Sunday, 26 February 2012

On Having One Regret

A friend of mine once told me that she had only one regret: a few months previously, she’d bought a pair of trousers, but not the matching jacket. I was stunned. Even a little appalled. Was that it? Was there really nothing else in her life that she regretted? Suspicious as to what lay behind her lack of regret, I wasn’t sure whether to put it down to her charmed life, superficiality, or a complete acceptance of life as it was. And I couldn’t believe any one of those possibilities was actually the case.

At the time, I had mounds of regrets. I wished that I’d studied harder and done more at university; I felt as if I’d passed up useful opportunities which might never come my way again. I felt bad about sleeping with as many boyfriends as I had. I would, on occasion, lie awake at night, mulling over each relationship and detailing the reasons why it had been a mistake. I berated myself for smoking, drinking and not being fitter. I found it nigh on impossible to forgive myself for some of my choices, the mundane and insignificant as well as the major and life-changing.  

Being a perfectionist didn’t help. I was bound to fail to live up to the ideal image that I carried around in my head. The messiness of life, the complexity of human interaction, foiled my attempts to Make Life Work in the way that I thought it should. Constantly sensing a gap between what was and what should be, it was difficult to let go of the notion that I’d somehow got it all dreadfully wrong.

It is only when we start to examine our stories more closely that we begin to see the assumptions that underpin our regrets. Regret says I know what should have happened, and it wasn’t that. Regret says I’m in control of life. Regret says I’m responsible for all the choices that I’ve made. Regret believes that it’s up to us how our lives turn out, and so it’s our fault if things aren’t going well. Regret pretends that it knows what’s best; nothing more than fantasy, it is the story of I did wrong and I should have done right.

Slowly, I began to unpick the foundations of the House of Regret. I realised that there was no way I could possibly know what should have happened. That I’m not in control of life. That I don’t know what’s best, and that there is no right or wrong, outside of thought. I stopped believing in the past as some kind of fixed entity, as a place that I’d inhabited and could revisit. The subtle notion that past actions or events could somehow be transmuted by regret ceased to make any sense. I realised that regret keeps the past alive but semi-comatose; it keeps us bound in a dead narrative and prevents us from fully feeling the aliveness of painful emotions. After a while, past memories no longer stirred such uncomfortable emotions; forgiveness gradually came.

Now, I no longer lie awake at night plagued by regrets about boyfriends or things I’ve said or done, not said or not done. Now, I think it was okay that I spent my time at university going to gigs and smoking dope, and I’m even a little impressed that I still managed to churn out some decent essays and get a degree. And when regret does appear, it doesn’t last long, as I’m able to question its very basis. I can watch as the story of me, and what I should or shouldn’t have done, ebbs and flows.

I have held on to one, last, long-standing regret, however. When I was nineteen, I returned home in the holidays to clear out my old room. In two plastic bags were all the letters I’d ever been sent and the diaries that I’d written in every day for seven years, between the ages of eleven and eighteen. My older sister chided me for keeping them, and I put them in the dustbin. I woke up the next morning and went to retrieve them from the bin, already regretting the decision. It was too late. The rubbish had already been collected. It's as if I get to keep the letters and diaries by keeping the regret. And I’m not quite ready to give them up, just yet.

Friday, 17 February 2012

On Saying No

Earlier today, some friends and I went for lunch at the local Indian sweet centre, just a minute’s walk from my house. As we were leaving, we became aware of an altercation taking place on the pavement opposite. A couple of men were arguing; one, with a small, scruffy dog on a lead, was hurling abuse at the other, who was being held back by three of his friends. It didn’t seem as though any punches had yet been thrown, but clearly tensions were running high and threats had been made.

I’ve lived in this diverse neighbourhood for a very long time. It’s extremely rare to see a display of hatred or conflict like that, in broad daylight. My friend’s two younger children were a little disturbed by it; other passers-by had stopped to look and listen, ready to intervene if it turned nasty. Without really thinking, I walked across the road and into the middle of the fight. Now shouting vociferously, the two men were clearly beyond reason, but the sight of a woman in their midst seemed to distract them momentarily. No, let’s stop this now. Break it up. Reluctantly, they began to part, still turning back every few paces to insult each other. The possibility of physical violence gradually ebbed away, and the street’s normal calm returned.

I’ve always been scared by violence. In most instances, I’d rather run than wade in. I guess I made a split-second decision that intervening wouldn’t be dangerous, but beyond that, there was no rationale for my action. I had no idea what or who started the argument, what the rights or wrongs of it were, and I had no interest in finding out. All I knew was that it didn’t seem okay for two grown men to be swearing at each other in the street in the middle of the day. It was an affront to me, the children, the local shopkeepers, and everyone else going about their lives. So even though the situation was none of my business, I said no.

The negative generally has a bad reputation. We’re encouraged to think positively, to say our affirmations, to open up rather than shutting down. We prefer expansion to contraction, light to dark, yang to yin, yes to no. We really struggle to say no. When it comes to no, we find it hard to be honest, because we believe that saying no is somehow unacceptable. We hesitate, feel guilty, make excuses, imagine that we’re being selfish. We worry that other people will stop loving us or become hostile. Even when we’re feeling no in every fibre of our being, we’re still reluctant to say it.

If we look, however, it’s clear that we pay a heavy price for our inability to say no. We get angry, or create notions of fault and blame, in an attempt to make it feel okay. You’ve behaved so badly, that I’m justified in saying no to you now. We act out, or we try to avoid people or situations. We lie. Do you like it? Yeah, it’s great. Just what I’ve been looking for.

More than that, our inability to say no to others means that we aren’t saying yes to ourselves. Every time we’re unable to say a clear, open-hearted no, we compromise ourselves. We can’t say no, and so we stay in jobs and relationships that aren’t right for us, we spend time with people who we don’t really connect with, and we get involved in activities that don’t fulfil us, even if they please someone else. We may even put up with behaviour that demeans us. Every time we say yes when we mean no, our relationships are damaged; resentment lingers, and we begin to lose our integrity.

Many years ago, a close relation came to stay. One afternoon during her visit, she launched into one of her scathing and very personal attacks. I retreated into my normal stance – this was by no means the first such drubbing – and became passive and mollifying as her stinging criticisms continued. The next day, once she’d gone, I suddenly began to cry, and from deep within came a huge and powerful NO! No, you are not going to do that to me again. No, I will not stand for it again. For the first time in my life, I’d discovered my no. I never discussed it with her, but I know that, in that moment, something changed. From then on, she was unfailingly lovely to me.

And in saying no to her, I said yes to myself. Finally, I’d been able to be my own protector. No can be a guardian, a necessary boundary. If we haven’t found our no, then our yes is meaningless. By fully connecting with the power of no, we get to live the much greater yes. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

On Creativity

The kindly Miss Taconis was absent. In her place came Mrs Rogers, who we had never seen before. After morning break, she set us a task: to draw a picture of our families. Happily, I set to. My brother, my sisters, some flowers, our house, four windows, the grass in the garden and the bright blue sky, in its rightful place at the top of the page.

Mrs Rogers moved around the classroom as the children of Summerbee Infants quietly drew and coloured. Colouring was one of my favourite activities. I was so good at keeping in the lines. That, and mixing up powder paints to create shades that I didn’t even know the names of. The pleasure was in sitting with my brush and the eight-compartment plastic palettes, mixing and remixing, getting the consistency and colours just right. There was never a thought about how to paint, what marks to make; the picture always seemed to take care of itself.

Until, that is, Mrs Rogers appeared unexpectedly behind me. Silly girl, she said. The sky comes down to the ground. There isn’t a big white gap, is there? Shock bolted through me as she dragged her long fingernail across the paper in front of me, where the green of the lawn met the empty page. A shy, scared seven year old (a few months beforehand, I’d heard the story of Chicken Licken and been worried that the sky would indeed fall in), I was speechless. Devastated, in fact. I’d had absolutely no idea that it was possible to get a picture wrong. Of course, I knew that spellings had to be correct, and that there were right answers to sums and questions about capitals, but nobody had introduced me to the idea that pictures could be incorrect.

I sat at the table, silent. The other children still drawing, a gentle murmur of chat. I felt hurt, unfairly criticised, assailed. I picked up the blue crayon and sullenly coloured in the white space between land and sky. I looked out of the classroom window to see if the sky really did come down that far. Nobody had ever told me that my pictures were supposed to accurately represent the world; they had always been an entirely inner affair. Now, it seemed, the world could encroach on that, too. No part of me, including my imagination - my refuge - was safe from attack.

From that day on, I was reticent about drawing. The unselfconscious joy that I’d found in colouring, mixing and creating ceased to be. A couple of similar incidents in later school years compounded my reluctance. I convinced myself that I wasn’t artistic. Musical, yes; a writer, certainly, but clearly no good at art. The teachers had told me so, so it must be the case.

