Tag Archives: social

Lessons from 2016

I’m a big fan of pausing now and then to review my experiences so that I can see what there is to be learned. The end of a calendar year is a very obvious point at which to do this. Normally I review things on a day to day basis, but some patterns and lessons only really emerge when a bigger time frame is considered.

2016 delivered a run of intensive lessons about how I value myself, and how I act based on that value. For too long, I’ve been over-grateful for any kind of place to be involved, any sense of being wanted, or useful, or tolerated. In practice this has made me vulnerable to people who want to use me, and has put me in places that don’t give me what I need. At a less unpleasant level, it has also put me in places of half-heartedness and lack of commitment, and those don’t suit me either.

What I need, above and beyond all else in terms of work and community is the emphatic ‘Yes’. I need the people who are wholehearted about wanting me in the mix and who will accept my wholehearted and serious commitment. Situations that want me half-hearted, not too intense, and so on, crush me over time. I have realised that if I assume nothing better is available, then I won’t be looking for anything better. This year I started looking for the social spaces that give me an emphatic yes. I’d come to think of my marriage as a little bubble of difference, a unique space that I couldn’t hope to replicate in terms of the feeling of being valued, accepted and inspired. It’s not just us, I just needed to learn how to look, and to believe it was worth looking.

For a couple of years now, working at Moon Books part time has been an absolute joy, because that’s a space where my energy, ideas, innovation and efforts are valued and trusted. I love that work, and it has become the measure for other things I take on with other people (measuring everyone against Tom would seem unfair). If it’s not as good as Moon Books, if I’m not as excited about it, if I’m not working with people who are that fired up… why would I bother?

What I’ve found is that spaces, and people are becoming more available to me. I want to do the work that only I can do. I want to do work that is needed and valued. I want to spend my spare time with people who are delighted to do that, not with people who grudgingly accommodate and find me difficult. 2016 has taught me that I can have those things, and I don’t need to waste any more of my time on half-hearted nonsense.

Swimming metaphorically with the social jellyfish

I’ve picked up the concept of jellyfish from other bloggers, I think it’s a helpful term. It’s a label for those people who leave you feeling crap, and you can’t put a finger on why – the invisible sting that does so much damage and is impossible to challenge. Having been round this repeatedly, trying to figure out why I felt so useless, the notion has helped me make sense of a few things. Of late, I’ve been watching a few jellyfish (social media is incredibly helpful) to make sense of the mechanics.

The jellyfish presents as a lovely person. They’re always there to say something nice, something kind and supportive. This is a big part of why it seems so unthinkable that they’re hurting you, and so obvious that you’re the problem. However, the ‘compliments’ stand close attention. “You did far better than I thought you would, well done you!” “I’m really impressed by how well you’ve handled it, this time.” “You’re so much more confident.” “You look so much prettier when you smile.” “No,  you made it, and that’s what counts.”

The jellyfish compliment carries inside it the sting that they are surprised. You looked ok, you coped, you didn’t mess up, and the compliment depends on the idea that this is an achievement. This in turn suggests that the rest of the time, they don’t think that well of you. One or two of these will cheerfully slide off a person, and we all say things of this ilk by accident now and then, but with the most toxic jellyfish it can be constant, and if it isn’t intentional, it still doesn’t come from somewhere good.

What the jellyfish implies is their own superiority. They are very kindly, supportively, judging you, and giving you the verdict of their judgement. And you know, you did ok, you haven’t let them down, and you are to feel a little bit reassured about this. You are also to stay alert to the idea that they could easily find you lacking, and judge the other way.

Presenting as a lovely person is really important to the jellyfish. I think sometimes it is the entire motivation. The need to seem kind and lovely means that they’ll pile in to any situation or conversation and make nice-noises. Those noises may be empty, useless or even harmful – all that matters to them is their seeming to be lovely, and that other people will perceive them as lovely. They may be good at making empathising noises. If you let them in based on those noises, you can find that you are forever cast in the role of the loser, the leper. You have to be something a bit fragile and useless so that they can heroically put up with you and generously soothe you, and the further you go down this route, the worse it gets.

