Choose your own adventure…

New Year … it is one of those threshold points where we resolve to make a new start… quitting bad habits, starting a health kick or a new project… drawing a line under some aspect of the past and moving forward in a new way. And yet, for all that determination, most of those who commit to change will have broken their resolutions by the middle of January, and that can leave behind the bitter taste of guilt, inadequacy or failure… which, by a cruel irony, was often at the root of the problem in the first place.

It does not have to be that way… we have a new opportunity with every passing second. Every moment is a potential crossroads where we have the chance to choose our way forward. Every choice we make, consciously or unconsciously, shapes the path our future will take and leads us off in a new direction. Like any interesting path, we cannot see where it may lead as we stand at the crossroads, and we have yet another choice… to face the journey with excitement and curiosity, or fear.

The idea reminds me of the old ‘adventure’ books that were popular a few decades ago. You read the story so far and, at a critical moment, were presented with a number of choices. Each choice sent you to a different page in the book where the story took a new direction, leaving you with a new set of choices and eventually leading to one of the many possible endings. In effect, you ‘wrote’ the story, based upon your choices. All the words were written… all possible endings were in there…all combinations of the choices were available… and every time you made a new choice, you rewrote the story. You know the sort of thing…

…you turn the corner and are confronted by a ravenous monster…

Do you:

a) Stand and face it

b) Run away

c) Buy it lunch

The ‘choose your own adventure’ books were targeted primarily at young teens and inadvertently provided a graphic life-lesson. They illustrated that while you may not be able to control external factors in your life, you always have a choice in how you face them… and a responsibility for the path you have chosen to follow and its consequences. The advantage that they had over ‘real life’ was that, if you made the wrong choice, you could always go back to the previous chapter and try again. We do not have that luxury, but we too can learn from our mistakes…and learn more from our worst choices than our best.

I doubt if there are many of us who have not made glaring errors of judgement at some points in our lives and many of us have carried them as a burden of grief, guilt or simple embarrassment that may have weighed us down for years. In many ways, this too is a ‘choose your own adventure’ scenario:

you are confronted by a ravenous monster…

Do you:

a) Stand and face it

b) Run away

c) Feed it

If that ‘ravenous monster’ is named Fear, Guilt or Shame, the chances are that most of us feed it a diet of regret, reliving old emotions engendered by the events that caused it to appear. Just like the adventure books, you cannot erase the chapters that went before…nor do you need to do so. Each step you have taken and choice you have made have combined to bring this you to this moment… and this you can choose to rewrite your adventure whenever it wishes.

The mistakes and apparent failures of the past are a valuable part of our journey. In 1159, John of Salisbury wrote: “Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.” In 1675 Isaac Newton said, : “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” If we have a past filled with mistakes and failures, then perhaps the bigger they seem to us, the higher we can climb upon them and the farther we can learn to see beyond them.

There is only one New Year’s Eve every year where we can make those traditional resolutions, but there are three hundred and sixty four other days. Each one of those has eighty-six-thousand-four-hundred seconds within it… and any one of those can be a threshold of opportunity when we can choose to change our world.

Under the sun…

Image: panayota via Pixabay

“Thirteen thousand miles… How is that even possible???”

We were talking about distances, my son and I, and having established that the Great Wall of China seems impossible, we then discussed the relative distance of the moon from the earth, swiftly progressing to how navigation by the stars actually works when they, and we, are constantly in motion. A relatively minor leap took us to technology and the advances we have seen over the past decades… a conversation, I imagine, that all generations have had since mankind first picked up a stick or stone as a tool.

“Tomorrow’s kids won’t have that same sense of wonder, will they?” No, that wasn’t from me, it was my son… though I have said the self-same words in the past. Thinking of my three year old grandaughter, who calmly snaffles my phone to see pictures of my dog or plays educational games on the tablet she uses at pre-school, it was me that was left wondering…

I am of a generation who watched the men behind the banks of computers during the moon landings. Yes, we had computers back then… though not in domestic situations… Our household didn’t get the first proper, fully functional multimedia PC until the late nineties, though we had ensured the boys had grown up with the ‘new’ technology, recognising its potential. I still have fond memories of the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64. They were, apart from the Atari, our first introduction as a family to the world of computer games and titles like Stormlord and Hobgoblin still live in visual memory.

