A Certain Pride?

She thinks it’s here again. The signs are familiar: sleeping well but waking up exhausted; not eating properly; not exercising; refusing social invitations. She promises herself she’ll resume a regular working routine, but sits at her computer for hours, playing Solitaire or reading blogs about  … depression.

She can’t remember the first time she thought, ‘I am depressed,’ but she remembers the first time she knew she’d beaten depression. She was eating dinner with friends, women friends, and she laughed at something one of them said and was surprised by the feel of laughter deep in her stomach where the depression once lodged.

This is a lie, of course. She had postnatal depression once, but she never counts that because, well …  hormones, the middle of winter, one small child and a baby that cried a lot, a cold house, her mother visiting, not to help but to sit at the kitchen table and reassure her, ‘everything will be fine as soon as you establish a routine,’ before demanding coffee, cake and attention.

People always want her attention.

She gives them what they need.

So, this new incarnation: depression number four. Or maybe five. Six? Why bother counting. It’s best to deal with it (she has learned not to say ‘cure’). She’s had counselling. Three times? Four? CBT the third time, mindfulness-based the last time. That helped. And for postnatal depression, hypnotism, which worked well. For a time.

She refuses to take drugs. Both she and her mother appear genetically compromised by antidepressants. They aggravate the malady, in her case to the point of paranoia. The doctors tell her to give it time, let the drugs work, but she throws them away. She knows people who have been on antidepressants almost their entire adult life.  She does not condemn, simply knows drugs are her highway to mental incapacity.

Maybe she’s learned to be a functioning depressive the way addicts function on a diet of alcohol, a load of cannabis or a needle full of heroin?

Maybe depression is her drug of choice?

She’ll stick to meditation, mindfulness, start exercising again, eating properly, call a friend and share lunch with them.

Or not. She learned to be quiet and read while her mother wept in the bedroom. She learned to disappear into her head when her mother raged at her, told her she was a naughty, ungrateful, undeserving, selfish monster.

But she could never completely vanish.

She takes a certain pride in surviving bouts of  depression. She thought of suicide once, when she lived close to the railway and decided to take a blanket, lie across the rails and sleep, let the 5:00 am from the coast finish her off, but she knew she’d hear the rumble of the coming train, change her mind, struggle with the blanket and the stones between the rails, scramble up in an undignified pyjama-clad effort to live and the train wouldn’t stop. She gave the idea away.

If depression is a function of the mind (or is it the brain?), then she uses her mind/brain to solve her problem. She knows the systemic causes of her depression: being a woman in a patriarchal society; the insidious backward bend of world politics to Fascism; the lack of gainful employment.

And knowing she is never good enough or clever as, witty as, compassionate as and as careful as everyone she knows, and thousands more people she will never know.

She decides to research the Four Temperaments (she once dabbled in Astrology – an ancient gesture towards counselling) and believes she can, occasionally, be Sanguine or confidently optimistic and cheerful. She’s more often moved to anger, so she’s probably Choleric and certainly Phlegmatic; she is rarely composed and willingly displays and shares her emotions.  Maybe, she thinks, expressing emotions and Melancholia go together? Is that why some friends, family, and colleagues prefer she not ‘wear her heart on her sleeve’.

But why have a heart if you cannot display it?

Like everything, Astrology failed to provide an answer her mind could accept.  Astrology is the art of variables. She loved its subtleties, how it drew her down wondrous paths to glorious revelation or dry dead ends. But Astrology couldn’t answer all her questions.

Like an aesthete revisiting her favourite cathedral or a beloved painting, she decides to embrace Melancholia. To hold the child she was, she is, in loving regard, to soothe and indulge, to wipe away and store each tear in her cask of wisdom.

She knows it’s here again: depression. She  must welcome it, absorb its lessons, let it fold her in a mutual embrace.

Today’s Footnote: ‘I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.’ Charles Baudelaire


Please note: The above is a work of fiction and this blog in no way argues against the taking of prescribed antidepressants. If you suffer from depression, seek help from your doctor, counselor or local Lifeline or Mental Health Agency.

Footnote to Self-Compassion

Experts suggest there are six emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise.

