Category Archives: Community

Soothing the troubled mind

Person A: I feel terrible about myself.

Person B: I think you are an excellent person.

Person A: Thank you. I still feel terrible about myself.

Person B: Why do I even bother?

The thing to remember about hurt and wounded people, is that it was seldom one event. People who are depressed, anxious, who have no self esteem and who feel grim about life tend to have gone through a process. However much we want to fix and heal each other, saying one nice thing once won’t restore the brain of someone who has spent years under attack.

Helping someone rebuild themselves means being in it for the long haul. One complement isn’t going to change everything. Over-complimenting can feel weird and uncomfortable. 

The best thing you can do for a person is be affirming. That includes affirming that their responses to their own historical issues are valid and reasonable. Affirm that it’s ok if things are difficult now because of what happened before and be patient while they work on things. Affirm that their choices and decisions are good, whenever you can. Give positive feedback whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Saying things like ‘I understand why it might seem that way to you’ or ‘your response makes sense to me’ can be a good opener if you need to explain that they’re wrong. People can get trapped in perceptions of the world that really harm them and need help getting out of that.

“I can see why this is making you feel bad about yourself, but it was an honest mistake and we all do that.”

“I can see why this makes you uneasy, but this isn’t going to play out the way that other thing did.”

Affirming the other person’s validity as a person, affirming their feelings and reactions can go alongside gently challenging all of that baggage. When we feel valid and safe it’s a lot easier to do the work of healing and moving on from past woundings.

Playing for misfits

I remember as a small child being taught by my grandmother how to play with a cat. She explained that it wasn’t about winning, that if the cat couldn’t get the string the cat would get bored and not want to play. I think this was my first explicit lesson in why cooperation is better than competition. 

There isn’t much fun to be had in winning against a cat. In learning to cooperate in this kind of play, I learned how to get the most delight out of a bit of string.

Looking back I note that it was one of the few instances of an adult explaining to me what the rules were for a specific sort of playing. As a child, I struggled with playing, which caused me a lot of social problems at school. I had no idea how any of it was supposed to work. I wanted to explore and experiment, and to learn how to do things. I liked imagining stuff, but the kind of communal imaginative role play games that children go in for made no sense to me.

When my son was a child, I got to revisit all of this. I still had no idea how to make certain kinds of play happen. Coming to it as an adult and a parent turned out to be as bewildering and uncomfortable as it had been as a child, only with extra layers of responsibility.

It may seem like an odd thing for a writer to feel, but as a child I did not want to play pretend games. As a teen playing role play games, where the rules are clearly defined, I was comfortable enough. I don’t think unstructured pretend play is actually that unstructured, it’s just that the rules are never explicit, and are intertwined with social standing and confidence. Some children are allowed to make the rules of the game, and change the rules of the game at will. Some are not. I was always in that second category with little grasp of how this first group got its power.

Writing is not like a make believe game. I get to make the rules. Even when I’m collaborating, I get a vote on how things work. It’s not like school where you can be stuck, day after day with people who will punish you – socially or physically – if you don’t play the games the way they want. These days I can at least vote with my feet if I need to.

How we play, who is allowed to play, who decides on the game – these things are all socially informed. How much of that do we learn unconsciously from our environments? Or in my case, fail to learn. We assume that play itself is intrinsic to children, but much of it did not come naturally to me and I doubt I am alone. How we play is part of how we learn, and this all has huge implications.

When there is no right answer

Sometimes there is no winning move. Anything you might do would be a compromise, or a bad choice. It’s impossible to make good choices when you don’t have good options. I go round this a lot with health issues because often the thing that fixes one problem is a high risk for causing another and some days all I can do is choose the terms on which I’m going to be in pain.

Some things are unfixable. There is no magic wand. Not everything can be put right. No matter how deeply you may feel that you *should* be able to make it all ok again, sometimes that’s not even possible.

Sometimes these things are true because you’ve been set up. Whatever you do is going to be wrong. Bullies do this. People interested in coercion and control do this. It can be really hard to see when you’re in there, constantly feeling like you should have realised and done the other thing and unable to see that you’re in a trap and there was no right answer.

In my experience, the quest for the right answer can be both exhausting and impossible. If a right answer doesn’t even exist, you can waste a lot of time and energy looking for it. All the second guessing and self doubt doesn’t help, either.

