K AT HRIN E ASPAA S
THE AGE OF GENEROSITY FROM ENVY TO ADMIRATION
© 2012 Orginally published by H. Aschehoug & Co. (W. Nygaard), Oslo www.aschehoug.no 2nd Edition, 2012 Cover: Svovel/Ellen Renberg and Anders Nederhoed Pig image: Synne Moen Tøften Satt med Garamond 3 11/14
CONTENTS Prelude A Treasure Hunt The Social Animal The New Mathematics
The Power of Vulnerability Emotional Alchemy Shame Comes to Light Owning Our Story And Then I Hit Rock Bottom Flawsome Our Struggle Open and Honest
Forgiving the Seven Deadly Sins Envy as a Compass From Here to Reality The Art of Listening Snot and Tears Concealment and Constipation Physics and Chemistry Am I not Wonderful? 3
The Brain Is Not Alone Sharp Knives A Whole New Mind Chess Meditation Are We Becoming Stupider? A Stroke of Insight The Banality of Evil The Anatomy of Courage Heart Palpitations Gyro Gearloose and the Thinking Cap Yodeling and Beethoven Boogie On… Here Come the Boy’s Marching Band! Pen in Mouth Smiley Italian Mirror A Calm Mind Home to the People
The Economics of Tenderness A Difficult Student Marshmallows and Other Temptations Motion Pictures and Misery Thank You, Norway’s Central Bank! Hobby Horses in Their Stables Generation EQ The Art of Leading – Oneself Sea Eagles and Democracy The Path Towards the Human Community
Little Sister Is Watching You Press on Strike A Journalist is Born Children and Choral Voices Positively Wondrous Peace Journalism 4
Dialogue â€“ Not For Wimps The Responsibility of Speech Grandma in Cyberspace Lady Algorithm Wikipedia WikiLeaks Muggers and Voyeurs Shame and Forgiveness The Rediscovery of Wonder
Inner Strength We Build Bridges A Vulnerable Church Letting Go Emotional Alchemy II Blessings in Disguise The Plumbo Effect Wizards and Witches
The Age of Generosity A Greeting from the Future The Economics of Tenderness The Popcorn Effect The Power of Vulnerability Little Sister Is Watching You My Beautiful Genome Look At My School! Inner Peace Forever Young Farewell, World!
Postlude Sources A Glossary for the Human Community
PRELUDE ‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.’ – Professor Brené Brown
This is a book about openness. About the relief and freedom that exist in openness. Every time I play with the idea of writing on this theme, more significant phenomena emerge. Fear. Bitterness. Envy. Insecurity. The need for protection. For security. It strikes me that it’s the easiest thing in the world to desire openness – from those around us. It’s a whole different story when it comes to putting this into practise ourselves. Because openness is revealing. We catch a glimpse of sides to ourselves that we don’t always like. For me, that lay in my own envy, which I stumbled upon as I first began to research these connections. Since that point, envy has become my friend. A compass that I can make use of to navigate my way through life. It’s given me the courage to accept the vulnerability that exists in transparency, and to practise trust. To practise my capacity for compassion, and not least, forgiveness. I am an economist and financial journalist. For more than 20 years, critical thinking and a strict demand for efficiency have guided my 7
professional life. I finally reached a point at which it dawned on me that I was a part of something that wasn’t good. This point can be traced back to a very specific moment in time, and took place at the Opera House in Oslo in the autumn of 2009. Since that point I have spent my time carrying out research into kindness and generosity. Following three years of study and numerous conversations, journeys and experiences, I’d go so far as to claim that consideration for others is the new efficiency. We are in the process of bidding farewell to dated belief systems with their foundation in petty views of mankind. We are now exploring new ways to be humans and fellow human beings. We are moving towards an era of increased kindness. I have immersed myself in various fields, and this phenomenon can be observed far and wide, from neuroscience and economics to media development: it comprises a broad spectrum of knowledge on human nature. We are in the process of becoming more peaceful and more generous. This also means that we dare to open up to the world. We give more. We share more freely, and this book is my own contribution to this development. You are invited to join me on this ‘flawsome’ journey, from shame and envy via sorrow and opposition, and ultimately moving towards a more holistic and generous life. The concept of being ‘flawsome’ is central to this book, and recognises our intrinsic fallibility as human beings. It is for this reason that we must allow ourselves and others to make mistakes. We will visit researchers and businesspeople, adolescents and adults, men and women. We will meet the head of the central bank who admitted to a blunder and paved the way for an improved economic system. We’ll meet the researcher who disclosed her own perfectionism and simultaneously found the key to the feelings of shame she had researched for eight years. We’ll get to know the companies and entrepreneurs that make it possible for us to master the art of openness.
A TREASURE HUNT The work involved in producing this book has been like something from a fairy tale. I’ve travelled far and wide, and further still, and at 8
each of these destinations I’ve registered the same desire for meaning – the same relief over something as simple as being permitted to use words like compassion and kindness – regardless of whether in discussion with economists, engineers, researchers, teachers, journalists or doctors. There are now sufficient numbers of us that don’t consider quantifiable efficiency measured down to the second and quarterly financial growth to be sacred. These measures don’t make us happy. They don’t inspire us in the slightest. We no longer believe in them. We expect higher ambitions and more impressive visions from ourselves, our leaders and the organisations in which we spend valuable hours of our lives. In this way, we’re moving slowly towards more sophisticated value systems in which kindness and a sense of fellowship with those around us are respected and valued – also within economic circles and models. I often give talks to my fellow economists, and they regularly turn pale at the mention of the word “generosity”. They undoubtedly fear they’ll be asked to give something for nothing, which is not something that the average economist is in the habit of doing. I am always happy to dispel their concerns by revealing the fact that that generosity usually is wildly profitable. Regardless of where I find myself, new expressions of openness and personal courage are to be found. In the face of war, organised crime, surveillance, bullying, financial crises, terror cells and bad weather forcasts, the most significant developmental trends point in the direction of society’s steadily increasing confidence, generosity and openness. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re ready to let down our guard entirely - there are, after all, numerous reasons to fear openness. Nonetheless, there are many more reasons to fear closing ourselves off from the world. This book is intended to be viewed as a challenge to take personal responsibility, and a tribute to those who acknowledge their own limits and continue to move beyond them. They are researchers, leaders, chess players, politicians and artists. They are modern day storytellers. They are any one of us.
