I reckon it is fast-approaching time to move on from mythic lands, and instead focus the next pieces on some more immediately obviously practical stuff. I have amassed a bit of a backlog there of things I would like to share, mainly as a result of cross-referencing my own experience with that of others, who have expertise in the field of addiction, with whom I have been fortunate enough to come into contact. This piece then, will be my attempt at a graceful exit from this enchanting rabbit-hole I seem to have fallen into, and to start steering things back towards ground-level.
So I’ll try to convey here how I think immersing yourself in tales of archetypal heroes – both classic and modern – can be of clear and direct benefit to us.
From my musings on various Herculean labours, and incidents in other tales I have referenced, you have probably figured out that I think that we can derive valuable strategies from these time-honoured stories of overcoming. It is of course tempting to try to distil some kind of “12-Steps of Herakles” list and peddle it as some kind of new and faddy “way” to “wellbeing”. It would perhaps be easy to get the impression that this is what I am pushing, and I suppose that perhaps I am a bit, but that would be catastrophically missing a far more profound point.
The 12 steps already exist, and they are a very good roadmap to wellbeing. Other paths exist, including of course the Dhamma-based recovery schema that I followed, which I learned at Thamkrabok Monastery, and which I attempted to summarise in the early posts in this blog.
Over the last couple of years I have been gradually becoming less interested in roadmaps per se, and more interested in how many people still seem to get lost despite them. Is there something we could perhaps do about that? In the half-year hiatus between the first dozen posts I wrote, and taking up my pen again, this question has become my overwhelming focus.
In my first piece after I resumed writing, entitled “The Devil Made Me Do It”, I guess that I still hadn’t fully realised and clarified this objective, even to myself. In that piece I laid out a plan to revisit what I considered to be the key elements in the process I went through at Thamkrabok, and to represent them in a more elemental form. Stripped of any overtly Buddhist context, my hope was that these excellent principles might be of use to the many people in the Western world who have been grappling with the stresses of the last two years, yet still facing considerable barriers to just hopping on a plane and getting out here. Entry to Thailand remains a bit complicated and messy, although doable [click here for entry requirements] and we are still seeing hardly any foreign intake. So I still think that’s a worthwhile undertaking, and it’s still what I intend to do. I’ll get around to it (quite) soon.
Actually, it’s what I set out to do. When I started writing on the theme of motivation, in the piece that followed, it was essentially a more generalised retake on the prologue to the whole series – the original being a mere 1000-word vignette describing my own relationship with the iconic image of the Vietnamese monk, Quang Duc, on fire. I thought, “perhaps I’ll unpack that a bit…” and here I am, 20,000-odd words later, still trying to wrap that theme up.
The thing is: Once I started, it began to dawn on me that I had taken something absolutely huge and fundamental almost for granted – inspiration. This is what gets you on the path, and keeps you on it when times get rough. As they will. So without that, the rest is hot air.
I’ll make a flimsy excuse that I perhaps had considered inspiration to be implicitly and obviously in place, and driving us, or why are we even here, right? Why would we be talking about this stuff otherwise? So I rushed ahead to details of the path itself. But subsequent reflection on experience has brought me to see that our motivations and aspirations might well be a lot more murky, mixed-up, and inconsistent.
Because you see, thinking of it that way is the only thing with which I can make sense of those appalling (non)recovery statistics that I like to scatter around like some hellish, party-pooping Easter Bunny. Otherwise, whatever method we happen to be touting, we’re left with a pitch like, “this is the best fail-safe method, tried-and-tested, and proven to work spectacularly well, except that… er, that it so often doesn’t…[ahem]…moving swiftly on – Step 1!!!”
No, the path – any of the half-decent ones – “works”. The question is whether or not we walks. I now realise that I have spent quite a lot of time over the past two decades listening to people lie about motivation, and then headscratching about their self-engineered breakdowns. I hope that doesn’t sound too pejorative, it isn’t meant to – I sympathise. And those very words could have been used to describe me on a number of occasions. I suspect many people say they are strongly motivated because they feel it is the only acceptable answer. Many may do so because they are terrified to face the possibility that they are not; and haven’t considered the possibility that this could perhaps be worked on directly, if we look at it unflinchingly.
