Tag Archives humility

Unsteady steps

Lambs, Yorkshire, April 2018.

When I travel, it’s inevitable that I carry with me my own ways of thinking. I hold thoughts together with the beliefs and assumptions I grew up with, amalgamated with the various encounters I’ve had along the way. My suitcase looks like it has been rather bashed around, like it’s got into a fight in the aeroplane’s hold and limped into baggage reclaim. My ways of thinking are, perhaps, similarly bashed. I encounter people who do life differently, who find me odd, remark upon what I believe are ordinary habits and good-naturedly try and correct my course. I’m undoubtedly enriched by this attention. I find people who go ‘huh’ at my beliefs, which makes me question my beliefs, which leads to the crumbling of the superfluous and the taking root of the solid. Obviously, for the most part, the cultures I encounter are all shaped by the same capitalism, however, inevitably, they have all taken different journeys, been scarred in different ways and are paying the price of greed (theirs or someone else’s) with varying attitudes. Some struggles are familiar; others are new to me. But even when we live similarly, we do so having arrived with different perceptions.

To travel, open to changing our ideas, means that we can, as much as perhaps is possible, teach ourselves to bend: to travel with closed minds just wreaks havoc on the peoples and places we encounter. Assuming we’re open to learning, travelling makes reframing our situation easier. Or, it makes the reframing harder to avoid. It builds cognitive dissonance. When outside our own bubble, we walk into stereotypes and land flat on our faces. This can be hugely helpful. When we travel, we are merely people passing through someone else’s society, sometimes it’s easier to be honest to a stranger. Strangers ask questions of us, they are curious about our foreignness, our exoticness. It’s also easier for them to ignore a stranger, proving that we’re not quite so important as we might have thought. Either way, people we meet travelling tend to bring attention to our weirdness with eager fascination immune to any idea that we might be embarrassed by their idea of us. Presented with such insight, we can then choose what we do with it.

People often ask me why I’m so desperate to return to Chile, especially Chileans who themselves crave to come to Europe or Canada. I find this a hard question to answer because the motivation is complex. Part of it is anger. I planned to stay in Chile and the fates forced me to wait. Part of it is that I liked being in Chile. I had no idea what was going on around me, but people kept being nice and I woke up in the mornings glad I was where I was. Part of it however is also a sense that I was learning a lesson that’s incomplete. I was building relationships in Chile; I was developing my understanding of the city I lived in (which liked to trip me up of a regular basis); and I was learning I was both privileged and irrelevant. Things that are handy to understand.

I thought, after being raped and going through therapy that I’d learnt a lot about humility. I thought I understood humility. I thought that having visited hell once in my lifetime I’d climbed out of the hole and was back on solid ground. I felt my feet were firmly planted. What I hadn’t realised was that the ground beneath me was artificial, built on a belief in security which, being born into privilege, I have and which, I swiftly discovered, was not so assured for all of my friends. In fact, in Chile, I was the odd one out because my ability to imagine the worst was so undeveloped. In Chile, I found my education a novelty, a mere bauble, and that my knowledge was, in many fields, non-existent.

A flaw, perhaps, was that my own therapy, which I am ever so grateful for, was predominantly about me. I had to change the language I used to describe myself so that I did not focus on what had been lost, or what I had failed to gain (especially in terms of societal status) but instead on what I could currently do. My healing was predominantly (but not only) a process of individual healing. People around me were affected by my situation, but their healing too was predominantly individualised. They learnt how to look after themselves and I learned how to look after myself. The humility I learnt and the strength of that inner core of self-faith which I developed were focused on me and my strength. Therapy taught me about personal boundaries, it taught me to look after myself as an individual and be generous with my own self-respect. It taught me that my strength to analyse was useful in appropriate doses, but that it could also be addictive and damaging to my well-being. It taught me to respect my emotions, but also to stand up to them, look after them and take care not to encourage them to develop into bad behaviours which negatively impacted me. It taught me about me.

