Let the nonsense flow

Pattern made from upholstery on the Victoria line

Today, a friend messaged me from their mid-morning Monday desk to say that they were struggling. (This friend thinks they might be on the spectrum and is wrestling with whether that warrants further enquiry. People in this situation seek me out often, and I actively welcome it.)

Their pleasingly logical plea for help came with an insistence for me not to worry about them; however, if I could send them a couple of tips to get through their messy, stressy Monday, they’d appreciate it… sorry to have troubled me… don’t worry if I don’t have time… and other adorable, relatable minimisings.

I shared a couple of quick fix check-ins. The Pomodoro technique. The sensory sweep. (I’ll write about these in time – links will appear across these posts before too long.) However I sensed something more fundamental in their offloading.

Their stress arose from a situation in which other people were not making much sense. And when you’re prone to thinking you’re defective, it’s all too easy to assume that any deficit of understanding lies squarely with you.

So I offered this: Consider the possibility that other people aren’t making sense in this situation. Just because you’re having difficulty understanding something, it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s been properly explained and the fault lies with you, the receiver. You are entitled to seek clarification. You are allowed to ask the same question twice.

“The beginning of wisdom, I believe, is our ability to accept an inherent messiness in our explanation of what’s going on.

Rupert Sheldrake

Sometimes, no-one has the first idea what they’re doing. Sometimes a whole business meeting can go by with nothing having been achieved or agreed on at all beyond a little power-wrestling or grandstanding.

Yes, it’s taken me twenty five years of working life to fully understand this. When someone is only making 10% of sense, my sense-seeking mind has a tendency to leap forward 90% to make up the shortfall of understanding between us. Sometimes this speeds things up; sometimes, it develops ideas. Sometimes though, it misfires and annoys them – either because I’ve drawn the wrong conclusion, or frankly, been a smart-arse.

I’ve learned (or rather, am learning) to quiet that internal voice that insists on perfect sense from others. It’s not my job to restore everyone else’s thoughts and actions to order, and it’s an arrogance to try. There are times when, if nothing much is at stake, the quickest route to sanity is accepting that an exchange simply made no sense to anyone, and letting that pass by unremarked. And of course, a pleasing side-effect of letting other people not make sense is that you give that permission to yourself, too. What a relief.

My correspondent today was twenty years my junior. I hope they went back into their day feeling a little less wrong-footed.

Later that evening on the tube (I’m in town for tomorrow’s National Suicide Prevention Alliance conference) I found myself propped against an open window between carriages. Each time the train set off, tepid air gusted through, carrying chatter and scent from all the carriages ahead. At first I winced and dodged it, fringe whipping at my face, eyes stinging as I turned this way and that.

Soon I found the right angle. With my face pressed full into the breeze, the warm scent of working machinery and discarded coffee cups pushed my hair away from my closed eyelids; a temporary figurehead in winter coat and messenger bag. I felt the pressure give way as we all surged through the tunnel, together temporarily on our many missions, carrying tiny payloads of potential to our myriad destinations.

It’s a wonder, really, that anything synchronises at all. Don’t exhaust yourself trying bring it all to order. Save your energy for those times when directing the flow could make a difference.

2 thoughts on “Let the nonsense flow”

  1. As Thomas Nagel might say, under our thin veneer of ‘sense’ – life is inherently absurd anyway. “People dancing appear insane to those who cannot hear the music”, (Nietzsche – sorry I appear to be in a name dropping mood…) We have invented ‘cultures’ which force us into painful, helpless dances, then forgotten how to hear the music. So we move in ways we ourselves do not understand.
    We invent money, and then enslave ourselves to it at the cost of wellbeing, then talk of money like it was a cold fact, not an arbitrary invention and a choice.
    A little examination shows that the only way meaning (for humans) can exist is if meaning (‘built in to the universe’) does not exist. Absence of meaning is a requirement for the presence of meaning.
    We invent religion to ‘save our souls’, then commit atrocities in the name of the loving god we’ve subjugated ourselves to.
    Add to this inherent struggle the difficulty of language. I say house, you hear home – but Betty hears a bingo call, Jim thinks of Hugh Laurie as a doctor. Even if we all think Home, I think caravan of loneliness, you semi-detatched house and family warmth, Betty thinks palace and of her thwarted dreams and Jim thinks of the sorrow of his broken family. Each word means something different to each of us, and language becomes just a game of ‘approximate communication’ – and then only if you understand the rules of any given context (Wittgenstein, more name dropping).
    We easily forget that language is not a precise instrument, but a vague if often useful system. Just look at the law, producing book-long essays in an attempt to absolutely define even the smallest idea, and the language becomes ridiculous and labyrinthine. So our dance of speaking feels as if it must make sense, yet sense is a rare commodity. We should remind ourselves often that there is music we cannot hear, shaping the dance of our conversations.
    When your son asked how two people ‘talk’ and ‘connect’ (earlier post) – the ‘secret’ is here, in a way. We each grow to have our own unique ‘invisible music’, our natural flow and shape of meaning and belief. When you talk with someone who has ‘harmonious music’ – the conversation ignites, it feels alive with truth and import, and you connect.
    Mostly, however, we are like a classical buff talking with a metal-head, or a rapper and a jazz-cat. Lyotard (last name-drop I promise) posited a ‘differend’ – when two people cannot understand each other because their background assumptions are not compatible. For example, a racist and a humanitarian cannot see eye-to-eye, or a misogynist and a feminist, a flat-earther and a round-earther. In these cases no amount of talk will create understanding.
    That’s the way of it for most people most of the time. However, because life is busy most people just ignore that they are rarely understood. As long as they can watch Eastenders and buy coffee, who cares! Indeed, it is the shared experience, or understanding, of these shallow memes – soaps, gadgets, fashions – that provide us with ‘meaning anchors’ to hold too as the rest of the ‘mystery of life’ occurs. Some might even say that those in power shape education and work to keep the masses from finding meaning, and thus remain stupid enough to keep voting for them.
    Being forced apart from the world makes you pay extra attention, and then you see the confusion. Those who can tell that we majoritively talk nonsense are not the ones with a defect. Your friend (and yourself) simply have the gift/curse of noticing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Most days it is definitely a gift – those days when you can detach from the nonsense of everything and be an amused and inquisitive observer. Some days it’s imposed on you, and those are much harder.

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