Tag Archives: compassion

Learning lessons, finding silver linings

I’m not the sort of person who believes that everything happens for a reason. I don’t think anyone is obliged to find meaning in any particular experience they have. Sometimes things are just awful and unfair and it is kinder to label them as such. Sometimes the only lesson is to get out.

However, obviously we have to learn from at least some of our experiences if we’re going to have any kind of meaningful interaction with the rest of the world. Most of the time what we learn isn’t self announcing. We pick up small environmental cues all the time about what and who to be, and if we aren’t careful, those can shape us without our noticing. We are trained by television, adverts, the music we hear and the cultures in our workplaces. We check things out because they seem popular.

If you want to be deliberate about what you’re learning from your experiences, you have to take time out to think about it. Deliberate reflection on what’s happened means getting to choose how to interpret an experience. We’re more likely to do this around dramatic times in our lives, but in terms of shaping who we are, that day to day stuff is well worth keeping an eye on.

We don’t have to learn the lessons other people want us to learn. Usually those are about being quieter, more biddable, taking up less space, asking for less and accepting less. Lessons about working harder for the same money, giving up more of your free time and accepting stress are rife in workplaces, and we learn to do as we’re instructed at our peril.

There’s one kind of lesson I think it’s worth learning from any experience we have, and that’s how to be more compassionate. Everything we go through has something to teach us about who we are, and often about other people’s lives and experiences as well. There’s always room to learn something that lets you be more compassionate – towards yourself as well as other people. Any opportunity to see something from a different perspective helps with this. Any situation where we can look for the kindest response we can offer, we’ve got scope to learn about compassion. 

I think if you’re focused on whatever’s kindest, then whatever other meanings you take from a situation, it probably won’t lead you astray. The habit of looking for compassion leads to a gentler, and more peaceful way of being in the world. It’s a lot better than trying to learn how to fit in, or how to get ahead, or how to knock someone else down.

The speakable horrors

CW suicidal ideation

Recently I posted about some of my experiences around tackling suicidal ideation. On the off-chance it might be useful to someone, I thought I’d share more of the story and process.

I don’t know when exactly it was that I started feeling like I had to justify my existence, but it was definitely an issue by the time I was eleven when I started keeping a diary as a way to try and handle it better. I was, by all accounts a weird and often morbid child, and I don’t remember a time when I felt comfortable taking up space. 

What this led to was a sense that I somehow had to balance the books. I had to do enough good to offset the harm I cause, and that includes things like carbon and water use and whatnot. I’ve carried this with me for most of my life, looming large and unquestioned. For a person who thinks about everything a lot, I’ve been shockingly unable to even question the underlying logic of this one. All I’ve ever asked is how to do better and cause less harm and how on earth to balance my accounts on those terms.

How does planting a tree measure against causing someone accidental discomfort? How good is the good bit if that one act also puts someone else in an awkward place? Is calling someone out good, or bad, or a mix of the two? None of this can be measured, none of it makes sense on those terms. And yet, it’s lived in my head my whole life, whispering that I’m not good enough, that I don’t deserve to live, that I haven’t earned the right to be here. When the not-good outweighs the good, when I’m not actively useful enough, when I mess up… there’s the voice in my head that says someone, maybe everyone would be better off if I didn’t exist. At least that way I wouldn’t be adding to environmental destruction. Stack that alongside the ongoing depression and anxiety issues and what under-stimulation and physical illness and pain do to my body, and I don’t always cope well.

I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough. I feel it’s a consequence of the butterfly ritual and all that has flowed from there. Rather than trying to do impossible accounting, or having to keep a score or prove something to myself, I’ve started being able to think something much gentler. Simply, that it might be enough to do whatever good I can do. It might be enough to exist on those terms. Good enough might be whatever I can manage day by day. So it doesn’t have to mean being all things to all people and doing perfectly everything anyone might ask of me and maybe I don’t have to be overwhelmed with guilt by every mistake and everything I can’t fix.

I’m not entirely free from the suicidal ideation at this point, but it holds considerably less power than it did. I can see it happening and not be drawn into it – which isn’t fun or comfortable, but it is a considerable improvement on how all of this used to play out. If I can hold onto this shift in my thinking then I have a decent chance of getting my mind under control.

I’m generally a lot better at feeling compassion for other people than I am for myself. There isn’t another human on the planet I’d be inclined to treat the way I treat myself. There’s no one else whose existence and humanity I would hold in such utter contempt. I have no doubt that what’s enabled me to change is the ongoing warmth, kindness and compassion of other people. I did not climb out of this on my own, and part of how I’ve been able to climb out is awareness that there are people who care about me enough that my self-hatred is unbearable to them. Which in turn is a consequence of having been able to trust a few people enough to let it be visible to them, making it possible for them to challenge me over it.

Silence keeps a person trapped where they are, locked in with their demons. Talking about it is powerful, so I’m talking about it in the hopes that I can help someone else talk about it and thus change things in their life, too.

Messing up and being honourable

There’s a lot to be said for working out your values and living deliberately in accordance with them. However, life doesn’t reliably put us in clear cut situations where it’s obvious what the right choice is. Sometimes there is no clear choice and every option we consider will have the potential to cause harm. All you can do is weigh up what you know of the risks and try to pick the best path through it all.

Being honourable doesn’t mean getting everything right. It isn’t the quest for a set of values that work as fixed rules in all situations. I’m really wary of the kinds of five minute spirituality tips that suggest there is a single answer to apply to all things. There isn’t. Not least because none of us knows what every potential future could be and we can’t pick a path with any confidence about how that might go.

Being honourable is about trying to make the best choices you can. It also kicks in when things go wrong, and in how we try and set things right once we’ve messed up. It’s often the case that messing up provides a lot of information about how better choices would have looked. There’s always some scope to learn and improve, and the honourable choice is often the one that has us learning, restoring and improving things.

That said, sometimes the honourable choice is to pause, heal, lick your wounds and get your shit together. Running in to fix things when you’re in trouble, burned out or otherwise not coping does not guarantee good results. Sometimes it is better to draw a few breaths first and take a proper look at things. 

I don’t think there’s much scope for acting honourably unless you can also be compassionate. If all we’re doing is acting out a set of arbitrary rules, without nuance or care, then sooner or later that becomes a stick to beat someone with. That might be all about getting to beat yourself up over mistakes made. It might be the means to be judgemental when other people mess up. As none of us are omniscient it is an absolute certainty that everyone will mess up. We can hold each other to high standards while being compassionate about our human shortcomings.

Very few people are out there trying to be evil. Most people think that what they do makes some kind of sense. A lot of people try hard to get things right. It’s important to recognise that someone’s idea of getting things right can be informed by radically different perspectives. Sometimes those people urgently need educating on an issue, and sometimes they need more empathy from others, and we all have to just figure this out as we go along. The choice to protect someone may look like taking power from them. The choice to let someone make their own mistakes may look like needlessly exposing someone to harm. There are no tidy answers most of the time.

No matter how hard we try, we’re inevitably going to fall short of our own ideals sometimes. That’s not a reason to avoid having high standards. It is however really important to think about how to handle things when we fall short of our own expectations. And for that matter how to approach things when other people fall short. An honour system that doesn’t allow for complexity or for situations where there are no good choices to be made, is inevitably going to be brutal. I can’t see that making honour systems so rigid that we are bound to fail is a course that serves anyone.

At the limits of love

My troll has brought me some interesting challenges this week. She’s my troll now in a way that seems personal and involved. She’s been showing up here for months, so whatever this is for her, it’s clearly a significant act of dedication. Sometimes she uses a male name – perhaps like me she’s genderfluid in some way, or experimenting with her identity, but I know it’s always her, I recognise her easily enough.

Her response to my complicated heart post suggested pain and need, a desire to be cared about and to be important. She’d like me to be kinder to her, more welcoming. Never mind that her previous visit had been to call my online event a flop – but I suspect that too is something that comes from a place of pain. I know she’s desperate for attention – there’s no other reason to keep coming back here to get cross with me.

What do I do with this? I consider compassion to be an important part of my path, and generally my impulse is to try and help people. It’s hard to respond with warmth and care to someone who only ever shows up angry and wanting to pick holes. I’d genuinely love to be able to do better, but I need something I can work with.

I wish she’d tell me what she’s so unhappy about. I wish we could have a constructive conversation about that. Maybe then I could do or say something useful. I wish she’d write me a guest blog, – she could just email it to me at brynnethnimue at gmail dot com. She could send me her creative outpourings and I could put that out into the world in a supportive way and she could have the attention she needs in a better, happier sort of way. 

The connections we make with each other when we share the best of ourselves are just so much more fertile and rewarding. 

I can’t afford to care too much about someone who only shows up to try and knock me down. I’ve spent too much of my life being treated that way, and no one is going to send me back there. No one can have happy or meaningful relationships on those terms, and my heart goes out to my troll, because she seems so desperately unhappy and it’s pretty obvious that if she treats other people in her life the way she’s acting here, then there aren’t going to be close or deep relationships available to her.

Maybe she sees kindness as weakness. Maybe someone or something undermined her confidence so badly that she doesn’t know how to form meaningful connections. I can only speculate. I don’t want to leave anyone needlessly hurting and alone. 

I have limitations though. I can’t help a person if they won’t step up to change their own life. It is too much to ask that I respond to unkindness with love. People go to religions for that, for the idea of the divine parent who will love you unconditionally no matter what you do. I’m not a deity, I’m not capable of boundless and divine love. I’m human, and I have limits.

Come to me seeking help, care, support, friendship, connection… I’ll do what I can for you. Challenge me by all means, question my thinking, offer alternatives – but don’t just show up to try and smack me down, that’s not a basis for friendship, and for the person who craves attention, affection and warmth it’s a really self-harming thing to do.

Maybe dare to show up with your real name, as your real self, offering something of your own making, and you will find that there’s room for you.

Anxiety, Inaction and Compassion

This week, splendid Druid blogger Cat Treadwell put up a really brave piece of writing about how anxiety has been making her freeze. https://druidcat.wordpress.com/2022/08/23/update-2/

I recognise all of this, and it’s an issue that has crippled me repeatedly this year, leaving me unable to function at times. I’ve not talked about it much because I haven’t known how to, but seeing Cat’s post inclines me to step up. It’s a lot easier to think about these things when they affect other people. What Cat is going through clearly isn’t ok, and I wouldn’t blame her for that in the way that I tend to blame myself for my issues.

What do we expect of each other? What do we assume in face of other people’s efforts, shortcomings and struggles? If you start from the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got, then it’s a good deal easier to stay kind when people fall short of the mark. Sooner or later, we all mess up, or aren’t as good as would have been ideal. It’s a human thing. It is necessary to be able to say when things aren’t good enough, but it’s better not to assume this is either malice or lack of care.

Assumptions of laziness plague people who are ill. This is not an accident. It’s a deliberate approach coming from both governments and media, to blame and shame people who are struggling and to put the burden of responsibility onto them. Right now in the UK we’re seeing that extended to all people in poverty who are being told they must work harder, even though the problem is clearly the amount of profit going to shareholders.

There’s nothing lazy about wanting time to rest and recover, or needing to get well. There’s also nothing lazy about a person not wanting to work themselves to death so that someone else can make a profit out of them. Most of us are doing the best we can with what we’ve got – when what we’ve got isn’t enough and there is too much that we feel under pressure to do. No one should feel frightened or ashamed for trying to meet their own basic needs, but here we are.

It costs nothing to lift, support and encourage people. It is an easy thing to affirm that you know people are doing their best. Keep your rage and frustration for the people who create the impossible situations we’re all now in, not the people who are just trying to deal with it and cope. There is power in kindness, and the potential for transformative change in not adding blame and humiliation to the burdens people are already bearing.

It is easier to act when you feel supported. When you anticipate knockdowns, criticism and humiliation it is very hard to do anything. Being distressed to the point of being unable to function doesn’t improve anything for anyone. We can all contribute to doing better around this, by deliberately lifting and encouraging people when we can. Culture – after all – is just people, and as people we have the power to change how it works.

Reasons not to help

If you’re in a situation where you can’t help with something because you’re too busy helping with something else – fair enough. If you don’t have the resources to respond to a crisis, because of the other crisis you’re responding to this is certainly an issue. The person fighting for ecocide laws doesn’t necessarily have anything to spare for tackling homelessness right now. The people volunteering for The Samaritans probably don’t have the resources to be raising awareness of domestic abuse. 

It’s also true that if you are in crisis, you can hardly be expected to be trying to pull someone else out of a different burning building.

And these are never the people online saying ‘we should be helping this other group of people instead.’ People doing the work are never, in my experience, the people who want someone else not to get help. They might make a case for why their cause is more urgent right now – and that can be an important thing to do, too. But even so, I don’t see genuine activists minimising other people’s issues.

I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘we should help these other people first’ is a massive red flag. It can mean you’re dealing with someone who is absorbing hate-media in uncritical ways. It definitely means you’re dealing with someone who believes in a hierarchy of worth and that some people are more deserving of help when in crisis, than others are. How this plays out in practice tends to involve no one being deserving enough and no help being offered. No matter what the excuse is, the idea that some people don’t deserve help, or should be made to wait while other, more deserving people are helped, fundamentally rejects the humanity of people who are in need. 

The people who say we should help our own homeless people first, are also (I strongly suspect) the people who won’t want resources ‘wasted’ on the kind of homeless people who ‘do it to themselves’ or have ‘chosen’ this life. The ones with addictions, especially. The people who say we should help our own poor people first will often turn out not to think all of those people deserve help. Not the single mothers who have fecklessly ‘got themselves pregnant’ not the lazy ones, not the ones who have phones. 

People whose first reaction is to think of reasons why a person should not be helped tend to just keep doing that. It’s not about directing help where it might most be needed, but instead is about abdicating responsibility while trying to look like being moral and having values.

No one should be considered disposable

One of the hopeful things to come out of France re-electing Macron as president, is his promise that ‘no one will be left by the wayside’. France, like many countries, is facing a cost of living crisis. I am in no doubt that this crisis is fuelled by the way politicians have pandered to the desires of the unreasonably rich. 

Nothing drives people to political extremes like poverty does. The rise of the far right at the moment has everything to do with the widening wealth gap, and the way in which far right politics offer simple solutions to slightly more complicated problems. Rather than deal with the inequality, the far right encourages people to hate and abuse minorities, misdirecting justified rage towards people who are not the cause of our problems. Moving towards the right in this way means giving more power to those who are invested in further widening the wealth gap.

When more extreme groups get political traction, the result can be that previously more moderate groups move towards them. This has certainly happened with the Tory party in the UK, who may have successfully dealt with parties like UKIP by moving into their territory. Leaving the EU has made us a nastier and more racist country, as our treatment of refugees clearly demonstrates.

I hope that Macron is serious about tackling inequality. I hope that we will see moves towards fairness as a way of responding to the rise of fascism. People don’t make good choices when they’re under-resourced and scared – those conditions make all of us more vulnerable to manipulation and less able to make good decisions. We all need food, shelter, and basic security, and we urgently need political approaches that are about dealing with basic needs rather than treating most people as disposable for the sake of the profits of the few.

Billionaires are not successful people. Billionaires are total failures. They are people who have taken too much and do not know when to stop. Their compulsions are toxic to all life on the planet. To have so much when others are suffering, is a state of failure. That some people have been allowed to skew everything so badly, is a situation of political failure. That we treat these disasters as success is a collective failure of understanding and compassion.

We urgently need to do a lot better.

How to change things

Knocking people down is easy. Knocking people down to make yourself look good is really easy, and a low effort ego-boost if you aren’t careful. So, please hear me as tongue in cheek as I mention how those other people are doing it wrong, blogging their complaints about the greed and selfishness of others while I have the moral high ground over here talking about the importance of bigging people up.

Anger and frustration are entirely natural emotional responses. There’s certainly plenty out there to get angry with, and nothing wrong with feeling it. No emotion is wrong. But, we then get a lot of choices around what we do in response to any given emotion. Knocking someone else down can feel like power. It can feel like taking a significant, meaningful action. However, politics in recent years has demonstrated that often when you try to knock people down, they’re more likely to dig in with their position. Feeling humiliated and got-at doesn’t tend to bring out the best in people.

There are a lot of stories out there in which evil characters do evil things because they are evil. It’s one of the most unhelpful stories we habitually tell each other. People do things for reasons, and at the time they tend to think their reasons are good ones, or justified, or necessary. When people seem to be acting badly, it’s worth stepping back and asking what might be underpinning that. Often the roots can be found in fear – we live in insecure societies with most people in debt and a paycheck or two from utter disaster. Individual coping mechanisms for this can often add to the problems as well as distracting from them. Scared people seldom make good choices.

