My mother was making a decision the other day, whilst we were hula hooping, and I asked if she had made a pros and cons list.
One of the characteristics of the decision she threw out was that it is ‘scary’. Twirling around the living room I stated, “so that’s on the pro list.” To which my mother grinned in a silly fashion and concluded that, “perhaps it could be on either.”
In May I took a five-hour spontaneous drive in a hire car, across a desert into a quarantined zone to catch an aeroplane home. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it on time, but I knew I had to try.
Fear didn’t pay much of a part in all this. Or, it did, the adrenaline rushed around my head and while I was waiting for the chap at the desk in the hire car agency’s offices to learn how to use the computer, I paced up and down. Fear came along for the ride, sitting in the back seat, but fear comes along anywhere I go. Fear is an innate part of life.
If fear had had its way, I would have sat on my bedroom floor and cried.
However, although all my fear responses were screaming like sirens, I maintained a focused calm. I’m not trying to pretend that I wasn’t speaking at ten thousand miles an hour or that my body didn’t shake and twitch, but as soon as I decided to drive, my thoughts calmed.
The beauty of being human is that we can make a decision that isn’t solely dictated by our physical response.
I knew that I had to deal with the problem one step at a time. First, I had the get the car, then I had to drive north. At some later point in time I would worry about my lack of boarding card and the police cordons and how to actually get to the airport. Mostly, I had to keep myself together for the next 96 hours because this trip I was doing alone.
When I sat down in the car, I touched the gear stick and smiled to myself that at least it wasn’t an automatic. Never mind that the gear stick was on the wrong side which inevitably results in me bashing my wrist against the car door. I hadn’t driven a car at all in months but for some reason it didn’t seem to matter.
When the midget turned twenty-one, I took her to Europe. In a café in Vienna, after many protests, she ordered coffee with the shakiest of hands. It was a large central café and I was pretty sure that the waitresses would understand enough English to give her a coffee, but the Midget was terrified.
My dad did the same to me when I was a child. He gave me money for a burger in an airport lounge somewhere and told me I could have one if I bought it. The Midget was with me then too, but she was smaller than the counter. Stuck between my dad’s generosity and my sister’s pleading eyes I somehow managed to be brave enough to order the food. We both ate burgers that day, with fries.
By the end of our Europe trip, the Midget was asking at the desk for international rail tickets with more confidence than she’d managed for that first cup of coffee.
Sometimes you don’t however realise how many small steps you’ve taken until you look back at something you’ve just done – like a spontaneous 5-hour drive to catch a plane in a foggy desert – and realise that as a big picture it all looks rather brave.
But bravery is often not something big, but merely a small step against the current. A mere shuffle forward in fact. Shuffle after shuffle after shuffle.
I sat in that car and pulled out of the supermarket carpark and realised that I didn’t need to try and coerce myself into feeling better about the situation. Nor did I need to cry. My sole job was to pay attention to the road and get myself home. And all at once I knew that however ridiculous my situation was, I was going to be able to handle it.
I’ve dealt with worse.
So yes, when you make your list of pros and cons anything dangerous ought to be on the negative side of the page, but just scary… I’d leave that off the list entirely. Fear will always come along for the ride, just don’t let it drive.
My favourite type of restaurant to frequent in Spain belongs on the edge of a small town. Outside on the road, or in an unmarked parking lot sits a collection of cars with the appearance of being unwashed, although the land here is so dry and the air swirls with so much dust that they could have conceivably been washed that morning.
Every time I approach such a restaurant I feel a little afraid. You can’t see too well inside, maybe older men sit outside, smoking, suggesting an all boys club, but on entering you discover the place to be loud with voices high and low. You take a seat, anywhere you want, and you’re offered the menu of the day: a selection of courses that will be brought out, one after another to be shared between you and your companions, all for a fixed (and very reasonable) price.
This is my favourite type of restaurant because it forgoes all that pesky decision making that comes from having to choose what it is you want.
Here I can just eat.
Sometimes though, life ain’t quite so easy.
“So—do you know what you want?”
This is the question my mother emailed me with after reading my previous blog posts (lessons from the mother), and by the question, she didn’t mean just for dinner, she meant in life. I stared at her email for a moment, considered my lists, my plans and the feeling that floods my heart when I’m doing something that I consider to be important and then my fingertips hit the keys in determined strokes. I wrote back, “Yes, I think I do.”