THE SOCIAL ANIMAL ‘We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness,’ claims New York Times columnist David Brooks, author of The Social Animal. ‘And when you synthesize it all, we are given a new view on human nature, and far from being a cold, materialistic view of human nature, it’s a new form of humanism. Over the past few years I think we’ve been given a deeper insight into human nature, and a deeper view of who we are. This assertion is not based on theology or philosophy; it is in the study of the mind. Across these fields of research – from neuroscience to cognitive science, behavioural economics, psychology and sociology – we are developing a revolution in consciousness.’ In the process of this, we are offered a new perspective on human nature, and as Brooks so rightly states, this has the characteristics of a new form of humanism. Personally I don’t feel the need to decorate my head with electrodes to gauge the fact that I feel good when I do something nice for someone. It’s sufficient to let someone slip in front of me in a busy traffic queue. I feel happy. Proud of my own generosity. Believe me – it doesn’t take much for a Generation X economist to feel touched by her own sense of kind-heartedness. Throughout the ages, humankind has explored the outside world. It is now time for that journey to turn inwards. Human nature takes centre stage – in trade and industry, science, politics and private lives. We can call this the human community – a community that is developed by those who dare to share. Perhaps this sounds like a benevolent and harmless approach to take, but the human community demands something very specific of us. We must become acquainted with ourselves. Be truer to ourselves. Acknowledge our unpleasant tendencies and take responsibility for them. Envy, vanity, arrogance, malicious pleasure – the full spectrum. We should refrain from placing these feelings outside of ourselves; we must banish the small-town monster that prowls around harbouring narrow-minded views and fear of changes, or the Law of Jante that suppresses the achievements of the individual. Instead we must clear out the basement, air out the loft space and face the realisation that this is about us. We must start 10
looking in the mirror instead of out the window to find explanations for why we experience a lack of happiness and fulfilment, as suggested by Anita Krohn Traaseth, CEO of HP Norway and one of many figures leading the way. We needn’t feel ashamed of our tendencies to judge and blame others. Instead, we ought to acknowledge this as part of the shared human experience. We can stop, give ourselves a warm hug and think: ‘How endearing we are. How afraid. How sweet. How human.’ We must learn to forgive ourselves and move on, a tiny bit wiser and more courageous, because each and every one of us experiences these feelings. They are an integral part of being human. In this new age, trustworthiness is paramount, and it is no coincidence that human relationships are on their way to becoming a steering principle in the business sector. The human community needs leaders that are real people, including all that brings in terms of ups and downs, joys and sorrows. The human community also needs people who have the courage to lift up others.
THE NEW MATHEMATICS Here and now – as Wikipedia’s waves of information ebb and flow around the earth - it’s odd to imagine that it was little more than 250 years ago that the first Encyclopedia terrified the mighty men of the church. Since then, developments have been swift. We’ve created antibiotics, washing machines and vanilla ice cream. The gifted and courageous women and men of the science world have discovered the structure of DNA, reduced infant mortality rates and successfully carried out heart transplants. And then humankind created the computer – the wild, spinning cogwheel in the efficiency machine – and last but not least, the Internet. And it was here that the foundation was laid for the age that we find ourselves moving towards. The computer outperforms the logical thinking of human beings – the very driving force behind traditional scientific work. And chess! The Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, master of logic, has phrased it thus: ‘I give us a few years. After that, computers will win every chess match.’ 11
This doesn’t give us leave to lie on the sofa and let machines do everything for us. It simply means new types of jobs, and more interesting work at that! We can spend our time doing the things that we humans do best: observing connections and forming the bigger picture. This might be in the form of beautiful and sustainable design; powerful stories that can transform politics; a rich and nurturing care for our elderly; well-functioning financial markets; good solutions in terms of water supplies and sewage. It could be in New Delhi, New York or small Norwegian towns like Røros. We have become so efficient, so very methodical, that we can take it one step further, lifting our gaze to comprehend the whole. The goal is, as usual, to live good, rich lives, at peace with ourselves and one another. In this book I will show that we are well on our way to making this happen. While we previously defined society from the perspective of people’s functions, human doings - whether hunter-gatherers, farmers in a consumer society, industrial workers in an industrial society or communication workers in an information society – this is gradually changing. We are now moving towards defining ourselves from what we are - true human beings - based on our shared human experiences. Take the programmes for the World Economic Forum in the last five years, for example, during which top world leaders, among others, were offered the opportunity to attend the following talks: ‘The Science of Mastering Emotions.’ ‘The Merits of Failure.’ ‘Healing through Music.’ ‘A Simple Act of Compassion.’ There is the vague hint of reorientation and holistic thinking along the way. The same trend can be observed within one of the world’s most exciting trend institutes, the American company Trendwatching.com, in which individuals’ longing for kindness was proposed to be the most important consumer trend in 2011: ‘For the consumer who is accus-
tomed to (and irritated by) distant, inflexible and self-obsessed companies, each and every friendly experience will be met with gratitude.’ In the human community it’s not enough to read technical instruction manuals. We have to write our own instruction manuals – manuals with ourselves as the subject matter. We have to know what drives us. What provokes us – and why. We must reflect upon our own preferences. Where do they come from? From friends? Parents? The culture in which we live? And most difficult of all, we must take responsibility for our unpleasant tendencies. I’m not referring to the so-called ‘weaknesses’ we sneak into job interviews, such as ‘I don’t like to deliver an assignment until it’s completely perfect’ or ‘I suppose I have a tendency to work too hard’. I’m talking about the real weaknesses – ‘I often get annoyed at my colleagues when they’re praised by our manager’, or ‘I’m often irritated and negative when others are enthusiastic’, or ‘I’m deeply jealous of my own sister’. We can put in place the best conceivable strategies, but it makes no difference if our culture is characterised by backbiting and slander. We might possess the most advanced technological equipment imaginable, but this means nothing when training is considered such a low status activity that nobody learns to make use of these advances. By spending our time on a good-natured approach to whipping our own lives into shape rather than criticising those of others, we are well on our way towards creating a more generous age. Take these thought as they are intended: one of many contributions to a wider conversation about the kind of world we are in the process of creating, the kind of people we want to be, and the kind of reality in which we wish to live. I’m happy that you’ve chosen to join me on this significant and ever-stimulating project to create a better and more peaceful world. Kathrine Aspaas Røros, 12th March 2014
THE POWER OF VULNERABILITY ‘Only those who feel the chain, Can be released from its grasp.’ Anne Grete Preus, Norwegian composer and artist
