Ask a squirrel what’s its thang? Go on, ask it. The answer will probably be something along the line of: acorns.
Now ask a Dung Beetle (the name is a bit of a give-away here).
“I’m a roller, baby,” is surely what it would say. “I’m a Beetle Sisyphus! Pushing a huge sphere of elephant crap ten times the size of me up a hill using only my hind legs.”
And what does the front part do while the back legs roll, you might ask, sensing the need for a follow-up question?
Social media of course. Dung beetles do a lot of social media.
When someone once asked the poet William Stafford what his thang is, or was (he’s dead now), he’d say: “Oh you mean the way it is”, and pull out one of his poems.
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Last week I let go of my thread for three or four days. By day three I was staring out the window mournfully, nursing a coffee, and thinking about that Schopenhauer quote from his essay Studies in Pessimism, which goes: “Of how many people may it not be said that hope made a fool of them until they danced into the arms of death!”
Three days it took for me to be almost ready to rumba my way to Eternal Rest. The thread I let go of? Writing stuff: consistently, even if just a few paragraphs a day, and in so doing, creating “a thing”, contributing to “a project”.
I usually have some kind of writing project on the go. A project being something more conceptually contained than jotting down a poem or a few thoughts in a notebook or on my phone when the mood takes me. Sometimes it’s a book project, or an art project, most recently podcast popcorn. In the last few Covid Months I have started three of these podcast project, did a couple of episodes for each one, and then foundered. This iteration might be the fourth foundering for all I know. But at least it feels like the thread is back in my shaky paw.
What that means for me, but maybe for you too, is that whatever else is going on in our lives, good and bad, suffering-suffused or not, we’re more or less “on track” with whatever it is that holds the most intrinsic value for us.
In the “doing” of our threads, as well as holding onto them (reminding ourselves that this is what we’re fundamentally about in some way) life jogs along in an OK fashion, or maybe even at a fairly nice trot occasionally.
Schopenhauer had lots of flow, lots of joy in his life. Yes it was a somewhat eccentric one, highly so, but even for this Morrissey of 18th Century philosophical pessimism, life rocked, dents and all, otherwise why would he have written so much about it from that deliciously morbid gaze?
LOSING OUR THREAD
So how do we lose for a while, or longer, our thang, our thread, our life-force? I was talking about this with someone yesterday who told me that when she was about six or seven years old, and answering the usual barrage of What Do You Want To Be When You Become One of Us questions, she would usually respond with “ballerina” because it rhymed with her name: Nina. Nina The Ballerina! Of course!
And in this way, Nina The Ballerina, showed not only a precocious grasp of the workings of nominative determinism, but also the ways in which our culture requires us to fit our multiple selves into one or two overriding Identity Categories, preferably ones that have high social status for our society and so for the ears in which that young human animal grew up in.
In 1989, the National Opinion Research Centre in the US released their first list of NORC scores, showing 800 occupations ranked by prestige. Brain surgeons and other physicians scored 86.05, leading other professions by a long shot. No surprise there. Presumably this was all scored out of 100, with George Herbert Walker Bush (being second to God, of course), emerging with a perfect ten.
Psychotherapy as a profession had a score of around 62, similar to Purchasing Managers and Police Supervisers. It feels as if in the interim period society has awarded a few more social kudos points to the shrinks, but so what?
My current role as a therapist is definitely one of my threads. I love (almost) everything about it. And if I didn’t need to do it to earn a living, I would do something like it in an unpaid capacity. Why? Because it gives me a kick, it makes me feel more alive and connected to other human animals who are trying to work some of this stuff out for themselves too. I think we’re talking here about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, which is also key to this thready topic.
BEING AND BECOMING VERSUS HOLDING ONTO OUR THREADS
We often start with a Being or Becoming focus. The Being and Becoming path is incredibly fruitful and seems to be a necessary stage in human development. The downside of this though is that it relies on a form of extrinsic motivation to keep us going (some Super-Ego Dreamer line such as: “Wouldn’t it be cool if you were a BLAH, or became a BLAH.)
The downside of becoming a BLAH though on purely extrinsic motivation alone (“Wouldn’t it be cool if…”, the Future Now equation) can often make us miserable. For this is also a mode that accentuates our deeply hardwired habit of social comparison.
Psychological research now shows that both downward and upward comparing of our lives, aspirations, achievements to those of others doesn’t seem like it’s very good for our mental health. It may even be utterly disasterous for our mental health, which is a pity as all of our social media is now driven by FOMO and up/down social comparisons. None of which seems to be working out for us in terms of our general well being it’s fair to say.
Equally so in real-life relationships.
So you feel good because you and a friend both entered a poem into a competition, and yours got commended? Or bad because they got a book-deal a year later which obviously craps all over your one commended poem? Neither comparison if grown and tended in the mind seems to engender well-being. And unfortunately the seeds (thoughts for the most part, but also images tweeted, posted on Instagram or Facebook) are always going to be there as potentially destabilising entities. The only thing we have any control or choice over is to how much watering and tending of certain seeds we want to be involved with. And what we expect will come from that.