If something stings, it’s always important to figure out why. We can all be twitchy about things we find difficult. We can all over-react. But if you keep feeling stung, and diminished in the company of a person, it is worth stepping back and asking whether they are quite as lovely as they’d like you to believe. A persistent jellyfish can do a lot of harm, not least by making it so hard to believe they’re doing anything nasty at all. Feeling both hurt and ungrateful, the diminished person just keeps getting smaller. If you’re lucky, the jellyfish gets cocky, and does something more obvious, revealing what they really are, but it can take years for the true colours to show.

The necessary ingredients for a social life

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, following on from feeling sorry for myself earlier in the week. What does it take to have a viable social life?

  1. People, obviously. People you like and have things in common with and want to spend time with and who do not run away when they see you. (There are many people I like, most of whom do not run away. Many of them do not live in viable travelling distance. Most of the more local folk are very busy already.)
  2. The time and energy to go out and do things with people. (I struggle with this one, especially when the only social stuff is in the evenings.)
  3. The means to go where there are people, or the means to have people visit. (Flat is a bit small for inviting people over, no car, often too tired to walk as transport in the evenings, public transport useless after dark, taxis expensive and difficult to sort in the evenings unless you know in advance when you will be leaving).
  4. Disposable income – for transport, door costs, drinks, appropriate clothing etc. (Not currently a problem but certainly has been in the past).
  5. The concentration to engage socially. (Intermittent and unreliable especially at night).
  6. Being sufficiently not anxious and not depressed to be able to function socially. (Unpredictable, gets worse as I become more tired).
  7. Being able to access and function in the space (not an issue for me, but I know other folk who can’t do stairs, or have other practical considerations that make many venues impossible).

We evolved to be social creatures, but live increasingly isolated lives. I remember what it was like being the parent of a small child and being almost entirely dependent on people coming to me for any social contact at all. I had a much bigger living room then. Almost everything runs on the assumption that you have a car, for those of us who don’t, participation in all manner of things is really tricky. I wonder how many other people are isolated by being too tired, by not having the funds, or are not emotionally together enough to be able to face being where other people are. It’s difficult, showing up to anything when you feel like you have nothing to offer.

A tough recognition for me, this week. I don’t have the energy and the concentration to be very socially engaged. I can’t put enough into the world to be a good person to spend time with. Frequently I am no fun at all to be around. I miss having a tribe of people I’d regularly and reliably spend time with, as was the case back when I was running a folk club, and a moot, and meditation groups and rituals. I don’t have the energy to be that person any more, and there are consequences.

Being able to show up is absolutely key to having a place in a social group. No one can do that for me, and I cannot do it for myself. I need to work on accepting my circumstances and limitations, rather than trying to do things that don’t work, or waiting for some kind of magical solution to turn up. I cannot be sociable. Therefore until or unless something changes within me, I had better get my head round mostly being a hermit.

Who are you, anyway?

People fascinate me. We have a social habit of constructing ourselves according to who we are with. Our professional at-work persona may be very different from who we are with mummy, and who we are in the dungeon – to offer a possible array. For many Pagans, the spiritual self is held separate to the everyday self, as a necessity. Being at odds with the mainstream, we often find it essential to lay that bit aside for many activities. We all hold our social groups separately. We do not want the boss to meet mummy and we sure as hell don’t want mummy to know about the dungeon… It makes the idea underpinning facebook’s ‘real name’ policy’ seem rather childish. Of course many of us have multiple identities. Of course we don’t want to make everything we are available to everyone. Life would be miserable for a lot of people were that to be forced upon us.

Even in close knit communities where there is an appearance of everyone knowing everyone else rather well, we do not always share our secret selves. The intimacy of our spiritual experiences, the privacy we build around our sexual lives, our darkest fears and most treasured hopes are not available to everyone all of the time. Rightly so. No one should be obliged to share anything. There is power in both the sharing and the withholding, and the right to choose how we do that is of great importance.