I thought, for my mother, as well as any other reader, I’d elaborate. I’m going to briefly elude to three stages of how I got here.
This isn’t guide to how to work out what it is that you want, I wouldn’t want to suggest that such a process would be the same for you, this is just a story of how things were for me. But, what with you being human too, chances are you’re going to relate to some part of my journey.
The stages so far:
Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals were my long term goals Stage 3: Writing down the next step
Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue
Towards the end of my degree I proactively made an appointment to see the career counsellor. I was a few months off finishing my degree and hadn’t worked out what I was going to do after graduation. I had, in one moment, contemplated teaching, but after volunteering in a primary school for a while I came to the solid conclusion that teaching would be a long slog of me against the system.
This chap who was supposed to advise me was probably a great source of information for physicists looking to move into a hedge fund or academic department, but he didn’t excel with hysterical me. It was hardly his fault.
Wisely, in hindsight, he suggested speaking to a medical professional
Although he didn’t express himself very well. Of course I did not feel that not knowing what job to apply for constituted a mental health problem. I figured it was a very common challenge facing many graduates and that it would, in time, resolve itself.
In fact I didn’t understand that not knowing what I wanted was a real problem until a number of years later when my psychotherapist pointed it out to me. Graciously she guided me into the understanding that my incredible, analytical, rational brain (the one that was at home in the world of quantum mechanics) was a bully, and that my emotional needs were being squished, surfacing only in inelegant spurts of anti-social behaviour.
I needed these two parts of my brain to cooperate
The compromise however would have to be from the rational side of me. The side of me that understands my bank balance, writes my CV and earnt a degree. I really despised this idea, but eventually, after much fighting with myself, recognised that my emotions are impossible to reason with.
Now I had surrendered some of my stubbornness it was time to move onto the second stage.
Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals
It surprised me to discover that what I want is nothing new. The things that make me the happiest are pretty much the same things that made me the happiest when I was at school.
The desire for travelling has amplified rather, and become more nuanced. Painting and drawing have been pretty consistent activities throughout my life. And I whilst my standards have risen, my writing has been prolific since I was a teenager. I might have started my diaries when I was in my twenties, but the Christmas holidays of my sixteenth birthday I churned out 20,000 words. A year later I’d created most of a novel.
My problem however was that it all felt pretty much like playing
I’d written that novel after stopping studying English at school at the grand old age of sixteen, and although I did art at AS-level it became a horrific endurance battle as the department entered civil war.
So whilst other people around me studied to be artists or writers, I played at both and loved both hobbies equally. Meanwhile I was pretty obnoxiously certain that I was going to become successful, well-off and influential because of my incredible analytical mind.
Thankfully, after a few false starts, I ended up amongst the psychotherapists cushions. She helped me think through some very important questions. What will being well-off give you? Successful in whose eyes? Influencing people to what goal?
At which point it hit home
I want to be immersed in the things which require a soft ego, gentle humility and that are driven by listening to the world, not shouting at it. I want to paint, I want to write, and I want to learn by opening myself to all the incredible people around me.
Here steps in the Crabbe and Goyle of my brain
Crabbe says yes, but you are going to have to get a proper job one day, and Goyle says, but don’t you want to be successful like your house-buying, PhD winning, money making peers.
At first I fought them.
Then I realised that they, like most bullies out there, need a bit of compassion. I was rejecting them and therefore they were going through a bit of a rough patch. This time it was my emotions that needed to get to work. It was time to show some compassion, to myself.
I needed to commit myself to doing what I love.
Stage 3: Writing down the next step
So, these fluffy goals of creating art, writing something and seeing the world aren’t exactly your business SMART goals. And I’m sure intelligent goals are very useful for some people, but what I need is a direction. At this stage, it doesn’t bother me that I haven’t got a clue where I’ll be in five-years time. I don’t currently know which continent I’ll be living in six months from now. I’ve kind of made a nest of uncertainty, and whilst it’s not necessarily plastic wrapped perfect, it’s tactile and stable.
I know that in five-years time what I will be doing is creating art, writing stories and conversing with strangers. Therefore, all I’m focusing on right now is getting really good at those three things. I plan on spending the rest of my life continuing to get really good at these same three things.