I very much want to think that it can be. Otherwise [just Google recovery stats, or take my word for it] we are left with simply writing off an appallingly large swathe of addicts as incurable. Unhelpable. Hopeless. Or perhaps, if we are fortunate enough to live in one of the more “nanny” states, there’s the kinder version of writing people off, which is harm reduction strategies. I am all for reducing harm. But I am here to talk about quitting.
I think that many times in the past, when I heard the words, “I want to quit”, I should have heard that as, “I want to want to”, and that this should have been treated as a sincere request for help that just wasn’t quite properly articulated. And certainly wasn’t properly responded to. Everything that I have written on here since last November has been an attempt to make up for those failings.
So, okay – In the previous piece, having rambled across three installments evangelising my views about the relevance of myth and story to tackling existential problems, such as drug-dependency; I then juxtaposed a doubt regarding their actual importance. This, I summarised rather glibly, asking:
“But aren’t stories just for kids?”
I can see two main ways to come at that:
- Specific: Perhaps some of us can benefit from regarding ourselves more like children at times when transformation is needed. After all – how big and clever should you feel if you’ve just blown up your life with repeated, clearly harmful, and ultimately voluntary actions?
- General: Perhaps all of us are kidding ourselves if we think that we have outgrown stories as a way to describe the world. Grownups also tell and listen to stories very readily – really boring ones, usually. The more they bore themselves (and others) the more grownup they usually claim to be. But it’s still stories, whether those be from The Guardian, Breitbart, The English Common Law, assembly instructions for an IKEA wardrobe, or the DSM psychiatric diagnosis manual.
To explore the first auto-rebuttal a little more, I’ll propose that meaningfully identifying oneself as an “adult” (as opposed to, say – brandishing a birth certificate while demanding alcohol) implies some further claims. Legally, I suppose it means being competent to make one’s own decisions, take responsibility for them, and take whatever consequences ensue.
How about on a more personal level? To me, that more broadly implies: seeing ourselves as someone who has seen a lot of stuff before, knows what to make of stuff, and how to respond to it. And at a more fundamental level, I might venture to say that it claims a degree of self-knowledge that enables us to put reasonable trust in all of the above judgments. And ideally enough self-mastery to be able to act on them appropriately and effectively. Or indeed to refrain from acting. That’s quite a lot.
I don’t know about you, but speaking for myself; some of those can be rather shaky claims sometimes. We could rescue some pride – we could be very proud of getting our tax-returns filed on-time [which is pretty grown-up] – but if that was aided and abetted by a week-long Ritalin doughnut binge, then perhaps we should call it “a little from column A, and a little from column B”. Whatever. But we may find that the less we cling to that pride, the more potential benefits we can reap. Humility – nobody likes it, but it certainly beats humiliation, which is what we invite whenever we claim to be more on top of our shit than we actually are.
This notion shouldn’t seem particularly new or controversial. Or even this precise framing of it as a grownup/child thing. Even Jesus said it:
But why? I mean, yeah – so it sounds familiar, and vaguely like the kind of thing we “should” do in order to “sort our shit out”, but I think we can do better than that. I don’t think it is just a ritual abasement that somehow “earns” redemption as administered by some cosmic justice dispenser who seems to like a bit of groveling.
I suppose it may also work like that, I couldn’t say, really, but there are certainly a number of psychological aspects to being more childlike that strike me as rather obvious – and of obvious utility – here [innocence, blank slate, blah-blah, shouldn’t be difficult to flesh out that list]. I am going to pull out, and focus on, just one of them, though, to wit: Children eagerly and greedily consume stories.
Why? Well, they’re fun, I suppose. Is that all? Well, I actually think this is a significant part of the answer. Because here – rarely, and awesomely – I think that The Evolutor (in zher wisdom) has gifted us an extremely pro-survival resource; and then motivated us to make use of it by making it intensely pleasurable. This isn’t always the case – think of quinoa versus mojitos, for instance – so maybe we should grab it whenever it is on offer.
Children don’t just mindlessly consume though, like a doomscrolling adult grazing on endless rolling pastures of fresh content, all minimally engaged with. When kids find a story that they like they usually obsess on it, returning again and again to the increasingly familiar narrative, until parents would gladly teaspoon their own eyeballs out rather than build a snowman.
