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How lovable are you, on a scale of one to ten?

A few weeks ago, I woke up at 3am, for no particular reason, and lay in my bed listening to the city sleeping. My middle-class street in Tufnell Park was placid and at rest. Then I heard a woman sobbing, as she walked down the street. It was such a strange, piercing sound:  in the middle of the night, outside the silent family homes, was an adult weeping like a lost child. I wondered if I should get out of bed, put my clothes on, go into the street and offer her help. Was I really going to intervene in the messy chaos of her life? I went to the living-room to see if I could see her. But by then she had disappeared, and I went back to bed, slightly relieved.

The problem, as I see it, is that just about every human in the world doesn’t feel entirely loved or lovable. We carry the secret wound of our unlovable-ness deep within us, all through life, and out of these wounds our feelings of self-worth leak out, drop by drop. So we are constantly trying to top up our self-worth. And we do this in inappropriate ways.

The most obviously inappropriate way we try to feel loved is by piling up honours or wealth, in order to win the approval of strangers. We bring each new triumph to lay at the feet of other people, like a cat bringing in a dead bird. The feeling of being unlovable is actually an incredible motor for achievement. Hey guys, guess what I did? I’m lovable, right?

A likeability scale, from Forbes magazine

Alas, success doesn’t really make us feel loved. Success gives you a quick intoxication, and we might blurt out, like Sally Field winning her Oscar, ‘You like me! You really like me!’ But just as many people will envy and dislike you for success. And admiration is not the same as love. Admiration keeps you at a distance and misses your flaws. Love holds you close, and accepts you despite your flaws.

We seek love through celebrities. If they notice us, if they follow us on Twitter, if they sleep with us, we feel validated, connected to the beautiful people like Gatsby when he holds Daisy in his arms. Have a look at any of pop-star Harry Styles’ tweets and the desperate tweets his fans send him, begging him to follow them, and you get a snapshot of all the lonely young people looking for love in the wrong places.

We seek love through substance-abuse. Heroin, Russell Brand wrote, fills a hole in people, and ‘transforms a tight white fist into a gentle brown wave…A bathroom floor in Hackney embraced me like a womb.’ Alcoholics are also seeking love. There is nothing more boring than an alcoholic, because they desperately want to connect with you, with everyone, they just don’t know how to do it. Alcoholism, the Russian writer Vladislav Zubok recently suggested, can stem from a misdirected desire for togetherness and unity. And then, when the drunk fails to connect, their mood rapidly turns ugly. They lurch from eros to thanatos, from trying to bond to shoving the world away.

We seek love through food. I sat in a McDonalds yesterday at 5pm, sucking on a chocolate milkshake like a baby pacifier, and watched various overweight Londoners lumber in and order their Happy Meals, for their first dinner of the evening. They were seeking a brief good feeling from their trays of sugars and carbohydrates. I do the same. McDonalds’ adverts even try to sell themselves as the nation’s social glue, bringing together alienated family-members and different races and generations. Their slogan now is ‘We all have McDonalds in common’. Really? Are you saying the only thing we now have in common is Big Macs and fries? My God, it’s worse than I thought.

We seek love through technology. We constantly scan our smart-phone screens to see if anyone has Liked us. We have invented an app for everything, except feeling loved. Scientists tried – in the 1970s, they developed a computer programme called ELIZA, which tried to give people the feeling of being understood and accepted. There was briefly an idea to have ELIZA machines on every street corner, to hear our pain. It hasn’t quite taken off yet.

We seek love through sex. We give our bodies to strangers to get the experience of being held for a few minutes in silence. We pay someone to hold us.  Or we get the simulacrum of sex off the internet, without any of the messy intimacy. Can it be long before they start selling vibrating empathic robots to stroke our hair and tell us we’re worth it?

