Sunday, 15 March 2015

Linklater's Boyhood: finding meaning through family and connecting with others

Mason Evans, protagonist of Boyhood, at the movie's brilliant ending. Photo source. 

Boyhood, the extraordinary 2014 movie shot intermittently over twelve years by Richard Linklater, maps Mason Evan’s journey from six to eighteen years old, with all of the challenges and moments of joy in-between. The beauty of the film is ingrained in this detail, or the day-to-day intricacies of experience, emotion and connection.

As Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason's father, neatly states,

It's Tolstoy-esque in scope. I thought the Before series was the most unique thing I would ever be a part of, but Rick has engaged me in something even more strange. Doing a scene with a young boy at the age of seven when he talks about why do raccoons die, and at the age of 12 when he talks about video games, and 17 when he asks me about girls, and have it be the same actor—to watch his voice and body morph—it's a little bit like timelapse photography of a human being.

Boyhood is a story of family and connection from start to finish, although it is realistic and not without difficulties. We see sibling disputes, disagreements with parents, and failed teenage relationships that cannot fail to strike a chord.

Mason complains to his then-girlfriend, Sheena, that, "I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I'm just not.", adding that, "I find myself so furious at all these people that I am in contact with just for controlling me or whatever but you know they are not even aware they are doing it."

Sheena replies by asking, "in this perfect world where no one is controlling you. What's different? What changes?" To which Mason responds, "Everything. I mean, I just wanna be able to do anything I want, because it makes me feel alive. As opposed to giving me the appearance of normality."

From one existential crisis to another, Mason is searching for meaning and a way to define his purpose. I love Boyhood's celebration of art and creation, yet as the film closes, we’re left thinking that perhaps Mason's pursuit of purpose lies precisely in the relationships that we’ve seen him shape in the last twelve years.

Reading Harry Potter in Boyhood.

After all, our lives aren't truly marked by the things we tend to obsess over achieving. Working past 5pm every day won’t win a place in your eulogy, nor will having the biggest house of your friends (I enjoyed how Arianna Huffington wrote about this in Thrive).

At one point in Boyhood, during a road trip to Austin, Mason explains why he wants to to delete his Facebook: “I just want to try and not live my life through a screen, I want, like some actual interaction… a real person, not just the profile they put up”.

We don’t need to delete our Facebook, but simply remember that life is made up of connections (as Whitman recently reminded us), and a life is remembered for the impact that it has on others. Creating a mark on the world is often more to do with connecting with others than making a name for ourselves. This is how we create meaning, and quite often it’s how we cultivate happiness too.


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Saturday, 7 March 2015

Navigating a Confusing World with Whitman's "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances"

Walt Whitman photographed at his home in Camden, New Jersey. Samuel Murray, 1891.

"Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances" by Walt Whitman is included in my favourite poetry anthology of last year, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden. It is chosen by Stephen Fry in the collection, and it's also alleged to be J.K. Rowling's favourite poem.

I love this poem because it recognises that the world is a confusing place. It's not always easy to find meaning, and I think we all occasionally ponder why we're here.

Whitman seems to be telling us that this is understandable. Yet he also suggests there is a solution of sorts: spending time with those who are important to us, and creating meaning through connection.

The final four lines are worth learning by heart. As Stephen Fry beautifully puts it: "It's Uncle Walt at his most perfect, I think. The strangely jerky parenthetical hiccups in the middle all build into an ending that never fails to choke me".

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances by Walt Whitman


Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only,
May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and the real something has yet to be known,
(How often they dart out of themselves as if to confound me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows, aught of them,)
May-be seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they indeed but seem) as from my present point of view, and might prove (as of course they would) nought of what they appear, or nought anyhow, from entirely changed points of view;
To me these and the like of these are curiosly answer'd by my lovers, my dear friends,
When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity beyond the grave,
But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

From Leaves of Grass



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Sunday, 22 February 2015

Mastering the art of being brilliant (and how to be one of the super-happy 2%)

During a recent mentoring session I was recommended several books for business and personal development. These were to help me work out where I want to be, where to start, how to become a more confident leader and thinker, that sort of thing.

The books included:


It was this last book, The Art of Being Brilliant, which the mentor really had good things to say about. The book, she told me, helps you to develop the kind of attitude that takes you from good to brilliant in all aspects of life.

The Art of Being Brilliant

We reckon only about 2% of people fall into the category of feeling consistently great.  The “2%ers” stand out a mile. They are enthusiastic, optimistic, energetic, effervescent and possess a 'can-do' mentality. Research shows that they live longer, are more productive and raise the happiness levels of the people around them.

- Andy Cope and Andy Whittaker

It's an easy read, at under 200 pages. There are lots of diagrams (simple ones, mind), drawings, and pages to write down your answers to questions. 

The first set of questions includes:

Being brilliant with Andy Cope and Andy Whittaker
  • Think of someone who inspires you. What exactly do they do that makes you feel so brilliant?
  • Who are you at your best?
  • It's your 100th birthday and there's a big family party in your honour. Someone is going to stand up and say a few words about you. What would you like them to say?

The book is full of positivity, and shares "six common-sense principles to transform your life". It sounds quick-fix, but like the authors say, it's really all just common sense that we could do with being reminded of.

If you want to discover what you're good at, make the most of what you've got, and work out where you want to go next, this book is a superb place to start.

A quick warning: this book contains a lot of exclamation marks.

It's safe to say that positive thinking won't let you do 'anything'. However, it is even safer to say that positive thinking will let you do 'everything' better than negative thinking will. Positive thinking will let you use the ability which you have, and that is awesome. It works this way. You can walk into a dark room, flip on the switch and immediately the room is lighted. Flipping the switch did not generate the electricity; it released the electricity which had been stored. Positive thinking works that way - it releases the abilities which you have.

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Sunday, 8 February 2015

Marina Keegan's list of interesting stuff, and why we should create our own

I wrote about Marina Keegan's book The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories towards the end of last year. I suggested that the collection could be used to find hope and the courage to be creative, but there was something else that particularly inspired me.

This was Keegan's list of Interesting Stuff, which is mentioned in the book's introduction by the essayist and professor Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman recalls how, in an application to her first-person writing class, Marina wrote the following:

About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That's what I call it. I'll admit it's become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter's hand gestures, to my cab driver's eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.

I find this fascinating: a source of creative wisdom and inspiration, yet also a trove of memories and everyday experiences.

When reading The Opposite of Loneliness, Fadiman's mention of Marina's list sets us up for the stories and essays ahead, and it's hard to doubt the influence it must have had on her writing and creativity.

It's something more than a journal, and much more personal than using Evernote to collect snippets of interestingness on our phone.

Let's keep note of the words that inspire us, the smallest moments of beauty we notice, and thoughts that come to us that don't fit any other list.

More list worship

Sydney Smith's twenty antidotes to depression
Ernest Hemingway's list of twenty books we ought to read
Leo Tolstoy's "Rules of Life"
Charles Darwin's list on the pros and cons of marriage (and the importance of books)


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