It is ok to do the best you can with what you’ve got. It is entirely good enough to make the best decision you have with the information you’ve got – even if in hindsight you can see why that wasn’t optimal. If all else fails, doing whatever seems kindest or most honourable is a good response to an impossible situation. Sometimes all you get to hang on to is the knowledge that you acted with integrity, even if that didn’t work out well.

Sometimes all we get to do is choose the way in which we are going to fail. There is comfort in picking a path that feels honourable.

Contemplating forgiveness

Where forgiveness is truly sought, my heartfelt response is to want to offer it. However, I’ve spent time dealing with people who apologise when they don’t mean it in order to have further opportunities to cause harm. Forgiveness isn’t owed, it has to be earned.

There are a lot of people who say that you have to forgive to heal. I don’t believe this at all. You have to work through your feelings, process your pain and anger, and figure out how to make peace with it for yourself. Whether that includes forgiving a person who harmed you, is really your call to make. 

It is possible to forgive someone without also giving them a second chance. Forgiveness can be part of a letting go process. No one is owed a second chance by someone they’ve hurt.

Forgiving someone is not a kindness or a virtuous act if you’re just enabling them to do harm, to you, to themselves or to others. Standards and boundaries also matter.

We all mess up. We’re all flawed, complicated life forms, and even when we’re doing our best, we don’t know everything. We can make mistakes in all innocence, trying our best and falling short or just not knowing enough to make a good call. Sometimes there are no good options anyway. It’s important to be able to forgive yourself for these, and to forgive anyone else you encounter who meant well but messed up. Expecting perfection is a form of cruelty.

It’s ok to be finished with someone. Not because they were unforgivable and did terrible things, but just because not everything works. Some things run their course. That I can forgive people for being flawed, foolish or wearying is one thing, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to go another round with them. I am at my least compassionate when I’m bored with someone else’s behaviour, tired of seeing the same mistakes over and over, tired of the dramas that seem small to me. I’m not good when I’m bored. It does not bring out the best in me.

I’m not going to forgive where that requires me to be smaller. I’ve had enough of cutting myself down to make other people comfortable. I’m not going to seek forgiveness from people who just find me too difficult – better for all of us if we move on. I don’t need to be forgiven for being myself. I don’t want to deal with people who have been so offended by me being myself that forgiving me seems relevant to them. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point.

The Imperfect Victim

The idea that only the perfect victim deserves help or justice comes up a lot around the treatment of women in cases of sexual violence and domestic abuse. The perfect victim is modestly dressed, sexually chaste, perhaps even a virgin. The perfect victim does not drink, or flirt… and on it goes. In terms of how the media and wider public responds to the victim, ideally they should also be young, white and pretty if they want to be taken seriously. The effect of this is to deny help or justice to the vast majority of victims.

It turns out that people will try much the same things when it comes to countries. Ukraine isn’t perfect and it is full of people who are not perfect. I’m seeing that used as a justification for Putin’s aggression, and to undermine people wanting to offer support and expressing concern.

Perfectly innocent victims are hard to find – whether we’re talking about individual humans or groups of people. Self defence is always a consideration, and it is always reasonable to defend yourself in whatever way is necessary. However, if what you’re defending yourself from is the flawed humanity of the other person, that’s not ok. 

There are right-wing elements in the Ukrainian army, apparently. By that measure, I’m not sure if we could find a country innocent enough not to deserve military invasion.

If we insist that only perfectly innocent victims deserve help or compassion, we undermine everyone’s humanity. We justify violence. We excuse the inexcusable. Domestic abusers and rapists alike always blame their victims, whether it’s the claim that their clothing was too provocative, or that they were ‘asking for it’ by making the aggressor angry, this is all too normal. If we accept the aggressor’s justifications, we enable them, and that’s just as true with countries as it is with individuals.

If it turns out that the victim is problematic, we can better sort that out when someone isn’t trying to kill them.

Notes from inside a haunted meatsack

The most peculiar breakup I’ve ever had happened over the phone. He called, and told me he could not continue with the relationship. I admitted I was surprised because as far as I knew, we weren’t in a relationship.

It’s often really hard to get people to talk about how they want things to work. I hate having to infer. I really like it when people can be clear about what they want to do, and how they want to do it and what sort of relationship they think we have. 