We seek love through therapy. We pay someone to give us unconditional acceptance, which the psychologist Carl Rogers said is the key ingredient in the therapeutic relationship. But is it really unconditional if you’re paying for it? Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is often accused of missing out this crucial dynamic of the loving therapeutic relationship, but the grandfather of CBT, Albert Ellis, emphasised the central importance of Unconditional Self-Acceptance, and Unconditional Other Acceptance. Who or what gives us the power to accept ourselves unconditionally? Apparently, we have the power. We can simply choose to accept and love ourselves, through some Nietzschean act of self-acceptance. It doesn’t sound that easy.

Deeper still, perhaps, are Buddhism’s various techniques and practices for cultivating loving-kindness. We develop the practice of observing ourselves, with all our flaws, and not judging or condemning ourselves – because, after all, ‘you’ don’t really exist at all, so there is nothing to hate (and also nothing to love).

And then there is the weird idea of grace – the idea that, sometimes in life when we are particularly lost, God lifts us up, tells us it’s OK, and puts us on our feet again. Without earning it or deserving it, we have a sudden sense of our creator’s limitless love for us, a sense of reunion with Him after a long exile. Such moments are incredibly healing. After long wandering in a desert, you find a hip-flask of water on you, which never runs out. We feel replenished in our ability to love other people too, to care about strangers, rather than merely tolerate them.

Greek philosophy also talks about learning to trust the God Within, rather than scrabbling around in externals in a desperate attempt to feel loved. But in Stoicism, learning to trust the God Within involves solitary ascetic training and logical Socratic dialectic. It means obeying the dictates of the cold and impersonal Logos. In Positive Psychology, the search for happiness likewise involves endless strenuous exercises – keeping a Gratitude Journal, savouring a raisin, cultivating your strengths, perfecting your Duchenne smile. I don’t know if that really heals the wound we all feel, of not feeling entirely lovable. It seems more like a solitary workout regime in the gym.  You scored 7 on the gratitude scale – keep going!

In Plato, there is more of a sense of connecting to the Divine through love. But in Platonic philosophy, both ‘love’ and ‘the divine’ are abstract intellectual concepts. To me, love is not a work-out regime, or an abstract concept. It’s a relationship. Love is a father sweeping up his child into his arms when she runs to meet him.

But if you believe in a God who loves, who intervenes, who sometimes sweeps you up in his arms, then you are left with the troubling question of why He sometimes doesn’t. Why is there so much pain in the world? Why do His children feel so unloved and alone? I think of that woman walking through the empty street at dawn, sobbing, and wonder why God doesn’t intervene more often. Then again, why didn’t I?


In other news:

A new ‘wireless philosophy‘ project from Yale and MIT.

The History of Philosophy podcast from KCL looks at Islamic philosophy’s ideas on music.

One of the weirder corners of American religion has come to light in the media this week – the ‘Christian Domestic Discipline‘ scene, or Holy Spanking. I’m not sure if this is a real thing or a send-up.

Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association asks why the decline of religion has not led to moral chaos.

In the Independent, Paul Mason looks at how and why revolution is sweeping through BRIC countries despite their rapid economic growth.

Meanwhile Martin Wolf gives a grim picture of how austerity policies have failed in the UK, in the New York Review of Books.

Tomorrow I wrote the cover story for the Telegraph Weekend – have a look and a laugh at the photo.

This week’s column was partly inspired by a book called What’s So Amazing About Grace, by Philip Yancey, which I’m reading at the moment. A great book, which also inspired a U2 song. Watch an interview with Yancey here

Some book reviews. First, Tariq Ali reviews a new book on the bitchy side of Sir Isaiah Berlin. The Economist reviews a new book by a French writer who went to live in a shed next to Lake Baikal (no, not for tax reasons). And in the LA Review of Books, a review of Tao Lin’s ‘Taipei’, and the end of the dream of a psycho-pharmalogical utopia. Tao Lin also wrote a collection of poetry called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, by the way – one of the few instances I’ve come across of CBT influencing the arts.

