Fear and love and the Coronavirus

‘A farmer has a horse for many years; it helps him earn his livelihood and raise his son. One day, the horse runs away. His neighbor says sympathetically, “Such bad luck.”

The farmer replies, “Maybe. Who knows?”

The next day, the horse makes its way back home bringing with it another horse. The neighbor says with a smile, “Such good luck.”

The farmer replies, “Maybe. Who knows?”

The following day, the farmer’s son rides the new horse and seeks to tame it. In the process, he breaks his leg. The neighbor says sympathetically, “Such bad luck.”

The farmer replies, “Maybe. Who knows?”

The last day of the story, the military comes to the village to draft all able-bodied young men to fight in a war. The son is exempt from the draft due to his broken leg. You can guess what the neighbor said, and how the farmer replied.’

As a woman in my mid forties I’ve never known anything like this moment – Coronavirus I mean. I do not know what to think, what to believe, what is happening. Events are unfolding like a mad dystopian thriller.

I worked for Murdoch’s papers when 9/11 happened. I remember seeing the twin towers coming down in real time while my window looked out over the towers of Canary Wharf. I recall the tube journey home and thinking that the world had changed – and I was right. 

This is a moment of pure fear. It is also a moment when humanity has a choice. Some will choose humanity and children and some will chose themselves. I hope we choose kindness and sharing and the protection of the vulnerable. Who are you going to be? Who are we going to be? This virus shows just how interconnected we all are – for good or ill.

I love the story above – this virus feels like bad luck but it may not be. Maybe it’s bad luck or maybe not. 

Truth – surrender is not always defeat – it can viewed as peace.

It seems a commitment to truth is the only ethical stance for a meaningful life – yet it seems like the hardest thing. Freud, Solzhenitsyn, Nietzsche and Socrates are in apparent agreement on this.

Yet sitting with the truth has always raised beasties for me. As a child I lied to get what I wanted and to avoid being told off – and not all that much has changed! Facing the truth as an adult has meant having to face the whole of me and everyone else too – and some of me and them is not so nice.

If looking at yourself is too difficult look at your best friend or your partner. Most of us can see others faults and lies far easier than our own. Now turn your gaze to yourself. Close your eyes and ask what are your lies about you? Then once you’ve listened to the lies ask what is the truth is about you? Write them down and ponder them at your leisure.

My definition of truth includes both what I know to be true and the path to truth. And these are inevitably very different things:

1. Truth includes knowing and knowing.

2. Truth means accepting that life is suffering AND… We generally want to grasp happiness and goodness and overlook the rest. A commitment to truth means a willingness to see life as it is and as we are. We have to believe in the truth we have rather than the fantasy we want. As Solzhenitsyn said, ‘It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes. It may even lie on the surface; but we make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions — especially selfish ones.’

3. Truth is related to acceptance of what is and what is not.

4. Truth means acknowledging our throwness. Accepting the inescapable givens of our lives, parentage, times and bodies.

5. Truth is dialogic. The earliest philosophers knew this. Socrates spoke in the market place and Socratic questioning is still used today. Plato’s ‘Republic’ is written in the form of a dialogue. To uncover the truth you have to listen. Buddhist monks and Jewish theologians famously hammer out the finer points of their respective religions. The Buddha has big ears for a reason. Dialogue is the only way to vaccinate against an unexamined and untruthful life.

6. Truth means dropping the storyline and sticking with the facts.

7. Being committed to truth means feeling, as opposed to numbness. You have to fight to feel.

8. Being truthful is being a grown-up. Grown-ups take responsibility. And responsibility requires courage and commitment.

I will give you an example of lies from my own life to illustrate the point. Warning, I may include too much information! For a number of years I have suffered from very heavy periods which has resulted in low iron levels. Low iron then resulted in extreme fatigue and brain fogs. I have had treatments, tablets, pills, potions, scans, operations, healings – I’ve seen doctors, surgeons, therapists, nutritionists and herbalists. Yet I still pour with blood each month and find it very upsetting and tiring.

I was feeling hard done by and self-pitying as nothing really seemed to help. Yet I knew somewhere inside of me I was not quite taking ownership of my health issues.

Despite all the things I seemed to do, I lacked self acceptance, or rather acceptance that my periods are part of me. My symptoms felt like an alien invader. It is hard to describe but it is like I felt like a healthy woman with this intrusive shadow of illness intruding from outside. It was unfair. Why me? Why am I suffering? Through genuine open conversation with my therapist I moved away from the fantasy of what I wanted, to the truth of my fate. Nietzsche called this, ‘amor fate’, or ‘love your fate’.

Something utterly subtle yet so big changed. I am now in total truth that my periods are part of me – heavy or not! I accept them and what follows is I will take care of myself. The minute this acceptance dawned and the resentment left, I knew what I needed to do to mitigate the iron loss. Funnily enough accepting my physical self in this regard has meant I am feeling physically and emotionally so much better (mostly). It is hard to convey the magnitude of this shift. I was reacting to my symptoms angrily and resentfully. I took care of myself but resentfully. But now I accept that they are part of me for now and part of my path. I was taking a dualist stance to my own body – there was the good bits of my body and the bad bits that misbehaved.

Funnily enough acceptance means I let go of the storyline and the narrative about my periods. All the narrative is make believe anyway. Thus part of acceptance is staying with the facts and dropping the storyline. This makes it sound easy. I’ve had to work hard to drop the storyline and it takes discipline. Asking myself, ‘is this the truth? Is this storyline? Is this fear speaking?’

Just to recap, my first step was accepting my periods, the second step was dropping the storyline I had forged. The third stage was commiting to feeling rather than numbness. I had to feel the sadness and rage and the injustice. But underneath all that self-pity and rage, peace welled up. I have rubbish periods and it’s alright. The peace was surprising to me but it only welled up after I processed the fear and anger.

The final stage then is responsibility. It’s down to me to lessen the impact of my periods on my body. And I knew what I needed to do and have done it! Of course I knew. We almost always know what needs to change.

