Category Archives: Community

In the absence of friendship rituals

The only formal dedications we normally make to each other in rituals, are dedications of marriage. We have contracts to shape our working relationships, but we don’t celebrate those, and they can prove fleeting. We do not have rituals of friendship. We may welcome someone into a group by initiating them, but that doesn’t happen in most contexts.

Dedication between people in a non-romantic context is a vital thing, I think. Friendship that is invested in for the long term has a very different impact on your life from transient, superficial acquaintance. We may pick people up at need, put them down when they no longer have what we want. We move on, change jobs, take up a different hobby, and the friendly thing we had going on with a person around that does not endure, because we were never that invested in them anyway.

When is it the right time to say to someone ‘I intend on being your friend for as long as we both shall live’? In the absence of any kind of social framework supporting such a declaration, it can seem pretty weird. It may even feel creepy or threatening to the person on the receiving end, simply because it’s not what normally happens.

If all our dedication goes into our romantic relationships, that can leave us really vulnerable. It is harder to spot toxic relationships when you don’t have any others for comparison. It is harder to function socially and emotionally when you don’t have multiple people who you can count on to be in your life. Friendship is an intensely rewarding thing, and people who are only looking for romance miss out on a lot, and can feel incredibly alone when not in a romantic relationship. At the same time, if we make the romantic relationship the main goal, we can put a lot of pressure on our partners. If we only dedicate to this relationship, we require our partners to be all things in all ways for us, and that’s demanding and difficult to live up to.

There’s so much good that can come out of investing in each other for the long term. We have so much power to support each other and enrich each other’s lives.

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Wrecking other people’s stories

People like stories. We build our lives around the stories we have about who we are, where we come from and how the world works. If you are part of a shared, dysfunctional story, and you decide to step out of that story, there will be consequences and it is as well to be aware of them.

For people dealing with domestic abuse, the time of greatest danger is the time when you try to leave. Not just because you are physically trying to get out, but because you are putting the lie to the story about how right, virtuous and justified your abuser is.

People will fight and kill to protect their stories and their take on reality, even when those stories are clearly harming them. As the person breaking the story, you are perhaps more likely to be seen as the destructive oppressor, and not the rescuing angel you may imagine yourself to be. Those still in the story may simply recast you so that they can keep the story going. “You used to be such a nice little girl. I don’t know what went wrong.”

Sometimes, the only way out of a story is to break away from the people whose story it is. Sometimes, the only option is to play the role consciously and then escape into spaces where you can properly be yourself. Sometimes to do that, a safe house is required, a new identity, police protection. Sometimes you have to ask difficult questions about the price of your relationships, and the implications of leaving them. People can die as a consequence of misjudging this.

If you call out a story as a lie, even if you can evidence it, people may fight you. They may fire you, take you to court, lie about you, attack you on social media. They may deprive you of key resources. If you refuse to play your allotted role you may be harassed, ridiculed, threatened or abandoned. You have no control over how other people respond when you stop acting in line with their story.

But you have the right to live your own life, and you have the right to be safe. So, if you’re wrecking a story, plan your escape routes first – more or less literally as required. Do some risk assessment. Consider the consequences. Try to break the story as calmly as you can, with minimal drama. There is nothing like drama to keep a story moving, because even as you think you’re resisting it, you can find the energy of it being sucked in and used to reinforce the existing story. You were always a useless child. Now you’re upsetting everyone with this stupid idea that you can do something. It’s all your fault… These are the outcomes to avoid.

It’s natural to want justice, to want recognition. It’s reasonable to want the people who have miscast you to realise their mistakes. It’s also very likely that you won’t get that. If you choose to stay and fight, you may be pulled back into the old story. Sometimes, it is better to go quietly and start a new story of your own somewhere else.


Am I the architect of my own problems?

You’ve seen the repeating patterns in your life. You’ve seen the roles others have cast you in, and maybe the roles you’ve created for yourself. You’ve seen that this isn’t working for you. It may, at this point, be appropriate to point a finger of blame somewhere else, and take a dramatic leap out of the story you’ve been trapped in. If you can do that, then it wasn’t your story. But what happens when you point the finger of blame, and then after the drama this brings, you settle down and find that you’re back in that same story again, playing the same role?

It is a hard and painful thing to consider that you may be the architect of your own problems. It is the least comfortable outcome to find that you are the one making up the roles and doing the casting that keeps the same story playing on repeat in your life. The good news is that you have great power to change things in this situation. The bad news is that you may put up massive resistance to admitting your own role.

