Tag Archives: compassion

In Extremis, De Profundis

I wanted to blog yesterday, but to be honest I spent the day feeling scraped out, hollow, raw. There was nothing in me worth sharing. Anything I might have written which didn’t express this reality would have been a lie, and it would have been a waste of the time of anyone who took the time to read it.

So I didn’t write anything. But today the hollowness has been replaced by a deep, gnawing anger. And that I can write about.

I am Caucasian. European. Irish all the way down. I don’t have any other ethnicities in my genetic makeup. This means I am freckly, pale, prone to sunburn, likely to be Vitamin D deficient, prone to depression and alcoholism, and a whole host of other drawbacks that come with being ‘pure-bred’. I can’t help this; I didn’t choose to be born to my parents, in my country, at the time I came into being.

Just like everyone else in history.

I have no right to claim any sort of kinship with any of the men and women who died on Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina. I have no intention of doing so. Their struggle, and the struggle of Black people in America on a daily basis, is not mine. But I am still a human being, and just because I have no part to play in their efforts doesn’t mean I am not allowed to feel compassion for those efforts, and to feel devastated and sick at what happened in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. And I do feel devastated and sick. I also feel hopeless. I feel afraid, though I know my fear must be of a different calibre to that felt by people of colour who face discrimination every day. My fear is more for the future of the human species as a whole, not for my personal survival. I’m aware there are people for whom fear about their personal survival is a daily challenge, and I wish so much that this wasn’t true.

That this atrocity happened in the same week as the tragic accident in Berkeley, California, which claimed the lives of six Irish students, is overwhelming. Such loss, and such destruction, and such sorrow, and it’s hard to see a way through.

Sometimes I wish there was a way to not feel things. Just sometimes, you know? A switch you could flick or a button you could push to cut yourself off for a while, like Data’s emotion chip in ‘Star Trek’. But if we could do that, would we have the courage to turn it back on again, and let the tide of emotion flood through us once more? Or would we take refuge in the coldness of disconnected self-interest, caring about nothing but what impacts us directly?

Well. I’m glad, in many ways, that I’ll never have the answer to that question, and I’m scared to think of all the people who seem to have that chip enabled all the time, the ‘I’m all right, Jack’ types who refuse to see or experience the interconnectedness of all humanity, and who have no compassion for anyone who isn’t exactly like them.

Why aren’t there easy answers to the questions of how we are supposed to interact with one another? Why do our basest instincts always come to the fore? Why do we allow greed and small-mindedness and bigotry to win out over simple, generous compassion? Why do we always live down to our lowest expectations of ourselves? Will we ever change – can we?

Jon Stewart says it better than I can. He says it better than most people can, I guess.

J’écris

What happened last week in France was horrifying.

Perhaps it’s because France is part of Europe, the continent I’m proud to live in and be a citizen of, and perhaps it’s because Paris is a city I love, and perhaps it’s because my heart shattered at the thought of innocent civilians going about their daily lives who had their lives brutally ended, and perhaps it’s all of these things, but it hit me hard.

And perhaps it’s because I write, too, and I take it for granted that I can express myself as I see fit, and that if someone doesn’t like what I’ve said that they’re not going to break into my life and destroy me. I know I’m a million miles away, content wise, from Charlie Hebdo, but the principle is the same. I write. They write. I express my thoughts, and so do they. I might agree that their content can be objectionable; I might not even like all of it. But it is their right to print it. You don’t wish to see? Then buy another magazine.

If you don’t like my blog, you don’t have to read it. If you don’t like Charlie Hebdo or what it stands for, there are plenty of peaceful, but effective, ways you can exercise your right not to be confronted with it.

Photo Credit: Nemesi_ via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Nemesi_ via Compfight cc

France has a long history of satirical cartooning, going back to the Revolution and before. It has always been crude, focused on the body, sexualised, and darkly funny. The cartoons which sparked off last week’s dreadful events have to be seen as part of that continuum and that particularly French tradition of speaking an opinion.