They say the truth will set you free but not before it pisses you off. My periods pissed me off. But once I got through that, I reached another space – a peaceful space.

Living in truth is a bloody battle (in my case somewhat literally). It means going to war with fears lies. It means battling the false narratives we create. My narrative about my health was passive resistance to the truth. I know many, many people suffer from long term, chronic illness far, far worse than my crummy periods.

As a therapist, breaking through my clients resistance to acceptance of their illnesses can be hard, hard work. Fear tells us that if we accept our physical complaints we are surrendering to them. And if we surrender we are admitting defeat. But acceptance and surrender means that we can be at peace. And when we are peacefully looking for ways of living with our illnesses and ways of helping ourselves it is easier. I have rarely met a person who doesn’t know how to improve their symptoms and the quality of their life. With acceptance comes a different kind of responsibility.

‘I held my heart back from positively accepting anything, since I was afraid of another fall, and in this condition of suspense I was being all the more killed.’

Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

What is sin – seen through a western obsession with eating…

Apparently the primary difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is cannibalism – or whatever the word is for eating God. If you’ve ever been to a Christian mass (Catholic or Protestant) you will have noticed they both eat bread at a certain point, which they call the Eucharist. For Catholics eating this bread is literally eating the body of Christ and for protestants it is merely symbolic.

I remember as a teenager attending a ‘yoof’ service in a Sheffield Catholic church which was a little like a rave but without the illicit substances (well, other than the Eucharist), where we were invited to sing, ‘Eat God’ accompanied by the thump of a serious bass line, as lasers peppered the darkness of the nave. Bringing the arcane into the twentieth century like that, merely served to underline the services anachronisms.

The reason we Catholics eat God is for our sins to be forgiven. And we can only partake of this bread if we have been duly initiated at the age of eight or so. The child must first confess their sins to a priest and only then are they ready for their first holy communion where they eat God and their sins are forgiven. I confessed to stealing biscuits with great trepidation. My own children were aware their sin had to be a real sin but not too sinful – their choice of sin was carefully calibrated. A hard balance to reach at eight.

Sin and eating are peculiarly woven into Western culture even to this day. It started with Eve and was echoed by an eight year old me admitting to her stolen biscuit. And the theme is kept alive by modern day sin-eaters, more of which later.

In Abrahamic religions we are born bad, as Eve (a woman) ate the apple from the tree of Good and Evil. Or to put it another way, we are born bad and it takes God’s emissaries (aka priests, rabbi’s or vicars) on earth to help redeem us. Because of Eve’s actions we moved from childlike innocence to shame and sin – or as the poet and visionary Blake expresses it, we moved from innocence to experience.

The writer Philip Pullman sees this moment as a psychological one – that we all face as we enter into adolescence. We move from a state of grace and innocence into a state of self consciousness and the slow acquisition of wisdom through experience, happiness and inevitable suffering. He describes children’s delightfully unselfconscious drawings being superseded by the teenage knowledge of their childishness and the slow and difficult journey to acquiring skill and artistic insight. He wryly warns that us the acquisition of wisdom is not inevitable. Not all of us grow up but we all loose our innocence.

Obviously many people don’t buy the story of Adam and Eve anymore, yet this narrative is woven deep in our culture and informs us in a myriad of unconscious ways. Most of us like to tell ourselves we are secular and untouched by faith and it’s dogmas. Yet we consume television programmes, films and books that are strewn with references to the western origin myth. If you go to places like Japan or China you will find out just how Abrahamic are your morals, mores and assumptions. After all anthropology is in part the study of how humanity constructs their own perceptions of reality through distinct societies and cultures. If we turn an anthropological gaze on ourselves, through what lens do we perceive reality?

Eve and her Apple are the fertile ground from which grow our notions of what is good and evil. It’s only when we become aware of our tacit assumptions and the underlying stories we tell ourselves that we can genuinely seek change. Like the old fish said to young fish, ‘nice water today.’ The young fish look at each other nonplussed and said, ‘what’s water?’

Therapist and healer Shavasti boldly claims that we all suffer from a self-hatred manifested from fifty generations or more of our ancestors who have deeply believed and followed the idea that we are inherently sinful (original sin) and that the Divine is outside of ourselves and not found within.

Even if we wanted to, we can’t disregard the weight of generations of belief by simply stating how rational and reasonable we are and how unreasonable and irrational it is. As Larkin said, ‘man hands on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf’. We can’t imagine how deeply held our ideas around sin are. Could you imagine the reverse might be true – that we are born with original love and magnificence? Who wouldn’t believe this when they hold a newborn in their arms?

In more modern thinking we could ask, how then do we acquire sin if we do not inherit it? The language of food is useful here too: we talk about being consumed by hate, anger, lust or hate. Or we swallow untruths like gullible idiots. When consumed we exclude all else, as nothing else can get to us. And when we swallow untruths we are ingesting that which is toxic and will lead us astray. Here we see exclusiveness on the one hand and poison on the other – their healthier counterpoints are openness and nourishment. As we chew over sin and eating is it possible to start to understand what might be our own sins?

So much for arcane religious history, sin eaters are busy all over the world consuming the sins of others so they don’t pollute our social media feeds. They are the people at YouTube, Google, instagram and Facebook who find and delete child porn, terrorist beheadings and all manner of sick material that all manner of sick humans create and share on the worldwide web that now connects and enmeshes us all. Many of us gorge on the surfeit of dark material on the dark web.

These modern day sin eaters roam the web so as to swallow up other people’s poisonous excretions so we don’t have to. There are consequences for them… One sin eater can’t shake hands with other people as she knows how bad people really are. Another can’t leave his kids with ANYONE else as he knows how bad people are. They develop PTSD symptoms akin to soldiers on the battlefield.

The term sin eaters has its origins in European folk lore. They were individuals the good folk asked to consume the sins of the recently dead. They would eat from their plate and drink from their cup symbolically ingesting their sins and helping the dead to blamelessly, some may say shamelessly enter the kingdom of God. These sin eaters were usually ostracised from society like lepers as if they were contaminated by the act of eating others sins.

In dreams we see food as how we choose to nourish ourselves. Paucity of food reflects a scarcity or lack of nourishment in waking life. A glut of food could mean overwhelming choice and poor decisions.

I rather like thinking that ‘eating God’ or eating from the tree of good and evil could symbolise how we might think about what we choose to nourish ourselves with – relationships, work, family and everything! You are what you eat. Equally you are affected by what you exclude which is the problem with exclusiveness. What do you consume too little of and too much of? Where do you nourish yourself and how do you poison yourself? If we let go of the magical thinking then that cigarette really doesn’t ward off death anxiety, however a chocolate biscuit or stolen kiss may be exactly what you need to nourish yourself. There are no simplistic easy answers here, only deceptively easy questions with subjective and ever-changing answers.

Bad theology is like pornography – the imagination of a real relationship without the risk of one

‘Bad theology is like pornography – the imagination of a real relationship without the risk of one.’ William Paul Young 

‘There is no more unfortunate creature under the sun than a fetishist who yearns for a woman’s shoe and has to settle for the whole woman’ (Karl Kraus).

‘In the beginning was the Relationship’ – Richard Rohr
 “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.” Maya Angelou

I am about to delve into that sordid subject – spirituality. In certain circles it is considered all rather grubby… This territory, spiritual territory, is fertile ground for misinterpretation. For the sake of clarity I make a distinction between different aspects of spirituality. One aspect of it pertains to our value system, for which the German word ‘uberwelt’ or ‘over-world’ is more apt. The other obvious aspect to spirituality is GOD, or the Divine.
Pyramids were built in Central America and Africa thousands of years ago on different continents at roughly the same time – how can this be? Pyramids point upwards towards God – He is the Over Lord. It seems innately human to conceive of an all powerful God who oversees us, who judges us and mets out divine retribution. So much so the Mayans sacrificed up to 250,000 people a year to their wrathful Gods in the hope of appeasing them. Pyramids represent ‘uberwelt’ in architectural form. In simple humanistic terms the top of our own personal pyramids are our values – those ideas and beliefs that transcend and inform our day to day living. This pyramidal world view is authoritative and God or values are judgemental. Values at best are ways of discerning the right path and informing how we live and what we live for. In person centred therapy therapists distinguish between the ideal self and the organismic self (that is the true self). When these two selves are too far apart people are considered to be in a state of incongruence. It is only when these two selves align that the individual is considered to be on the path to self-actualisation. Or to put it another way if we don’t live according to our values we suffer from a sense of existential guilt and dis-ease.
Maya Angelou talks of the God of her childhood as punitive and punishing. She grew up, a black girl, in the Deep South of America during the thirties and forties when segregation was the norm and lynchings a irregular occurance. The white patriarchy meant that she thought God was white because whites were powerful and God had to be the colour of power. As a child she liked the book ‘Deuteronomy’ in the Bible as, ‘the laws were so absolute, so clearly set down, that I knew if a person truly wanted to avoid hell and brimstone, and being roasted forever in the devil’s fire, all she had to do was memorise Deuteronomy and follow its teaching, word for word.’ Yet confusingly she was told by her grandmother that God was love. “Just worry whether you’re being a good girl, then He will love you.” The God she was brought up with was so conditional – I will only love you if you are perfect. Yet with time her relationship to God or the Divine became deeply relational: “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realise and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.” How different and more nuanced a life might we lead if we see all of creation as Divine and not merely live according to objective, hard and fast rules that can’t possibly help us navigate this messy existence of ours.
Malala Yousafzai, winner of the novel peace prize, describes a wrathful God too. In 2005 a terrible earthquake happened in her native Pakistan and the first rescuers were fundamentalists who played on the populations fears. The earthquake was talked of as Gods wrath and the cure was to become fundamentalist. ‘If we did not mend our ways… more severe punishment would follow.’ Values and God are conflated in Malala’s story and Maya Angelou’s too. God is man-made in both. He is moulded into a shape that men define. An atheist has no need to have a man made God, he just has man made rules and values without the pretence. 
The experience of the spiritual as a set of authoritative laws to live by does serve a purpose. They can be a set of moral precepts to live by. Yet these moral precepts can be a means to enforce power and control by elites. As Marx said, ‘Religion is the opium of the people’. Uberwelt, or our transcendent value system, can at best be like the sun in our own individual skies. The values that guide how we live, soak downwards permeating our lives and act as a guide to our choices and actions. That’s why I find it helpful to codify my values from time to time and it is rich work to do with clients. But these values can be crushing when we or others don’t live by them or when more complex responses are expected of us. Values sometimes bely the fact we live in a messy and complex world where the mature individual has to be open to innumerable possibilities. Simplistic answers to complex questions will never be enough.
There is also a more nebulous aspect to spirituality which is often confused with religion but does not have to be. In this more nebulous aspect of spirituality the circle or the labyrinth or mandala is more apt as a map than the pyramid form.
Personally I see Divine within and between people. As Tillich said, “There is no place to which we could flee from God, which is outside of God”. Here Tillich sounds more like the voice of ancient animist religions that believed all of creation was the Divine. God for them was in each ear of corn, in their lover, in the mighty oak, in their dying father, in the flood and in the wind. I don’t think you need to believe in any God to relate to nature as Divine. This is a spirituality that we can all warm to and be warmed by.
Buber, the Jewish theologian, expressed this when he describes ‘all [true] living as relating’. If God, or the spiritual, or the Divine, or the transcendent, or love is inseparable from our being, and others being, then God is both within and without, thus the relational is the space of the Divine.
If we can stop projecting our image of God (or Yahweh, or Wicca, or Jesus, or Muhammad, or Thor or any of the pantheon of Gods) on to God and meet God in creation through the act of openly, lovingly and truthfully relating then according to Franciscan monk Rohr, we could start a revolution. This could even be a religion for the atheists as well as the religious, as it is humanist and deeply environmental – invested as it is in the dirt of human existence and found in the palaces of nature too.
But I want to take a step back a moment and ask the obvious question – if we are all Divine and the relational is Divine, how come there is so much evil, pain, fear and anger in the world? How come there is so much separation and so little connection? How come there is so much division and not love? From my own experience as a very human human and from my client work I would say that God is there when we fight our fear and drop down beyond our fear and self loathing into love. Most of us seesaw precariously between judging ourselves and others as good or bad, good or bad, good or bad – accepting what we like and rejecting what we don’t. This is coming through very strongly in our current political discourse and thus division is growing. And this partly stems from the unwieldy pyramid view we have of the world. Hitler, Trump, Stalin and all the many evil men who had enormous followings thought they were good. 
And if ‘Bad theology [or bad politics] is like pornography – the imagination of a real relationship without the risk of one’, how can we be connected and not masturbatory? How can we enter into true relations not fantasies of relations? Put another way, ‘there is no more unfortunate creature under the sun than a fetishist who yearns for a woman’s shoe and has to settle for the whole woman (Karl Kraus)’. Maybe it’s time we settled for the whole person, or the whole of creation, as the alternative is to be like the fetishist, always focused on but one small part, ignoring or rejecting what we don’t want or like. If I only want my fantasy of what the world is then I will always be averse to what it really is. A real relationship with myself and others calls for a commitment to truth and feeling. Imagine a world where we all started to make this commitment to true relating rather than the fantasy of a relationship. Imagine if we really saw we were all in the same boat, on the same planet and that our destiny is existentially bound together…