In Chile, however, I think my understanding started to grow from this idea of humility as an individual to humility as humanity and that resilience is stronger when it is held in the connections between people rather than in the individuals themselves. I’m not saying that there’s anything particular about it being Chile where I observed this, and I learnt it as much from Venezuelans as Chileans, but that for me, as an outsider in an unstable environment, surrounded by difference, there was an impact.

In Chile I came face to face with beliefs which were not comfortable. They were often softly spoken, but they seemed to challenge me with the opportunity of dialogue, if only I were brave enough to take the opportunity, if only I had the humility to listen and to listen attentively and with affection. In Chile I learnt that I had to start over with humility and that I was no where near done, but also that the world was also much richer than I had imagined and I so much more malleable. In Chile I started noticing how much I take for granted and how much power I have with my choices. In Chile, I constantly failed to ask the right questions. Frequently I tangled myself in my insecurities about my Spanish or simply lacked courage, or other times, I was so in shock that I was unable to respond. Frequently that shock was in response to people’s kindness or generosity. It began to strike me how much I was receiving and how little I was giving. In Chile I was, more often than not, stumped. And I carried on, fumbling through my days, clutching at questions I couldn’t answer, wondering whether my presence was harmful or benign. But then I began to realise I was learning and that through the power of my own curiosity, I’d enrolled onto a course that required more stamina than any academic PhD.

I fought to stay and I failed.

And it felt a bit like running out of time in an exam, with me screaming please, let me finish, I know I seem stupid, but I’m sure given a bit longer, I’m going to understand. And if what I can see of the world, through my Chilean eyes, is incomprehensible then maybe I’ll learn to accept it, but please, more time, more time, more time.

How English of me. How linear my thinking. The resilience is in the relationship, not the individual, and the fact that I am in England is temporary and irrelevant. What I want is not something that can be clung to. There is no pass, no fail. When I come back home, I look at myself amongst my own culture and am grateful. It’s a thank you, and can I share this with you. I’m present and I’m listening. Healing is in the generosity and the gratitude. These concepts are not stationary points, they flow and connect.

Two Journeys Crossing at an Asado in Chile

Pelican.
(Phone) Coquimbo, September 2019.

Two young women are at a community barbeque, an ‘asado’ as they are called here. They are both speaking Spanish, but neither fully understands the other’s accent. Both wear jeans and a jumper. This is a family barbeque with children running around, splashing in the paddling pool and playing something like volleyball but with a large beach ball, however, neither of these two women have family in the city. Neither have family in the country.

The taller of the two women is English. She doesn’t consider herself particularly tall, but she’s probably the tallest woman here. It took her 32 hours, three planes and three trains to move to this city. To her, this felt like an ordeal.

However, the other woman is from Venezuela. Yes, closer as the crow might fly (if they had crows in Latin America), but it took her 12 days on a bus to get here. She crossed the border into Colombia, continued through Ecuador, through Peru and down through Chile. A journey through the sorts of places the Foreign Office marks in red in its guidelines, these are no go areas. She has come to Chile alone.

Venezuela is currently in a state of crisis with 4 million people having fled its borders. Many of these people have fled to Colombia and Ecuador, but there are many here in Chile too. Chile is currently more economically stable than other Latin American countries. Although it’s revoked permission for Venezuelans to enter for up to 90 days without a visa, the country is now offering visas of ‘democratic responsibility’.

The English woman moved to Chile to improve her Spanish and have a bit of an adventure. For her, travel is fun. It’s a choice. Getting work isn’t ever so difficult because she’s well educated and speaks English as her first language. The work here was all sorted before she even booked my flights. When she landed at the airport there was a chap in a branded jacket waiting to drive her to a furnished apartment.

The Venezuelan woman, however, describes her life as being work to home and back to work again. With moments for doing the washing in between. She’s not only supporting herself but sending her money back to Venezuela so that her family have something to eat. She’s happy, she says, because they were so thin before, now, with her help, they’re a little fatter.

At the barbeque, the two women sit together, eating spicy sausages, chicken drumsticks and plates full of salad in the warm sunshine. Two women who’ve taken very different journeys to get here.

