LtQ: How do we make meaning, when there is no sense of the self?

Simon Ripley is an artist who is working with people with Alzheimer’s and dementia at Franklyn Hospital, alongside one of our speakers Carrie Clarke. He writes:

Participatory work has begun to influence the direction of my own art work and I want to make this link more explicit – to focus on my response to illness and also patients’ responses to my work so that there is a spirit of collaboration and a two way process that goes beyond the straightforward delivery of art workshops.  I want this project to focus on understanding the processes of making art and to go beyond the ‘therapeutic’ benefits. I want to make art as the primary focus rather than art being a vehicle for well being. I want to see the person, not the disability and explore the possibility that the creative act exists outside memory. From the work I have already seen, I have witnessed making art as a process of communication ‘in the moment’ which is not dependent upon remembered artistic experience or ability or even upon past personality. Alzheimer’s enables a person to step out of these limitations and to be creative in a way that perhaps they never were before the disease. For me, working in an abstract way in my own work, this idea of making art independent of identity is very liberating. In abstract art for example, how do we make meaning, when there is no sense of the self?

You can follow the development of this project in his blog.


Living the Questions: Who ate all the pie?

If you are expecting reflections on football chants aimed at over-indulgent players, do stay and read on.

In 2010, Dan Ariely and Michael Norton asked thousands of people in the US for their views on the distribution of wealth, from top to bottom. The vast majority imagined a far more equal nation than is actually the case. Dividing the population into five quintiles, the 20% wealthiest in the top quintile down to the 20% poorest in the bottom quintile, what percentage of the total wealth pie do you think the bottom 40% (two quintiles) and the top 20% have? The average guess was about 9% for the bottom and 59% for the top. The actual numbers were 0.3% and 84%.

In The Price of Inequality, published last summer, Joseph Stiglitz stacks up the evidence for growing inequality of US wages, total income and wealth, and the sharp acceleration during the Great Recession, since 2008. The bottom and middle are now worse off than in 2000, while income growth has been primarily at the top 1%.

He also, importantly, busts the great American myth of equality of opportunity (related to both income mobility and lifetime earnings), often used somehow to justify inequality.

Market forces have shaped inequality; government policies have shaped those market forces (much of the inequality that exists is the result of government policy); and the 1% have used their power to shape policy to their own ends. The wealthy often do not so much create wealth as take wealth away from others through rent-seeking – not just in the US. Recall, for example, HMRC’s waiver of Vodafone’s potential £7-billion tax bill.

The US, UK and other widely unequal countries are paying a high price for this inequality.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in 2010’s The Spirit Level, presented compelling evidence that more unequal countries have lower life expectancy and higher levels of violence, illiteracy and mental illness than more equal countries, and that more unequal societies are worse for everyone in them, including the well-off.

Stiglitz argues that their economies are inefficient in their use of resources, and are neither stable nor sustainable in the long term. The US is staring into the abyss of a breakdown in social cohesion and trust. Democracy itself is in peril, warped, as it has been, from one person, one vote, into one dollar, one vote.

Yet, despite everything, through its ownership of the media, the 1% has largely succeeded in shaping public perception in the US, and convinced the 99% that they are all in it together. Maybe they have been less successful in the UK, but there is still a long way to go politically.

Britain became more equal during the World Wars, as the Government saw that making people feel they were sharing the burden was a way to gain popular support for the war effort. During the mid-1980s and early ’90s, inequality grew rapidly, almost certainly reflecting the neo-liberal economic policies of the Thatcher and Major Governments. The gap narrowed slightly during New Labour, but the Coalition’s tax and expenditure policies are widening it again.

Wilkinson and Pickett make the point that it would not take a revolution to reduce income inequality. All the data in The Spirit Level come from rich developed market democracies, and their analysis is only of the differences between them.

But a transformation is still required, and they outline two direct ways of reducing income inequality: first, reduce differences in pay before tax (as happens in Japan) – for example, by minimum-pay policies, strong trade unions, employee representation on boards, and through a public ethic intolerant of the bonus culture; and, second, redistribution by taxes and benefits (as happens in Sweden, that notorious – in the US – socialist state), not least through more stringent action to prevent tax-avoidance.

Ariely and Norton also asked their US respondents to describe their ideal distribution of wealth. Here’s an image of all three sets of numbers.* The ideal is not far off the distribution in – Sweden.

Other government policies can have indirect influence, including education policies and the management of the national economy. There is a huge volume of evidence available to policy-makers, which they need to filter. The danger is that some evidence is played down, in order to avoid challenging the status quo. The gift of The Price of Inequality and The Spirit Level is to enable concentration on one area: reduce inequality, and see substantial improvements in economic efficiency, stability and sustainability, murder rates, mental illness, obesity, imprisonment, teenage births, and levels of trust. Moreover, more equal countries are more generous to developing countries.