Opinions can be drowned out. They can be shouted over. They can be marched against. They can be argued with. They can be denounced. They can be discussed, debated, teased out, their nuances made clear. Perhaps, eventually, understanding and accord can be reached.

If opinions are simply destroyed along with the lives of those who held them (not to mention the lives of those who had nothing to do with them), then all that’s left is sterility and darkness. All that’s left is despair. There can be no learning, no growth, no furthering of human culture, no development of our species, no deepening of compassion.

Nobody has a right to kill another because of an opinion.

Everybody has the right to disagree, and to protest. Everybody has a right to respond, and to clarify, and to engage in debate, and to try to educate.

I am not trying to defend any particular stance, ideology, or opinion, but I strongly believe in the value of satire and of free speech. I also believe that with the right of free speech comes the responsibility of using that right, and I don’t believe in hate speech or publications which call for destruction or genocide or discrimination, but I accept that I live in a world where such things are possible, and I hope there will always be counter-voices to balance things out. I sympathise with those who feel offended because of something another has said or drawn or done, but I do not accept that the logical next step is to bring lives to an end. There is nothing down that road.

I’m trying not to fall into despair at what we all witnessed last week, and I’m really trying to hope that intelligence, courage and humanity will win out over any further impulses to destroy.

J’écris. I write. I will always write. And I will always stand with those who write, bravely and without shame.

And I hope never to live through events like those of last week, ever again.

And the Beat Goes On

This week has shown some of the best and worst aspects of the human race – just like every week.

We lost a beloved performer on Monday, and the world wept; that was touching, and unifying, and we shared one another’s grief. But, of course, there had to be some people who felt it was their right and privilege to harass the family of the deceased online, posting mocked-up autopsy pictures to Twitter (one of which I inadvertently came across yesterday morning, and which almost made me physically sick) and seeming to enjoy the notoriety – because notoriety equals fame which equals status, in their eyes – which came with it.

I personally cannot understand what would drive a person to create a mocked-up autopsy picture, the single most gruesome thing I have ever had to see, and put it up online. I cannot. But I share my humanity with the person or people who did it, and so I have to conclude that they have cauterised whatever compassion or kindness they may once have had; I cannot accept that I have anything, besides my mortality, in common with someone who could cause such deliberate agony.

All the love the world shared, and all the remembrances, and all the shock, and all the beautiful tributes, may as well never have happened now.

Photo Credit: tanakawho via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: tanakawho via Compfight cc

For me, it’s not enough to simply shrug and say ‘well, that’s life. That’s human nature.’ I’m sorry, but that’s nonsense. It’s not human nature. It’s very much a human construct, and one which we’ve created. There has always been cruelty, of course, but now it has legitimacy, and a platform, and it confers infamy and gets people talking – and yes, I appreciate the irony of this, even as I post about it – and that, somehow, makes it seem less heinous. It makes cruelty seem like a career path.

What has happened to make us this way?

My mind has been swirling with thoughts like these for the past few days, and that’s not a good thing. My thoughts tend towards Worst Case Scenarios even at the best of times, and I find it all too easy to get lost down all the dark paths. So, I knew I had to do something to divert my thinking and make things seem better, even if the only person it benefited was myself.

So.

Earlier in the week I finished (after a marathon, power-through-it day) the edits on the book I’ve been calling ‘Web’; I’m not saying it’s done, just done enough for me to put it aside for a while. The end still isn’t strong enough, but overall I’m happy with the story arc, and I think I’ve fixed glaring plot holes and issues with characterisation. One of the main things I feel I had mis-handled with this book was its scariness – you may recall it features a ghost, and not one who is happy to sit in a corner and rattle its chains. This is a ghost set on revenge, and so it had to be scary. It had to have reasons for what it was doing, as well as a method. Giving it reasons and method was the easy bit. I mentioned a while back that I don’t really know the ‘horror’ genre as well as I could, not being a person who likes scary films and whatnot, and I had been spending too long forcing the ghost into a box marked ‘Wooo!’ by giving it a shark’s head, and talking about it screaming all the time, raising goosebumps and hackles alike. I reread those bits a few days after I’d first written them, and I rolled my own eyes in boredom.

