Tag Archives: acceptance

Things we do not speak of

I need your acceptance.

I need you to stand in this space with me,

And let your body speak of tolerance, to mine.

I do not always know how to be

In this skin, with these bones.

I need your time, today, now

Because tomorrow one of us could die,

The vital things left unsaid and I need

To speak the unspeakable things with you,

The soul bare vulnerable things that are too much,

Salt tear words, heart words, foolish words,

And the things that can only be said

Palm to palm in the language of skin.

I need to swap funeral plans with you.

Is it reasonable to be afraid of everything

That currently frightens me? Not just me?

I need to speak of grief loss failure apathy,

Hear your awkward stories echo my own.

Sex, politics, toilets, religion, aging, bleeding

Being lost, losing, looser, all the things

It is not acceptable to talk about.

Let us sit in concealing darkness and voice it.

Stand together and be unreasonably real.

Taking things personally

Here’s an interesting balancing act. I’ve been working of late on not taking things personally. This is in recognition that there are people in my life who do and say odd things, for various reasons, and where, if I can just shrug and be ok with it, everything works better. I’m not talking about recognising that the world doesn’t revolve around me, but situations where it would be a good deal more obvious to assume intent or infer meaning. I’m interested currently by what happens if I try to avoid reading meaning in, and sometimes that works very well.

And yet, sometimes, and even sometimes with the same people, important things are expressed in understated ways and I very much do need to gently infer. Small clusters of words laden with significance, moments of exchange that seem weighty and then turn out to be… I come to the conclusion that what I really need to be is psychic.

Knowing when to infer meaning, and what kind of meaning to infer. Knowing when it isn’t about me and I’m getting something that pertains to someone else, or something else entirely.

How we make exchanges with people is representative of how we relate to them. To accept difficult thing from a person because that’s what they’ve got – the Grandmother who is going senile, the friend whose domestic problems mean they let you down – accepting this kind of thing and flexing around it is a gesture of love, and one that may never be noticed by the person you are gifting with your flexibility.

Some people are not terribly demonstrative, and small gestures mean a great deal. Without the inference, the whole relationship can vanish. Going the extra distance to infer care from someone who is not good at expressing it, or whose circumstances don’t permit that… is also a gift of love, and one that could well be noticed and mean a great deal to the person who cannot give more than these small but heartfelt things.

And then again there are the people who do not care whether their words and actions cause pain, and who are acting out of lack of care. There are the people who don’t show up because they couldn’t be bothered, who break promises easily, say things that were not meant and lash out when they feel like it. Sometimes they are honest enough about who they are to just own that – take it or leave it. Sometimes, to cover for having been shitty, and wanting to be thought well of, they will spin excuses, or more damagingly, reasons why it was all your fault anyway.

In the absence of psychic powers, distinguishing the well meant, entirely human failure from those who enjoy a bit of sadism is not always easy. The only thing I’ve come up with, is whether a person cares if they think they’ve hurt you inadvertently. That’s a tricky one to explore and balance up, too, because the person whose circumstances make it impossible for them not to hurt you sometimes – people who are dying, or have illnesses that affect personality and mental function being the most obvious cases… people in this kind of situation who do not want to hurt you, may try to send you away for your own good. You may not want to be sent away.

Learning not to take anything personally is not a good answer to all things. There are times when it is vitally important to be able to take things personally. If you’re hearing I love you, I need you, I treasure your friendship, then failing to take that personally is a huge loss. If you are hearing difficult things, then failing to take it personally can mean not making needful changes.

Acceptance and letting go

One of the easiest ways to be hurt, is to have expectations of ourselves, or others, that are not met. When we meet the ‘perfect’ lover, and want them to carry on being perfect in every way, we are setting ourselves up to suffer. When we cannot accept feet of clay in our teachers, human fragility in our friends, the shortcomings of our parents and the mistakes of our children, we create a world of pain for ourselves.