So all I need to know today is what small step I’m making
Each week, or every couple of days I review my goals, write down the next small step I need to take, and then I focus on doing just that. It’s simple.
In the future I assume I will need to put more emphasis on being more financially stable but I’m practicing my humility. I’m not in the place to do that right now. I’m practicing my generosity, I believe I’ll get there eventually. I’m practicing my self-kindness, I’ve just picked myself up off the ground after a rather nasty fall.
I need to get a stable footing before I try to cartwheel
And so today I wrote this article, and I painted a picture of a photo I took a few weeks back whilst visiting Granada and I practiced my Spanish.
So, yes mother, I know my life goals. And I’m achieving them every single day.
For me, it’s easy to be so analytical that I forget to follow my gut feeling.
My gut feeling, what I like and don’t like, is actually surprisingly consistent. Therefore I pay attention to this and set goals that reflect what I actually enjoy doing.
Getting the next step written down helps me keep my mind focused on today, whilst moving along the path of creativity I’ve actively chosen for myself.
It doesn’t mean I know what I want to eat when I’m presented with a menu
So if I’m feeling overwhelmed, I ask the waiting staff for a recommendation.
Spain is a wonderful place for trying new food. You can pick at the food, share it, swap it, taste only a tiny amount of it and this is all considered to be polite. It’s how you’re meant to eat.
[Before you think, oh no, Catherine’s going crazy with the writing, remember that the writing is the evidence I’m not going crazy.]
I have made a decision, but still every now and again I find myself doubting it. I wonder at what it is I’m trying to achieve and what it is that is driving me. My motivations are probably not all good, and that there are probably some faulty goals hiding within the good intentions. That said, maybe I’m underestimating myself.
Option one is to make certainty. It’s to draw a line. It’s to say there’s no looking back. It’s time to move on. Turn my back and walk away.
In a way, being about certainty and control, this is the safest option. It’s a sharp pain but then without quite so many triggers of what has gone before, the healing becomes easier. It’s no longer taking a risk but taking a decisive course of action.
Some friends advise me along this route although they hide from acknowledging the true amount of sacrifice they would be forced to make because of my actions. Cutting myself free can’t be done in a half-hearted measure. If I wield the knife, I break their toys too.
This is not what I would naturally choose as I believe a stronger healing comes through talking and working though problems rather than avoiding them. I want to grow and learn, not keep repeating old mistakes. It kind of feels rash and desperate to me just to run away because you’re too much of a coward to hurt a bit. So far in this decision taking malarkey I’ve found that even though not running away leaves me open to occasionally tripping up, it’s given me the opportunity to learn to laugh at the situation. Nothing heals faster than laughter.
Option two is to numb, everything. Option two is not really an option but the inevitable place you end up if you don’t make a choice. It’s a pit of misery and despair. I refuse to go there again.
Since I can find humour in the situation and can laugh at myself, there seems no risk I’m going to head down this path. There is no need to worry about my mental well-being.
Option three is what I’ve been trying to do. It’s the choice to let go of any control. It’s to trust that I’m going to find my way back to my feet without trying to stand. It’s to watch the trigger being pulled, feel the emotion as it hits and then, with great difficulty put myself back in front of the gun and relax.
This sounds hard, but it’s just a matter of iteratively improving your self-awareness. Since I’ve taken control of my happiness, rather than put it in the hands of anyone else, I’ve found that the time it takes to get back on my feet has become shorter and shorter. This weekend for example, I was laughing at a situation within less than 24 hours that not so long ago would have left me miserable for weeks. Just 72 hours later and I’m wondering why I bothered being so upset about something that on the grand scale of things doesn’t really matter.
I have to be able to acknowledge what it is I feel and think. The two often contradict but that’s ok. There’s no theory of everything when it comes to what’s going on with me. I can’t be understood by a series of beautiful symmetrical equations. I’m the sum of a whole heap of irrational constants and unrelated variables.
The contradictions are the interesting points. My feelings come from fierce self-preservation, the claws-out catfight to avoid pain, the struggle to find comfort and my values being thrown into the arena.
My values set me apart from other people, but my values also include a heavy weight of caring what others think of me. Getting to the point where I’m not making my choices based on other people’s values, but instead on what I believe in, is taking considerable time and will probably be my version of Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill for eternity.