Buddhists believe the best response to another’s sadness, fear and even anger is compassion, the ability to understand another person’s suffering and to ease their distress. For Laura D’Olimpio, empathy,

feeling the feelings of another or imaginatively reconstructing the feelings of another

and sympathy, the ability to identify

with the other based on feelings of common humanity,

are both components of compassion, but they can also be problematic. Empathy risks triggering self-misery, while sympathy assumes it is possible to experience the feelings of another. Neither guarantee mercy nor aid. It is too easy to stand by and say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, I know what you’re going through,’ or ‘poor you, my condolences.’ girl phoneReal change, the kind of change that reduces human distress, takes effort. A compassionate individual refuses to stand by, wring their hands and offer meaningless platitudes. Compassion is ‘fellow feeling’, understanding the misery, fear or anger of a fellow human. It calls us to end or relieve suffering. More importantly,

everyone has the capacity to be compassionate: to treat others as you would wish to be treated. To be kind and tender, generous and forgiving, hospitable, helpful and attentive, curious, listening and present, empathic and connected, respectful, understanding and acknowledging. It takes courage, self-reflection and self-compassion.

https://charterforcompassion.org/images/menus/Healthcare/PDFs/CompassionforCare.pdf

For Dr Kristin Neff, compassion is

feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.

Why, then, was self-compassion mentioned in the definition from The Charter for Compassion? Self-compassion, according to Neff, is

acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?

http://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/

So, while compassion requires change on a communal, collective and global level, self-compassion implies a willingness to change on a personal level.

One way we can be more compassionate towards our self, is to learn how to regulate the six emotions listed above, a process of checking in on and altering (not repressing or denying), one’s feelings, thoughts, actions, words and even physiological responses. Emotional regulation also allows us to interact and communicate with the rest of society in a healthy, peaceful and meaningful way.

Emotion regulation (ER) is regarded as a crucial factor in well-being, in the popular literature, clinical psychological practice, and scientific research alike.

Nyklícek, Ivan, Ad Vingerhoets, and Marcel Zeelenberg. Emotion Regulation and Well-Being. New York, Springer, 2011, p. 2.

Neither emotional regulation nor self-compassion can stop us from feeling sad, angry or fearful. Emotional regulation will (particularly if combined with mindfulness), help us to recognise, understand and accept difficult situations and deal with them rationally.

sisters-bmewett
Photo:B Mewett

Self-compassion combined with emotional regulation soothes and comforts the inner self. It can help us find appropriate and loving support from those around us, but in our worst moments, when we feel utterly abandoned, self-compassion, self-care and mindful awareness is a powerful, healthy and humane response. Why? Kristen Neff believes compassion for others begins with self-compassion. Humanity is not ‘us and them’, it is just us’. If we fail to care compassionately for ourselves, how can we begin to care for others?

Today’s Footnote: Do you yell at the television because you’re irritated by the politician being interviewed? Do you turn away from your partner and refuse to speak to them for a week when they question your decisions? Do you slam the door to put a full stop to your arguments? Do you hang out the car window and hurl thunderbolts of rage at the driver of the car in front of you?  If so, maybe a hearty meal of emotional regulation served with a side of compassion and topped by the sweet sauce of self-compassion will give you the perspective you need.

 

 

Travelling Goldilocks

When I was a child I lay in bed at night wondering when the bad people would come and murder my parents, or take me away, or bomb my house. These fears, I believe, were the result of an over active imagination and going to the movies with my parents; I was an only child for ten years and my parents enjoyed watching films, so I’d go with them, often falling asleep on my father’s lap. They favoured war movies, stories of heroes from the Second World War, a war that lasted through most of their adolescence. In addition, my mother listened to the radio so I heard news bulletins about Czechoslovakia, Korea, and the Bay of Pigs crisis. Us Baby Boomers grew up knowing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for an imaginative, well-read child who spent most of her time with adults, it was easy to imagine the worst because the worst had happened in the decade before her birth. 

Alone in my bed, my anxieties would get the better of me. I’d start to weep, call my parents, and tell them my fears. They did their best to soothe me, ‘Don’t be silly,’ they’d say, ‘you’re safe with us. No one is going to hurt you. Go to sleep and stop worrying about nothing.’ My parents never wanted to make things worse, my night fears worried them, but words like ‘silly’ and ‘nothing’ facilitate anxiety instead of quenching it. I grew up ignoring my anxieties and berating myself for having them. Instead of being properly addressed, my unwelcome, unhelpful worries were fed with ‘what if?’, ‘look out,’ ‘take care’, ‘this will never work’ and ‘I’m afraid to…’.

Teaching revealed one way to cope; responsibility for the well-being and education of, initially, young children and later, adults, turned me into a manager and organiser. I learnt how to anticipate, plan for and manage contingencies. I developed, at least professionally, a range of strategies that helped me control any situation. Addressing the insidious ‘what ifs?’ became proof of my skills and an indication that I took my job and responsibilities seriously.