Autumn, 2009. I find myself navigating a difficult point in my life. Nine months previously I had ended a 13-year love affair with Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten – certainly not an uncomplicated love affair, but I miss the pressure and the accompanying thrill. More than that, I miss my identity as a columnist and editorial writer for one of the country’s biggest newspapers. Quite simply I’m struck by an ailment I’d only heard rumours of until this point, and which I had never believed would affect me: a severe case of byline glory withdrawal. I missed my sense of prominence in columns and debates. Who was I without Aftenposten to back me up? This forms the backdrop for the turning point in my life. The second largest hall of the Opera House is brimming with people. Outside on the rooftop, book lovers mingle on a clear, blue September 15
day. The book clubs have selected precisely the right weekend for their biggest literary festival. Under the cover of darkness inside, beneath expanses of white marble, the show is about to begin. I am the hired hostess, primed to interview three authors about life. ‘This is about life,’ I begin. ‘Our delightful and intensely difficult life.’ The first author is welcomed to the stage – Kristin Flood, based in Italy. For three years she has been on a pilgrimage in Umbria, following in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi. ‘Did you find him?’ I ask. ‘I did,’ she replies. ‘I found him in vulnerability. He shows us that the key to a rich life is to remain close to vulnerability, all whilst avoiding the shelter offered by the role of martyrdom.’ The discussion about the Italian monk, who quite literally exposed himself in the square of his hometown of Assisi by removing his robes, rises and falls before the two subsequent authors are called in. First comes doctor and author Audun Myskja, who describes his journey through the fear and shame of adolescence towards a richer life within the fields of healing and musical medicine. Thereafter comes journalist Laila Lanes, who writes about living with and loving a man who gradually fades away to Alzheimer’s. Vulnerability and courage. These three academics and authors have lived, loved, experienced and dare to share this. My task is to guide the conversation between the three authors, and as they speak I find that the words of Francis of Assisi run through my head: ‘To remain close to vulnerability, without conceding to the role of martyrdom’. I had read the sentence several times, but it was as if I heard it for the first time. Meanwhile, I heard the voice of another dear friend, Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s fearful little Karl Lionheart, who dearly wished to be brave, rather than a little coward. I know that there is something I must do, and I know that it is a frightening step. ‘I have to do this,’ I think. ‘I can’t just sit here and talk. I have to share this. I won’t be a coward.’ And so I do. I do it. I let go and I turn to the audience. 16
‘It’s so easy to talk about vulnerability,’ I say. ‘It’s a safe, intellectual exercise. The really terrifying part is to show it. That’s what I will try to do now, because today is one of the worst days of my life.’ The hall is silent. Perhaps in anticipation? Perhaps in fear of what may follow from the hostess who so abruptly breaks free from her assigned role and casts aside her script. ‘It’s my sister’s birthday today, and I’m so envious of her that I almost can’t gather my thoughts sufficiently to carry out this task.’ The silence in the hall lingers, and it feels as if the temperature drops. ‘My sister has everything,’ I continue. ‘A husband who she loves, and who loves her. Two children she adores above anything in the world. A house with a garden. A beautiful bathroom. A job in which she flourishes. And on top of it all, she’s taking a master’s degree in Health Promotion – my own dream field of study! And here I am - single, childless and without any permanent form of employment.’ Suddenly it was as if the audience awoke. The applause was spontaneous. Some stood up. From the back of the hall came cries of ‘Bravo!’ I don’t know quite what happened, and I still don’t know what this did for each and every person in that room, but it was as if the audience was given permission to relax their shoulders and release control, secure in the sense of fellowship that constitutes a large group of people. Who knows what kinds of forbidden feelings are harboured within an audience? What kind of ‘mortal sins’ plague the people we come across on our journey through life? Whether consciously or otherwise, we each have our struggles. It’s possible that envy possesses a class of its very own. It is so intensely shameful that we reject this, even though most of us recognise it, whether as active jealousy or as an object of others’ feelings of envy. Either way, there no longer seemed to be any harm in it. Not quite as shameful. Less lonely, perhaps?
EMOTIONAL ALCHEMY ‘One needs to keep one’s own pigsty reasonably clean,’ says my brotherin-law. Yes, the same man that I occasionally still envy my sister. And 17
no, I don’t stick tiny pins in a sister doll in order to win him over. Instead I take this approach: What a lovely man – imagine having a partner just like him! And this is precisely what is so fantastic about envy: we don’t have to dig too deep before stumbling upon admiration. I call this emotional alchemy. If we mould and play to a sufficient degree, feelings can transform themselves from granite to gold, envy to admiration, sorrow to love. Back to my brother-in-law’s pigsty, and the acknowledgement that it ought to be kept reasonably spick and span. This attitude to life is just as liberating as it is realistic. We’re not taking a no-tolerance approach here; quite the opposite, in fact. We’re talking about a combination of tolerance and responsibility. Rather than pointing at the state of others’ pigsties, my brother-in-law chooses to grab a pitchfork and clean up his own mess. Inspired by this zeal for work, I grab the chance to proceed to explore my own envy. You see, it’s not just my sister that awakens these feelings within me. There’s more to it than that. We’re talking people with summer homes in the picturesque rocky surroundings of the Swedish shores of Bohuslän; people who take hikes in the mountains with great flocks of children at their feet and surrounded by friends; people who drive off on summer holidays with rubber ducks sticking out of car windows and strategically positioned guitars and straw hats; successful people I read about in newspapers and magazines. People of all descriptions. Young mothers with children and husbands and jobs and… Do you see what I mean? And it’s here that the alchemy’s magic emerges yet again. As you read these sentences, it’s not improbable that your mind begins to tick with thoughts of your own: ‘I wonder if I’m the type of person she envies…?’ And from there, the following thought doesn’t take long to emerge: ‘Cool!’ And hey presto! My raw feelings are transformed into your own personal sense of positive validation. The majority of us sit in both camps when it comes to these feelings. It’s not the case that no one envies me. After all, I am able to sit at home writing a book whilst indulging in excellent coffee and with access to some of the world’s top consultants. I sing jazz and soul music 18
with a big band, have wonderful friends, good neighbours, the world’s most delightful dog and a loving family. I don’t doubt that I would envy myself! And so it is in meeting others’ envy that I see the true value of this whole mess. Where I once grew irritated and believed that those envious of me were small-minded and spineless souls, I now smile to myself: ‘Ah – it’s just the good old green-eyed monster out for a wander. We’re well acquainted, he and I.’ This is how the green-eyed monster becomes less harmful – we don’t have to dig too deep before we discover admiration. If we do our best to keep our own pigsty reasonably clean rather than winding ourselves up about the state of others’, we have more energy remaining for genuinely piggish behaviour, good-natured grunting and parties in our pens. It was precisely this kind of party that I was able to join at the Opera House in the autumn of 2009, entirely unexpectedly. The conversation with the authors I met that day took new directions after my vulnerable three minutes. The distance between the audience and the stage was erased, and the contact was almost physically palpable. It was as if my transformation, from professional, made-up hostess to a lonely, desperate individual with a deep sense of longing released something within the audience. The prestige decreased and love took its place, and the core energy that acted as the driving force behind my transformation was, miraculously enough, the simultaneously least and most shameful of all feelings: envy. It is this that encapsulates the power in vulnerability, and nobody has written better on this subject than American researcher and author, Brené Brown.
