A little care…

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The narrow village street is busy with rush hour traffic. The lorry coming towards me on the other side of the road is respecting the speed limit, the impatient driver behind him is not. Without warning, the car pulls out onto my side of the road, overtaking the lorry and coming straight at me. In that scintilla of clarity that happens at these moments, I realise there was nowhere for me to go. I could turn into the path of the lorry…but that is hardly a good choice. I could wrench the wheel to the left and plough into the schoolchildren waiting at the bus stop… and that is no choice at all. Or grit my teeth, hold the wheel, and slam the brakes on, hoping the cars behind me are going slow enough to stop.

I hit the brakes… so does the lorry… and the impatient driver hits the accelerator, raising one obnoxious finger to the world, squeezes through the gap with millimetres to spare, racing off to whatever destination is more important to him than the lives of others.

I am not a timid driver and I don’t scare easily… but this brief incident left me shaking all the way to work. It had been close.

Sadly, it is the kind of scenario that happens every day on our increasingly busy roads. This time, tragedy was averted by the quick reactions of several drivers. It is not always so, and the toll of death and destruction on the roads rises daily. Accidents happen often enough, both on and off the roads, but many are not accidents at all, they are simply the result of heedless or selfish behaviour and, when lives are lost to such causes, it is tantamount to murder.

How would the lorry driver have fared emotionally, as well as legally, had I turned my car beneath his wheels? How would I have lived with my actions had I instinctively turned away and hit the children? How would either outcome have affected others… witnesses, those who care about us, the parents of the children? How many lives would have been injured, broken or lost? In both cases, the road would have been clear for our impatient motorist to speed away and possibly remain unaware of what he had done.

I could not help reflecting on the fragility of life. This gift that we are privileged to share can be torn away at any moment, by any number of unforeseen circumstances and there will be nothing left of us but a memory. Our emotional lives are just as fragile and can be broken by just such a lack of care as was shown by the reckless driver. We may be the guilty party, the one who causes harm… sometimes through a genuine misunderstanding or error, sometimes through a lack of empathy or care…  yet because we move forward with our own lives, we may not see the devastation we leave behind.

Our society is increasing the distance between us in many ways, even while it brings us closer in others. It is easier than ever before to keep in touch and to watch events unfolding across the globe, yet it is probably easier than ever before to remain isolated, touching the world only through the medium of keyboard and screen. It is our responsibility to ensure that we do not lose our ability to care… that, although we are undoubtedly the central point of our own consciousness, we do not learn to see ourselves as the sun in a universe of lesser satellites.

Consideration, empathy and kindness are social skills, and without social interaction, we can forget how central they are to allowing society to function. We see the effects of isolation every day and how quickly and insidiously these essential skills can be forgotten. Awareness and care for others can be unconsciously replaced with a false, but inalienable sense of self as the central point for all things. When one person’s journey…in their own eyes… becomes worth more than that of any other, tragedy will not be far behind.

It costs nothing except a moment’s thought and feeling to consider the impact of our actions. We will not always get it right, regardless of how well-intentioned we may be, but a little care goes a long way towards making sure that we do not go too far wrong. We cannot always avoid disaster, but if we can take responsibility for our own actions and open ourselves to the needs of others, we may not only be helping them, but saving ourselves untold heartache too.

Snail’s pace

The internet was playing up, the email account had been hacked yet again, pages were taking up to ten minutes each to load and anything that had images or video took longer. It was going to be one of those days. It seems to be a common problem and it makes trying to work exceedingly difficult as well as frustrating. It highlights just how dependant we have become on a technology that really is quite new. Society has adopted computers and the internet wholesale and within a generation we have, rather than finding a little slot within our lives into which it might fit, changed our entire lifestyle to work with it.