Finally, it was very sad to hear about James Gandolfini’s death. The Sopranos is my all-time favourite TV show – I even considered writing a book about it last year, which gave me the excuse to spend most of August re-watching episodes. The show was about so many things, but particularly about the scarcity of love and the imperfection of families. Many of the characters love each other – Tony and Uncle Junior, for example, or Tony and Christopher. But their love gets lost under power, resentment and cruelty.

There’s no grace in The Sopranos – the two priests who appear are both weak and corrupt. Instead, the characters try everything from yoga to Prozac to psychoanalysis to search for fulfillment. I always thought Dr Melfi, the most famous therapist in literature, was a bit rubbish for waiting until Series 3 to offer CBT for Tony’s panic attacks, and the show itself is simplistically Freudian in making Tony’s mother such an out-and-out villain (unlike every other character). Still, what a show. Here’s the best article I’ve read on it, by Peter Buskind in Vanity Fair, which includes some amazing photos by Annie Liebovitz, like the one below.

See you next week,


The Welsh revival: mass hysteria or outpouring of grace?

Next week, I’m off to Wales. First, I’m going to Cwmbran, where something is happening called ‘the Welsh Outpouring’. In April, when a young pastor called Richard Taylor was preaching, the congregation felt filled with the Holy Spirit, there were tears, shouts, groans, and this started to happen every evening. Word got out, congregations swelled, queues formed to get into church, services went deep into the night, and many people were apparently healed from mental or physical complaints. I’m going there with a local GP, who I met at the Hay book festival, who is curious about this outpouring which has helped a lot of local people overcome alcoholism, apparently.

Then I’m going to Ffald-y-Brenin, a Christian retreat in Pembrokeshire, and a place where people have often said they’ve experienced miraculous visitations from the Holy Spirit. It is known as a ‘thin place’ – in Celtic Christianity, there are supposed to be certain places where the border between the sacred and the secular is particularly diaphanous.

Obviously, I feel like a bit of a spiritual tourist. Am I going for my own advancement as a writer, or am I going with a genuinely open heart to see what is ‘out there’? I hope the latter, but as a writer there’s always some ego mixed in.

When writing on religious group psychology, you have to decide how much you should ‘go with it’ and give yourself to the experience, and to what extent you should stay objective and detached. When Jon Ronson, one of my heroes, went on the Alpha course in 2000, he felt he couldn’t switch off his journalistic mind during the Holy Spirit session of the Alpha weekend:

James rests his hand on my shoulder. “Oh Jesus, I pray that Jon will receive Your wonderful spirit. God. Please come and fill Jon with … ” It is not working. The spell has broken. I tell James again that I’m sorry, but I’m a journalist.

I’m also a journalist, although I happen to believe in God and was helped to overcome Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder through a near-death experience which felt like an experience of grace. So I’m more open to the value of ecstatic experiences. But there are aspects of charismatic Christianity that I find off-putting. When an entire church gets ‘slain’ by the Holy Spirit, when people fall over, roll around on the ground, bark like dogs and so on, is it a visitation by God, an outbreak of mass hysteria, or some kind of learned cultural practice?

When it comes to Welsh religious revivals, Welsh Christians think of them as both a supernatural experience and a learned cultural practice. They are very aware of the history of Welsh revivals, and this knowledge creates expectations of future revivals. Wales is known as ‘the land of revivals’ – previous revivals include a Methodist revival in 1735, when congregations would shake, weep, faint and jump for joy, and a cross-denominational revival in 1859, when historians suggest 100,000 people – a tenth of the population of Wales – converted, and services were so ecstatic that ‘people were carried out of chapel unable to move hand or foot’. Both revivals were intensely musical – hymn-singing plays a central role in Celtic ecstasy.

The most famous Welsh revival was in 1904-5. It was started by a preacher called Joseph Jenkins, after he had a vision of being wrapped in a blue flame. His sermons started to inspire great excitement among his congregation, particularly young women, one of whom followed him home one night, then stood up at church the next day and declared ‘I love Jesus with all my heart’. This set others on fire, and the normal order of service gave way to spontaneous testimonials, conversions, moans, fainting and hymn-singing.