For my son’s generation it was the advent of telecommunications. Mobile phones that made the descent from science fiction to real life. The Nokia seemed to be in every pocket at one point and ‘3210’ became a name, not a number. The internet. Wi-fi… and now we have smartphones and wrist units straight out of science fiction, that do and store everything.

There is more processing power in a modern smartphone than in the Apollo computers, it is said… though that is almost like comparing a camera obscura to a DSLR, given the levels of technological advancement and the rapidity with which they have evolved.

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9

Yet stripped back to basics there really is nothing ‘new’. What we have is an evolution in the complexity of a few basic ideas and the development of the technology that puts those ideas into useable form. Once upon a time we simply had movement…man walked and ran. Eventually he worked out that a horse could do that better and quicker and invented transport. Perhaps, from that point onwards interstellar travel became inevitable. In the same way communication developed, from what were probably grunts and body language through speech, writing and messengers, to carrier pigeons, telegraph, telephone…. And how far are we from a brain to brain interface? Well, actually… that’s already been done.

The possibilities are endless, really. What use we choose to make of those possibilities is another matter perhaps. From the first healing herb to a cure for cancer… from the first stone that was thrown to nuclear weapons…

Yet, some things do not change. How much have our basic human needs and their attendant emotions, positive and negative, changed in the couple of million years or so since we became the species we are today? Probably no more than is reflected in the stories we tell of our interactions with each other, the needs of survival, of life, love and death… and the need to seek something beyond the material world.

Fear was born of the simple need to survive. That it is now more often applied in social situations rather than to ensure physical survival is more a reflection on the way our society has evolved. But there is no reason to suppose that the parental instinct of the first humans was any less than that love a mother feels today. No reason to suppose we could not feel tenderness or compassion then as we do now. A hundred thousand years ago we created beauty, we buried gifts with our dead, surely a proof of love or respect. Emotions, it seems do not change much. Cultural differences may colour their expression, time may change the social mores…but although our technologies advance at a truly fantastic rate we, it seems… or at least our emotions… do not.

Will our children and our children’s children still feel that sense of wonder? I used to worry that they would not. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think that yes, how can they not? We did… There will always be a new love to fill the heart with butterflies. A new birth to gaze upon in awe… a new dawn to blaze in glory across the sky… a new advance in technology, a new discovery under the ocean, in outer, or indeed inner space. The world is full of wonders… and perhaps the greatest wonder of all is that, young or old, we can know and feel all of their gifts.

On being a wet blanket…

For some unknown reason, I was weepy. It had not been a sad day, but a busy one. There was no cause on which I could lay the blame. Granted I had prodded the scars on some old memories, but they are long past and well healed. The dog, if I let her near the keyboard, would tell you that we had been having fun… a ‘mad half hour’ that extended throughout the early evening and ended in a laughing heap of fur and limbs collapsed panting on the floor… both hers and mine… and with a triumphant hound licking my face. The triumph being because she knows she is not supposed to and, as she was sat on me, she had the advantage.

I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself for any reason. I can’t even blame fluctuating hormones as they have come neatly packaged in regular daily doses for years. I had slept longer than usual. There was no reason for it. It was simply something that washed over me out of the blue and didn’t bother warning me or telling me why.

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Pretty much everything I read from that point onward reduced me to tears, from beauty to empathy. I decided to watch a film instead. I chose a nice, safe adventure… one I have watched more times than I can remember. I know the book pretty much by heart too and it isn’t particularly sad … yet it had me dripping. Ani, by this time, was getting a bit concerned especially as even her cuddles set me off!

I gave up and went to bed a soggy mess.

The easy response is that there is, as we say in my home county, ‘nowt queerer than folk’ and it is true, we are an odd lot. Emotions can overtake us for many reasons or…apparently… none. But easy answers don’t cut it when you are lying in bed going back over the day.

In that meditative state there is no room for anything but honesty. There is no-one to see, no-one to hear, judge or impugn. Your thoughts are your own and there is nowhere to hide from yourself. So what had set me off? There was obviously something lurking there that needed to be disinterred and examined and, given the path I have chosen with the School, there could be no shying away from that.

