The Power of Reading

In an earlier post, I examined what would happen ‘If All the Books Disappeared.’ Ricky Gervais pointed out that science is the axiom the universe, an unchanging constant that would be discovered again and again should we lose all knowledge and records of learning. He contrasted this to religion which would reappear in a different form because it is couched in culture, language, and context.

For Gervais, science is worth believing in. Religion was not.

In contrast, C. S. Lewis an atheist until his early 30s, described himself as a “reluctant convert” to Christianity,  because as an intellectual, he found he had no choice but to accept what he clearly saw to be truth.

In his essay ‘Is Theology Poetry’ he mused,

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.

C. S. Lewis

This little comic articulates the importance of ideas to shape the way we see the world. Should we lose all books, humanity would have to reprocess the fundamentals of ‘knowing’ and ‘seeing’ the world, in order to test, examine and rediscover science.

Without ideas of being, notions of truth and identity, we would in fact ‘see’ the world very differently. Science would not only have to be relearned but would have to in fact be ‘re-seen.’

This process of epistemology, the process of ‘knowing’ is philosophical and tied to notions of belief, truth, and identity. This is why humanity are story tellers, and our narratives of identity which form the basis of religious beliefs run parallel to, and indeed fundamental to, the scientific process.

On Being an Adult Child

It is a lovely thing to be an adult and have a strong relationship with one’s parents and know them more as friends. Growing to adulthood is a lot about gaining agency and objectivity. One is less the subject of your parents, and more the object of your own life.

Yet in family, there forever exists a dynamic that one can never escape – the reality that you are forever their child, and they are forever your parents.

I recently enjoyed a holiday with my parents. When living far away, any quality time together, forming happy memories is a good investment. However, when returning to extended time together this family dynamic is reinforced in curious ways.

Is it being placed in a single bed again? Is it the conversation about a different generation of friends, their health challenges, their grandchildren which makes you realise you’re not with your peers? And that you are uncomfortably, the object of much of their worry, analysis and discussion.

We recently chose a holiday venue for the over 65+ which only compounded my feeling. I was definitely outnumbered and cultural differences did abound some of which I did not object to, including the early nights and afternoon naps, the schedule of coffee, cakes, scenic locations and group photos.

Around my parents’ friends, I find that in open dialogue they will bemoan unmarried children, talk of their welfare and concerns. I find myself patted and prodded, gently sized up, commented upon.

I realise that here I’m not the object of my life, the agent of decisions. I’m the subject of someone else’s life, their worries, decisions, their social standing with their peers. I am the object of devotion and love, but also of anxiety, surprise, disappointment and stress.

I am reminded that we are always tied into the fabric of a large community quilt. We are our parents’ children. We are the subject of their conversation the way they are the subject of ours with our friends. We will always be subject to care, commentary, criticism, gossip, humour, anxiety and love. As they are subject to ours.

But this makes us part of community, loved and well as loving. We are object and we are subject. We belong.

Emotional Hygiene

Dr Viktor Frankl in his book ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, talks about ‘hygiene’ emotionally and psychologically, a hygiene necessary to maintain a healthy mind and heart.

Upon release from internment in concentration camps, release from the extremes of deprivation and human suffering, Frankl observed that humans encountering their new freedoms had to be cautious of their emotional health in the following ways.

First, they had to be cautious to not react with vengeance and hatred towards the world, careless of the hurts or disadvantages towards others that their behaviour could cause, all the while justifying their actions by their own needless sufferings.

Second, they had to be wary not to succumb to bitterness when encountering those who would trivialise their prisoner experience with hollow platitudes devoid of any true empathy.

Third, they had to be on guard not to give in to disillusionment when returning home, upon learning that the objects of their love and hope for the future, their family, beloved, friends, were now gone.

In this way Frankl teaches us all, very few of whom have suffered the indignities of a concentration camp, to care for our own hearts and minds as though for our bodies and homes. We must daily clean the toxic emotional build up and thought patterns of life as we would ritually wash our hands before eating, our bodies before resting, our wounds before going out into the air. We must throw away rotting thoughts and attitudes before they infect our lives and vigilantly clean up our living space of soiled attitudes or ideas past their due date.

