short stories

~ The Age of Anxiety ~

alien nation

~ The Age of Anxiety ~

The age of anxiety they called it. This mental health problem was now the most listed disability of all – the biggest reason people took time off work and study. Social anxiety. Social bloody anxiety. Your mum had it. Your best friend had it. Your cats and your dogs and your goldfish had it. There it was causing dread in the minds of so many good people out there just trying to get through life whatever way they could. Clearly we had become too connected, too convoluted. All the expectations and cultural influences one was supposed to live up to. All the things that hung on your shoulders. The fact you were relentlessly characterised and labelled. The fact your body was viewed by thousands of pairs of judgmental eyes every day. Throw into this social media and a general sense of dread that came from the news media basically telling you that the world was coming to an end, then it was only natural that people were riddled with an anxiety of some kind.

The feeling was ubiquitous and, like many millennials, I suffered from it. There were many times that a dark room of isolation seemed a better alternative to going out there and joining in with the madness of the world. In my mind, modern society was essentially a giant mental asylum where people had been sent insane by a combination of media, advertisements, smartphones, peer pressure, expectations and the general ridiculousness and mindless behaviour that being in a crowd of any kind caused. As Frederich Nietzsche once said: “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” That collective insanity of society led to situations where you were expected to participate in small-talk regarding work colleagues and television shows, rather than discuss meaningful and worthwhile things. If you didn’t then the eyes of the crowd fell on you as if you were in some sort of play and not reciting your lines properly.

I thought back to the first time I started experiencing social anxiety. I was twenty-four and returned home from a long backpacking trip. For almost two years, I had lived a life of easygoing adventure before arriving straight back into the rat race. One week I went to a packed pub on a Sunday night; it was a bank holiday the following day so many were out celebrating their extra day of freedom. There I stood at the bar listening to the conversations and feeling more foreign that I had on my world trip. For some reason, I couldn’t find any common ground with anyone I spoke to. Their conversations left me out the circle and I was even mocked for wearing casual clothing and working in a supermarket. It was something that struck me deep. To feel like an alien in your own home town was a surreal and scary experience. As the night went on, I could feel the eyes and judgment of the people around me. They knew I wasn’t one of them; that I was not reciting their script and dancing to their beat. For the first time in my life, I could feel my body shake anxiously as if I was being attacked by some sort of virus. It was like I needed the isolation to save myself from the feeling of being eaten up by the crowd. In the end, it was all too much; I left the bar early and realised that I was now suffering from the phenomenon of social anxiety.

I thought about that situation and tried to work out why such a condition existed. My theory was that social anxiety existed because society couldn’t tolerate anyone who deviated from the norms of the group. Culture behaved and spread almost in the same way as a biological virus. It was as if every person who conformed to the dominant values and behaviours of the culture was an individual cell in that collective virus. Whenever the other humans saw someone who was a bit different and out of sync with their cultural coding, their glares would fall on them and they were targeted in the same way virus cells targeted other cells when infecting a host. Such insidious hostility thus invoked anxiety into the cell that hasn’t been converted to the culture. That shaking feeling you feel when you feel the judgement and ridicule of the crowd is the culture trying to convert you to become another cell in the collective. As Philosopher Alan Watts once put it: “our society shows anxiety because it cannot tolerate the existence of people who don’t belong.”

So then, if this is truly the case, it seems to me that you have two choices to stop the social anxiety. You either let yourself be taken over by the crowd and convert to their norms and behaviours (thus alleviating the anxiety because now you’re in sync with the others), or you isolate yourself from them completely to stop yourself from feeling the dread. To quote another philosopher (for the last time, I promise): “The cost of sanity in this society is a certain level of alienation.” – Terence Mckenna

