How To Deal With Uncertainty, Part II

So, having welcomed all those feelings that my uncertain life was eliciting – the frustration, loneliness, sadness and more – I was in a slightly better position to experience my uncertainty. It didn’t make any of those feelings less pleasant but it did give me a chance to feel them as that is what feelings want – to be felt. Rather than try to deny or suppress them or coat them with endless stories about how much of a loser or failure I was, I just experienced them. In brief, I untethered, a little, my experience of my feelings from my explanation of my feelings (the two are very different). The former is a physical-psychological experience that (hopefully) passes with time as feelings come and go while the latter is an attempt to grab one of those feelings, pin it down and explain it. In welcoming all my feelings my mentor gave me permission to just be sad or lonely or unsure without all the extra baggage (no easy task but I’m glad I started it all those years ago).

Now, I am categorically not saying that we should all just feel like crap, deal with it and move on. There are times when we feel awful for very good reasons – perhaps someone close to us is treating us very badly or we are in a toxic situation at work – and the feelings are indicators that something needs to change. But there are other times when we feel bad in response to a perceived threat – i.e. uncertainty – that might not be as bad as we think. For me, I was feeling bad in response to the uncertainty in my life and was calling on all those other times I had felt bad and compiling them into some grand uber-narrative about how rubbish and awful I was. But in welcoming the feelings and just trying to feel them I managed to undermine the power of the uber-narrative. I genuinely think that while I still went on to feel bad I managed to avoid being pulled down into a prolonged period of depression like I had been before. One big difference was that I had stopped believing the stories I was telling myself. For example, feeling worthless didn’t actually equate to being worthless and I knew the feeling would pass, which made it easier to let go of the oft-repeated story of worthlessness.

In essence, I was trying to make my heart and head work more in harmony – the heart was doing the feeling, the really important stuff, while the brain was trying to make sense of these feelings, i.e. they’re just feelings, not facts (or stories). So I now had more room to observe and experience my uncertain situation rather than get engulfed and overwhelmed by it. This was a big step for me – mindfully and carefully I had approached uncertainty and, discovering it was not as fearful as I had thought, could venture out beyond the edge of my comfort zone. As a caveat, I didn’t just jump into uncertainty with reckless abandon – as I could have become very panicked or distressed – it was a much slower, gentler process than that and if ever I felt it was getting too much I could try and step back. More soon. Now here’s Lady Gaga singing about being on the Edge of Glory because, y’know, edge of comfort zone, edge of glory…perhaps. Anyways, she rocks.

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How To Deal With Uncertainty, Part I

In the autumn of 2013 I finished my MSc in Environmental Policy without a clue what to do next. Despite the Masters, I knew I did not want to carry on working in the environmental sector and, despite having rediscovered a love of writing, I knew that writers do not make a lot of money. I went back to live with my parents and slowly waited for that impending sense of doom to catch up with me. Having lived a life of lectures, seminars and essay deadlines I felt myself unravelling with the lack of a rigid timetable. The future weeks and months of my diary stared blankly back at me and it seemed all the things I had achieved in my past didn’t count for much because, now, I wasn’t achieving much at all. As expected, the doom arrived, and it took the form of a big black hole of uncertainty. I fell straight in.

Uncertainty scares a lot of us. It cannot be known, it cannot be controlled and it doesn’t offer any answers as to what to do next. In brief, it freaks us the fuck out. And when we’re freaked out we put up defences – some of us throw ourselves into work or travel itineraries or chocolate or endless Netflix series, all with the aim of staving of that unpleasant feeling of fear as uncertainty approaches. Back in 2013 I didn’t have much work and I certainly didn’t have a Netflix account (was it even a thing then?) and what my uncertain future told me was that I was worthless. All those age-old insecurities of mine like not achieving enough, not having a coherent life plan and not having enough friends came back with vengeance. My defences were down and I wasn’t happy.

As you can imagine things weren’t great for a while but rather than dwell on that (which I’ve done elsewhere) what I want to focus on is how I began to change my relationship with uncertainty. After my Masters I signed up to a course called One Year In Transition, for people who want to do a little good with the work they do but also don’t have a clue where to start. There were six of us doing it and occasionally we’d meet up or Skype, to check in and see how we were coping. I wasn’t always coping very well. As part of the course I was assigned a personal mentor who I would chat with every few weeks and who would give me advice on life stuff. The group was fab and so was my mentor and I will never forget what she said when I started telling her about how awful everything was, about all the loneliness, anger, frustration, insecurity, lack of direction etc. She said one word: welcome. As simple as that, she welcomed all those feelings, and in doing so showed me how to begin to deal with uncertainty. More soon. Not 100% sure this song fits but, hey, some of us get humans as mentors and others get demi-gods.

T2 Trainspotting And Why Men Can Be Idiots

So, T2 Trainspotting is happening. Twenty years after the events of the original movie and that loveable bunch of drug taking Edinburgh-based rogues aren’t faring too well. What ensues is another ride of exceptionally dark comedy, musings on ageing and a wee bit of drug taking on the side. The lads are struggling with the whole growing older thing and are stuck between emptyish lives and nostalgia for a past they only part remember. I shan’t spoil any of the plot but if you loved the first movie then you’ll like this. The soundtrack is also pretty kick-ass. Instead, I want to refer you to a brief clip from the Graham Norton Show in which the team behind T2 were interviewed including director Danny Boyle and lead actor Ewen McGregor.

It’s a fascinating clip especially because it’s about two men who fell out and then took years to forgive one another. As Boyle says “it’s one of the things weirdly the film is about…trying to express emotions.” Of course, what he doesn’t specify is that it’s about men trying to express emotions (most likely cisgendered men and probably heterosexual), indeed, the majority of the film is about men being men (and fucking it up) with the odd women doing a cameo appearance.

As Boyle and McGregor explain they fell out over a “misunderstanding” about the former not casting the latter in the very successful film The Beach. However,  McGregor acknowledges that “it was never about The Beach it was about [their] friendship” but the incident led to years of them not talking to one another. However, as time passed their views changed what with McGregor doing a wonderful speech about another hit film of Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Boyle describing feeling a great “shame” about how he handled the situation. And years later there they both were in 1st class on a plane back from Shanghai, the only ones still awake on their luxury beds, and McGregor thought the time had come – the time to get up, say sorry and mend the past. Of course, that’s how it would play out in a movie (because in movies people tend to learn their lessons) but in reality neither of them spoke to one another and there was no heartfelt reunion. And, my god, is this just another example of how men can be so terrible at communicating. I was raised a cisgendered man and there was scant little education in understanding and expressing my emotions and feelings. I didn’t quite fit the mould of typical masculinity but it was still the predominant lifestyle option and, boy, was it lacking.

So, it’s not weird at all that T2 is about men failing to communicate with one another and living pretty sad and often scary lives as a consequence and nor is it a surprise that a similar turn of events happened in the lives of the real people behind the film. Of course, they’re big dog Hollywood millionaires but that doesn’t mean they’re rich in the ability to communicate. So, men, I really think it’s time we learnt our lessons and realised that a greater awareness of our emotions is not a weakness or something to be ashamed of, it is actually empowering because the human being is basically one giant bundle of feelings that occasionally thinks. And sure, there would be less plot devices for movies because men would start getting things right and stop trying to kill each other so often but at least we’d get happier endings in real life, preferably without a twenty year time gap.

Grieving With Regina Spektor

The Light, it’s an incredibly simple song by Regina Spektor. The lyrics are not complex, they tell of someone falling asleep into familiar dreams and then waking up to the light of morning. They talk of sunlight, stars, memories and the wisdom of the morning. Yet I find this song incredibly sad and whilst I do not know quite how to interpret the lyrics they wake in me a grief for things lost. “So many things I know,” sings Spektor, “But they don’t help me. Each day I open up my eyes and start again.” And there is something in that – the notion of waking up to another day and starting again. For that is something the aggrieved must do, wake up and live on, despite their loss.

My last surviving grandparent, my gran, died a few years ago. I remember getting a call in which I was told that she was close to dying. So I got on a train, headed north and stood at the side of her nursing home bed whilst she slipped away into death. It was a surreal moment especially as the woman I stood next to looked nothing like the woman I’d known as a kid, who would chase me up stairs, put plasters on my cuts and generally be as silly as I was. I remember the train journey home after the funeral, I was looking out the window with tears streaming down my face trying not to freak out the passenger next to me. I just didn’t get it, I just didn’t get why I was crying so much. That was until someone close to me said this: “when someone you love dies, it’s just sad.”

And it’s as simple as that. When you love someone they are wound around your heart, embedded in the fabric of your being. You might see them lots or only occasionally or not have seen them for years but memories persist, especially the ones that are born of love. When that person passes away the part of you that is them suddenly aches. All those memories you shared, as taken for granted as they may be, suddenly reverberate with loss and the knowledge that no new memories can be forged is heart breaking. And it breaks my heart that it took my gran passing away for me to remember quite how important she was in my life. Still, I am grateful for all those memories and the fantastic woman that was my gran. I don’t know how to interpret The Light by Regina Spektor but it awakes a sense of grief in me and for that I am glad. And like Regina those who have lost must wake up every morning over and over again until, perhaps, normality is returned to. But not the normality of old but a new normal in which love and loss are now intertwined. It’s often a very sad world we live in and to pretend otherwise I think is to deceive ourselves. I consider this song an honouring of grief, as devastating a process as it is I think it an important one. I speak only for myself and do not wish to make glib comments about ‘moving on’ or to dictate to anyone how they should experience their grief. Yet maybe something in what I say rings true and you recognise some of your own experiences in mine and maybe the song evokes something for you too. As I often do I’ll give Regina Spektor the last word.

Matilda The Musical And Why We’re Never Growing Up

I was very lucky to be able to watch Matilda The Musical the other day. Not only did it get me in the festive mood but I also thought it was a brilliant production. Lots of dedicated kids and adults singing their hearts out and weaving a fantastic and rather timeless story. It’s based on the Roald Dahl book, which was made into an ace movie, and now it’s on in the West End. A few spoilers on the way but I am guessing you probably already know the story: Matilda, a young girl, is bullied by her horrible parents who try and stifle her blossoming genius by threatening to ban reading. Then off to school where she is bullied by the awful (but brilliant) headmistress Miss Trunchbull who has a habit of putting naughty children in Chokey – a small and spiky cage (yup, Roald Dahl was dark). However, Matilda meets Miss Honey, a passionate teacher who is very shy and timid, and very scared of Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey spots Matilda’s genius and tries to help foster it as any good teacher should. The rest involves giant chocolate cakes, telekinesis and floating chalk. Like many stories about children this one is about growing up and there’s a great song that is all about doing just that (see video below, starts around 42 seconds in) but there’s one bit in particular that is just spot on.

The woman in the pink cardigan is Miss Honey and it’s funny that an adult should be singing about growing up. Her words are these: “When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown up.” And it takes a super-genius, telekinetic girl with an immense capacity for bravery to help Miss Honey grow up and fight the creatures that have been plaguing her often lonely and frightened life. Yet, it’s us adults who have a habit of telling children to just grow up whilst simultaneously telling them that things will be better once they have grown up. But I reckon us adults have an awful lot of growing up to do as well and really we’re using ‘adulthood’ as a facade to exercise undue authority. Yes, adults can be frightened, lonely, scared, mean and nasty too but until we can be honest about our vulnerability we’ll keep on missing those chances to grow up, chances that come from all directions, including (and maybe espeically) from those younger than us. Only then can the world we promise our children really come true.

Matilda also has another great point to make, which is that to make a difference you don’t have to do huge things, the little things you’re capable of can also make a huge difference. Whether it’s offering a helping hand or a listening ear or even just a smile, the little things do add up and they do have an impact. Matilda is also big on challenging authority and fighting injustice, and thanks to her ‘little’ actions, which are huge for others, so much change happens. So yes, 2016 has been quite a year and 2017 has an awful lot of work to do but I reckon it’ll be a much better year if, like Matilda, we do the little things we can and, together, help each other grow up.

That Night I Met Loneliness

I’ve known loneliness for years now but there is one night in particular back in the summer of 2014 that sticks in my memory. My life seemed a bit discombobulated at the time – I wasn’t getting a lot of work, I’d recently moved and things weren’t really slotting into place. And it was one of those evenings – I was out at dinner but wasn’t really connecting with the people around me and didn’t feel very listened to. I said goodbye and cycled over to see some newish friends in a pub but it was too late, I was slipping away and those stories were coming home to roost. The stories of how I had no friends, that I was pointless and worthless, that what I was doing wasn’t really contributing to anything and that I wasn’t living the glamorous 20s lifestyle I was supposed to be. The stories were coming and the cracks were opening. So I left the pub, got on my bike and cycled away.

But for the first time in a long time I did something different. I sang. I just started singing nonsense rhymes as I cycled, not because I’m much of a singer but because I wanted to block out the stories. I wanted to stop them creeping in and making themselves at home. So many times before those stories had destabilised me and often tipped me into periods of depression. I sang to stop myself from thinking. I got back to the random little house I was lodging in and got ready for bed. And there, in the bathroom, I felt something well up inside of me. It wasn’t a story because it wasn’t coming from my head instead it was a feeling in my chest. It felt like an emptiness, it was bleak and desolate, growing between the cracks, and slowly it pushed its way up from my heart and that’s when I started to cry. I cried a lot and hugged myself too as I washed my tears down the sink with toothpaste and Listerine. The feeling bloomed and I knew what it was – loneliness.