Personally, however, my anxieties were a liability. Firm management, detailed organisation and making sure everything goes as planned is not easy where children and family are concerned and my need for control lead to bitter conflicts.

And so, my ‘default program’ became an innate, distrustful wariness. Predators lurked on every street corner, the trappings of civilisation such as road rules, regulations concerning food, personal hygiene, and travel, to name a few, seemed like illusions designed to negate my fears, not address them.

As I age, particularly given the potentially dire state of the world, my anxiety is getting worse. A decade ago I stepped outside my comfort zone and thrived, but now I feel less inclined to do so. I recognise my methods of coping no longer work so I meditate and use mindful breathing, rational thinking and writing to help me cope.

These skills are crucial because, in the next couple of days, I am leaping out of my comfort zone and heading, with my partner, to Europe on my first major trip overseas. We’re visiting five countries in seven weeks and while this prospect is thrilling, the little girl in me wants to cower beneath her blankets and stay put.

But cowering is something I’ve done most my life. I’ve embraced the known, stuck with what is safe and celebrated the familiar and remained where I have a degree of control.

When I was researching and writing my memoir, I drew heavily on a story my parents read to me when I was three years old. I knew Goldilocks and the Three Bears by heart. If my mother changed the wording I’d correct her. As part of my doctorate I wrote a research paper that accompanied my memoir, ‘Reading Goldilocks’. I wrote that Goldilocks, ‘is a feisty, assertive, determined, [and] resourceful’ child because she refused to let an unanswered door get in her way. This aspect of Goldilocks helped me explore and embrace my skills and identity as a writer.

I have decided, therefore, to take Goldilocks with me, metaphorically at least, to Europe. If anyone knows how to walk away from what’s known and secure, it’s Goldilocks. Together we will dispel the anxiety that has hounded my preparations for this trip; we will stray far from home, enter forests made of steel and concrete or trees and glades. Yes, we will encounter a bear or two. Some beds will be too hard and while I hope we won’t break any chairs, I will want my porridge gluten free. Goldilocks and I will have a companion, my partner, to walk the trails with us. The three of us will do our best to make this trip ‘just right,’ and if we are menaced by an occasional grumpy bear we will be okay; Goldilocks knows how to safely leap from a window.

I hope you will follow us on our journey; I plan to share our adventure here on Elixir because, as Thomas Moore has written,

Standing in a doorway, you are forced into the imagination, wondering what you will find on the other side. It is a place full of expectant fantasy […] Anything of moment takes place in these intercises.

By stepping over my threshold and sharing it with you, I hope we can embrace the benefits of being mindful, and learn to live in the moment instead of suffering from illusions born of our fear.

Thomas Moore, ‘Neither Here Nor There’, Parabola, 25.1 (2000), 34-39 (p. 34).

 

Communication: Why I love to Write, Part 3

I love to write because I am fascinated by the process of communication.

Some of us are born communicators: for these folk, starting a conversation with a stranger is easy and listening to a friend’s woes comes naturally. I learned to communicate when I trained as a junior primary (elementary) teacher, because my job meant I would have to walk into a classroom, ‘engage the learner’ and, in the process, teach that learner how to communicate via both the spoken and written word. But that doesn’t mean communicating with others is easy for me, it’s just a skill I acquired.

I was told communication is made up of three basic components: the Sender, the Receiver and the Message. Several years later, at a communication workshop, I discovered it’s not that simple. There are many things that interfere with the clear, harmonious exchange of information, ideas and feelings:

  • The Sender’s intent, mood, attitude, education, language skills and even their appearance,
  • The Receiver’s willingness to hear the message, their  mood, attitude, education, command of language, their appearance and relationship with the sender,
  • How the Message is sent, whether verbally or via a letter, text, email, photograph or emoji,
  • How skillfully, or otherwise, the Message is composed; its content, tone and the style of language used. In the case of written messages, the quality of the grammar and punctuation is crucial. In one-to-one verbal communication the receiver and sender’s ‘non-verbal’ language, what we used to call ‘body language,’ is a major part of the message exchange, which is why it has been replaced, in texts and emails, by emojis.
Given these variables, it is a wonder we manage to communicate with each other at all.