When we spend our time casting other people in roles, we don’t get to know them as people. We just treat them how we treat the story we have about that role. This can be deeply disorientating for the person put into the story. I’ve had a few rounds of people treating me in incomprehensible ways, telling me I am things, or I do things, or that something means something else… This is what it looks like when a person is relating to an idea, not another person. And I think this indicates the best way out of such a mess, too.

If you are making your own problems by repeating stories, all you have to do is quietly stop casting people in roles. No one has to be your twin soul, your nemesis, your mother, your perfect lover, the child you never had… Without creating any drama or weirdness, you can just let go of these ways of relating. Replace it by getting to know people as individuals. Find out who they actually are and where they want to be in your life and you’ll be well under way to creating new stories full of open ended possibility.

Squaring up to this, you may feel silly, or fraudulent, or like everyone can see what you’ve been doing. You may feel shame, and regret and misery. And actually, this is all ok. These are fair and appropriate responses to having been making a mess of things. It’s when we’re unwilling to feel difficult and discomforting emotions that we are most likely to make a mess of things. Fear of our own dark sides can be a big motivator for casting other people in roles rather than properly relating to them. Feel the things, but don’t let it turn into an excuse for mostly just feeling sorry for yourself or you could find you’ve wandered back into the old story again.


Am I a terrible person?

Any sane person looks for external evidence about who they are and how their behaviour impacts on others. However, a person in a toxic environment may be dealing with a chorus of voices telling them they are awful. This might happen in a family context, in a school or workplace, or anywhere else one person with little power can be made scapegoat, or whipping post. For the person who is fundamentally kind and well meaning, this sort of feedback can cause immense distress and psychological difficulty. And if the harder you try, the more you fail, the more distressed you will become, and the more you may feel you have to stay and make up for your mistakes.

This is a common domestic abuse scenario. The innocent party in all of this may feel personally responsible and may come to believe that they are a terrible person who really must try harder to fix everything. It can be very difficult to find your way out of one of these. I honestly have no idea how anyone does it alone. My own experiences and the stories I’ve heard others share tend to suggest that friendship, and the people who refuse to buy into the scapegoat story are key to getting out of one of these roles.

Blaming and shaming isn’t just something that happens inside small, abusive groups. It happens on a much bigger scale with the blaming, shaming and gaslighting of the poor, the disabled, migrants, the mentally ill, the unemployed. We live in a time where those with most power routinely punch down, and blame those who suffer for that suffering. Collective resistance is the only possible answer to this.

If you’ve been cast as the villain in someone else’s story, how do you tell what’s going on? How do you tell if you’ve been obliviously awful? Have you been indulging a sense of privilege and do you now feel hurt for being called on it? Are you more upset about being called out than about the harm you may have caused? These are not easy things for a person to judge. Wounded pride and challenged privilege tend to get defensive at this point. People who mean well try to sort things out, make amends, and improve.

Here’s something it took me a long time to learn. If you’re the sort of person who listens, learns from mistakes, tries harder, says sorry and means it… then you will still fuck up now and then. But, you’ll sort it out mostly. You’ll move forward if you’re dealing with people who allow that. If you’re trying, truly trying and nothing you do is ever right, or good enough, then the odds are that you aren’t the problem here. If you can get it right with some people and not others, look hard at that. The odds are it’s because some people meet you half way, and some people don’t. If you’ve been cast as the villain, you will never be allowed to put things right and move on.

It look me years to establish that if someone was ok with me, it was not simply because they didn’t know me well enough yet to hate me. Sometimes, you have to collect a lot of evidence before you can demolish a role you’ve been cast in against your will. There are plenty of people out there keen to make others responsible for their own shortcomings. If you’re kind enough to internalise that, they will keep shitting on you, and telling you that the shit is your own.

Being a kind person doesn’t require you to keep on being kind when people are routinely shitting on you. It is perfectly reasonable to move away from people who can only criticise you, and for whom you are never good enough. Even when that’s family members. It is perfectly ok to give your time and life to the people who see you as a good thing. Trust them. They may not be labouring under any illusions at all.


Am I repeating a story?