When I thought about it, a certain level of alienation didn’t seem like not too bad of an option. I was lucky enough to be at peace in my own company. In fact, in all honesty, most of the time I wanted nothing more than to be alone anyway. In solitude, you could hear yourself think straight and dedicate yourself fearlessly to your own interests. Besides, the more I interacted with the others, the more I felt myself being screwed up at some sort of fundamental level. By just being myself in a group, I was rejected and cast out. People scared me with how judgmental and superficial they were when in social environments. I remember speaking to a friend of a friend who was a successful football pundit for the BBC. When she asked me what I was up to,  she scoffed and rolled her eyes when I told her that I was currently working in a factory – something I found amusing the next day when she posted on social media about the importance of understanding the mental health of others. It truly was a madhouse out there and – when you had a super-sensitive personality as I did – the superficial and shallow nature of society was just simply too much, especially when the bullshit came flying from you relentlessly at all angles. There in those social settings you had people judging, labelling and staring at you from every angle; you had people wanting you to gratify their egos by reciprocating their world views; you had people that pressured you to participate in meaningless conversations just to maintain the bonds of camaraderie among your fellow man.

Like I said, it was one big mental asylum for me anyway, so I retreated into the darkness – into the darkness of my room and the darkness of my mind. I wanted to hold onto my individuality and keeping myself distanced from the masses was a reasonable price to pay. And in truth, I didn’t see my social anxiety as a problem anyway. To me, our current society was the problem, and I think that if anyone were truly sane, then they would also feel anxiety when surrounded by a species that acts so crazy and irrationally whenever they congregate together in groups. Watts, Nietzsche, Mckenna and all those other alienated philosophers knew the score. The strongest men are those most alone and I will keep living to that motto. To anyone else out there still getting social anxiety, my personal advice is just to avoid the crowd as much as you can. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your anxiety is not a disorder. It just means you still have some sanity and want to keep it. And make no mistake about it: in this society, frequent social interaction is enough to send any sane man insane.

 

short stories

~ Finding the Others ~

finding the others

~ Finding the Others ~

It was another riveting day of sitting at home, staring at the walls and longing for some basic form of human connection. I looked around my room and saw the type of mess only created by a single man living alone. It had been another shameless period of solitude filled with writing, drinking, masturbation and late-night ventures through the virtual wilderness of the internet. For the last two weeks, my only interactions with humanity had been done via satellite signals and electronic devices. I had vented to some strangers on Reddit, argued with people on Youtube and Facebook messaged old travel friends who I was probably never going to see again. It was the modern type of isolation and I thought about my scenario and laughed at the sheer absurdity of it. I now lived in a world where I was able to speak to someone in South America, but not in the same building I was living in. No doubt that apartment block was full of lonely souls all around me: dozens of people living together under one roof, but all separated by some shoddy walls. Like society in general, everyone was so close and so far at the same time. It was a strange state of affairs and in a moment of restless frustration, I removed myself from my lair to hit those grey streets in search of someone or something.

I exited the building and started heading towards the city centre. As I did, I looked around at the people passing me on the streets. I saw the businessmen on their way home from work. I saw mothers pushing prams, students carrying beer back to their halls, well-dressed couples holding hands on their way to dates. I saw many types of people, but very few I could be sure I’d be able to connect with. So often I stared into the eyes of the human race wondering where my fellow misfits were hiding. I guess I did need to see one or two of them every now and again. After all, a part of what it is to be human is to find your tribe; to find your people who make you feel like you aren’t alone in your own state of being. It’s why the hippies wear flowers and dread their hair. It’s why the pill-poppers go to raves. It’s why Trump supporters go to country music festivals. We all crave social validation and to be with people who share our perspectives and give us a sense of belonging. We had been doing it since we were tribes roaming the plains of Africa and nothing had changed in the environment of the modern world. Even though I was well-experienced with the act of being alone, I too felt the need to stare into the eyes of someone who also felt like they had been accidentally dropped off on the wrong planet.

A philosopher I listened to called Terence Mckenna had once told me how important in life it was to ‘find the others’. I guess that was what I had been doing in some way while out on my backpacking adventures. Over the years of bumbling around the world, I had naturally come across a few of my extraterrestrial clan along the way. I had met them in the random sort of places people like myself would inevitably end up. Budget hostels. Rundown bars. Long-distance bus rides. Minimum wage, low-skilled jobs.