It is easy to believe in our goodness in the good times…

“Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come.”― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
‘It is easy to believe in our goodness in the good times… but not so in these interesting times… in these times of evil… we don’t need hope, we need a determination to create beauty’. Ece Temelkuran
“‘Show me one who isn’t afraid!’ Said the Brownshirt contemptuously. ‘And it’s so unnecessary. They just need to do what we tell them.’ ‘It’s because people have got in the habit of thinking. They have the idea that thinking will help.’ ‘They need to do what they’re told. The Fuhrer can do their thinking for them’.” – Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin.

It is easy to believe in our goodness in the good times but 2016 was unexpectedly challenging to our treasured notions of how good we are. 2016, despite holding much love and laughter was difficult both globally and personally. At church, in small huddles in children’s schools, in conversations in grey suburbia, in Soho coffee houses and on comedy panel shows there has been the sulphurous whiff of apocalypse. How else can we explain populism, Trump and Brexit? How can we explain ourselves in this interesting times, these evil times? It is easier to say the end is nigh than face up to our badness.
As part of my New Years resolutions I have promised that I will read more classics and watch more critically acclaimed films. I am reading a book set in war time Berlin, a book on Kabbalah and Grayson Perry’s exploration of masculinity. I have also watched films on racism and slavery in the present day US penal system and the sunder commandos in Auschwitz. All these varied films and books point to how unutterably shit we humans have been and continue to be. Our goodness in good times is a convenient and easy lie. Given that times are a changing, we are starting to have to admit the truth of our shadows – and others shadows too.
Just look at Yemen or Syria to see how shit human beings can be. Thus we watch Bear Grylls survival programmes so we can survive the apocalypse by skinning squirrels and lighting fire without recourse to a plastic lighter (how many millennia does that bit of plastic take to degrade?). The worthy films and books I’m consuming point to more than just our shittiness though. They point to our struggle for authentic meaning: what calls us to question our lives and what we are doing? If I was a guard, or a weak prisoner marched direct to the gas chambers or a strong sunder commando ushering these poor unfortunates to their demise, how or who would I be? In the film ‘I am Saul’ the sunder commandos choices seemed to be between the dream of redemption or escape. Neither of which were ever realised. If I lost a son in a war I didn’t believe in, what would be my small act of defiance against a seemingly implacable and all powerful regime? Given my comfortable life what is my meaning and what am I doing about it? Given the scale of our environmental problems what is my small act of defiance against the system?
2017 does not look like it will be any easier than 2016. So who or what am I going to be? Given that dreams of the apocalypse are a fantasy, how can I be human and humane? Reading Grayson Perry has made me question more deeply my relationship to my gender. He talks about the garb of gender – men in their uniformly dull colours, restricted garments of choice, conferring differing badges of masculinity. Us women are more colourful, varied and seductive – by inference more artificial. How can I be more honestly human instead of trotting out tired and worn out narratives? If I accept that all roles, including gender roles, are co-created, how then can I fashion a meaningful outer to reflect the messy complexity of the inner? How can I dress to help me be the person I aspire to be and help inform others of who I am and how to treat me? I heard the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, ask an amassed audience, who had gone out prior to the retreat to buy appropriately spiritual attire? Seriously how can there be less distance between my outer and inner realms?
The Kabbalah book starts with a story of a student and her sage. The student thinks she’s ready to go on to become a teacher. The teacher asks her if she’s found equilibrium yet? She replies, ‘yes’. The teacher then asks, ‘do you feel injured when insulted and pride when complimented?’ The student looks crestfallen realising she hasn’t yet found equilibrium. This story struck me as I pride myself on a degree of wisdom (note the irony). Recently I was privileged enough to help someone in a special, rather magical way… what a good person I am I thought to myself. But my journey with this act of kindness is a lesson in disequilibrium. At first I was hungry to give as I knew their need was great. Then when my gift was given I felt pride at how good I am and how good I am seen to be. This was followed by some regret, as maybe I would have enjoyed what I had given…. should have I kept it for myself?… then I felt panic as I realised I was not good really – that I was false. So when I received gratitude for my gift I actually felt scared as I knew I wasn’t worthy and that something bad was going to happen as I was not worthy of the gratitude. When nice things ensued I felt uncomfortable, out of kilter and a sense of unease. Equilibrium is something I want to work on this year.
If you’re a thinking person you’re likely to be afraid – I know I am. But truly this year I will put more effort into fighting my own, and others, fear so that we can live more honest and kind lives. I am determined to create beauty even amidst these difficult and sometimes unlovely times.

Love and Fear – Arguments!

My Childhood by Joachim Ringelnatz

When I vomit in the hallway 

Brother starts to laugh and leer. 

When he laughs, hits me Sis’ May, 

When she hits, cries momma-dear. 
Crying sets my papa swearing, 

Auntie falls to drinking gin. 

When she drinks I’m getting herring: 

Herring makes me heave again

This is a circular poem – it ends where it starts. Communal life is like this, whether its business, family, friendship, a monastery, or an oil rig. We go around and around triggered by the same old stuff and handling it the same old way. Why do we remain caught in this trap? In systemic language we are stuck in negative feedback loops that perpetuate the cycle.
Imagine me having an argument with my husband. Imagine that I’ve asked him politely to get a plate for his slice of toast as I’ve just hoovered everywhere. He hears this as a criticism and tells me defensively to stop nagging him. I sharply retort that I am not nagging him and that he is just being a child and that any house trained monkey would use a plate. He then rounds on me calling me a bitch who moans and nags about absolutely everything and it’s hell living with me and that we should really not be together. This didn’t happen but it’s not so far from reality to be unbelievable! Most of us know the script to the argument we are going to have. I have clients who can tell me pretty much word for word the argument they are going to have with their spouse. My husband and I are experts at this too. It is so tedious. Why are we all trapped on these infernal hamster wheels? Why, if we know the script do we let it escalate into more and more dreadful insults and hurts?
Arguments often start with an innocuous thought or action that is heard (or misconstrued) as a criticism. Or we trigger the trip wire we knew was there all along. It is like we deliberately go and twang that trip wire just to get a reaction. We might know our spouse hates us fussing them when they’ve just got in from work, or they hate us phoning them when they are out for the evening, or they hate us picking our nose, or squeezing the toothpaste wrong, or when we get a little over wrought they can’t deal with it. We know the trip wire, we know where it is and we know how to avoid it but we still trigger the trip wire and then we get caught up in the usual argument we always have. We trigger them and then they make a defensive comeback. Then we think we are being criticised and we start to feel vulnerable, unlovable, exposed and inferior. In the example above my husband might have thought my original request was really a pointed dig at what an untidy slob I really think he is. If what he believes I think is true (that he is a slob) then he is going to think I think he is inferior to me. To attempt to reclaim the superior ground he then calls me a nag. I then feel inferior and unloved so I turn on him and so it descends and devolves into a horrible slanging match. And despite this slanging match and what it looks like, these two middle-aged people love each other. How much worse might it be if the love was absent? 
Imagine that before my saying to my husband to get a plate for his toast I know that he is really tired. Imagine that I too am really tired, and everyone knows when I get tired I get grumpy. So we now know that when my husband fails to get a plate I am easy to ignite as is he – BOOM. Maybe kindness for each other and ourselves might have stopped this argument from happening at all or it would have put it to bed before we had a chance to talk about divorce – before it had escalated. Truth with love and kindness – ‘here have this plate.’ 
My point isn’t just about how arguments escalate, or about how we swing wildly around the wheel of impossibility between the twin poles of inferior and superior, my point is that when my fear talks to his fear we end up not seeing each other at all – we just see the fear. Neither of us see each other any more. And when fear talks to fear it leads to anger and hate.
Imagine the argument escalates even more and we are both raging at one another, hurling all the insults we can think of – making them as painful as only people who know each other really well can. No blow is too low. What we are really saying to each other is you’re not perfect either, we’re as bad as each other. Couldn’t we simply live in this honest and imperfect place all the time – we are as bad as each other and neither of us is perfect – so what!? The truth is I get a lot wrong and so does he. If we could relate to each other as real and imperfect humans perhaps we could and would talk to each other more kindly. If I didn’t fear being found out and exposed and he didn’t, we might be able to ask our partner to use a plate without it having the potential to lead to divorce. So what he’s a messy person? So what I am more anal? Neither thing means it is then end of the world or our marriage…
We are so frightened of being found out to be the less than perfect person we truly are. We all want to be perfect but we all know we can’t be – this usually means we feel like failures and act like hypocrites. We know we can’t be perfect and neither can the other but we remain stuck in the lie of perfection creating a living hell for eachother. I occasionally work with members of the clergy and holy orders. They tend to have an even worse case of perfectitus than my husband or I do. Imagine for a moment just how perfect you’d have to be if you were a monk, a priest or a nun. They try and be perfect but fail. The version of perfection they attempt is their version of the perfection they think God wants of them – a man-made version that is. The truth is we will never be perfect and the pretence is destructive and a lie. The desire be perfect and the fear that we are never perfect enough is what keeps us on the wheel of impossibility. So we swing unhappily between feeling inferior or superior. When we feel superior we go into fear because we know we will be found out to be inferior eventually and there will be a correction. 
Imagine if I was representing the UK in a peace process aimed at reconciling Isis and the West – this would be a hard job but I truly hope that there are people doing this as we speak. If I went in with the mind set that the UK was perfect and Isis was utterly evil how do you think the peace process would go? Isis wouldn’t hang around long while I listed all their many, many wrongs. They would get really impatient if I then listed the many ways the UK is perfect. A far better mediation strategy would be to listen. Imagine a warring couple where they both sit on my sofa in righteous high dudgeon believing they are good and their partner bad. There is little chance of compromise, reconciliation or hope in either scenario. It’s not until we admit to each other that we are all imperfect, wounded and bad. Then listening can begin as both sides have dropped the masquerade of their perfection and can instead listen for and try and be with the truth. The UK might have to admit to murder, as might Isis, before a true discussion could ensue. The righteous couple might have to admit that they inflicted wounds as well as received wounds. Then a tone of honesty can imbue the discussion – then, rather than escalation, or swinging between the twin poles of my inferiority or my superiority, we might be able to talk. Rather than my fear talking to your fear we might be able to speak as two people of mature wisdom and integrity who allow the whole messy truth into the space between us.
When fear talks to fear we devolve away from love into anger and hatred. I love my husband so why do I fall into anger and hatred? Time for me to fight fear, to question fear and to sometimes see through it and laugh at its shitty ways.