But kids don’t just dig the characters they like. They want to channel Jack Sparrow, or Mulan – to internalise every mannerism and turn of phrase. They are trying out another way of being, by imitation, and comparing how it works in the world, and how it makes them feel; to other ways to be a human.
Here’s a neat take on imaginative thinking. I have heard both Karl Popper and Alfred N. Whitehead credited as the philosopher who originated this model. And I don’t know enough about that to comment, but I don’t really much care, because the idea makes perfect sense to me, whoever had it first. It goes something like this:
The capacity of the human mind to project imagination into the future allowed us to use our ideas like lives, with which we game out possible courses of action, and see how they end up, before choosing one, back in the now. This process then took over a lot of the work previously done by natural selection, where losing strategies might well lead to death. Since we can send our ideas on ahead, to die in our place, this practice massively accelerated our evolution, with learning and culture largely taking the place of having the better strategies hard-coded into survivors’ DNA.
Humans, with our big brains, have to be born prematurely and helpless, or we would rip our mothers apart. Then we take many years to reach an age where we’re capable of doing much. And many more before we can do much that’s any good (see Tik-Tok for evidence of this). Human children are high-investment propositions, compared to kittens – which can be popped out by the half-dozen several times a year. Kittens with bad ideas and unproductive behaviors can simply die in their droves, because we only need a few more-or-less competent cats to outlive their parents in order to maintain the species (I have much opportunity to observe this merciless process here in the Land of Stray Animals – I’m not talking about your beloved 4-legged friends here). Not so with us. After all that investment, we can’t have young humans blowing it fatally the first time they leave the house unchaperoned.
It’s a thought-provoking and persuasive idea. I’m going to propose an Eastern-tinged adaptation of it for explaining what I think kids are doing with stories:
They are reincarnating. They are reviewing other lives, in order to bring extra experience to bear on how they should go about living this one. They absorb stories with an intensity as if they’re in them, and then act them out in play – struggling, scheming, and dying many times over, but painlessly and entertainingly.
Little kids usually like their heroes pretty straightforward. For a start, they like them to be easily identifiable. The one with the big muscles and the unsubtle virtue-signaling – yeah, he’ll do. They are still figuring out the basic big building blocks of character – should I be brave or cowardly? Determined or wilting? Honest or sneaky? Kind or mean? Etc., etc.
Later on [hopefully] we have most of this down. But now, having lived a little, we are getting an inkling of how difficult it might be to live up to all this good stuff when there’s a little pressure on. Now, we have a grasp on what might be required to slay our own personal dragons, we’re just not sure that we’re up to it. We need our heroes to grow with us. But – contrary to what one might think – they get crapper as they mature… Or, more charitably, we could say, “less one-dimensional”… or should that be “fewer dimensional”? … No, first thought best thought – they’re crapper. More like us.
To make heroes interesting and instructive, sophisticated writers often start out with someone who doesn’t look overly promising. Then, in the face of challenges that could easily overwhelm them, we can explore how they can find new resources, or take qualities they already possess – not necessarily overtly heroic ones – and alchemise them into the “right stuff”. Or even just – whatever else it is that holds them together when too much is asked of them. Seems like a good moment for young Potter to show up.
When we first meet Harry, he is small, skinny, speccy, scruffy, unloved and friendless, not noticeably talented – except for making occasional weird things happen, which are invariably held up as examples of his degenerate freakness. He gets summoned to Hogwarts, which is a hint that there might be more to him than meets the eye, but what that is still isn’t particularly apparent. Granted – we soon discover that he might be a gifted flying-stickman, but we have also seen that he is not an outstanding magical student – a bit lazy and immature, not academically-inclined, and with pretty poor emotional regulation. He is volatile, over-impulsive, under-reflective, easily provoked or distracted, and prone to rages and sulks. Not hugely promising as a candidate for taking on the greatest Dark Wizard of all time. How will Harry become Hery?