Sometimes we wear masks, and sometimes we are soul-naked honest with each other. Sometimes what personality we express is part of a complex, even contradictory character. Sometimes it’s what we did because we thought it was expected. Acting roles or baring hearts, we construct ourselves from moment to moment, scene to scene. Often we do that based around habits and notions of normality, and without much thought. At the same time, we’re trying to decode what everyone else is doing, trying to figure out what they meant, if they were truthful, if that whole encounter was real.

No wonder we get so tangled up and confused sometimes!

If someone shows you an array of faces, it raises interesting questions about which ones are ‘real’. What of that was meaningful? What of it should inform all future interactions, and what should be disregarded as white noise or conformity to expectation? In Pagan contexts we may be tempted to big up our Pagan qualities. If everyone else apparently has a spirit guide, totem animal, deity spouse, angelic guardian, witchy granny et al it’s tempting to re-craft what we have in order that we might fit in. Humans are predisposed to wanting to fit in. I have argued before that our most authentic self is the one we aspire to be, but we have to watch out for the person we want people to think we are – which may not be the same at all.

Working out who ‘the real me’ is in all of that can be difficult and confusing. Working out the reality of anyone else is nigh on impossible. And yet it is from these shifting sands that we try to build relationships and communities. It probably explains rather a lot.

Hermit and tribe

There are lots of good reasons for picking solitude and a more solitary life. Not everyone is gregarious by nature. There are lots of introverts in the world, an abundance of folk for whom human contact is not that engaging or delightful, for all kinds of reasons. There are also a lot of things that can push a person into being a hermit, not because they want to be, but because they can see no other way. While I am someone who likes a lot of quiet time, I’ve also had some experience of feeling obliged to be a hermit and I’ve seen a lot of what it does to other people.

1) Poverty. If you can’t afford transport, or suitable clothes, social contact can be difficult. Most normal social activity has a price tag, a person in poverty may not be able to afford a beer at the pub, and can’t step up to buy a round. All of these things are humiliating, and rather than expose the feelings of shame poverty causes, people stop showing up.
2) Geographical isolation. Only pagan in the village can be a real problem. Loss of public transport, rising fuel costs, loss of rural venues, loss of urban venues even – there may not be anywhere you can realistically get to from where you live, and so you become unable to engage socially.
3) Illness. Both mental and physical ill health make it difficult to engage. If you have to constantly explain why you can’t do things, because the limits of your body and mind are not where people expect them to be, that can be depressing, humiliating. Fear of having something go wrong in public can leave many unwell people just afraid to go out, and afraid of being rejected for having something wrong in the first place.
4) Low self-esteem. If you don’t feel you have anything to offer, how can you ask to be part of a tribe? How can you expect people to accept you socially? Assumptions of not being welcome and not being good enough keep people isolated, which reinforces those beliefs.
5) Expecting rejection or other bad outcomes. People with bad histories (and there are a lot of us, perhaps a third of all women) find it hard to trust that social situations will be safe, that they will be welcome and well treated. Fear of anger and aggression, fear of abuse, of rejection, mockery, humiliation etc.
6) Fear of crime. I have met plenty of people who, even though they have not been victims of crime, are so fearful of this as a probability, that they don’t go out much. Instead they stay in watching news and crime laden TV programs that reinforce their beliefs about how dangerous it is out there. Which is ironic because statistically you are more likely to be raped, assaulted, or murdered by someone you knew and trusted, not by a random stranger.
7) Disbelief. If you think there’s nothing out there worth connecting with, nowhere you would fit in and nothing you would enjoy, you won’t even look. Lack of information about other people leads to a belief that you wouldn’t find anyone to engage with reinforced by not going out and finding anyone to engage with.