Stop trying to make it scary, I told myself, by throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it. Stop and think about what makes you scared, and use that instead.

Well. I scare easily. Things like weird shadows where shadows shouldn’t, at first glance, be can make my blood run cold. The idea of a whisper in my ear in an empty room makes me lose my reason. A stifled sob from an invisible throat would freak me out more than a maniacal laugh. So, I went with that. It was out with the shark’s head (which, on reread, was ridiculous), and I toned down the screaming. And it was much better.

Then, I revisited Eldritch. It’s been so long since I worked on this book that I’d forgotten what state it was in, and that was brilliant – it was like reading someone else’s work. Polly – who, when I first submitted this book to her, wasn’t yet my agent but just a dream, a long shot – had recommended that I shelve my idea of having Eldritch as the first part of a trilogy and instead write it as a standalone book, and so I’d started the process of doing that, months ago.

But the best part is, I hadn’t realised quite how far into the work of rejigging the book I’d managed to get before something else – no doubt another story – had dragged me away from it. I was over 45,000 words into it, which felt like being given a present. That’s about three-quarters of the way through what will become a new first draft.

So, I began to read Eldritch, and it made me laugh.

It’s not David Walliams funny, or Andy Stanton funny, but some of the dialogue between the protagonist Jeff and his friend Joe pleases me hugely, and the chemistry between the two boys – their obvious long-standing friendship, and the comfort with which they poke fun at one another, fun which conceals a deep affection – made me happy. I am in the throes of writing a new ending to this story, which promises more fun ahead (as well as Peril and Danger and Derring-Do and Magic), and it was the best thing I could have done to lift my mind out of the mire of the world I have no choice but to live in. I have made a hurried, scribbled, general outline of what I want to happen, and ideas are drip-dropping into my mind all the time, slowly but with great richness, like balm falling onto wizened skin.

Revisiting Eldritch reminded me why I want to write stories. I want to create a little bit of magic, and stimulate wonder. I want to leave a little fairy-dust behind me so that when I’m gone, people will know I tried to help. I tried to encourage compassion and fellow-feeling and laughter, because in the end they have to win out over cruelty. Otherwise, what are any of us doing here?

Why Can’t We all be Friends?

I’ve just been reading an interview with an actor whose work I loved when I was younger, and who – as part of a funny six-piece ensemble cast – was one of the most famous and highly paid TV stars in the world at the height of his fame. Since the late 1990s, he’s fallen in and out of ‘favour’ with the press due to his publicised struggles with substance abuse and the consequences this had for his personal appearance (as if it was anyone else’s business, but I digress.) In recent years he’s kept a lower profile, but he’s still extremely well-known.

He is Matthew Perry, who played Chandler Bing (‘Bing! It’s Gaelic for ‘thy turkey’s done!”) on Friends.

Image: nadcp.org

Image: nadcp.org

It was an interesting interview, not least because Perry spoke about the terrible effects that negative reviews of his work had on his mental health. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially he says he doesn’t read reviews now because the good ones are never – to his mind – good enough, and they never last long enough in the psyche to outdo the damage caused by the bad ones.

I was a huge fan of Friends, and Chandler Bing was always my favourite character. He – or, rather, Matthew Perry – was witty, self-deprecating and intelligent, with an instinctive talent for physical comedy that I think has to be in-built; it can’t be taught. He had all the best lines. Even now, if I catch a re-run of the show, it’s Chandler I love to watch (well, and Phoebe. I loved her, too.) So, it’s weird to read about a person you consider extraordinarily talented struggling with bad reviews, and expressing how deep an impression they can make on a person’s peace of mind and self-esteem. I once read Oprah Winfrey’s recollection of an anecdote about Beyoncé, who is – as I’m sure you’re all well aware, a global multi-millionaire megastar – but who still comes off stage after a performance and asks people ‘Was that okay? Was I okay?’ Apparently, she does this even while her audience is still screaming her name.

