There’s a door, in a room, above a garage, in Merseyside. And if you scrape off a layer of paint or four, you’ll be looking at a gaggle of mutilated faces; noseless and shrunken.
And these faces would grin back at you, all eyes and mouth; ghoulish and gormless. A disembodied throng of serious fools, time-travellers, sentinels at a former gateway to lunacy.
You’re looking at the back of my teenage bedroom door
Back in the 90s I enjoyed working myself into hysteric fervour, by snipping away at the Viking office supplies catalogue. I’d cut out the faces of pictured models – officious-looking businesspeople, then fold them so their eyes kissed their mouths, leaving little in between.
In fruitier moods I’d perhaps lower a hairline, so the face resembled a smirking rugby ball. Or glue someone else’s (usually bigger) eyes in, upside down. Then I’d cry laughing at this hideous transformation of banal to ridiculous.
It beats torturing animals, I suppose.
Yet there was one face in particular that always captured my imagination…
Let’s call him Viking guy
He was a late-60-something caucasian chap, with frosty white hair, besuited, confident, and sporting a smile somewhere between affable and smug.
This kindly man reeked of boardrooms and golf courses – the definitive pre-retirement exec. He was (possibly) the embodiment of business: smart, trustworthy, sensible and serious. The kind of guy who’d do you a fabulous deal on printer ink, and throw in a gentle pat on the head for your anxious, overachieving son.
He lives on, inside me. Inside all of us?
I expect this poor gent is long dead. I wonder now what he’d make of my secret anti-shrine to everything he stood for (or seemed to).
Likewise, with my lifelong subversion of serious, corporate professionalism. Something so at odds with the noble truth of his adorable little scrunched-up face. And his command of a mutant army of gurning telesales operatives. Their upside-down eyes-bulging, attentive and pitiful.
My squashed faces were, of course, an inconsequential detour from the seriousness of childhood: school, exams and expectations.
I grew up pretty quick – handed house keys in junior school, child-minding my siblings, cooking meals from scratch for a family of five. Someone had to be the grown-up until the grown-ups came home, from their long, stressful day at work. I suppose part of me still waits.
But that’s the origin of my serious and subversive, silly side.
I won’t denigrate either – they both have their place. Mr serious gets things done, and under control. Yet it can dominate. Often at the expense of the playful, funny, absurd side – with its ‘pointless’ outcomes.
Maybe this sounds familiar?
When problems get tricky and existential (like when I found myself drifting in a former career) the serious side can often step in. It creates perfect infinite loops of introspection. And pressurises you to find definite solutions to perennial problems, like meaning and purpose. Be perfect. Do it right. Try harder etc. etc.
But what happens to your ‘other’ sides when your serious side dominates? Where does your equivalent of the scissor brandishing lunatic, gunning for the Viking guy, go?
Perhaps more tellingly, where else in life do they inevitably pop up, no matter how hard your serious side tries to repress them?
For me it’s always something absurd
A turn of phrase, snapshot or abstract idea that catches my imagination. Like a seagull with no wings saying “bro I’m outta here”. I giggle to myself, reliving it over and over. And revel in not being able to figure out why it’s so funny. I embrace uncertainty instead of managing it, like my inner Viking guy.
My playful side instead wants to subvert the seriousness, meet it with irreverence and laughter. It seeks truth through humour. Like a safety valve. Or a different window onto a familiar vista.
A working theory: everything’s in there, coexisting
Angels and demons, inner critics and cheerleaders – you already have options. Perhaps some are muted or lost for words. Yet they’re intrinsically part of your amalgamated identity, out of reach or elusive, but in there all the same.
And they will, perhaps persistently, manifest throughout your life as simultaneous traps and escape routes.
Like mine did, when squashed faces became a full-on community project. This was in my 30s, when I left the barren grey plains of the corporate wilderness. Or my animal wisdom memes, art that emerged from a dark patch in my mid-30s.
In pondering this dilemma of how aspects of character coexist, and how to channel them meaningfully, I came across Dr. James Hollis, a Jungian psychoanalyst speaking on the Power of Ten podcast:
‘The people that we admire most in history… in many cases, their lives were very conflictual, full of suffering, often without recognition in their lifetime. And yet we admire them because they embodied something that was meant to be embodied in this world. It wasn’t about their egos. It wasn’t about their fiscal plan. It was about being in service to something that mattered within them. And that’s what vocation really is. And when you do that something supports you.’
As a visionary clearly in the same category as Van Gogh or Mother Theresa, I’m drawn to Jim’s compelling premise. He speculates that meaning in life (i.e. what to throw ‘yourselves’ into) is something channeled through you. It’s a crusade that you’re in service to. Something inescapable and pervasive. It emerges, through ongoing, daily battles and little victories.
Maybe you don’t quite choose it, more it chooses you?
That’s your thing and who you (already) really are
Here’s Jimbo again:
“What wants to enter the world through me? We’re always in service to something. You better figure out what it is, because if you’re in service to the primal complexes, which is to say the clusters of history that a fate presented us, it’s always going to be in some way, someone else’s life, someone else’s agenda. It’s going to be regressive in character. You’re in service to what wants to enter the world through me.”
Perhaps far too often, we throw ourselves behind what we’re told to get behind, or fall into it accidentally. We do what we ought to and should do in life. Not what we really want to or care deeply about.
And when we’re distracted or unaware, maybe there’s a risk we miss what’s right under our noses (or on the back of our bedroom doors), and has been all along.
Meanwhile, that existential struggle we know all too well. That cause we might rally behind (like my seriousness and lust for subversion with absurdity) and discover ourselves through, goes amiss.
What won’t go away? What lives through you?
In case you’re doubting the relevance of your lived experience, your particular lifelong crusade, or who you are: here’s a thought. Sometimes there’s a misconception that to champion a cause – some problem or injustice, one has to have all the answers, and be the expert on solving it.
I fell for this slight of hand, in our age of technocratic officiousness.
However, just living your crusade, knowing the ups and downs intimately, first-hand, is perhaps really what qualifies you to speak up about it and explore its domain.
Maybe I’m only justifying my own indulgent madness here (*reaches for scissors*). But there’s something inescapable about this personal quest for subversion, truth, and exploration of our shadow side.
What wants to live through you? And who are we to resist?
So, I put it to you: what themes seem inescapable in your life? What wants to live through you? And how will you speak up about it?
Because maybe there are others out there, just like you, ready and willing to join you on the adventure.
And who knows where it will end? Perhaps in some eerie mausoleum to squashed faces, on the rear of a repainted bedroom door in Merseyside.