Most of these become self-perpetuating, and can take a person to a place of feeling anxious about having to deal with other people. Once we start to see human contact as threatening, unrewarding or impossible, we tie ourselves in to cycles of behaviour and disengagement guaranteed to reinforce the perception. I think there are many facets of our culture that help to perpetuate this. These fears are not crazy or irrational, it is important to note that every last one of them is well founded.

1) We denigrate poor people and uphold concepts of expensive chic, reinforcing the idea that to be and look poor, is to be unacceptable.
2) We don’t have a good public transport network, and the cars much of our planning decisions were based on are getting too expensive to run.
3) We have rising rates of mental illness, and a culture that is not tolerant of, nor reliably kind to people in difficulty.
4) We don’t have all-inclusive tribes. Membership of anything social depends on activity, and at least on actively showing up.
5) Our culture, TV led, says its ok to rubbish and ridicule people, to shout them down, humiliate, harass and otherwise behave in shitty ways. A few episodes of the soap opera of your choice, or any reality tv show where judges rubbish people as entertainment, will teach you this.
6) While violent crime between strangers is on the decrease, domestic abuse exists at a monumental scale. The irony is we’d probably be safer going to the pub than staying at home, statistically speaking.
7) And what is there, to go out for? Where are those tribes and communities we might belong to if only we made it out the door? Mostly they don’t exist, for all of the above reasons.

This is not about individual failing, this is a crisis of culture. No, I don’t have any answers.

Poverty and spirituality

There are many spiritual traditions that advocate poverty. I’ve never been comfortable with this because it so readily turns into a justification for keeping people in unreasonable conditions. However, poverty is not a single state and can operate in a number of ways.
The most obvious is financial poverty. Now, if a person chooses to renounce the world and live in poverty, that may be conducive to a spiritual life. If you’ve chosen to go cold and hungry in order to renounce the flesh – that’s your own business and evidently it works for some. Most of the financially poor people in the world have not chosen this state, and do not have a context that makes it productive for them. Hunger, disease, child mortality, long, soul destroying and back breaking hours of work for subsistence level wages – for most people the pressure and suffering this creates is not an aid to spirituality but an obstacle.

Many people are time poor. This can easily go alongside financial poverty with the long working hours that give no intrinsic value to the worker. However, many affluent people also experience time poverty. Time is life, and to be poor in disposable time is not good for the soul either. Being too rushed to have real relationships with anything makes a spiritual life difficult, if not impossible. We may have to choose between time poverty and financial poverty, but more likely in western cultures, our inflated beliefs about what we need will steal our time to fund things we really don’t need at all.

We can be socially poor – easily underpinned by both financial and time poverty. You need time and a little disposable resource or at least some energy, to engage socially. Worked to exhaustion, that won’t be an option. Humans are social creatures, we need to connect with others, and to be impoverished socially is a real loss. It is in contact with other humans that we get opportunities to walk our talk, find solace, and get the best out of life. The elderly suffer this one especially.

Emotional poverty is easily achieved if you have no meaningful interactions in your life. That doesn’t have to mean human contact. A hermit deeply engaged with the natural world has a rich emotional life. Emotional poverty can mean we don’t have much scope for creativity or inspiration in our lives. Even the most logical and intellectual forms of expression still require a bit of inspiration. Often rather a lot.
Looking around me I see a lot of stressed, worried, unhappy people who have more financial wealth than they know what to do with, and no means to really enjoy it. So many people trying to buy a solution to ennui, to apathy, to a lack of joy in their lives. Are these people much better off than the people who struggle to make ends meet? Materially, yes, but that’s not the whole story. Meanwhile the whole planet suffers from the over consumption of resources.

We are collectively, so afraid of financial poverty that it makes us oblivious to everything else. We forget that all financial wealth does is provide resources, and if you can’t use those to enrich your life, you might as well not have bothered. Time poor, socially impoverished, emotionally bankrupt… it’s a high price to pay for that gizmo laden modern life in the fast lane.