We have to feel like we’re doing things right, even though we have nothing to prove to anyone. Matthew Perry has nothing to prove; neither, assuredly, does Beyoncé. Despite this, they still need to feel like they’re okay, that they’re enough, that they’re good at what they do; it’s a touchingly vulnerable aspect of the life of a superstar. But none of us are any different.

I’ve often read interviews with writers where they say the same thing – ‘don’t read the reviews.’ Newbie authors often can’t help themselves from reading reviews, steeling themselves against the bad ones, telling themselves they can cope with the excoriation of a person hating their work and spilling that hatred all over the web – but often they can’t. How could anyone?

Image: thezerosbeforetheone.com

Image: thezerosbeforetheone.com

I know I’m writing this post as a person who also writes book reviews, but I try – insofar as that’s possible – always to keep my book reviews positive. Even if I don’t like a book, I always find something to praise about it, and I never – ever – stoop to the point where I attack the author him/herself. I can’t even understand the mentality of a reviewer who would do something like this, but apparently it happens every day. It’s an abhorrent aspect of the print media which bases itself on destroying people – Matthew Perry, in his interview, recalls an incident where he was criticised for dating a particular woman, and then attacked for apparently being gay, on adjacent pages in the same magazine – and which surrounds us at all times. Reviewers, and Facebook commenters, and in fact those who comment on anything, anywhere on the web, are used to this sort of vitriol. It’s already spilling out into their personal interactions with others, to the point where sitting behind a keyboard and writing vile things about another human being is seen as hilarious fun. ‘Don’t read the comments’ is an oft-heard saying for a very good reason.

I abhor this.

I was taught as a child that if I had nothing nice to say, I was to say nothing at all. This doesn’t mean that I can’t respectfully criticise, or say that something’s wrong, or express anger if I need to, but I really don’t see the point of saying hurtful things just because you want to. In recent weeks, a mother posted an absolutely beautiful photograph of her young son, who has Down syndrome, to Instagram with the hashtag #downsyndrome. A commenter – who apparently searches for images of people with Down syndrome – wrote the word ‘ugly’ under this picture. The young boy’s mother replied to this internet troll in the most gracious way, at once spearing the troll’s own viciousness while also extending compassion to them, assuring them that all people – even trolls – deserve respect.

I’m so glad this woman’s post went viral, and that people all over the world have seen it. Such touches of humanity will never outweigh the vileness, but each tiny example counts. Wouldn’t it be great if, one day, we could learn that there are ways to express our dissatisfaction with something – whether it’s actions, or art, or politics, or whatever – without making personal attacks, and that we could start using our intelligence to find ways to build one another up rather than tear one another down? Maybe then nobody would be afraid to read their reviews, not because all reviews would be fawning and false and full of fake praise, but because they’d be respectful and constructive and useful and thoughtful.

Ah, me. It’s good to dream.

 

Aiming High

On this, the Monday of the first week of our new, post-Mandela world, I’m thinking about heroes and good example and living up to the expectations of those who have gone before us.

Image: forbes.com

Image: forbes.com

Clearly, it is a week for discovering new role models, too. This morning I read, with amazement, the Wikipedia article about Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a distinguished Naval officer and computer programmer who is being commemorated in today’s Google doodle. As I finished educating myself about her life, I mentally added her to my list of ‘heroes’ – for me, people whose lives are singular or inspiring or demonstrative of the idea that doing your best with what you have is the best way to live well – and began to think about ways to fulfil my own potential, and live as fully as I can.

