Our perception of our world is so much more subjective than we realise. The facts of our situation may remain the same, but a shift in internal perspective can often have a huge impact on how we feel and consequently how we act.
Many years ago when I was postdoc applying for jobs, I couldn’t quite see myself in either of the possible paths which seemed my probable future. I felt quite trapped. Then on the treadmill at gym on day, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never been unemployed, and I had always chosen my next job on the basis of a deep sense of this being the right next step. How could I possibly consider myself to be trapped?
With that one moment everything shifted. No, I didn’t get a job the next day. It would still take about another 18 months until I got a permanent position, but that moment changed everything. The emotional burden of the uncertainty of my position dropped radically, and over time I became far more able to see possibilities which I wouldn’t have even considered before.
I’ve seen similar things happen over and over again over the years. In retrospect what was often the tipping point into a new phase was not so much a shift in external circumstances as an internal one. I can’t help wondering what implications that has as we consider the complex political situations so many are struggling with now. I wonder whether we should be praying the grace of clarity of perspective. I wonder whether that will help.
There is a bittersweet gift which comes with inner healing. I begin to see my own patterns of behaviour. I begin to see the subtle yet toxic tendrils which trace their way through relationships.
It’s mildly horrifying, and yet I am able to view myself and my past actions with compassion. I know I had no intent to foster the toxicity. In my desire to connect I occasionally brought a barbed hook to the table. I didn’t know it was there.
I can’t go back and change the past, and I think I am tremendously fortunate that I don’t have many regrets. There are few situations that I would want to handle substantially differently. I see the progression which has brought me to where I am today, and I think the various learnings were necessary.
What is far more important is that this perspective also gives me compassion for others. I see a few people around me who suffer from a similar compulsion and have made choices which have a far more lasting impact than my own. And I recognise that I could have made exactly the same choice if I had presented with the same set of circumstances.
It is deeply humbling and I am profoundly grateful for the life path that has opened in front of me.
We humans are curious creatures. Descartes great proclamation ‘I think therefore I am’ coupled with the rise of Western individualism can leave us thinking that I am the product of my education and my particular experiences. The problem with that model is that we can all too easily overlook a major source of my own identity.
My idea of who I am is infused by the relationships in my life. I am who I am through the different relationships in my life. That is to say that I am profoundly shaped by those who share my space. Whether that is an intimate partner, friends, colleagues, children, parents, spiritual director, therapist etc. Different parts of us are drawn out in particular relationships. In the absence of that relationship that particular part of who I am may not be evident.
There is another aspect to consider. My experience and my worldview distort my perception a little. So, what I presume to be ‘true’ is often deeply coloured by the lens of my own woundedness. My perception of my relationships and interactions on all levels is mired in this wounding.
Only one thing can change this distortion – for me this has been in the acceptance of my limitations because of that wounding. This has brought freedom and with it a new perspective. Like the twisting of a kaleidoscope – a new pattern emerges, and I see that what I believed to be true before was only true in my limited perception.
It makes me wonder whether the ‘True Self’ is a fixed point at all. I suspect it isn’t, but I think we know when we are closer to it. And I think we know when we are trying to kid ourselves.
I wonder how often we conflate expressing displeasure with someone’s action and holding them accountable. In reality the two are quite different.
I can make my feelings known about someone’s action but that is only likely to have any influence at all on their behaviour if I communicate directly with them and they actually care about my feelings. This means expressing my dissatisfaction at another person’s conduct will have an impact at best only occasionally. (And if I am using social media as my vehicle I would say the strike rate is practically zero).
Holding someone accountable is different. But it is only possible if I hold some form of power over the person. I can only hold a person accountable if I can take action which they will deem as unappealing. The other person may have voluntarily given me this power, but I need the power dynamic for accountability to exist. In the case of politicians, this is my capacity to vote. In the case of companies, this is my capacity to take my business elsewhere. In personal relationships, this will vary widely.
I have come to realise that I have a deep resistance to the expression of displeasure in the absence of the capacity to take meaningful action. For me it leads to apathy and far ranging discontent which ends up infecting everything. The only situations I want to speak out on are those where I can actually hold people accountable. And I deeply respect those who are doing just that! Our world needs every single one of those voices, and the actions that go with the words of discontent.
I was on an 8 day individually guided retreat at the beginning of the month. One of the things which emerged from the time was a desire to beginning my evening in a moment of stillness.
I work quite far from home and I appreciate the mental separation from work which my commute affords, but it means I am often tired and a bit frazzled when I get home. It is all too easy to collapse into meaningless ways of filling my evening. But I have found that just pausing for 15-20 minutes when I get home is gently restorative.
It’s mid-summer here, so I open the door to my balcony and sit in the fresh air quite literally watching the world go by. I listen to the gentle hum of the traffic. I watch the birds and the clouds. I feel the gentle breeze on my body.
It isn’t a time of formal prayer, it is just a time of being present. Not in any forced kind of way, I’ll usually sip a glass of iced tea or wine. I don’t manage it every day, and I’m not particularly concerned about that. Each day I am able to do it I am grateful.
Somehow it is true balm for my soul.
I’ve been much more aware of my own boundaries over the last year or so. Slowly, slowly, I have become more comfortable with being clear about where my boundaries are. For me, boundary issues are not things which I just find mildly irritating, they are behaviours which impact my sense of integrity.
In the last little while several things have become clear.
Firstly, I can only hold a boundary with respect to behaviour. What I mean by this is that I can only say I cannot accept this specific action, I cannot say I don’t like that attitude.
