Turning the other cheek

One thing I have learnt over the last few years is that returning fire nearly always makes things worse. The impulse to meet attack with aggressive defense is overwhelming, yet restraining it is often the only way to find peace. Several times lately I have been faced with situations where the urge to defend myself was roaring in my ears. Heart pounding, bile rising, all I wanted to do was scream my point of view from the rooftops. Or maybe pound it into certain select heads with some kind of spiky mallet.

Not doing so kept me awake at night, as my mind raced around the track of everything I wanted to say, frequently losing it on the corners and spinning out of control. It raised my blood pressure, lowered my patience and even my health, and left my temper on a hair trigger with people who don’t deserve it.

There is a trick that was taught to me by a psychologist some years ago, called “dirty writing”. It’s where you write a letter to the person you are upset/angry with, telling them exactly how you feel. Pulling no punches, gloves off, bare knuckled telling it like it is. You never send the letter – and I’ve found that burning it can be particularly therapeutic – but you say all the things that are eating away at your insides, and hence get them out of your system.

It is definitely time for me to do some dirty writing. It is particularly useful when your feelings haven’t been acknowledged, or your trust has been betrayed. It’s awfully tempting to write the letters as email, and maybe even send them. The burning desire for closure, or the last word, can be corrosive if swallowed. Yet sending those emails turns up the flames under the dispute, and leads to an ever descending spiral of trauma. Often the only way out is to stop, and let the other person have the last word – and how I hate that. It eats at my soul.

Yet it brings peace much faster than venting my anger ever could. Yesterday I gave in to the urge to explain my pain, and I inflamed a situation further. I gained some understanding of the root of the other person’s feelings, but I did the friendship no good at all. Now that I understand the situation better, I have a powerful desire to explain it all to him – but I know that he is not ready to hear it, and that the explanation won’t change anything for him.

I never counted on this
guess that’s the way that it goes
You used to be someone I knew
Somebody I could understand but
now I don’t know what to do
and I don’t know who you are, no
all those things I hear you say
you talk that way, you’re a stranger and I

I don’t know where to begin
don’t want to hear it again
I don’t believe anymore

(from Icehouse – “Don’t Believe Anymore”)

We are a competitive species, and the urge to win can be ferocious. But as a very wise friend reminded me today, in relationships winning is ultimately losing. I have several situations eating away at me at the moment where I would dearly love to win. I want to lash out with the frying pan of enlightenment, and this is one of those rare times when I would be fully justified. But I know all too well that the momentary satisfaction of striking out and relieving my feelings will be wiped out by the tsunami of trauma that would result. The fires would be fuelled, worse things would be said on all sides, and I will wind up so much more miserable in the end.

It’s a tough lesson to learn, and I periodically regress, as I did yesterday. I tell myself “NO!”, my inner child screams “WANT TO!”… and sometimes the inner child wins. So today I will do some dirty writing, and hope that my anger goes up in flames. Burn baby burn!

Silence isn’t as golden as it used to be

So don’t call me the tune – 

I will walk away

At my yoga class on Saturday, someone’s phone began to buzz part way through. It was on silent.  Silently buzzing.  It was a slightly startling pointer to the ways that technology is redefining our lives. Silence is not what it used to be.

It’s not just silence that is being redefined. Being uncontactable for any length of time tends to be received with shock, if not downright displeasure. People call mobiles just to chat, rather than for urgent conversations. I try to discourage people from using my mobile for anything that’s not desperately urgent, but I find myself fighting a desperate rearguard action – it’s quite likely that this battle is already lost.

And yet, despite this high degree of electronic availability, actual communication has plummeted. People text, rather than call. Worse still, they assume that chatting on facebook replaces telephone or even face to face contact. Birthday messages get written on electronic walls, and the answer to “what’s up?” is taken at face value, when no-one can actually  see your face. I could have tears streaming down my face, or be doubled over in pain, yet I can type “ok”, and be believed.

Electronic contact can be fantastic. Sometimes it allows you to have conversations that would be painfully difficult face to face. It makes contact with distant friends trivially easy. It is an incredible gift to be able to skype with a friend half way around the world. It has been my salvation when I have been ill and housebound. But when it replaces face to face contact, it is no longer a gift. Then it becomes a curse.