How do I tell if I am repeating the patterns of a story? It’s not easy to see until you’ve been round it a few times – patterns, by their very nature, must be repeated to be observed. So the odds are that you won’t spot one until you have repeated enough times for you to see it as a problem. For people trapped in repeating patterns of dysfunctional relationship, or other things not working out, it is not comfortable looking at where we’ve contributed to that.

The only way to break out of a pattern is to start by acknowledging it. The only way to change a pattern reliably, is to change what you personally do. You probably didn’t get here alone, other people may continue to play roles, but you are the only person you have the power to change. If you label is at fate, karma, bad luck, you throw away your own power to change things.

Identify exactly what you think the pattern is. One of mine, for example, is being willing to bleed myself dry metaphorically speaking, to try and impress people who are critical of me and difficult to please. I have to prove something to them. I have to win them round. I have to be good enough. It’s taken me until recently to decide that I don’t have to prove anything and that ungrateful gits just waste my time and energy.

To get to this point I had to see what I was doing. I had to look at what happens to me emotionally when I deal with demanding and unreasonable people. I had to ask why I feel moved to give so much to people who are never satisfied. I traced the threads of this back through my own childhood, and back to one of my grandmothers, and I thought about her grandfather as well. Some of this has grown over a very long time. I had to ask what I owe anyone, and what’s in it for me. And I broke the pattern and stepped out of the story. This is a fairly painless example.

When you’re playing out a story like this, the roots of it can be deep in your family past. Digging those roots out can be painful and may cause shifts in other relationships. You may have to look at what forgiveness is needed, and helpful. You may well need to forgive yourself for what you’ve done as you’ve played the role. If the person most hurt by your actions is you, definitely work on self forgiveness. If your role has had you hurting other people, look at making amends, or at least learning lessons. It isn’t your right to forgive yourself for harm you’ve done to others. If you need to deal with people who set you up in this story, that can be complicated. Forgiveness isn’t obligatory. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it just traps us in doormat and martyr roles.

Changing the story, breaking it down, opening it out to make new endings possible… this is not easy work. It can be exhausting and it will likely take time. You may have to go some rounds with your story shape before you can properly escape from it. Be patient with yourself, and keep doing the work. If you can escape from a story that is really just a trap, life will open up for you in all kinds of ways and it is worth the work to get there.


Playing a role

We all play roles in our lives in deliberate ways. We have work roles, family roles, social roles, community roles. Where we take these on consciously and deliberately, they can be wholly functional and useful. However, we can also occupy roles that other people have cast us in, and we may unconsciously play out roles we’ve created for ourselves. When this second kind of role playing occurs, it can make a sense of authentic self, and forming genuine relationships very difficult.

One of the things that makes playing a role problematic is that those of us doing it will assume what we are doing is normal and reasonable. We seldom come to this alone. We may be playing the role our family, or our culture has ascribed us. We may be replicating stories handed down from our ancestors – and not even the most recent ones. If we think what we’re doing is the only thing a person could do, we won’t notice it. Recognising that roles have been given and people are expecting each other to play them can be difficult.

Roles become a problem when they have rigid boundaries and do not allow us to grow or change. Roles like victim, aggressor, saviour, martyr, doormat, useless one, the problem, the one who is always wrong… are relentless. You can’t be a complete and happy person when stuck in one of those roles. Often these can come in clusters – a family cluster might give you one saviour parent, one martyr parent, one useless child and one problem child, for example. We can spend our lives playing that kind of dynamic out and passing it on to the next generation.

People who cast themselves in specific roles – the victim, the one who is always right, the one everyone must love – need other players to compliment their role and maintain the story. Victims often need both aggressors and rescuers. The person who is always right will need scapegoats who are always wrong. People often don’t realise that they’re repeatedly playing out the same basic story and just drawing new people into the supporting roles.

Over the next few blog posts I’m going to be exploring ways of looking at the stories we might have written ourselves into, or unwittingly been drawn into, or cast in from birth. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and challenging core stories about who we are and the roles we play can be deeply uncomfortable stuff. We may not like what we find, and dealing with it probably won’t be easy. So, bring cake and blankets and be patient with yourself if this is a relevant journey to take.


Collective Dreaming

We live in an individualistic culture that tends to understand dreams and ambitions as solitary. We tell stories about the triumph of the individual genius, and when we fail, we tend to feel that we have failed alone.

Collective dreaming has a lot more power to get things done. When there are more of us, sharing the same goals, figuring out the same trajectories, there’s more scope for success. More minds on the case. More hands to the plough. More resources and potential. Whether we’re talking about community projects, social movements, or small collaborations, we can get more done when we dream together.