Hypernormalisation in the ‘age of complexity’

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.’ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (written in 1859, depicting the French Revolution of 1780, quoted by me in 2016).

During Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was asked about the impact of the French Revolution. Speaking of an event that took place nearly two centuries previously, Zhou famously commented that it was ‘too early to say’. The witticism quickly became a way of emphasising the Chinese ability to take the long view in history. Brexit has yet to unfurl its full consequences and it is unlikely we will understand the impact for many years to come – maybe many generations.
In family systemic constellation therapy we look at the individual in the context of their family system and look at the generations that have gone before. I am the result of generations of folk – most of whose names are lost in the mists of time. Their struggles and triumphs are woven into my own narrative. In the last hundred years they have faced famine, poverty, world wars and migration. Maybe there was sexual abuse somewhere down the line, or alcoholism and physical abuse, or affairs, or religious zealotry, or religious persecution – all these will have a hand in how our present beliefs and behaviours are structured, how we relate as one human to another. Our ancestors narratives, their genes (passed down through their strange pairings) and even their epigenetics construct me. Epigenetics is the study of how genes are altered, or switched on or off in a lifetime by crises and massive events and are passed to the next generation. There is evidence of this amongst the children of mothers who were holocaust survivors. As Larkin sagely said, ‘Man passes misery to man’.
Added to this is my own unique story and extraordinary life events and all the choices I have made and not made. Then throw in a dash of culture, society, religion, education, friendship influences and any number of things and we get to see how complex little old me is. I’m also a temporal being, meaning that I am ever changing all the time. Furthermore, I’m born into a very particular body, in a time and place like no other. And the really scary thing is we are all like me. ‘A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret mystery to the other’ (Dickens again). 
Some of you have hopefully watched the Adam Curtis film, ‘Hypernormalisation’. The film shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West – not just the politicians and ‘the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves – have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us, we accept it as normal’. He gives examples of this – he claims that Colonel Gadaffi of Libya was set up by Reagan in the 1980s to be the fall guy for his ongoing problems in the Middle East. He was a convenient story to tell rather than grappling with the appalling complexity that is the Middle East as its politics. Also our Facebook feeds only reflect back a world we can tolerate that reinforces our world view. I am not friends with UKIP members or Jihadists or Peadophiles as far as I know. I choose people like me to reflect me back at myself.
If the riddle of me is hard to figure out then how much harder the world. Personally I get very exercised when people make simple sweeping statements that sound too good to be true as they rarely take into account the complexity of the world and the choices we have to make on the micro and macro scale. I have been reading about the Iraqi Yazidi community and their appalling persecution and and their harrowing treatment at the hands of Isis. Men massacred and women sold into sexual slavery. One eight-year-old girl was so traumatized by the repeated rapes inflicted on her by ISIS, and justified by their imams under sharia law, that she set herself on fire to stop it from happening again. A German doctor, coming upon her ruined body in a refugee camp, arranged for her to be sent to a German hospital in the hope she might survive the burns over 80% of her body. Germany has taken well over a thousand Yazidi women and children all terribly traumatised and are helping rehabilitate them. They flew them from the refugee camps in the Middle East and offer them art classes, yoga and safety. In the UK we do not offer Iraqi refugees sanctuary – only Syrian…
The Isis warriors may well believe they are good men but in my book nobody that can rape a woman or child is ‘good’. That is easy to say and judge. But much of life it is not so clear. Some official somewhere considered Yazidi women not needy enough while others have allowed groups of refugees in who are likely to be lying about their status. Who decides what is good and bad? When I watch the BBC news and then Russia Today’s news it is utterly bewildering. On the BBC news the British and the US are the moral crusaders saving whole nations from Syria’s Assad and Russia’s demunitive titular leader, Putin. Yet on RT TV it is Obama and May who bomb civilian populations and are accused of grave war crimes. Whose version should I buy? Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? It is not so easy to tell sometimes. The people who raised money for charity with Jimmy Savile seem to find it impossible to reconcile his evil acts with the good person they knew. We seem to find it hard to tolerate complexity and nuance. We want good and bad all tidy and neat in boxes.
This is the macrocosm and we are little better or uncomplex at close quarters. We have an affair or go on a dangerous drug fuelled binge, or we shout at our children but present a view of ourselves that is acceptable and palatable to those around us. We threaten suicide to cow and still our agitators – usually our loved ones. We lie all the time to preserve an image of ourselves that is not true so that we can appear good. Yet privately we stare at untold stuff on the Internet or undermine our loved ones with veiled criticisms meant for their benefit with the net result we wither them just a little bit more.
I don’t want any more trite platitudes from people who are ill-informed. Didn’t Marie Antoinette kindly say that ‘they must all eat cake’, when she heard of the terrible poverty of the French peasants illustrating just how far she was from having any understanding of just how dire their circumstances were. She lost her head in the end of course. Good and bad are ever so much more complex than we like to think. The only basis for judging what is good or bad is trying to understand the truth.
From The Rock by TS Eliot

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to God.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries

Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

    The lot of man is ceaseless labor,

Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,

Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.

I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know

That it is hard to be really useful, resigning

The things that men count for happiness, seeking

The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting

With equal face those that bring ignominy,

The applause of all or the love of none.

All men are ready to invest their money

But most expect dividends.

I say to you: Make perfect your will.

I say: take no thought of the harvest,

But only of proper sowing.
    The world turns and the world changes,

But one thing does not change.

In all of my years, one thing does not change,

However you disguise it, this thing does not change:

The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.

The Interview…

Tell me about yourself?
Having had a group interview for a rather well paid part-time job and having failed to get it, I feel a little bruised. Failure is a bitter pill in my experience but always contains the source of healing (if I can face the purging medicine). My failure was apparently not to communicate my authority, I was too self-deprecating. In as much as I am admitting my failure on a public blog I am doing more of the same. However I want to find a space where I am able to be open about weaknesses, as well as strengths while having quiet, true integrity and authority. And I meet people on the same path as me all the time. How can we stop putting ourselves down, stop self-sabotaging, stop handing our power away? Why do we do these things anyway?

