Category Archives: community

The urge to judge

It’s not a new thing, this idea that, with a casual glance at someone’s life, or body, we can determine what’s ‘really’ going on and judge them accordingly. The notion of the ‘deserving’ poor versus the ‘underserving’ has been with us for a long time. The refusal to accept that most chronic illness means good days and bad days. A person on a bad day is not faking it, what they could do on a good day is not the measure. Mental health difficulties are unhelpfully judged as not trying hard enough, making a fuss. So, why are we so keen to judge based on little or no real insight?

Firstly because it can let us off the hook. If the problem isn’t real then with an easy conscience, we can decline to help. We don’t have to change ourselves or the systems we operate in. It’s a lazy choice based on putting personal ease ahead of other people’s real needs.

We are taught to fear the idea that someone else could get something for nothing. But, it’s the lazy poor we are to be suspicious of. Not shareholders. Not those with big expense claims against the public purse. Not people who inherited and don’t need to work. Those with money are welcome to more money for doing nothing, those with no money we don’t want to move money towards. This is old, and its purpose is transparent as soon as you stop to look at it.

We are more afraid that some people might get something they aren’t entitled to, than we are concerned that people who need help should get help. We are willing to punish the many on the off-chance of hampering a few who want to play the system. Our politicians have encouraged this.

Judging a person with issues and victim blaming is a standard tactic for bullies. If the victim is making a fuss, a drama queen, attention seeking, or anything like that, then the bully has more scope to keep attacking without consequences. Overt judging and shaming of others can be a smokescreen to hide violence, abuse and mistreatment.

In judging people, we can feel superior to them. When life is short of lifts and ego boosts, it can be tempting to denigrate someone else just to feel bigger than they are. If other people support us in this, we can feel even larger and more important.

Those who are poor, ill, and struggling are a vulnerable, easy target for haters and blamers. It’s the demographic least able to fight back, least likely to have energy or resources to take you to court or otherwise seek justice and rebalance.

We like to think we know. We like to think we’re clever enough to see exactly what’s going on in someone else’s life. We think if something wouldn’t hurt us, or make our brains stop working then it shouldn’t be a problem for anyone else either. We are persuaded that our life experience is a fair measure of someone else’s struggles.

What it means, when we walk this path, is that we only judge other people, and never have to judge ourselves.


The community cost of injustice

There’s an obvious upfront cost to injustice that relates very immediately to whatever has gone wrong. What seems like a small unfairness to someone not immediately affected by it can seem like a small problem, not worth the hassle of sorting out. To the person on the receiving end, that small wrong can be life destroying. However, there is a larger and more subtle cost, one that we keep overlooking. Injustice breaks relationships and undermines communities. All the injustice that stems from prejudice. All the injustice that is intrinsic to rape and abuse. Social and financial injustice. All of it.

So, you’re affected by something, and it hurts you, and damages your life, your wellbeing. I’ll leave it to you to decide what sort of injustice to imagine or remember at this point. Nothing is done. The system refuses to change, the perpetrator is not tackled, no one says ‘hey that’s not ok and shouldn’t be happening.’ You are left with the immediate damage, and the knowledge that no one cares enough to do anything about it. A second level of hurt comes from this, and that hurt can go deeper than even the initial damage.

If your wounding is trivialised and/or ignored, then your relationship with the people who don’t care, changes. It may be that you have to see the injustice inherent in the system, and you can’t ever unsee it and feel easy about things again. It may be that you start seeing all people from the group that harmed you as a potential threat. You will likely feel cut off, and alienated, and angry, and there’s nowhere to take that because the people who most need to know about it have already made it pretty clear that they don’t care.

We’re doing this all the time. We do it at the state level. We collectively turn away from victims. We close our ears to them, we don’t listen to their stories. If we don’t think something would bother us, we decline to see why it would be a problem for anyone else. Injustice severs the natural bonds between people. It dehumanises all of us. When we look away. When we don’t worry because it’s not happening to us. When we say ‘oh, it’s not that big a deal really, stop making a fuss,’  we contribute. And so there is fear, and mistrust, resentment, bitterness, anger all bubbling away in so many places for so many reasons. It’s been there a long time and it won’t change easily, but change it must.


