Sunday, 3 March 2013

The elephant convoy - 03.03.2013

If you can't remember a better time
you can have mine, little one.
In days to come when your heart feels undone
may you always find an open hand
and take comfort wherever you can, you can, you can.
“Comfort”, Deb Talan

About a million years ago, when I was at University, my house was on the wrong side of the tracks, quite literally.  The tracks ran right past our back door.  In fact, they provided a handy if rather illegal footpath to the town in one direction and to the campus in the other one.  This was not as reckless as it sounds as trains only ran a couple of times per day and so slowly you could have overtaken them at a slow jog.  This was, after all, the back of beyond in rural Maine.

Further on, the tracks crossed the river.  The bridge was maybe 15 meters high over the waters at its highest point and a spacious two tracks wide.  The sleepers were spaced out about three quarters of a normally-sized foot apart, which meant that they were perfectly safe to walk on for most adults.  Being a tiny person, I could have potentially got a foot through the gap.  The rest of me, however, would never have fitted.  I was not about to slip through a hole into the river below; it was just not physically possible.  As long as I stayed in the middle of the bridge, I could not have fallen off the side without the help of a random and sudden hurricane.  Crossing the bridge was quite safe and provided a very handy shortcut to an area of town which would otherwise have taken ages to reach on foot.

My friend Rob and I used to go over the bridge routinely.  On a nice sunny day, it should have been a lovely stroll through a landscape I would describe as “enchanting” if I wanted you to throw up.  There was only a tiny problem with the excursion; I don’t do heights.  Well, I am fine on the side of a mountain or a cliff however tall or steep, but put me on a stepladder and my legs turn to jelly.  I struggle to balance on a chair and even some balconies cause me difficulties.  Every time we went over the bridge my stomach tried to stay behind.  Trying to be rational and hating my phobia I’d push myself to do it.  I knew that I was perfectly safe, but it was a pretty excruciating operation nonetheless.  Rather by chance, however, I discovered something that made it perfectly alright.  I faltered, once, and grabbed the back of Rob’s shirt.  That was it.  That changed everything.  Holding onto the back of his shirt (always a plaid, lumberjack-style affair) the bridge did not scare me at all.

This, of course, made no sense whatsoever.  I was not in any danger to start with, anyway, and holding a piece of flannel made no practical difference at all.  Do you know what, though?  I didn’t care one bit, because it worked.  My legs did not wobble, my stomach felt fine and I could even enjoy the view.  It made it ok.  It made it nearly fun.  We must have looked rather peculiar, proceeding in single file with me holding onto the back of him like a baby elephant following his mummy.  Of course, holding hands might have worked too, but that would have been far too lovey-dovey for the likes of us[1] so we never tried it.

It’s funny how that sort of thing works.  Rob wasn’t trying to offer me any support.  He wasn’t, in fact, offering me any actual support.  That little bit of contact did not decrease the risk I was in at all, yet it completely changed the experience for me.  He was just there, you know?  Feeling his presence near me made it all tolerable.  It seems the same applies to me in all sorts of situations.

I have never been good about getting support from people until last year.  I am not saying that I did not get help from people until then; I have been utterly blessed in my friends most of my life.  However, last year I had to learn to admit when I needed help and to ask for it, because I was completely and utterly fucked, if you will pardon my French.  I was physically removed from my friends, in a dire financial situation and having to deal with a ridiculous volume of stuff I was ill-equipped to handle.  In fact, I was so overwhelmed by what I had to deal with that I could not even manage stuff that I normally would breeze through.  I got to a point where I had no confidence in my abilities to do anything much at all, which made me malfunction.  Everything seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.

To be fair to myself, the situation was pretty diabolical.  However, the fact that I was spending much of my time doing a deer-in-the-headlights impersonation did not help one bit.  What helped me, immensely, was having my friends metaphorically around me.  Every time I started to flap - whether it was because of a collapsed roof, the fence blown off across the yard, exploded pipes, a house fire, a friend dying, you name it[2] - there was someone there to steady me.  They were not there in body for much of the time, you understand, but they were always there in spirit.  They told me that I could do it so I would get on with it, encouraged me while I was doing it and complimented me when I did do it, however amateurishly.  I could feel metaphorical hands reaching out to steady me across wide distances, and it made it all better.

I read the last sentence and it sounds very pathetic, which demonstrate what an idiot I still am.  I hate the fact that I needed steadying.  I’ve had an “independent woman of the 90s” thing going on most of my life.  Yet, had it been a friend of mine in the same position, I would not take the same view at all.  I would be more than glad to provide any support necessary, and in fact made damn sure that they were asking for enough help.  I would not see it as an embarrassment on their part or a chore on mine.  That is what friends are for, after all.

