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Change
4 min read

Imagine a day in the life of a Beatle

From an era before selfies, Paul McCartney’s cache of photos, even the out of focus ones, prompts Jamie Mulvaney to consider what perspective we need on ourselves.

Jamie is Associate Minister at Holy Trinity Clapham, London.

Two gallery vistor stair at four photo portraits of The Beatles.
Viewing Paul McCartney Photographs 1963–64: Eyes of the Storm.
National Portrait Gallery.

Imagine a day in the life of a Beatle. It's easy if you try. Or is it? 

Last year, the late Matthew Perry allowed us a searing insight into life with a rollicking read about his very high highs and very low lows. Yet more books have been published recently on the toxicity of fame.  Britney Spears is the subject of an autobiography and a biography. Another simply borrows the title, Toxic. John Updike wrote that 'fame is the mask that eats the face'. Baz Luhrmann last year documented Elvis Presley's destruction in his typically kaleidoscopic way. And into this media mix a recent exhibition shows a more innocent, intimate moment in the fame prototype of Beatlemania, intriguingly entitled Eyes of the Storm

Surely with the Beatles predating the selfie-stick and Snapchat, we'd be reliant on paparazzi. But as Sir Paul McCartney can play pretty much every musical instrument, it's not a surprise he knows how to use a camera. And so, it emerged during lockdown that he had kept 1,000 previously unseen photos from 1961-1963. 

To relaunch the beautifully remodelled National Portrait Gallery, McCartney displayed a whole cache of photos. One of the criticisms of present-day photography is that it's too easy, that we retain all sorts of out-of-focus photos on our phone.  McCartney had preserved all these, and although it's curated and edited, there's many photos that wouldn't normally be seen. 

You get the fab four goofing about, and also in quieter moments. There's young George looking shattered in the back of a car, and John concentrating. McCartney forgot that Lennon pulled this particular face, with his finger to his lip. His song 'Help!' emerged a year later. He told Playboy, 'I was fat and depressed, and I was crying out for 'help'.’ They were indeed in the eye of a storm. 

We’ve lived with an orthodoxy that we understand ourselves through self-expression – that we ourselves are the ones to define who we are. 

And in the middle of the storm, we see the Beatles finding moments of joy. They land in New York for the Ed Sullivan Show, at the top of the charts and the top of their fame. Fans chasing them down Manhattan streets, fans balancing precariously on an airport roof, and one inexplicably holds a monkey. American optimism had been battered by JFK's assassination and the Beatles' arrival was a welcome respite. This joy became even clearer (and more vivid?) as McCartney switched to colour when they reached Miami. But before the colour, the songwriter in conversation with Stanley Tucci singled out seeing a worker he snapped while they were on the train – perhaps a mirror to his own working-class roots and family.  

But then there are also the more explicit self-reflections… A series that struck me were McCartney's self-portraits, looking in mirror, out of focus. McCartney said that his first thought was this was the National Portrait Gallery - at least they could be in focus! But then he realised they had a warmth, and a softness to them.  

Those of us who are not Beatles, or famous, also often live our lives out of focus, with blind spots, or a little dizzy from the storms around us and within us. Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, before the selfie was invented, wrote about our self-perception in relation to the outside world, and that we are 'self-interpreting animals'.  

Since the eighteenth century we’ve lived with an orthodoxy that we understand ourselves through self-expression – that we ourselves are the ones to define who we are and how we relate to the world - even how we relate to ourselves. It’s so much the norm, it might seem confronting to question it, but in an increasingly confusing world, this is an increasingly difficult way to understand ourselves.  Whilst many of the Beatles' songs are about perception, King David also wrote in the psalms about our need for an external perspective: 

'You have searched me, Lord, 

    and you know me. 

You know when I sit and when I rise; 

    you perceive my thoughts from afar.' 

What we each need is a perspective on ourselves from the outside that is warm, soft, but also in focus. What if there was a perspective on ourselves free from blind spots, a precision lens that fully sees and fully understands the essence of who we are, and who we might be? Someone who sees the deleted photos, and yet is completely gentle and loving in how they see us? The way we truly understand ourselves is in relation to our Creator. God shows us both what is seen and unseen. Like in these photos, God is not fazed by the contrast of light and darkness, and provides a way out of the storm: 

'Search me, God, and know my heart; 

    test me and know my anxious thoughts. 