Just got to touch someone,

yeah, I want to be the one

So don’t call me the tune, I will walk away

One Country – Midnight Oil

We insist on people being readily contactable. We leap into action the moment the phone rings. And yet we have so little to say. It keeps coming back, for me, to community. When we interacted regularly with our neighbours, in a bygone era, people would notice if there was something up. When we interact via facebook, seven kinds of hell can be going on in our lives, and no-one need ever know. I could be hobbling around on a broken leg, and most of the people I call friends would never know if I didn’t post about it on facebook.

In my darker moments I fret that everyone else has a social life that doesn’t include me. There have been a few of those darker moments lately, as I battle chronic pain and the resulting exhaustion. But what if the truth is actually much more depressing than that? What if not having a community is the new normal?

A recent news story tells of a woman in Sydney who died up to 8 years ago, and nobody noticed. To be fair, she was 87 and probably died before facebook became popular. And these kinds of stories have popped up from time to time for years. But…I can’t help wondering. Are we replacing real life with virtual? Do our communities actually exist? What does it mean if your friends stop appearing in your facebook newsfeed?  And how long would it take for you to notice?

Sometimes I crave silence and a book – but the silence I crave definitely doesn’t buzz. More often I crave people, and the contact I crave is not with dots on a screen.


You’re so vain,

you probably think this song is about you

One of the hardest, yet most valuable lessons I’ve learnt is that it’s rarely about me. It doesn’t matter what “it” is. Even when someone is shouting right in my face, or in the case of my 4 year old right  in my knee, it’s still not about me. Sometimes it’s about blood sugar, sunshine (or lack thereof), or the phase of the moon. Sometimes it’s about lack of sleep. Sometimes it’s just about life.

As toddlers, we rule the universe (or at least we think we do). Everything revolves around us, and we lack the cognitive ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. As we grow, in theory, we become more able to empathise and to recognise that there are other ostensibly valid points of view. A toddler is as proudly self centred as a gyroscope, and while adults are generally slightly more subtle about it, we often remain fundamentally gyroscopic.

You’re so vain

I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you?

(You’re So Vain – Carly Simon)

It is incredibly difficult not to take life personally. A wise friend recently explained to me that meanness is potent “because it taps into that little voice in our heads that tells us we deserve it.” It’s difficult to shrug off nastiness, because deep down we believe that it is about us. We (and only we) deserved the tirade, or caused the problem, or should have done better. And then we become deeply invested in the battle.

Yet when we make things all about us, we make our lives unnecessarily difficult. We try to fix the unfixable, accept blame for the unavoidable, and take everything far too much to heart. We all need more SEP fields. The SEP field was first described by Douglas Adams – it stands for Somebody Else’s Problem. In his Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy series, Adams used the SEP field to power a device that effectively made things invisible – because if it’s somebody else’s problem, nobody can see it.

An SEP field is an exceptionally useful concept for those of us who take things personally. Especially when someone is grumpy, or downright mean in your general direction. Today my 8 year old was upset because a teacher was looking grumpy. He was at least 20 metres away, and not looking at her, but because he had told her off 15 minutes ago, she just knew that he was still cross with her. What else could it possibly be? Sadly, the girl who has SEP fields down to a fine art when it comes to messes around the house, really doesn’t get the SEP as it applies to relationships.  A healthy, but balanced application of the SEP is vital to a peaceful life, and it’s a tough lesson to learn.

The interesting thing is that an understanding of the ‘relationship SEP’ gives you the ability to lose, in order to win. That may sound a little bizarre – the trick is that if it’s not about you, then you have no investment in winning battles. You can throw the battle in order to win the war. If it’s not about you, then it’s also not about your self esteem. And it’s self-esteem (or the search for it) that drives us to save face, prove our point, and above all WIN. If it’s not about you, then you can be calm, and objective, and work on finding a way to make everyone happy, instead of trying to come out on top.

It can be incredibly difficult to maintain an appropriate SEP field when someone is pushing your buttons. Indeed, I have failed to achieve it quite a few times recently. But even invoked after the fact, the SEP can still be a powerful tool. Say it with me: It’s Somebody Else’s Problem. Look! It’s gone.