In fact, had I asked, my friends would have probably come over and actually helped, in the same way that Rob would have carried me right over the river if I had asked him.  In a way, though, getting practical help would not have been as helpful.  Now that the worst is over[3], I am glad that I managed to do most of what needed doing on my own.  I proved to myself what I can do and what I can deal with.  I also learnt oodles of new skills as well as growing some serious muscles.  Without my friends around me, however, it would have been just horrendous.  I would have still done it, because it needed doing, but I would have come out of it in a far worst state and not have been able to enjoy the journey at all.

I learnt how much I could do, which was much more than I ever thought possible.  I also learnt not to even think about whether I thought I could do something or not, because if it needed doing there was no point in getting myself all worked up about it.  I would have to deal with it and that was all there was to it.  I learnt to ignore the enormity of the combined tasks ahead of me, because thinking along those lines would have taken up too much of my energy with worries.  I learnt to simply put one foot in front of the other, avoiding as much as possible all disturbing trains of thought, just getting on with doing what needed to be done.  I learnt how to pace myself and focus my strength.  There is a chance that this has turned me into a major arsehole.

You see, one of the skills I learnt is to not get involved in situations that are not my concern.  I have always had a tendency to feel responsible for everyone and anyone’s happiness and well-being.  This did not just apply to my friends and relations, but to the whole goddamned planet.  For instance, in my past career I was the worse team leader ever, purely because I could not bear anyone being in any way distressed.  People, of course, worked this out in no time and learnt to use it to their advantage.  Once people get used to you shouldering their problems, they expect it as a matter of course.  Suddenly their problems are YOUR problems, and if you can’t fix them it becomes YOUR fault.

Last year I could quite simply not afford to do that.  There was not enough of me to go around.  I could barely cope with dealing with my situation and keeping myself vaguely together.  It must have been quite a learning curve for the people around me to suddenly find me not rushing to their aid unasked, not taking on the responsibility for each and every thing.  In fact, I ended up actually sitting someone down and spelling out to her that she needed to be with people who would support her and I was “not one of those people.”  On reflection it sounds terribly callous to me.  Admittedly this was strictly a work situation and the person in question was trying to drag me into a purely personal shit pie of such depth and complexity that it went well above and beyond the call of duty.  Still, it was something I have never done before and it sounds just awful.

I learnt to lean on people, openly and unashamedly, and at the same time I learnt not to allow other people to lean on me.  Does that not make me an arsehole?  Admittedly there were mitigating circumstances.  Firstly, I did not withdraw my assistance from people out of spite or selfishness.  Whatever I had to spare, people could have access to; it was just that there wasn’t much to spare.  There would have been little point in stretching myself so thin that I could have been no help either to them or to myself.  Secondly, there has to be a difference between the mutual bond of loyalty and responsibility we establish (or at least I establish) with friends, and what is due to random people crossing our lives.  It may be a good thing that I learnt about these boundaries, at long last.  I am not suggesting that you should not help thy neighbour when you can, merely that it is not my duty to be a superhero, nor any sort of hero at all.  It is not my responsibility to single-handedly try to save the world.

Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, it is all very well to volunteer to go to the aid of strangers or acquaintances, but to be volunteered is a different thing altogether.  People-pleasing is a never-ending task which tends to grow almost exponentially; the more you do, the more you are expected to do.  You teach people how to treat you, and if you allow them to pile their responsibilities onto your shoulders you’re on a dangerous course.

There is a wonderful quote from Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” which is often quoted in this sort of discourse:
“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders - What would you tell him?"
“I…don't know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?"
“To shrug.”

The thing is, I don’t really agree with this.  I have thought long and hard of late about what makes me happy of late, and looking after people, as it turns out, is definitely in my top three.  There are very few things I have any degree of natural talent for and that’s one of them.  It makes me genuinely happy to know that I am contributing, provided that it is of my free will, that it does not unduly jeopardise my own well-being and that the people involved are not taking advantage of me.  Throwing an almighty fuckit and dropping the ball altogether would just make me feel wretched.

What would I tell Atlas, then?  I would tell him not to stand alone.  I would tell him to think of the people in his life who help him feel better because, even if they can’t practically help him, they share his burdens in their heart.  I would tell him to ask for help before it was too late.  If help was unavailable and the burden became unbearable, I would tell him to put it down before it was too late, as gently and carefully as possible, trying to limit damages.  I would also tell him not to feel bad about any of this, because a person, however strong, can only do so much.

Thankfully, I am not Atlas.  I do not stand alone.  I do stand apparently more alone than before, that is true.  I lost quite a few people when I was helpless and useless, but clearly they weren’t really my friends at all.  I class that as a case of “good riddance to bad rubbish”, although at the time it hurt.  I feel my friends around me as an invisible web, ready to catch me if I fall, but even more importantly making me feel safer so that I am less likely to fall.  I am there, more than happy to do the same for them.  If it is a sign of weakness, we can all be weak together.  We are all in this together, helping each other on our journey, making it easier and more enjoyable, and that is the greatest beauty of it.

[1] I’m hardcore, me.
[2] Yes, it was a shit year, and that’s not the half of it.  Told you.
[3] Touch wood.

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