Watering and tending toxic seeds happens to a much larger extent when we lose sight of our threads, I believe.
FINDING YOUR THREAD
Imagine an older, twinkly-eyed Grandma Lionness saying to her grandcubs: “So kids, what you gonna be when you grow up?
“Lions!” would be the only possible response to this ridiculous question. Just like a six year old Nina, might equally have said: “I’m going to find a way to utilise my innate and native skills as well as whatever bits of shiny paper I’ve accumulated through reading books and writing essays, to survive and ideally thrive in the hyper-capitalist, winner-takes-all, Fame-Money Game we like to call a “career” or “job”.
Career: from the Latin carrus (wheeled vehicle), which in the 16th century starts to take on the meaning of a road or racecourse. And that is what it has becomes for most of us now: a road, a racecourse, a human hamster wheel or maze, which ejects us at a certain age for thumb-twiddling retirement if you’re lucky, and then death. Always death. Which unfortunately we tend to forget when we’re on the hamster-wheel, answering an email from our line-manager at 10 o’clock at night.
But that’s different to your threads, to your thang, whatever that is. Had young Nina been asked instead what it was that made her feel most alive, most included in this truly magical, living ecosystem of human animal culture and the greater world, the “real” world (which we try to dominate with our conceptual finagling and manipulation but will have the last word one day, caring nothing for us), she would have known what to say:
“I like running, and jumping, and being athletic. Reading. I love to read. Acting, dancing. Playing, and making plays. And thinking up new games for my friends. Also play-fighting or even more fraught versions of that in the playground. This is what it means to “do” rather than “be” or “become” me, now, in the fullest way possible.”
But this is not the only way to find your thread if you’re not sure what yours might be.
Here are some other ways that work for me:
1/ What is it you most regret not having done yet, or not having given enough attention to, at this point in your life?
2/ Imagine two friends at your funeral talking about you and the stuff they loved about you. How you lived your one wild and precious life to the full? What would you like them to say of you as they speak with love and maybe even a certain amount of rose-coloured, backward-casting admiration?
3/ Let’s stay with death for a moment (Schopenhauer would approve). To what extent is your vision of a life well-lived similar or different to Mary Oliver’s in her poem When Death Comes? For fun, you might like to try writing your own version of this poem. (And if you do, please share it with me, I’d love to read it.)
4/ Bringing in some social energies, but without turning it into a Win-Lose Game or another zero sum equation such as They’re Every-thing But I’m No-thing . Ask yourself: who do I really admire? A person who seems to be “working their threads” in a way that is appealing to you? How might you do some version of that if you weren’t so caught up in the Being and Becoming game, as we all are to some extent? You might even want to think about that itchy binary a bit more (They’re Every-Thing | I’m No-Thing) accompanied by Mary Ruefle’s ruefulness.
You grow old.
You love everybody.
You forgive everyone.
You think: we are all leaves
dragged along by the wind.
Then comes a splendid spotted
yellow one—ah, distinction!
And in that moment
you are dragged under.
Or if the above don’t appeal, here’s a whole bunch more, courtesy of Russ Harris.
CAREER THREADS | DEVOTIONAL THREADS
One of my threads, my need to “make stuff” (drawings, essays, poems, novels, songs) has never been my career. I turned it into a career for a year or two pitching and writing some articles for magazines and newspapers, but apart from the writing and research itself, the rest of the Freelance Writer Game was just so damn hard, such a slog, that it didn’t really add up for me in terms of the Being and Becoming game, getting my name at the top of a screen or a page.
But this is only because, I now realise, that my writing thread has always been fundamentally about connecting to myself and maybe one or two other “real” people (like you here, listening to or reading this, hello!) rather than trying to feed and make money from The Culture Machine.
This realisation took about thirty years of angst and self-recrimination to come to fruition. I wish it had come sooner, but it didn’t. Sometimes our threads will only reveal themselves fully to us over a lifetime of finding them, then losing them, then finding them again, and so on, until the end. So I guess we need to be patient with our threads (not one of my strengths). And while we’re working on our patience, plugging away at the things that matter to us. To do this, two things need to be in place, I think.
1/ Knowing what your core value-driven threads are (mine being: (1) making stuff, especially creative stuff; (2) therapy, the mind, consciousness; and (3) having a meaningful and sincere relationship with Nature, including human animals, but even more so – those of other species).
2/ A willingness, but also a kind of logistical strategising and concerted effort-ing (of sorts) to give our value-driven activities Time, Energy, and Attention (TEA). How much TEA have you drunk with your thready-domains recently?
The tricky thing about TEA (good TEA that is) is that it’s costly.
I am writing this article on a Monday morning. I could instead be doing more financially remunerative work (more clients, or writing paid “copy” for someone), or sitting in the garden scrolling through Twitter – which would be easier, much more fun, and maybe I’ll do some of that too – but either way, our threads do seem to require a certain amount of devotion. Otherwise how to differentiate what really matters (to us) that require good, quality TEA from us, as opposed to the stuff that passes the time in some fun or interesting way?
