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Very few people I have met truthfully echo the words that Edith Piaf sang, ‘Je ne regrette rien’, about their own life. At least Frank Sinatra made it, ‘Regrets I have a few, but then again, too few to mention’. My preferred rendition is, ‘Regrets I have aplenty, but they’re behind me’. What’s done is done.

There is a variety of wishful thinking that illustrates what seems a common human trait: a person thinks, ‘if I can just have/do/experience this, I’ll be happy’. It may work for a while but in terms of your overall existence, it never, ever works. No life is that simple. It is also akin to the notion that is behind all regrets – ‘if I had only done this/not done that, then everything would be fine’. Except there is absolutely no reason to believe that would be the case. There is no way of knowing it would have turned out the way the person thinks when they look back with their rose-tinted glasses. The ‘if only’ thing simply does not work. Even if you have the time travel kit that gets you back there to make your different decision, your making a different decision is only part of the story. Others might make different decisions too, events may take a different turn, and the end result might be that you find yourself exactly where you are now, or at least feeling no happier.

The variety of regret that relates to having hurt someone else is something I think is worth looking at in a slightly different way, though not with a view to trying to change the past. If the person you hurt 25 years ago is still on the planet and you can reach them, apologising for having hurt them is something you can do, which may help with healing both a part of them and a part of you. If the person is no longer alive, then my approach is to visualise a conversation with them in which you apologise and where you try to feel the feelings around the event as authentically as you possibly can. It may or may not help you, but it is worth a try. Certainly, there are psychotherapists who recommend this as a way of managing emotions that refer back to some kinds of past pain.

So, at the risk of being boringly pragmatic, I would insist on the veracity of the old adage, ‘Change what you can, accept what you can’t change and have the wisdom to know the difference’. That may seem dry and unhelpful to the person feeling the pain of regret for parts of their past, but I have yet to encounter someone who has found it effective in practice to wish now that they had acted differently then. You did it then; it did not produce the improvement or lasting happiness you hoped for or expected; you can and should feel the feeling of regret for that, but acceptance of the feeling and then allowing it to be let go has a better chance of giving you some peace and serenity than insisting on holding on to it.

The Christmas and New Year period is a time many people use to take stock of the previous year and their lives generally. Lists of Christmas greetings and presents are a reminder of which individuals are still in our lives and which ones we choose as suitable recipients of greetings and presents. While it is not the case that friendship is a trading arrangement, it is nonetheless dependent on something mutual or reciprocal. It must involve participation by more than one side, whatever form that participation takes. One-way relationships may just about work between family members, but they are less tenable when there is a genuine choice as to whether they are to continue or not. Chain statements across social media insisting that friends can always ‘pick up where they left off’, that there is no need to keep in touch or make any effort to keep the friendship alive because friendship is somehow completely self-sustaining, have always struck me as wishful thinking by people who hope and trust that saying something is the case makes it so – that is about as charitable as it gets.

My preferred analogy is that friendship is like a bridge that is under constant construction. It needs work from both ends – otherwise it is asking a lot of the cantilevering to expect it to function as it is supposed to.

Returning to Christmas greetings and presents, the whole ritual is generally built on some measure of reciprocity. This is why it is often referred to as an exchange. If there is only ever one party doing the proffering, that does not qualify as an exchange. There are people who may choose to be exclusively givers, never expecting anything in return, but unless it is in the context of charitable giving, most of us eventually get a slight gnawing feeling suspiciously like resentment tarnishing the pleasure of one-way giving, at least when it is to people whose circumstances are not dissimilar from our own.

I have always been notoriously bad at giving up on people, and have often continued to plug away, trying to keep moribund friendships and connections alive long after the sensible decision would have been to get the message that my efforts were not reciprocated … and gently desist. A new year provides the opportunity to try to do something different.

Losers

There are many definitions of ‘losers’ but for the purposes of this piece I am going to stick to my own eccentric definition: a loser is someone who – 60% or more of the time – leaves you feeling worse about yourself than you felt before. Losers are not good for you and ideally you should quietly, gently and firmly allow them to drop out of your life, or ensure their orbit is such that they are too far away from you to do you harm.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to think of losers as doing you harm. There are plenty of things to feel bad about in the world – an hour spent reading a newspaper or half an hour spent watching television should be enough to remind you of some of them. What you can do without is gratuitous feeding of feelings that are not based in the tangible world but come from insecurities and notions you have of not being good enough or deserving anything better from life.