It is amazing when you really look at it…millions of people use the internet daily; the world, or so it feels, would simply collapse in so many ways without its possibilities yet, when my own children were young, it did not exist. So many technological advances within a lifetime or two that have completely changed the face of the world. Television and communications media, transport… cars and flight that were once the privilege of the few who could afford them are now a part of normality…There are probably more and stranger things out there than the writers of the Jetsons, could have imagined in 1962. Mobile phones… more people own one than have decent sanitation, apparently… what does that say about us as a global family, I wonder?

Even the way we communicate has changed with instant messaging, video calls, text and email. We ‘speak’ to people all around the globe every day, time and distance no longer matter, spontaneous comments can be sent in a millisecond, news shared in a nanosecond. We are more aware of global events and can participate in them in real time, seeing pictures and hearing sounds almost as they happen and sharing the ensuing emotions with those caught in the midst of the unfolding moment. The downside of that is the risk of desensitisation as we are daily faced with images of atrocity and tragedy that we can simply accept as part of the human condition. We take a stand for or against a cause, but the images that should move us have lost their edge… we forget that these are women, children, fathers, sons… like our own. Real human lives edged in blood… closer than at any time in history, yet, in many ways, more distant through habituation.

The double edged sword that opens the world for us to explore also isolates us from face to face interaction in many ways. If it were not for the dog and caring for my son daily, I would no longer need a voice for weeks on end. I see no-one and speak seldom when at home; suburbia becomes a hermitage for many as social interaction becomes virtual and we lose the warmth of a human smile or the touch of a hand as we speak.

Handwritten letters are now a rarity and, if you’ll pardon me for waxing romantic, you can’t tie emails up with ribbon and keep them for a lifetime… printing them out is just not the same. How much of our real, personal histories will we be able to leave for future generations from passworded accounts and encrypted documents… and would it be the same without the trace of a human hand on paper?

Veracity too has taken a hit. Not so long ago a letter was either real or forged; now the printed word can be subtly altered, a word here or there that changes the focus, softens an edge or alters the emotive content. Images are tweaked, ‘photoshopped’… a new verb along with ‘googling’ to enter our language. We run to the internet for information when we know there is a huge amount of inaccuracy online, yet, of course, there is also a vast store of knowledge, art, literature and opinion available to us at the touch of a key… more than ever before in history.

We have adopted the new technology and will, no doubt, do the same when the ‘internet of things’ comes into our lives and every gadget we own is capable of communicating vital information about our statistics and habits. Once again there is the potential for enormous good as well as the capacity for abuse, misuse and an Orwellian future. We can’t even say it is ‘up to us’ as we, the ordinary people, will have little voice when there is large-scale corporate profit involved.

We are, however, incredibly adaptable creatures. Since the advent of the technological revolution that has become such an intrinsic element of our everyday lives we have managed to acquire new skills, create a common language to deal with them and accept a whole string of new terms for hitherto unknown events and needs. We seem to be developing a new skillset for communication that is, perhaps, more aware than ever of the use of language itself. Purists may rail against ‘text-ese’ terms and abbreviations and particularly the ubiquitous emoticon, but the more I look at the etymology of words since working on the books, the more I see that this is what we have always done and how our modern language has evolved from its ancient counterparts.

Emoticons allow us to take a possibly perceived sting out of our words or express something beyond them. They have evolved an unspoken protocol of their own and can both instigate and terminate a deeper conversation. We even seem to be evolving a kind of sixth sense that can read between words to emotions. As always, with the written word much depends on the reader’s own inner voice and character and it is easy to wall oneself in within the ego and miss the kernel of hurt, the laughter, longing or raillery in the words of another. Mind you, we can just as easily fail to see those things when they are in front of our eyes if we are too caught up in our own lives. Yet those with any kind of empathy or care for their fellow man seem able to pick up a good deal from a curt status update on social media, or through a brief text or email. It is as if lacking the visual clues of body language and expression, the timbre of a voice or the averted eyes we have learned to read them in the choice of word and the turn of a phrase.