Nelson Mandela has always been a hero to me. Even as a child, I was aware of his struggle – he was still imprisoned then – and I listened to songs like ‘Lion in a Cage’ and ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ with a sense of puzzled wonder. Why couldn’t the people keeping this great man locked up understand that he should be free, I wondered? Why was his stature as a hero so clear to all of us, and so hard for his own government to understand? Then, the day of his release finally came. I watched, with millions of others, the footage of his ‘long walk to freedom’ in 1990 which, coming so close on the heels of the fall of the Berlin Wall, means that my memories of that time are filled with excitement and giddy delight. Even as a child, I understood that these were important days. I knew enough to know that I was privileged to be living through them.

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

But heroes are complicated things. Every human being, no matter how remarkable, is still a human being – there will always be elements of each life which will fall far short of perfect. Nelson Mandela – even he! – did not shy away from armed resistance to the apartheid regime, for instance, even though he made huge efforts to ensure that no lives were lost in the process; he felt this was necessary, and even though the idea of violence makes me uncomfortable, I have no doubt but that he was right. An educated, intelligent, reasonable, gentle and humane man, he relied far more on the power of his mind and the weight of his argument to sway people to his way of thinking than he did on violence, and I respect and admire that. The fact that people all over the world, of all colours and all faiths, are united in mourning his passing shows how successful he was at appealing to our higher nature, our compassion, our humanity – and it is because he strove always for peace and equality between peoples that he is remembered so well. Unfortunately, he admitted himself that his family, particularly his children, were asked to suffer too much in the course of his political life and his decades in prison, and that is an unhappy aspect of his legacy. However, in this – as in all things – I am sure he did the best he could, and that is all we can ask of any human being.

Late on Thursday evening last, my husband and I were watching something on BBC Two when a black ‘ticker-tape’ display flashed up on the bottom of our screen. ‘Breaking News on BBC One,’ it read, and so we flicked over to find out what was happening. There were dreadful storms in the UK last week, and so we feared there had been a disaster, or some sort of dreadful loss of life: instead, we were met with a shocked, slightly flustered newsreader announcing Mandela’s passing. Even though he was at an advanced age, and had been suffering with terrible health for some time, I admit I was stunned to learn he had finally succumbed to his illness. As the various TV channels caught the story and started to pay tribute to the lost hero, my stunned feeling became one of sorrow. We watched a special commemorative broadcast – no doubt, sadly, prepared months in advance, ready and waiting for the moment it would be needed – and as the full story of Mandela’s life and the truth of his long, long struggle was played out, I began to realise that this tall, thin man whose face I was so familiar with from my earliest childhood was finally gone, and how much he had done with the time allocated to him on this earth.

We can’t all play pivotal roles in the overthrow of a hated and oppressive regime, and we can’t all invent a computing language while serving as a Navy officer and gaining a PhD in Mathematics. We can’t all become authorities in the field of humane handling of livestock and the rights of autistic people, as another of my heroes (Dr. Temple Grandin) has done. But each life is important and every person is equal, and none of us can make a return trip. Whatever we can do to make the fullest use of our talents, and whatever we can do to improve the lot of others, and whatever we can do to brighten our own tiny corner of the world while we’re here, we should do it. The best way to honour a fallen hero is to conduct yourself in a way that would make them proud – so, living the lessons of Mandela is a good way to pay our respects to his memory.

Here are a few of those lessons, in the words of the great man himself, to be getting on with (and pay attention – there’ll be a test later):

A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dream of.

Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.

RIP Nelson Rohlilahla Mandela, 1918 - 2013. Image: harlemworldmag.com

RIP Nelson Rohlilahla Mandela, 1918 – 2013.
Image: harlemworldmag.com

Have a happy, peaceful and productive week – and remember that all things are possible to those with determined minds and open hearts.

