True motivations

Guilt.

I have a lot of it.

It sets in every time my son goes off to his dad’s house. I didn’t do enough with the time I had. I wasn’t kind enough, certain enough, thoughtful enough, engaging enough. I wasn’t good enough. And now he’s gone. A mini grief every time he walks out the door. If only things had been different, so we didn’t have to be apart for more than a day. So I had more chances to be better; so I didn’t have to face this vacuum that I pour all my regret into. If only he hadn’t been ripped from me for half of every week since he was only a year old; back when I was still his whole world, and letting him go felt so viscerally like failing him. How could I let his dad take him from my arms like that, just to put him in childcare? How could I be so weak? How couldn’t I fight for him? I have to make it up to him and I’m running out of time.

It’s a bit sobering to realise that script has been going on somewhere in the background and I’m only just really looking at it now. I knew it was there, but I didn’t look at it. Seeing it laid out on my digital page like this makes it so clear that it is but another iteration of old, worn beliefs. How easily I can now trace its provenance.

But, regardless of its pedigree, it’s stopping me from sleeping.

During lockdown, we had our own Golden Age – my son was with me for five whole days of the week. Everything was better. We slept well, we ate well, we went to the toilet on time, we had a great routine and we were joyful. The swirl of chaos it felt like we had been living in settled and we built a steady life. But, eventually, his dad wanted to return to an even split. I didn’t like it. Makaloo didn’t like it. He protested, he cried, and he begged to sleep in my bed in case he had ‘the dream where I wake up in daddy’s house’. I can probably count the times he’s made it a full night in his own bed since on one hand. And I can’t sleep well with him next to me, so highly attuned I am to every movement he makes; so keenly attentive to any potential call to action. I’ve tried every sleep aid I can get my hands on, but nothing chills me out enough to make it more than a couple of hours.

Yet I can’t bring myself to evict him. Because letting him sleep there, snoring, sleep-talking, sprawling onto me, sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night or whimpering gently before he rolls over; waking up at 4AM and declaring he needs to lie on top of me…it eases my guilt. And it’s impossibly fucking adorable. There are so many things I feel like I’ve been deprived of the ability to give him, but I can give him this, so I do. To my own detriment.

I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. I argue with myself over it routinely; there are good reasons to advocate for both positions. But understanding and acknowledging my true motivations is integral to making an informed decision. So I’ll keep digging until I find a place to stand that feels solid.

In an ideal world

I’m laughing at myself a little bit because I just read the first lines of my last post and realised that, even in my correction, I still only went as far as saying in an ideal world I could create the school that I want to send my son to; not that it already exists. But I guess that sounds about right. I don’t know whether it’s flagging control issues, ego or just not wanting to be left out, but it sounds about right.

As exciting as it would be, though, I am too perpetually exhausted to be doing a good job of a project that big. Oh. but wait, in an ideal world, I get a solid eight hours. I keep forgetting the brief. Still, we can take it further, and we should. That’s how we get to the heart of things – by pushing past the edges.

In an ideal world, everything we have collectively learned over our time on this Earth would be harnessed to tailor education to each of our children’s individual needs and potentials, and as parents we would be actively involved in this ever unfolding process, because the value of raising children would be elevated above what we currently consider productivity. Is that better?

It’s useful to think about what we want. What we really want. You know, outside of our self-imposed limitations. Outside of what we’ve learned to accept is possible. If we could have anything, what would it be? If you’re anything like me, you’ll have to push yourself beyond your first few answers before you get to the truth. Before you even get close to scratching the itch of your deepest ambitions. Or even begin to perceive the full extent of your vision.

In an ideal world…

It’s a good prompt.

When you’re too small

The impetus for me writing about the insane double bind I place myself in when contemplating the notion of interacting with the world was the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan. Because I wanted to write about it, but how could I possibly have value to add? I know nothing. And, unlike some world events of recent times, I don’t even feel stirred to anger about it, I just feel very sad. And it feels very far away. And I feel very far removed from it. And there is a gratitude and relief I feel for being so far removed. And there is a powerlessness and ineptitude I feel for being so far removed.

Yet there is also this knowing that it wouldn’t take so very much for me to find myself in a very similar situation to the people trying to flee Kabul. It seems a world away, so very inconceivable, but, really, in my lifetime, it could happen to me, and I’d be a fool not to acknowledge that. And if it did happen to me, what would I want the person on the other side, living in a different world, so far removed from my heartbreak and fear and struggle, to do? I don’t know. I know nothing.

