Category Archives: Community

Making it all about you

“You’re making it all about you!” It’s an interesting accusation and one I’ve been on the wrong end of a few times in recent years. From my perspective, it tends to happen when I am unable to be a good resource for someone in the way that I have been. Now, most people if that happens, come back concerned about whatever’s knocked me about – because usually it means I’m ill. I hate letting people down, and I will push through as much as I can, but sometimes that’s not an option.

Sometimes I do indeed take the decision to make it all about me. Usually I do this when not doing so runs the risk of pushing me into serious dysfunction with either bodily health, or mental health. I do it to avoid burnout, to avoid spiralling towards suicidal thoughts, to deal with massive triggering experiences and suchlike. These are times when I think I should be entitled to make it all about me.

So usually when someone accuses me of making it all about me the answer is yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing and need to do. You might want more or better from me, but if I can’t afford it, I’m not giving it. If a person has ever claimed friendship, then I expect that to matter. It might be bloody inconvenient and they might have every reason to feel grumpy and let down, but friends do not ask friends to burn out for them. Of course sometimes it may be a failure to recognise that the situation is that serious and I may have done a bad job of explaining – because, you know… ill…

What’s the intended effect of saying ‘you are making it all about you?’ Is it to punish someone emotionally for not doing the things? Is it to try and get them to back down? I know in some circumstances this would have meant a grovelling apology was called for followed by jumping to do the things no matter what the cost. I don’t want to live like that, and I don’t want to deal with people who will not allow me to make it all about me now and then.

I have, in recent years, become a lot more suspicious of the people who get angry with me for being in difficulty. I’ve stopped assuming this is just because I am a terrible person and everyone is entitled to be cross with me. This is a consequence of spending most of my time with people who genuinely care about me, want me to be well, would be horrified if I broke myself running around after them, and who, if I express myself badly because I’m in trouble, will give me the space to come back and do a better job of that later. I’ve said no to friends a lot this year, and they’ve reminded me that they care, and that they hope I feel better soon, and to yell if there’s anything they can do. It’s not the highest set bar in the world.


What you do for the least among you

I went to a Church of England primary school many years ago. There were a lot of assemblies about Christian values and how we should help others. Child-me used to wonder how you could tell whether you were the person who should be doing the helping, or the person who should be helped. Weirdly, no one really got into that. The reality is that proportionally, poor people give a higher percentage of what they have to helping others and supporting charities.

All too often, it’s the poor, the sick and the needy rallying round to help the poor, the sick and the needy. It’s the depressed comforting the depressed, and the survivors looking after each other. It’s the disadvantaged having to speak up to get into the room, not being offered a place at the table. All the while those who have most, do least.

As a child who already knew they were not a Christian, I found the message of care persuasive. I could see why we might have an obligation to care for those worse off than ourselves. It’s a good message, regardless of who or what you believe in. And yet, we have so many people who pay lip service to Christianity who seem to have missed this fundamental message. People for whom poverty equates to sin and wealth to merit in the eyes of God. People who missed the bit about Jesus hanging out with the poor and the prostitutes.

I have huge respect for the Christians who express their faith by volunteering at food banks, getting out on the streets as night pastors, and all other such moves towards doing the needful things.

I think we need to talk more about who needs helping, and how, and why. Otherwise, that ‘help the needy’ can turn into ‘help the deserving poor’ which turns into ‘these poor people brought it upon themselves and don’t deserve help.’ These lines of thought fail to make the connections between trauma and substance abuse, between lack of opportunities and criminality. If we don’t talk about who to help, we don’t talk about systematic poverty. The wealth of your parents remains the best indicator of your own wealth, or lack thereof, in life. The system is rigged.

In the UK, Christianity still dominates our culture and values. If that was the Jesus-centric love thy neighbour sort of Christianity, we’d be fine, but it’s not. There’s a habit that certainly goes back to the Victorians of requiring the deserving poor to be meek and humble. You should be deeply grateful for whatever crumbs you get. You should be sexually abstinent, sober, clean. Your rags should have been carefully washed and mended. You should look properly poor and downtrodden, but not in a way that could cause offence to your ‘betters’. You should not be angry with your lot, or resentful, or speaking out, or rebellious. This whole line of logic is still with us – every time a refugee or a homeless person is criticised for having a mobile phone. Every time poverty is blamed on drinking and/or smoking. Every time we talk about young mothers getting themselves pregnant. Every time someone decides that a human being in crisis does not deserve to be helped.