After a little reflection, it seems obvious that friendship is the key, and Harry has a particular talent for it. On the train to Hogwarts he reveals his generosity to new-found chum Ron Weasley, and then on arrival, he shows grit and integrity – spurning the advances of the odious Malfoy who invites him to join the cool kids in sneering at the low-class Weasleys. Now, that must have been VERY tempting, for an unloved outcast, enjoying temporary minor celebrity status, so that’s impressive. That, as I seem to recall, is one of the most common major ethical tests that we face at school – will we sell out our uncool friends when tempted by a whiff of possible popularity? It’s a rough one – many fail.
So he gains the love and loyalty of Ron, and through him honorary membership of the chaotic, warm, and loving Weasley clan – the best family in the world. So that starts to sort out the emotional deprivation, as well as securing some reliable backup. And then he sticks up for Hermione, who despite being a bit insufferably smug, and a racially inferior Muggle-child, happens to be the cleverest witch of her generation. So that helps with impulse-restraint, remembering stuff, and figuring out the difficult bits.
And so it goes on – he picks up loser weirdos Neville Longbottom, and Luna Lovegood, who later stand with him in the first real skirmish of the Wizarding War, and later still, each of them manages to save his almost-whupped arse, in their different weirdo ways, during the final battle. So, that’s a nice message for the kids, pointing at subtler and more holistic long-term strategies for rising to the occasion than just, “be really awesome, and beat up the baddies”, as well as hinting that there may be greater purposes, and rewards even, than victory. Such as remaining open and kind despite all the suffering inflicted upon you, trying to see the worth in everyone, and treasuring human connection.
But, hang on – wasn’t I undertaking to argue that stories aren’t just for kids?
I was. Well, look – this process can just keep on getting more refined. You can graduate through many incarnations of increasingly flawed and complex protagonists, who still somehow find the key that unlocks the big brawny lion-skin wearing dude that lurks within all of us. You can see that it is different things for different people. Take a fairly vanilla hero, like Luke Skywalker, and the only particularly special thing about him that I can find is that he has really great teachers, and he listens to them. That’s cool, in a “hip to be square” kind of way – that works for some people.
How about Frodo? Is there something about his very ordinariness itself that makes him the halfman of the moment? Does his lack of grandiosity give him a special power to resist the blandishments of the One True Ring? And so onward and upward. Or perhaps onward and crapward…
Yes – I realise that these distillations may look dumb and banal, when bullet-pointed out like this. But of course, that is not how they are written. Authors don’t just sit down and construct characters and scenarios from little boxes of qualities, and flaws, and challenges, like it’s some kind of Lego-set where all the bricks will fit with all the others. And they can’t then force their perfect bespoke cyborg marionette to act out whatever trite moral lesson they wish to give us. It’s a lot more intangible than that (tange away, in vain!) and no, you can’t just construct anything you like. There’s a standard that all literary creations are held to, and it’s very exacting, although equally wispy and elusive. The standard of truth.
And then you can’t just sit down and say, “I’m going to write something true”, unless you restrict yourself to pretty basic stuff. Proper true stuff, that needs telling, well – I think that’s more like something that has to be mined, like iron ore. So first you’ve got to find it, then dig it out, then smelt and refine, and only then can you try to make a tool from it, and see if it does anything useful. This final judgment is outsourced – to us, the readers.
Are these unreal people in some way real? Do they smell right? Are they behaving in ways that seem “real” in their unreal circumstances? Are you buying it? These kinds of decision are made mostly down on some sub-conscious level, in the same way as we “feel out” an (allegedly) real physical person, whom we meet. Do they seem to “add up”, or do you smell some kind of fakery? So that’s the first round, which will serve to throw out many contenders – real and fictional. Then you can decide whether they interest you, whether you like them, whether they “speak” to you, etc. Eventually, a few will be left standing. You believe them, almost the way you believe that your mother, or your neighbour exists. And you can’t fake this, with any audience. Tell me a story about someone I don’t instinctively feel to be a credible individual, and I simply won’t care what happens to him next.
To an engaged and imaginative reader, meeting a new character can be as vivid and significant as meeting an embodied human. If they’re “real” enough to hold up, and if they’re “our kind of real”, then they can become like Harry’s friends, who collectively complete him, as well as proxies for gaming out our own ethics and strategies. We are first socialised by the people around us, and then by the people we surround ourselves with. That includes virtual ones, and I don’t think there’s anything childish about that. It strikes me as a highly sophisticated technique to use.