What has this got to do with writing, creative or otherwise? I am always aware, as I write, that I want to communicate something; an idea, a feeling, an image, an incident. I spend much of my writing time ensuring my message is ‘clear’ and easily understood. I realise this sometimes gets in the way of ‘art’ and I should forget about the receiver (my ‘ideal’ reader) and remain true to the creative impulse, to what compels me to write, to the act of creation …

… I’m writing at my dining table. The morning sun pours in but it’s nevertheless a cool winter’s day. I am anxious to finish this blog because I am meeting a friend for lunch. The palm outside the window casts spear shaped shadows across the batik table cloth. The spears distract me, irritate me. Looking through the glass I see the window is dirty, a cobweb defaces the upper right corner of the frame. When am I going to find the time to clean the windows and tidy the garden before we head to Europe? Yes, we’re going to Europe at the end of the month. I don’t like flying and I’m steeling myself for the flight. We’re visiting six countries in seven weeks; the longest time we’ll spend in one place is Ireland. Thrill and agitation sit at my shoulder as I prepare for this trip, as I am arrested by the burnished blue jewel that is my winter sky; friends tell me the first thing I’ll notice when I arrive in Glasgow is the quality of light. In less than a month, I will walk beneath northern skies. In France, Italy and Greece I will not possess any words, my messages will dissolve, I will hallucinate before each indecipherable sign. Who will I be if I cannot communicate …?

… I know I will learn. I trust I will find a way to communicate, just as I do every time I sit at my computer and write.

 

Awash with Emails

I purchased a new laptop last week. The old one is still working, but it is slow and I’ve always had trouble with its dodgy space bar. That’s not the main reason, however; my partner and I are off on an adventure in late May and I plan to share my reflections on the new sights, experiences and different climes we’ll experience. The old laptop is too heavy to cart across the planet, hence the recent purchase. airplane

I’m a baby boomer but I know my way around most of my computer’s settings. I’m also reasonably skilled in problem solving (aka ‘trouble shooting’), mostly with the help of Google and YouTube. Is there no question these two sites can’t answer? I decided, therefore, I’d configure the new laptop myself. I didn’t want to bother my eldest son, my youngest son is off with his wife on their adventure and my partner is not, shall I say, as confident with computers as I am. I therefore cheerfully launched into setting up my little laptop, thinking it would take, at the most, a day or two.

That was a week ago.

Scrivener and I handled the transition superbly. Dropbox likewise. My precious photographs were transposed safely (I saved them to a USB just to be sure) and my word processing package seemed to settle into its new home with its numerous files intact. Facebook … well, Facebook is Facebook. Like water, it seeps into the tightest of crevices. And if you’re reading this then the WordPress platform also handled the shift well.

And then there was the email. It should have been simple. I felt I did my part: I planned my approach; I saved important emails; I followed the instructions, but to no avail. I’ve spent the last four days grappling with the beast that is my ‘personal information manager’ while my blog and other writing has languished.emails

I decided to pay a visit to my old laptop this morning, to check my email. One hundred and ninety five emails were downloading, the very emails I managed to head off on the new laptop. Yes, dear reader, I faced down an email tsunami, one I somehow caused but had no idea how I’d done so. Naturally, I did what every semiskilled computer user does; I panicked, shut the old laptop down and disabled the email platform on the new laptop. It’s obvious now that I need a son (or two) to help me undo whatever I’ve done. In the meantime, I can check emails on the Internet. And my phone. And my iPad.

martin_szajaThe point of this post is not my wounded Boomer pride but the irony of the situation. I am a born communicator who failed to set up a simple communication network. I don’t venture into the world and talk to actual human beings as much as I used to and I certainly don’t teach communication skills any more; I connect to the world through emails. I love writing emails, more often little stories tolerated, for the most part, by my friends. I have turned some of these missives into blog posts. But even though I can still communicate with the outside world, maybe it’s time to reflect on my relationship to my emails. I believe the real problem is not that I enjoy communicating via email, it’s the volume of email traffic that swamps my computer, emails I organise under cunningly named labels so I can locate and read them later. The other problem is, as well as my WordPress subscriptions, I subscribe to several (to tell the truth, dozens), of literary and writing websites. I suspect I accrue the equivalent of three large book’s worth of emails to read each week. Of course I can’t keep up; I simply file an email under its label and tell myself I get back to it one day.

Maybe the Email Goddess is trying to tell me something. Is it time to unsubscribe, yet again, from a few sites? Should I delete emails from before (and after) 2013? Will I ever read them? And yet, as I sorted, prior to the email deluge, through my old emails, I found some interesting stuff: notes concerning my PhD research that I’d forgotten I had; early photographs of my precious granddaughter; emails to and from my partner when we were courting; emails to my children and three emails from my father, written just before he died.  Among the polluted polynya that is my email cache, there are a few gems I’d like to scoop up and put to good use if possible.  antarctica-1987579__340

If it’s not possible, I have to accept that a part of my life is undergoing a thorough purge. But before I do that I’ll call my son and ask when he can visit me and work out what I’ve done and how to fix it.