We could evaluate all government policy in terms of the question: what effect would this policy have on income equality? This question would act as a common cause, and bring clarity to the engagement. As policy is so complex, often the indirect effects on inequality are not obvious. It is important, therefore, to enlist experts in each field and discuss, listen, and learn. But even without all the answers, we can still put the equality question to our representatives and policy-makers, and ask them to ensure that the aim of reducing income inequality underpins all policy discussions.

So, Iain Duncan Smith, what effect would changing the way in which child poverty is measured have on income equality? George Osborne, what effect will your next budget have on income equality? And, Barack Obama and your bicameral Congress, what effect will you all together have on income equality?

Oh, and we’re looking forward to welcoming Stewart Wallis from the New Economics Foundation and Tom Crompton from Common Cause to TEDxExeter 2013, and to hearing what they have to say about economics and values.


* I know, it’s not a pie, but it tells a clearer story than the pies in the Ariely article. Maybe I should have titled this post: Who ate all the (chocolate) bar?


LtQ: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous – asked Paul Gauguin in the yellow splash at the top left of this painting from 1897.

There are no questionmarks; they are added in the English translation (the title of this post). In this it reminds me of Bruce Chatwin’s final book, titled “What Am I Doing Here”. The lack of a questionmark led some to think Chatwin was intending to tell the meaning of it all, or perhaps it was a typographical error. In fact, it was a decision arising from the cover design. But although the narratives within the covers shared Chatwin’s passion for living investigation, they never explicitly tackled the ‘question’ at all.

Gauguin’s painting is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which says: “In 1891, Gauguin left France for Tahiti, seeking in the South Seas a society that was simpler and more elemental than that of his homeland. In Tahiti, he created paintings that express a highly personal mythology. He considered this work—created in 1897, at a time of great personal crisis—to be his masterpiece and the summation of his ideas. Gauguin’s letters suggest that the fresco-like painting should be read from right to left, beginning with the sleeping infant. He describes the various figures as pondering the questions of human existence given in the title; the blue idol represents ‘the Beyond.’ The old woman at the far left, ‘close to death,’ accepts her fate with resignation.”

Through the symbolism in the painting, Gauguin invites the viewer in to contemplate the meaning of life. But perhaps our conclusions would differ from his. In a letter, he wrote of the painting: “I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it”, and after completing it, he felt so convinced that the rest of his life would be unsuccessful that he attempted suicide, unsuccessfully. Yet the answer to his second question What are we? (similar to my first question Who am I?) has to be more than a sum total of our successes or failures. And in the end, “Living the questions” does involve living.

Living the Questions: What are we missing?

In the spirit of the last Living the question post, and inspired by a recent Facebook meme,

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

In 2007, the Washington Post organised a social experiment about people’s perception, taste, and priorities. At a metro station during the morning rush hour, for 45 minutes, the paper video-recorded the world-famous violinist Joshua Bell playing six classical masterpieces on his Stradivarius… and the responses of the passers by.

The Post had contingency plans to deal with crowds, but in the event only six people stopped and stayed for a while. A few more gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. When Bell finished playing, it was only to silence; no one applauded.

Only the passing children responded without fail, until their parents pulled them away.

And so the Post asked two questions: “what about [people’s] ability to appreciate life?” and “If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?”

One of the six that stopped had listened to a street musician for the first time in his life. He said: “it made me feel at peace”. Another said: “It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day.”

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.


Living the Questions: Why is the sky blue?

xkcd: Sky ColorThis is partly an excuse to feature an xkcd cartoon, going some way towards answering the question. But it is really about why we stop asking why.

The cartoon science mom (it’s a US blog) could probably identify with those parents driven up the wall by their children:

But why…?
But why…?

Now children don’t usually ask so many questions in order to exasperate their parents. So why do they?

I’m no expert, but a bit of googling suggests: they are gathering knowledge, trying to get at explanations and the truth about things; their minds are expanding quickly; it is one of the most important strategies they have for connecting with their caregivers; they are actively learning about their world, and starting to understand that there’s a reason for almost everything (recent work has suggested that children can grasp causality from as early as age 3); sheer curiosity; and how after all are they going to know unless they ask? Because that is why ALL of us ask questions.

Unfortunately, most of the questions we ask are no longer why? but where? who? how? what? and most perniciously when? (Actually, how? is not too bad.) Even worse, some of us may have stopped asking questions altogether.

Maybe we no longer have the time, or the curiosity or the sense of wonder. Or we have become cynical and are pretending we are all grown-up. Maybe gathering knowledge and making connections are no longer fun, or are seen as the province of geeks. But any good scientist, any creative person, anyone serious about personal growth or making the world a better place… never stops asking why. And why not you and me?

One of our TEDxExeter 2013 speakers is Camilla Hampshire from RAMM, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. If you have got out of the habit of asking why, and you have a child to hand, why not research the questions you don’t know how to answer together? RAMM might be a good place to start. If you are feeling adventurous, you don’t even need a child.

The sky behind all those clouds isn’t always blue, of course. There can be various explanations for other colours, such as air pollution or dust storms like this amazing storm in Sydney in 2009. And as with many old sayings, there is also some truth in:

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight,
Red sky in morning, shepherd’s warning.

Find out why here.


Living the Questions: Who am I?

In the lead up to the TEDxExeter 2013 event on the theme of “Living the Questions”, we are planning a series of questionings, inquiries and interrogations. We hope they will trigger new reflections and lines of thought for you. If among our ponderings, ratiocinations and ruminations we do happen to stumble upon any answers, we cannot guarantee that they will be your answers. By all means add your tu’p’orth in the comments.

An easy one to get things started: Who am I?

Well, I could just answer: “I am the TEDxExeter storyteller”. But there, blam! Right away I have identified with a role and made myself less than I am. It’s the same when you are making polite small-talk , and they say: “I am a lawyer”, or “I am a teacher”. Is that all? “I practise law as a profession”, is maybe admirable, but “I am a lawyer”? No.

Or I could answer: “I am a white educated middle-class woman”, and slap any number of labels on myself. And your understanding of me would crash in a morass of preconceptions and a pile of baggage. At TEDxExeter 2012, Satish Kumar spoke brilliantly about his peace pilgrimage as a human being: “If I had walked as an Indian, I would have met a Pakistani… If I had walked as a Hindu, I would have met a Muslim… If I had gone as a socialist, I would have met a capitalist. I did not take any of those labels. I said ‘I’m going to go as a human being’, and I met human beings everywhere… Our primary identity is the identity that we are members of the human community.”

Type “Who am I?” into Google, and you can find out more about the Jackie Chan 1998 film of that name. Also, two more questions pop up: What makes you uniquely you? and Who am I meant to be?


The Science Museum’s website says that it’s Who am I? gallery provides insights into genetics and brain science. These may explain why I am unique, begging the nature-nurture question, but they cannot tell me who I am. Nor is Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” enough. I am not just a product of my thought processes, a mind in isolation from my body, emotions, will or soul.

If I watch my emotions as a detached observer, I can see how they change like the clouds that float on high, and how meaningless it is to say “I am depressed” or “I am happy”. I might be feeling depressed right now, or full of happiness, but it will pass. The cloud will float by.

Likewise, I am not my body. I have a body, and possessing is a fundamental aspect of my existence, but I must not confuse having with being. Despite the insistence of most media and advertising.

As for Oprah’s “Who am I meant to be?” let’s at least try and stay in the present (quite apart from the can of worms that that “meant” opens). “Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past” wrote RS Thomas.

So who am I?

Living the questions

“Living the questions” is the TEDxExeter theme for 2013, and it has already struck a chord. In the best traditions of TEDx, it leaves room for many different perspectives. We aim to explore how to live the important questions facing us in areas including money, business, prosperity, sustainability, the environment, childhood and old age, community, society, science.

We’re already working to gather outstanding thinkers, innovators and performers who are changing the world through their ground breaking work and ideas. Now that we have agreed a date with the Northcott Theatre – 12 April 2013 – the next challenge is to have a good line-up to feature in their programme, which goes to press in October. I have to say that some very exciting names were being named at our planning meeting this week.

It’s been less than three months since TEDxExeter 2012. As we say on the home page, the day was packed full of inspirational ideas, hope for the future and challenges to actions which will lead to a more peaceful and sustainable world. Ideas, hope and actions.

“Living the questions” means more than just listening to and discussing ideas, however worth spreading. It means living them. So we are grateful to all of you who have followed up Bandi Mbubi’s talk on fairtrade mobile phones by signing petitions, or writing to manufacturers or MPs. And we are really happy to announce that the Congo Calling website is launched today, on Congo Day. The website has more information about how you can get involved and make a difference to thousands of people.

Newsflash – TEDxExeter 2013

We have a date for next year – 12 April 2013. The Northcott Theatre and the Great Hall are both booked for the day, and our theme is Living the Questions – a variation on a quote from Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke:

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”