The Urban Scientist

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The Scientific Explanation of "Cool" (or Unexpected Lessons of Jude Law's Hamlet)

Jude Law's Hamlet gives insight into your power of Observing Ego

I am in London, training men and women with their dating, relationships and romance, and it's remarkable how similar the types of problems are between men and women trying to get along. Some men at the seminar are somewhat fearful to approach women they find attractive, others want to learn how to try to attract a long lost girlfriend, or at least understand why they lost their love. The women want to better understand how to encourage a man into real commitment, or how to better screen their dates for the non-committal man, the "player" or "jerk", or to use their expression, the "dodgy guy".

Unexpectedly, I've found the experience of being stripped of my home culture for a month to really tune-up some personal psychological resources in the process. I feel more accessible to clients than ever before since I have no idea what's going on in the USAToday, no day-to-day grind pressures, and often, no cell phone, texting, or Blackberry. It's all about the rawness of their personal life's experiences, cultural forces, pains and hopes.

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Personally, I love books and films, and have not been much for too much stage, but here I find myself getting ready to wait in line all night for a chance at same day tickets to the Wyndham Theatre to see Jude Law perform Hamlet. Why I would endure the line and then a three and a half hour play, one knowing my tastes might wonder, but I know it is what I have to do. An adventure into Oedipal struggles I suppose, and the chance to see one of my favorite movie actors do the ultimate role cannot be resisted.

To the psychoanalyst, and any psychology author such as me, the prime, core learned skill of personal growth has got to be what is called Observing Ego. Without this skill, change and growth is all but impossible and it doesn't come easy to cultivate. Travel in general, and London - on this specific occasion - appears to have a way of accelerating its cultivation.

In fact, I submit to you that that social status, trait, feature and skill that both men and women all want - "coolness" - is scientifically explained by this psychological function called Observing Ego.

What is it?

Observing Ego is akin to stepping out of your own body as you interact with the world, looking down, asking questions and commenting on what you see, silently, in your own head, but in "real time." It's like being your own mentor and advisor, parent, brother, sister, and guide. Similar phrases to describe it are being mindful, sentient, present-minded, centered, and it's actions called, "Self-talk," immortalized in the advice of Polonius as "To thine own self, be true."

Without Observing Ego, we do not see our own boundaries with others, the impact of our beliefs, values, decisions, actions and our level of character development on them, nor can we learn what directions to grow our own character maturity through interaction with others. Without this skill, there are no lessons learned from our heart-breaks, our embarrassments, and foolish gaffes, our ill-advised dates, missed opportunities, and any manner of regrets.

In fact, one could easily say there would be no regrets in life if we were coming from a very tuned up Observing Ego most of the time. We would have done our very, most keen best, socially, and delivered our best efforts possible at life.
Which brings us to what is "Cool."

The Scientific Definition of Cool

Usually, when one does something not cool, they suffer regrets over bad behavior, awkward behavior, thoughtless behavior, missed opportunities, and opportunities taken which prove to be lesser benefits to our lives than what we "should have done." The perfectionist's unheeded desire for what could have been taunts far more than the mundane reality of what is, and is annoyingly average and dissatisfying.

The garbage men dumping bags in front of my feet with five hours to nap those tickets to Jude Law's well-reviewed performance is both annoying and dissatisfying - but only for the moment. They'll soon pass, and the Shakespearean acting courses I took in Denver so many years ago, the lessons about the Oedipus of psychiatric training, my current specialization in training men and women about the psychology of dating and relationships - much of which has somehow involved film clips of Law's various mainstream films - and the fact that it's in London itself all came together, urging me, saying, "You have to go do this, and do it now."

Thirty three standing tickets will be given away, up to two per person, and I am fifteenth in line. It will happen for me if I can endure...

This is Observing Ego - the attention and insight to the right choices, the right actions done in the right way at the right time when social, career, or any other opportunity arises - is as far as I can tell, the very scientific definition of "Cool." For in the vernacular of what is cool, people who possess it say and do the right things in the right way, at the right time to match a social situation.

How Can You Become "Cooler?" How Do You Grow Observing Ego?

As many times as I've taught this, here it is right this moment, in front of me.

• For one, I'm awake at this hour, not sleeping, unconscious. You have to be awake to use Observing Ego.

• I'm more than aware of my surroundings - the man with the odd, Freud style beard to my right, buying the first copy of the morning paper, the Bear Staff pub to the left across the street, the only building on the street I see with a stone gargoyle guarding it against evil spirits, when just hours earlier I'm sure it dispensed plenty of those, and the young British-Indian man in a suit in line with me, talking to his wife loudly, excitedly, and with a slight Hindi accent (I don't know how he could look like he just came from the drycleaners...)

• I'm "in the now." Present-minded. In fact, Observing Ego cannot be accessed by swimming in your head in either the past or future, but only by being attentive only to what's right in front of you (and to the side, behind, above and below you.)

