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Matthew McLean

A Self-Portrait

There are many things I’d like to say about myself. Not all of them are things that I honestly can say. I’ve found it difficult to write a ‘portrait’ of myself without feeling like I’m just posing. Maybe trying to avoid pretences is a bit futile. Sometimes, honesty itself can be just another pose.

The only thing close to an ‘interest’ that I have in my life is the online journal that I’ve been writing for the last three years. It’s a very strange genre: as a diary it’s meant to be an accurate and honest account of everyday life, but, because I share it with other members of the community who write themselves, it seems inevitably to become some kind of self-penned paean as well. I find it hard to feel that my thoughts or experiences are really genuine or valid or affecting when I’m so self-conscious. I really wish I could just ‘dance like no-one is watching’, but even that sounds just sounds like posturing.

Self-consciousness is one of the most solid barriers I have to being happy, and I think that that’s probably the case with many other people too. One of my biggest gripes, especially since I’ve become a student, is against the way in which people hold up certain experiences as infinitely more valid and meaningful than others. I’m really keen on travel, and am very privileged that I’ve been able to visit some wonderful places. But I really dislike the way that most people value the exotic and the outlandish so much, that they don’t respect the experiences open to us even in our most familiar circumstances. Experience of the exotic seems to blind people to the interesting and the beautiful that, although it might not present itself so obviously, in fact does exist in every place. I know people who are desperate to go to the Andes, or the South Pacific, but have never been to our local museum, or walked round the Meadow at dusk. It doesn’t make sense to impoverish great chunks of your life like that. And I think that it’s probably some permutation of self-consciousness that leads people to do so.

I am aware that this sounds like a cliché. ‘Live your whole life with the eyes of a tourist’ is hardly original or startling. I don’t know, however, if clichés aren’t a bit unavoidable. They come from the truth, at heart.

There are, however, many cliches which annoy me and which I think are dangerous. Many people use clichéd words and phrases without any idea of what they mean by them. In philosophical logic, these might be called ‘empty domains’. ‘Diversity’ is one of these I think, as is ‘the war on terror’. ‘Choice’ is one more.

My least favourite cliché is the phrase ‘the media’. It is just such a sloppy concept. When people employ it, they refer to ‘the media’ as some shadowy, dangerous, cohesive unit. I don’t see how people think that the huge range of newspapers, television production companies, publishers, film-makers etc. actually do form some kind of single, coherent mass whose plan is to piss everybody off for their own ends. Conspiracy theories seem to be the last resort of the lazy. I think one of the most important books I have ever read is Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action, which lays out just why successful examples of collective action are so rare; that making collective action is inherently difficult for self-interested agents. This is why so many of us exist under conditions that are so miserable and so unlike what we really would want. There is no need to blame abstracts like the media or the bourgeoisie or the elders of Zion for this. Life is unpleasant because making it better is too difficult for most of us.

Although I have been very happy at times in my life, I think I’ve always had quite a melancholy outlook on it. Though I don’t know whether there’s some congenital tendency towards it or not, it would explain a lot about myself and some members of my family if there was. I found it hard growing up because my mother, and her mother in turn, have without any effort, held the view that life is fundamentally good. My grandmother dealt with some very difficult circumstances and managed to bring up my mother extremely well despite them. With these archetypes to look up to, I’ve always been very guilty about being unhappy. It’s a basic fact that judged against what some people experience, my life has been incomparably pleasant. I think it was thinking this way that led me to feel like unhappiness was somehow ungrateful, though I’m not sure to what or whom I owed gratitude. Nevertheless, crying seemed to me to be indulgent.

I was never happy at my secondary school. It was a boy’s comprehensive and I never felt like I fitted in there. I was middle-class, academic, weak and effete. I don’t think, for the seven years that I was there, anyone other than a few teachers gave me any suggestion that I should feel good about myself. I am very torn about what to do if and when I have children, since I have always been completely opposed to selective education, but I don’t know whether I could bring myself to let my child be as unhappy as me. What my experience has taught me is that it is crucial to let your children feel unhappy, no matter how difficult it is, as someone who cares about them, to bear. I’m sure that I felt so much more unhappy growing up because, when I was miserable, I felt guilty as well. It took me a long time even to consider that unhappiness might be a common and understandable human trait.