I think we all have to go through the tricky transition from parents as the godlike figures of our infancy, to parents who have power over us and can reward or punish, to parents who we start to see as capable of error. The recognition that our parents are not all-knowing can be liberating, but also alarming. For me, it brought realisation (and relief) that I would not be expected to achieve the divine levels of insight I had formerly been attributing to all adults.

I have certainly turned out to be a failure and disappointment for others along the way. The feeling of never being good enough has haunted my life, and I’ve never been sure whether that was a fair reflection of problematic shortcomings, or that the people around me were maybe judging me harshly. I’m working on just plain accepting that this is what I get sometimes, not beating myself up if I know I’ve done all I could, and not blaming them or getting angry with them for wanting me to be more than I am. We’re all flawed and we’re all in this together.

Acceptance of others and compassion for them is a theme you will find running through all kinds of spiritual writing. However, for the abused child, the beaten spouse, the bullied employee, this is not a good line to take. If acceptance holds you in a dangerous, destructive place, then it isn’t helping. It’s worth taking a step back here. To accept the way someone is, does not mean glossing over it. Acceptance is not saying ‘oh, this is all fine and fair’. Acceptance begins with honesty. Much of the time that means being able to say ‘yes, my friend hurt me with this one, but there was no intent to harm, it was an honest mistake and we can let that go and move on.’

If someone is brutalising your body, heart or mind, then the truth of that needs to be owned. Accept that there is cruelty, malice, or a level of incompetence that is dangerous to be around. Accept that they are unreliable, or outrageously selfish, incapable of empathy, careless, or whatever the issue is. Know it and name it. Then step back from it to an appropriate degree, whether that means offering less, or taking whatever you can carry and getting out the door. If you’ve accepted that someone is toxic to you, don’t stay around to be subject to further bouts of poisoning. You can accept them from a distance. You can feel compassion for them, from a distance.

I’ve met people along the way who have made clear they expected me to be perfectly compassionate and supportive of them, but who could not be asked to ‘walk on eggshells’ for me. It’s curious how eggshells always come up. I’ve stuck around for some of it, too, years in more than one instance. How it works in practice is that the other person gets to open their mouth and let all the anger, frustration, resentment, jealousy and so forth of the moment, spew forth at me. This, I had to take with saintly composure, because not to is ‘unfair’ to them. It is hurtful, attacking, I am not compassionate enough. If they wound me in such an outburst, they may say afterwards that they didn’t mean it, and I am supposed to accept that and be fine. It is unfair of me to want kindness from them, they have to be spontaneous, free to express themselves. But god help me if I take their words with a pinch of salt on one of those rare occasions when they meant what they said.

What I have come to accept is that this is bloody awful to be around. I can never be ‘saintly’ enough to pacify such people. I never give enough and never do a good enough job of accepting their… whatever that is… to make them happy. My discomfort is not to be spoken of. I accept, therefore, that in such situations all I can do is absent myself.

There was a time when I felt that ‘failing’ in me, keenly. I believed that I really should be able to do more, give more, tolerate more. Unwillingness to accept my own flaws (perceived or real) kept me in contact with people who regularly shredded me.

I’m not a saint, nor am I capable of infinite compassion. I recognise that I’ve read a lot about how I should be more compassionate, but find I need to accept my own limits. One of them is that I am no longer prepared to martyr myself to what I increasingly see as other people’s selfishness, and toddler tantrums. Come out a little way to meet me, and I will give you my all. Expect me to bleed myself dry for you, while you speak of eggshells, and I’ll be some other place.

End of an era

Today is the last day of primary school. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was buying his first uniform items and sewing in the name tags. Now he’s a remarkably grown up young fellow, poised to turn into a teenager sometime soon. I remember my own reluctance to give up childhood, soon replaced by a desperate desire to be properly grown up.

