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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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 end 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.

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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 journey is revealed as the point, 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 …

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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.

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Draw a line

Sometimes people surprise you, and not in a good way. You initiate a friendly conversation and it turns into an argument. You expect a certain reaction and the response you get is completely different. You make a call to impart some news you think will please the recipient and instead they shout at you before hanging up on you. Healthy self-esteem enables people to weigh up such events sensibly and sometimes to shrug and move on. Those of us who find it more difficult to deal with them need to focus on a few basic principles:

  • Don’t take responsibility for anyone’s feelings but your own.
  • The other person’s reaction may or may not have anything to do with you personally, and they are under no obligation to explain it to you, or to excuse their behaviour.
  • Some disagreements and differences of view can be fixed; some can’t.

It’s useful to learn to draw a line under events instead of reliving them over and over again. If they’re really yours to fix, then fix them. If they’re not, accept that you can’t make anyone else fix them. Let them go.

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