I wonder if, as we move into a new phase of technological adventure, we are also moving towards a need to concentrate more on the unseen skills of being human; those abstract, unquantifiable qualities such as awareness, discretion and empathy and exercise a more mature and conscious attention and discrimination where our interactions are concerned. At no time in the history of our species has there been such possibility for communication and understanding, or for man to unite behind common goals… and, of course, the obverse of that is also true. In that, at least, it is up to us, as individuals, to choose which way we go.

Though it would help if our internet connections were actually reliable…

The tale of a fish

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I’ve inherited an aquarium, for the second time. The first time it was a gift when a friend’s husband passed away…she needed to re-home the fish and, knowing my younger son had a keen interest in them, she gave the tank to me. My son however, had unexpectedly acquired a lovely little flat and moved out. Which left me with a huge aquarium of which the dog did not approve.

The dog too was a recent acquisition at that time. My elder son had decided an assistance dog might be a good idea, so Ani had come into our lives. He too had found a lovely home and moved out, but the small dog had remained with me. You may detect a pattern developing here. My younger son, rather liking the tank and in the interests of appeasing the confused canine (who thought it her duty to protect me from the fish) adopted the aquarium and took it home, leaving me fishless. Meanwhile, my elder son created a huge pond for me to clean enjoy at his new home.

It should, then, have come as no surprise that when I finally moved out of the old place and into my younger son’s little flat, while he and his family went on to pastures new, the aquarium remained behind. Five years on, and although there are a number of fish in the tank, most of its original occupants have departed for celestial seas; only two of them are still with us. One is a small sucker fish whose presence I am aware of but who I have never really seen, the other is Mad Fish.

Mad Fish was a bit of a mystery. My son thought he might be some kind of tetra, but was not at all sure. There had been two, but one had died, leaving the other fish on his own. He was referred to as Mad Fish not as some vague insult, but because his behaviour was very, very strange; he spent almost all his time swimming in circles with his nose to the glass, particularly at night. “I think he’s lonely,” my son had said. “Missing his mate.” I watched him for a couple of weeks while, at the same time, learning about the various fish, how to look after them and trying to identify Mad Fish’s species. I learned a bit about fish behaviour and, when I finally found out what Mad Fish was, I began to think my son was right.

fish

He’s a Buenos Aires Tetra… which meant nothing to me, so I looked them up. They swim in shoals… maybe Mad Fish was trying to be a shoal with his reflection? Was he lonely? And was that just instinct… or emotion? Do fish have emotions? My relationship with the fish in the pond certainly makes me think so… but I looked up the science of if too.

Until very recently, we didn’t even know for certain whether fish felt pain, let alone had emotions.  It was discovered that they had a nervous system equipped to feel pain. Then came the next question… in order to suffer from pain, rather than simply react to it from self-preservation, there would need to be a level of consciousness. They experimented some more and found that fish could learn. Well, I could have told them that… Simon, the bubble blowing koi and his cohorts, have learned exactly how to get me to feed them whenever they choose. And anyway, it’s on Youtube… just look up ‘fish playing football’.

Still, that wasn’t good enough for the scientists, so they had to go for the labyrinth solving techniques…and found that fish can solve complex tasks, plan, co-operate and use faculties human beings don’t begin to develop until they are four years old.  Which, according to the scientists’ criteria, means they have not only a level of intelligence, but also of self-awareness… consciousness.  And science has a hard time explaining the essence of human consciouness, let alone that of creatures we have, for so long considered the epitome of mindlessness.

Consciousness and the ability to be aware…of joy and suffering, of pain and belonging… it is something we share with so many creatures in this world, many of whom were considered ‘dumb animals’ until so recently. Science does not know where consciousness comes from, nor how it arises…nor how far consciousness may extend into the natural world. We do not have the language to communicate with most of our world, we can only observe. Lives that are so very different from our own may well be showing levels of consciousness we simply cannot see or understand, but we cannot dismiss, simply because we do not see.

Do fish have feelings? If they are self-aware, then it would seem possible and must make us begin to question our attitude towards them and their treatment at our hands. After watching Mad Fish today, I, for one, am in no doubt.

