Sunday, 1 May 2016

A night of fire and (personal) demons

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On selfishness and the shared experience

Beltane has never been more popular with more than 7 thousand reported to be witnessing the triumph of Summer over Winter yet the accessibility of the performances remains more or less unchanged with the growing audience barely regarded.

The procession starts at the highest point on Calton Hill – the unfinished Parthenon, and moves around the hill with several stops for dancing, fire spinning and plot development. Spectators are given leaflets with a map of the route and performance spots so that they can plan accordingly what they want to see. To say that the audience doesn’t get to see everything is an understatement. The sheer number of people requires one to be strategic of their positioning and even then one might not see much. People gather around the 11 main points straight from the opening of the doors in expectation of the procession which won’t even reach them in the next hours while others run along with the convoy in vain hope they will get a glimpse of the action. There are no seats, no seating platforms, no screens. The stages are closed off with barriers or ropes and what might seem like a good location at first may prove utterly useless once the torch bearers take position. And despite the moaning and some grumpy sulking, people know what it is and they embrace it. Those who’ve been before come prepared and those who haven’t-learn. And it’s been fine. Until this year.

Once it came to one of the main events – Green Man's death and rebirth and his embrace with May Queen, those running with the procession clumped like a swarm of hungry insects on a ripe fruit. Those of us who decided to give up on the other stages and took position around the scene well before the advance of the queen were squeezed tightly onto the barriers. And then something weird happened – those newly arrived at the back started shouting “Sit down! Those at the front - sit down! You are being selfish! The others can’t see! Sit down!” Some sat, some didn’t. I didn’t.

The spectacle started, people still shouted. A general uneasiness spread around, those couple of hundred on my left gave up and sat, those couple of hundred on my right remained uncertain and standing. I felt torn between unprecedented Beltane solidarity and the practicality of sitting on the cold wet ground after I had stood in one place for an hour in favour of someone who just came in. So I chose myself, and my knees and waist and bum over the entertainment of a stranger. The passions were running so high that at the end of the scene people came and pointed fingers at me accusing me of selfishness.

And there I was, angry, sad, and cold, with my mood ruined because I didn’t know if I really was selfish or if I was made to feel bad because someone else was selfish. Today, while I was picking photos for the post, I listened to podcasts by On Being and in particular, an interview with Maria Popova, the creator of Brain Pickings. And thus my self-torment led me to musing on cynicism, David Hume, and the philosophy of selfishness.  

I spent the afternoon reading about Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator” whose imaginary approve we seek. Russ Roberts words the influence of the spectator on our lives beautifully:

The impartial spectator reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. Remembering that we are no more important than anyone else helps us play nicely with others. The impartial spectator is the voice inside our head that reminds us that pure self-interest is grotesque and that thinking of others is honorable and noble — the voice that reminds us that if we harm others in order to benefit ourselves, we will be resented, disliked, and unloved by anyone who is looking on impartially.

I read about Popova’s take on modern cynicism where we do good only to feel good, acting selflessly in a selfish act. I also looked the other way, at Ayn Rand where selfishness is more than ok – it’s the way to progress. And after writing and deleting and writing again on the feeling of being lost in the duality of helping out as a selfish or selfless act I realised that last night’s events have only partially to do with selfishness. It was rather a case of saying “No” to a demand disguised as request for solidarity.

Saying “No” in a moment of shared spectatorship can be perceived as an act of (rational) egotism particularly in times when equality hasn’t been more celebrated. We paid the same entry fee – "we should all be able to see" is a nice incentive, yet, practically on a hill with 7.000 odd spectators and no arrangements, it is hardly achievable. Had there been a culture of sitting, sure, tell the standing ones off. Trying to make people feel bad for not wanting to kneel in the mud when you’d just benefit – that’s bullying.


I might have to refer to my “impartial spectator”, learn from the experience and grow as a better person. Yet, learning to say “No” is equally as important in self-betterment and it shouldn't feel dreaded. "No" is never welcome but if we don't learn to say it and hear it, the ocean of cynicism will become only that much deeper.  

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this year's Beltane photos. And sorry I don't have any from the union between the reborn Green Man and the May Queen - I couldn't see. 


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