Here’s a multiple-choice question. How is Paloma Faith, the singer, songwriter and actress, connected with Chinese philosophy?
a) Did she date a Chinese philosopher called Zhang Wei? b) Does she originate from China? c) Like Chinese philosophy, is she two thousand years old? Or, d) None of the above?*
Answer: It’s d). I’ll explain below.
I came across an article about Paloma’s latest album, Infinite Things, by Mark Savage. In the review, he mentions that the title track is inspired by a short story called The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges. The Aleph is a point in space where we can see infinity. A place to simultaneously view all the universe without distortion or confusion.
“The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid.”
Paloma sees a connection between The Aleph and her own life. “A parallel between that idea of simultaneous multiple realities and parenthood – which is ‘as much about anguish and pain as it is about joy.’”
This is where I’ll divert from Mark’s article – a short jazz improvisation, before I return to the chorus. I believe Paloma is actually referring to yin and yang. In Chinese philosophy, yin is the dark and yang is the light – the relationship between the sunlight over a mountain and the valley below. Yin is the shady north and yang is the sunny south. Each day, as the sun travels across the sky, the yin and yang switch places, revealing what was obscured and obscuring what was revealed. Two opposing forces whose fusion brings the world into being.
So it is with everything. Without death, we have no birth. Without dark, we have no light. We need the rain as much as we need the sun. Life is a great rainbow of emotions that makes us human – each and every feeling a part of the whole. We need to embrace it all, or we have nothing at all.
And yet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders thinks differently. This book is the ‘bible’ published in the USA and used by Psychiatrists and mental health care professionals around the world. The fifth incarnation (947 pages long) was launched in 2013, called the DSM-5. It lists all the mental disorders that professionals have identified (including a number of new and interesting ones) and how professionals should diagnose these.
The challenge with this ‘bible’ is that it can encourage the medicalising of normal behaviour and mood. Those colours on the rainbow that some of us don’t like. Those moods we don’t enjoy. Maybe mauve isn’t our thing, or we don’t like bright green. We’d rather just be orange all the time. Is it possible to erase a colour we don’t fancy? Is it healthy to create a gap-toothed smile – a life without sadness, anger and jealousy?
This is from Allen Frances back in 2012. The DSM-5 is “likely to lead to massive over-diagnosis and harmful over-medication.” He says that normal grief will be diagnosed as a Major Depressive Disorder “thus medicalizing and trivializing our expectable and necessary emotional reactions to the loss of a loved one.” Back then he worried that this would encourage us to “substitute pills and superficial medial rituals for the deep consolations of family, friends, religion, and the resiliency that comes with time and the acceptance of the limitations of life.”
There used to be a bereavement exclusion in previous editions, so a patient wouldn’t be diagnosed with depression if they’d been recently bereaved. But this was removed from the 2013 version. As Allen puts it, “normality is an endangered species” and ordinary grief considered a disease.
Here’s another thought from Robin S. Rosenberg from 2013. “In our era of instant gratification, ushered along by online shopping, downloaded entertainment, and the immediate access to the world available through the Internet, if we have problems, we want a quick fix.” And if a medication will lessen our uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, we are receptive to swallowing that pill. He says that in our increasingly frantic lives “having a diagnosis gives a name to the suffering we feel and the hope that with a label can come relief. In dark or difficult times, hope is essential.”
Our challenge is that we don’t want to hear that life is a rainbow of emotions. Louise Perry wrote earlier this year about a conversation with a friend working in mental health services. Many of their colleagues believe mental health is a product of our context and life, as much as it is biomedical. But the problem is “most of their patients didn’t want to hear it. They wanted to take a pill and feel better. They didn’t want to be told that they were suffering from what some medics darkly refer to as ‘Shit Life Syndrome.’’’
I talked about mental health with Mike, one of my Spoon by Spoon interviewees. He’s 68 and during our conversation he reflected back on his long and industrious career. “I’m very interested in post-traumatic growth. The way in which people gain from having had a really strong difficult period of adversity and what they learn from it. It’s obviously based on a personal experience.”
During our chat, Mike described how he “came a cropper” fourteen years ago. “I actually suffered a stress induced breakdown, which lasted about six months.” He feels this period actually created an opportunity for him to become stronger and learn about life and himself. “That’s one of the learning experiences of coming through a fairly major mental emotional problem. It was a very valuable learning point for me.”
That doesn’t make it easy. We just want the feelings to go away. “The difficulty is that you don’t know if you’re going to come out. You don’t know if there’s going to be a happy ending. My doctor said one day ‘you’ll look back at all of this and it will be all over and done with and you will have sorted it.’” But at that point he felt “right now that feels like a million miles away.”
Mike believes we can’t have it all. We can’t be happy all the time. “This idea, one has a claim for an ideal life. There is no ideal life, you know. You have to take the rough with the smooth. I’m a great believer in you deal with the hand that’s dealt. That’s the hand you’ve got and you make the most of it.”
So that’s enough of my jazz improvisation. Back to Paloma. This is what she said about her title track and her daughter. “It’s like a love song to her but it’s not sentimental – because it’s like she’s devastated me and made me feel purposeful and full at the same time.”
What Paloma is embracing in this whole album is that life is dark and also light. She says that “I’m trying to relinquish the expectation, that a lot of people are raised with, that the only good life is a happy one.” She doesn’t believe that’s realistic or helpful. “It’s about the peaks and troughs, because if you didn’t have one you wouldn’t recognise the other.”
Thank you, Paloma. That’s yin and yang then. Rain and sun.
*As I ‘went to press’, I discovered Paloma Faith’s stepfather is Chinese. Who knew? Not me!
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan