It’s not me, it’s you

We tend to think it’s easy to spot a bully, because bullies are big, evil-looking people who loom over you, shout at you, and flush your lunch down the toilet.

But sometimes, in the real world, bullies are softly spoken, reasonable sounding people who “really are only telling you this for your own good”. When someone takes you aside privately to offer you feedback, is it because they are offering you an opportunity to improve without publicly pointing out your faults, or is it because any discerning, impartial audience would instantly detect their words as the poisonously corrosive barbs they are, in fact, intended to be?

Sometimes bullies even feel like friends, at first. Right up until you become a little too outspoken, a little too successful, or the bully just has a bad day.

So that’s the conundrum: How is it possible to learn to differentiate between genuine constructive feedback, and criticism that is both false and malicious? That is, in fact, bullying?

I wish I had the answer to this one. The one, definitive answer that makes all the pain, all the self doubt go away once and for all. (Although, of course, with no self doubt at all we’d be ravening, arrogant, destructive monsters. A little balance would be a fine thing.)

Sadly I don’t think there is one definitive answer. I think that those of us who care about trying to be the best we can be are always going to be easy targets for the kind of people who want to defuse us by persuading us we’re not good enough.

But maybe there are tricks we can use to fight back. Not by bullying back – that’s a losing game from any perspective – but by choosing who we listen to rather more wisely. We all have people in our corner. But it’s easy to discount it when they tell you that you’re awesome. We can be too quick to say “She’s just being nice.” or “He doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.”

It’s easy to dismiss your supporters as being biased, while somehow accepting your bully as perfectly accurate. But here’s an important question: Who do you trust? If your bully and your best friend were each telling you the safest path to walk to get through a minefield, who would you believe?

Ultimately, that’s exactly what they are doing. Life can be a real minefield. And sometimes you need someone to guide your steps. Who do you trust to do that? Because those are the people we should be listening to. Not the bullies, the doubters, and the people who would feel much more comfortable in themselves if we were a little less successful. A little less irritatingly good at what we do. A little less of a threat to their self-esteem.

Here’s another way to look at it: How would it make your friend feel, to know that you don’t believe him? How will your bestie react if you tell her you think she’s lying to you? Ahah! Got you by the short and curlies now, haven’t I? What you won’t do for your own good, you will do for someone else’s sake. It’s a fair point though. Those people who are truly in your corner need you to be in theirs, too. Trust goes both ways.

So next time the turkeys are getting you down, ask yourself this: where does your faith belong? In the hands of those who would take you down, or in the arms of those who want to help you rebuild? Who do you really trust? And what would you tell them if the tables were turned?

When life hits back

On Friday morning I was excited to be heading to Geelong for a workshop on Diversity in Computing, as part of the Australasian Computing in Education Conference. I have dear friends in the Computing Education Research field, so stealing away from work to brainstorm how to increase awareness of, and interest in, Computer Science was great in itself – especially because I had huge respect for the stars running the workshop – but I was also going to catch up with friends. I was all set for a great day.

I’m not a fan of driving, for the most part. It’s a necessary evil, it seems to me, but since we got a hybrid driving has been much more fun, so I wasn’t even worried about the relatively tedious drive down the Geelong road. But as I cruised over the Westgate, having left early to make sure I beat the peak hour traffic, I suddenly realised that this was my first trip to Geelong since the day my Dad died, over four years ago.

God knows my dad and I had a complex relationship. By the time he died I would go so far as to say it was quite dysfunctional. His death was mingled relief and pain: relief that he was no longer suffering (his long deterioration from cancer had already been traumatic for years), pain that so much went unsaid. The day he died was pure shock.

My sister and I picked Mum up from Ocean Grove, where they had been when he died. He had gone for a walk and died in the street. Mum, who doesn’t drive, was stranded. So we gathered ourselves together, faced the practicalities, and raced towards her, where she sat comforted by a generous and kindly neighbour. I remember Tina Arena, Songs of Love and Loss, coincidentally on the car stereo as we drove down. I remember stopping for coffee at a really odd little drive-through coffee booth near Geelong station. I had chai tea, thinking I had had enough caffeine that day. I remember tears. Worries about the future, especially Mum’s future, and shock. So much shock. I don’t really remember much about arriving at Ocean Grove. I’m pretty sure we didn’t stay long, although I had packed an overnight bag just in case. In truth “packed” suggests a level of thought and planning that wasn’t possible. I had thrown some things into a bag that may or may not have been adequate.

I haven’t been to Ocean Grove since that day. I haven’t even been through Geelong. And even though much has changed – Geelong seems to have grown up somewhat, it is shinier, and more glamorous than I remembered – being there was a shock that I was completely unprepared for.

The morning was fine. I was catching up with friends, talking about work, brainstorming projects. A dear friend who, it turns out, believes in revenge gifting, gave me two very fine bottles of wine to take home with me. I was planning lunch with other friends, before a really great workshop.

But after lunch I felt ill. I thought maybe I had been glutened, but it was different somehow. I went to the workshop and halfway through felt an unbearable urge to burst into tears. For a moment there I was lost. I messaged a friend, scraped myself together, and it was ok.

But it was weird. I haven’t cried for my dad in years. In many ways the trauma of his passing was eclipsed by the trauma of the year before his death, which was truly horrendous. I cried for him. I miss him. But in many ways I miss the father I wished he could have been, rather than the father he actually was.

After the workshop I dropped two friends at the station, and in the middle of light and happy conversation we drove past that coffee place. By this time I was wise to what my confused brain was doing to me, so I was ok. But it was still a shock.

I was in the present, but I was unexpectedly back in that dreadful day at the same time. It’s probably just as well my car didn’t choose to play me any Tina Arena on the way home, or I’d likely have had to pull over and cry. I’m crying now.

Grief has a way of leaping out at you at unexpected moments. I try to be kind to myself when it happens, but the middle of a workshop isn’t really the right time. Sometimes it’s necessary to suck it up, and then write about it the next day with a divine glass of wine, as a form of therapy.

These are scary times. The scariest I can remember. But life goes on. And sometimes it gives you an unexpected beating. But there are workshops, passionate and dedicated people, and good friends with divine wine. There are people to hold you when you fall, and people who will come looking for you if you fall silent. There is hope all around, even when grief seems to be taking you down.

Some days life pushes us over, but we always have the option of pushing back. Push back. Hug your friends. And be kind to yourselves.

 

***this has been posted unedited, not even proof read, as a stream of consciousness grief reaction. It is as real as it can be. I hope it speaks to you. It helped me. You helped me, by being along for the ride.

Holding on tightly

Andrew just left to go to Perth for our friend David’s funeral. I only met David a few times, but we bonded over teaching, and of course over Andrew. Andrew, David, and David’s brother Mike, grew up together. They were brothers in all but DNA. After David and his family moved to Perth in his teens, they were only sporadically in contact but they remained inescapably connected.

And now he’s gone. Andrew packed his things for the flight in my cousin Chris’s backpack, which we inherited when Chris died. Tonight we’ll eat dinner in some bowls that also belonged to Chris. We might serve the veggies with the silver spoon my beloved friend James gave me before he died, so that I would have something to remember him by. I didn’t need the spoon, James has a permanent and dedicated room in my heart.

If Marg hadn’t died a few weeks ago I would call her to touch base around now. I’m wearing the earrings I bought when raiding Vic market with Di way back in first year uni, some years before a car accident robbed her of a future and me of the other half of my brain.

Together, and with many others, they made me who I am. I am built on the foundations of all the people I have ever loved. There are pieces of them embedded in my heart, but they take pieces of me with them when they die. I am broken afresh by each new death, and rebuilt by every friendship.

Each new loss is a body blow, knocking me off balance and off course.

Look down,
The ground below is crumbling.
Look up,
The stars are all exploding.
Hey yeah, hey yeah oh oh
Hey yeah, hey yeah
It’s the last, day on earth,
In my dreams, in my dreams,
It’s the end, of the world,
And you’ve come back, to me.
In my dreams.
Kate Miller-Heidke, Last Day on Earth

Last night in my dreams I was having an argument with my Dad. I woke to find him still gone, and it was equal parts relief and regret. That’s a long story.

Every death interrupts a million stories. But it does not sever those connections. As Pratchett, himself now an echo, wrote: ‘No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…’

Memories remain. Love remains. Even as sadness is overwhelming. My Dad used to say that life was a chronic and ultimately fatal disease. Experience has taught me that the prognosis is acutely uncertain.

So gather your loved ones to you. Take that chance. Make that stand. Give life everything you’ve got. It’s uncertain, and precious, and capricious in the extreme. Grab it with both hands.

The expectation trap

I have come to realise that there are two types of people in the world. There are those who expect far more of others than they expect of themselves. And then there are the ones at risk of burnout: those who set a higher bar for themselves than they would ever dream of setting for someone else.

I’ve got nothing but contempt for the former, to be honest. I would never ask anything of anyone that I’m not willing to do myself. (Except for spider management, ok? I do expect somebody to deal with spiders, and it ain’t gonna be me. We all have our rubicons. Spiders are mine.)  But apart from spiders, I can’t see how you can reasonably expect anything that you’re not willing to give.

Going to expect students to do something? Learn it yourself. Going to demand punctuality? Be on time. Expect people to treat you with respect? That’s a two way street, sunshine.

I’ve worked with people who like to make themselves look good by trashing others. It’s catastrophically bad for an organisation, both in terms of morale and overall work quality.

I’ve also worked with people who focus quite deliberately on raising others up: building their self esteem, publicly acknowledging good work, and generally making a much bigger fuss about the achievements of everyone else than about their own work.

They are louder about success than about failure. They will help you learn from mistakes, but they will never, ever, make a big deal out of them.

These people are society’s anti-depressants. I count some as dear friends, and some as work colleagues, and they would probably never recognise themselves here, because they also tend to be breathtakingly humble.

This humility is endearing, but it’s also dangerous. It comes back to those expectations – those who accept fallibility in others are often brutally hard on it in themselves.

I find myself drawn these days to anything that contains compassion. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, art, work, or science, I look for the love, the compassion, and the beauty. Life has enough trauma, enough harshness, enough brutality. I have a massive nerd crush on Brian Cox because he speaks so passionately about the beauty and wondrous variation of all life, including mankind. In episode 1 of Forces of Nature, for example, he said, “we’re all made out of the same building blocks, but we’re all slightly & magnificently different because of the history of our construction.” In his extraordinary lyricality there is a huge amount of compassion. I can’t get enough of it.

It’s odd, though, that despite being irresistibly drawn to compassion, I am singularly challenged to apply it to myself. My class goes badly? I excoriate myself. Someone else’s class goes badly? I’ll empathise, point out mitigating factors, think about how the same problem could be avoided another time, and help them move on. For myself, there can’t be mitigating factors. Everything is my fault. I expect myself to be perfect, even though I would never ask it of anyone else.

“Do unto others as you would have done unto you” doesn’t go quite far enough, does it? For some the message “do unto yourself as you would do unto others” has a lot more significance. Compassion is a powerful and healing thing.

The really compelling argument for me is that the less compassionate I am to myself, the less compassion I have to spare for others. If I have spent the day brutalising myself for some perceived failing, when I get home to my kids I am likely to be impatient and grumpy with them. It also makes me a lot less resilient. When I’m being hard on myself I can’t cope with life being hard on me as well.

So I have decided to look up to my role models. To those awesome people who lift me up on the low days. The generous souls who are kind and compassionate to those around them. I’m going to ask myself what they would tell me. And I’m going to try to treat myself as I treat others. Maybe if I do that, I might just avoid burnout.

Judgement Day

Human beings are really good at making fast judgements, but not very good at making them accurate. Let’s face it, in an evolutionary sense running away from a potential sabre toothed tiger is almost always a good idea. Better to run away when it turns out not to be a tiger, than not to run away if it actually does have teeth, claws, and a big appetite.

But sometimes those snap judgements can land you in hot water. Like when you decide you can trust someone and turn out to be horribly wrong. Or when you assume the worst of someone based on a chance meeting on a bad day.

Most of us take the judgements of others to heart too, even when we know they’re not based on fact. When somebody talks you down endlessly, it’s pretty hard not to believe it. That can be countered by some positive feedback, but positive feedback isn’t always around right when you need it. We’re more inclined to complain, as a species, I think, than we are to praise. And the bad stuff is also much, much easier to believe. It has been suggested that the ideal ratio is 6 positive comments to 1 negative, and how often do we deliver that kind of ratio ourselves, much less hear it come back to us?

What fascinates me is the power that unfair judgements have to get under my skin. Even if they’re not public – say, sent in a grumpy email or made face to face – they sting. I feel a visceral need to correct them. To fight back. To find a way to somehow wipe my life free of this corrosive attack.

But lately I’ve been thinking about that. Because fighting back invariably leads to a whole new level of toxic interaction, so even if it is temporarily satisfying to lash out, it’s really not going to improve my life. And arguing, however calmly and carefully, with someone’s judgement of you is incredibly unlikely to produce a change in their opinion.

So what on earth can you do? Turning the other cheek may be the biblical solution, but having one cheek stinging and even bleeding already, I really don’t feel like offering the other up for the same treatment. There’s not much incentive to say “Oh yeah? YEAH? Well tell that to my other cheek!”

Maybe there’s a different way. Maybe what I need to think about is the sting itself.

One of the reasons I write is to form connections. When I wrote about Mum last week I got a lot of beautiful support from both friends and strangers. At work I was heading down to the tea room when a colleague called out to me. I stopped, and she caught up and gave me a huge hug. She knew something about me, from what I wrote, that she hadn’t known before, and it prompted her to reach out. It was a moment of beauty in a really tough week.

The interesting thing about those connections is that they can become support structures in the face of those unwanted judgements. I am my own harshest critic, so when others tear me down my first instinct is to agree, and to collapse into a pit of self-loathing. Now I take those moments of beauty and hold them up against the bad stuff.

I save any positive feedback I get at work. The lovely emails from students and their parents. The off-the-cuff comments that give me a lovely warm glow. They all go into my positive feedback file, which I then go and read when I need an antidote to negativity. And the moments of beauty like the responses to my blog – the hug on the stairs, the email from a friend, the comments on facebook – they are also things I can turn to, like a balm that relieves an insect bite, to take the sting out of judgements I know to be unjust.

It turns out that I don’t have to collapse under attack. If I can’t trust my own self-judgement, I can turn to the judgement of people I love, respect, and trust. I can ask myself “Is that what my loved ones would say?”

It’s not easy . When judgements are hurled at you like a knife, they do cut. But there are salves for those cuts. At those moments when we’re bleeding, it turns out we have a choice. We can keep opening the wounds, or we can choose to help them heal. After we stomp around a bit, shouting and swearing. Sometimes you have to scream and throw things before you can act like an adult.

Lonely in a crowd

Locals have left tributes for murdered West Heidelberg toddler Sanaya. There are outpourings of grief and rage, and messages to Sanaya from people she never met. While I understand how crisis brings people together, and sometimes it takes a shock to draw attention, it saddens me that Sanaya’s mum, now accused of also being her murderer, was described in the media today as having 1000 Facebook friends, but no-one in Melbourne she could really talk to.

It feels to me as though we are very good, these days, at signing petitions, attending vigils, and leaving offerings at the scene of crimes. But we’re not so great at drawing isolated people into our community.

We drive to and from huge, impersonal shopping centres without seeing a familiar face. We drive to and from work. We don’t know our neighbours. All too frequently we don’t even socialise with our work colleagues. We’re too busy to put down roots, to know our community, and to see the loneliness on the faces around us – in fact we’re often too busy to see the faces at all.

And some of those faces are struggling. Lonely, isolated, or even trapped in abusive relationships, we give them total privacy, when what they need is a hand stretched out.

My students will tell you I’m not a fan of the Facebook attitude to privacy, but sometimes I wonder if it would be better if Mark Zuckerberg was right and privacy really was dead. I think we venerate it too much. I think we are so concerned with each other’s privacy that we sometimes fail to reach out.

We build fences, create higher walls, and plant screening hedges so that no-one can breach our defences, but maybe it’s our defences that are killing us.

I’m really lucky. I have an incredible collection of friends. We catch up with each other, but frequently need to schedule catch ups weeks or months in advance, because life is so busy. Just dropping in is a luxury we can’t afford – often because we don’t live close to each other. Community is no longer the people around you. That means we can choose our friends, and it’s easier to stay connected with the people we love even when they live on another continent. But it also means that the people we walk past every day are often not people we connect with.

It means when you’re having a rougher day than usual the people around you won’t necessarily notice or care. And it means that when you’re like Sanaya’s mum – struggling and lonely – there may be no-one around you who will smile and reach out a hand. It turns out that we were great at giving her privacy, but not so great at giving her community.

I worry about our future. Online communities can be wonderful, but they don’t see you walking past. I get a lot of support from my Facebook friends, but they can’t pick me up if I fall down in the street. If I couldn’t post for some reason, I doubt my Facebook presence would be missed for quite some time. Reaching out, whether on Facebook or on the phone, is really hard when you are feeling raw and vulnerable. Sometimes you need the people around you to notice.

Of course, it’s not easy to reach out to total strangers, and I don’t know what Sanaya’s mum’s story is. Maybe people did reach out. But I do know that I don’t reach out enough to the people in my own life. There are so many small ways we can keep each other from falling, and I think I could do more.

To check in with friends at work who have been absent for a while, to see if they’re ok. To stop when I see someone is upset, and ask if there’s anything I can do. To arrange more coffees. To send more emails – or better yet, make more phone calls. To really listen when I ask someone how they are, and not just take a quiet “ok” for an answer. To put a flower, a chocolate frog, or a cup of coffee on a friend’s desk when they’re struggling. To take the time to be really appreciative when someone does something nice. Even to admire a new haircut. Just to connect.

Sometimes we all fall through the cracks. Some land harder than others. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all do a little more catching?

 

Ping

There’s an old computer command that you can use to check if a remote machine has crashed – it’s called “ping”. So you can ping a machine, say one called Captain Carrot, and get the response “Captain Carrot is alive”. If the machine is down, or the network is down between you and the machine, you will eventually get “No response from Captain Carrot.”

Far back in the mists of time, when I was a postgrad, this was a handy shorthand among computer scientists. If I hadn’t heard from Fred for a while, but didn’t have anything particular to say, I’d just send a ping: “Ping Fred”. Usually I’d get the response “Fred is alive.”

Occasionally I’d get something more creative, like “Fred has been eaten by his thesis.” Either way, it would trigger a conversation, of varying length depending on the ferocity of the thesis. It was a light way of checking in with each other. Ping says “I’m thinking of you, how ya doin’?”

It says “I don’t want to interrupt, but I’m here and want to stay connected. If you’ve got time, let’s chat. If not, just know that I’m here.”

It says “I’ve got a moment of spare time, and thought of you.”

These days our spare time is spent trawling the web, reading status updates, and watching meaningless youtube vidoes. When I have a moment free, I sit down and check my email, then trawl various news websites, read various articles I’m only marginally interested in, and check a host of social networking sites. I used to sit down, breathe, think of a friend and ping them.

Of course, there’s no need for pings these days. After all, we see Fred’s status updates on his social media of choice, and he sees ours. We know what’s going on in his life, right?

Notwithstanding the tendency of platforms like Facebook to heavily trim the number of updates that you actually see, hands up if you post everything that’s going on with you online? Do you post the huge argument you had with your boss (who, incidentally, you are friends with on facebook)? The health dramas going on in your family? Every last detail of your fears, worries, and uncertainties?

Few people do. We all have lines we don’t cross when it comes to broadcasting our lives (even me, tough though that may be to believe). And even if we did post it all online, clicking “like” doesn’t come close to a ping. Clicking “like” says “I saw what you posted”. Ping says “I thought of you of my own accord and wanted to see how you’re doing”.

That’s when I think of you
It’s all that I can do
I’d go mad if it wasn’t for you
If not for the thought of you
The promise of dreams come true
I’d go mad if it wasn’t for you.

“That’s when I think of you”. 1927.

Even the facebook “poke”, more often than not, means little more than “Facebook suggested I poke you”.

Ping often leads to coffee or lunch. At the very least, it is a brief two way interaction. Clicking “like” leads to… well… to scrolling off the page. Moving on. Trawling the endless interwebs in search of lolcats.

Maybe we computer scientists were on to something with this “ping” stuff. Maybe the humble ping is a way of reconnecting in our highly connected but oddly detached world.

On that note, I have to go. Things to do, people to ping.