The only thing I could think of were the memories I had been retelling. In addition to the instances from my own life upon which I had mused, I serve as a memory for my son for the missing period of his life and those memories are of a traumatic time. Had I touched some unknown sore spot there? I didn’t think so… not particularly… nothing we haven’t discussed before. The fact we can discuss them, given the original prognosis, means that there has been a miraculous resolution that puts past hurt into a completely different perspective that is rooted in thankful joy.

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I was no wiser. Then I wondered about the cumulative effect of remembered emotion. There had been a number of instances recalled, moments of pain and loss that had cut deep at the time. You call up a memory and, to remember it in detail, watch it play out vividly on the screen of the mind. With that almost cinematic effect come the emotions you had felt. Maybe that was it, just an overdose of memory? There was something in that, but there had to be more to it.

I dug deeper and finally got there in the end. The memories themselves weren’t the problem, nor their attendant emotions. Unacknowledged fears were at the root of it, and yet, once seen, once examined, they were found to be groundless; laughably empty and without substance. No more than a reaction learned from a flawed understanding by a younger, more fragile self… one who believed that to love something you had to keep it close in case you lost it. And under that cold, damp blanket of false fear, I found what I was looking for.

It wasn’t pain or sadness that had set me off in the first place… it was joy; gratitude for all the wonder and beauty I have known over the past few years. It was the obverse of pain which is why I couldn’t find any; it was the lights at the end of the tunnels, the laughter after tears, the sunny days that follow the dark ones. These are not things you ‘have’ so they cannot be ‘lost’. They are not possessions, but gifts of the moment and all you can do is be open to them when they come… and it is enough that they do. They come into even the darkest times, as fragile and delicately beautiful as butterflies. To try and hold them would be the same as pinning a butterfly to a board. There is no need. They simply light up a life with their presence.

I fell asleep laughing at myself. There are worse ways…

 

Five minutes of film

He wasn’t feeling too good so I carried his breakfast through into the lounge where he was watching TV and sat down with him on the sofa for five minutes. He was watching a wildlife programme and, as the small polar bear weakened and failed through starvation, I watched through a veil of tears. My own son beside me, it was easy to recognise the encouragement in the way the ursine mother tried to raise her cub to his feet. That was bad enough. Realising the little one could no longer stand she and his twin snuggled up with the dying cub, sharing warmth and comfort; nuzzling him gently and curled around the little body. Just waiting until the end. I can’t even write it without tears.

There was the debate about how the camera crew could simply stand by and watch, filming the tragedy, but the general policy is that they do not interfere, only observe the natural unfolding of life and death in the wild. To have provided food, had any been available out there in the snowy wastes, would have inevitably meant the taking of one life to sustain another, and while it might be argued that some species face less of a threat of extinction than others, Nature has her ways and it might only have been a postponement rather than a salvation if the young cub was weak.

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I do not, for one minute, think that the cameraman watched without an ache in his heart, having followed and filmed the bears for so long. You could feel the human emotion in the delicacy of his touch as he filmed those final moments, capturing the body language of maternal grief that seems to carry universal understanding. It was so gently done that it is one of those sequences I shall not forget.

The next sequence of the film showed a seal pup washed away from the herd in a storm and the determination with which its mother and aunt searched for her…. And the very obvious joy and welcome all round when they found her. Sequences like these highlight how closely the threads of life are bound together and could teach us of our similarities with other species, rather than our differences.

It is very easy to say that we project human emotions onto animals and believe them to feel in the self-same way that we do, arguing that this is a human trait and we understand the world only when we see it through our own peculiar lens. This may be true, if a little simplistic; we can only see through our own eyes after all and at least the projection argues some attempt at understanding. .

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With domestic animals I have a feeling some of those humanly recognisable behaviours are learned as a form of interspecies communication. Ani, for example, certainly makes herself understood. The vocal signals we call language… the words my dog understands… may indeed be reduced by science to mere association of audible cues. But her own body language, eyes and expressions speak volumes, as do the range of vocal signals she expects me to respond to. I don’t think anyone who has ever shared a home with a dog would argue that communication happens. Just not on our normal terms.

