I've just recently finished reading The Quarry by Iain Banks, his last novel. I put off reading it for a while because I assumed that it would be quite upsetting for me to read, knowing that the story was about a man dying of cancer, written by a man who has recently died of cancer. And not just any man, but someone who was, to me at least, a literary hero. Many authors I love were long since dead before I had even heard of them, so it was nice to have an author who was still about and still writing, although many of his recent books, whilst still saying something interesting about the human condition, did not reach the awesome heights of The Crow Road, Complicity or The Wasp Factory for me. Having said that, The Quarry, is, in my opinion, his best book for a while, which just makes it all the more bittersweet that it was his last. The aspect of the novel that struck me the deepest, apart from the ‘facing your own mortality’ facet, was the complex nature of the feelings that the character who was dying, Guy, had towards his old friends. The way he moaned at and about his friends, his frustration towards them combined with a sense of belonging and nostalgia, was very familiar to me. It felt like a very honest account of what it truly is to love a friend. Because I do get frustrated with my friends, hurt by them, I feel in reaction to their choices as though those choices they were my own. I find it hard to be measured and rational in response to their actions because I’m utterly emotionally invested in them. I hold them to same high standard that I fail to live up to myself. This is not because I see my friends as useless, it is because, to me, they are awesome, and yet they often don’t seem to realise it. They have all this potential and intelligence and ability, and I want them to reach for the stars, and that is why I get frustrated when they underestimate themselves.
I then feel guilty for feeling annoyed or frustrated, because that is not how you should be with friends, is it? We should just support our friends, whatever the weather, and never judge them. But I honestly feel that it is impossible not to judge them, they are too close to me, I care too much about them and what happens to them not to judge. The fact is though that whatever the outcome of their choices, I will always support them, I will always love them, and to a certain extent, isn't that what we want out of friends? People who encourage us to be better, believe that we can be better, people who will give you honest feedback, but still shut the fuck up and listen when they are needed? I know that my friends feel the same about me, they judge me but they still love me, in fact they judge me because they love me, even if I'm behaving like a tit.
It is an emotional roller coaster, caring for people, investing in people, sometimes it's exhausting and you just feel that it would be easier to have fair weather friendships and acquaintances and people around you that you don't feel as bothered about when life happens. But apart from the obvious benefits of spending time with people you like, another aspect that pulls you in deeper is the mutual investment, because together, you're a team. You could be a team of two or twenty, but there you are, and then there is you lot, against the rest of the crazy world. And that team, when they put their minds together, can be amazing. You’ve been through all of these experiences together and you know each other inside out and backwards, and when my friend is in trouble, everything else melts away and all that matters is being there for them and having their back. It’s a reaction that does not even require any conscious thought, when you love someone, it is no effort to be there for them, it is a necessity, for you as much as them, because you need to be there, you need to help, because you love them.
But my judgement is not limited to the people I care about it, would that it were, I judge everyone and everything else in the world too, from my own skewed personal perspective. This gets worse as you get older I've found, as your personality, morals and world view become solidified and more consistent. When I was younger I felt the need to get the agreement of all of my friends before I made a choice in my life, I needed to convince them that I was right before having faith in my own choices. Thankfully I have gradually realised that this is impossible in all cases, sometimes your friends will agree, sometimes they will think you're making a big cock up, and you need to have the courage of your own convictions, because the person who has to live your life is you, and you will never be able to please everyone. Learning to be a bit selfish is part of growing up, but this is not always a bad thing, it is a necessary thing, otherwise you end being a person by committee, letting the opinions of those around you dictate your choices, and if you're not happy with those choices, the resentment will come out somewhere, somehow, probably inappropriately and all over the carpet. But that does not mean that I don't listen to the people I trust, I know they are judging me for the same reasons that I judge them, because they want the best for me, and it is important to consider their opinions, and perspective, in relation to my own, and let it inform my decision. Inform being the key word here, not dictate, as once over I think it did.
