Sunday 29 April 2018

'Roads? Where we're going, we don't need... roads.'

It started with a run. 

There was a moment while I was running around the bays of Wellington, in the beautiful morning sun, looking out at the ocean, where I felt exhilarated. That moment was the culmination of months of change and effort, and it felt good. I felt almost peaceful. But when the world changes, it changes fast, and mere hours later, I woke up to messages from my parents telling me that not only had my gran been suddenly taken ill, she only had hours to live.

Of course, my family are back in the UK, I live in NZ. The week that followed was insane, my stomach was churning with anxiety and my heart aching with indecision. As the hours turned into days, I knew I had to make a choice. Whether I would be in time to see my gran before she died, or just be there for my family, either way, by the Thursday night, flights were booked, I was going home. 

Once the plan was set, I found myself indulging in a daydream. In this fantasy, I made it to my dying gran's beside, she reached out her frail hand to me and I stepped close to her. She looked me in the eyes and said, delicately and sincerely, ‘Chris, I'm sorry, for everything that happened’, and there it was - closure. The validation I'd longed for, for 20 years, finally given to me, and I was released from the internal treadmill I’ve been on for most of my life. I was free.

Of course, that didn't happen. And not just because she died before I arrived. It didn't happen, because it was never going to happen, whether I made it in time or not. What I've realised in the weeks since her passing is, not only was it never going to happen, it didn't need to happen in order for me to get what I was searching for. Why? Well, the answer to that is a bit long winded, so bear with me, I'm going to take a hell of a detour.

Are you familiar with the phrase a 'Faustian pact'? For those of you who aren't, the concept originates from the 17th Century play* by Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (or, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, but that’s a bit of a mouthful) I studied this play back in my student days. Now, this is a spoiler alert, I am going to give you a plot synopsis. But, hey, it’s a 400 odd year old story, just be glad that I'm not using Avengers: Infinity War as a metaphor, okay?

In brief, the story goes like this: there was this guy, Faustus, who was super smart and into his magic, and through his magic-ing he manages to manifest this demon called Mephistophiles. Mephistophiles makes Faustus an offer, he can give Faustus all of this extra mojo and power and knowledge, and in return all Faustus has to do is give up his eternal soul. The deal is that Faustus gets 24 years before this debt will be called in. Faustus decides that 24 years is, like, fucking ages away bro, and he likes the idea of being an all-knowing demi-god. And so, Faustus goes about showing off his new found power, which, if I remember rightly, mostly involves tricking his peers through showing them just how stupid they are and how awesome he is, getting in some carnal kicks (oh yeah he does) and eating a lot of exotic fruit, for some reason. But all of this gets a bit old eventually, and after years of pissing away his power, Faustus begins to the doubt the wisdom of damning his soul to hell. Along the way, lots of good people ask him to reconsider, to turn back, but what really holds Faustus back from saving himself is his own fear. He knows hell to be the real deal, but heaven? Where was the evidence of that? Where was the proof that a. he could be forgiven and b. there was even any God up there to forgive him? Here’s the thing, all Faustus had to do at any point in his journey was repent, but he couldn't, he couldn't take the leap of faith required to make it a reality, couldn't find it in himself to take the risk. He stuck with the devil he knew, quite literally, and at the end of it all, Faustus is dragged to hell. 

Now, 17thC drama may feel a bit irrelevant to our modern understanding of life and the universe, but the reason I studied it and, the reason why these plays have remained in our collective consciousness over the centuries is that these stories are still more than relevant. This is especially the case with Shakespeare. The reason why his plays are so still so beloved is that they speak to emotions that cut us to the quick on a daily basis. Shakespeare’s characters are searching for meaning, just as we all are, and those stories explore what is to be human, just as all the best stories do. The reason why Shakespeare became everyone’s favourite is because he wrote his plays with such incredible poetry. An engaging story, relevance and brilliant execution, it’s the trifecta of awesome art. Marlowe was not as prolific, and (in my own opinion) not as poetic, and certainly not as well remembered**, but Faustus is one of my favourite plays because of its central conflict. Now, I’m not a religious person, although I’ve certainly become more spiritual as I’ve grown older, for want of a much better word, and that’s another story, but I’m in no way religious. This tale, for me, is not really about religion at all, what I believe it to be is a metaphor for our internal struggle with the concept of trying to be happy.

