Saturday, 6 April 2013

Love your enemy. 05.04.13

I am surrounded by complete assholes.  I am beleaguered by people who, on a daily basis, commit casual acts of deep, unjustifiable, often pointless cruelty.  They stand proud amongst the ruins of broken lives, not even having the decency to acknowledge the cries of those they are torturing.  I can’t get away from them.  You see, the main problem is that I am one of them, and I’m ready to bet that you are too.

Before you discount my accusations, think about this.  How often do you lie to yourself about how you feel?  How often do you ignore your tiredness, hunger, frustration, fears, desperation, anger or sadness and just keep pushing yourself on?  How often do you “motivate” yourself by calling yourself names or using some of your personality traits as weapons against yourself?  How often do you tell yourself that your dreams are stupid and that you should not indulge them, let alone try and make them a reality?  How often do you ignore what your instincts are screaming at you because the truth is inconvenient?  And how often after that do you come unstuck and call yourself more names for not “seeing that coming”?

If you are being truthful and admitting that you do all of the above and far too often, you will be now busy preparing a mental list of all the reasons why.  Now, whilst I am sure that the world of your self-delusions is probably a vivid place full of technicolour beauty and with a banging soundtrack, I think we can safely skip that process.  The bottom line is: would you do any of that to someone else?  Would you be that callous, that disrespectful, that inconsiderate?  Would you do it to a child or an animal in your care? 

The truth is that most people casually inflict upon themselves daily cruelties.  We go to jobs we can’t stand day after day, year after year.  We starve ourselves to look good or stuff ourselves to fill a void that has nothing to do with our stomachs, and make ourselves sick in the process.  We impose upon ourselves people who make us feel awful out of duty.  We constantly force ourselves to put up with stuff that is just wrong for us.  And throughout it all, we self-justify why we are doing these awful things with an inner dialogue dedicated to drowning out our inner screams.

I don’t consider myself a mean or unkind person – then again, who does?  However, upon careful consideration, for most of my life I have treated myself shittily.  I know for a fact that I have put myself through stuff that I would never, ever dream of forcing upon anyone else.  I would not feed a mangy stray dog on the crap I used to live on at University – and yes, I had no money, I was doing what I thought I needed to do at the time to get to where I wanted to be.  The bottom line, though is that I would not have done that to anyone else, and it doesn’t stop there.  For extended periods of my life I have denied myself enough recovery time, either by overstretching myself so that I could not make time for sleep or by allowing myself to become so stressed that I could not rest.  And to cap it all, throughout all this nonsense I have called myself every shade of arsehole for being weak, for wanting and craving and needing the food and rest and comfort I was not granting myself.  Ok, I am a complete dickhead.  My personal records to date are 10 consecutive days without food and over 6 months of sleeping less than 4 hours per night.  It is a miracle I am still here and most people are far more sensible than me when it comes to taking care of themselves.  I might be an extreme example, but I can guarantee, however, that I am far from being unique in my stupidity.

Take this example. The latest fashionable diet is the “5:2 diet”.  This involves severe calorie restriction (5-600 calories, depending on gender) for two days a week and normal eating the other five days.  Essentially, you are intermittently starving yourself.  To me this looks like something I would have done as a teenager to fit into a pair of skin-tight jeans at the weekend, but I know three people who at the moment are on it, all of them adults, all of them males, and all of them clued up.  Personally I don’t get it, and it’s not that I don’t believe that it can bring results in some people, for a period.  I just find the concept of it objectionable, as it is, in essence, a form of torture.  One of my dieter friends, who is admittedly overweight, has a dog who could also do with shifting a kilo or ten.  I asked him if he would consider putting the dog on a similar diet and he was appalled at the suggestion.  He would NEVER do something like that do his dog!  But, as I pointed out to him, he was doing it to himself.  What’s the difference?  Is he less worthy of being treated kindly?  He couldn’t answer those questions.

People do this sort of shit all the time.  They let themselves down.  They would not allow a child in their care to have a whole packet of biscuits or a family-size bag of crisps for tea, for instance, yet they are quite willing to let themselves do exactly the same, maybe because they can’t be bothered cooking or they are a bit down after a bad day.  Of course, gorging on what they know to be crap is hardly likely to cheer them up, so they just end up feeling worse.  Over a period of time they put a bit too much weight on, so they start berating themselves for being fat, lazy, weak or all of the above, and embark on “miracle” diets.  And the cycle goes on.