SHAME COMES TO LIGHT She sits on one of the red chairs by her kitchen table in Texas. It’s a normal working day in November 2006, and this ambitious researcher has no idea that her mind will soon be brimming with answers to long-standing questions. Rather, she has envisioned for herself an 19
ordinary working day filled with shame and fear, for these are the feelings that constitute Brown’s field of research. Nothing suggested the breakthrough that would strike her that day, as she describes it in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. For eight years she has gathered thousands of stories from men and women across the United States aged anything from 17 to 77 years. These participants have shared their life experiences, and Brené Brown has hunted down what creates guilt and shame in an individual’s life. The following is a glimpse of what she has discovered: it’s true, the majority of us battle with shame and fear and the idea that we aren’t good enough, and yes, many of us are scared of being ourselves and allowing that self to be seen and known. Yet, in the midst of this quantity of data she discovered stories of men and women who manage to live rich and inspiring lives. They talk of embracing their own inadequacies and vulnerability. There are tales of the connection between happiness and gratitude, not to mention the fact that the things we take for granted, such as rest and leisure time, are equally as important for our health as nourishment and physical exercise. They talk about being true to themselves, and of love and belonging in a way that was new to Brown, and she began to look specifically at these examples to find out what characterises those who have found peace within themselves and live fulfilling lives. What can we learn from these individuals? And not least, how can we better emulate them? It is on that red chair by that same kitchen table on a November day in 2006 that she plucks one single word from obscurity: wholehearted. She’s not certain what this means, but she sees that these stories are about people who live and love with their entire being and whole heart. Numerous questions emerge. What are the values that these people hold dear? How have they succeeded in creating this sense of atonement in their lives? What is it that they are most concerned with, and how do they face their problems? Is anybody capable of creating a wholehearted life if they try? And what stands in the way of those of us who don’t quite manage this? And then she observes a pattern. One simple pattern. No more than two columns of words: one column titled ‘Do’, and one titled ‘Don’t’. 20
The first column is brimming with words such as valuable, rest, play, trust, hope, intuition, belief, authenticity, love, belonging, happiness, gratitude and creativity. The second column is dripping with words such as perfection, deficiency, fitting in, being cool, certainty, self-sufficiency, numbing, exhaustion and judgment. No matter how obvious these columns of words may seem, Brené Brown is startled and takes a step back when she observes the pattern emerging from her numerous Post-it notes: ‘No way. How can this be possible?!’ She had expected to find out that wholehearted people are like her and do the things that she does: work hard, follow the rules, stick at things until they succeed, continuously try to become better acquainted with themselves, raise their children by the book… the list goes on. After almost a decade of study in shame and fear, she feels she deserves verification that she is doing things ‘right’. ‘Fantastic,’ she mutters sarcastically. ‘I’m living straight down the shit list.’ It is at this point that the analytical, rational, no-bullshit researcher’s life changes forever. Gradually she releases the tight grasp of the ruler she’s used to measure her work, life and the world around her. ‘Shame loves perfectionists,’ she says, ‘because it’s so easy to keep us quiet.’ Through laborious work she lets go of the need to please, perform and perfect – through knowledge of precisely her own feelings and sense of vulnerability. She starts to say no instead of maybe (becoming subsequently irritated and vaguely bitter). She starts to say yes, yes yes! instead of sounds good, but I have so much work to do or I’ll do that when I’m thinner/ richer/ prettier/ less busy/ better prepared. After 12 years of training, the researcher who has collected and analysed thousands of others’ stories decides to tell her own. This is how she describes it in The Gifts of Imperfection: ‘I’ll tell the story of how a cynical, smart-ass academic became every bit of the stereotype that she spent her entire adult life ridiculing. I’ll fess up about how I became the middle-aged, recovering, health-conscious, creative, touchy-feely 21
spirituality-seeker who spends days contemplating things like grace, love, gratitude, creativity, authenticity, and is happier than I imagined possible. I’ll call it Wholehearted.’ And what a story it is! Brené Brown is invited to conferences worldwide to talk about the three ingredients for a wholehearted life: courage, compassion and a sense of belonging. She talks about how we can cultivate these characteristics through daily practice, and reassures us that it is our vulnerability that nudges us in the right direction. She explains to us how vulnerability can be our most precise measure of courage. She makes clear that transparency is the nemesis of shame, and how people who share their own story make it warmer, more amusing and less lonely for us others to do the same. She explains that friends who face our vulnerabilities with ‘oh yes, I’ve been there’ contribute to lifting the heavy weight from our shoulders in comparison to those who don’t have the courage, choosing instead to position themselves as superior and pity our situation. She teaches us how to be that good friend for our own sake and for those around us. How the word courage has its origins in the Latin word for heart, cor. That the word itself initially meant ‘to give an opinion by speaking from the heart.’ ‘Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do,’ she concludes, passing the baton to all those who dare. Luckily there are many willing to do so. Inspired by the formidable Texan researcher, I’ve begun to collect my own list of heroes and heroines, and it is among this list that we find a young woman from Oslo. Meet Kristine Getz.
OWNING OUR STORY ‘Only now with hindsight do I see how the shame has held me back. Instead of giving all I had in my battle with the illness, I wasted energy on concealing it. I’ve lied. I’ve told everyone that everything is fine, fine, fine. But the despair has almost made me explode into tiny pieces. I’ve played computer games as my life has raced by.’
