls, and the juggling, and the walking.

And so maybe you’ve fallen, and you didn’t always try to climb because sometimes you were just too tuckered out by the slide, and now even when you can keep the juggling going and even when you’re climbing, you still can’t quite remember what the path looked like, what it felt like to be up there on the contour, and you know that you have to keep it up if you want to be there again, but you take two steps and you slide back and you take another two and there’s another slide and it all just feels a bit too much, a bit too hard.

But you can pause. You can take a breath and look around and see that we are all on the slope, that we are all still trying to climb, some of us juggling, some of us with our heads down and our hands out, some of us falling and sliding. The people up there on the path, some of them went too high and had to come back, some of them have managed to walk that path all along, but some of them were down here in the gravel, and they climbed back up, maybe with help, maybe without. Maybe they have advice. Maybe they know how to help.

Maybe they just know that we’re all on the slope.

The Slope was published on a