How is your emotional hygiene?

On Responsibility

In Victor Frankl’s work ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, he explores the question of what is the ‘meaning’ of life. Frankl explains, that life, like the game of chess, has no perfect move, only the perfect move for a specific player in a specific situation. Life has no ‘meaning‘ other than meaning derived from responding to one’s life in any given circumstances.

He correlates then, ‘responsibility‘ with the essence of human existence. To live meaningfully, one is to imagine one is living for a second time and that the first time we lived, we made every mistake possible. This imagining, confronts us with all of life’s limitations and the finality of what we make of our life and of ourselves, pushing us to be responsible.

He continues. The question of ‘responsibility‘ calls into question whether we are truly free or not. If we are indeed victims of life, we have no responsibility for the consequences of our existence. However as victims, we are not truly free. If we are however, to claim to be truly free beings and to have agency over our existence, we cannot then fall back upon the comfort of claiming ‘victimhood’. We must face the reality that our life, and the consequences or our existence, and indeed our total responsibility.

Frankl, as a psychiatrist, saw his role in therapy much the way an eye-surgeon would when dealing with a patient. He worked on the faculty of sight to restore a patient’s ability to see the whole spectrum of his or her potential and the meaning of their life. By helping a patient to become ‘responsible’, he would help them become empowered to actualise the potential meaning of their existence.

And in doing so, no matter the circumstance of his or her life, to become truly free.

It’s My Birthday and I’ll Cry If I Want To

or Why FEAR is Like Hot Sauce – Part III’

Recently my colleagues bought me cake and a signed card with lovely wishes for my birthday. A [false] social media alert had triggered their interest and they had pooled together to congratulate me.

I stammered something about it not being my birthday but they clarified they had then done research and found my date of birth on our staff database and that it was only a few weeks prior.

I managed to thank them and mutter something about being a birthday ‘grinch‘. However, when left alone, I was overcome with a wave of emotion, humiliation, condemnation, and hot tears.

Why did such a lovely guesture catalyse such a flood of emotion?

As I paused to examine my feelings, I unearthed a deep sense of failure, unloveliness, lack of dignity and embarrassment layered there. These sadnesses about my life are emphasisesd at each anniversary of my birth as though mile markers taunt me to show my lack of progress or as a measuring rod, to highlight my lack of stature.

When my colleagues tried to cheer me for my birthday, I felt like a door to a private room of grief was suddenly thrown open, a door I was hoping to keep closed. Memories of relationship failures, griefs about unmet expectations and unrealised dreams came tumbling out; fears of social indignity and disrespect met the light of what I fear most of all, the knowledge of these failures in the faces of my colleagues. I felt crushed.

I looked down and focused on my work and I cried silently in the office that afternoon.

Joseph Campbell writes,

It is by going down into the abyss
that we recover the treasures of life.

Where you stumble,
there lies your treasure.

The very cave you are afraid to enter
turns out to be the source of
what you are looking for.
The damned thing in the cave
that was so dreaded
has become the center.

You find the jewel,
and it draws you off.

I don’t talk about my birthday because it reminds me of the failures of my life. I have not achieved XYZ and am still struggling with questions of identity, purpose and direction. I’m not where I feel like I should be and I am I feel shame.

My response to being warmly congratulated by friends, alerted me that there was a cave I needed to enter, a cave of vulnerability and to sharing my life experiences with my colleagues, my life story, with others that could yield a treasure of friendship and connection that I have not yet experienced with them.

Instead of pretending to be ‘A-Okay’, and a little distant, my story with all its honesty and griefs, could indeed be a treasure to encourage other people who feel they are failures, unlovely, undignified or ashamed.

On Distancing Techniques

Or Why Fear is Like Hot Sauce – Part II’

I have come to be aware of something I do to avoid [what I perceive to be] rejection. I use ‘distancing techniques‘: words or actions to put a wall down or to establish distance between myself and others to make me feel less vulnerable.