Now, I know not all of you have the back-story that I do, not all of you have experienced a lot of trauma at a super young age. I say this, but, kids are literally trauma generators. No matter what you do as a parent, there will be some event or another that causes your child to become deeply negatively affected by something, because the world is frikkin’ cray-cray. While learning to be people, there are lots of trials and tribulations we have to live through, in the hopes that we develop the right balance of empathy for others and awareness of our own self and wants. For some people, this wiring can get a little screwy, and I now know that this is how it went for me. My balance got all thrown off, and part of my survival programming became about reading the emotions of other people and amending my behaviour to cater to them. My child brain decided that this was the most effective survival mechanism, and, well, for a kid, it pretty much is. Because you are literally a prisoner of circumstances outside of your control, you don’t have personal autonomy, you need other people to exist. But as you grow into an adult, a heightened focus on the emotions and perceived intentions of others, is a massive distraction from understanding your own emotions and working out your own intentions. Now, how this relates to the story of Faustus is linked to our expectations of the world. For many people, myself included, trauma not only becomes a part of your history, it becomes a part of your reality, the dark side of the world is not only known to you, it becomes a tolerated, and even expected, part of your experience. It’s a bit perverse, but it’s as though the awareness of how grim things can be, gives you a sense of control over the unknown. Nothing bad can surprise you, because you were already sat up in the night, with your eyes focused on door ahead and a gun half-cocked, tapping your boot just waiting for Bogeyman man to show up. But this perspective puts one hell of a negative spin on life, because you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and any positive reinforcement feels like too much to hope for. How many of us chose the status quo over the risk, time and time again, and how many of us agonise over decisions, and ultimately choose what we know over what we don’t?

Risk, by its very nature, is a risk. Things might end up better or they might end up worse, and often, it’s a combination of both. Surely, if the risk you’re taking involves letting go of a thing you know for a fact is damaging you (such as a pact with the devil) then it must be a risk worth taking? But, and I don’t know about you, I’m very good at catastrophizing. My default setting is to expect the worst. I expect new bad things to replace the existing ones, and this is hella scary because, at least with the known issues I’ve learned how to deal with them, what if I can’t deal with the new problems, won’t I be unsafe? And that’s the faulty programming right there, folks. But, as we are shown in Faustus, the key to him getting out of that flat circle is to take a leap of faith, to believe for one moment in something better. For me, the leap of faith has always been about believing, for one moment, in me.

So, how do you override this programming, how do you take charge of your life, take risks, change, grow, if your brain is always going to worst case scenario and kicking off your ‘flight, fight or freeze’ response (my reaction is generally the last one, by the way)? Well, the only way to do that, is to turn to logic, while remembering that logic is not the same as pessimism (easily to confuse the two, isn’t it?) The first step is realising that what you’re responding to, is completely imagined events. None of the things you’re picturing have even happened yet, and yet you’re living the emotions associated with those consequences as if they were, this is the very root of all anxiety. The second step, believe it or not, is acceptance. I say that as if it’s the easiest and most obvious thing in the world, but it’s really not.

The word ‘acceptance’ feels like too glib a term to cover all that it represents in this context, so I’ll try to break it down. You start by accepting everything that was and everything that is. Now, this doesn’t mean accepting everything that will happen, because as Doc Brown told us ‘your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. You future is whatever you make it’, so how can you possibly accept something that doesn’t exist yet? But you can accept everything that has happened and everything that it is now. This idea is intrinsically linked to an acceptance of other people’s actions, as well as your own. You see, when people interact with you, the majority of the time they’re projecting their own perspective of the world onto you, their fears, their judgements, their experience. Most of the time, when people do things that affect you, it has nothing to do with you. You can’t control this, you can’t change it, and the most important thing to realise is, it’s not your fault they’re are doing those things. Once you accept that, you start to see yourself. You also realise that the majority of the things you react to in other people, aren’t about them, they’re about you. Your view of the world is yours and theirs is theirs.