Devotion is the right word for our threads, I think, a word that that has a somewhat sacred air to it. From the Latin devovere: “to dedicate by a vow, to sacrifice oneself, to promise solemnly”. If this is the case, how could devotion not require our best TEA?
I doubt the majority of people getting out of bed on a Sunday morning to go to their weekly church service “feel like it” to any extent. Nor the mother (hopefully more fathers doing this too now) who has to change her baby’s nappy at three in the morning, and then is woken up again an hour later for a feeding, so sleep-deprived that she walks around like a zombie with demented, raving thoughts.
We’re talking about devotion here. Which you might say is our most precious resource because it gets stuff done (eventually!) even when a part of us is really not in the mood for doing it. That “lazy”, can’t-be-arsed part (in my experience) is with us, and deeply involved in our thinking and impulses about 95.6% of the time. Maybe even 95.7%.
Which is a shame, but perhaps it also gives us a clue as to how we might follow our threads, carving out a 4.3% or maybe even 5% space for ourselves in which to drink some thread-suffused TEA. For devotion, I believe, calls not as much to our strengths, but let’s call them our “weaknesses”.
WORKING WITH YOUR CHARACTER WEAKNESSES TO HOLD ONTO YOUR THREAD
I ask everyone I engage with as a psychotherapist to do a Character Strengths Survey, because I think it’s useful to “play to our strengths”, if and when we can. But our so-called weaknesses (here are mine), are perhaps more key to this whole topic as these underdeveloped muscles, these alignments or misalignments of our personalities can often get in the way of us doing some of the slightly “heavier lifting” that certain life trajectories require, whether we like this or not.
One of my weaknesses is Perseverance (I think it is for many of us). Finishing what one starts; persevering in a course of action in spite of obstacles; “getting it out the door”; taking pleasure in completing tasks. But when it comes to my threads, I do actually persevere, even if in a somewhat wonky fashion. And in certain cases, with tremendous resilience. But always in fairly small, well-chosen amounts.
So maybe this could be a path for Nina who is thinking about all of this at the moment. The path being: play to your weaker strengths if you can (i.e. develop them, but don’t overtax them), as well as your stronger ones.
Let’s imagine that those character traits are actually set. I believe they are in some way, which is not to say we can’t develop those weaker muscles too, but maybe that’s not the most fulfilling or interesting path to take per se. Let’s imagine that Perseverance, Self-Regulation (i.e. state-change/gear-stuff: how we settle ourselves when we get all flustered), and Big Picture/Right-Brain “Spirituality” are not your strongest character muscles. But let’s they’re needed, to some extent, for what you want to achieve or have in your life, how you want to hold onto your thread.
Now imagine you had long term Covid, as unfortunately you may one day have, or some variant, and you’re too weak and tired to do anything much other than a few hours of your paying-job, and maybe just twenty to thirty minutes each day of “doing” (holding onto) your threads? Devotedly.
Which thread(s) would you give your precious, fleeting, tired and somewhat bedraggled Now-TEA to?
Also: how would you “hold yourself” accountable in some way to your devotion, without having let’s say all the scaffolding and support of a more formal religion or a boss sending you emails at 7am in the morning, demanding those reports that should have been done yesterday?
Our “Bosses” are an important part of this.
What’s your relationship like with your Inner Boss(es), what Freud called The Super-Ego, cultural and family dictates or core beliefs stamped like a Trademark logo into our souls?
There are usually two or three bosses on board when it comes to our lives, and they’re often in conflict. Maybe one is an Intrinsically Motivated Boss who is deeply congruent and in sync with your most important life values. This Boss is a pretty cool, laid back lady, has her office in the Right Hemisphere of your brain for the most part, driving you and what you do with awe, and curiosity, as well as the hunt for a certain kind of “magic” that makes you feel most alive.
But there’s also the other (Left Brain) Boss that thinks s/he can make things happen by berating, critiquing, and finding fault with us. Left Brain = Language, so this is a very thinky/language-y boss. This bloke is also a tad deluded. Deluded, because not really in touch with The Big Picture of whatever domain he’s working in. This Boss, who often becomes a kind of Inner Slave Driver, a tyrant, really does believe that there’s a simple (or complicated) system that you have to follow (goddamnit!) , and if you just “follow the rules!” and stop procrastinating (“You lazy sack of shit!”) All Will Be Good.
When our Inner Bosses play fair and play kind with us, we get our best work done, and everyone is happy. Unfortunately this is somewhat rare with regard to Inner Managers. The good new is that they can be sent on a Management Training Course (psychotherapy?) to learn how to be more of a mensch, and less of a Mussolini, or Milosevic.
THE WAY IT IS
I love the fact that Stafford wrote his poem (The Way It Is) 26 days before he died at the age of 79 in 1993. That he was still living so fully, and meaningfully right up until the very end of his life!
And he didn’t stop writing poems as death approached. Here’s one he wrote on the very day he died.
You can’t tell when strange things with meaning
will happen. I’m [still] here writing it down
just the way it was. “You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.
Well, it was yesterday. And the sun came,