• Which brings up the five senses - the air is a perfect room temperature out here on an early morning in August, in London, and it is now quarter of eight, the garbage smell is gone, it's bright, a shadow reaches precisely half way down the brick-walled, turreted building in front of me, and the pavement has strangely not yet started to cause my undercarriage to ache.

Intimacy. I've gotten to know the faces, general level of friendliness, languages of origin, and some other soft impressions of the weary people sitting on either side of me. The young man to my right does not want a soda as I dash across the street for some hydration, and the family right outside the box office door for hours before me have all lit up smoking. There's a sense of small, growing intimacy in the group, feelings which perhaps are not unlike what sixteenth century peasants may have experienced for the same opportunity.

• If I hadn't made this decision, this action taken, I surely would have regretted it. I would have been not cool, disappointed in myself, and I feel more alive for having done this. When we make decisions and take actions it requires the attention to be present, or risk suffering the danger at worst and embarrassment at best, of looking left instead of right when crossing the street here.

These things, being awake, aware, present-minded, using your five senses, bothering to intimately know and commune with others, and make actionable decisions are all quick methods to cultivate your own power of Observing Ego.

Others that sum them all up would be to consider yourself your own mentor, coach, or friend, asking yourself questions in "real time," as you experience your social world.

"To thine own self, be true."

The Rewards

Many pop psychology works portray methods of getting rich quick, finding happiness, or achieving social status, sex, wealth or any other manner of human desire, but the words of Epictetus are likely more suitable and accurate substitutes for any of them:

"Character is destiny"

The more we mature, psychologically develop, the higher our level of character rises, the more rewards in life - more financial prosperity is we so choose, more friendships, opportunities, success, satisfaction, and importantly, stability in our lives despite challenging economic times. We can't even begin to work on our character maturity though, without this prime core skill of Observing Ego.

With an hour to go before guaranteeing a secure, stable opportunity to watch Hamlet unwittingly kill Polonius, Claudius, Laertes, and everybody else kill everybody else, the girl next to me asks what I think she could do to find a toilet.

I suggest ordering a coffee at the restaurant across the street right in front of us and using their toilets. She nods. She is German I think, and not well-to-do, her frayed jeans jacket tossed on the ground at my suggestion, her belongings left next to me implying that she trusts me with them, and I will allow her back in line. In kind I am sure I could do the same and trust her, as could any in our line. We have proven something to each other in our character, familiarity, and joint experience.

Just hours earlier, a disturbed man was apprehended by the police as he shouted in the street, devoid of Observing Ego, perhaps drunk, perhaps unmedicated, or both, and he most certainly would not have been welcome in the line, a place saved for his toilet visit, even if he'd had the money for a "peasant's ticket."

Hours have now passed like seconds. The three plus hours were a roller coaster ride through every passion of youth, every power struggle of the aged, and the neurotic behavior in both. The tenuous relationship between love and the passions which give life, and those compelling a death struggle were put on display to perfection by Jude Law.

The payoff, the reward to me - a poor student of Shakespeare - an insight I owe to Observing Ego once again.

It's the narrative account given by Horatio for his friend Hamlet at the very end - Horatio, the only character in which the actor cannot also play other bit parts of this same play, because he is in nearly every scene with every other character.

To him, Hamlet nearly at his dying breath says,

"If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story."

Horatio IS Hamlet's Observing Ego, his very faculty which barely keeps him sane, the common character observing not just his best friend, but ALL the characters, commenting, imploring, inviting them to do right, and coolly recalculating what ought to be done next to right the wrongs.

Horatio is the storyteller, the narrator, and the last man standing at the end of the tragedy in which all other conflicted, neurotic, confused, pained, impassioned characters have met their demise.

HORATIO

Not from his mouth,
Had it the ability of life to thank you:
He never gave commandment for their death.
But since, so jump upon this bloody question,
You from the Polack wars, and you from England,
Are here arrived give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view;
And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on the inventors' reads: all this can I
Truly deliver.

If only they had listened to this cool, wise observer as we all yet have a chance to listen to our own Observing Egos, which can equally deliver the right thing to do, in the right way at the right time.

This is "coolness." And this is "character."

The advantage we have as an audience to a tragedy is that we can learn lessons from "the whips and scorns" on others, and mindfully, observantly, patiently, make more mature choices than they have.

In his immortal eulogy, when Horatio speaks of Hamlet, we can see that the symbolism to our own lives is that what must die are the impulses of the boy, Hamlet, the girl, Ophelia, and the impatient mindlessness of immature youth in general:

"Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

The boyish title of Prince for those witness could same day be "King," an adult man, which Hamlet was well on his way to becoming in growing a conscience, diplomatically asking forgiveness of Laertes, and thinking more than ever before he acted - using Observing Ego.

The Bard - whoever he, she, or they were who actually penned Shakespeare's works - was well-aware of the unfortunate fact that one's chronological age does not perfectly parallel one's maturity without purposeful, mindful work on our character. Horatio's eulogy is the constant request of this most powerful of our personal growth skills.

 

Paul Dobransky, M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist and author of The Secret Psychology of How We Fall in Love (Plume, 2007) and The Power of Female Friendship (Plume, 2008.)

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