The art of not communicating

Social media is without a doubt undermining the skills of those who didn’t have a lot of social skills to begin with. Twitter feeds that read ‘me, me, me’ barely interacting with others are a simple expression of it. People who think online isn’t real and that what they say there doesn’t count. People hiding behind their monitors to say that which should never have been said.

I’m old enough to remember when it was television that was blamed for communication breakdown. I’ve also seen the evidence to suggest that go back further into the past, and the problem was books. All of this leads me to the conclusion that blaming books, television and the internet for poor communication skills is probably missing something important.

I’ve sat down with people who had nothing to say to each other. Conversations full of trivia and futility, or worse still, manufactured arguments over politics and religion. Something to fill the otherwise aching void. When we might all be better off admitting we have no interest in each other and nothing in common and just this sense that we ought to communicate.

I find silence is often the best measure of closeness and mutual interest. If people can be silent together until something worth saying comes along, and if that silence is easy, or fertile, then you have a serious relationship. If the simple act of putting our bodies into the same space feels good, then we’re onto something. If we can do something together – with or without words, then we’re connecting. Conversation for the sake of it is often strained and pointless. Small talk because noise is more comfortable than the truth a silence might reveal. Arguments over abstract and distant things to cover for the real and immediate tensions.

I’m not interested in the art of conversation, nor in winning arguments. For me, a good conversation is slow, halting, full of pauses as people think about what needs saying. Rich with silences, and warmed by what it means to be people in the same space.


Community solutions

For some time now, I’ve been exploring the idea that many of the problems our societies construct as individual issues, aren’t. I’ve mostly been looking at this in terms of mental health, but suspect it applies more widely. The emphasis on the problem as being the individual’s problem, and the solution being individual too, seems highly suspect to me. Depression, anxiety and other stress-induced problems happen in a context, and if we don’t change the context how can there be a real solution?

Up until this week, I’d thought of my problems with inspiration as being a personal problem, necessitating personal solutions, or otherwise unfixable. Opening up about the problem has brought me a lot of conversations – here, on facebook and by email. Thank you everyone who did that. Apparently it’s not just me. Rather than seeing a personal problem, I’m now seeing a much bigger problem(s) impacting on creative people. The answer, then, is to find solutions that aren’t just for me. Maybe what we have here is the sort of thing that can only be dealt with collectively.

My plan at the moment is to spend time over the next few days really facing up to this, to my own feelings of guilt, shame, grief and loss, and to look at what paralyses me. I’ve not done this before, because these are painful things to look in the face, but, I think it’s necessary to walk into it.

So, this is an open invitation to contribute. If you have experiences either of being able to maintain your creativity, or of struggling with it, and you’re willing to share what’s happening, then please do. If you don’t want to do that in public, just comment that you’d like an email and I’ll get in touch – wordpress helpfully shows me your email address when you comment. Anything shared privately I won’t put out in public except in a generic ‘some people are finding’ kind of way.


Parenting without (much) authority

I’ve never liked arbitrary authority, and so I came to parenting determined that ‘because I said so’ wasn’t going to be part of my repertoire. Also, I had a theory that the more arbitrary authority there is in childhood, the less able parent and child are to adapt to the teenage years, or to relate to each other well beyond that point. I wanted to raise an autonomous human capable of thinking for themselves, and that doesn’t go with being their authority figure either.

I remember the point at which I finally realised that my parents didn’t know everything. It came as a shock, rocking my little world to its core. My trust in their authority had been founded in no small part on a belief in their infinite knowledge and insight. So as a parent I made sure my child was aware of my limits from early on. As a small chap interested in dinosaurs, he knew that he could pass me in dinosaur knowledge if he put in the time, and that it was fine to do so. As I’m not interested in power-over I’ve never felt any need to try and keep him smaller than me.

We’ve always negotiated. I’ve always explained my position and reasoning so that he could see why I thought a course of action was preferable. I’ve aimed to persuade rather than force. We have an understanding that if I do issue an order, it is to be followed without question or hesitation because I’ll only do that in an emergency. We can talk about it afterwards. Driving me round the bend does count as an emergency!

Alongside this, he’s always had the option that if he could make a case for something, I’d take him seriously. We talk about the implications, the responsibilities, the possible consequences. Now he’s a teen, we carry that on to talk about relationship dynamics, consent culture, the implications of drugs and porn and all the other things out there he might run into and need to deal with. I think we have a pattern that means he’s always going to feel able to ask for my advice, but never obliged to act on it.