I have a very high regard for the capacity of the rational mind to figure stuff out with critical and discursive thinking, with research, and learning. Facts, stats, bar-charts, pie-charts. Those are all great stuff, and I try to make a lot of use of them. Where they really shine, for me, is as things to chuck AT my notions and values, to see how such things hold up in a data-simulation of the real world. They don’t serve me so well for deriving my values FROM.
There is huge efficiency in encoding information in characters. To sift through a stack of data, and tell whether it holds up, or is “true”, and its conclusions may be relied upon, can be a very exacting task, and prone to spectacular fails proceeding from minor errors, inattention, or biases. But when you encode all that information in a person, then we can employ ancient circuitry for evaluating its credibility. “Knowing” people is obviously a vital survival skill – it’s very important to have a sense of who you’re with, and what they might be capable of, when the shit is down, and the chips hit the pan.
Even quite young children can perform lightning-fast and pretty accurate calculations, hyperlinks, and cross-references of large data archives, when you ask them “will mummy be cross if we do this?” (although they have been known to lie about that). Whereas framing the question, “Is this plan ethically sound, given the shared values that we collectively buy into (to a greater or lesser individual extent) as a family?” is a question that takes me a lot longer to figure out a far less reliable answer to. Even now, when I have been (allegedly) grown-up for several decades.
Here’s a guy who liked facts:
For me, Sherlock Holmes is a big one. He has been a denizen of my universe since my early teens, and he’s a right puzzler. The Great Detective is written to be so relentlessly insufferable, and so very unlikeable, that I find myself wondering whether Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle was deliberately trying to prevent his straight-laced Victorian readers from becoming too fond of him. The better perhaps, to keep the focus on his scientific methods of investigation, which Holmes himself repeatedly states is all that should be worthy of note. It is, after all, a matter of record that Conan-Doyle tried to kill off his own character, and only resumed the short stories – eventually succumbing to popular demand – after a hiatus of ten years, during which he focused on more highbrow literary projects (now largely forgotten). So, if I’m right, then he failed miserably. Holmes hit the spot, somehow, and the public would not be denied.
The first story, A Study in Scarlet, establishes very clearly that Holmes is bipolar: “Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him: but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle”, and he often doesn’t bother with eating or sleeping when grappling with a particularly devilish “three-pipe problem”.
The second story opens with Watson confronting him about his fondness for morphine and cocaine – a theme that recurs at other points throughout the stories – which Holmes defends his use of most vigorously. He claims that boredom is an unendurable torture for a mind such as his, and one that lesser mortals could not comprehend, let alone presume to pass judgment on.
His grandiosity leaves no room for modesty or tact, and it is made repeatedly clear that he has made no friends throughout his childhood, university career, or at any time subsequently. He is completely alone. Besides the long-suffering Watson, of course, who shrugs off Holmes’ rudeness, presumption on his time, and belittling of his intelligence, like water off a duck’s back. But he is still occasionally stung by Holmes’ casual mockery of his written accounts of their adventures.
A nice touch there – Conan-Doyle regularly gives his character a chance to pour scorn on his middlebrow, sensationalist, and sentimental, biographer, with Watson standing in to accept the contempt on the actual author’s behalf. Within the imaginary London in which Holmes lives, of course these same despised stories have contributed significantly to his own reputation and success. But he blithely accepts this tribute to his greatness, without seeing any need for appreciation or gratitude – he is admirable, he should of course be admired. Everything is as it should be. Watson will admire, and then of course put in the work so that the world may admire.
These dreadful interpersonal qualities are not reserved for his inner circle (of one). Holmes’ pathological lack of empathy is repeatedly shown in interviews with clients, who may be relating the most distressing of personal circumstances, but eliciting no reaction from the great one besides irritation at how their emotions are clouding the otherwise very interesting facts. Fortunately, Watson is usually on hand to offer chairs, handkerchiefs, or restorative draughts of brandy (and possibly reassuring little hand-pats, in very extreme circumstances – the CPR of the late Victorian Age).
I wondered (and sniggered) as a child, at the origin of the phrase whenever some black & white American movie would refer to a private detective as a “dick”. Could this perhaps shed any light on the case?