So did the wrath of Mrs Rogers bring a premature end to a nascent artist, or was I never destined to be one anyway? According to archetypal psychologist James Hillman, we are born with the seed of our soul’s unique creative potential fully formed within us. Whilst environmental influences may affect the extent and timing of the seed’s blossoming, they do not determine the nature of the seed. An acorn will always become an oak tree, however much it may wish to be a sycamore. Perhaps, if the calling to be an artist had been strong within me, I’d have overcome this hurdle. Perhaps it would have been the grit in my oyster, an obstacle inspiring me to greater artistic achievement.

Creativity, of course, is the nature of being. Life constantly creates itself anew, and so we cannot help but create, even in the simplest of ways. Another batch of biscuits, a new set of shelves; the physical manifestation of our ideas is a daily occurrence. We often don’t regard those ordinary, mundane acts of creation as creativity. That word is generally saved for endeavours that we regard as rarefied, special in some way, and often reserved for others who we deem to possess qualities that we don’t have. We may have the urge to write, or sing, or paint, but are held back by the voice that says, You’re no good at that. If you were, you’d be successful at it by now. As adults, we may feel foolish, clumsy or even slightly shamed when we attempt to express our creative selves in a new way, or in any way at all. We’ve forgotten how to play. How to just let something be, without interpretation, critique or forensic examination.

So, if we are to be our true creative selves, three components need to be in place. Firstly, that innate urge. We’ve all had experiences of it; an idea or calling just arrives. Sometimes, it shows up as a compelling interest or fascination. We may like to believe that we think up our thoughts, but we’re all aware that they just come to us. We can’t really claim responsibility for the interesting, creative thoughts any more than we can the less desirable ones. Secondly, some skill or talent is often required if the urge is to be made manifest. A musical inspiration comes to naught without the ability to write or play music. Often, we just need to begin. A few lessons in, with brush or keyboard or hammer and chisel, and we’ll start to see how. To quote Goethe, Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. And boldness, it seems, keeps the dissenting voices at bay. Thirdly, we need courage. It can feel risky to express ourselves, and it is tempting to take cover in non action, to pick up the television remote for yet another night. It takes bravery to make our uniqueness visible, to say to the world, This is me. To stand up to Mrs Rogers, and say, This is my sky, and I'm going to put it where I want to. It's time to get out the crayons. There is colouring to be done. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

On Falling Apart (Part Two)

For several years, the incessant unravelling of me and my life continued. Once burst, the dam poured forth all that had been held back by the psyche's defences. Behind those walls lay all that I had previously tried to bury; whatever had been contrary to my image of myself was now exposed, and so much shame along with it. 

The simple truth is that whatever we relegate to the shadows is bound to reappear. We like to believe that we can have up without down, easy without difficult, happy without sad, harmony without conflict. And when our story is working well, we have no reason to question our one-sided view of reality. I'd thought that I was successful, healthy, capable, strong, tough...I discovered failure, illness, incapacity, weakness, fragility. I felt defeated, pathetic, spineless, stupid and broken. I was humbled, truly humbled.

Of course, I cursed and resisted; as the dismantling continued, I ranted, raved and pouted. This great undoing was all that I'd dreaded, as well as my heart's deepest wish. I found - like many others before me - that even when I tried to cling to the remnants of my previous existence, I failed. My old life simply ceased to be. My job disappeared when the government funding dried up. My attempts at private practice were thwarted by continuing illness. Even my new relationship eventually foundered. 

But if we're really honest with ourselves, we can admit that even when life is going well, it takes a huge effort to maintain our self image. The story of me requires constant upkeep; over and over again, we need to prove to ourselves and the world that we are the way we believe ourselves to be. There was a sweet relief in no longer having any control, least of all over myself. In fact, I found the very notion of control increasingly ridiculous - and I'd been a card-carrying control freak. 

My opinions, too, began to soften. I became aware of how rigid I was, how fixed and intransigent my views. As the construct formerly known as me continued falling apart, I no longer had to cling to my  positions (on everything from diet and education to spirituality, medicine and music) for a sense of self. Earnest and serious from girlhood, I began to get fleeting glimpses of someone much lighter, funnier, sillier. I realised that there was nothing to attack and nothing to defend. 

It seems that there is a time for falling apart, just as there is a season for all things. What had been in perpetual motion had to stop. The structure that had been built  had to be razed to the ground. And amidst the panic, rage and sadness, I came back to myself. I was terrified that I'd been lost, buried forever beneath the person I'd created in order to be in the world. Now, I was coming home.