I am just one, tiny, inconsequential being. I am nothing against the systems in place. I exist here, in my room, with very few resources to offer and a very limited idea of how I could offer them. I don’t matter in this. But something that soothes me in these moments, when I feel so entirely dwarfed by the magnitude of an issue, is something I learned when I did non-violent direct action training with Greenpeace many moons ago – the concept of ‘bearing witness’.

At the very least – even if we can’t figure out how to help, or how to heal, or how to change what’s wrong – we all have the power to bear witness.

Bearing witness will change you. It will change the way you move through the world. Bit by bit, it will change the world. But it will also share the load. It will spread the word. It will allow the sufferers to breathe, knowing that they are not solely responsible for carrying the burden of their story. That they don’t need to hold it alone. That you bear it too; as much as you are able.

Sympathy

Recently, I talked about misplaced sympathy. But, actually, I think I have a bit of a problem with even arguably well-placed sympathy. Sympathy, to me, is a crutch for people incapable of empathy. There is a world of difference between “aw, poor dear” and “there, but for the grace of God, go I”. Sympathy is phoning it in. It’s a superficial, and usually judgement-tainted, cop out. It’s an inadvertant diminishment of another person’s humanity. Because it’s more effort for you to think of them as a full and gloriously complicated equal, so you don’t bother trying: You don’t bother trying to imagine what it’s like to be them. You might think about how ‘people’ might feel in their situation. You might even imagine what it would be like to be you, in their situation (and perhaps subsequently deduce that you would never get into their situation). But you refuse to expend the emotional labour that could create a true bridge between the two of you. You disconnect, but you wrap it up in niceness and hope they won’t notice. You might not even notice.

At face value, this doesn’t really track with the official definitions of sympathy and empathy. By those measures, empathy is something to be employed in situations where you can’t employ sympathy. Sympathy is where you actually share emotions, and empathy is where you don’t share them, so seek instead to understand. Empathy is for when the distance between you and another is too great for you to directly relate and so you have to employ imagination. This implies that the compassionate outcome of empathy is somehow inferior to sympathy, because there’s bound to be some error in your making up of the difference.

But what if the other person is not nearly so close to you as you imagined? What if the experience that on the surface seems to so clearly map to something you yourself have experienced is actually miles apart from it? What if a person’s expression completely belies their inner state of being, at least from your point of view? What if you don’t understand like you think you do?

Sympathy is shorthand. It’s built on assumption. If we are part of an homogeneous group, then the shorthand of sympathy will be relatively effective. So maybe that’s why I have a problem with it. Because I have never been part of an homogeneous group. Any group with me in it is inherently heterogeneous in meaningful ways. Now, I don’t know if that statement of truth is more reflective of my position on the bell curve or my definition of sameness (especially because my position on the bell curve directly affects my definition of sameness), but it does mean that, in my experience, the compassionate outcome of sympathy is profoundly inferior to that of empathy.

Drama

Once Upon A Time, I had a boyfriend. He wasn’t a particularly good one, I wasn’t particularly into him, but other people seemed to think he was hot and I was really bad at breaking up with people, or just saying no thanks in the first place. So he was my boyfriend.

One night, we were going to a party. I was wearing a crop top. Now, I am, and always have been, a kind of hairy girl. So there was a small patch of dark hair beneath my belly button. Upon seeing this, my boyfriend informed me its presence was unacceptable.

Before we were able to go to the party, my boyfriend insisted on taking me to get a razor, and then shaving my belly for me. I should have dusted out of there at the first mention of this plan but, instead, I allowed it to happen, slipping into a sort of dissociated state. And then we went to the party.

We walked there. I simmered.

We arrived at the party. I simmered some more.

While everyone else presumably enjoyed the party, I stood on the periphery, not quite fully in my body, not quite sure what I was doing there, waiting until I got drunk enough to pretend I was relating to these people.

I got drunk.

I spoke to my boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend, who coincidentally was the ex-girlfriend of a person I had very poorly concealed romantic feelings for. She told me she had broken up with my not-so-secret love because he didn’t like tattoos on girls and she wanted a tattoo. I would argue with him about this later.

In the meantime, I got drunker.

During a discussion with a group of male friends, something my boyfriend said sparked my repressed drunken outrage, and I argued with him publicly. This escalated and, in front of his friends, I slapped him and stormed out. As I departed, I heard my boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend say “I thought I was bad!”

I wonder, if she’d known the whole story, would her response have been the same? Maybe not. But maybe. Like, even if she hadn’t said it out loud, might the voice in her head have actually said exactly the same thing? She thought she was bad for breaking up with someone who wanted to control her body, but there I was clumsily and publicly shaming someone on the way out for trying to control mine? What a relief that at least she caused less of a scene with it than me? I fucking wonder.