Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Giving because you want to give is good; finding gratitude, attention, love, empathy, appreciation or someone giving in return is a bonus. The main thing is not to require any of those things in exchange for what you give. If you do, you may well be disappointed and eventually become resentful. This is a sad consequence but often an unavoidable one if we are relying on other people’s behaviour or reactions to match our fantasies and expectations. It is particularly unfortunate if the whole well of giving is poisoned in the process.

M Scott Peck said in “The Road Less Travelled” (1990) that he had

a colleague who often tells people, ‘Look, allowing yourself to be dependent on another person is the worst possible thing you can do to yourself. You would be better off being dependent on heroin. As long as you have a supply of it, heroin will never let you down; if it’s there, it will always make you happy. But if you expect another person to make you happy, you’ll be endlessly disappointed.’

The person wasn’t suggesting taking heroin was a good idea, but merely making the point that being dependent on other people to shape how we feel or to create our happiness is not productive – in fact, it is doomed to failure.

The only things we really have any control over are our own attitudes and behaviours – other people’s are usually beyond our sphere of influence except very temporarily, if then.

So, to go back to giving, the best we can do is to give when and what we want to give and to stay in the moment, getting our fix from the giving (ie what is in our control), not immediately attaching to it an expectation or hope of an outcome or return, which would not be in our control. Not requiring an outcome or return is probably one of the most valuable contributions to our own happiness that we can make.

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What people say can give you useful information, as can what they do. But to get that information you need to be paying attention – you need to be present. This means you have to be in ‘observer’ mode, rather than in a world of your own imaginings when you are with them.

When a member of your family, a friend, a partner, a lover or a colleague tells you: “I am not good in the mornings”, they are probably genuinely trying to tell you that their behaviour in the mornings is unpredictable and possibly some way short of how they would like to be. It is code for “Please don’t get upset if I snap or appear grouchy and thoughtless – it’s not personal, I just take a little time to get into the day and into my more social role around people”. For many years when I worked in an office as one of a team, we had a deal whereby we would ‘issue bad mood alerts’ on this basis – to oil the machinery of which we were parts so that there was a chance there would be less uncomfortable friction. It is worth listening to what people say, and taking it in, if it can help us to avoid pain and upset.

With this in mind, there are other situations where we would also do well to listen to what people say: when they are self-critical, for example. Choose not to believe them at your peril! The information they are imparting to you is invaluable for your well-being in relation to them. So the next time a person says, “I’m a real bitch!” or “I’m an insensitive bastard!”, don’t disbelieve them and don’t ignore what they’ve told you – or at least do allow for the fact that they may be being totally sincere.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have them in your life, but in the same way as it is wise to go into financial investments with your eyes open, it is sound to approach emotional investments with a similar awareness and desire for self-protection.

Let reality in as soon as you can, because you’ll invariably always have to let it in eventually.

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We experience disappointment when things don’t turn out as we wanted, imagined or hoped. It is quite hard to get past the feeling, especially when we’ve invested a lot in a particular outcome and it doesn’t materialise. I suppose ideally the answer is not to invest in a particular outcome – just do what you have to do and stay in the moment of doing it without projecting forward what might follow or result from it. But it’s difficult to do that, and it hurts when it doesn’t work out, particularly at the time we realise that we are just not going to get our desired outcome when we want it. I used to think T S Eliot had encapsulated what life often seemed to be all about, with his:

Man’s life is a cheat and a disappointment;

All things are unreal,

Unreal or disappointing … (“Murder in the Cathedral”)

But generally the feeling passes, usually because life doesn’t stop; it continues and whatever it was that was disappointing becomes one of those things you see in the rear view mirror – eventually it is gone. Often we look back on those disappointments and see them differently, either as lucky escapes, or simply as things that were not so bad. This is not just a “Pollyanna” attitude of wanting to find something to be glad about; it is just a perspective that time and distance tend to lend. I look back at some disappointments with sheer gratitude (admittedly some time later!) when I am able to see more of the picture than I could at the time, and I am genuinely able to think “thank goodness I didn’t get that job”, “how lucky I was that that situation didn’t work out”, “how amazing that I should have gone from feeling so wretched to feeling so much better, despite what I thought I’d lost!”

I tend to avoid the explanation that whatever it was “was meant to be” (or otherwise), because for me it doesn’t lead anywhere – it is conjecture, post hoc explanation, a case of finding something that fits after the event and seems to make sense of what happened, insisting on believing that it was part of some divine plan. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that – I’m just saying it doesn’t work for me. I would rather look at the reality now, what is, what has happened, rather than fantasise about what might have been. I’m not sure that fantasising about what might have been makes people happy because there is so much regret and wistfulness involved – it focuses on loss, not real loss, because it is the loss of something they never had, but perceived loss. In other words, I think it involves an avoidable feeling of loss. There is enough of the other variety – we don’t need the avoidable kind as well.

