Saturday, January 16, 2010

Introspection and Repression

In the one corner sits psychological repression. In the other corner we have introspection. Both forces can tug at us throughout our lives, depending on the situation we must face, and both have consequences for our long term well being. As I was watching the 1980 film 'Ordinary People' again recently, it struck me how well this 30-year-old movie presents both sides, without degenerating into mawkishness or self parody.

Some of my readers may know the film, but others not. The story concerns a well off family in suburban Chicago facing the death of a son and brother. Donald Sutherland plays the father dumbfounded by the sad event of his eldest son's death in a boating accident and the resulting suicide attempt by his youngest son, played superbly by a young Timothy Hutton. Hutton's character Conrad is wracked with guilt over his brother's death. The movie begins just after Conrad has come home from a stay in hospital. In a bit of casting genius, Mary Tyler Moore plays the emotionally distant mother Beth. At the time, Moore was known as a comedienne, having recently completed the seven-season run of her hit sitcom. To cast her as the uptight suburban mother seemed risky in 1980, which is what made her tour de force performance all the more satisfying.

Ordinary People was Robert Redford's directorial debut, and in my mind he has never equalled the skill he shows in this film. There isn't a single throwaway scene or camera angle. The entire film maintains its focus on the issue of coming to grips with a personal tragedy and never lets go of this focus. Other movies turn suburban American stories into social commentaries about the idle rich or seek to reveal the 'obvious' underbelly of such a milieu. Ordinary People avoids the pontificating and cheap shots and shines its light on the Jarrett family's troubles. It neither derides them for their affluence nor snickers at their very real difficulties. It is, in my opinion, the most honest view of a family I have ever seen.

Some people may think of the film as a naturalistic slice of life. After all, there are no big heroes or monumental life-and-death struggles. Similarly, there is no obvious villain. It is a quiet and slow moving story - and a sombre one at that. Despite the apparent lack of an epic and gripping tale, in its own way it is epic. In the space of two hours, it deals with the issue of psychological health and at the close of the film has provided a subtle conclusion about which side it favours.

I first saw the movie at age 14 with my parents, when it was released in cinemas. At the time I didn't think twice about seeing such a difficult movie with my parents, but in the 30 years since, I have often thanked my parents for taking me to see it. It's quite something to sit in a dark cinema watching a family come apart at the seams, with a teenage son telling his mother to f*** off - and having my parents next to me no less! At that age, I surely didn't grasp the subtlety of the dialogue or the quiet intensity of the interplay between the characters. What I did know was this family had an awful truth to swallow and the two opposing characters of Beth and her son Conrad illustrated the theme of the film in stark frankness. To this day, the pivotal scenes at the end of the movie move me to tears.

30 years later, the movie still resonates with me because I always chose the path of introspection to resolve my difficulties. I don't credit Ordinary People with teaching me this lesson, but I do turn to it to highlight the importance of dealing with one's problems head on, regardless of how difficult it may be. Judd Hirsch, who plays the character of the wise Dr Berger, Conrad's psychiatrist, has an especially good line: 'A little advice about feelings kiddo; don't expect it always to tickle'. To me, this sums up the theme of the story. To deal with one's emotions isn't always pleasant, but it is a necessary step along the road to psychological health.

In the ruthless pursuit of values, the best gift one can give oneself is to introspect constantly and without regret. Anything less to me is to live incompletely. It's a choice we must all face on a daily basis: to think or to evade. I have picked the former and it has served me well in more than four decades of living.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Politics and Parties

A curious and fascinating thing occurs whenever I attend parties. Throughout the majority of an evening, the topics of conversation concern the details of people's lives - their careers, romantic relationships, movies they like, bands they absolutely MUST see when they return to Sydney, etc. And then that brief period hits that some of the partygoers see the need to broach the big topic of politics. Leaving aside the futility of such conversations in mixed company, I often wonder what motivates people to discuss them anyway.

To be clear, I do not view people as imbeciles incapable of deeper conversations on a variety of topics. On the contrary, I am constantly heartened to hear people wax eloquently about the industries they work in and how they have an impact on the wider culture. People are often passionate about their own values and can convey them with aplomb.

When I am asked about my career, I give a brief summary of the business problem my company solves with our software and my role in the sales process. I am neither too technical nor too 'sales-y'. I present examples of better customer service achieved through better communication, which is the key benefit of what my company sells.

Being American but living permanently in Australia is a built-in conversation starter, too. Partygoers are curious about my decision to move here and fascinated to hear about all the odd places I've lived in the world over the past 25 years. Australians I know often view Americans as uneducated homebodies, as opposed to worldly adventurers, which I clearly am.

These are all excellent party conversations. They address values at a personal level, which are to me the most important values. And yet inevitably, someone brings up politics at a party. It raises hackles because people don't want to seem uninterested and yet few people take a deep interest in the underlying principles of political philosophy. Because politics as practised in Western nations today is rarely principled, the predictable conclusion over party conversation amounts to: ah, who cares about ideas when we have such chumps in office. Rarely is there a next logical question, which is: why do we elect such chumps, only to complain later that they are liars and thieves after the fact?

During the American Presidential elections of 2008, a great many Australians asked me if I were proud that serious ideas were finally being discussed. My polite but direct answer was: I didn't find the ideas serious and that there was nothing new about quibbling over how the next administration was going to go after this or that industry for its alleged abuses.

This brings me back to the uneasy broaching of the topic in polite company. If people are moved by ideas in their personal lives, why do they so casually discard them when it comes to more abstract areas of intellectual endeavour? The answer lies within the question. People know a great deal about their own lives and careers, but when it comes to areas that do not directly concern them, their views become the boilerplate content of the airwaves and editorial pages.

As a mental exercise, think about your closest friends and what you know about them. Could you ask them 25 good questions about what they value in life and expect that the answers would be well reasoned and interesting? Now consider if the same is true if you were to ask them 25 questions about politics.

Abstract ideas are abstract for a reason: they are necessarily far removed from the immediately perceptual data that we all witness every day. It is far easier to reach rational conclusions about our jobs because we do them every day. We can even think ahead and form conclusions about how our work life can and ought to be, to borrow a formulation from the Greeks. When it comes to politics, however, few have the wherewithal to question the validity of minimum wage laws or the corruption of science when taken over by politics, to cite a few examples I have frequently overheard at parties.

As a matter of habit, I never bring up politics in mixed company and I never try to persuade anyone of the contrary views I hold. I respect people's intellects too much to bombard them with data they are unlikely to process fully. I have reached the conclusion, upon observation of a number of parties over the years, that people want to appear more intellectually 'with it' and so they jump headlong into a topic destined for a train wreck at the next switching station. Whilst I appreciate the sentiment, I still wish people would refrain from such desperation and stick to discussion better suited to party conversation: their own fascinating lives.