Through all that, I really looked forward to coming to university. I had managed to displace all my feelings of anger and disappointment on to the environment I was in – the school. When I got to university, I couldn’t understand how I wasn’t instantly rid of those too-familiar feelings. I really started to doubt whether I was capable of being happy at all. At least for my first two terms, I found it very difficult to hear my parents say that they loved me and that they believed in me, not only because it seemed so untrue, but because I felt that it was tragic that they had invested so much in a lost cause like me. After two terms and lots and lots of thinking I ended up seeking some treatment for how I was. Counselling was an utter revelation. I had only been to anything like it before very occasionally. I suppose it was the first time that someone had said to me that, not only was it alright to feel as unhappy as I did, but that there was some rational explanation for it that didn’t pin ‘blame’ on myself or my school or my parents.

I still feel completely committed to counselling. I suppose it’s become a bit of a cause for me. I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to spend just a little time each week being able to think and talk about how they feel. Maybe I’ll decide to be a counsellor myself. I wonder how many professional counsellors have come to it as a career that way?

I’m still in my second year of university but I’m very nervous about future careers. It seems to be an area of life in which there is no assurance or direction at all. Most of the people I’m around at university are very driven towards and focused on certain types of careers, which adds another element of pressure to the whole pursuit. I used to think that I’d like to be a taxidermist. I considered nursing too. Neither of these pay very well, though. Every so often I think to myself that I’ll take a fairly menial job and spend my time thinking, or just hang up my uniform at 5pm and go home to write. I don’t think it now with such conviction as I used to. In part this is down to my having worked in a pub last summer, and feeling so exhausted every evening that I could barely cook dinner, let alone write anything. Also, being exposed to so many other people at university who want to write, it seems harder to believe that my interest or commitment or talent or whatever is anything special.

Some people really want to make something of their professional career, or find some line of employment that really satisfies them. I don’t really think I have any goals in life, though I would definitely like to have some. I would like to be happy, of course, but that expresses so little, it’s almost saying nothing. ‘Happiness’ in the abstract is a fairly useless concept. Nearly everyone wants to be happy. It’s working out the way to go about it that is difficult. Life is vast and too indeterminate for me to really take seriously. There are no instructions to living, and no rehearsal. No-one starts life being told the answer to that one question, which we all struggle with all the same: namely – Why live? It makes my mind boggle, thinking what the correct thing to do is.

George Eliot writes in Silas Marner about old man Silas, not being happy, but having enough routines and activities to fence himself in against the world beyond himself. I sometimes wonder whether this mightn’t be the best policy for achieving happiness in one’s life. I just want things to distract me from the vastness of it all.

Things which manage to distract me include reading and going to the cinema. My cats usually induce a strange kind of rhapsody in me too. Being near birds is good, and I like open land, and the sea – though I often find the latter a bit too unknowable and profound to think about for long. There are a few songs that always strike me as utterly perfect. I suppose that I’m not always only looking for distraction; in music at least, there’s sometimes something which I find transcendent.

I often get very anxious about other people and wanting them to be happily distracted too. My friends get very bored of the question ‘What are you looking forward to?’ because I ask them it all the time. I guess I feel that so long as there’s some near horizon to concentrate on, that questioning – that I did so much when I was unhappy – will be kept at bay.

I have been brought up to think that having children is just about the most profound thing you can do with your life. I think it’s probably impossible to know whether that’s true until you’ve actually done so. I do sometimes get incredibly strong emotions about my siblings, which are what I imagine true parental feelings are like. It’s very hard to describe: a kind of welling up, when, for a few moments, I feel like all that will ever matter to me is the happiness of just this one person. It’s almost a kind of non-being, but really moving.

I don’t know whether it makes me completely pleased to think that child-bearing is the most incredible experience life can offer, since I’m sure the feelings it arouses could be quite plausibly reduced to socio-biology and evolutionary theory. Saying that, I don’t suppose that there’s any single point that, if it were isolated as ‘the purpose’, I could take seriously. The notion of life having any single point seems quite absurd, however reassuring it would be. There’s an amazing poem by Cavafy called ‘Ithaka’ which seems to argue just that. But I won’t quote any of it, because it would seem like settling on an answer. And that would hardly be the point, would it?

February 2005