 

How confident are you with managing your computer? Do you receive dozens of emails a week that you never read? Have you found old gems among your email or other files?

 

Averting One’s Face.

I’m spending too much time on Facebook and not enough time writing or with my partner. It’s not that I have Facebook open all day, respond to every notification or read all the articles that land on my page. In fact, it’s more about the quality of my time on line, rather than the quantity.

I joined Facebook in 2007 when a friend posted photographs of her overseas trip on what was to me the new and somewhat intimidating social platform. When I met my partner three years later and subsequently announced our relationship on Facebook, I added many of his friends and family to my growing list of ‘friends’. In the ten years since I registered, Facebook has ‘helped’ me reconnect with many family members who, for a range of reasons, were once lost to me. I admit I relished the careful refortifying, albeit mostly on line, of these precious family ties and I’ve loved seeing, in ‘real time’, several cousins and aunts, something that might not have happened without Facebook. I also enjoy the opportunity to connect with other writers and writing sites.

social_mediaOver the last couple of weeks, however, some of my friends have decided to take time off from Facebook or leave altogether. One of them explicitly cited the current political situation in the USA, and its alarming resemblance to Germany in the 1930s, as a reason for his decision.

I tend to agree with his position. We can compare, at the very least, Hitler’s appeal to sections of German society through speeches full of clichés, catch phrases and promises to reclaim Germany’s lost glory, to the emotionally laden rhetoric of Donald Trump. His promise to restore ‘order’, the way he targets and scapegoats people from different ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds is terrifyingly familiar, and implies the same inevitable conclusion; to appease one group, another group must be eliminated. As described on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website,

Nazis demanded that Germans accept the premises of the Nazi worldview and live their lives accordingly. They tolerated no criticism, dissent, or nonconformity … Guided by racist and totalitarian principles, the Nazis eliminated individual freedoms and pronounced the creation of the national community, in whose name they seized every opportunity to turn Germany into a unified racial collective … Hitler’s political opponents were the first victims of systematic Nazi persecution.

Recent Facebook posts describe the potential for public servants to feel morally compromised when they implement the new policies. If they refuse, they risk losing their jobs. This and the cavalier creation of poorly conceived and potentially dangerous policies and executive orders, are two instances that, I believe, have caused several of my friends personal despair. I can empathise. The negative and destructive actions of the government of the United States, and of my own government, is indefensible; I want no part of it. I too, am considering closing my Facebook account. But is this a rational decision?

Leaving Facebook may give me more time to write blog posts, work on my novel and my collection of flash fiction. I’ll have time to read more novels and reputable, balanced news feeds that back up their content with sound research and judicious investigation. One of the problems with Facebook’s continuous news feed is deciding if the content contains carefully researched facts, mere opinion or blatant lies. Rather than an open access to the world of ideas, much of what we read on Facebook exists within a bubble we, with Facebook’s help, create. Our newsfeed is a construction that confirms and reinforces the values and beliefs we already have. Quitting Facebook might give me more time to explore issues with my friends and family, rather than working out what they mean in their posts, or what they believe by clicking on sites they share. Leaving Facebook could also  mean that, rather than lamenting the gathering dark, I will have time to volunteer for the causes I support and light a few candles to illuminate and nullify the portents of doom. It seems to me that a time is looming when we will be asked to make actual (real time) changes in the world instead being satisfied with clicking on a sad or angry ’emoji’. Is it possible that, as an answer to every tragedy, every act of treachery, Facebook’s abbreviated method of response actually stops us from getting off our chairs and making real changes?

On the other hand, if I leave Facebook I may lose the ineffable connections with those I love best; family who live interstate. Yes, we can phone each other, we can get on a plane and visit, but sometimes it is nice to log on and see that my son is relaxing with friends, my daughter has managed to find a permanent home for an abandoned puppy, my daughter-in-law has organised another fund raising event. I also wonder how my leaving Facebook will disrupt the very things that could threaten my family’s well-being. Will deleting my Facebook account mean I am burying my head in the sand, refusing to see the world’s situation for what it, inexplicably and dangerously, is? By being ‘less informed’ about the plight of innocents might I be culpable for their suffering?