It’s autumn 2010. Young Kristine Getz from Oslo chronicles her eating disorder experiences in the newspaper Aftenposten. She has already blogged about her thoughts and experiences relating to her illness, and the sum of all this has been her journey away from anorexia and self-contempt and towards a sense of fellowship, where a wave of gratitude awaited her. Finally those closest to her had an insight into how she felt and were able to express sympathy and understanding. Relatives of others with the same illness - parents, peers, uncles or grandmothers - thanked her through her blog. Newspapers sought interviews, and publishers contacted her in the hope of publishing her story as a book. ‘Initially I was relieved. I wasn’t alone,’ Kristine comments, before continuing: ‘But for the same reason I felt provoked. Furious. The fact that so many of us act as our own worst enemies in this way, that’s a sign that something is seriously wrong here. When I first came forward, stepped out of my dark hiding place, it was then that I understood that I wasn’t alone. When I first announced to the world at large that I was weak, it was only then that I could become strong. And only then could I really begin to concentrate on becoming healthy. Feeling shame over mental illness is like pouring petrol on a bonfire you’re trying to extinguish. I’m not ashamed, and neither should you be,’ Kristine writes. Getz’s experiences could easily have been plucked from Brené Brown’s research project, and we find similar stories daily in newspapers, magazines, films and YouTube clips. People who acknowledge their own humanity. Benny Anderson, best remembered from his ABBA heydays, spoke of his alcoholism during a prime-time television interview. Oslo mayor, Fabian Stang, generously shared his personal experiences of mental illness. There are numerous small, inconsequential daily events, such as when the heavily pregnant journalist Kristine Lossius Thorin gave her own review of nappies live on air for the Norwegian national broadcasting corporation. And not nappies for babies - those she used herself. Large, soft, absorbent pads to mitigate urinary incontinence, a completely normal and uncomfortable side effect of pregnancy for many women. 23
‘They’re great!’ the pregnant journalist triumphantly declared. ‘No more stupid panty-liners – from now on it’s nappies all the way for me!’ Uncomfortable, you say? Private? Of course it’s private, yet simultaneously universal. Women around the world suffer urinary incontinence during pregnancy. Why waste time feeling ashamed and worried about this fact? We ought to offer thanks to Lossius Thorin, who happily announces the solution for everyone on air at prime time. This is equally as private and crucial as recognised businessman Stein Erik Hagen’s six-page spread in the finance newspaper Dagens Næringsliv on his experiences of prostate cancer. We know that many men feel helpless and fear for their lives when it comes to checking their testicles, prostate and various other body parts. It’s at that point that they need someone, preferably someone rich, significant and well-known, who dares to step forward and publically share their own vulnerability. ‘Nonsense!’ grumbles a voice in my head. ‘They’re only doing it for the attention. Must we sit here and listen to their babbling? Spare us! Tell them to pull themselves together and avoid bothering us with their own affairs.’ I know this voice well. This is the voice of my inner financial journalist, which expects efficiency and critical thinking, and which can become somewhat cantankerous in the face of my own and others’ vulnerabilities. This voice wants out! It is the voice of fight or flight. Over the years I’ve learned to speak calmly and kindly to this voice, which above all is burdened with shame and fear. I’ve learned to speak softly, to comfort her and simultaneously to appeal to her definitive strength: reason. What is it that makes our daughters want to starve themselves to the point of fatal illness, I ask my inner financial journalist. What about me, when I experience envy about my neighbour who got the job I wanted? When it’s me who loses my job? When my love life goes up in smoke? What then? It is at that point that the terrified feelings of shame begin to drown their sorrows, or as Brené Brown defines it, ‘have a beer… and a banana-walnut muffin.’ Numbing the emotions, with alcohol, food, hunger, sex, power or sheer isolation. 24
‘If you were to wrangle feelings of shame into a Petri dish, they’d require just three things in order to flourish in that environment,’ says Brown. ‘Suppression, silence and judgment.’ I suspect that there is an anxious financial journalist in many of us; a voice that denies the very vulnerability that binds us all, and which is the birthplace of creativity and change. The good news is that it is possible to train ourselves in the ability to live without concealing our vulnerability, and instead to embrace a wholehearted life. This destination can only be reached through knowledge of and friendship with one’s own feelings of shame and perfectionism.
AND THEN I HIT ROCK BOTTOM Believe me, it wasn’t a sense of pride that filled me on that warm September day in 2009 as I sat on the train, on my way to present at the Oslo Opera House. As I sat in my train seat we passed through Holmestrand, Sande and Drammen as I attempted to warm up my voice, hoarse after howling in my car on the way to the train station. The pain that I felt was so intense, my fury so acute, that my poor, innocent little Volkswagen Polo was forced to put up with a barrage of incomprehensible, beast-like howls of pain as it rolled up to Skoppum Station and away from the coastal town of Åsgårdstrand where my beloved family still sat, drinking coffee and enjoying the remainder of a late birthday breakfast. ‘Bloody marvelous,’ I thought to myself. ‘ On top of it all you’ve gone and lost your voice. The perfect attribute for any presenter.’ It certainly wasn’t perfect though, and my self-esteem reached a new low somewhere between Holmestrand and Sande. It wasn’t enough that I felt unhappy and unsuccessful in my own life. It was all the worse in the face of my sister’s good fortune and happiness that seemed to beam from her very being. Just how pathetic, petty and ungenerous can one person be? My feelings of shame shot through me like an electric shock within my system, as did the loneliness and pain. I sat like this, digging progressively deeper into my own sense of self-contempt.
‘How am I going to cope with this today?’ I thought as I walked over the bridge connecting Oslo Central Station with the Opera building by the water’s edge in Bjørvika. ‘How on earth am I going to maintain the momentum of this conversation? A conversation about “The Power of Life”? Would it even be possible to find a less suitable theme for the day’s events?’ It was as if the entire day were designed to mock me. Happy people, arm-in-arm, strolled across the expansive, marble roof of the Opera House as the mild September sunshine beamed down upon us and the sea glittered, Hovedøya visible on the horizon. And there I was, self-obsessed, envious, lonely, miserable and unhappy. The only thing I had in any kind of abundance was self-contempt. No, that’s not quite true: I also had a thoroughly prepared script. And then the very thing happened that so often happens when I’m permitted to step out on stage. My brain ceases to function in any kind of analytical, reflective manner. My feelings of loneliness disappear. I have the sensation of being connected to something large, in which everyone belongs together and in that environment, regardless of who we are, what we do, where we come from and where we are headed. It’s a place that Harvard researcher Jill Bolte Taylor has described as “Lalaland”, and which she connects to the right side of the brain. It’s a feeling of pure happiness that fills me on stage, and I relish every moment! It was undeniably this feeling of euphoria, aided by the presence of three generous authors, that kindly nudged me towards my confession that day. Towards that intense feeling of being welcomed, comforted, in fact, more than that – being met with gratitude from an audience of individuals that I don’t know. I only know that those few minutes, my own admission, the warmth and appreciation of the audience and the transparency demonstrated by the authors were all set to change my life forever. It was after this that I became acquainted with Brené Brown’s research, which further led me on my route towards a wholehearted life in which forgiveness, tenderness and fellowship play key roles. A life in which shame – the paralyzing feeling caused not by doing something 26
wrong (something I still frequently do!), but by being something wrong, bad and far from charming – disappears into thin air at the very moment that I acknowledge it.
BRENÉ BROWN’S 10 STEPS TO A WHOLEHEARTED LIFE Cultivating Authenticity - Letting Go of What People Think Cultivating Self-Compassion - Letting Go of Perfectionism Cultivating a Resilient Spirit - Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness Cultivating Gratitude and Joy - Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith - Letting Go of the Need for Certainty Cultivating Creativity - Letting Go of Comparison Cultivating Play and Rest - Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth Cultivating Calm and Stillness - Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle Cultivating Meaningful Work - Letting Go of Self-Doubt and “Supposed To” Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance - Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control” (Taken from the book The Gifts of Imperfection)
FLAWSOME It took three years for me to embark on the trail of generosity and kindness; three years for the word to emerge that puts everything in its proper place. Flawsome. Trend researchers in the company Trendwatching.com initially launched the concept as one of the ten most important consumer trends in the year 2012, and it was originally the financial crisis and its abundant foul play that formed the backdrop to this. ‘While 2011 saw new levels of consumer disgust at too many business’ self-serving and often downright immoral (if not criminal) actions, stories of businesses doing good remind consumers that personality and profit can be compatible. In fact, in 2012 consumers won’t expect brands to be flawless; they will even embrace brands that are flawsome, and at large (or at least somewhat) human. Brands that are honest about their flaws, that show some empathy, generosity, humility, flexibility, maturity, humor and dare we say it, some character and humanity,’ write Trendwatching. Being flawsome, whether as an organisation or as an individual, implies a combination of truthfulness about one’s errors and a willingness to be held accountable, and should all be carried out in a sympathetic, humble, flexible, mature and friendly manner, as businesswoman Hannah Samuel writes in her blog. She has over 20 years’ experience working in England and New Zealand and describes the key characteristics of flawsome companies and individuals: • Being ‘human’ and accessible • Forget hiding behind legal terms and conditions and official techno-speak • Responding in person, directly and promptly • Being open to feedback from unhappy or fractious clients in a way that’s not defensive or blaming, but calm and good-natured • Actively embracing social media. Encouraging comments and feedback from a wide range of sources and genuinely taking part in the conversation as appropriate
• Admitting errors and mistakes, and ensuring clients who might be disadvantaged because of them are not only compensated, but possibly even rewarded instead • Turning your flaws into positive points of difference. Avoid trying to be perfect, or match every other provider in your field, and instead fine-tune your flaws into positive points of difference • Delivering on your promises. When hiccups occur, ensuring you’re accountable and committed to delivering a positive outcome in spite of the challenges you face I can’t forget the way that one of my friends came to me a few years ago with bright eyes, describing the manager of Nordea, one of Scandinavia’s largest banks and my friend’s place of work. He describes how the chief executive, bang in the middle of the financial crisis, had thrown his arms wide before his employees during a speech and said the following: ‘I don’t know how I will meet the challenges that lie ahead. I only know that I need each and every one of you, and everything you know and are capable of in order to move forwards.’ ‘I loved it!’ my engineer friend told me. ‘I had this real desire to help him, to work with him and make things happen.’ His manager was flawsome. Kristine Getz is flawsome in discussing her own story of shame and eating disorders. Brené Brown is flawsome when she talks of her breakdown and subsequent breakthrough. My friend Hilde is flawsome when she talks about how insulted she felt over the family Christmas dinner table when her father had forgotten to buy Farris mineral water. ‘He knows how important Farris is to me at Christmas! He knows I don’t like beer. I drink red wine with my Christmas meal, and Farris! He doesn’t care about me at all,’ she despaired, as she abandoned her Christmas meal in tears. And no, she isn’t eight years old – she’s 48.
OUR STRUGGLE It’s no big deal. This is the message from Karl Ove Knausgård, wildly successful author of six hefty volumes of literature in which he opens the floodgates to his own struggle and vulnerability, and in doing so, holds up a mirror to the rest of us. ‘I’ve laid everything bare, and my experiences now tell me that this isn’t such a terrible thing to have done. These are experiences that are common to us all,’ Knausgård comments in interview after interview. He’s said this so many times that the sentence emerges as the most concentrated message of his ambitious literary project. It’s no big deal. This is what a person sounds like who has taken ownership of his own story. An individual who has written out of shame and self-contempt and with an inward focus. This is an author who acknowledges the most painful points in his own life and who accepts them, peaks and troughs, joy, loneliness and shame. Knausgård is so flawsome that it practically hurts. He is like the WikiLeaks of the literary world. By leaking his own story, he has made it easier for each of us to be who we are. It is for fundamentally this reason that his cycle of novels has received such deafening praise among both critics and readers. It is hardly a coincidence that his work has forged its way to prominence at this precise moment in time, at the beginning of an age in which transparency, vulnerability and generosity are key concepts. ‘There is something that everyone experiences, which is the same for all people… but which isn’t conveyed anywhere, asides from in the private sphere. Each and every one of us experiences difficulties at one point or another in the duration of our life – everyone knows an alcoholic, someone suffering a mental illness or at a low point for some reason, at least in my experience. Every time I meet someone and get to know them, a story emerges – it could be a story of illness, decay, sudden death. Yet, this is never represented, and with that it seems not to exist; it’s a burden that each of us has to bear alone.’ 30
It is with these words that Knausgård defends his novels in an imagined courtroom in the sixth volume of the series, in which he is taken to court by his furious uncle, Gunnar, who questions why his nephew would expose others in stories that he isn’t even certain that he remembers correctly. ‘My question is why we choose to keep secret the things that we do. Where is the shame in steady decline? In utter human catastrophe? To live through an entirely catastrophic event is awful, but to speak about it? Why do we choose shame and secrecy over what is, at base, perhaps the most human experience of all? What is so dangerous that we can’t say it aloud?’ Transparency – on one’s own behalf, yes – but exposing others? That side of matters is ethically questionable, and will undoubtedly be debated and discussed for a long time to come. It’s somewhat similar to the situation described in the Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad’s book about her host family in Kabul, a bookseller and his family, which was published almost a decade ago. Seierstad betrayed the bookseller in choosing to tell his story rather than protect him. This has happened before, and will happen again. Seierstad cannot have been in any doubt about the ethical minefield into which she ventured when she wrote The Bookseller of Kabul, a publication that became a bestseller in many parts of the western world and enjoyed several weeks on The New York Times best sellers list. She must have registered the unpleasant sensation that follows when writing openly about others without first acquiring their consent. Nonetheless, she chose to proceed. It’s entirely possible to feel morally offended by her actions, but there are also reasons to thank her. She did what so many authors and journalists have done before her; upon being given an insight into a closed environment, she depicted what she had seen and heard during her experiences. Uncensored. On individual occasions, this approach is unavoidable in order to gain an insight into criminal environments, corrupt political systems or inhumane working conditions. Every now and then news coverage 31
incites immediate consequences in the form of arrests and prosecutions. On other occasions they generate debate and contribute to gradual changes in society. Following the publication of Seierstad’s book, the world was given a unique insight into Afghan society, and there was clear justification in spite of the betrayal and breaches of confidence involved in the book’s production. The fact that the extremely weak position of women in society occupied a young, female, western journalist is no surprise. Equally unsurprising is that descriptions of relationships between the sexes cause fear in the bookseller, and it is this that creates the truly explosive element within the book: Afghan women bear the honour of Afghan men. ‘The story of my sisters who have had boyfriends, for example – that kind of thing is very shameful for Afghans. Divorce or death – these are the consequences of something like this if their husbands find out!’ thundered the bookseller in Norwegian newspapers. In doing so, he simultaneously delivered Seierstad’s best argument for her betrayal of him: when a writer is witness to systematic injustice, she is duty-bound to write about this. Death should never be disguised by the concept of “culture”. We have already heard numerous personal narratives, and there are more to come. Knausgård’s colleague, author Tore Renberg, is in a strong position following the publication of his own trilogy documenting his upbringing with an alcoholic father. Author Vigdis Hjorth is among others leading the way. She is, in fact, doubly generous in that she first and foremost offers herself up to the reader. Hjorth has carried this out since Knausgård and Renberg’s schooldays. ‘Even though much of the content in the sixth volume of My Struggle is so private that it ought to remain with us and us alone, it’s not so very harmful,’ writes Knausgård’s wife, author Linda Boström Knausgård, in her regular column in Norwegian magazine Women and Fashion. ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of,’ she continues. ‘I can tolerate these revelations, as long as they are true.’ Linda Boström Knausgård is another leading figure in this new age, and these individuals share one opinion: It’s no big deal. We are 32
human. We struggle, we toil, we make fools of ourselves, we fall and we often get up again afterwards. Why not share this instead of sneaking around in our own fearful bubbles of shame and perfectionism?