It’s the Little Things

Lots of things in life bother me. I’m one of those people where ‘the river runs close to the surface,’ if you know what I mean; I am emotional, and sometimes I find myself shedding a tear where other people would go unmoved. If I’m honest, I like this aspect of my personality, though I know it upsets my loved ones at times. I like the fact that I feel things deeply, even though it’s painful; it makes me feel connected to myself, and to others.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

At the weekend, I was standing at traffic lights waiting for a chance to cross the road in safety. Facing me, coming in the opposite direction, was a set of young parents and their two boys, probably aged about seven and five. I’m not a parent, but I’m more than aware of how boisterous and energetic children of this age can be, and these two little boys were no different from the average kid. One of them started pressing the ‘Walk’ button repeatedly, as children do, and the other was prancing about from foot to foot, singing a little song to himself. Just as I was thinking what cute children they were, I witnessed a show of anger from the parents that left me reeling. The children were shoved and shouted at, and the boy with his hand on the ‘Walk’ button had it forcibly removed. The singing child was yelled at and told to shut up. As they started to cross the road, one boy dawdled, his attention caught by something in one of the idling cars, and his father grabbed him and shoved him across the road with what I felt was unnecessary force, shouting at him all the way. In no point was the child in danger – the green ‘walk’ signal was lit, and the cars were not moving. The physicality was extreme and unwarranted, I thought. I glared at the man, and said, very clearly, ‘there’s no need for that!’ as we passed one another on the road – he ignored me, of course. I hardly expected anything else. I’m fully prepared to accept that my actions may not have been appropriate; it’s not for me to say how anyone else raises their children, and I know that. Having said that, I watched the two little boys as they reached the far side of the road; from being the curious, singing little things they’d been at the beginning of this scenario, now they were both crying and angry. The whole family was furious with one another, and it radiated from them like steam from boiling water.

I walked home feeling so sad at what I’d seen. It stayed on my heart all day, weighing it down.

There’s a poem called ‘Children Learn What they Live,’ which played on my mind for most of the rest of the weekend. It begins: ‘If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn; if a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight; if a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive.’ I’ve often read this poem and it has always been clear to me how perceptive and true it is. It makes me wonder how a parent thinks treating their child with aggression can lead to anything but pain, or how they think that a child is going to grow up as a happy, contented and secure adult if they’ve felt bullied and belittled all their lives.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that the family I saw was abusive, or anything like that. Every family has its bad moments, and perhaps I simply happened to be there at the wrong time for this particular family. I’m also not saying that children shouldn’t be corrected when they misbehave; teaching a child how to negotiate the world with respect for themselves and others is a vital part of parenting, and discipline is part of that. For the record, I don’t believe in physical discipline of children, but I know opinions differ on that. I feel, too, that correcting a child’s misbehaviour with appropriate discipline is different from using them as punchbags for an adult’s own feelings of anger or upset or frustration; the latter is inexcusable.

Of course I would love to see a world where no child would ever know aggression, whether it’s verbal or physical, but we’re all aware of how realistic that dream is.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

I have a huge amount of sympathy for parents who, under pressure from every corner, find raising their children difficult; it’s not easy to find the money and the time and the energy to parent energetic, never-sleeping, inquisitive little people. There are going to be times when tempers boil over and anger reaches flashing point and things are said which will be regretted later – but it’s really important to express this regret, and ‘mend the fences’, and reassure the child that they are still, and always, loved. Love is such a little thing – such a short word, and so often bandied about – but at the same time it’s the single most important thing a parent can give their child. I’d go so far as to say it’s the single most important thing one person can give another.

I would love to see a situation where every child was afforded an education, the chance to learn how to read and write fluently and confidently, and the knowledge that – no matter what – they are loved. Imagine the generation of happy, compassionate and intelligent people we would raise.

Imagine the difference it would make to the world.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

 

 

 

 

Just Like Starting Over

This morning, we woke to a refreshed world. Heavy rain fell in most places last night, washing away the dust and dessication of the last few weeks, and the air feels lighter and clearer this morning. For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like I’m wearing a too-tight hat made of red-hot metal, and a headache isn’t threatening to engulf me. It’s a nice feeling.