Changed by a conversation and then changed again, and again, and again

By Posted on Location: 3min read
An evening walk and time to reflect.

I have a delusion in my mind that life will somehow become a little simpler. It is a delusion because life does not unfold that way. Each crease brings out a more nuanced view of the world. Every person you meet complicates matters. You realize that you are more than you thought, and less than you thought, and that these two, logically contradictory thoughts are simultaneously true.

When you are child existence is only that which you can see and feel

The idea that your parents might have another life outside of you is something that creeps upon you slowly. At some point I realized that the Mother was a nurse, which was good because nurses are good, that she looked after poorly children, which is also good because looking after poorly children is good. And then, sometime a little later, these thoughts coalesced in my brain and I realized that there were other children in the Mother’s life, children who were not me or my sister, and I was jealous.

At first such a jealousy is acute. However, as time passes, whilst it remains, and will most likely always remain, it merges into something else. My mummy is a nurse. She looks after poorly children. The words circulate and embed themselves. Jealousy meets pride and the two emotions, which at first seem to point in opposite directions – I both want my mummy to be saving these poorly children and I really don’t want to share her – collide. More emotions build up, I am simultaneously happy and sad about the Mother’s other existence.

In conversations, the deep moving ones, the ones that put a course correction on our lives we often walk smack bang into these contradictions. For example, you find yourself listening to someone relaying something that it difficult to hear and whilst you are terribly uncomfortable with the listening, you appreciate being the chosen one who is trusted enough to hear.

Hearing great stories of resilience, humbly told, we realize how small our own achievements really are

Just this week I felt the shock hit through my chest as I reflected upon a recent conversation. I pride myself on my resilience, my insistence on loving my life, my determination to appreciate and be grateful for that which I have. The sensation that I felt in my chest, the shock, reminded me how many other, incredibly resilient people there are out there who don’t have things as easy as I do, who don’t have the same levels of support around them, who don’t have a strong foundation of a loving family, who have no anchor, but at the same time are carrying much heavier responsibilities.

And yet, at the same time, that conversation was a dialogue not a monologue. I had earnt that conversation by being me, by trusting, by listening, by being open to a reality that is not so splendidly shiny as we sometimes imagine life should be.

Occasionally someone walks through my life and in the process of assimilating their story, which is not just a moment of listening, but involves deeper reflection and awareness, I am changed. Conversation redirect my thinking. It’s a two-way game. Being heard gives me the confidence to take a step forward. Listening teaches me where to take that step.

A friend who listens reflects my voice back towards me

The more people we encounter and converse with like this, the more stories we immerse ourselves in, the more complex our vision of the world becomes. Through such challenging conversation we can, if we chose, begin to learn what we sound like. It’s not always easy listening. I frequently get the difficult things wrong and have to adjust the acoustics. Time and time again I say the wrong things in the wrong moments, but I know that if I keep adjusting, keep subduing the need to defend myself from every uncertain whisper, then I learn. If you are lucky, you spend your life adjusting the acoustics of you own voice.

Voices after all aren’t found, they are grown.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.

humility
What can be more humbling than a snow-capped mountain?

Humility is not thinking less of yourself,

it’s thinking of yourself less.

C. S. Lewis

Which shouldn’t be mistaken with not thinking for yourself, mindless following, or allowing yourself to be walked over.

It’s taken time, but I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t be humble without self-belief. This idea germinated in my mind from a lesson I learnt in meditation.

First you are a child, naïve and unknowing completely dependent on the world. Then you grow and learn. Seeing yourself in the mirror, you recognize that those eyes staring back are yours and yours alone. Nobody else is quite like you. You learn ‘I am’. This ‘I’ discovers that the world is full of others and sets out on a quest to define itself by the arts of copy and compare. We collect possessions, buy clothes, adhere to labels.  This continues until death. Unless of course, insecurities fall away, and you begin to see yourself as not quite so individual after all. In some wise moment the individual realizes that there is a bigger picture in which they are not quite so important as they previously felt.

Like the other 7 billion people in this world, I shy away from pain and gravitate towards comfort. We all want to belong.