The social structures and imperatives of one species may seem alien to another, and there can be no doubt some of the protective instincts of motherhood are attributable to the simple necessity for ensuring survival. Even so, I wept for the grief of the mother bear. We may well project human emotion onto other species, but this does not mean that they have no emotions of their own. Somehow, we still tend to see ourselves as separate from the animal kingdom. I suppose it is the difference between compassion for another’s emotions and feeling with them. While we are separate from other species, we cannot empathise, only look on with sympathy. But why not empathy, after all? Humans are animals too and if a human mother feels grief at the loss of a child, why not a bear?

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There are many well documented examples of grieving in the animal kingdom, particularly for the loss of mates and young. Stuart and I, walking back one night through the darkened city, watched a fox, desperately trying to get its mate to get back on its feet… but it had been hit by a car and was beyond help. To attribute grief might well be deemed projection, but not if you were there and saw the foxes. I also watched a sad farewell when a pigeon’s mate had died… and understood the grief. There are also many examples all over the internet of the strange inter-species friendships that develop; pictures of unlikely pairings where you cannot help but smile at the images, even though many of the stories attached to them hold the darker shadow of orphaned creatures.

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Those of us who live with animals undoubtedly read more into their expressions than behaviourists would allow. But I wonder if calling our understanding of animal emotions ‘projection’ is simply our way of continuing to distance ourselves from the creatures around us? We do not wish to see ourselves as animals and have historically taken the position that they are somehow ‘less’ than humans, particularly as their behaviour is learned, conditioned… not an emotional response from which they can learn… a least, not as we would understand it. Yet, is not our own idea of ourselves formed in the same way? Over the past few decades, much work has been done to establish whether or not animals are more than the organic machines science posited for centuries; do they have emotions and do they have anything we can accept as consciousness? To anyone who has lived with animals, this seems a little late in coming. Science, however, requires that proof be demonstrable, repeatable and conclusive in scientific terms before it admits to anything. Consciousness itself is still ill-defined and yet a number of animals have passed the tests designed to demonstrate self-awareness, while dogs have been shown to have an emotional range similar to that of a human child. It may be that we are not so very different after all.

To feel empathy for a mother bear or a bereaved fox is not projection, in my eyes. It is a simple recognition of fellow-feeling.

As I was researching this article, I watched again the short video of how the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone dramatically altered both ecology and landscape as the natural balance of predator and prey was re-established. Another thing I saw posted was the endangered species list, populated by some of our most beloved wild creatures… as well as top predators whose presence in the ecological chain affect the balance of nature in ways we are only just learning to understand. We share this planet with an unknown number of species. We do not even know how many. Species reach the natural end of their evolution all the time and become extinct… that is part of the natural cycle of life on earth. Yet the WWF estimates that the current rate of extinction is between a thousand and ten thousand times higher than it would be without human action. I wonder how long it will be before we ourselves are on the endangered list, having so far overset the ecological balance of the earth that it can no longer sustain us?

And what mother will weep for us then?

Joy

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“You know, the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death. When their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the guards asked two questions. Their answers determined whether they were able to enter or not. ‘Have you found joy in your life?’ ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’” The Bucket List (2007)

Not bad questions are they? Together they might sum up the whole of the deeper truth of human aspiration. There is no mention of what car you managed to acquire, nor the level of material success you achieved in your life. Not pleasure, not even happiness… Just joy.

Like any word pertaining to our perception of emotion, the definition of joy is a difficult one. The dictionary attempts to define it by using superlatives of other emotions, yet those feelings are personal and their experience both subjective and subject to causative events in our lives.

Joy is something different somehow, transcending reactive emotion and welling up from a deep place, flooding the being from without and within like a clear, sparkling stream of bubbling, laughing Light. Yet though we seek the words, there are none that encompass it. Those who feel it will know it, those who have yet to feel its touch have joy to come.

It is a strange emotion, if emotion it truly is. Its touch comes in a single, blazing moment, yet the light it sheds seems to linger a lifetime, untarnished by sorrow or pain, undiluted by the cares of everyday. Once there it takes up home in the heart and whilst the surface of the mind and emotions may feel the storms and be battered by our very human lives, the kernel of joy seems to become an eternal flame, a sanctuary light at the very core of being. It is always there, underlying the ripples and tumult of emotion, no matter how terrible life and events may appear. Its presence is not dimmed by them. For this reason perhaps we might hesitate to call joy an emotion… and see it instead as a grace.