The fire spread to a 26-year-old miner called Evan Roberts, an intensely religious young man who had prayed for a revival ‘for 10 or 11 years’. He was dramatically filled by the Spirit during a service, bending his knees and crying out. The next nights, he had a series of visions, of hell, of Christ’s victory over Satan, of an enormous religious revival that would save 100,000 souls. Although not a priest and not very educated, he became the de facto leader of a revival that swept through Wales ‘like a hurricane’ as David Lloyd George put it.

A journalist who covered the revival, WT Stead, was struck by the unplanned spontaneity of the services, though in other ways, the scenes closely followed the cultural script of previous Welsh revivals – melted hearts, tears, joy, fainting, spontaneous hymn-singing, public confessions, testimonials, mass conversions, the sense of ‘a country aflame’. All of this was repeated from previous Welsh revivals. What was new in the 1904 revival was that young people, particularly young women, played a leading role, singing and giving testimonials, in a break with religious tradition. And the mass media also played a central role in the revival, helping to spread the fire through their reports – one historian calls it ‘a newspaper revival’.

A postcard of ‘the revivalist’ Evan Roberts and some of the young ladies of the revival.

As Roberts predicted, there were scores of conversions – perhaps 100,000 or so. Many alcoholics gave up drink, and supporters of the revival said the entire moral climate of the country was improved, with pubs emptied, crime down and industrial unrest quelled.

Then, after a year or so, Roberts became more and more exhausted and erratic. He would dramatically stop the singing during the services, declaring there were obstacles to the Holy Spirit’s visitation, naming people in the congregation who were obstacles, including priests. He emphasized there must be total obedience to the Holy Spirit among everyone present. He became uncertain about when it was the Holy Spirit prompting him to speak, or the Devil. He eventually retired from public life, publishing a book six years later warning of the rapid approach of the Apocalypse.

What are we to make of it all? It’s a sensitive subject, particularly for an English journalist (although as my name suggests I have a lot of Welsh blood in me). For the Welsh, the 1904-05 revival was and is a source of national pride, evidence of the country’s special relationship to God, Who speaks to their warm Celtic hearts in a way the mechanistic English could barely appreciate. The academic historian, meanwhile, might look for social or cultural causes of the revival, and interpret it as some sort of mass psychic reaction to the advance of scientific rationalism and the demands of industrial civilisation.

A colleague of mine at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Rhodri Hayward, has written an excellent book on the question of how to interpret mass ecstatic experiences like the 1904 revival, called Resisting History: Religious Transcendence and the Invention of the Unconscious. He looks at how the unconscious was invented in the late 19th century, as a way for the new secular discipline of psychology to provide a naturalistic explanation for ecstatic religious experiences like trances, automatism, visions and mass revivalism.

Rhodri traces this invention from Frederick Myers, founder of the Society for Psychical Research, who posited a subliminal self to explain the behaviour of spiritual mediums, to William James, who developed this naturalistic explanation of religious experience in his Varieties of Religious Experience, to early explorers of the unconscious like Janet, Charcot and Carl Jung, all of whom were keen to explain spiritual experiences through the naturalistic idea of the unconscious. The unconscious was a crucial device in a broader move to disenchant supernatural experiences and fit them into a naturalistic historical narrative.

What’s interesting is that the early pioneers of psychology remained very ambivalent about whether religious experiences were supernatural or not. The border between natural and supernatural explanations of ecstatic experiences remained rather thin, or diaphanous. Myers, at the end of his life, decided that some spiritual mediums really were communicating with the dead. Jung came to view much unconscious phenomena as genuine communications by spirits. William James was also convinced that some mediums were genuine and remained open-minded about whether religious experiences could be genuinely supernatural. He wrote: ‘The notion of the subconscious self certainly ought not at this point in our enquiry be held to exclude all notion of higher penetration.’