I cannot possibly answer these questions until and unless I decide what to do. But in a way, leaving Facebook is not the real question here. The real issue is how can I positively influence the state of the world? Is the turmoil and strife many of us fear inevitable? What can we do to prevent it?

To resist something is to hinder or prevent its progress, to oppose, to refuse to yield or comply. Those of us nervous, nay frightened, of recent events have a moral choice. We can comply or we can resist. Either option has its consequences. At the moment, we are exposed to rhetoric that focuses on one thing: America and its interests. In a recent post I pointed out that we are a family of nations. I know from bitter experience that when the needs of one member of a family are more important than the needs of other members, the family will be destroyed.

What I don’t know is if deleting my Facebook adequately signals my refusal to accept the current status quo. If you leave a room while an argument is taking place, are you showing tacit acceptance of the situation, or exercising your right to directly resist a situation you can no longer abide?

Walk, Look, Listen

I spent part of last week’s trip to Melbourne roaming the city streets alone. I was not lonely; I enjoyed the solitude. I felt, as I walked, solid, curious and aware.

img_0754

Melbourne was practice for next year’s trip to Europe. Dare I walk the streets of Paris alone? Dare I broach Rome? Time will tell.

The anxiety I have lately suffered dissolved, for a time, in Melbourne. I was obliged by my lack of acquaintance with the city to draw on my strength and renew my frayed resilience. People say that will happen when you step outside your comfort zone, but I wasn’t really that far out of it. I was where the populace spoke my language; the traffic codes, the food, the images were all culturally familiar.


Did I feel strong because I had only myself to depend on, because I had no one else to consider, because the only needs I had to meet were my own?

When my companion joined me I saw Melbourne from another person’s perspective. I walked now familiar streets overlaid with stories of his past. I listened and I enjoyed, but there were moments when I regretted my lost solitude.

Strength is found when you walk, look, listen and when you share.

It’s Always Fun until Someone is Hurt

Humans tend to form tribes because they make us, generally, feel safe. There is nothing wrong with being part of a tribe, which is only a large and probably more rambunctious, potentially more supportive, family.

The question is, why do we objectify, hate and attempt to destroy other tribes? Is it, ‘get them before they get us’? Is it because, ‘they’re standing in the way of what we want’? Is it because they threaten us first, which sets off the amygdala, often described as the part of the brain whose

primary purpose is to govern the emotion of fear,

but whose function may well be

to evaluate the relevance of stimuli, and then to tune the individual’s overall cognitive and emotional response (emphasis added)?

There is nothing wrong with feeling fear, just as there is nothing wrong with feeling proud of and loyal to our tribe and slightly suspicious of other tribes. They are, after all, an unknown quantity. But what about the reasonably well established idea that every human on the planet, regardless of the tribe they belong to, all want the same thing: to feel safe and warm; to be well fed; to watch their children grow to secure adulthood; and, if those things are satisfied, explore the world through travel and communication with others, often through the medium of art and crafts?Paints

If this is true, when different tribes fall into conflict it is not because they want different things; they want the same thing but they have different methods to achieve those things, and herein lies the problem.

The other significant thing about tribes is they usually include a leader.

It’s a truism that the quality of the tribe (by which I mean, what they want, why they want it, and what they are prepared to do to get it), determines the quality of the leader. By extension, the quality of the leader will have a similar impact on the quality of the tribe.

Good leaders listen to every member of their tribe (and good members of the tribe make it their business to share their ideas with their leader, and listen carefully to that leader). A leader’s job is also, given members of a tribe rarely agree, to make wise, considered choices about which parts of a tribe’s agenda are sound and which need more work. Only then can the leader proceed to implement the tribe’s goals and needs.

What does this have to do with disliking an opposing tribe? If our methods for meeting our needs  don’t get in the way of an opposing tribe, and vice versa, why do we get involved in a wasteful conflict with other tribes?

