What can’t you see?

On Friday night I was driving home from the physio. I swung out into the main road behind a cyclist,. He was zipping along at a fine old speed, but I knew there was a sharp hill coming up, so I changed into the right lane so I could get past without putting him at risk, and without needing to slow down.

Shortly afterwards I stopped at the lights on that same hill, and although I looked around for the cyclist, I couldn’t see him, so I assumed he had turned off somewhere while I was concentrating on the road. When the lights turned green the traffic moved off, but there was a van in the left lane going super slowly, and the ageing pulsar in front of me was keeping pace with it, instead of speeding up and getting past.

My first reaction was irritation. It had been a long week. It was late. It was dark. I was tired. I wanted to get home. Why was this nufty slowing me down??

Fortunately the physio appointment had been a good one, so I was reasonably relaxed, with none of the back pain that had plagued me earlier in the week. I could afford to be magnanimous, so I refrained from leaning on the horn and instead craned to see if I could work out why the silly old pulsar was going so slowly.

Suddenly I saw the cyclist, slogging up the hill, and realised that the van behind it was getting edgy. The whole picture crystallised in an instant, and it dawned on me that the pulsar was leaving the van room to change lanes, so that it wouldn’t get trapped behind the cyclist, and perhaps put the rider at risk with its impatience.


The van swung out in front of the pulsar, and the pulsar sped up. The car behind the van was looking twitchy, so I waited until it had pulled out in front of me before I, too, got going.

I was so grumpy with that pulsar, right up until I realised there was method in its snail-like madness. Until I saw the cyclist. And it struck me that this is a truly ordinary scenario, played out repeatedly throughout our lives. Someone does something we don’t understand, that gets in our way, and we flash out a grumpy reaction before we see the bike.

Sometimes we never know what’s going on. Sometimes the bike is invisible to us. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. There can be so much going on in other people’s lives that overflows into our own path, but is not directed at us at all. Whether it’s grumpiness, sadness, or simply something that’s slowing us down, it’s worth remembering that we never see the whole story.

If I hadn’t been so relaxed, I might well have leant on the horn – startling the cyclist and precipitating who knows what?

I hope that next time I get slowed down for reasons I don’t understand, I can remember the pulsar and the bike, and take the time to understand the situation. To give the other driver the benefit of the doubt. To assume that there’s a reason I can’t yet see. And to practice a little patience and forgiveness.

After all, I might need that forbearance myself tomorrow.

Don’t mind your own business

After yet another celebrity suicide, I’ve seen my twitter feed light up with people looking out for each other. With people saying “don’t wait for people in distress to reach out – reach out to them!” With people pointing out that grief, depression, and trauma all make reaching out difficult, if not impossible.

For all the bad stuff we hear about twitter, it can also be an extraordinarily supportive and positive place.

At the same time I’ve been thinking about everything that’s happened over the last few years, and how tough it’s been. What has kept me going?

There have been times when things got so bad I lost the capacity to reach out. I was just hunkered down, breathing, coping with putting one foot in front of the other, and navigating each day.

In all that time, something happened.

People checked in with me.

One dear friend messaged me on Mothers’ day, knowing how much emotional complexity that day holds for me. He wanted to be sure I was doing ok, and that I knew he was there for me. He made me cry, but in a good way.

I got messages from my former students, telling me I had made a difference.

I got unsolicited, unprompted messages from friends telling me that they had no doubt I would change the world.

New friends championed my cause. Old friends rallied around me.

My bestie picked me up off the floor a hundred times, and lifted me high, even though we don’t live in the same state.

Each message was a small thing. But all of those small things made a web that held me. A safety net that stopped me falling. A collective hug that held me upright through the toughest times. It’s easy to focus on the negatives – the bullies, the nay sayers, the people who don’t believe you’re really up to this.

But reaching out to others has an extraordinary impact. Telling people when they’ve done a good job. Noticing the person who tries that little bit harder. Checking in with someone on days you know they’ll find tough. That stuff matters.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the bad stuff. But reaching out to others can change their lives. Today my back muscles were spasming and I was incredibly sooky and miserable. I could easily have spiralled into despair. But an overseas friend offered to help my charity get off the ground. Another friend had ideas about how I could make the message more effective. I reached out to people and they reached back. They had my back. In small ways they reminded me that I mattered.

It’s easy to forget how important it is to connect. But all those people who reach out to me have saved me, lifted me higher, and kept me going more times than I can count. It’s hard to reach out some days. But it’s that web of interconnection that keeps us grounded and holds us together.  Somedays it feels like we are unbearably insignificant. That we don’t matter. That we aren’t important.

One way to be important is to make other people feel important. To be the person who reaches out. To be the single piece of positive feedback someone gets in a day. To reach out. Because reaching out makes people reach back.

Are you feeling insignificant today? Reach out. There’s a universe out there waiting to reach back.

Call them on it

I once worked in a workplace where one of the managers was abusive, misogynistic, and unreasonably aggressive – but only when challenged. Everything was sunshine and light until he felt threatened, and then he went off like a firecracker. When I first felt the full force of his rage I took it to a range of senior people who all said “Oh, that’s just the way he is. He does this. Don’t take it personally.”

In a weird way I felt a little sorry for this man, because it was clear no-one had ever called him on his behaviour. He really didn’t seem to recognise that what he did to me – and apparently repeatedly did to others – was not ok.

But this, it seems to me, is how we get to where we are: women attacked, raped, murdered, and collectively told: be more careful. Don’t be alone. But also don’t be with the wrong people. Don’t date the wrong men. Don’t wear the wrong thing. Don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Because entitled, aggressive, arrogant behaviour does not get challenged, and so it escalates. Because no-one puts the brakes on. No-one says “hey, dude, that’s not ok.”

Anti-bullying programs in schools now increasingly focus on bystanders, encouraging them to speak up and step in. It’s time we implemented this across our society. Not just in schools, but in workplaces, in public places, and in the home.

People who bully, harass, or talk others down? Call them on it.

People who are needlessly aggressive? Call them on it.

People who make jokes about hurting others? Call them on it.

People who victim blame? Call them on it.

People who make homophobic jokes? Tell them it’s not funny, and not ok.

Same with racist jokes. Don’t let it go. Don’t turn away uncomfortably. Call them on it.

When people use their power to demean, silence, or repress others, call them on it.

It’s easier to walk away. To avoid people like that, or just to ignore their behaviour. But silence is consent. “No comment” might as well be a loud YES. We need to stand up and assert ourselves to make this stop.

I know so many kind, loving, thoroughly decent men and women. People who care about others, and who would never do anything like this. I have the most beautiful friends – older than me, younger than me, less than half my age – who look out for me. But they can’t be by my side 24/7. All of us take the easy path sometimes, and stay silent about behaviour that’s just plain wrong. We let it go. We don’t want to interfere. We say it was just a joke.

By letting that go we are putting everyone at risk. Every time we stand by while someone runs someone else down, we say it’s ok, and we make it worse. It’s time we stopped blaming women for being attacked. Time we stopped telling people not to take it personally. Time we started standing up for what’s right, and demanding that everyone, regardless of race, colour, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or indeed refugee status, gets treated decently. Always.