This all makes my life easier. I have room to say ‘yeah, I cocked that up,’ and to be honest about getting things wrong, making bad calls – because I have no authority to undermine. As yet, there’s been no sign of teenage rebellion – occasional non-cooperation, but that’s fine. He doesn’t have to fight off my authority in order to establish himself as a person in his own right because he’s always been respected as a person in his own right.

For me, authoritarian models within the family are an aspect of patriarchal society that we can do without. Children who are taught to obey are taught that power is what gets things done. You can’t have consent culture and obedience. You can’t have equality if you raise people inside models based on hierarchy, power-over and authority. There is a power balance necessary and inherent in raising a child, but so long as the child has the right to express opinions, and be taken seriously, that power balance can gently fall away over the years, allowing them to stand in their own power in the context of the family.

(And yes, I did ask him if it was ok to write about this.)


Needing People

Some people like to feel needed, but there are plenty of folk for whom saying ‘I need you’ is likely to induce some kind of panic. What they hear (I suspect) is more like ‘I need you to commit to doing certain things for me.’ I need you to bolster me up in certain ways. I need you to look after me, take responsibility for me, I will make work for you and suck up your time and energy.

We all need people. At a practical level, most of us need people to do the many things we cannot do for ourselves. We may never meet the people who grow and prepare our food, make our clothes, provide our electricity and maintain our roads but we need them nonetheless.

Humans are social creatures. We’ve evolved to work co-operatively and to live in groups. Many of us, if left alone, become lonely and miserable. Here’s an article about how loneliness kills. Meaningful human interactions are part of what keeps us sane and coping.

We all need people.

What if that needing isn’t about specific actions? What if it’s not about asking people to take roles and responsibilities within our lives? What if I can say ‘I need you’ and you will hear that as my need to have you, as you are, in my life. Not doing anything extra, just doing what you do and being who you are.

What if being who you are and doing what you do is wholly sufficient already? What if you didn’t have to go some difficult extra mile to be the sort of person who is needed? Then being needed wouldn’t be a matter of utility, just a recognition of who we are.


Poor Little Me

The Poor Little Me is a character from Hopeless Maine, inspired in part by Eliza Carthy’s song ‘Me and Poor Little Me.’ I started wondering what a Poor Little Me would be like, and thinking about possible examples. It’s a really unpleasant way of being, but in a rather passive-aggressive kind of way.

The PLM says ‘oh, poor you, that’s so bad, you must feel terrible. That must be awful, I bet its really getting to you, you must hate it, you must really be struggling there.’ At first it sounds like sympathy, and when we’re hurting, sympathy is welcome. After a while it sounds like pity – because they do it a lot, at very little provocation. Given long enough exposure, and it sucks out confidence and power, and you become this frail, useless thing and they become the big, powerful thing. Poor you.

Of course we can do it to ourselves as well – if we’ve internalised those voices, or we like to wallow too much. There are times when a good dose of ingratitude and self pity are necessary for getting life into perspective and taking action. The problem is taking up residence there. If you look at everything and see how it could have gone better and say ‘poor me’ for what you didn’t get, you’ll talk yourself into victimhood, despair and dysfunction.

In terms of dealing with the PLM as an inner voice, noticing it happening is key, and then challenging it. It’s important to deliberately look for the good in things as well as seeing what’s awry, this balance is essential to decent mental health. Often the destructive voices that live in our heads come from other places, so identifying whose voice it is can help with an eviction process.

In terms of having a PLM in your life, again noticing is key, because it will be offered in the guise of kindness and they will be ever so nice to you as they tell you how ghastly your life is. It’s very hard to protest or resist. The only method I’ve found is to step back. If rumbled, a PLM can become nasty – far more distressed that you could see them that way than they will ever be by the idea that they were making you uncomfortable.

How do we avoid becoming a PLM? Watch out for pity. Sympathy in a time of crisis can be supportive, but if it’s all we offer, it sounds like pity, and it also focuses the recipient on their woes. Make the effort to go further, offer something positive, encouraging or helpful alongside your sympathy. Act to empower the people you’re dealing with. Empty sympathy noises are easy – which is why we make them, so becoming damaging to someone else may be more about laziness than malice. Empathising and working out what could change things is a good deal more useful.