Right at the birth of psychology as a rationalist discipline, there’s uncertainty about whether the unconscious is a trash-heap of primitive impulses, or a cave of hidden treasures.

This uncertainty about apparently supernatural experiences exists for Christians too. Even during the 1904 revival, Welsh people wondered if Roberts was simply a ‘neurotic youth’, if his fits weren’t manifestations of pathology rather than divine ecstasy. One church minister wrote to the Western Mail suggesting there were, in fact, two revivals going on, a genuine revival, and a ‘bogus revival’ being led by Roberts. Roberts also became uncertain whether his visitations came from God or the Devil, and this uncertainty and sense of a cosmic spiritual war being waged in his own person eventually exhausted him.

Speaking for myself, I remain uncertain about the religious experience which healed me of years of trauma and suffering. Was it an experience of the Holy Spirit, or a moment of religious mania prompted by a near-death experience after several years of depression? If it was some sort of supernatural visitation, from who or what?

William James, who helped to invent the psychological concept of the unconscious, remained unsure whether religious experiences were supernatural or natural

William James suggested that, even if we can’t know for sure where such experiences come from, we can still empirically weigh their effects: ‘What comes must be sifted and tested, and run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience…Its value must be ascertained by empirical methods.’

We see chroniclers of the 1904 revival trying to do just this, taking statistical evidence of the numbers of conversions in each village and town. Judged by the number of people it saved from alcoholism, the 1904 revival seems socially valuable (although Marxist historians like EP Thompson might argue that such ecstatic outbreaks put back the cause of political agitation).
It’s very difficult to empirically asses all the effects of a revival – particularly as historians can’t peer into the spiritual realm to see what might have been the effect there. Certainly, the Welsh revival had a huge impact on modern Christianity, helping to popularise a new, highly emotional form of worship which one meets on the Alpha weekend. The revival didn’t seem to have such great long-term effects for Roberts himself, though for all I know his reward was in the afterlife.

I wonder, finally, if one can combine cultural historical accounts of ecstatic experiences with an open-mindedness to the possibility that such experiences are, at least partly, supernatural.  In other words, is it possible that spirits or the Spirit really do speak to humans, but that we also interpret such experiences through pre-learned cultural scripts (such as the history of Jewish messianism, or the history of Welsh revivals)? Some of those scripts are perhaps better than others, in that they more successfully ‘run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience’. I think that one problem with the Christian eschatological script is it leads to mass Millenarian expectations that the world is about to be utterly transformed into a perfect Age of Love. History has repeatedly disappointed this ecstatic expectation, yet somehow it keeps coming back.


In other news:

Talking of Millenarian expectations, the NYRB reviews a new book that looks at Millenarian expectations and the idea of the demonic enemy in fascism and communism. Behind a pay-wall alas.

The New Yorker, meanwhile, looks at a new neuroscientific attempt to measure and quantify consciousness.

I did a 5 min essay on Radio 3’s Nightwaves this week, about the 2400th anniversary of the founding of Plato’s Academy, asking whether philosophy belongs inside or outside of academia. Its 26 minutes in here.

On that theme, here’s Philosophy Bites’ Nigel Warburton, on why he’s left academia to practice philosophy outside of it. And here’s a BBC article looking at philosophy’s central role in French school education.

Here’s an New York Times article covering a successful trial of cognitive processing therapy for rape victims in the Congo.

Here’s a Spectator piece by Norman Stone looking at the political crisis in Turkey and Erdogan’s over-played authoritarianism.

Here’s a piece I wrote about the Sunday Assembly and why I don’t think God minds me playing the drums there.

Here’s a piece on how psychedelics is turning into a subject of serious academic research (man).

UCLA has a great centre for investigating mindfulness. Its website has some good free meditation podcasts.

Finally, this week I got very excited about Laura Marling’s new album. Here’s a short film she helped to make of the first four songs of the album.

See you next week,