Sharing the hate

Look, I loathe killing for sport with a white hot passion. Loving killing is bizarre to me. I do eat meat, but I don’t revel in killing, and I can’t imagine doing so. Guns are abhorrent.

And yet, I am deeply uneasy about the hate storm that surrounds the killing of Cecil the lion. Not because I don’t believe that what the dentist did was foul and disgusting. I believe that with my whole heart. But I worry about these hate storms. They are so easily triggered on the net. We leap into them with such vigour. Whether it’s a horrible sexist comment by a scientist, a racist comment by a PR person, or a photo of a killing, we are really keen to stick the boot in to people who we believe have transgressed.

I can understand the temptation – and I have tweeted and facebooked myself about things I believe are wrong and abhorrent (I’m looking at YOU Tony Abbott). It feels good to serve up some righteous indignation from time to time. But a while ago I began a conscious effort to comment less on the bad stuff (“Dear motorist, the bike lane is for BIKES, not for cars who wish to undertake the traffic. You nearly undertook me!”) and more on the positive, because I was concerned that my online presence was beginning to tarnish the world. To be a drain on our collective psyche, rather than an upwards force.

And hate storms are not just a small tarnish, they are eating away at our collective character like the most toxic of corrosive substances. They whip us up into a frenzy of negativity, of hatred, and of anger, and they achieve… what? Will this online frenzy stop people hunting and killing? I doubt it. Will it, in fact, polarise the two camps even further into hate-fuelled, vitriol spitting opposing lines with nothing but contempt for each other? Quite possibly.

And in the end, all that negative energy has to come out somewhere. The more we focus on our rage, the angrier our every day behaviour becomes, the less tolerant we are, and the less inclined to look behind the headline and find out whether there is actually any depth to the story.

We have got so keen to leap into the hateful fray that we rarely pause to find out the full story, to listen to the opposing view, and to consider whether the headlines might be wrong. The media loves a good hate storm, and feeds on it with gleeful abandon. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine them firing one up just to beef up a slow news day. And once it’s going, and hate storm is impossible to stop. The fallout remains as a glowing, radioactive footprint that will haunt that person for the rest of their lives. And while some may seem to deserve it, many don’t, and we are neither judge nor jury, and rarely in possession of all of the facts.

Of course we need to continue to call our politicians to account, and fight injustice wherever it occurs, but hate storms don’t seem to be about that. They seem to me to be more lynch mob than force for change. By all means campaign for an end to hunting. But there’s rarely a positive outcome from a public lynching.

So next time you are tempted to join the feeding frenzy, why not post a question instead? Try to clarify the issues rather than nuking from orbit and asking questions never. Or better still, don’t feed it at all. Take a deep breath and focus on the positive. You’ll be happier for it, I promise.

PS Since I wrote this I’ve been seeing a lot of calls for “justice for Cecil”. It’s too late for justice for Cecil. But we can stop it happening again, by campaigning for change. Which is different to campaigning for vengeance.

Unhunch your shoulders

On Saturday mornings I do yoga with a truly fantastic teacher. Roman teaches Yoga Synergy, which is, I must say, quite hard work, but he is careful to reinforce the message every session that the most important thing is this: Do not force, do not strain.

Yoga, he says, should leave you feeling better. You should have more energy, walk taller, and have better posture after a class than before. This is not the typical Western approach to exercise, which tends to see it more as a competitive “no pain no gain” style activity. You push as hard as you can. If you’re not hurting, you’re not working hard enough. Push yourself further than the guy next to you. Pain is your FRIEND. Seek it out. Embrace it. Feel the burn.

I am often tempted to prove to myself that I can do more than others in the class. I want to be able to say that I can do the advanced postures. I feel good about myself if I am pushing really hard, approaching the absolute limits of what I can do.

Yet even though I feel good in class, working that way usually leaves me wrecked for the rest of the weekend. Sometimes it leaves me injured. It’s a style of approach that I first recognised years ago when I got into cycling – I’d ride out my front gate, hurtle up the nearest hill as hard as I could, and more often than not turn blue, collapse off the bike and occasionally pass out before I’d made it up the first hill. In those days a long ride was out of the question, because I would burn out in the first ten minutes.

I have to continually remind myself of Roman’s central message: Do not force. Do not strain. And just when we’re in the middle of a difficult posture, giving it all we’ve got, he’ll remind the class to “unhunch your shoulders,” and we’ll discover that we’ve contorted ourselves into positions The Grinch would be proud of, in an effort to really nail that posture. Thereby completely missing the point.

I find I also need to remind myself that Roman’s words apply equally well to everyday life. I am fundamentally bad at pacing myself. I force, strain and hunch my shoulders all day long, rushing at life like a bull at a gate, and often passing out halfway up that first hill. Yet those times when I take a deep breath, make time to meditate, and force myself to stop every now and then, are also the times when I am most effective, productive, and indeed sane.

When I remember to unhunch my shoulders, I can keep going almost indefinitely. That’s a lesson I badly need to apply to my work. I’m tired of passing out on the first hill. I am thinking of asking Roman to let me record him, so that I can make an app that pops up every so often and says “Remember: Do not force, do not strain. And unhunch your shoulders.”