But that's your friends and loved ones, what about the rest of the world? What about all the other voices out there that make you mad, make you sad, make you want to scream in exasperation because you feel that the tree they are barking up is so utterly the wrong one?
I heard a phrase recently that has stuck in my head, the only person you can change is yourself. This is about the truest statement I've ever heard, the only person you have control over, is you, your reactions to things, the way you chose to deal with difficult people and situations. And it’s not easy, to change yourself, being honest with yourself is really difficult, much harder than being honest with other people. Who else is ever going to judge you as harshly as you judge yourself, on every level, physical appearance, life choices, the friends you have, the judgements they make on you and you make on them? You can't change other people, you can influence them, perhaps, if they feel that what you're saying has some validity, but that influence is controlled by them, as only it should be. If you go into any relationship wanting to change someone, then something is very wrong. That's not to say that you shouldn't encourage a person to be best they can be, to push for them not to get hung up on insecurities and act confidentially in the person they are, but the qualities you admire have to be there already, you can't hope to instil them into someone. You can only treat someone with respect and empathy and hope that they will respond positively. We don't all always act out of self-interest. Our judgements don't come from an unfeeling place, if anything they come from a feeling-too-much-place. If we didn't care we wouldn't judge and that's the long and short of it. But courtesy is important. Just because you believe something doesn't mean that everyone else should or will. Of course you can try to persuade someone of your argument, through blog posts or similar ;) But just because someone doesn’t agree with your point of view, doesn’t make them the enemy, it makes them different.
Another phrase that has been winging its way around my head in relation to this issue is, ‘If you open your mind too much your brain will fall out.’ This was said by Tim Minchin, although he admits that he nicked the phrase from another. In the context of what he was saying, I think he was trying to use the phrase to mean, if you ignore logic and common sense in preference to unsubstantiated beliefs and ideas, then you will lose IQ points, your brain will fall out, as it were. But I have been thinking about this statement in a slightly different context, if you let everyone else's opinions and ideas and beliefs dictate your choices and actions, then you will lose yourself, your brain will fall out, you would no longer be you. We are all unique, the product of specific influences and personality traits, and we have the opportunity in this life to experience the world as an individual. An aspect of what I believe is that we are all part of the same entity, not a god based ideology, but one based on the idea that everything in the universe is connected and we are just energy transferring from one state to another. I believe that once we've lived this life, we change state and become part of everything else again, the earth, the stars, people's imaginations. This is our opportunity to experience life as an individual, with our own perspective. So don't fight it, embrace it, embrace being a unique entity that has judgements and opinions and flaws. Don't let your brain fall out. But remember that everyone else has their own little worlds, constructed through experiences and ideas that we may never understand. Each opinion is just as valid, but you don’t have to agree with them all, that is the joy of being an individual.
So what am I trying to say here then, to judge or not to judge? The answer is, as always, I believe, a mixture of the two. Accept that you will judge, you have a right to judge, and in actuality, you can't help but judge, it's a side effect of being an individual. It is also a necessity of self-preservation and survival, if we didn’t make judgements and learn from our own experiences, we would forever be making the same mistakes and getting ourselves burned in the process. But the thing to remember (the thing I often try, and fail, to remind myself of) is to try to have some courtesy when expressing those judgements to other people, to remember that they are coming from a totally different perspective, and that really is okay, because if they weren't, they would just be you, and that would get very boring, very quickly. We need the conflict of differing perspectives to keep life interesting and keep us being challenged on an individual level. The next time that you feel that a loved one is judging you, unspoken or otherwise, do tell them to back off if the occasion calls for it, but also reassure yourself with the notion that they care enough about you to express that judgement, and know that, if you are ever in trouble, the same person giving you a hard time is likely to be the same person who will drop everything to help you if things fall part.
Thanks, once again, Mr Banks, for the inspiration. Your voice will always be with me, and the world will always be a more interesting place to me, for your perspective on it.