One situation that came to mind was when I was working in New Zealand. I had arrived in the country with just a few hundred pounds and had been getting by off any type of work I could find. After doing a few agricultural jobs, I had ended up working for a crooked labour agency in some small town. The bosses knew how desperate their staff were for work and consequently assigned you terrible jobs that paid nor more than the minimum wage. It was the type of agency where people who didn’t have much of a clue what they were doing in life ended up, so it was only natural that I had found my way to the front door. Hell, it even appeared that a couple of the others had ended up there too. First was a guy from England who claimed he had never written a CV or been to a job interview in his life. He had spent the last four years working for a cheffing agency before blowing all his savings in Asia and limping into New Zealand with just a few dollars in the bank. The other was a Dutch guy living out of his van – a fellow introverted writer who was out on a soul-searching voyage around the world. We ended up working together on the same tasks and quickly discovered we shared similar eccentric views and perspectives on the world. I was able to talk freely with them about certain philosophies or ideas without being met by the usual looks of consternation and horror. It was a rare and refreshing moment of belonging, and we continued to converse regularly online after we went our separate ways.

Another one of the others I recalled was a depressed French guy I had met in Nepal. We had connected over a few remarks during a group dinner and within days we were chilling together on the roof of his hotel while drinking beer and discussing the meaning of life. He was a wanderer like myself – a person whose plans changed by the day and who had so many ideas that he was perpetually unsure with what direction to take in life. One moment he was moving to Australia, the next to Iran, the next to Russia. As the week went on, we continued to meet up and share the contents of our minds. Conversations were had regarding literature, women, conspiracies, cults and society before we eventually scurried back off into the wilderness to continue our own existential journey through life. Again, we kept in contact after we parted ways.

Besides those guys, I also had met a few more of the others somewhere in the world. Sometimes it was for a minute, sometimes it was for a day – sometimes a few weeks or months. Those wanderers were now sporadically dotted around the world – my comrades of isolation holed up in dark rooms while also engaging in the same everyday struggles that I knew. Of course, it was slightly easier to find a few of my tribe on those bohemian adventures, but for now I was living in a new city back in the U.K and I knew they would be slightly harder to locate. Still, I was determined they were out there somewhere and I kept roaming those streets like a man on safari, hunting for a rare species. I stared into the eyes of those people standing in supermarket queues. I watched the body language of people in crowds that formed at traffic lights. I eavesdropped on conversations in bars, hoping for a certain type of conversation: people with awkward demeanours talking about art or existence or philosophy – any reference to any esoteric thing which might indicate they were also hopelessly out of sync with their surrounding society.

Naturally you had to be careful about the sort of places you frequented while searching for your tribe; in particular your drinking holes. There was one place I knew that usually had a wide range of eccentric characters in there, and consequently it seemed like the best territory to focus my hunt. I proceeded to go and drink there often in an outside smoking area while observing the creatures around me. I listened to their conversations. I stared into their eyes. I watched the nature of their hand movements as they picked up their drinks. It was after a few visits that I eventually met one girl called Christina from Italy. I had overheard her conversation on the table beside me and straight away sensed she was also uncomfortable in her own skin. I got talking to her and found out she was a hiker who preferred to be in nature rather than the confines of the crowd. Like myself, she had also walked ‘El Camino de Santiago’ – a classic pilgrimage for wanderers on some sort of soul-searching journey. The shared experience allowed us to connect on a deeper level and find out more about each other’s lives. It was the start of a friendship that went on for many months as we united under the same banner of being starry-eyed dreamers who just wanted to hike in nature, rather than engage in the social requirements of human society. It had taken a few weeks of hunting but, finally, I had found the first of my tribe.