These range from socially acceptable to rude and immature and include: talking about independence or career interests or romantic relationships in an academic tone; establishing that one is busy or subtly stating a dislike of a shared activity or a desire to leave; leaving early; pretending to not feel upset about a result or an outcome; retreating to become a silent observer in a group or conversely becoming functional and doing chores or overly polite; pretending to have forgotten key information; avoiding certain people or conversation in company; using one’s phone in company; not saying goodbye properly.

This list continues.

All of these are reflexive and defensive behaviours, to put distance between self and the object of either affection (and therefore vulnerability) or threat.

The Mirror Principle

What has alerted me to these behaviours is what is known as the ‘mirror principle.’ When I encounter ‘distancing techniques‘ in others it can cause me intense pain. However, the minute I begin to resent others for behaving defensively, it dawns on me that this is in fact how I have been behaving.

There is no greater teacher than first hand experience.

The Remedy For Heartache

These behaviours only serve to bury feelings deep within and unfortunately, seal a firm lid on them.

I’m learning that the only true remedy for pain is to stay close to it, to suffer pain and discomfort, to open the heart to sensation, love, loss, sorrow and heartache.

For me, to own my own vulnerability and softness is key. I must do away with any shame or sense of weakness attached to emotions, and allow myself to feel, even if it causes me suffering.

Why Fear is Like Hot Sauce

I have recently sought coaching and counselling for personal challenges and blockages.

In exploring my own issues I have identified far beneath, buried deep down in my sub-conscious, a far more complex and insidious root of life struggles.

FEAR.

Fear of conflict, fear of failure, fear of what others think, fear of condemnation, fear of disappointing those I love, fear of not being enough.

Procrastination? FEAR.

Low achievement? FEAR.

Conflict avoidance. FEAR.

Broken relationships? FEAR.

Friends chastise me for seeming calm and peaceful, and yet on occasion raising grievances of issues from years ago. I had been hurt at the time and instead of raising the issue then, sat with the pain for years before finally airing it.

I realise that FEAR is like a hot sauce. It eclipses all flavour and sense, disallowing nuance of other food in the dish. When I am stressed or face conflict, I cannot feel anything except confusion driven by fear.

I cannot tell how I feel, what I think, what I want or process how the other person has hurt me. The hot sauce eclipses all others and I feel paralysed. It is only much later that I am able to process my feeling and raise the concerns with my friends and loved ones. They understandably are confused as this issue has long passed and they had no idea.

Coaching has established the need to rebuild identity that can stand up against fear. This entails responsibility for actions which have caused the issue to perpetuate and grow.

Healing occurs through receiving love and rebuilding trust. Trust of self, trust of others, trust of the divine. A kindness given to myself is like water, which dilutes the hot sauce. As the hot sauce strength subsides, the flavour returns. The ability to feel a range of feelings returns.

I am able to be present with my emotions and know what I want. I am less inclined to flee, shut down, avoid or stonewall situations that require vulnerability and presence.

I’m more inclined to try hard at things that make me afraid or risk my feelings. And slowly, slowly I am able to hope that the future might be different.

Some Changes to Bear Skin

I have been making some changes to Bear Skin over the last few days. You may or may not have noticed if you visit the blog site itself.

I have recently made the web url http://www.bearskindigital.com the primary domain of the page to reflect the blog name, and to distinguish it from other websites of a similar title. The old url http://www.bearskin.org will simply redirect to the new address and no links will be lost.

Second, I have updated the ‘About Me’ section of the blog.

Third, I have rearranged the menu to reflect a new organisation to the blog structure. Basically, I seek to write more frequently. I will continue to post weekly articles about authors, their work, plays, films, and essays and continue to share original poems and writing related quotes. However I’m going to add to Bear Skin more ‘personal’ reflections, learnings and thoughts.

I enjoy engaging with any comments on the blog and seeing where traffic and visitors are coming to the blog from all around the world.

Do drop a line sometime.

Jennifer