What my version of losers do in this particular food chain may or may not be deliberate. It may not even have anything to do with you personally. The effect, however, is striking. On you. Personally. I’m not saying they are responsible for how you feel – only you are responsible for that – or that they ‘make’ you feel or do anything. The point is that something about your interaction with them leaves you feeling ‘less than’, unimportant, anything but good.

Clearly one option is to do some serious self-analysis, establish why these feelings occur and tackle the real cause rather than the symptom or apparent (but not necessarily real) cause. That would be a good idea, without a doubt. For those who don’t quite manage to do that, though, I think the solution of moving the losers to a more distant orbit is a reasonable compromise.

Examples of losers

  • The person whom you are fond of and think of as close to you who never makes any effort towards you whatsoever.
  • The person whom you are fond of who lives a long way away, who comes to the town or city where you live, doesn’t call or visit you, and then tells you afterwards that they were there.
  • The person whom you have to persuade that they should meet you or visit you.
  • The person you keep contact with, who never calls you and who cancels more meetings with you than they attend.
  • The person who, when your conversation or meeting with them ends, leaves you feeling empty, wishing you had done something else with your time.

What all these people have in common is this: to an impartial observer it is clear beyond doubt that the relationship between you and each one of them is unbalanced and unequal. The reasons for that lack of balance and inequality are irrelevant. The people may be undeserving; they may be thoughtless; you may not be good at picking people to cultivate and may choose the wrong ones; or they may quite simply not like you, appreciate you or care for you enough to really bother. For whatever reason, you are investing more than they are and at some level, at some stage of the process – probably every time you interact with them – you mind.

You need to let go of them. Stop investing; stop bemoaning the fact that things are not different from the way they are and getting to a position where you feel bad about yourself on account of it. You may or may not have reasons to feel bad. However, insisting on allowing others to drain you of what self-esteem you have, and give you nothing in return, is nothing more than a bad habit you can choose to break.

Operate the 60/40 test. If people don’t improve your world – even just for a moment – at least 60% of the time you spend interacting with them, your association with them is not really helping either of you. Whichever way you look at it, the process has failed – for you they’re losers and giving them up doesn’t actually constitute your ending up without anything that is good for you. The reason you probably find it hard to give them up is fear that if you do you’ll be left alone with no-one to lean on. The reality is these people are not there for you to lean on anyway – you need to accept that reality.

Do yourself a favour: lose the losers. Or, as Maya Angelou reportedly put it, “Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.”

The world without us

Recently I heard someone express their feeling about death as something like horror at no longer existing. I find that really strange. There are many things I worry about, but that is not one of them. The idea of a world without me doesn’t worry me very much at all! As a counter idea to the person concerned about not existing, I heard someone else say that their idea of death was that everything would go on as before, except without them. That notion makes much more sense to me.

Everyday life contains plenty of microcosms of the scenario of the story continuing even when our part is written out of it. We leave jobs, we leave people, we leave places … and life goes on where we once were, except without us. It may seem bleak if we interpret that as meaning we are unimportant and insignificant, but that is not the only way of seeing it. The fact that we are part of several bigger “wholes”, some of which were there before we came, and some which maybe weren’t, or not in the same form, is an idea I find comforting. For me it is an extension of energy not being destructible, only changeable into something else. We are impermanent beings, as is everything in its present form. Everything comes and goes. The one thing that is constant is change – our perception of the speed of change is the only real variant.

How we look at the idea of change is fundamental. If we accept it, and go with it, there are fewer mental struggles. We still need to be able to navigate through our lives, but the point is revealed to be the journey, rather than arrival. Another way of putting it is to focus on living rather than on death.

My hope is that there won’t be a huge amount of pain on the way to my not existing, as that is something I really don’t like to think about. But as for the idea of not existing itself – I can live with that …

