Friday, 22 April 2016

Good ruminations

Beyond the reflection that I must be getting old, because the majority of the famous people I've heard of now seem to be dead, Prince's death did prompt another rumination - this time about about a trait shared by a subset of our recently-deceased high achievers:
[Publicist Martin] Keller said Prince was a “severe introvert” who grew from barely getting words out early in his career to becoming more articulate and media-friendly as he got older...
...[Long-time north Minneapolis resident Robin] Crockett had known Prince since she was 10. She and others often huddled in the home’s basement to watch him practice. “He’d sit without his guitar plugged in,” she said. “Just him and his guitar.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune

This, just after we'd adjusted to the death of Victoria Wood who, famously, had an isolated childhood, largely spent in one of the many rooms of the house her eccentric mother had partitioned up with sheets of reclaimed plywood, alone, save for a telly, a piano and an active imagination.

And as for Bowie, who more or less kicked off Death's bumper 2016 talent harvest, here's the man in his own words:
As an adolescent, I was painfully shy, withdrawn. I didn’t really have the nerve to sing my songs onstage and nobody else was doing them. I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn’t have to actually go through the humiliation of going onstage and being myself. I continued designing characters with their own complete personalities and environments. I put them into interviews with me! Rather than be me — which must be incredibly boring to anyone — I’d take Ziggy in, or Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke. It was a very strange thing to do.
All three had an element of introversion written through them like a stick of rock and I'm guessing that several more of 2016's honoured dead shared something of this trait (the famously reclusive Harper Lee sounds like a dead cert), although not all of them (it's difficult to imagine the thrill-seeking Lemmy sitting on the introvert end of the spectrum, although even he seems to have had an comparatively isolated childhood with plenty of room for solitary rumination).

But whether or not the young Lemmy spent a lot of time ruminating, a lot of highly talented introverts certainly did. That's worth remembering, because there's a tendency to only see the bad side of rumination. For a lot of mental health professionals and counsellors, rumination is A Bad Thing, a pathology to be eliminated, so that people can mindfully live in the moment, free from useless anxiety and unprofitable introspection.

And they do have something of a point. There are obvious forms of rumination we'd be better off without. In ascending order of seriousness:
  • all those times you've over-thought a problem and can't see a solution, but then the answer pops into your head once you've stopped worrying about it
  • endlessly fretting over the things that have gone wrong in your life until you've thought yourself into a state of exhausted depression or self-pity
  • being so focused on a solitary train of thought that you ignore any reality checkpoints you might pass and end up in an insane world of David Icke-style monomania
  • the obsessive ruminations of the stalker, fixated on the object of his or her obsession
  • the stereotypical murderer who shocked neighbours insist "kept himself to himself" while presumably ruminating over the dark fantasies, or real or imagined slights and insults which would eventually bubble over in some act of horrific violence.
But we need some balance here. Insane murderers are, thankfully, rare. On the opposite end of the rumination spectrum there are exceptionally talented people - also rare - who ruminate more than average and come up with great ideas. The width of the spectrum is enormous, encompassing everything from the grim and  frightening ruminations of the serial killer, to Victoria Wood ruminating on which was the funniest type of biscuit to name-check in her sketch, song, or stand-up routine and all points in between. And I'm willing to bet that, beyond the high-profile world of showbiz, the world's most talented scientists, engineers, medics and other high-end problem-solvers do more than their fair share of rumination.

There's pathological rumination, but there's also inspired rumination, creative rumination, analytical rumination, imaginative rumination, playful rumination and sheer genius rumination. It's context-dependent, not necessarily always a good or a bad thing, but I get the impression that it's generally frowned on these days, by people who only see the pathological end of the spectrum, an overgeneralisation which leads to people coming out with crazy talk like "You think too much", as if this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say, when it's really like saying "You breathe too much",* or, for Descartes fans, "You exist too much."

It can be a bad thing to be too obsessed with celebrities, but in this case, looking at at the habits of exceptionally talented people can provide a useful counter-narrative to the fashionable idea that all rumination is a menace which should be stamped out.

Apart from anything else, rumination, can be fun - Socrates thought that the unexamined life wasn't worth living and I'm with the ugly old bugger on that one. But, then, I'm a bit of an introvert, so I would say that, wouldn't I?

*I guess you can hyperventilate but, in general, breathing isn't something you want to stop doing any sooner than you can possibly help it.