Because of all this freshness, several related things are on my mind this morning, things like: learning from the past and then leaving it behind, new beginnings, corners being turned and change being made for the better (hopefully, at least). Today’s the perfect day to think about things like this. The earthy, rich air is coming in my open window and the grass is sighing with relief outside, and everything feels new.

Image: flickriver.com

Image: flickriver.com

Nobody goes through life without making mistakes, or doing things that, on reflection, they would have decided against if they’d been given a second chance; everyone has done or said things which cause them to cringe with embarrassment when they creep into mind weeks or months or even years later. I am no exception, of course. Learning from your mistakes, allowing them to shape your future in a positive way, and eventually letting them go, is a very important life skill. I’ve always had trouble with the ‘letting them go’ part of this model; I find it very difficult, and always have. I tend to hold on to my regrets and my embarrassments, and over time they ferment into something more damaging, something which feels a lot like guilt.

Guilt can be a terribly corrosive emotion – I’m not even sure ’emotion’ is the correct word. Perhaps ‘force’ is better. It’s something which can erode a person’s self-belief and confidence, warping their ability to lay down plans for their future life, robbing them of any ability to move forward and keep going. I’m not talking here about ‘justified’ guilt – i.e. the natural and perhaps deserved guilt a person may feel if they commit a crime or harm someone else or break the law; I’m talking about the pernicious kind, the self-directed, self-harming kind, the sort of guilt that eats you up over mistakes made, things said in anger or in error, things for which you can’t forgive yourself. Things which you carry with you like a ball and chain. I think certain people are perhaps more prone to this sort of thinking than others; perfectionists, for instance, or people who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are carrying a burden of expectation, or people who are serious, and careful, and who like to be right. People, in short, who can’t deal with the fact that sometimes, they’re going to say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time, and that it’s just another part of life. There has to come a point, however, where this foundation-dissolving guilt is allowed to trickle away, and the person can be washed clean of it; that’s difficult, though, when the person can’t let themselves get past it.

When I make a mistake that causes me to be embarrassed by my own behaviour or when I engage on a course of action that I later regret, I tend to build a skin of forgetfulness over the whole thing; of course, like any skin, it’s vulnerable and porous and prone to being popped. I push away my mistake, I try not to think about my error, I don’t allow myself to deal with it rationally and come to the (inevitable) conclusion: ‘it wasn’t all that bad. What are you beating yourself up over?’ Instead, the memory remains, buried deep, ready to explode at any moment. Like a sore tooth or a niggling pain, though, the awareness of the bubble of guilt deep within me is always there. I might choose to ignore it, but I know exactly where it is. In that way, then, my attempts to forget it, to cover it over, to leave it behind, are all fruitless. It becomes the focal point of my mental life, and an insurmountable obstacle.

I’m not really sure why I do this. Perhaps I’m a bit of a weirdo.

Forgiving oneself, and starting afresh, are not always easy things to do – but they have to be done. You can live your life with a bubble of guilt and regret inside you, but you won’t take any risks, and you won’t do anything for fear of doing something wrong, and you won’t say anything at all for fear of saying something inadvertently hurtful or stupid or embarrassing – and what sort of life is that? I find it difficult to allow myself the space and compassion to make mistakes, to learn from them and atone for them, and to move on without the burden of them hanging around my neck, but as I grow older I am getting better at it. I’m trying to treat myself with more kindness and consideration, and trying to realise that I am going to make mistakes, sometimes, but that it’s perfectly all right. On a day like today, when the cooling rains have come to refresh my little patch of world and make it new, I’m going to make another effort to keep this lesson to the forefront of my mind.

A life of writing, where you are your own sole motivator, is a life incompatible with being handicapped by guilt and regret. You can’t keep moving forward if you’re afraid to move on, after all. It’s time to leave my regrets where they belong and allow myself the freedom to learn, and grow, and move into the future.

Image: guardian.co.uk

Image: guardian.co.uk

Happy Thursday, everyone! It’s almost the weekend. Hang in there…