Joy comes when we are open to the full experience of life. It may touch you when you stand in a summer meadow and see the sky arcing over the hills, when you hold a newborn child, when you stand drenched and laugh at the rain clouds or when your heart feels the touch of the divine… for each of us it is different, unique in its beauty. Once felt, it never leaves, though we may choose to shut it out, turn our backs and walk away.

The second question is curious, ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’ It is not something we can give to others through choice, no matter how hard we try. It cannot be bought, gift wrapped or engendered no matter how desperately we might like to think it possible. We can, perhaps, consciously create the circumstances in which joy might be found through our actions, through our empathy, kindness and love for each other, yet we cannot be the sole cause of joy. It is akin to alchemy where the presence of certain elements can cause profound change, bringing something into being through our own being, through who we are, that may enable a response in joy from another. Perhaps it can be likened to music… where a simply melody can be picked out on a single instrument, but the full glory of the symphony can only be heard when the orchestra plays in harmony. Then the music lifts you and carries you beyond yourself to beauty.

What would you answer to those two guardians of the otherworld should they ask those questions? ‘Have you found joy in your life?’ ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’

Red socks and empathy

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There it is… the almost inevitable intruder… the stray red sock…lurking within the folds of the erstwhile pristine sheets. The hot wash has leached the dye from the offending article and snowy white linen is now a distinct, if uneven, shade of rose. The whites, ostensibly laundered to clean them… whites that have been subjected to the process of detergent, hot water and multiple rinses in order to restore their brilliance… greet you with a shamefaced blush as you open the door. To add insult to injury the scarlet lurker looks as bright as ever. It has tainted everything else in the machine, yet remains, itself, apparently unchanged. You reach for the stain remover with gritted teeth…

There is always a missing red sock at some point… and it always shows up, it seems, in the white wash. Or perhaps it is the steady attrition of mixed washes that dull the whites and colour them grey. We end up reaching for the chemicals we hope will redress the damage, or simply discard the ruined items that are no longer fit for purpose. It doesn’t stop there though… unless we make a point of rooting out all future red socks and learn to separate the lights and the darks before we stuff them in the machine the problem will continue and repeat itself.

The scenario is a common one; familiar to many of us, especially in the early learning curve of domestic responsibility. It is just as common within our own minds though, as the forgotten scarlet of old wounds colours our emotions over the years.

There are events in almost any life that leave a dark stain in a hidden corner of the mind. Sometimes they remain a very conscious part of our self-definition, sometimes they are secreted far beneath the surface layers and spread their discolouration insidiously. They may be events of which we have been the victim or the perpetrator. Either way, the damage can be as difficult to remove as the spreading stain of a red sock. There is no magical product that can restore the brightness of the psyche to the purity of childlike innocence nor can we simply discard a past that is, for good or ill, part of the formative process of our today.

Such inner stains leave can run the full gamut from shame to hurt, guilt to anger, and while no individual emotion is without its possibilities to become the impetus for change or for good, the stain is present. We can take out the hurts and examine them, but unless we do something about the underlying problem the likelihood is that in such situations the best we can hope for is a steady greying of our inner brightness as the past is allowed to taint both present and future.

I was reminded of this yesterday when discussing such old wounds; looking at how healing can take place. There are many studies that show how forgiveness has a positive impact on life and health. To forgive does not mean there was justification for the event, or that there was never a need for responsibility. It does not condone or minimise the act itself. It means letting go of the hold the event has on your life.

Yet it is not, I think, enough to simply be able to say we forgive, whether ourselves or others. There is a need to find a certain level of understanding of the real cause, both of the event and our own reactions to it. In the case of those old… perhaps ancient… hurts that stay with us, hidden in the laundry hamper of the mind like a lone red sock, we are at a disadvantage as the understanding we garner today may satisfy adult logic, but fail to address the emotions of the child or youngster who sustained the hurt. We need to find a way back to that moment of feeling and empathise, not sympathise, with that younger self, as we would with a child and answer its need to understand; not pretending the hurt never happened or that, in the greater scheme of things it was perhaps not all that important. Empathy and compassion go hand in hand and are at the root of forgiveness and apply equally to ourselves and to others… and empathy is perhaps our best weapon against the stray red sock in the soul.