When I experience disappointment I think the most useful thing to do is to try to feel the feeling – there is no point in pretending to myself that I’m not disappointed if that is how I feel – and then to try to let it go on the basis that I don’t know what happened is not for the best – I am literally, at that particular point, not able to judge. Maybe Eliot was right all the time: he went on to say,

All things become less real, man passes

From unreality to unreality.

My experience has tended to be that generally when we look back on our disappointments we reckon that what happened was somehow for the best – we just couldn’t see it from where we were sitting at the time, so we couldn’t see that the disappointment was just another bit of unreality (and it would pass).

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It’s interesting how we manage to cope with different degrees of reciprocity in some of our relationships but not in others. This troubles me because it must signify the kind of non-acceptance of reality that I strive to overcome in my life.

There are friends I meet up with two or three times a year, and that works fine. I accept the relevant degree of maintenance those friendships require and don’t feel either neglected or resentful at the looseness of the bond.

Then there are other friends whom I don’t see a lot of, and don’t hear much from, who have me positively welling with upset and resentment. I am acutely aware that any contact we have is due to my making the effort, failing which it would literally wither on the vine. The bottom line is that I mind. The good news is that I mind that I mind…

It occurs to me that my response to these situations must simply be based on a desire for things to be different from how they are, even though I know it is not a winnable fight and it takes energy that could be better expended on other things. A more desirable principle would be to choose not to continue to make room for anyone in my life who does not want to be there: volunteers only – no conscripts.

It hurts to let go of people, especially if you have experiences in common and it is not your choice to let them go. But it is dysfunctional to hang on to them if it is crystal-clear from their behaviour that you are not as important to them as they are to you, especially as every time you focus on these relationships you are likely to feel disappointment and rejection.

So I am going to try to let go of them. Maybe instead of feeling disappointed and rejected I can view these retired friendships as completed cycles, storylines that have run their course having achieved what they were born to achieve for both participants. I think that way more happiness lies than to sit unhappily wishing that whatever it is weren’t so.

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Best parental advice ever

Parents give their children advice about life, the universe and everything to try to give them ammunition to hold their own. The best advice I ever had from my father was on the subject of having opinions that were different from other people’s. He said there would be many times in life when I would have a different view from other people – he told me that I should never automatically assume I was wrong. I never took this as licence automatically to assume that I was right, mind you, but it was helpful to have the core idea embedded in my brain that being in a minority didn’t mean my view was not worth having.

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How others see you

We are often told we shouldn’t be concerned about what others think of us. I think that – like most things – there are two ways of looking at this. If we live our lives on the basis of “what will people say?!” to the detriment of doing what we want to do to be happy, to fulfil our dreams and to be ourselves, I think it is a bad thing – or at least a sad one. However, if other people have a positive image of us, then why would we not think it was a good thing to take some of that on board? The problem is that in my experience we generally tend to believe the negative and not the positive. If a person speaks badly of us and we find out, we are generally hurt because the child inside says that if somebody said that about me then it must be true. If we hear a person talk about us as a really wonderful person, we tend to think they must be deranged, or they don’t really know us, or they must want something from us.

Ideally we try to be and to behave like a person we would like to be part of our lives. If we are strong and have healthy self-esteem we can roll with the punches, knowing that if someone does speak about us, whatever they say they are expressing their opinion, full stop. They may or may not be right in what they point out. If we look inside ourselves, we’ll probably know quite well whether what they said was accurate. There is a problem with taking others’ negative opinions and comments and internalising them, reinforcing them to ourselves and making ourselves feel steadily worse. If we are going to take notice of what other people think of us, it would be good if we made room for the positive opinions and comments we get as well, which we are so much more likely to dismiss.

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I spent years trying to “create my own reality” and feeling slightly frustrated at the fact that all my reality creation didn’t seem to be affecting my reality that much and was actually making me feel worse for the fact that I thought I must be doing something wrong. I’d got my head round the fact that my reality was my world as I saw it and experienced it, but it took a while for it to seep in that whilst I could certainly change my attitude to things that happened to and around me, there were plenty of things that I didn’t seem to have any control over at all.

Eventually I realised that actually what I wanted to be able to do was control events around me so that I could avoid negative feelings. Difficult. Difficult and counter-productive, not to mention a long way removed from reality. So I decided to start over and see whether I could get to a position that was more viable and connected with reality. The preface to Charlotte Joko Beck’s “Nothing Special: Living Zen” helpfully provided the following:

“Living Zen is nothing special: life as it is. Zen is life itself, nothing added. … When we seek … the fulfillment of our fantasies, we separate from the earth and sky, from our loved ones, from our aching backs and hearts, from the very soles of our feet. Such fantasies insulate us for a time; yet in ten thousand ways reality intrudes, and our lives become anxious scurrying, quiet desperation, confusing melodrama. Distracted and obsessed, striving for something special, we seek another place and time: not here, not now, not this…

“Living Zen means reversing our flight from nothingness, opening to the emptiness of here and now. Slowly, painfully, we reconcile to life. The heart sinks; hope dies. “Things are always just as they are”, observes Joko. This empty tautology is no counsel of despair, however, but an invitation to joy. … Abandoning magical thought, awakening to the magic of this moment, we realise in dynamic emptiness the grace of nothing special … living Zen.”