The boy has had an unusual sort of childhood, not least thanks to having spent 2 years living on a narrowboat. He’s experienced challenge and betrayal, and learned to negotiate some complex relationships with adults. There were times spent in places where he was an unhappy misfit, unwilling to compromise himself to fit in. And then, the joy of being in a place where his difference is embraced and nurtured. A school where teachers take pride in him, rather than wanting him to change. Accepted and supported he’s become more confident and relaxed, still very much the boy he always was, but now fearless about sharing it. Those deep, philosophical thoughts that he used only to share with me, he can now offer to his peers when the opportunity arises in class. He trusts them not to mock him, he trusts the adults around him to respect him, and to honour his choices and preferences. It’s made a world of difference, resulting in a far happier and far less anxious sort of boy.

I hope, when he’s older, that the last few years will colour his memories of childhood. He’s forgotten much of his early life, which may be as well. I hope he remembers sunny days on the towpath, with his cat. Garden rampages with local friends. Bowling and castles, epic train journeys, piloting the narrowboat and feeding the ducklings. The Wild Fowl and Wetland Trust has given him a glorious range of experiences and opportunities, and a very keen sense of what he wants to be as an adult. He’s handled salamanders, dismantled owl pellets, seen rare wild birds, and learned to tell one kind of duck from another.

In the last few years, the boy has become very tolerant of difference and diversity, conscious that he never knows what other people might have to deal with, or what secrets they might carry. He’s intolerant of bullying and cruelty, a firm believer in equality, and someone who wants fairness but also has a sense of how sadly short of it we are. He’s learned to be a fighter, a crusader, brave, bold and willing to take a stance for justice, be that around badger culls, the Canal & River Trust, or the environmental impact of cars. He stops to get caterpillars, and beetles out of the road, when it’s safe to do so.

And so we come to the end of primary school. The amazing year group he’s been part of will go to four different schools, inevitably losing touch to a degree. They are wild, courageous and extraordinary kids, and it has been a joy to get to know them a bit, and share in their triumphs. They give me hope. We’ve made a lot of friends here, some of whom we should be able to keep. And of course we will be back in the winter, to see the swans.

The end of an era also means the beginning of something new. We know the shape of it a bit, but the details remain mysterious, only to be discovered through living them. We stayed here, and lived on the boat so that the boy could stay in school. I have no doubt that was the right choice. It’s been a challenging way of life, but it has given us so much. We’ve been through some things, recovered from some things, and now it is time to gather up what we learned, and move forward. I have a few more reflective thoughts to work through over the coming days, and there is chaos to come.

Of failure and compassion

I re-read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun recently, and one of the themes has stayed with me. There’s a young, female character who is so pure and innately virtuous for most of the book, she has no capacity for feeling compassion for the failure of others. Believing that all should be as virtuous as she is – by the standards of the day – she can’t relate to the short comings of others, cannot empathise, and is of little help as a consequence.

The more I think about this, the more I realise how easily done it is. Those places we have not been, can so readily look like weakness, shortcoming, lack of proper effort… Mental health is a case in point. From the outside, depression can look like an ailment of not getting your act together, a failure to try, an excess of self pity, a lack of work ethic. From the inside it’s all very different, but for people who haven’t been there, it can be hard to understand.

Many of the same things can be said of poverty. The sense that if only poor people made a bit more effort, they wouldn’t have all these problems. When you’ve grown up in an educated, well off enough and aspirational family, the impact, both practical and psychological, of living in total poverty is hard to understand. We are collectively slow to recognise the existence of things we don’t really understand, and quick to judge. Crime is another one, we blame it on lack of moral character, greed, laziness, an unpleasant nature, and don’t look hard enough at the diets, mental health and education levels of so many people who end up on the wrong side of the law.

The person who has never messed up, never acted in desperation, never succumbed to temptation, probably doesn’t exist, and if they did, they’d be vile. However, it’s all too easy to refuse to acknowledge our own failings, holding a sense of importance, perfection and justification that leaves no room for compassion – either for ourselves, or others. It’s always easier to see other people’s shortcomings, to turn the blame outwards and not to recognise what we do ourselves.