Improvements are however noticeable. I might feel a mess right now, but in action I am focused. It’s not like my last months at work where I didn’t want to get up in the morning. My experience of forgiveness has illustrated this, as does the fact that I wake eager to live the day ahead and make something happen.
Still though, feelings of shame exist because of my thoughts about other people’s expectations. Like everyone else, I want to be seen as strong and confident. Instead I am very much aware that when I’m exposing my fears, sobbing on the floor, reaching out to friends with a bouquet of pain that I look neither strong nor confident, despite genuinely believing I am both.
The problem comes with the contradiction between what we grow up thinking strong and confident looks like and what the courage that makes both illusions possible actually is like.
When I look at my life now, and compare it to my life of the past I see how much more courageous I have become. Not only have I opened up more in the last few months to some of the people I love most dearly, but I have also been to Egypt, refocused my life on my writing and what I want to do and be, lived abroad for a considerable amount of time and much more. But when I imagine what other people see, I think of the mess that I must appear to be.
Wider social expectations are problematic for me too. I’ve made considerable mistakes trying to fit inside boxes when what I want is freedom and my own independence. My perfect day of today is incredibly similar to my perfect day of ten years ago. The only difference being that now I’ve got more experience to flesh it out with. It’s taken that much time for me to realise that I don’t need a piece of paper that tells me I’m clever, to possess a few square metres of ‘my space’ or to please anyone just for the sake of their devotion. Such awareness helps me understand what really matters to me, and what is worth fighting for.
The ‘not good enough’ terror surfaces. Like a jack in a box, it catches me by surprise. You can sharply slam down the lid to make it go away, but it eventually it springs back up. Instead it can only be conquered by looking hard and realising it’s a doll on a spring. It’s not real. Such fears of not being ‘good enough’ are just fabrications too.
Everything is impermanent. Even in my long ago moment of blackness when I was incapable of seeing that any change could possibly happen, change found me.
At that time, I did not have the strength to wield a knife. But by not wielding the knife I accidentally saved a friendship. (I also caused damage to numerous others.) At that time, I didn’t have the choice, I was too cold and numb to react in any way but that which in the moment seemed to give the most instant protection. If it had been a friend’s life and I was sharing a thought out logical opinion, I would have said take the knife with two hands and save your imminent self from all the future pain.
Not everyone gets such an option. Often the knife is plunged in for them. The bonds are severed. The friendships are torn apart. Being given the choice as a blessing.
I have to accept reality. It won’t always be so painful, but right now it’s going to hurt from time to time. I think of it like holding your arm out for a blood test. Despite the prick of the needle, you know it’s in your best interest. My veins though are tricky things. If you look at my arms you can barely see them. The nurse removes the needle and says they’ve failed to get any blood. They need to try again but with the other arm. Acceptance is holding the other arm out too, even when you know what’s coming, and that they probably won’t get any blood from the other arm either.
The funny thing is that blood tests never hurt as much as you imagine they will.
I’m working on accepting the difference between what I want and what I have, or what I think I should do and what I am doing. I also have to accept that other people are different and that I do not understand them, must not judge them and must not draw them any boxes. It’s letting go of trying to control others or myself.
I must move forward without wearing a mask.
Reading Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving I initially thought that what I was absorbing from the book was a lesson that love is a combination of ‘care, respect, responsibility and knowledge’. He describes love as ‘the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love’. Such a definition certainly helps me widen my understanding of love. It adds to my understanding from The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck where love is described as the allocation of importance. To clarify here, I’m talking of love as that which I feel for all those people I can deeply about, not the lusty or romantic love of infatuation.
And then, in Fromm’s book, I came across a paragraph that struck me hard.
“To have faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness even to accept pain and disappointment. Whoever insists on safety and security as primary conditions of life cannot have faith; whoever shuts himself off in a system of defence, where distance and possession are his means of security, makes himself a prisoner. To be loved, and to love, need courage, the courage to judge certain values as of ultimate concern – and to take the jump and stake everything on these values.”
Faith is important. It’s an action not just a state of being. It’s not a blind hope for a fantasy outcome it’s a belief that it’s worth it to love all those people you care for. This faith is an awareness that things are changing, and that if I keep my heart open for long enough, continue even though I might be played like a fool, keep breathing steadily through the pain, then the friendships I cherish more than anything else in the world, will not only remain intact, but will grow stronger.