In thinking about my relationship with my gran, these same rules apply. The apology that I so desperately wanted and felt I was due, was never going to come. Because in her world-view she had nothing to apologise for. If that wasn’t the case, all the stuff that went down would not have gone down the way it did, or, the apology I was seeking would have come 20 years ago, not now. On some level, I realised this a long time ago, and my actions have reinforced that understanding. I had distanced myself a great deal from her over the years, and this is the power we possess when it comes to our relationships with other people, as an adult at least, it might, in fact, be our only power – the ability to make a decision about how much someone else’s reality is going to affect your own. If the damage in any given relationship is just too great or insurmountable for one or both parties, then the only thing you can do, for the sake of getting on with your own story, is choose to check out, to let that other party go on being them, while you focus on being you. The best you can hope for is to develop some control over your own actions, and put yourself at the centre of them, rather than carrying with you other peoples’ narratives. This is hard for me to do, it’s literally changing the habits of a lifetime, but doing it, brings such a sense of relief and freedom, that it’s hard not to start to find it a welcome and almost enjoyable new habit. The conversation goes, well, I could worry about that, or, I could just, not. Liberating, isn’t it?

How does acceptance of your own actions and other people’s relate to leaps of faith? Well, by letting go of the anxiety around other people’s responses to things, you’re immediately reducing the charge surrounding decision making and risk taking. But there’s another level to this, and it comes back to logic again. If every choice you make can lead to something bad, can’t it just as easily lead to something good? But, ah, what about all the trauma and the shit storms and the ‘all roads lead to ruin’ narrative? Well, that isn’t your full experience of life, is it? It’s certainly not mine. For all the people that have hurt me, there are just as many that have helped me. For all the bad times, there have been just as many good, for all the pain, there has been just as much joy. It’s just that our brains are hardwired to internalise the bad and forget the good. How many compliments have you had about something you’ve done that you can call to mind immediately? I bet it’s not as easy as remembering those criticisms, and I bet you remember those criticisms word for word, don’t you? I also reckon that the actual words were disproportionately mild compared to the way those words made you feel. We focus on the negative because of our own doubts and fears, part of us is always looking for negative reinforcement, even though we tell ourselves that we’re not. That’s why choices become more difficult and loaded as we get older, that’s why it’s harder to turn back, because we want some big, shining, guarantee that the risks we take won’t cause us more pain. We simultaneously seek to avoid pain while focusing on it, it’s a weird-ass contradiction. But if you accept that any choice you make has just as much potential to bring you joy as it can pain, well, this really does take the sting out of it to a greater degree, especially if what you’re changing is a status quo that is definitely bringing you pain.

Once you accept that people just are what they are, and try to ignore the personal reaction (that their actions must be about you and your reactions are really about them), it becomes easier to access your compassion. It’s hard to hold on to our compassion sometimes, especially when we’re being hurt, but, doing so, again, takes some of the hurt out of the whole host of painful shit that the world has to offer us. It’s easy to judge when you’ve not had the same upbringing or life experiences as somebody else. Differences in culture and situation bring out different aspects of our humanity, good and bad. That lesson really sunk in for me during my time in Vietnam. It also helps to remember that, fundamentally, we’re all the same at the very core. We all want to be loved, we all want to be seen, we all want to experience joy. It’s just that in pursuit of all of that, some of us get twisted up by our own anger and hurt. To believe that such potential for darkness isn’t present in all of us, is very naïve. 

Do I have compassion for my gran? Of course I fucking do. Do I forgive her? I don’t need to in order to move on. That relationship was complicated, full of meaning and misunderstanding, but it was ours. And on a highly selfish note, without my gran, I wouldn’t be here, my sister wouldn’t be, my dad wouldn’t be, I can’t unpick one aspect of who I am without unpicking the whole. My gran is a part of me, and more than that, my experiences with her helped to shape me as a person, and ultimately, she was instrumental in, eventually, forcing me to wake up to who I am as well. This leaves me with a choice, I could be impotently angry still, with a person who is now gone and even when she was here was indifferent to my anger, or I could just accept it, have compassion, and let it go. Of those two options, I know which one makes me feel better.

While thinking on compassion, understand that this cuts both ways, if you have compassion for others, not matter what they do, then you need to have compassion for yourself. You may have made some poor choices and done some stupid stuff, but that’s just part of your journey, and your journey really boils down to only one narrative, for each of us, and that’s the hero’s journey (more on that another day) I just want to note at this point, that self-acceptance and compassion are just as essential to letting go and moving forward as having compassion and acceptance for others. In fact, the more compassion I have for myself, the easier I’m finding it to have compassion for others. It’s as though filling up that cup internally leaves me with more energy for dealing with others, but, again, that’s a story for another day.