I managed to find a local supplier of Buenos Aires Tetra and introduced a tiny shoal to the tank. I’m not ashamed to say I cried watching Mad Fish’s reaction. He stopped, mid dash… then dived across the tank, swimming in figures of eight through the shoal, over and over again at top speed. They followed him around the tank for a couple of hours, nose to tail. He is definitely  the top fish… and a happy one. Now, they are a shoal… and he hasn’t swum in circles or looked at his reflection once. He is not alone, he belongs… and it has changed his behaviour completely. I wonder how many people suffer that kind of emotional isolation…and what would happen if we all felt  that sense of kinship and that we truly belonged to the human family…and the greater family of Life.

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Close to home #1000Speak

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I had occasion recently to talk with someone whose actions had once caused me a good deal of pain. I was asked, in the light of later maturity, if I could ever forgive them.

I found that I could not.

I could not forgive because I had never really blamed. I cannot blame what I can understand. That does not mean that I condone, accept or agree with harmful actions. It simply means that if I can see why it was, for that person and at that moment, the only thing they felt they could do, I cannot truly blame. If I were them, I would be in their shoes at that moment and would I have acted any differently? Probably not.

It is something none of us can know. We will never be in their precise position and can only hope that if we were in a similar situation, we would do otherwise. That does not make any of us better than another, or any more likely to take the best course instead of a reactive one. It just means that we approach each moment with a different arsenal of experience with which to make our own choices… and our own mistakes.

“I forgive you.”

The word sounds like the giving of a gift, doesn’t it? In some respects, that is true. But what exactly are we giving… and to whom?  A full pardon for an offence? An assurance that we will put the memory of that offence behind us? Or a complete forgetting of all that the offence engendered? Whatever those words mean for each of us, the simple fact of choosing to forgive implies that we feel a wrong was done and that some aspect of that injury remains. If not, there would be nothing to forgive.

By offering forgiveness, there is also an implication there has been an admission of guilt… a mutual accord that wrong has been given and received.

Is it even humanly possible to choose true forgiveness and forgetting in a single moment? To wipe the slate clean with three words, leaving no trace of hurt, resentment or guilt? I don’t think it is. We may be able to maintain an attitude of forgiveness and genuinely act from the heart, as if it were true, but all hurts take time to heal and memories need time to fade.

The only way I have found to really forgive a perceived injury is to change my own relationship to it. Sometimes a little human understanding is enough and the old platitudes about ‘walking a mile in their shoes’ and ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’ can be enough to create that change. Many injuries are not what we feel them to be but have their cause rooted somewhere beyond the obvious.

Sometimes the change may come with a flash of understanding sparked from an outside source, like the words of a friend or a chance phrase you have read. Most of the time, though, you have to dig deeper, realising that in hanging onto your resentment, the only person who is suffering may be yourself.

We learn such a lot through our interactions with each other. When someone has harmed us in any way, we will, in an ideal world, learn from that experience and not allow ourselves to be in that position again. In reality, we tend to meet variants of these same situations over and over again, each of them dressed differently so that we are fooled into thinking them something new. It is only in looking closer that we see a common thread…and that thread may be traced back through the labyrinth to its source, which is often some aspect of our own personality.

That is not to say that we are to blame for the actions of others, but it is we ourselves who open the doors of experience and any repeating pattern holds a clue to who we are, how we show ourselves to the world and how others will see us… including those who would hurt us.

Learning to really understand ourselves and what is behind our actions can be one of the most difficult tasks we can undertake…and the most rewarding. Systems such as the one we use in the Silent Eye can help give a structure to that quest and hold up a mirror in which we can begin to see ourselves more clearly, identifying the cracks and vulnerable spots in our characters and emotions and allowing us to address them. There is no blame where there is understanding…and the empathy and compassion that leads to real forgiveness must start with ourselves.

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Red socks and empathy

pink laundry

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.