See if there is any offensive way in me, 

    and lead me in the way everlasting.' 

Column
Change
Character
Psychology
1 min read

Look out for the outliers

Seeing the good qualities in others lifts them, benefits us, and makes the world better.

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

A office worker wearing headphones looks out of a hectic and loud office space around which people are moving
Nick Jones/Midjourney.ai

I was talking to someone the other day. She is a website developer and she’s just changed jobs. She is not a loud person, but anyone who meets her knows she is a person of quality, of depth and presence. She emanates a humble confidence. In her old job, she worked in a quiet, fairly sedate, office where she was given the space and the time to bring all her creativity to bear on whatever brief she was given. She was known and appreciated. 

But her new job – the job she started last week – is a bit different. Her new colleagues are loud and outspoken. Silence is unknown in their office. They like to work to a soundtrack. The drum and bass keep thumping, and the banter never stops flowing. She’s finding it hard to fit in with her new team. And things weren’t made any easier when, after a few days, her new boss took her aside for a pep talk.  

What was the problem? She was ‘too quiet’.  

It hurt to hear that. It broke my heart to think that anyone could be so blind. How shortsighted do you have to be, to view the grace and peace someone carries as a problem to be solved? In a world of distressing noise and clamour, she is precisely the kind of person every office needs to temper the insanity.  

I’m not worried about her. She’s bright and innovative. She’ll work it out. Either her new boss will see sense, or she’ll leave. And if she does, the queue of employers looking for someone just like her stretches round the block. She’ll be okay. 

But it got me thinking about the kind of psychology I study. In my research, she would be called an outlier.  One of those people in a team or a family who don’t quite fit in. Not because they are weird or awkward, but because they possess some positive quality the rest of the gang don’t have. They are the creative exuberant in a team who prefer doing things by the book. The hilarious joker in a pack who like to take things seriously. The conscientious worker trying to get on with the job in an office that would rather play now and work later. The kind one in a family of cutthroat competitors.

At the top of the list of reasons for wanting to leave work are the words: I am not appreciated.

The thing is we all have a unique contribution to make to the world, a one-off fingerprint of strengths and abilities never to be repeated in anyone else. In research these have been called Signature Strengths, the unique combination of positive qualities that make you you. And the weird thing is that we don’t have to try that hard to be them. If you are naturally kind, or wise, or grateful, or disciplined you won’t be able to stop yourself being that way. They come effortlessly to us. And if someone tries to stop us being the loving thoughtful faithful person we know ourselves to be, it is like losing a limb. If we find ourselves in a context where the most beautiful things about us are unwelcome – like my friend the website developer – it is like being rejected, right to the core.  

But here’s the cool thing. If we can live by our Signature Strengths – if we can wake up each morning and ask the question, how can I use my unique positive qualities in a new way today? – it leads to remarkable improvements in wellbeing. Multiple studies have shown that those who live like this, thinking about how they can bring what is best in them to the opportunities and obstacles of each day, report increased happiness in living. Not only that, but they also show reduced anxiety, stress and depression. It turns out being good is good for us. Who knew. 

That’s not the whole story though. To really be our best, we need other people to spot these strengths in us. If they don’t, we feel confined, unable to be ourselves in some way. When I ask people what it is like not to be able to bring their best qualities to the people around them, they come up with some pretty dark images. It is lonely, isolating, a desert, a fog, a prison, like being trapped in a cage. And when researchers ask people why they consider leaving their current job, their answers often reflect something like this. Work-life balance and salary are no doubt important, but often, at the top of the list of reasons for wanting to leave work are the words: I am not appreciated. Something good we wanted to give has not been received. We feel unseen. 

So that’s why I say: look out for the outliers. Who is it in your family, your workplace, your neighbourhood, who goes underappreciated? Who do you know who has something good to give, but needs some help to give it? Because if we can learn to see those invisible beautiful qualities in the people around us, we not only give them the joy of being known, we also invite more light and flavour into the world. Life becomes a little less grey. 

I just hope my friend’s new boss can learn this while he still has the chance. It is tough for her to feel so misunderstood, but it’s worse for him. She can move on, but he has to remain in an office deprived of the humble compassion she would have brought to it. It’s a question worth asking. What gift of beauty and goodness are we excluding from the world because we failed to see past the packaging?