I thought I’d share this experience because I think that was the first time I ever psychologically and physically held myself through loneliness. Rather than just let it overwhelm me and flood me with its stories I acknowledged the feeling underneath. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, not at all, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but it was a feeling rather than a fact. And to let myself feel it, rather than push it away or succumb to its stories, felt like an achievement of sorts, as lonely as it was. This was by no means the end of the story, things didn’t magically get better and I didn’t suddenly feel fine. I’d need much support from my friends and family (and for once I had the guts to ask for it) and I would need to start slowly, slowly changing the things in my life that were bringing me down. I started with those oft-repeated stories, the ones that thrive off the potent and powerful emptiness of the feeling of loneliness. I had to keep reminding myself that they weren’t true and that I wasn’t worthless. But I guess the real reason I’m sharing this experience is that I’ve heard many people tell me that they fear loneliness. And, yes, it is not something nice and for many it is devastating and can’t just be witnessed and ameliorated. However, for others including myself, it is a feeling and it does pass. And it’s also perfectly normal, a part of all of our lives, and that’s why I was very proud of myself that night I met my loneliness. And now for a suitably melancholic song from Regina Spektor’s new album (yup, I’m just trying to get her to retweet me, one day).

Bleeding Hearts With Regina Spektor

There’s a new Regina Spektor album on the way and I am excited about that. Her latest song Bleeding Heart has a curious melancholy to it. If you listen to each verse it tells the story of someone who, for so long, has been lonely and angry. They’ve been stuck at the back of the class, ignored at the dance, wishing for connection with others but getting rejection instead. So they get bitter, start drinking and wall themselves up in their “prison-like home”, brooding on their memories and hating on the world of judgemental, unfriendly people. “It’s you versus everyone else.” Regina sings on that someday they’ll grow up, forget the pain and move on. That is until they see “a sad pair of eyes…and up will come back all the hurt.” All they’ve repressed and suppressed will come flooding back and even though they want to help they’ll move on because their life has been tough enough, “cause you won the war so it’s not your turn but everything inside still burns.” And they douse that fire with more drink, thinking on the refrain: “never never mind bleeding heart, bleeding heart, never mind your bleeding heart.” But everything changes in the final verse.

How long must I wait till you learn that it’s not too late,
How long must I cry till you know that you really tried,
How long must I try till you learn that dreaming’s hard,
How long must I dream till you heal your bleeding heart,
Never mind your bleeding heart.
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And that’s just it, we should always mind our bleeding hearts. Because they’re right there, in our chests, all the time. To not get to know our hearts is like having a smart phone without any apps or only playing Goldeneye on the N64 (as good as that game is) – we’re severely underusing this fantastic piece of technology.  Just like a smart phone, the heart is fragile, prone to breaking and bleeding, and it can be very tough to experience this. What we tend to do though is try and ignore the times when we are hurt and upset. Much simpler to brush these issues aside, pretend we’re ‘fine’ and move on. It’s all that keeping calm and carrying on rubbish, the stiff upper lip bullshit and all the other ways we try to condition and cajole ourselves out of having feelings as we pretend that not being invited to the party didn’t upset us or all those other times we’ve been forgotten and ignored haven’t hurt us. But those things do hurt and their effects do add up and we can’t hide behind seeming indifference and bitterness for too long.
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Fortunately, as Spektor in her endless wisdom, already knows, it’s not too late to recognise we are human: fallible, fragile and oh so incomplete. It’s never too late to have another go at being human, to try getting in touch with our emotions and recognising our feelings. We can also acknowledge that we have really tried even if we don’t think we have. We can be kinder to our past selves because they were the ones that got us here and without them we wouldn’t be where we are today. Sure, we might not have always used the best tools or made the best decisions but we did try and that’s something we can keep on doing and maybe now we can do it with better tools and not make the same mistakes. And dreaming is hard, it’s dangerous to want things you might not get and to hope for the best in such seemingly hopeless times. Far easier to wall ourselves up in cynicism and prison-like homes. But isn’t that life of passivity, denial and fear much worse than one of wanting, striving and dreaming? And in amongst the making up for lost time, the trying and the dreaming well maybe, just maybe, our precious bleeding hearts will heal. So, yes, always mind your bleeding heart.