A common experience of social networks seems to be that you find people again whom you haven’t had contact with for, say, 30 years. At first there is joy – it’s amazing to be back in touch, there’s the excitement of catching up, exchanging potted histories of the intervening time, and telling people how you’ve found this long-lost friend from your past. Then the flurry dies down and the rekindled new friendship predictably fizzles out, leaving behind it a slight sense of loss, as you both go back to what you’ve been doing for 30 years, namely doing without contact with each other. Why is it so hard to accept that, with some very occasional exceptions, you usually lose touch with people for a reason: either you drift apart, or one of you makes the decision consciously or unconsciously to let go? In other words, one or both of you felt at the time that their energy and attention were better spent on other people. That is what makes so many reunions a masochistic soul-destroying exercise, which often ends in looking back on events and experiences that bring with them no real lasting pleasure but just a momentary reminder of the feelings they caused first time round, whether those were good or bad. For the most part, in life you tend to keep in touch with the people you want to keep in touch with and who want to keep in touch with you. Investing enormous amounts of resources into stoking up the fire of old friendships that have flickered out is a dubious pastime except for superficial entertainment. If you care, don’t do it because you are likely to be disappointed. Do you really want to hear anyone say to you that to them you will always be the person you were 30 years ago, as if what has happened and what you have done since didn’t make any difference? However, if you can treat it as purely tying up old loose threads, and then move on without emotional involvement, then fine. Resolution is good.

To use the hackneyed motoring analogy, you don’t get far on the road focusing more on what you see in the rear-view mirror than on what is going on around you and looking at what is in front of you. And what is more, even the rear-view mirror the analogy is based on tends to show what has gone immediately before, rather than the dim and distant past – the car you have just gone past, not the ones you were in the same traffic jam with 30 miles back.

Time to remember that living in the now is the best way to go. Time to stop wasting time and energy on people from the past that you have got on perfectly well without for 30 years, and focus on those around you now where there is evidence outside the realm of archaeology that you share mutual interests with today and that some energy is being mutually spent on enjoying the interaction between the people you are now. A shared history may help forge bonds in life but it is not enough on its own to keep those bonds alive and supple enough to bear the weight and strain of the passage of time and metamorphosis in those involved. Part of the person you were 30 years ago still exists in the person you are now, but it is nonsense to deny that you have changed and grown in that time. Not all clothes fit for life, and nor do people. If they actually stopped fitting 30 years ago, leave them be – let them go.

There is a Cherokee legend that explains how each of us is torn by the fight between the two wolves within us:

“One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

According to Cherokee wisdom, the wolf that wins is the one we feed. The lesson this imparts is applicable to many different aspects of our lives.

Memories are our past. There are good memories and bad ones. Dementia may delete large swathes of them, and there may one day be an ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ solution that enables people to erase particular memories from their minds. But in the general scheme of things, memories are simply part of each individual’s life, having been instrumental in making each one of us who we are. Some memories give us a warm and happy feeling, but – as in most things – the downside is that even when we are looking at things that remind us of our good memories, some less welcome memories are invariably likely to surface as well.

There are belief systems that involve rewriting the past. I have my doubts that we are all capable of doing that well enough to expunge experiences that have left serious scars. I have the same doubts about telling our brain to disregard what it has just remembered – the judge may tell the jurors to disregard what they have just heard, but that may well imprint it even more indelibly in their minds.

Instead, I believe we have a different choice – we can try to apply the Two Wolves approach. The memories are there and are part of the film that is in the proverbial tin of the Hollywood metaphor. If both rewriting and disregarding are unlikely to be effective, we may as well open our door to all the memories that bubble up in our minds – if we don’t deal with them, they are likely to keep making repeat visits. We can thank them for coming by, much as we might be polite to people selling door-to-door, see whether they have something for us that we’d like to have or keep, and then wave them on. We don’t have to invite them in and give them space, time or energy. After all, the more we dwell on certain memories, feeding them, giving them new life and invigorating them, the more that wolf will win. We can nourish the good memories wolf or we can nourish the memories wolf that causes us pain and distress. It is important to accept that the things we recall all happened and were real. They have already had a major effect on our lives. But that was then. It is not written that we have to allow them to give us ‘Groundhog Day’ experiences that repeat over and over throughout our lives. We can choose to let the past go.

There is definitely no law that says we have to let the same dog (or wolf) bite us twice.

CONFUSION

Everything is clear,
Straightforward and decided
Until one event
Catapults
The world into turbulence,
Sending it ricocheting
Against unseen walls,
Leaving it bruised,
Dizzy, exhausted.
And suddenly all the ground
That had been covered
Turns to paper, shredded,
Then incinerated,
Leaving smoke, not even ashes.
Time is unreal, meaningless
As years are extinguished
And problems that were solved
Are unsolved.
Images unfocus
From black and white,
As gates which had been bolted shut
Inexorably release
The ghosts which had been
Laid to rest.
The smoke clears
Leaving a battered world,
Grey with uncertainty,
Alive with dancing ghosts
Mocking
The final conclusions,
Demarcation lines,
The arrogance
Of what is momentarily
Clear, straightforward and
Decided.
Certainty and confusion
Lie intertwined,
Gilt and serpent,
Temptation and rebuke.
Never again is a challenge
To the gods.
Forever an invitation to irony.