Getting Some Perspective

I have lost count of the number of people in my life who have recently uttered the words:

“I shouldn’t really complain. At least we don’t live in Queensland.”

There is nothing like a dramatic natural disaster to give you a sense of perspective, especially if it’s close to home. Bushfires, tsunamis, floods, mudslides, earthquakes, and mining disasters can all make you realise that however overwhelming your problems may seem, they could nearly always be worse. It is useful to be grateful for what we do have, in the midst of stressing over what we don’t.

And yet, while a sense of perspective is a fine thing to have, in some ways this kind of thinking can add to the distress, instead of relieving it. It becomes a sort of survivor guilt.

“How can I stress over my job when people have lost everything?”

“I can’t believe I’m shouting at my kids over their behaviour when kids have died in Queensland.”

flood

These thoughts, and many others like them, all have the sub-text: “People are coping with much worse stuff. I must be a selfish, hopeless, useless person if I can’t cope with my relatively minor crises.”

So now, as well as coping with whatever is stressful in your life, you are also beating yourself up over feeling stressed at all. Pretty soon it gets recursive – you are stressed about feeling stressed, which makes you stressed… etc etc ad nauseam (literally).

But here’s the thing. Life is stressful. There will always be people undergoing worse things, but that doesn’t make the day to day traumas of life any easier to handle. Our kids will drive us to the point of screaming. Our cars will break down. Our air conditioners will conk out in the middle of a heat wave. Our jobs will be stressful in hundreds of different ways. We’ll be sick. We’ll be sleep deprived. We’ll be cranky. Sometimes it will all pile up, as it has for me recently, into a mountain of stress that seems utterly insurmountable. Then we will scream. Or cry. Or throw things. Or shout at the people we love.

Sometimes all of the above.

And this is the important bit: our stress, be it large or small, does not add to the distress of all those people suffering worse torments. Getting upset about smaller stuff does not change our compassion and empathy for those coping with disasters. We can’t help them by pretending our lives are smooth and trouble free, even as we are mentally climbing the walls.

Sometimes the small stuff bites (think mozzies, or head lice!). And sometimes screaming is the best relief you can find. It’s ok if others are screaming about bigger stuff. We can all scream together – think of it as group therapy.


Total Perspective

I am currently the odds-on favourite to win the Mountains out of Grains of Sand competition. Not for me the simple paranoia that leads to making mountains out of molehills. That would be far too easy. No, I aim to scale the Everestian heights of total perspective failure that can craft Krakatoas of catastrophe out of the dust of irritation. And I am alarmed to report that I am well on the way to a hands down win.

This is a clear indicator that it is time to go in to work. I am very fortunate in my work in that the pay is good, the time is flexible, and nearly all of it can easily be done from home. But this is also a trap, because if I don’t get out of the house and into the company of the companionably insane, then things start to go horribly wrong. It all comes back to connecting with people, and thus maintaining a sense of perspective.

I am constantly reminded how important it is to have friends and colleagues who regularly push your boundaries. Who take you by the hand and lead you step by step out of your comfort zone, murmuring words of encouragement, or sometimes screaming “Banzai!”

Years ago I regularly hung out with a group of ScEngs who fulfilled this role admirably. Whether it was pushing my intellectual boundaries in the office, or cajoling me into doing crazy things in kayaks (“you won’t get wet, I promise.”), the one thing they refused to do was let me stagnate, get comfortable, take life for granted, or indeed, stay dry.

This may sound harrowing, but in fact it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. It stretched me (sometimes literally), made me stronger, and broadened my mind in strange and entertaining ways. Above all, it kept my metaphorical feet on the ground, even though my physical feet were often to be found flying through the air.

In a similar vein, during my last foray into the lecture theatre before resigning from Monash, I was teaching a subject I didn’t much care for. I worked hard to make it interesting and worthwhile for the students, regardless of my own feelings on the subject matter, but by far the best part about the subject was a group of students who generally sat together in a row (I think you can guess which row).

They were fantastic. They were intellectually engaged, and they were not afraid to challenge me on anything they thought didn’t make sense, or was just plain wrong. They argued with me, asked intelligent questions, and picked out errors in the material.

I was recently delighted to meet one of these students again, some 3 years later, and was amazed to find that she was somewhat hesitant in approaching me. She was afraid I had found them immature and annoying. Sure, they were back row dwellers with all that entails – they occasionally turned the screen of the lecture theatre pc upside down, or heckled from the back – but it was all good natured fun.

Without their challenging, demanding, engaging presence, the subject would have been dull to learn, and even worse to teach. The presence of just a hand full of bold, switched on, interested students made that subject one of my standout teaching memories, after nearly 15 years of teaching experience.

Perhaps it is some form of masochism on my part, but I find that not being challenged is my greatest challenge in life (it must be some sort of zen). If I am not regularly dragged from my comfort zone, life becomes distinctly uncomfortable. Small issues become huge volcanoes of stress. Everything anyone says gets analyzed for the tiniest particles of offense to be taken personally. And it gets harder and harder to drag myself out of the house, even though getting out of the house is the only cure.

So to those people who challenge me on a regular basis, I salute you. I am so grateful to have you in my life. (But you can put me down now, thanks, I’m getting dizzy!)