I don’t particularly care what deities, if any, you believe in. But I do care about your values. I care about the deeply flawed culture we’ve inherited. We need to change our stories.


What is community?

This is a question I’ve asked repeatedly, and have been prompted to re-ask this week (thank you James Nichol) as I explore what is and isn’t working for me. James pointed out in the blog comments that my understanding of community likely isn’t the same as anyone else’s.

So, what do I think community should be? For me, it’s not about a vague feeling of kinship through having some stuff in common. It’s not the ‘community’ of a few Druids in a field for a long weekend. It’s not the accident of living in the same place, having the same skin colour, economic background or religion. What lives in my head is what I understand or imagine pre-industrial cultures to have been like. It may be an entirely romantic, unfounded notion. I may be holding something that has never properly existed, but, I don’t feel that’s the size of it.

Community for me is based on sharing. Sharing the risk, struggles and problems. Sharing the triumphs and successes. Community means not leaving anyone hungry or homeless. It means taking care of your sick, coming together for big projects, and honouring each other’s life journeys.

I think for most of us this manifests only in blood family, and not always then. The nature of our large towns and cities mean that in practice we need the state to organise most of this for us, we cannot do it amongst ourselves. But even so, I crave that grass roots care and mutual investment. I crave the kinds of scenarios where people give what they can, and what you get depends on what you needed, and I know exactly how Marxist that sounds. I’m no fan of communism as a system to inflict on people – I’m no fan of top-down anything.

I’m conscious that systems depending on kindness, mutual care and good will are open to exploitation. I know you need ways of working collectively to deal with anyone who doesn’t play fairly, who doesn’t give their best and takes far more than they need. We don’t currently have any state-based way of dealing with this. There are no restraints on what you can take if you exploit from a place of power and wealth.  It is the people in need who we police the most fiercely, and punish for taking more than they are ‘entitled’ to even when the state has decided that all they are entitled to do is freeze and starve.

Increasingly, the mechanics of community are being stripped out of our collective organisation and political schemes and this worries me greatly. It also makes me feel like the only reasonable response is to try and build from the bottom. If we help each other and take care of each other, so much the better. I see people doing this all the time, in all kinds of small ways and I note that the people who are giving the most and doing the most to take care of the people around them tend not to be that well off themselves.

I don’t know how we achieve community while people feel more entitled to hold private wealth than they feel obliged to take care of other people. I don’t know how we tackle systemic poverty when the people who benefit from the system keep telling each other it is a meritocracy. I do not want to live in a dog-eat-dog world, and I know also that eating other dogs is not a natural way for dogs to be, and that it describes a profoundly unhealthy situation.


What I’m not doing

This blog post was prompted by lovely Cat Treadwell pointing me towards an article – which you can read here – https://www.mamamia.com.au/i-dont-list  about owning what we don’t do and resisting the pressure to be superhuman.

I don’t do a great deal of cleaning. Mostly what cleaning I do happens in intense, occasional bursts when I’m recovering from something emotionally or intellectually intense.

I don’t invest much time at all in personal grooming. If you see me and I’ve gone so far as to brush my hair, this is about as good as it gets.

I have no beauty routines, no skin care routines. Sometimes I use moisturiser and that’s about it.

I do not count calories, watch my weight or have an organised exercise routine. Amusingly, I am in better shape as a consequence of eating what I want and doing what I feel like!

I am not winning at avoiding plastic packaging, I’m stuck with the things I cannot afford to source differently.

Official paperwork scares me.

I have neither anything resembling a career, nor any plans for one. I expect to just muddle along in a haphazard way for the rest of my life. I also have no pension and only the insurance I am legally obliged to hold.

I have far too low a tolerance for bullshit to handle conventional employment. I have zero capacity to be nice to assholes who could advantage me in work. I won’t do what I’m told for the sake of it, if it makes no sense I will speak out. Make-work makes me furious. See previous comment about career development.

I can’t cope with routine medical tests because these are massive panic triggers for me. I can barely cope with eye tests. I can’t drive and while I get eco-points for that, it is mostly about the anxiety and the fear of having a panic attack and killing someone while panicking.

It continues to seem preposterous to me that I count as a responsible adult, and that I am allowed to be responsible for people who are not adults.

 


What is Community?

For me, community has always meant people working co-operatively together for the longer term, sharing values, ideas, resources and making something that is more than the sum of its parts. ‘Community’ as a term gets banded about to mean ‘group of people with something in common’ when there’s not much community involved in it at all. For me, if involvement depends on ability to pay, it’s not a community. If you don’t look after each other, it’s not a community. I’ve been in a lot of spaces that have called themselves communities, or tribes. I’ve never managed to stay.