There’s incredible emotional power in failure. It’s a great teacher of how to get things right, a great test of determination and dedication. If we face our own mistakes, shortcomings and stupid moments, it’s easier to be more accepting of the ways in which other people do those too. We’re all human, we all mess up. The person who can admit it, can move on. The person who has to hold an image of perfection in their own eyes, cannot progress. Worse yet is the person who needs everyone else to believe they are faultless and excellent in all things and who will reshape the world to meet their need, at least in their own imaginations.
Falling down and getting up again are part of the journey. If we ask each other to be perfect, we are asking each other not to be human. That seems true in so many workplaces right now, and it’s not workable. We fall, we fail, we make the wrong call. Acceptance of that enables experimentation, real progress, and scope to haul each other up again when needed.

In the meantime, Gods save us from the shining ones who imagine that they are superior and incapable of error, and who crush mere mortals under their boots for imagined shortcomings, much less real ones. As Oscar said, we are all lying in the gutter. Some of us are looking at the stars, I’d like to add that some of us have eyes shut and fingers in ears, la la la I am not in this gutter at all. You miss the stars that way, and the gutter, and everyone else.

Radical inclusivity

There’s a sign up about playground rules at my son’s school. There are all the things you might expect about when to stop, and line up. It also says something to the effect of ‘include in your games any children who are on their own.’ The implications are huge.

When I went through school, the general assumption was that a loner had no one but themselves to blame. If other kids wouldn’t play with you, it was because you were weird and antisocial, and that was fine. Either you learned to fit in, or you stayed out. Children who were crippled by poor confidence, who had not been well socialised prior to school, who didn’t follow the ‘in things’ easily, became exiles. The exiled child readily becomes a scapegoat and a victim, and again when I was a child, picking on the one fat kid, the one weirdo, was considered perfectly normal and no one did anything to stop it. For the record, that would indeed have been me – vegetarian before it was trendy, living without a television, wearing second hand clothes, and with some physical problems that meant I couldn’t run and had little confidence. Oh, and I was, definitively, a weirdo.

My son is, and has always been a bit of an oddball, and has always taken pride in being different. He doesn’t want to look like everyone else, he’s televisionless and does not spend all his spare time playing computer games. Nor does he play football. With his interests in philosophy, green issues and steampunk, he’s not on the same wavelength as his peers. But he’s not any kind of social exile in the way that I was. One of the reasons for this, is that school cultures have evidently changed. There is more onus on the majority to take in and accept the minority. Teaching philosophies around self esteem talk a lot about recognising and celebrating difference. When you get down to it, every child is different. Each one has a unique set of experiences, feelings, needs and intentions.

A system where those outside the boundaries of ‘normal’ are fair targets for bullying or just exclusion, enforces conformity. Those who are ‘in’ are under a lot of pressure to stay in, to be as much like everyone else as possible. That in turn helps to reinforce the boundaries. Those rigid lines between in and out encourage fear and mistrust. Anything different from us is not ok, we should resent it, is the message this conveys. And that attitude plays itself out across the world stage in terrifying and destructive ways.

If you start children with the idea that including people is good and excluding people is not, there is a radical scope for widespread change inherent in that. If you encourage children to accept difference and diversity, you enable them to explore their own natures and not to feel threatened by anything that might make them different. It’s often said that the most aggressive gay-bashers are closet homosexuals afraid of their own natures. Where acceptance is the norm, you just aren’t going to get that kind of fear.

When I was a child, fitting in was the business of the individual, and exiling weirdos was the prerogative of the majority. If that changed, if it became the responsibility of the majority to include, to reach out, to try and understand, to respect the differences, so much would change. And perhaps all it takes to achieve that, is a message on the playground to encourage four year olds not to leave anyone out.