Another part of failing to get the job was the end of the fantasy of oodles of money, security and a pension. 

I am reading Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh’s aptly titled book ‘Fear’ in which he talks about ‘original fear’ – a little like the Christian concept of ‘original sin’ but without the sanctimony. We are all thrust out of our mothers womb where every need was taken care of without any effort on our behalf – nourishment was funnelled into us along the umbilical cord. We swam in warm, ambient, amniotic fluids. We then come out into the world trying to clear our airways, learning to breathe and assailed by feelings of hunger for the first time as the umbilical chord is cut. We are confronted by original fear in this first attempt at breath – suddenly survival seems precarious. The ‘original desire’ conversely is to have our needs and desires taken care of by mother. The fear is of death and the desire is for life and to be looked after.

Fear then is a primal and ancient emotion connected with our survival. The original desire is to have all our needs cared for so that we are safe and secure and our survival assured. In this job interview I was running on fear and desire – my fear was that I am not safe or secure enough and my desire was to become more secure and safe – to have mummy (money) look after me. I felt insecure on the inside and the outside (psychologically and physically in the world).
It is said economics is the study of self-interest. The good, wise capitalist always has his or her self-interest at heart. As participants in the market economy we are caught in this paradigm of self-interest and buy and sell commodities, including ourselves on this basis. Adam Smith, the eighteenth century economist, was the first to make the connection between money and self-interest. Marx then added to this that the capitalist system depended on the capitalist exploiting the worker so as to extract a profit. We can all think of instances when genuine altruism has trumped capitalism, however, we all know that capitalism is deeply embedded in most human relations now.
As anyone who has had young children knows, parents tend to hunker down and bring the money in and work entirely as a team to keep the whole show on the road. I am reducing the early family unit to a money relation when clearly it is far more complex, yet nonetheless there is a kernel of truth – money binds couples in those early years and it’s often only when children finally become more economically independent that couples break-up.

In the job interview I was in the paradoxical situation of being a nice, good and wise therapist as well as desiring money. My con was partly to myself… ‘I am nice and sweet, and am not interested in the trappings of power and money’. In the past I have found that by being good, sweet and nice has worked rather well in illiciting material safety and security. Ultimately I was there with desire in my heart for the ultimate goal of money (I was being good in my own self-interest). There was a part of me that failed to be honest about the steely resolve I had to get the job. And maybe that steely, cool resolve was exactly the energy I needed – not my nice, smiley mask of ‘I’m so sweet and humble and not threatening at all’ (surely this is a description of someone disconnected from her power and drive? – I wouldn’t have hired me either).

I remember teaching a group and one student provocatively said that all women are prostitutes so that they can have a baby and stay at home and depend on a man’s financial support. This student was a woman by the way. It caused quite a stir and I was a little appalled. Yet on reflection I do think some element of the financial exchange between prostitute and client comes into many intimate and loving relationships – whatever our gender or sexuality. 

In the interview, fear told me that I could con my prospective employers with my nice sweetness – presumably the way a prostitute uses their sexual wiles. If I was sweet enough I would get the money that would make me secure and ensure my survival so that I was safe and protected from the world. My sweet niceness was in my own self-interest and was an attempt to exploit my prospective employers – clearly they didn’t fall for it! Had I not been operating out of fear and desire and instead come from a place of truth I may have risked and dared to be me. One example of my con was I said what I thought they wanted me to say rather than risking saying what I really thought. Had I said what I really thought I would have been creative and edgy instead I stood for the hegemony. The fact is most of us do what I did in my interview but maybe if a few more of us enlisted the ‘fuck-it’ energy we might generate change rather than stuckness.

Eyes of Wonder 

To see a world in a grain of sand, And heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.” William Blake

Yesterday I walked past a man holding a toddler in his arms. Two white horses rounded the bend in the road and with real wonder in his voice he excitedly pointed out these equine beauties. His little daughter was so delighted she clapped her hands. I have older kids and remember excitedly pointing out every tractor, horse, cow and pig. They are more sophisticated now but they really did restore wonder to my life. I think the father was taught awe for the little things by his toddler just as much as his daughter learnt it from him. I love looking at the inner workings, the ‘sexual paraphenialia’ of a flower with my girls – particularly geraniums. The intricate delicacy is quite astounding. Go and have a look. As a child I thought they looked like an exotic minaturised tiny magical palace.

Today I went to see the Georgia O’Keefe exhibition at the Tate. I had already written the above paragraph about my own childhood delight at looking at the geranium flower in great detail. I walked into a room of flowers painted close up and with eyes of wonder – just as I had looked at them when I was a child. She affirmed my instinct that paying attention to the wonder of the world is a spiritual work. She spent hours looking at and painting the stems, petals, stamens of flowers. Eyes of wonder can help us transcend ourselves or maybe more appropriately descend into ourselves so we are alive to the moment.
I remember being a teenager and doing my best to loose this wonder and awe. I strived for world wary. But my children truly restored to me eyes of wonder. Although, admittedly, this process started years before when I was twenty-two. I had been depressed for some time when I sat down next to a blonde lady on the tube. She was reading a tome on mysticism. We began talking and she described a hard life bringing up her siblings. Despite being poor she managed to visit the coast of Cornwall and find some peace. She sat on a cliff edge looking out at the sea and the scattering of the reflected sun on its surface and had an experience where she felt herself merge with the land beneath her and the sea, sky and sun before her. When we disembarked at High Barnet we were both crying. As I walked up the hill from the station I saw the sun shine between and through the tree canopy overhead and I heard the birds for the first time – in what felt like forever.
A literary client of mine described to me a scene from ‘Crime and Punishment’ in which the main protagonist Pierre, a good man, has been imprisoned. The hunger is overwhelming so when he is given a potato to eat he descends on it ravenously. Yet he is wisely told to savour it as who knows when he will next eat. And he eats this potato with wonder and attunement.
How can we come back to ourselves? What calls us back to seeing heaven in a wild flower?