I tend to assume the problem is me. I can’t turn a blind eye to problems. Increasingly, I can’t remain silent about who isn’t in the room, who is excluded by the very way in which things are run. I can’t deal with people who want power over me specifically, or who are there to build a personal power-base. I’m very happy to deal with people who want the power to get things done, and very wary of people who just want power. If I care about spaces and am wholehearted about them and giving as much as I can, I can’t also be complacent about the things I find difficult. I don’t have the apathy that smoothes over problems, or the disinterest that allows a person to be calm, and professional detachment is beyond me.

My experience has been that I am never patient enough. I don’t give enough, I’m not sympathetic enough, or co-operative enough, or hard working enough, when dealing with people. I’ve never been in a space where I’ve been able to do enough to go from the peripheries to the middle. If there’s a designated ‘team druid’ or similar, I won’t be in it. The only exceptions have been spaces I’ve run myself.

I’ve never been able to work out what the differences are. Why some people are loved, cherished and valued apparently with little reference to what they do, and no matter what I do, I don’t get treated that way. I left one community a little after a chap was obliged to step down due to bankruptcy. He went with love and praise and was treated with honour and respect. I left shortly afterwards, unacknowledged, pushed out over other people’s anxieties that issues in my personal life could get in the way of the work. I’d not done anything wrong.  I had thrown everything I could at that space, I had pushed into burnout repeatedly, gone way outside my comfort zone, and it still wasn’t enough to feel like there was a place for me – and in the end, there was no place for me and I left feeling humiliated. It’s one example amongst many.

I left because I’d been accused of bullying, and the person accusing me tried to get me fired from my day job. I left because I just wanted to participate quietly, and the older men in the space kept pushing for my energy and attention. I left because I was so burned out I could no longer function. I left because I thought the person in charge of me was acting unfairly towards people I was responsible for and I couldn’t fix it. I left because I wasn’t given the information I needed to do the job properly, and because I was always outside of the key clique. I left because I’d stepped in to try and deal with a conflict and although the conflict sorted, I took so much damage that I couldn’t continue. I left because I was tired of feeling peripheral and making a lot of effort to be somewhere no one needed me. I leave.

The decision not to do any of that again has been a painful one. I crave community. I want to be part of something. But, I’ve never managed to stay in a community space I wasn’t running. I’ve tried, but this stuff is beyond me.


Being a bit rubbish with people

I’ve carried the idea that I was rubbish at dealing with people ever since I landed at playschool and found I had no idea how to relate to other kids. Shy and nervous, I did not do well socially at school, although I am blessed with some good friends from that period of my life. I’ve never found relationships with people very easy. I’ve spent my life to this point looking for places to belong. I’ve fallen out of all sorts of communities and spaces.

There are so many things I can’t cope with. Any situation in which a person needs to be tough, emotionally robust or able to deal with pushy people interested in power-over… I don’t cope. People who move goal posts. People who want everything you have and then rubbish you when they’ve burned you out. People who mock and belittle mental health problems. People who dish out all kinds of crap while expecting saintly patience in return… all of these things seem normal in spaces with people in, and I can’t deal with them.

I’ve started saying ‘I am rubbish at doing stuff with people’ out loud, and it is an incredible relief to own it. I can’t do spaces with people in, in the way that other people do. I can’t care insufficiently to just ignore problems. I’m not emotionally robust enough to deal with casual sexism, or spaces that can’t make allowances for the anxiety I suffer.

I’ve tried, and tried again, and failed, and failed again. I’ve had plenty of people along the way tell me what I rubbish person I am to deal with – I don’t give enough, I make too much fuss, I don’t forgive enough in them… and I’ve thrown so much energy into trying to prove I’m better than that.

And now I’ve stopped.

If I’m not good enough for someone else – fine, so be it, I will go away. If I’m not robust enough to function in a space, I will leave that space. I am a bit rubbish at dealing with people in the way that many of the people I have encountered expect to be dealt with. Fair enough. I cannot change me, and I cannot afford to stay in these kinds of fights, so I won’t.

I am a bit rubbish at doing stuff with people. And every time I say it, I feel a weight on me easing. I don’t know how much there is to let go of, how much more relief there is to find. I can’t do this stuff. I can’t do conventional workplaces and I can’t do community membership, and maybe that’s ok. Maybe I can just wander off and be my anxious, cranky self places that won’t be a problem, and the people who are ok with me can seek me out when they feel like it.