Is it because leaders coerce, convince and cajole their members (who have morphed into ‘followers’, which is quite a different thing), into hating the opposing tribe? If this is true, being tribal is not the problem; the problem may well be our leaders. If we believe the amygdala regulates ‘the emotion of fear’ we are easily seduced into believing, for example, that ‘racial hatred is biologically ingrained and therefore beyond individual control’. When our leaders say other tribes laugh and sneer at us, hate our food, the way we talk, who we sleep with, how we spend our down time, they are manipulating our fears. How do leaders do this? In the way they speak to us. There are three basic ways a leader can talk to us: they can use reason, emotion or focus on character and a sense of belonging. 6K07J9234Y

Let’s look at reason first. This is where a leader logically makes his or her case, provides evidence to back up that case and offers conclusions based on that evidence (a good leader will also listen to conclusions other members of the tribe might have made based on the evidence). In terms of character, a leader might focus on their own standing within the tribe, how their membership of that tribe brings status and honour to the tribe. And then there is the appeal to emotion. Of all the ways a leader can describe the tribe to itself, describe him or herself as a leader, and describe the other tribe and their leader, emotion is the most powerful and the most divisive. There is no logic and no evidence provided, there is no talk of upright moral behaviour, there is just the rawness of feelings. Two year olds are masters at expressing their emotions; they believe in them because they feel them then and there; emotions feel real, they feel reasonable, they are all encompassing. And then they are gone, ‘oh, look, a butterfly …’

How can a tribe distinguish between logic, character and emotions (also known as, since the Greeks first thought democracy might be a good way to get tribes to think about their place in the world, as Logos, Ethos and Pathos)? The answer is to listen carefully to the words the leader uses. Logos is not about saying, ‘I have empirical evidence’ it’s about outlining and explaining the evidence and analysing it. A leader who does this might use words like, ‘research, exploration, data, measurements, comparison, contrast, examination’. In an appeal to Ethos the key words are usually ‘I, me, we, us, them, they, our community, society, ethnic, class, clan, family, tribe, good character, poor character, proper, right, moral, correct, wrong, deviant, evil and not like us’. Some of these words may also be used when the leader employs Pathos, along with other words such as ‘threat, danger, safety, force, take, give, leave, lose, anger, love, cry, hate’.

What can the assembled tribe do as they listen to their leaders trying to convince them that their way of seeing the world, and getting what they want, is the right and proper way?

A friend of mine, an American I deeply respect has, over the years, shared two significant insights with me. The first was, ‘Janet, who is speaking, for whom, and on whose authority?’ I didn’t initially understand her meaning. In the context of today’s post, however, the first part of her question could relate to Ethos; ‘Who is doing the talking, what do they believe, why are they the leader, what do they know, where did they get their information? What are their biases, their prejudices?’ The second is simply a way of remembering they are talking to us: thinking beings with our own ideas, thoughts, experiences and feelings. We need to ask ourselves if the leader is truly reflecting our experiences, or merely acting as if they care about our lives and what we want.

And the final part? The word ‘authority’ is tricky here and I wish I could find a better one, but look at it this way; authority can mean giving orders and making decisions (in which case we go back to ‘who gave this person the right to speak?’). Another meaning of the word is an expert who therefore knows what they are talking about. One final meaning: freedom from doubt, assurance, self-confidence, which is not the same thing as speaking from an expert base or in a logical and sensible way but could be interpreted as ‘speaking for themselves’.

And the second thing my American friend said? It was a decade or two later, when I was struggling with my PhD. I was stuck and I didn’t know what to do with the information I’d uncovered, what it meant and how to structure it. She listened politely as I rambled on and when I took a breath she said, ‘Janet, think harder.’

fphbeu989xTribes will always complain about other tribes. We humans love a good rumble. But as I used to say to my three children when they play-wrestled together on the family room floor, ‘It’s always good fun until someone gets hurt.’

When the rumble is serious, when a leader, two leaders, emerge who think they can speak for us, on their own authority, and tell us the other tribe hate us and want us to disappear off the planet, they are ‘evaluating the relevance of stimuli’, for us. They are manipulating how we ‘tune’ into our ‘overall cognitive and emotional responses’.

How do we stop them from manipulating us? We need to listen carefully, note the words they use, the emphasis they place on those words and how those words are arranged. We need to sit down and think about our tribe, our leader and how he or she wields their authority. And then we need to think harder. We need to consider the other tribe, that weird bunch across the river who, after all, want the same things as we want.

 

 

On Momentum, Saying ‘No’ and Self-Belief

In the last three years I have spent November marking final assignments and completing numerous end of semester tasks. This year my November is, or was, free and I am participating in NaNoWriMo.

I have to admit, however, this month long word belch feels a little … is déclassé the word I’m looking for? After all, anyone I  know who has written a novel didn’t write it in a month.  

On the other hand I risk sounding like the kind of snob I occasionally met at Grad school; writers who turned up their noses at the very idea of a write-in with a weird acronym.

Just after deciding to take part in NaNoWriMo 2016 I read SuddenlyJamie’s inspirational blog post and, heartened by her balanced and sensible approach to the November madness, I plunged right in.