(written in 1985)

Seven keys to happiness

This is neither an original thought nor a magic spell – but I think it might be a good way to go to minimise the kind of suffering we are liable to inflict on ourselves, so I’m writing a reminder to myself.

My seven keys to happiness:

  • Accept others as they are.
  • Accept yourself as you are.
  • Accept what other people give you graciously and don’t require or expect them to give you more than they are able or willing to give.
  • Accept you’re unlikely to change any other person, their behaviour or their priorities.
  • Adjust your exposure to other people individually depending on how much of them and their behaviour you can deal with.
  • Don’t take things personally – you are not the centre of other people’s universes and their behaviour may not have anything to do with you.
  • Don’t attach too much importance to anything – everything will pass.

The boys’ team

What’s my line?
Flashing phone lights and a TV screen
Cigarettes and office politics
Orange juice and kit-kats
Messages to pass on
Dictation of prices
Quotations, offers, bids,
The offer is x years of isolation
On the trading team,
The bid is integration and participation.
We are not sellers.
Low voices with no names audible,
Obscure facts
Not to be understood.
What can’t be heard should not be heard.
The boss pulls the final strings,
The boys rule.
Who’s a cheap seller?
Bubbles to fill the working day,
Brighten it up with fantasy
To lift the dreary din
Of prices, rates and shipment months,
Buy ten Dec at market,
Give me Sep dollars to sell,
Are we sellers of April/June Lagos
At fifty over …?
The differential is too high,
We’re too far apart.
We’re too far apart.

(written in June 1981)

There are times when the reactions we get from others make us either upset or angry, or both. I am going to suggest something difficult to accept: that we may have contributed to our own discomfort. This is not an easy idea to accommodate. My theory about our contribution is that I think we actually get something from the outrage we feel – I haven’t ever fully understood the “brown stamps” concept in transactional analysis but maybe my pattern is an illustration of what other people manage to articulate more succinctly with that concept.

You do, say or write something; someone responds in a way that you find unpleasant, upsetting, infuriating, unjust … all the things you associate with feelings you prefer not to experience. You feel outraged and possibly misunderstood. You relate the story to someone else, the metamessage being, “Isn’t it unfair? Haven’t I been mistreated here?” You feel righteous in your indignation. With a bit of luck (from your point of view), the person you relate the story to says, “Absolutely!”, “It’s awful!” or similar, so that your righteous indignation feels endorsed and justified. You then go on to repeat the experience … over and over again.

If you really are lucky, however, at some point you will get a challenge rather than an endorsement. I put it that way because I think, in my own case, I have to take some responsibility here and I’d like to try to change my pattern. My feelings have not occurred as a consequence of a situation with no input from me. Whether I like it or not, I have actually gone to the playing field and put myself on it. Maybe I didn’t learn the rules of the game first. Or maybe I made the assumption that I simply could play, could handle the game and be good at it, just because that was what I wanted. Sticking with the analogy, maybe I then found that the way I played the game meant I didn’t score any goals, I got injured, or I got pulled up for fouls and got sent off. In other words, maybe my approach was ineffective or at any rate yielded the opposite of what I intended. What to do?

I think there are various strategies to consider. Some are:

  • Get tougher and roll with the proverbial punches (with apologies for the mixed metaphor!)
  • Commit fewer fouls and therefore get penalised less often
  • Learn to take evading action so that you get tackled less and maybe both avoid injury and get to score.

(This is obviously not an exhaustive list.)

What you do in real life, rather than in the game analogy, depends on what you really want. If the bottom line is that you want to have a story to tell like-minded people, who will empathise with your outrage and agree with your response to it, you will keep doing the same thing and put up with the discomfort of getting there. If not, you have to change something.

I’ve decided that the fun of telling the story is punctured too much by the feelings I have to go through to get to tell it (remember this is cyclical; if you do the same thing, you’re likely to get the same result). I’ve also always found “learning to roll with the punches” more desirable than achievable – call it frailty of character if you like, I just know I don’t find it easy. So I’m going to try to go for sparing myself the feelings in the first place and foregoing the fun of telling the story. Another way of putting it is that I’m going to try to take responsibility for how I feel, and do something about my contribution to that, rather than engineering righteous outrage at how I contend someone else has “made” me feel.