People can ascribe such radically different interpretations to the same experiences. There are some people who will assume that if you have sex with them, that means you are in a romantic and exclusive relationship. There are also people who won’t assume that at all. It’s not just about romance, this. It’s about how we do any kind of relationships between people.

I have been surprised on a few occasions by how other people thought about friendship. People I thought I was closer to than I turned out to be. I was once dumped via email by a person who said she couldn’t invest any more energy in our friendship. That was odd because I barely knew her but had done a few things to help her out when she’d asked for help.

People have all sorts of interesting expectations – about what’s normal, or what should be forgiven. I’ve got into states of confusion with a few people along the way because we had differing ideas about what might be fair, or appropriate. The people I am most caught out by are the ones who expect a great deal from me but don’t hold themselves to the same standards. The kind of people who can ignore me for weeks and then get cross with me if I don’t respond to them within a couple of hours.

People are mystifying, sometimes. I know I must make as little sense to the people I’ve described as they did to me. Befuddlement seems to be a frequent feature of human interactions. I think the most important thing is to be able to talk about it. Wanting to understand helps a lot. Caring enough to find out what’s going on for the other person can be a game changer. Or letting them go if you find you don’t care enough to figure out what’s happening.

Did I miss a memo? Are there rules that are obvious to everyone else but invisible to me? Or are we just mostly crazy things, bouncing about in our meat sacks with really no idea how anything, or anyone else functions?

Seeking Power

We don’t tend to think well of those who seek power. There’s the old wisdom about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. There’s the Douglas Adams quote about the people who want to rule being those least suited to do it. The trouble with this is that it actually supports the status quo and the feeling that we just have to accept that unpleasant people will end up in charge.

I’ve sought power in all kinds of situations. At the moment, I’m mostly too bloody tired to try and run anything, but that’s the main reason I’m not stepping forward. I’m not afraid to try and lead, and I’m not in the least bit ashamed of my motives. Yes, obviously there’s a kick to be had from making things go, setting the direction, having people pile in to do what you said. It’s important to acknowledge that, and I don’t think it’s inherently a bad thing.

My interest in power has always been about getting stuff done. I’m attracted to opportunities that are going to lift and enable people. I ran a folk club to give people a space to grow their skills and enjoy each other’s creativity, and we put on gigs and supported professional performers and that was great. I’ve run mumming sides and singing groups as a way to get more good stuff out there. I’ve run rituals. I’ve thrown my lot in with other groups as well. For me, power is about the power to get stuff done. I’m interested in getting to do the kinds of things that cheer and lift people.

Here on the internet I have a small amount of power. I have enough blog and social media followers to have some kind of impact. And so I review books, amplify other voices, speak up around issues I care about. Wherever I can, I use what power I have to get things done. 

Power without an agenda is going to be tedious. What’s the point in acquiring power if you can’t use it to improve things? I have a hard time of it understanding the people who want the power to make other people miserable. I think you’d have to be a sad sort of life form to get anything out of that.

Everyone has some power. Many people have more power than they think. When people combine their power, the scope to get things done can be tremendous. Take power. Make a noise. Take up space. Help other people stand in their power. Use your power to lift those who need a hand. Don’t be ashamed of being powerful and don’t assume that being powerful makes you a bad person. The idea that being small and unassuming is virtuous just helps keep the power in the hands of those who do not use it well.

Debunking the lone genius

I’ve been talking recently about meritocracy. I feel strongly that for meritocracy to work, one of the things we would have to do is give up the story of the lone genius. It’s not a true story, but it is a story that feeds into the idea that some people are more entitled to lead than others. 

Historically the lone genius has often been a man. Presenting him as a lone genius disappears from the story the ways in which that wasn’t true. We’re hearing more of the real stories now. There are many examples, historical and contemporary. Over here there’s one about John Le Carre and his wife –

We might think about the way economist Adam Smith lived with his mum and completely ignored the role of unpaid labour (usually undertaken by women) in his economic models. Thoreau also left his mum’s critically important efforts out of his descriptions of living in a cabin and being a poet. 

No one is brilliant all by themselves. At the very least everyone is stood on the shoulders of the people who went before them in their field. We’re all shaped and influenced by the ideas, beliefs and actions of others. We overlook and downplay the role of supporting workers. But to clean the lab, or stop the scientist having a meltdown because they’ve not eaten properly, is also critically important. 