As social creatures, humans are motivated by the approval of others. When this goes wrong, it can drive a person deeper into the embrace of a toxic relationship, or for that matter, a toxic community. If everyone else is calling you stupid, you’re going to cling that bit harder to the people who tell you that you’re very clever. Cults and conspiracy theories alike thrive on this.

Knocking people down doesn’t reliably persuade them that you are right. But it does fuel the kind of anxiety that pushes people towards the things that offer them apparent uplift. A lot of populist politics depend on this. It doesn’t help that money, and the display of money through rampant consumerism is one of the few routes most people are offered towards being socially respected. It’s a precarious path, and it doesn’t get the majority where they want to be so it feeds resentment and dissatisfaction as well.

If we want to make real change – socially or environmentally – we have to persuade people to engage. People who feel belittled by a minority aren’t going to step away from a culture that promises to reward them for being selfish. It is essential to lift and inspire people rather than just criticising them. We’re all flawed, we all have things we do badly and competitive virtue signalling isn’t reliably virtuous. When it comes to making change in the world, I feel strongly that kindness and compassion are the key virtues to cultivate. Even if you do that primarily to try and impress people with your performance, it still works. If everyone is trying to perform kindness, we can get some good things done.

Kindness and compassion do not require us to be uncritical, but presentation can make a lot of odds. It’s possible to dismantle ideas without attacking people, and I think it gets more done to offer people ways of feeling better about themselves.

Demon shield – fiction

The shield is made by her hand.

All the demons tried to eat this girl.

She never fights with anyone.

Just bravely standing up and smiling up.

I am dying every second and reborn every moment.

Please do kill me as you wish.

I am never afraid of demons.

Beat me, it hurts demons themselves.

Scream out, the words will shower and turn to mist.

In my body my blood river is running

From pure hearts given by my mother.

True love shields inside me.

No demons are beside you now.

We turn ourselves into demons. We do it for power, for bodies that are stronger and can take more damage and do more harm. We give up what was soft and tender, inside and out. The most important thing is winning. The only thing. It leaves no room for other desires, for other feelings. No price is too high for victory and we sacrifice ourselves on the altar of triumph.

Fear us. Hate us. Fight us. You have to fight us. It only makes sense if you fight back. We are your enemy. Feed us your hatred. Justify us with the force of your wrath. We cannot be forgiven, you must not forgive us. We cannot be loved, we have chosen to go beyond acceptance, we scorn your compassion. How can we destroy you if you refuse to fight us? How can we prove our superiority if you don’t even want to win?

(Art by Dr Abbey, text by both of us, more worldbuilding and playing with ideas.)

Druidry and Confession

I’ve felt for some time now that the Catholics are on to something with confession. There are times when it would be an enormous relief to be able to tell someone the things.

As Druids don’t have a clear set of rules in the first place, it would be down to the individual to decide what they need to confess. We wouldn’t need to frame it as sin necessarily. Failures, shortcomings, mistakes, bad ideas, poor responses – whatever a person felt uncomfortable about, could be usefully owned in a safe space.

The wise and experienced Druid hearing the confession could then tell us what they think of it. There are times when it would be really helpful to hear things like ‘this is just ordinary human error.’ ‘Clearly you could not have know how this would work out’ and things of that ilk. Feedback that isn’t forgiveness, but that could be permission to forgive yourself. We all mess up, but it can be hard not to beat yourself up over mistakes.

Confession in a Druid context wouldn’t be about penitence or punishment, but it might be about restorative justice. Again there are lots of times when it might be of great benefit to have someone else’s wisdom in the mix. Imagine someone who can say ‘you really do need to apologise for this’ or ‘here are some things you could try that might be restorative.’

People who are having a hard time with their mental health and/or dealing with abuse can end up feeling responsible for things that aren’t of their making. The process of confessing could open the way to hearing that you may be taking too much onto yourself or judging yourself too harshly. It could signpost the way to therapy, or to kinder thoughts. Sometimes being told that you can’t possibly be responsible for what’s going on is the first step to recognising an abusive situation. None of this requires much in the way of qualification, I think. Just enough life experience to spot when people feel responsible for things they cannot possibly be responsible for.

There would be relief in being able to say to someone ‘this is how I have messed up’ and hearing their take on it, offered in kindness. Obviously there’s no formal way to do this at the moment, but it is something we might be able to do for each other.