Of course collective dreaming comes at a price. You have to be willing to give up the allure of personal, standout success. If you win as a team, you may not be personally famous. A little realism about the odds of being personally famous by working alone can help a lot here. Collective dreaming means being willing to compromise a bit on your vision. Even if you’re working with people who are very much aligned to your view, they won’t always be perfectly in synch with you with all things. Patience and flexibility are essential. Sometimes it means letting go of a large part of your vision so as to make a small piece of it actually happen. We live in a culture that encourages us to nurture our private dreams and not sacrifice parts of them for a common aim. Even when that means the dream goes nowhere. We can see hanging on to the exact dream as heroic, even when it gets nothing done.

Working together doesn’t automatically make something a force for good. That our dreams are shared does not necessarily make them wise, feasible, or virtuous. We can amplify each other’s worst ideas when we work together. We can build bubbles of unreality, believing ourselves to be better, more important, more influential than we really are. We can enable each other in doing horrible things. Our shared dreams may be other people’s shared nightmares. The validation of being part of something can give us the confidence to be despicable. When enough people sign up to such projects, they can become cultural norms. Nazi groups also share dreams.

The only way to measure our collective dreaming is by giving it a lot of thought. Watching for the risk that we’re talking each other into unrealistic expectations or belief. Watching for what we validate in each other, for whether we seek power over each other, and how we envisage people who are outside our little collective. Those intent on justifying atrocious behaviour are generally good at finding ways to do that, and we need to watch for them in our collectives. Getting involved with a collective dream doesn’t have to mean continuing to think it’s a good idea or dedicating to seeing it through. Like the notion of the heroic lone genius, the notion of group loyalty to the bitter end can prove to be deeply unhelpful in practice.


Shifting the boundaries

I was never terribly good at boundaries, growing up. Being a parent taught me a great deal about boundary setting. It’s no good declining to give a child boundaries, because that can leave them feeling unsafe and unable to navigate. Boundaries that are too limiting and rigid create resentment and restrict a child’s growth. The boundaries have to shift as the young person develops and changes. Those boundary shifts have to be talked about, so that they can happen in the right way, and be understood.

It took me a long time to realise that all the same things apply to adults. We need to have some sense of where the permissible edges are. We need the right to hold boundaries, but also the freedom to change them at need. Where we draw our lines in one instance cannot be taken as the rule for where our lines are. If I say yes to something once, I have not said yes to it forever.

Developing trust between people can mean a process of changing where the boundaries are. The process of interacting with each other can change how we feel and think, what we need and expect, and what risks we’re willing to take.

In some ways I’ve become a lot more guarded with my boundaries in recent years. I am far less tolerant of people who try to cross my lines uninvited. That’s about emotional lines as much as it is about physical contact. In some ways I’ve become softer in my boundaries because there are people I trust to honour what I say, and to still honour what I say if I need to change things.

We like clear and simple rules because they seem easiest to work with. But for every rule – religious or secular – it’s easy to think of times when breaking the rule would be the better choice. Lying isn’t good, but if Anne Frank is in the attic and Hitler is at the door, of course you lie. I’m not in favour of killing people, but sometimes this is necessary to save lives. If a shooter walks into a school, there should be no question about trained police taking them out in any way they can. And of course because people are difficult, this kind of argument can then be used to try and justify arming anyone who wants to be armed. Give people clear and simple rules for all situations and a subset of those people will always try and bend the rules for their own gain.

When it comes to dealing with people, simple rules tend not to work very well. What we have are massively complex social structures full of privileges and power imbalances. Our dealings with large numbers of people are shaped by rules, habits, social norms. These are not easy things to think about, which is why I think it pays to focus on the most immediate and specific interactions where we have the most scope to make change.

How do we recognise and honour other people’s boundaries?

Do we have any habits of thought that might means we’re not listening? Do we assume our own rights or entitlements trump someone else’s? Do we think a certain kind of person just makes a fuss?

What do we do when our boundaries aren’t respected? Do we have choices?

How we deal with each other’s boundaries is a fundamental building block for our societies as a whole. What we normalise, or ignore. What we undertake to change. What we refuse to back down over. What we demand other people take seriously.