Maybe I never properly feel like I belong anywhere because there is nowhere I could belong. Maybe that’s ok. I’ve spent my whole life to this point aching for a place to belong, so putting that longing down is one of the most radical things I’ve ever done. What I want doesn’t exist, and there is no need to keep hurting myself trying to fit into spaces that aren’t there. I accept that I cannot do the things with people that have proved necessary in every community space I have ever explored. I can’t do it. There is so much relief in saying it, and a kind of grief for that which never was, but that’s ok.


What does self care even mean?

The encouragement to ‘practice self care’ floats round the internet a lot. Sometimes it rather feels that if you are still ill, still struggling, it might be your fault for not doing enough of the self care things – I doubt I’m the only one who feels this on a bad day. Self-care is a rather vague sort of notion and the prompt to undertake it rather assumes that what’s needed is fairly easy, or obvious… and often it isn’t.

If you only have mild problems, or only have one problem, then it can be easy to identify what would help. However, when you have multiple problems, what eases one can exacerbate another. Is loneliness making you depressed? But would going out to spend time people trigger your anxiety, or cost energy you don’t have, or are you in too much pain to do it? Then there’s no easy self-care answer to be had.

Trying to find the balance between being active enough to maintain some kind of health, and not wiping out your resources, is an ongoing issue for many people. Part of the trouble is that you don’t know upfront how far you can get. Will some physical activity ease the loss of energy due to depression, or lead to a panic attack that wipes you out entirely? Will the improved circulation from moving about help with healing, or will the aching muscles cost you too much? The big one for me is always, get on the trampoline to sort the dysfunctional lymph glands, or rest the sore muscles. I hurt either way, the question is, which will be worst, which outcome can I least afford? I don’t always get it right.

Sometimes ‘self care’ means trying to figure out the way forward that will hurt least, or deciding which hurt you can most afford. I’ll take body pain if I can gain some ground for mental health, most days. Except on the days when it’s the body pain causing my brain to shut down, or leaving me too open to panic.

Self-care is a lovely idea. If it’s easy to do, then the problems aren’t that big in the first place. If you can fix yourself with a few days off, a nice bath, a walk in the woods – then you were not in massive crisis to begin with. I’m glad for you, but please don’t assume that’s a measure of how anyone else is doing. And if you’re on the other side of this – if no matter how you try to look after things you can’t get on top of your problems, it isn’t your fault. Not everything can be fixed. Not everything can be healed and put right with enough care and attention. Sometimes there isn’t enough self care possible to change how things are.

Also, sometimes self-care isn’t the answer because people need caring for. If someone is over-worked, over-burdened, doing too much emotional labour, being put under too much pressure – it should not be on them to also save themselves. Pushing people towards self-care can be a way of avoiding feeling responsible for them. Sometimes, the answer is to get in there and ask what would help. Take some of the weight off their shoulders. Don’t leave them to fight all their own battles (sexism, racism, ageism, fat shaming, abelism and all things of this ilk are exhausting and take a real toll). Don’t imagine that telling someone to practice self-care is actually helping them – it’s just well meaning noise. If you want to help, make sure they have the space, the time and the resources to practice self care, because without that, telling a person to fix themselves is just adding to what they have to bear.


Building relationships

One of the great mistakes people make around relationships of all shapes, is assuming they should just happen ‘naturally’ and with no effort. The relationship that works by magic seems to prove its own value and significance, which taps into a lot of the unhelpful stories we have about romance. However, it’s just as relevant when thinking about working partnerships, friendships, and how we create community.

There are things that tend to happen if we let relationships unfold in unconsidered ways. We bring all our habits and assumptions with us, unquestioned. We keep playing out our stories, our ancestral wounding, our family dramas and everything else that might limit us. In group situations, this can also lead to giving the loudest the most power, facilitating bullying, and excluding anyone who isn’t a neat fit for what the group considers normal. Able-bodied groups of people tend not to even notice the ways in which disabled people are excluded. White people can be totally oblivious to how their group is difficult for everyone else.

If you want functional, substantial and powerful relationships, you have to work at them. You have to look for those unspoken underlying assumptions and what they mean. You have to consider what the unspoken rules are and what effect they may be having. And then you have to talk about it – which can feel weird and exposed. However, when we collectively check our assumptions and question our beliefs, all kinds of interesting change becomes possible.