OPEN AND HONEST ‘You master the art of being self-centered for others.’ This is one of the nicest compliments that I ever received from a reader. Being self-centered doesn’t necessarily sound like a wonderful trait, but it delighted me because this is exactly what I see each of my own heroes and heroines succeeding at doing, in all manner of fields: they tell their own story in a way that makes it feel as if it’s about me. In this way I perceive that our common experiences of adversity, sorrow and shame vanish through what they share with me. Imagine – I could have that effect on others! This is why I write, in spite of the fact that it can be tiresome and unpleasant at times. The brain longs for respite, not to mention the poor people around me who cry for mercy when I get started. My mother mentioned to me the other day that she’s almost burned-out with exhaustion. This is something that I think ought to be acknowledged, and it’s for that reason that I wish to share a story about my own flawsome mother. One of the greatest gifts ever given to me by my mother came during one of the many conversations we had about how we came to be the way that we are. The conversation was about her upbringing in the small Norwegian town of Sandefjord during and after World War II – about religion, food, culture, our family and school. The conversation started as we listened to a Swedish radio programme paying tribute to the marvellous jazz singer Monica Zetterlund, found dead in her apartment following a ferocious blaze in her building the previous evening. Her life story was amazing, dramatic and tragic all at once: a life characterized by musical success on the global stage, glamour, beauty and intense loneliness. The Swedish journalist spoke about how Zetterlund, having inspired and moved people all over the world, never received any recognition of her success from her own father. He was a musician himself and, from what I understand, he was jealous of his 33
own daughter’s success. She had gained what he had failed to, and her punishment for this was her father’s withheld recognition. She never ceased to hope that her father’s support might come, and ultimately never received this. A tragic and classic tale, and a reminder of how vulnerable we all are in interaction with our parents, regardless of what we may think they mean to us. Zetterlund’s story initiated reflections on the culture within our own family. ‘How did I become like this,’ I asked my mother. ‘The kind of person who points out where and when others stumble and fall. The kind of person who constantly characterises others. Why do I need to have an opinion all the time?’ Silence fell, and remained for a good, long while. The gulls soared overhead on that warm, clear day in May. The coffee in our cups was hot and there was a faint scent of salt in the sea air. ‘Yes,’ my mother said after a while. ‘You come from a rather judgmental family.’ Imagine - those are the exact words that she said to me. Entirely unprompted, my flawsome mother proceeded to unleash a flood of stories of the way in which my family had commented on everything and everyone, not least those who appeared on television throughout the 1970s and 1980s. What they had said, the clothes they had worn, the way that they had carried themselves. The pinnacle of each year was naturally the Eurovision Song Contest, a national holiday of family judgment in which we went further than commenting on clothes and appearance, extending our comments to the varying singing abilities as well as other musical criteria from which we cast our verdict. What drove us to this? Was it a sense of schadenfreude, the trueborn cousin of envy? Or was it pure and simple envy itself? Undoubtedly a blissful cocktail of all kinds of feelings for those individuals impertinent enough to come forth and consider that they could entertain us on a Saturday evening! Gratitude certainly wasn’t the most prominent of these feelings, to put it mildly. This gift – my mother’s straightforward insight into the family culture that she herself had contributed to creating, and her courage and desire to acknowledge this fact and share it – has meant the world 34
to me in my mission to locate my own sense of security and generosity. All the while, she has taken ownership of her own story, warts and all. In doing so, she has set us both free. I successfully avoid facing my mother in court after leaking forbidden family secrets. She tells me the same thing as all others who have taken ownership of their own story: ‘Use me as you must. It’s no big deal.’ The same can be said for my own crossroad in life on that September day in the Opera House back in 2009. All traces of shame, isolation and despair didn’t vanish as if by magic, but the wave of warmth and gratitude that enveloped me that day has remained with me, like a sensation of tenderness within. And slowly but surely I begin to see the contours of something larger happening all around me. I see that the yearning to be loveable and fallible humans drives us towards a new phase of development, not just for each of us as individuals, but also for corporations, organisations and our societies. The following two chapters will focus on economics and journalism, but first and foremost we must make a stop at the seven deadly sins. These deeply human emotions can become major roadblocks on the road to generosity if we gloss over them, or helpful guides in life if we acknowledge their existence.
TWO LITTLE PIGGY EXERCISES Carry out a loving self-analysis and map the condition of your own pigsty. Be as honest and gentle as you can; practise the ability to laugh at yourself (lovingly) as you go. Think about the last time that you were flawsome, if and when anyone else around you has been, and how this affected the situation. Each time you start picking on yourself, stop, smile, and repeat this wonderful intention from professor Brené Brown: I will talk to myself as I talk to someone I love.
FORGIVING THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS ‘Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.’ Albert Einstein
It’s one of those days. The kind of day where I desperately need a reminder of why I should continue to struggle and strive with this book. It’s a Wednesday, and I awaken to rain pelting at my bedroom window. I decided that this was a sufficiently good reason to sleep a little later than usual. I was only due to spend the day writing anyway. No meetings, so a few hours here or there… well, it made no real difference. So I slept, not waking before quarter past ten. I’d dreamt something strange, as I often do when I sleep late in the morning, and with a dull ache in my back – my body’s way of thanking me for my laziness. I felt sluggish and dizzy. My head cleared slightly as I ventured outside, not least when I spotted my neighbour, who’d had precisely the same start to the day that I had. He has ambitions to get in shape and has signed up to run a half marathon and various other runs. And so there we stood. We were both equally groggy, but suddenly things seemed easier, because there were two of us. There’s always tomorrow, we decided. And maybe even today? 36
And now I sit here and think that perhaps I couldn’t have wished myself a better start to that day – in the name of vulnerability. I’m due to begin writing the chapter that I’ve thought about for several years yet never quite completely managed to get my head around. That chapter is concerned with the seven deadly sins – or more accurately, forgiving them. Could I possibly have found a more appropriate start to the day than to indulge in laziness? This is about illusions, protection, and above all, forgiveness. This is about the need to learn how to forgive - not least to forgive ourselves. This is concerned with teaching ourselves to observe our own actions and attitudes with kindness, in the same way that my wise psychiatrist has repeatedly challenged me to do throughout the years. Few people are as well acquainted with my critical and judgmental inner financial journalist as he is, and few have taught me so much about the significance of forgiveness and a gentle approach in terms of living at peace with oneself and others. It’s so easy to embrace virtue. The really hard part is becoming acquainted with the forbidden feelings one harbours, and using these to enrich our lives. It’s that which we will attempt to do now.