Dallas and Ali and Dominant Narratives

On Tuesday I got to walk the red carpet at the Tarzan premiere. I had mixed feelings about the film. On one level it’s a great old fashioned yarn. On another level I was bothered by the narrative of blackness and whiteness. To put it into context I am reading a biography of Muhammad Ali at the moment and have watched many of the clips uploaded on to social media since his death. One was a Michael Parkinson interview from the 1970s where he derided the fact a white man was King of the jungle. Growing up Jesus was white, the Angels were white, Tarzan was white and the White House was white. For me his point served to underline the question who owns the dominant narrative of power and hierarchy in the twenty-first century not just the twentieth?
The Tarzan film was all rather nice and honoured the black lives lost and taken in nineteenth century colonial Congo, however, in my opinion not nearly enough. There is one moment when Tarzan peers down into an open train carriage full of beautiful, strong black men manacled and chained. They were commodities to be exploited just like the diamonds and timber also plundered from the Congo. Tarzan looked at them and it was a spine tingling moment. Then heroically Tarzan saved them from the brutal white men in the next carriage. White man saves black men from white men. Or to put it another way those that want to destroy you also will save you… Where’s the sense of agency and self-authorship for the black participants in this story? 
So there I was a white woman with her white husband dressed in her glittering black finery trying to understand where I was in this narrative – what is the truth for me? And as Ali poeted what is the truth of ‘ME,

We are all in the same boat and Ali at the end of his life became an advocate of inclusivity and love. Yet at the height of his boxing fame he was an active member of the now banned ‘Nation of Islam’. On Parkinson he also asserted that whites should marry whites and blacks should marry blacks. He preached non-integration. As I read this part of his biography I found myself offended. But he grew up in the Deep South when open racism was rampant and he merely dared to hold a mirror to it. Segregation, lynchings and the confederate flag were part of the everyday patina of his youth. He was establishing for himself that blacks were inherently magnificent, beautiful and great – not something that had been conveyed to him by the country in which he lived.
He went on TV espousing these views and his charm and fame meant people tolerated them. He really got me thinking and then it clicked. Ali was a black man voicing in public the views not only of some black people but also the inverted views of many white people. We are all on the great superior and inferior wheel and it keeps turning. 
Black American history is one of four hundred years of holocaust. Whites are finding it hard to relinquish power and control. The Nation of Islam said the white Devils God was money. Power, control and physical safety are embodied in money. Money is physical protection from the world, and white people – particularly the elites – want to keep hold of the money as it makes them safe. Ali through charm and brute force made millions of dollars. And then he shone a light on white power, money, superiority and oppression. He was able to shine this light from a perspective of black power, money and superiority.
He had a best friend, a white man called Huston Horn, a photographer on ‘Sports Illustrated’. He described a stopover at an airport on route to Miami. They stopped for some soda and he was served his in a long glass and the ‘boy’ (the twenty something Ali) was served his in a cardboard cup. At the time Horn had the grace to feel slightly uncomfortable with this disparity. When they finally got to Miami they stopped first at Ali’s ‘black’ hotel. It wasn’t particularly nice and when Ali asked his friend if he was staying here also his friend refused, after all he was a white photographer for a top national magazine. He went instead to a swanky central Miami hotel enjoying the fruits of his white privilege. Looking back Horn was regretful and says it is the mark of his immaturity that he did not show solidarity with his friend. I think this little anecdote shines a light on modern day racism. Even ‘decent’ people want to protect their money, their slice, their portion, their privilege. Money and power and lack of money and powerlessness do lie behind much of modern day racism.
Haiti is an interesting case. It is now considered a failed state. It’s leaders are derided as corrupt and the countries population is poverty stricken. Yet Haiti’s legacy of debt began over 200 years ago, shortly after gaining independence from France in 1804. In 1825, France, with warships at the ready, demanded Haiti compensate France for its loss of men and its slave colony. In exchange for French recognition of Haiti as a sovereign republic, France demanded payment of 150 million francs (modern equivalent of $21 billion to be paid by a small brutalised former slave colony). In 1838, France agreed to reduce the debt to 90 million francs to be paid over a period of 30 years to compensate former plantation owners who had lost their property. And they have been in debt to various financiers ever since.
So I am back to the question who controls mainstream narratives and why does it matter? In my work as a therapist and a teacher I try and break down these narratives on an individual level. I’ve seen black counsellors work with unrepentant racists with the net result that love could flow. I’ve seen homophobes become best friends with and serving the gay community. I’ve seen people challenged and moved to change. I’ve worked with my own biases and other peoples and I always feel more love when I break through my own and others biases – the wisdom of no separation… The trouble is we have to spot our unquestioned narratives. Would I have been happily anti-Semitic in wartime Germany? Would I have been happily anti-gay pre-1967? Would I have been happily pro-slavery before its abolition? Would I have happily gone along with the dominant narratives?
Ali had a point when he bemoaned a white King of the jungle and a white Jesus. Even if we are offended maybe we should listen to what underlies ‘racist’ views as they can challenge us to re-think our assumptions and challenge our own privilege – Ali has helped me question some of mine. Racism is rife in the US at the moment and Brexit has proved the same is so here. I don’t want to be polluted by racism or people mistreated because of racism. Racism is wrong absolutely but I believe that it is the toxic face of fear and hate and self-protection. I want to understand the fear, the hate and the self-protection so that I can get at the truth and let love flow. I want to listen and discern and learn. Ali did this and in the end he was able to envisage a world without division, with one God and a universal love. But he had to process his fear, hatred and self-protection before he accessed this truth – and what a blessing as he is a lesson to us all to be as brave and courageous.

Whether we are in Dallas Texas or Barnet, Hertfordshire are we trying to access the truth and get beyond the dominant narrative?