Stealing the surfaces

Back when I was at school, a girl in my class returned to the sixth form with a new wardrobe of alternative, goth and hippy clothing. She’d decided to reinvent herself over the summer and had the money to spend on getting the look. As far as I could make out, she didn’t have an alternative bone in her body. She just thought it would be cool to look that way. I have no idea if she got what she wanted from the experience.

They turn up everywhere. Witchcraft is especially prone to people who want the look and not much else. All forms of creativity attract people who want to be seen as arty but turn out not to be willing to put in the time and effort it actually takes to make stuff. I don’t know if this is because the people doing it never realise there’s more involved than the surface appearance. It’s probably about a desire for attention and wanting to be more interesting than they consider themselves to truly be.

Superficial lifestylers can be deeply annoying when you’re trying to really invest in something. People who can swing in and buy the appearance of your culture without really caring what that culture is. But at the same time, for most of us – if we are white, western, and not being oppressed in some way – we can afford to shrug and ignore it. Next year, these folk will re-invent themselves and become someone else’s problem. If your Pagan path is about getting online and trying to put straight the Pagans who aren’t Pagan enough or otherwise aren’t doing it right – well, that can become another superficial exercise in wanting attention and trying to look the part.

Wanting attention is very normal, very human. From our earliest school days we learn about cool kids and outsiders. We learn about group membership, and the importance of looking the part. We’ve got a celebrity culture based entirely on appearances and many of us grow up with little reason to think that depth of care and involvement are even a thing. Sometimes, when we do want to be taken seriously, we try too hard to look the part and to seem more than we are. The desire to be taken seriously by people who are doing it for real can prompt some daft behaviour. But again, our wider western culture doesn’t encourage us to rock up humble, admitting what we don’t know and showing respect to those who have done it for longer and gone to greater lengths.

For most humans, attention functions as a reward. What kind of attention it is can be less of an issue. So if you see someone buying their way in, being superficial, focusing on the bling and not the study and so forth, the best thing to do is make little comment or fuss about it. If they are someone who yearns for more than this, eventually they will figure out how to ask for guidance, or they’ll get moving on their own. If they aren’t serious, they will drift away. It’s when we pour energy into it and make drama around it that we reinforce being superficial. We’re rewarding it with attention and energy. Quiet disinterest can be a good way of guarding your own resources, and a simple, quiet way of teaching people to up their game.


Creative Community

I have never liked the image of creator as lone genius, up in their ivory tower, making Art away from the influence of nasty commercialism, nasty popularity and actual people. For me, this is an image that goes with elitism, wilful obscurity, pricing most people out of the market and creative irrelevance. I’m equally not a fan of disposable, industrialised pop culture where people make pretty much the same thing over and over for it to be consumed by other people who don’t much care about it.

There are of course other ways.

At the moment, I am blessed with a creative community. There are people whose work I am involved with to varying degrees, and who are involved with my work. People who pass me their first drafts, and who will read mine. People I trade reviews with. People I go to poetry nights with. People I can learn from, and be influenced by and test myself against. People who inspire me and who sometimes, to my great excitement, are inspired by me.

I find it always helps me to know who I am creating for. Much of my fiction work is written with a few specific individuals in mind. I can’t write for everyone; that makes no sense to me. Writing purely for myself feels too indulgent and narcissistic.

Being part of a creative community means finding out what other people are interested in, reading, looking at, watching, listening to. I may not be much engaged with mainstream entertainment, but I am engaged with things that other people in turn find engaging.

Creative community means support for what I do, and people I want to see thrive. It’s easier to get your books in front of people when someone else can say they are worth reading, simply. It’s good not to feel alone as a creator, and community helps offset the crushing qualities of the industry.

There can be a downside to all this. A small and inward-looking community can become a bubble of dysfunction. It can give people illusions of importance that stop them from doing things that would help them. I’ve seen it happen several times in different contexts. Creative cliques breed arrogance and obliviousness. The solution to this is to be part of an extended network that maybe has some tighter knit groups within it. There’s no real gain in finding a small pond in which to be a large fish.

There’s a romance to the idea of the lone creator that some creators have played up as part of their marketing strategy. The truth tends to be more complex. Stand-out famous creative people tend, when you look more closely at their lives, to have people around them. Wordsworth, for all his claiming to wander lonely as a cloud was actually out on a walk with his sister, and used her diary account of the day to help him write the daffodils poem. The myth of Solitary Great Men abounds, but in creative community we can find natural, healthy antidotes to this where we can all be excellent people in relation to each other.