The second of my tribe was a guy who sat on the desk next to me when I started a temporary office job. At first we didn’t connect or speak much at all, but as the days and weeks went on, I gradually identified some giveaway signs that he was a man of a similar disposition to the world as I was. Sometimes I spotted him staring into space with a wistful look in his eyes; another time I saw him scribbling some fantasy sketches in his notebook while half-heartedly talking on the phone. I got speaking with him with a bit of formulaic work colleague small-talk and, after a few clumsy moments and references, we began to notice that we were the same type of awkward personality. I knew of a personality test which assigned people into sixteen different personality types; I was sure he was the same as me so I made a reference to it which he immediately responded too. As predicted, he was a guy who shared the same personality type with me: an INFP personality – the type ruled totally by the heart and intuition, rather than any sort of logic and judgment. It was only natural this type suffered in this mechanical society (as evidenced by the fact this type was the most likely to commit suicide or earn the least amount of money). Male INFPs made up just 1.5% of the population and this rare bridge of connection allowed us to converse on a deep level whenever we got a moment to escape from the suffocating reality of the office environment. It was soon clear that I had located another one of the others as I experienced that rare moment of being totally understood by another person.

The months went on as I started to locate more and more of the others. With my hunter skills improving all the time, I was gradually getting better at detecting and distinguishing my fellow misfits among the crowd. Of course, I needed to remember to make sure I was also putting out my own signals in case there were others out there looking for me. I thought of how many of the great artists had found each other by others putting themselves out there. Like stranded castaways, the weirdos had put themselves out there in SOS signals for others of their kind to come and find them. As an internet meme once told me: ‘You’ve gotta shine your weirdo light bright so the other weirdos know where to find you’. I did exactly that by spewing out my thoughts and writings on internet blogs. Consequently, a few people came into my life, including one English Italian woman living in Switzerland who had messaged me through my Facebook blog. We started speaking casually until we eventually ended up talking almost daily, even going on to create a sort of ‘madness diary’ in which we confessed our latest episodes of madness like we were each other’s online therapist. Another was an Indian girl into Henna tattoos who had read my books; we also spoke online for a while and ended up meeting in a street food restaurant as we discussed why trees were the greatest works of art and how the universe was essentially one giant brain, much to the confusion of the people around us who looked at us like we had just escaped from the nearest mental asylum. 

All things considered, it was safe to say I was gradually becoming quite skilled at finding the others. I was slowly mastering the art of testing the waters with certain conversations, probing and poking others to see if underneath the social mask there was another one of my tribe trying their best to remain undercover in human society. It was a skill I knew I was going to use throughout the rest of my life as I continued stumbling along on my solitary path. I guess it was true that I was a man who thrived on wandering alone, but it seems I couldn’t escape the human need to stare into the eyes of someone who understood me for who I actually was. Life is a lonely march for many of us, especially the ones who frequently feel a bit alienated and misunderstood, but just a moment of connection with another of your tribe was sometimes enough to keep you going on your path for another few months. That was exactly what I did as I ended up going travelling again before returning and settling down again in a new city. Life soon returned back to normal as I went about life on my own, drifting through the days and returning to my lair of solitude for more shameless spells of drinking, writing, masturbating and late-night ventures through the virtual wilderness through the internet. Sometimes it all became a little too much, but the idea that there was more like me out there was comforting enough to convince myself that I wasn’t totally crazy or doomed or destined for that nearest mental asylum. 

And hey, I guess we all needed that reassurance every now and again.

 

 

poetry

~ The Asylum ~

~ The Asylum ~

Hey kid. Good day!
Let me help you on your way.
There’s something I’m required to say,
before you check in for your stay.

First: welcome to the asylum,
where we will clothe you with illusion;
welcome to this madhouse,
where you are fed with pure delusion;
we will help you go insane,
just like your fathers and your mothers;
just follow these basic rules,
so you can go crazy with the others!

1) Get paid; get laid – produce more members of the state
2) Buy gear; live in fear – choose the politics of hate
3) Choose a religion; find division – no need for any proof
4) Wear a mask; lie if they ask – become the enemy of truth
5) Follow fashion; ignore your passion – conformity is the best
6) No variety; feel anxiety – avoid the judgement of the rest
7) Adore tomorrow; save and borrow – the future is the king
8) Don’t be content; get it spent – this present moment is sickening

Yeah welcome to the asylum,
within the walls of ego division;
make yourself right at home;
your cell comes with a television;
please remember it is forbidden,
to possess the nature of your self;
but make sure you have money,
for your bank balance is your health!