How have I gone so far? I’ve written 13,689 words in the last eight days, a little over the recommended daily average for a 50,000 word novel. Apart from taking a break on Sunday, and struggling to regain my momentum on Monday, the experience has been worth it. I admit to having trouble trusting the quality of the words but I understand that’s partly what NaNoWriMo is about; getting the words on the screen or the page and editing later. So far I’ve resisted the voice in my head saying, ‘You need a comma there. Oh, no, you’re not going to let THAT word stay are you? Good heavens, a ten year old could write a better sentence.’

I also wonder if I have the persistence to maintain my current word rate and the self belief necessary to compete the 50,000 word challenge and then craft, edit and polish the entire novel (a total of 75,000 words, once I add the 25,000 I wrote over two years ago). My biggest concern, however, is will I be able to say ‘No,’ to requests on my time?

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Stephanie Krist

The kind of momentum required for something like NaNoWriMo is as much about self belief as time. I may not reach my goal of 50,000 words but that doesn’t mean I will fail. If I stop because I have a ‘my brain feels like wet straw,’ day or because I agree to requests that draw me away from my computer, I will fail; I will no longer be true to the idea of myself as a woman who writes.

I did not decide to participate in NaNoWriMo because I want, on the 30th November, a completed first ‘discovery draft’ of a novel. My participation is an act of faith in myself.

Are you taking part in this year’s NaNoWriMo? How do you gather and maintain the momentum needed to complete your daily word count? How do you maintain self belief?  How will you feel if you don’t meet your goal? (Would you like a writing buddy?)

Morality, Betrayal and the Power of Words

All I have is the power of words.book

‘The moral faculty,’ says  Professor Shaun Nichols, ‘is part of the mind most likely to be seen as the ultimate explanation for whether a person’s
identity endures or fades away.’ Is this a revision of the old saw, ‘Manners maketh the man‘?

Morality: what we, what I, believe is right or wrong. I am five, I am ten, I am fifteen and all the ages between; my parents’ mantra is, ‘do the right thing.’ What is the ‘right thing’? Right for me? Right for them? Right for someone else?

What do we mean by right? What do we mean by wrong? ‘Semantics,’ my father said. ‘Walk around in another person’s shoes,’ he advised. ‘Think of other’s needs first,’ cautioned my mother in what was my first inkling of irony.

Six months ago, as I grapple once more with depression, I am encouraged to ask ‘What are my needs?’ and put them first.

I think my father might have been heartened by Professor Nichols findings:

People regard morality as central to identity. Why might morality occupy such a place of privilege? One possibility is that our moral selves are central to what it means to be human …

One’s morals are more significant than any other trait? Down what well, then, does meditating on morality lead us? Is morally praiseworthy behaviour dependant on our motives? I think this was where my mother was heading.

And ethics?

“Ethics” leans towards decisions based upon individual character, and the more subjective understanding of right and wrong by individuals – whereas “morals” emphasises the widely-shared communal or societal norms about right and wrong.

Is betrayal immoral, unethical or both? If betrayal is about ethics then one who betrays may well have a confused understanding of the difference between right and wrong. If it is about morals, betrayal negates any contracts negotiated with loved ones, neighbours and colleagues. It derails trust, sabotages intimate relationships, disavows whatever we owe to these people.

All I have is the power of words and this image looping through my head, running, stopping, starting, over and over: a warrior woman, red hair bristling from beneath her helmet. In one muscled arm a sword, on the other a shield. She wears her anger like an annulus, but she circles and winds fruitlessly through my mind. Why does she stop and start? Why doesn’t she act? Maybe wisdom is more fearful than anger?

Wisdom: accrued knowledge, the ability to apply that knowledge, to apply insight gained from experience.

My mother once told me I had the power to wound her with my words. I was fifteen and I thought, but dare not say, ‘I garnered that power from you’.

MaskIf I feel betrayed, if I feel a loved one’s actions are morally and ethically questionable I can be, using words my mother loved, vituperative and vindictive. Or I can lean against the wisdom of my father, secure in his understanding of the difference between right and wrong, the nobility of his moral and ethical ruminations learned while watching, in his adolescence, men go stoically, foolishly to war.

What are my needs? To be secure in the knowledge that any contract with loved ones are honoured, that no betrayal, even that of the imagination or the mind, occurs.

I can wait. I can act when wise to do so. And I can call people who betray me to account. My mother passed her sword on to me. My father handed me the shield.

I have the power, and the wisdom, of my words.