PLMing may happen to silence another person, perhaps with a feeling of justification because they keep going on about their woes. Yes, it’s terrible, poor you, you can shut up about it now. When it happens for those reasons, it doesn’t solve problems, or tackle a PLM living in someone else’s head, and it can isolate people who really are in trouble.

And if you’re curious about the PLM as a character, do click through to this blog post – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/salamandra-and-the-plm/


Illness and the magic thing

It’s important to talk about mental illness. Only by talking about it will we challenge the stigma, get rid of the inaccurate myths, challenge assumptions and improve things for everyone.

One of the big problems with mental health is that we treat it as an individual issue, with little or no reference to how context impacts on wellbeing. One very significant aspect of context is the way in which other people react. I’m conscious that many of the same things hold true for chronic illness. Certain kinds of responses silence people who are suffering, make it harder for us to ask for help, and can increase distress, anxiety and alienation. How people react to illness can make ill people more ill.

The big one (I think) is the idea that if we only tried harder and/or did ‘the magic thing’ we’d be fine. What ‘the magic thing’ is varies, but it will be something the person we’re dealing with is sure is a fabulous fix for everything. We’re told we should be on medication, or shouldn’t be on medication. We should make more effort, or get more rest. We should stop eating a thing, or start eating a thing, or do yoga, or practice mindfulness…

The person who says ‘I’m really struggling right now’ is not helped by being told they need the magic thing to fix them. Not least because we’ve all tried a whole array of alleged magic things already, and they mostly don’t save us. When you’re down, and beaten and exhausted and everything is hard about the least useful thing to hear is that you should be making more of an effort with something. Fear of dealing with this silences people, encountering it can kick those who are already down.

The motives for how we respond to illness in others stand questioning. If we make a suggestion to someone else, we may feel that’s us off the hook. We did our bit. We have no further responsibility. We may believe that because we are well, that something we are doing is the reason for this, and not that it might just be luck. Belief in ‘the magic thing’ protects us from having to be afraid that we could be unlucky and get sick. It may also allow us to feel superior, that our cleverly doing the right thing is keeping us well while others fall and suffer because they aren’t making as much effort as we are. Being blamed for illness adds to depression, despair, and a sense of alienation.

There is a balance to find here, because information sharing is a good and often helpful thing, but unsolicited medical advice from strangers is often demoralising. The thing to watch for is the tone. Sharing in solidarity – here’s the thing I tried, this is what happened – can be really helpful. ‘You should do this’ has a very different tone. There’s a power imbalance in it, a disrespect for the person on the receiving end. An implied superiority on the part of the person dishing out advice.

Another way of silencing, dismissing and injuring people who are ill is to tell them off for it. People who are told that expressions of distress are basically attention seeking and not ok learn not to mention it. You’re just making a fuss. You just want to be the centre of attention. You’re playing the victim again. You’re such a martyr… Which begs the question of why a person who is suffering should not be able to say so? The answer is all about the discomfort of the listener being more important than the distress of the person who is distressed. When you are deep in depression or other illness, and the distress caused by saying so is deemed more important than what you’re going through – that really doesn’t help. It’s a massive blow to self-esteem.

Depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels right now. We won’t change that without changing the context in which people are experiencing things.


Grooming the human mammal

Mammals groom. As I type this, I’m sat next to a cat who is busily washing herself, with her tongue. For most mammals, washing means licking. For any non-solitary creature, grooming is also a collective activity with a community bonding aspect to it. I wonder when it was that humans stopped licking themselves, and each other. Clothes clearly have an influence. To lick a fellow human these days could only be understood as a sexual act, and certainly none of us would be likely to think of it as hygiene.

The grooming of fellow humans is also something we no longer do as a natural part of daily life. Parent humans apply water, cleaning products and brushes to offspring, until said offspring can do it for themselves. Those who cannot clean themselves are groomed by others, but this is often the kind of work we pay people to do in the context of care homes. We don’t mind paying for grooming, for haircuts and washes, for the treatments of beauty parlour and spa – if we can afford it, that is.

