We are on the ferry to Rathlin in Northern Ireland. The locals say it quickly and enunciate the ‘L’ so it sounds like rattlin’. Mum is telling me a story of my ancestors – Catherine McCaig was born on the island in 1821, she married Harry Begley and moved to Port Stuart, they had a daughter, Annie (my Grandma Bear’s grandmother) and several other children.
We are at Wells-next-the-sea and I am all at sea. We left London two days ago, headed to Thaxted – birthplace of my father’s mother’s great grandfather, Thomas Suckling. Already things were improved, people greeted us on the street, chatted to us at the local cafe, it was suddenly easier to pierce our little tourist bubble.
There is a force that has gripped the planet for hundreds of years. It is the force behind every marching army, every man who raises a hand against his wife, every school yard bully, every iron-fisted leader. It is the force behind slavery, behind colonisation, behind prejudice. Let’s call it… subjugation. Continue reading
Last week I posted about tears so it seems fitting that this week the theme for me is empathy. I came across the above video last year some time when I was completely obsessed with Brene Brown (note: I am still in love with her ideas but I tend to mention them weekly now instead of every hour). The way people respond to our grief, vulnerability and emotions in general can have a profound effect on us.
For me there is a very clear link between numbing our emotions and a host of environmental issues from problematic consumption to our inability to respond appropriately to extinction. There is also a positive aspect, that when we are connected with our hearts we are more able to come up with creative solutions and cooperate with our fellow beings (human and otherwise).
The first step in becoming empathetic with people around you is learning to sit with the discomfort of vulnerability/strong emotions. Being able to genuinely support someone else through tough times requires an ability to be uncertain and avoid slipping into the trap of ‘fixing’ what is going on for them. This is something I have been guilty of many, many times throughout my life, I have written poems about my addiction to ‘fixing’ people. Who doesn’t love the ego trip of knowing that you’ve sorted out someone else’s life for them and the hook of knowing you are needed?
This week I have had the privilege of witnessing a number of precious humans in varying states of vulnerability and it has brought home to me again and again the power of being present, of witnessing and reflecting their words from the heart. In practice these things don’t feel like much, I often feel quite helpless as I reflect someone’s difficulties a response like “Wow, it sounds like you are feeling really vulnerable.” or “Oh it must be so scary that your mother could die any day now.” seem kind of lame. Even as I write those words I am feeling a little teary at the enormity of what some of my friends are going through and as I listen to them I am regularly speechless. Instead of rushing to avoid my anxiety I have learned to sit with it, to name it (as the video suggests), to be comfortable with my own silence or to name my deeper feelings.
What I also see in my friends though, as well as their pain, is an opportunity for love and openness. “You are feeling this grief right now because you love your mother, that’s a beautiful thing.” “You are feeling uncertain right now because you are daring to take a different path in your life.” Being able to reflect that larger context is an important way of holding them in the discomfort of the present. I am aware of being very delicate with this though because it is a short step from here to ‘silver lining.’ It’s important not to use the larger context to negate their feelings or rush them through it.
The final thing I offer, and this is taken straight from Brene, is ‘me too.’ Advice is terrible but stories are brilliant. Advice says “I know better than you.” Stories say “I have been there and this is what happened.” Stories allow space for other people to take what they need from your experience, sometimes you will know what they are going to take but sometimes it will be something completely unexpected. You have to be open enough and humble enough to share your experience and let the other person make meaning from it. You can tell them what it meant for you and what you feel you learned (the deeper and more honest you can be the better) but you can’t tell them what they should learn.
The act of empathy feels sacred to me, it is holding space for others to unfold. All humans are empathic, if they don’t demonstrate it it’s because they have learned to shut it down. The only way to open them up again is to create safe spaces for them to step into. Everyone has the means within themselves to overcome what ever they are facing. All this week I have witnessed people coming to a place of calm and finding that they already have the answers they seek. To me it feels like magic because what is required of me is actually very little, as though I’m just standing next to them while they fumble with their keys and open the door. They just need to feel safe enough to trust what they already know.
When I was a child I did everything I could to get into my mother’s photographs. She’s one of those people who takes photos of churches, architecture and scenic views. I longed for her to take photos of me, longed to see myself through her lens, to know myself and to know her eyes were on me.
When I was 4 we lived in a weatherboard in Mitcham. The kitchen had a lime green breakfast bar with a great big mirror so you could see who you were talking to you. I was fascinated by my own image, thoughts of beauty never entered my mind. I longed to see myself as others see me, to see myself strange and alien and candid, to see myself as I truly was. The family joke went that Kiri just likes to talk to herself, it’s one of those stories that’s been told about me over and over.
Later I came to interpret these things as vanity, and I learned to feel ashamed. My longing to be seen, to know myself was somehow wrong, I’m not allowed to want to be seen, I don’t deserve to be seen, I can’t ask for it or expect it. Over time I learned to hustle, to try and get the attention I craved without anyone knowing.
But people always know.
People know and they are irritated by it. The fear in me triggers the fear in them, the fear leads to comparison and judgement “Oh my god, I can’t believe she’s hustling for approval again. My hustle’s so much better than her hustle. If only she stopped she’d be so much more likeable.” Inferiority triggers superiority, two sides of the same coin.
I have to find the middle path, this is what people mean when they say “Just be yourself” but words don’t work. The dance is within us, buried deep, the habit of a lifetime.
Humans are fickle shysters caught up in their own games, surely only spiritual masters are free of it. (Not being a spiritual master I’m not actually sure what it’s like for them, perhaps they are not free of the game but comfortable with their humanity.)
I have found trees to be particularly helpful as exemplars of being. They are generous to a fault, utterly present and free of pretense. However my heart longs for human community interwoven with the more-than-human world. Perhaps that’s the middle path the reweaving of the human being within the more-than-human Being.
Groups are proliferating like mushroom caps pushing their way out of the mycelium net
Svasti, Evolver, Deep Ecology Network, Mother Tongue, Sisters for sisters, Wild Mind, Open Communities, 5rhythms, Dancing Freedom,
So many interesting people and things that I want to support
That I want to be supported by
How to find one’s place amongst all this juicy goodness?
In the language of competition, the world of separation, diversity is bad
But in the language of compassion, the world of connection, diversity is good
In time they will come to occupy their own niches
They will serve the needs of a variety of groups
They will ease the transition from the old story to the new.
So gather good people, recognise the universe in each other, honour our mutual beauty
Support it all because who knows what’s needed
Who knows the value of heeding the call of our hearts?
Some things are worth doing even if you fail
Please yourself, but not by halves, go all the way to the bottom of your heart and let those yearnings guide your actions.
As for me, I’m quite happy to wander around, doing what I please
If others begin to do what I do then I shall leave them to it and wander some other way
After all my expression, my networks, my calling are my own, unique
Who can say what the outcome might be?