Secondly, having been clear about the boundary I am holding, I have absolutely no control over the other person’s response. In almost every case the initial response is negative.
Thirdly, Brene Brown, when talking about holding your boundaries, writes ‘Choose discomfort over resentment’. That phrase has stayed with me for over a year. The thing is though, that the discomfort really is uncomfortable. I have to be clear in my own mind about why I am taking the stand that I am. It’s the only way I can hold the discomfort with equanimity.
Finally, my boundaries have only really come into sharp focus as I have become much more comfortable in my own skin. As I have grown in self-acceptance, it has been easier to see where I feel I need to hold the line.
Having said all of this, I have found that being clear about my boundaries has been tremendously liberating. I cannot control anyone else’s behaviour, but I can be clear about what I am not willing to tolerate. And I am willing hold whatever discomfort that may elicit. Because discomfort really is better than resentment.
It turns out that having good boundaries is only really incompatible with one thing – having everyone like you!
I realise that I hold within me two kinds of judgements which are qualitatively different. The first kind is the one which is the problematic kind – where I make a judgement call but where I have emotional baggage associated with the judgement. And I mean ‘baggage’ here – not simply that there emotion associated with the situation.
These are the kinds of judgements where I find myself revisiting them in my own mind and justifying and re-justifying my choice to myself. Or perhaps recounting the circumstances to others and to get reassurance that I was somehow ‘right’.
These are the kinds of judgements I need to be very careful about making. Or at least I need to be very careful on acting on these kinds of judgements.
Then there is a second kind. One where I do make a choice, I do make a judgement, and I carry out whatever appears to be necessary to me to follow through, but once the action is taken I don’t find it necessary to revisit my choice. The only thing which causes me to reconsider is the revelation of the consequences. And even then, more often than not the judgement and the action which followed still appear to be a necessary choice.
Usually the first kind of judgement comes with a blanket ‘the other person sucks’ kind of feel. The second is always more specific – this action was problematic.
When we are told we shouldn’t judge – it’s the first kind of judgement that is the real problem.
(Of course in both cases my judgement will be influenced by the distortions of my own life story!)
This period seems to be one of recognising the toxicity of projection. I have stumbled into several of my own projections. This has happened in different ways at least three times in the last month or so.
Each time the metaphorical scales have been torn from my eyes and I am left observing the person beneath my projection.
Each time I have been humbled.
I am beginning to recognise that few people in life can be cast in absolute roles. The person I have cast as ‘villain’ turns out to be kind and generous too. The person I have cast as ‘saviour’ turns out to have a significant weakness.
If I need to see someone in absolute terms it is more likely to be about me than about them. I am reminded of that great quote:
‘The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image’ – Thomas Merton
Whenever I have a strong reaction to someone either positively or negatively I need to ask for the grace to see this person for who they really are.
This post is perhaps more confessional than most. I’m choosing to write this post because I think what has surprised me is not that I can behave badly or have destructive thoughts, but rather that I never realised that this particular train of thought was problematic.
I have just returned from a conference. Whilst the people I encountered were all very friendly, it is quite a critical environment (not in a constructive way). For example after the talk on the first evening, I was standing with two people who felt very comfortable criticising the content of the talk. I was not surprised by this, as this kind of analysis is not uncommon.
This particular conference is held every two years, and the community is largely the same each time – at least the academics are the same, the students rotate in and out. There is a person I encounter in this environment whom I have been quite comfortable to be judgemental about. Not only have I felt quite comfortable being critical of their work, I have allowed that to leak into the way I view them as a person.
I am not proud of this at all. I don’t know their story at all really (I still don’t). The work this person does is not earth shattering but it is solid. And they care about what they do. My judgement is neither fair nor just. I am judging them based on my particular criteria for what it means to ‘succeed’ in this environment. But who they are is so much more than this.
The environment does have a judgemental element which no doubt fosters my own. But even so this particular judgement has been my own and I am not proud of it. But again the reason I write this post is not to say I am a terrible person. It is to highlight the fact that up until a few days ago, I wasn’t at all troubled that I sat in judgement of this person.
We all have negative and destructive thought patterns and sometimes our ideas of who others are gets folded into that. The problem comes when we are comfortable with those judgements. I can see this operational in others, but the last few days have taught me that I am far more blind to that pattern in myself.
I’m at a chemistry conference this week. This one has got me reminiscing. This is the first chemistry conference I have been invited to speak at. Professionally, that is a bit of milestone.
It just so happens this this particular milestone happening in this place at this time has some resonances.
This picture was taken just over twenty years ago – sometime in mid-November 1996. This is me with two of my third year chemistry buddies. This is minutes after we had walked out of our final chemistry exam. This is us celebrating the fact that none us would ever study for another chemistry exam again. We were all shaking the dust from our feet and moving on to other things.
This picture was also taken about a mile from where I am now sitting!
There is something deeply poignant for me about having this particular invitation in this place at this time.
Those who know my story know that it has been a series of leavings and returnings. Chemistry is appears to be my long suffering life partner. It allows me to walk purposely away, or to meander gently down an alternative path. But always welcomes me back. It is the part of my being I value less than I might, but it is always forgiving, and always willing to give me another chance.
I’m not sure I will ever fully grasp quite why I need chemistry, all I know is that I cannot seem to let it go. It is appears to be a strong part of who I am. And I am deeply grateful that have had such incredible opportunities.