I accept that the relationship with my gran, in the end, couldn’t have been any different. I couldn’t change her, I couldn’t control her, and on some level, would I really have wanted to? The charge associated with her passing was so strong that it pushed me into making a choice. That choice led to me returning to the UK and getting to spend precious time with some of the people I love most in the world. So, really, if that relationship had been any different, would it have led to the same outcome? My response, my choice, led to something wonderful for me, and this example in and of itself, showed me that the universe is not all about negative consequences, and in just accepting what is, and taking a risk, amazing things can happen.

The more that I accept my reality and the reality of others, the more the truth of who I am and what I want rises to the surface. But, just to be clear, this is a very recent way of dealing with the world for me. I mean, like, I’ve been doing this for literally weeks, and it’s far from perfect (our brains are predisposed to go back to well-worn synaptic pathways of worry, anxiety and guilt, those old friends) It’s rapid, and surprising, and what I’m finding is that the less I resist things and focus on them, the less relevant and powerful they seem. I have faith that I can keep getting better at doing this, and the reason for that comes back to the running. I didn't just put a reference to running at the beginning as part of my 'throw all metaphors at a wall and see what sticks' process, I mentioned it because running is something new to my experience that I only started because something went wrong. I had some iffy health news last year, and I had a choice, I could feel sorry for myself about it and let it deteriorate, or I could actually change and make things better for myself. Change is gradual and it's not overnight, but if you keep at it, things do start to progress, and usually quicker than you might have imagined. 

So... I’ve looked at this argument and explained it in a big, worthy, complicated manner, but maybe I’ll bring it back to a mirco-metaphor, which is always a more digestible. Here’s a small example of the power of intent in choosing our own destinies. I was playing a board game recently, and in rolling to go first, I had to beat a four. In my head, I said to the universe, right, I’m going to roll a five. I rolled, and it was… a four. Not what I’d intended, but it was a draw and that meant rolling again. The next time, I rolled a five, and I won. What this tells me is that, no, you can’t control the universe, you can’t control the outcome of any choice, because there are too many other factors impacting on your plans at any given time, but as long as your heart is still beating and your mind is still ticking over, you always have an opportunity to roll again. If you keep your intent, and suffer the slings and arrows, you will usually find that you can get what you want, or at the very least, a version of it. And in the game of life, isn’t that always the point?

When it’s time to let go of an old paradigm, the best you can do is, feel your feels, make a choice, and throw yourself into that moment. Whatever happens next, you can deal with it, because you’re awesome (trust me, I know you are) and none of us want to end up like ol’ Faustus, because, hell aside, as far as we know, we don’t get a second go at whatever all of this is. It’s like that moment when the other half of that time travelling duo threw himself and those around him into the chaos with a ‘all right guys, listen, this is a blues riff in B, so watch me for the changes, and try to keep up, okay?’. Because what follows when you jump might be scary, it will definitely be a risk and it may be fraught with peril, it might even take you to the very edges of who you are, but it’s also Johnny B fucking Goode.

*the first version of this play was technically written in the 16th Century, but the version published in the 17th Century is the one we generally refer to today. Just in case there are some really switched on nerds out there. ;o)

**yes, I do know about the ‘maybe Marlowe was Shakespeare’ argument, but based on the writing, I don’t believe it, and for the purposes of this blog, it ain’t relevant, so let it go, alright?!


  1. I hardly ever consider myself as someone who makes mistakes in life (Not work. I make mistakes all the time

    I'm always in my head. This means i do very little and therefore have little to regret. I think i am compassionate but on the flip side i'm very intolerant of people who make 'certain' types of mistakes. You said something i find very insightful.... Though you used the word compassion i think my intolerance of others might just be a reflection of my intolerance for myself.

    This i find interesting.

    1. Thank you for your feedback, I really appreciate it. I think you make a good point, perhaps my growing ability to have more compassion for people who've hurt me is directly related to my developing more compassion for myself. And it's interesting that you've found a connection between the things that annoy you more about other people's actions, and the things that you struggle tolerating in yourself - I think there's definitely something in that!

    2. Why is my name 'renewance? lol. I might have thought about blogging once? Seems as though I've had this profile since 2011.

      I think i like the name though.It's in line with your current blog :)