It’s interesting to speculate what human relationships would be like if we routinely groomed each other, with no sexual connotation, and no financial aspect. We know from other mammals, that connections are reinforced by this. I’m prepared to bet, based on how modern humans respond to hairdressers and spa days, that there are some considerable feel good factors attached to being groomed. In monkeys, grooming can also be part of the expression and reinforcement of social hierarchy, which is complicated for a creature like me, but I think it’s likely a better way of handling it than many of the alternatives. It certainly users fewer resources.

I think this is all part and parcel of the way we’ve tended to sexualise all forms of contact. We tend to see touch as sexual, and thus only accept it in the context of certain kinds of relationship – sexual, familial or paid for. The word ‘grooming’ is increasingly used to suggest preparing someone for inappropriate sexual contact. There are comforts we aren’t allowed to provide for each other, but are fine if you stump up the cash. Other ways of being are clearly possible.


Angels, Demons, and being human

When I blog about human eccentricities, I generally try and cobble together a body of anecdotal evidence, pertaining to other people aside from myself. It’s hardly science, but it does mean I can form a broader perspective. The pattern I want to comment on in today’s post isn’t one I’ve knowingly seen happening for anyone else, so if you recognise it, feedback would be especially welcome as there’s a lot I’m still figuring out. This is a pattern I’ve experienced repeatedly when dealing with an array of people over a period of years.

The essence of it goes like this. A person will accuse me, publically, privately or to others, of being something terrible. This is the ‘demon’ role. That I’m bullying has come up repeatedly for me, and is something I’ve done no small amount of soul searching over. I am, I have been told, demanding, unreasonable, unfair, a liar, a manipulator, a user. The same person will then expect me to behave like an angel – to be kind to them, patient, generous – perhaps do some free work for them, or keep doing the same things despite them having a go at me. I must not inconvenience anyone by expressing distress or resentment over the accusations. I must take it on the chin and be an angel.

Alongside this, where I’ve called people out for behaviour I have a problem with (often but not always the same people) my expectation is that they won’t be grateful for the feedback. One of the things I learned in a support group for domestic abuse survivors, is that abusers are abusive, and thinking they are going to change just gets you more hurt. Faced with someone I think is a liar, manipulator and so forth, I move away, because I expect them to repeat the behaviour. I’ve no experience of telling someone I think they are dreadful, and then being able to use that as leverage to change their behaviour to better suit me. Only someone whose inclination is to be kind and co-operative can be manipulated into giving more of themselves by being told they are awful. People who enjoy causing distress won’t be moved to change tack. It raises the possibility that people who cast other people in an angel-devil role are doing so for manipulative reasons.

I have my share of normal fallouts with people I care for, and I’ve worked many of those through over plenty of years. There are normal patterns to discord – often deriving from innocent misunderstandings. No one is being terrible, it’s just a case of figuring out what went awry, and fixing it. This is my default starting place, and I tend to find that when trading explanations with people who like me, all manner of things can be resolved.

Of course if you start from an inclination to blame, solving things is hard. It may be that those who want to cast me as both demon and angel simply want me to take total responsibility for what’s going on. I am the demon so it’s all my fault, I must fix everything and be the angel. In matters of honest human cock-up, even if the balance of responsibility lies with one party, the other party can do a lot to help by explaining clearly and listening, and engaging actively but without too much blame, in the process of figuring out what went wrong.

There’s a vast giving away of personal power once you start casting people in angel-devil roles. The person who is both devil and angel is the only person in a scenario who can fix things – I wouldn’t much fancy being the person who thinks they have an angel-devil to deal with. The person who steps up to work on resolution has far more power than simple blame can ever give them. However, if all you know how to do is give away power by making others responsible, it would (I speculate) be easy to then hate and further blame the person you’ve decided has all the power in a situation.

I must note this is not the same as a situation of genuine power imbalance – teacher/student, boss/worker, matters of financial control, or controlling behaviour. I have certainly seen people who had definite power in a situation treat the person they have power over, as the one in control, and that creates some very strange dynamics.

I have no great insights at this stage. What I do know if that a person thinks I can be both a devil and an angel, they don’t know me. They aren’t dealing with me as the human (flawed and striving) that I am. They are dealing with something they have imagined and wish to impose on me, and with the best will in the world, there’s not a lot I can do with that.