Communication doesn’t happen by magic. Inclusion is something you build. Making safe space is a consequence of considered effort, not happy accident. The reality of a relationship is there in every detail of how it plays out. Who has a voice? Who is allowed to disagree? Who gets the extra time? Who gets to do the work and who decides who gets to do the work? Whether you’re talking about a marriage, a start up business or a community group, these questions are necessary and need revisiting.

The trouble is, that for the people best served by this, there is the least incentive to make change. If you’re in the central clique with all the power and influence, do you want to open that up and let other people in? If you’ve rigged things so that they suit you, or such that people you don’t want to deal with can’t get involved, why would you change that? So often it comes to people on the margins pushing for inclusion against the resistance of people who have it all working nicely for them.

I’ve been in those spaces. I’ve gone up against the people who made themselves feel powerful by forming an inner cabal. I’ve challenged people who couldn’t see who wasn’t at the table because of their assumptions. I can’t say I’ve won a great deal of ground for anyone by doing this. It is a hard thing to do from the margins, and the comfortable middle of such arrangements seldom cares to be discomforted. Although, it is bloody amazing when that happens and very exciting and totally worth the effort.

When we let things evolve ‘naturally’ or ‘grow organically’ what this means in practice is that we give the most ease to those with the most power. If you can’t make it into the room, you don’t get to participate in growing it organically. If you find yourself in the middle of anything, look around to see if anyone wanted to be there but cannot get in. Take down barriers. Expand opportunities. Give people the chance to be involved and the chance to be heard. It’s a wonderful, radical, life changing thing to do. The relationships we make deliberately are so much richer and more enabling than the ones that we allow to carry on by default.


Community creativity

My local theatre festival happened over the weekend. I was, at various times, a paid worker in a venue, a performer, a volunteer and an audience member. I went to three of the ten venues and saw six of the forty shows. It was an intensive sort of weekend.

It struck me how innately good it is though, to be moving between those different roles. To be a performer, and also an audience member. To be someone who moves the chairs around, and someone working the door, and to experience an event from most of the available perspectives. These are wonderful opportunities to have. Over the weekend, it was very normal to see performers going to other people’s shows, and volunteers who had been on stage in other years.

We’re so used to being entertained by people who aren’t even in the room. Television and film give us distance between performer and audience, and no sense of moving about. If you watch alone at home there is, for most of us, no sense that other roles might be available. However, go to a community event like this and getting involved in some capacity is easy. There’s no barrier between performer and audience. No one is so grand that they can’t do a shift on a door, or help set a room up.

There’s also something very powerful about sharing this kind of experience with other people. Over the weekend I talked to other people about shows I had seen, shows they had seen, shows we had both seen – and that added depth to the whole experience. Performers talked to me about how their shows had gone. The feeling of involvement was delightful and made me realise how little most of us get of that in the normal scheme of things.

If you can only ever be an audience member, only a consumer of other people’s creativity, you miss out on a lot. I feel strongly that everyone who wants to should have the opportunity to be creative and expressive. The way in which we hive off creative roles for the few – especially at the level where you might earn enough to live on – frustrates me. It’s not how I want to do things.


Family time

One of the things that has become really important to me in the last six months or so, is family time. Not in an organised, doing things sort of way, but the time –usually at weekends – when the three of us just slum around together.

I like it because this is time when I have to make very little effort – none of us do. We just do the things we enjoy – typically reading, crafting, listening to stuff, watching films, eating… we can go long periods without anyone saying anything much, checking in only when there’s something good to share. I think this is the natural outcome for a bunch of somewhat introverted people sharing a small space. I really value not having to make small talk or be entertaining.

Part of why this time has become precious is that it’s a good deal more scarce than it used to be. In the boat years, the three of us lived in a tiny space and spent a lot of time together. Now, we all have more going on, and we have a far more involved – and entirely wonderful – social life. But it means those quiet times really shine out. I appreciate them more for them not being the only option I have most days.

I’ve always been a funny mix of introvert and extrovert and I don’t fit well in either box. I crave human contact, I can be intensely social, I can deal with large groups of people in noisy spaces, and if I don’t get enough social time, I become sad. I have an equal need for intensely quiet time without too many other people around. I used to need total solitude for some hours every day, but that’s not been a thing for a few years now. My husband and son give me the space and the peace I need so I can do my introvert time with them in the mix.

When things are crazy-busy, nothing seems more luxurious than a Sunday afternoon with nothing planned, nowhere to go and nothing specific to do.