Phew; okay.
Now that’s cleared up, we can get you all checked in.
I think your cell is located just down here on the left.
You like the colour grey, right?
Oh yeah; just one last thing before I forget..

Smiley faces and celebrity worship!
As the rulers put you through your paces!
Smiley faces and abandoned dreams!
As your mind rots in office spaces!

Smiley faces and smog pollution!
As you’re chatting about the weather!
Smiley faces and no solution!
As you all go crazy together!

Forever! Together!
Forever! Together!

…..

Have fun, kid.

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articles

~ Life Is An Opportunity: Go All The Way ~

~ Life Is An Opportunity: Go All The Way ~

“Naked and screaming you arrived: a living, breathing organism made of flesh, skin and bones on a rock spinning a thousand miles per hour as it levitates around a giant ball of fire in an infinite universe of exploding stars, black holes and interstellar nebulae. You arrived in your physical form with a body to explore with, a head to think with and time to play with – time that is, to undertake the brief, bittersweet journey that we call life. Planet earth is the stage for that journey – a playground of immense beauty where there are endless possibilities and where one thing can’t be denied. That from the day we are born until the day that we all die: life here is an opportunity.

It is an opportunity for us to come to terms with the mind-blowing scenario of life on this floating rock and decide how we are going to make the most of it. To decide how many of our dreams we are going to follow; to decide how many places we are going to visit; to decide how any professions we are going to undertake; to decide how many people we are going to share our journey with. Life is an opportunity – a chance to make our lives extraordinary and daring; a chance for all of us to push the lever of life down hard, chase the horizon and explore our wildest dreams. Life is an opportunity.

Yet when one looks at the world and society, how many people can honestly say they are pushing the lever down hard? Who are doing all that they can to make the most of their existence in the universe? Who are either chasing or living their dreams? We are all different, and one person’s version of a life well-lived is different to another’s, but so commonly as individuals we are disempowered and discouraged to neglect our dreams and passions (no matter how ridiculous they are) in order to be moulded and shaped by the cultures in which we are raised to live a life that is just ‘okay’ and ‘safe’. We forget that life is an opportunity and do things not because it’s true to our own nature, but to keep up with culture; to do something because everybody else ‘does that’ and because other people expect it of us.

That is why every now and again, one of us must come forward from the herd and remind people that they are all individuals. And that they are free. Free to chase their dreams and dance the ridiculous dance of life in an infinite universe. Free to abandon ideology and a culture that is oppressive to the true nature of the self. That they are free to realise once more that life is an opportunity for the artist to create works of art; for the athlete to set new records; for the scientist to make new discoveries; for the builder to create new structures; for the explorer to explore new places. It is a moment in time where the individual has the brief period of a few decades to make the most of their ticket in the playground of planet earth. And not to let any external force, any culture or any ideology hinder his or herself in any way.

When Martin Luther King stood up to fight for the freedom of black Americans, he knew that he would put himself in grave danger – but he also knew life was an opportunity; when Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of one of the world’s top universities to create the world’s largest social network, he faced failure and ridicule – but he also knew life was an opportunity; when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hilary first ascended Mount Everest they knew the immense dangers involved – but they also knew life was an opportunity. They knew that such an existence is precious and finite – and thus a chance to go all the way; to stand up for humanity and push the boundaries of exploration, passion and adventure.

And so, just like them, it is down to each one of us to decide at what length we want to explore our passions and dreams – no matter how big or small they may be deemed. It is down to us to look in the mirror, gaze into the eye of self and say: what am I doing right now to live my life the best I can? What am I doing this week that keeps me on track to taking full advantage of this extraordinary reality I am a part of? Ultimately, what am I doing to go all the way in this magical and beautiful world? Because, as far as we know, there is only one life. So, push the lever down hard; make the most of it. Explore. Dream. Discover. Create.

This is your opportunity.

 

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(taken from my book ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ available here)