ENVY AS A COMPASS It’s not difficult to agree that the Greek philosopher Plato (423-347 BC) knew what he was talking about when he hatched the notion of the four cardinal virtues: Prudence to judge the right action in any given situation. Justice to weigh up one’s own and others’ needs. Temperance to practise self-control and moderation. Courage to confront fears, threats and uncertainty. However, the majority of us are at least equally familiar with the seven deadly sins, as defined by Pope Gregory I: 1. Envy 2. Sloth 3. Wrath 37
4. Gluttony 5. Pride 6. Lust 7. Greed These problematic yet inherently human feelings have suffered negative press for the past 1500 years. Nonetheless, troublesome tendencies become no less toxic following lengthy periods of time tucked away in deep cellars and dark closets. It is for that reason that we have so much to gain from forcing these deadly sins out into the full glare of daylight and calling them exactly what we like. They can be employed for a greater purpose than cultivating shame; in reality, they are our good little helpers. Let’s say that I’m envious of Åsne Seierstad, award-winning Norwegian reporter who we became acquainted with in the first chapter. She is brave, astute and unbelievably beautiful. This is an unpleasant feeling - I wish that I weren’t envious of Åsne Seierstad. So what do I do? Well, naturally I’m embarrassed about this and make out as if it’s nothing, continuing my life as before while harbouring my feelings of envy. This is my traditional and safe approach. However, there is another way of dealing with things that is far better than this. I can pause to acknowledge my envy. In doing so, I admit to myself those traits possessed by Seierstad – her bravery, wisdom and beauty - matter to me. Ok. So how can I develop those traits? Obviously it will be a challenge, but this is a clear example of navigation through life guided by envy as my compass. In no way is this confirmation that courage, wisdom and beauty are the keys to a fulfilling life, but I’ve given myself the opportunity to seek these traits and achieve this goal. Naturally this is a somewhat uncomfortable process, but envy is uncomfortable, whether we flee from its presence or face up to the old, green-eyed monster. And that’s how we successfully play with the so-called deadly sins. By sharing them and perhaps even laughing a little at them, but overall by seeing them as they are: deeply human tendencies that we possess with good reason. We must get to know them, and our opportunities to do so are rapidly increasing. It’s time to check in at Paradise Hotel. 38
FROM HERE TO REALITY It is hardly a coincidence that reality television has emerged as a global phenomenon since the beginning of the 1990s. We train ourselves for relationships and achieving emotional mastery, and watching these TV series has perhaps become a mode of training in its own right. – I cannot help but wonder if we practise our emotional and relational competence by watching programmes in which people like you and me and a neighbour are plucked from our daily lives and made to live together in a house on an island in the Indian Ocean or at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. Ok – now cohabitate! Roll cameras! These socalled reality television series give us a private outlet for our feelings and disadvantageous life experiences in a way that we never before have experienced in the public sphere. The etymological origin of the word phenomenon is ‘to show’, and is concerned with transparency – a concept that arises yet again. Popular culture does not emerge from a vacuum. It grows and develops as a commentary upon the age from which it enters the world, contributing in large degree to the continual development of the present day. And so there we sit, blushing before our television screens. We’re troubled by what we see, or moved by it, and often embarrassed. We see social dynamics in free flow. We love to hate it and hate to love it. This is most likely because we recognise aspects of this within the merciless social dynamics of our own lives, and we squirm with pain because we see ourselves at our most vulnerable. The majority of us, at one point or another in time, have been through what we see play out on screen. Back at high school, for example - some of us were popular while others were rejected. For many, these experiences carry over into adult life (for the majority, I would suggest). Who is included and who remains excluded? It is as if Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume trilogy has been adapted for television. Take my neighbour. A good-natured political scientist 55 years of age, he cheers on Iselin, star of the Norwegian version of Paradise Hotel. He laughs heartily at her, and not without warmth. He recognises her naivety, not to mention her self-obsessed nature. Her helpless cynicism. It’s as if he’s already met her, so closely do her own traits tie in with 39
those of the many women he’s met throughout the years. And what is it that he comes to see after a while as the speculative reality series advances? The contestants’ perfectly smooth facades crumble. They often motivate one another to stand together. They are often drawn towards those who they perceive to be most genuine. They do this in spite of the fact that television companies and producers do all they can in order to create conflict and unscrupulous activity. Instead, contestants are drawn towards consideration for others and honesty, just like most of us in real life. We recognise the game, and we are suitably fascinated by this to the point that there now exists a reality television series for everyone: young, old, the outdoorsy, camping fans, disabled viewers, those with extreme beauty, those carrying a few extra pounds, nasty people, farmers, urbanites – you name it! Globally we have been subjected to 606 unique reality concepts so far, according to Wikipedia’s overview in April 2014. Wikipedia has further categorised these programmes into fifteen sub-categories: Documentary-style Extraordinary people Historical recreation Science Dating Reality legal programming Self-improvement/ Makeover Shows Lifestyle change Fantasies fulfilled Celebrity docusoaps Hidden camera Reality game shows Talent searches Spoofs Parodies These 606 individual programmes have been translated into concepts suited to tens of thousands of national and local markets. In Norway 40
alone, we have had over 60 different programmes. Whether we love them or hate them, the fact is that we seem to want them. We might not increase our mathematical intelligence by keeping up with these series, but our social intelligence has something to gain from observing these social gatherings. Perhaps we learn something about each otherâ€™s feelings? Perhaps well over 600 reality series in 20 years is a symptom of this? A symptom of the fact that we have a tendency to outsource our emotional economy, as a financial journalist might phrase it. We may not personally dare to live out the wild dramas that we see played out on screen. Instead, we send contestants deep down into this underworld to save us, just like Orpheus in the Greek myth. We allow these candidates to travel to the Kingdom of the Dead to bring back something of value to us all. Maybe they live out the seven deadly sins so we donâ€™t have to?
We are moving towards a new era, developed by people and organizations with the guts to be transparent - with the courage to be vulnerable a...