Be that as it may, the more important question here is: what keeps Holmes straight? What makes him tick, and not tock? I have little doubt that an interview with any half-decent clinical psychologist today would result in a very confident prediction of one of two life-outcomes, neither of them good:
- The loveless, friendless Holmes, delighting in nothing but demonstrating his mastery over lesser beings, while feeling nothing for them, and resolute in doing nothing at all that does not appeal to him; becomes an all-sails-to-the-wind, and full-blown, psychopath. And one of truly supervillain proportions – the splendidly intricate crimes with which he exacts his tribute from the sheep-like herd being a veritable hymn to the glory of all creation – HIM!
- Sorryarse drug-addicted Holmes, who never got around to remaking the world to fit the magnificent blueprints of his mind, simulates the thrill of the chase by means of cocaine-rushes (7% solution, taken intravenously – no kiddie party-favours here). And he then simulates the satisfaction of a well-earned gloat over a job uniquely well done, with the fuzzy smugness of opiates. Until he either dies, or the money runs out.
Or some unsteady equilibrium somewhere in-between those two extremes. Actually, I have often found that the inner-world of the truly narcissistic can very persistently continue to resemble option 1, long after it looks far more like option 2, from most outside viewpoints. Many a loser is a Dr. Lecter in his own lunchtime.
Well what works, then? What works for Sherlock? Alright, there’s friendship again, albeit of a rather different nature to Harry’s relationships built on mutual respect and kindness. Of course, he has found his niche in life – that certainly helps – and Holmes himself glories in claiming to have created the profession of the “Consulting Detective”, since anything ordinary enough to already exist, simply wouldn’t do at all.
I am currently nearing the end of my third time around reading the complete chronicles of Holmes – over eleven-hundred pages of dense, Edwardian text – and I’m still eking out further hints and clues. There’s Sherlock’s immense sense of fun, which perhaps allows him to keep a little ironic distance from the disturbed character he is compelled to act out. As well as giving him just enough charm to tolerate hanging out with.
There is rigorous adherence to a very strict ethical code, and a highly philosophical worship of the ideas of justice, and truth. These compensate for his lack of natural empathy. There is (intriguingly for me) his very heightened engagement with music, as a listener, or as a not-bad amateur violinist. I’m still pondering how that might work, but I’m hoping it might mean that musicians are very special people, who can get away with being more awful than other people can, because they are so awesome. That would be quite handy for my own rap-sheet. There’s other stuff…
I’m currently toying with the thought that, as with Harry, it IS Sherlock’s friendships after all – all one of them – that make the difference. He can never experience what most of us might call “friendship” (let alone love) because he can tolerate no peers. Only admirers. So, it was a wise choice, in choosing his only close companion, that he chose a good man. Despite his own part-time immersion in the underworld, Watson is so solidly decent that he always retains the capacity to be truly appalled by the revelation of proper, serious iniquity, treachery, or selfishness. Holmes must be good, in order to retain Watson’s admiration, and so he chooses to be good.
That would be a cunning way of warping the narcissistic drive, that usually creates monstrosities, into inspiration to right wrongs, rescue the helpless, vindicate the vindictively wrongfully accused, and stem the tide of evil from corrupting the affluent and entitled world of the late Victorians – Hurrah! But, as I said, I’m only toying with it. I’ll hold off a while before announcing that I have found the cure for Cluster B Personality Disorders – that would, after all, be quite narcissistic.
These, I think, are the ways that Holmes channels and supports his inner Herakles. It is an ongoing investigation though, not yet a cold case. I may get back to you with an update after I’ve revisited The Hound of the Baskervilles. Yes indeed – Holmes’ first foray after his many years presumed dead, involved a gigantic and fearsome Hellhound. This may sound familiar..
It occurs to me that in the previous piece I undertook to not just babble about Holmes, so I’ll just leave that there.
I know I said this was the last piece on myth and story, and it IS. It truly is, but it’s huge, so I am breaking it in two. I think that’s more than enough to take in, and the second half will follow on tomorrow, if all goes well.
And now, here’s Holmes, in all his questionable glory:
And this is for any parents traumatised by Frozen:
In fond memory of Schmuley Greenberg, and with acknowledgments to Stephen Fry for certain Holmesian insights.