It’s important to name the team, and to acknowledge the community that makes anything possible. I’ve tried to be explicit about this around my own writing. I’m very aware of the people who make my work possible. The people who taught me as a younger human. The people who inspire me. The people who provide technical support, and practical support. 

Ideas, experts, creativity and all of that depend on community. When we put the community back into the story, then meritocracy will work in an entirely different way, I suspect.

Health crisis, mental health crisis

I’ve been seeing a lot of comments from medical professionals all around the world – that they can’t cope emotionally or psychologically with what’s being demanded of them.

We forget at our peril that humans are finite creatures. No one can work all the hours there are, indefinitely, without consequences. We’ve asked our doctors and nurses to hold the front line against a disease that kills, and that is more likely to kill you if you get a high exposure to it. Many of them have died. We’ve asked them to work without the proper protective equipment – especially in the UK. Also in the UK we’ve declined to pay them properly so that nurses can end up at food banks.

People become mentally ill when too much is asked of them for too long. Even people who expect their jobs to involve death and distress can only handle a finite amount of that. 

Exhaustion, burn out, overwhelming fear, and unbearable pressure can have an array of impacts on a person. It becomes harder to make yourself move or to act. Decision making becomes harder, even impossible. Every situation becomes overwhelming and impossible. Clearly it’s not possible to keep doing a job where you need to think quickly and act decisively to save lives if you can barely function. And yet that’s exactly what we’re expecting people to do.

At the beginning of the pandemic we were talking about slowing the curve, because there are only so many beds and ventilators out there, and if we have too fast a spread we’ll overload the system and people will die. If we overload people, that also matters.

All too often,mental health is treated either as a luxury, or as a problem for people who are just weak to begin with. Everyone has a breaking point. There is only so much stress, pressure, misery and exhaustion that any one human can take. We’re approaching the two year mark with covid and it’s amazing really that so many people in the medical profession have held up for so long in face of all this.

But they can’t do it forever. 

We need to recognise the humanity of our medical professionals, and that we have asked too much, and we need to do what we can not to end up in hospital. We’re all in this together, we are all impacted by each other’s individual choices, but we’re asking one group of people to bear the brunt of the consequences. And then, ill and unvaccinated, the most selfish amongst us show at the hospital expecting to be helped by the very people they’ve accused of genocide, sometimes while shouting abuse and demanding miracles. 

I don’t have any large scale answers to this, but as individuals we can at least try not to be part of the problem, and to be kind to the people we hope will save our lives.

Making Mistakes

We all make mistakes. Having the freedom to make mistakes is essential to learning, growing, studying, creating and exploring. We hold spaces where people can develop if we allow them to mess up with no fear of blame or shame. It’s not a good idea to make people responsible for anything important when they have yet to learn how things work!

Admitting mistakes can feel painful. However, it’s a really good thing to be able to do. Being able to appreciate someone taking the time to correct and inform you is a blessing. Being able to own errors so as to know more and do better is enabling. 

Humiliating knock backs teach people not to take risks. It can be especially hard on children, who learn not to voice their opinions, and not to try things. If you require people to be perfect, most of them will never even dare to have a try. No one does things perfectly from the outset. It has to be ok to be wrong, inept, ineffective, inaccurate and so forth when you start out.

However, for this to be possible, it helps to have that treated supportively by others. It’s not good to humiliate people for not knowing things. It’s best to assume ignorance rather than malice – especially when you’re seeing errors for the first time. It is totally possible to correct someone without knocking them down – and if it’s done with respect, then the person being corrected is more likely to want to take the new information onboard.

It’s also worth asking whether a person is wrong, or simply different. Is there a right answer there? Is there only one acceptable way of doing things? Might there be reasons for what you’re seeing? Who actually knows what’s going on here? If you’re in a situation where you only have a superficial grasp of things, it’s well worth being alert to the possibility that you might be the one who needs to learn. Are you making assumptions about the other person based on race, gender presentation, age, class, disability or apparent education level? Take a moment to consider those assumptions if you have them. 

If it turns out that you’ve tried to correct someone who knew more than you, then you get to go round this loop from the other side. Will you be gracious in the lesson, or will you double down? We all make mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with making an innocent mistake because you didn’t have the right information. It’s what we do next that really defines who we are.