Steve Smith, Claremont, California, February 1993

Starting from the position that things are as they are is actually a better springboard than living in a castle in your head. Nobody is saying you shouldn’t think positive; nor is anyone suggesting you should catastrophise. But whatever you do, start by letting reality in. You’re going to have to let it in sooner or later, so why waste time, effort and feelings staving off the moment? I believe that seeing things as they are is better for you than insisting on believing them to be as you would like them to be. Sometimes reality is too harsh and too difficult to be let in all at once, but the door has to be ajar so that it can come in when you’re ready.

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Conventional wisdom about tolerance varies – some people seem to think that we become less tolerant as we get older, perhaps finding fewer reasons to compromise or to dilute our strongly-held views; others think that the longer we are on the planet the more we have the capacity to be more aware, and therefore by definition, more tolerant. There are probably as many examples of one as of the other …

Recently I visited an elderly friend (she is 89 and nearly blind) whom I’ve known for over 30 years. She is a bright and independent lady, erudite and witty, and in the early years of our acquaintance I suppose it was her obvious sense of knowing what she knew to be right and proper that was her trademark. She knew what she knew, and she knew it was right and proper. There were things that could not possibly be right, ever, and they could be as much in the realm of language and grammar as in social behaviour and personal choices. 

My friend used to talk a lot about her family, to anyone who would listen. One negative take on this was that sometimes you had the impression she only asked after others to have a springboard to talk about her own family. I remember the day, years ago, when she mentioned in passing that one of her grandsons had revealed his love for a male partner. I could sense the struggle – her outrage and disbelief, her love for her grandson and the impossible position she found herself in, with a member of her beloved family on the wrong side of her particular set of rules, prohibitions and beliefs about what was right or appropriate. My friend, who had been quick to be judgemental of others, was now having to re-examine some of those judgements at close hand.

How she dealt with the struggle I don’t know. All I know is that on my recent visit she expressed how glad she was that her various family members were well and happy, and fulfilling their potential. When she went through their names, and got to the grandson in question here, she made a point of mentioning, “he’s gay, you know”, and proceeded to talk about him with the affection I would have expected, and about his wonderful partner (who was both male and happened to be of a different colour and culture from her grandson) in the sort of terms that had me smiling inwardly. She’d obviously got through her struggle, and come out with a score that looked to me like: Tolerance 1 Judgementalism 0. I took that as being a sign of hope.

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Criticism is a difficult area. Most of us can’t resist giving it, at least occasionally – some habitually – and equally most of us find it hard to take. It can be argued that it is sometimes necessary to point things out – for instance, to children – when behaviour needs to be corrected. Educating children in life is not my strongest suit so I am not going to go into that. My theory here is that criticism of adults does not work, or does not usually tend to achieve the desired result, so it is not a particularly worthwhile exercise.

Someone has upset you with their attitude to you, their behaviour, something they’ve said or done or something they’ve failed to say or do. If you tell them that they are selfish, annoying and thoughtless, the only thing that is pretty certain is that they won’t like hearing it. If they don’t like hearing it, they may either ignore what you say or decide to avoid you because they don’t want to hear any more of your criticism. What is doubtful is that they’ll go from being people you consider selfish, annoying and thoughtless to being people who are altruistic, pleasant, caring and thoughtful because you gave them your opinion of their character or behaviour. ‘Constructive criticism’ sounds better, but doesn’t necessarily achieve a much better result either.

I think feedback is a more useful concept than criticism, though even then it needs to be given with care. It will not always get the result you hope for or consider obvious. It is my belief that you can’t change other people. The only area you can change is yourself. So, coming back to the person you feel is selfish, annoying and thoughtless, maybe you need to work out how that makes you feel and consider telling them that. Then you are giving them feedback about their behaviour, you are imparting information as to the effect it has on you. They have a choice as to whether to make any adjustments and if you put your message across in a way that is not actually critical, you might stand a chance of achieving a change in behaviour in the other person, if they care enough. Another option would be to change your attitude so that their behaviour doesn’t have that effect on you any longer. Yet another possibility might be for you to consider whether you want to have them as a significant part of your life at all. I think any of these three courses of action has a better chance of achieving a change in the behaviour or demeanour of another person, and/or of making you feel better in the long run (which may be more to the point), than criticising the person who has upset you in this way.

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This week I got a Gratitude App for my iPod Touch. The idea is that at the end of the day you note five things for which you feel grateful, otherwise known as a “happy journal”.

It felt rather serendipitous that an article should have been published on the subject of “how to be happy in yourself” just a few days after the start of my gratitude journal. I couldn’t have put it any better than Emma Cook did:


with particular reference to the section:

There is one negative assumption that tends to make us more miserable than any other, Williams says; a belief that undoubtedly keeps the self-help industry afloat. “It’s this tendency we all have of wanting things to be different from how they are right now. Ironically, letting go of that quest to be happy can offer a tremendous sense of relief.” (Emma Cook 2009)

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