Sleep is another necessity that is too often treated as a luxury or weakness.  Most humans need around eight hours of continued, solid sleep every night.   I know, however, a staggering number of people who routinely ignore this.  They put their goals first, forgetting that sleep is essential to our functioning.  Without enough rest our brains and bodies just do not operate properly.  We cannot think as clearly, work more slowly, make more mistakes, have greater difficulties in managing our emotions, and often put on weight as we try and resolve our tiredness by taking on extra calories.  It’s not for nothing that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture.  I know this, yet I am writing this well past my bedtime, because I want to finish it.  I would never let a child in my care stay up this late, but I not only let myself, but often force myself to carry on working when I need to be resting.  I recently read a book on weight lifting that stated that a workout is not complete until the end of the recovery process[1].  My mind pretty much exploded – what, recover is actually necessary?  It’s not a sign of weakness or self-indulgence?  The way I looked at my training is changing dramatically now – as a much wiser man than me said on Facebook, I now train “to be awesome, not broken”[2].  I train (and eat, and sleep) WITH my body, not AT it.

You can sell some of the cruelty, dieting for example, as means to an end.  After all, if you want to cut weight you need to make some changes.  A lot of the stuff we do, though is just plain bonkers.  Take shoes.  So many women train themselves to wear footwear that clearly has not been designed with any sort of human foot in mind.  Most feet are flattish from the heel to the toe and widest at the toe end.  Take a good look at most fashionable women’s shoes – not only they have a heel, but the toe end is usually pointed.  Truly, we think we’re so civilised yet we have not moved very far from feet binding and corsets.  For the sake of “looking good”, we teach ourselves to ignore the discomfort, occasionally maiming ourselves as we go.

We would not ignore it if a child told us that her shoes hurt.  We would not ignore it if a dog was crying it because he’s hungry.  Yet we quite happily tell our feet and stomach to shut up, and berate them for letting us know that things are not right.  I believe that when we force ourselves to ignore mental and emotional discomfort the damage can be even more severe.  I’d gladly take bunions or a perforated ulcer over a nervous breakdown, given the choice.  Yet I forced myself to stay for over nine years in a job I hated, with a boss I despised and who treated me like shit, because “it was a good job”.  Now, how that label came to be attached to a situation that made me feel stressed, frustrated, trapped, beaten, powerless and ultimately deeply unhappy I am not entirely sure.  But of course, it was a stable position with a reasonable wage and a house so “it made sense”.  It would have been mad for me to quit.  There is, of course, no way in hell that I would watch a friend of mine go through something of the kind without kicking up an almighty fuss and trying to get them out of it, but I conveniently ignored that fact.  I put up with the recurrent nightmares[3], the intermittent and inconsistent health problems, the stress and the insomnia.  Being a proactive person, I tried to fix it.  Being an idiot, I tried to do so by embarking on a series of diet and exercise plans ranging from the unwise to the utterly surreal.  I took up meditation, Tai Chi and Chi Gong.  I read up on NLP and CBT.  What I did not do, not once, was admitting that my work life, which took up most of my waking time, sucked arse in a major way.  I tried to manage the symptoms of the situation, rather than admitting and addressing the actual problem.  I repressed all my feelings about my job I order to continue to force myself to endure it, so they ended up emerging in all manners of disguises.

I look back at most of my life, and it seems to me that I spent far too much of it putting myself through far too much crap.  It was neither big nor clever, and don’t give me any excuses about hardship being “necessary” or “formative”.  There are limits to everything and I know that I have crossed them.

Now, I am not saying that we should not put up with any difficulties.  Sometimes the bad stuff is unavoidable in the quest for the good stuff.  For instance, sometimes you have to take a class you hate to get a degree in a field you love.  It is a short-term pain for the sake of a long-term gain.  Also, some hardships really are formative.  We often don’t know what we can achieve unless we try it out.  Overcoming issues can give us a huge sense of achievement.  Besides, life not being scripted by Disney, shit also happens and you can either try and deal with it or give up and drown in it.  This isn’t, however, what I am talking about.  I am talking about those occasions when we force ourselves to put up with excessive, avoidable pain and then either ignore it or label it as a weakness.  I am talking about those circumstances when we repress and torment ourselves.  I am talking about when we turn into our own jailers, instead of acting as our main carers.

Let me give you a practical example.  I love training – I got into it very late in life and all for the wrong reasons, but I just love it.  I have learnt that when I am having a bad day, when my energy levels are low and I feel sore and hopeless, when I think I can’t cope or I wish I was not here, a good workout makes me feel better.  It is something I can give to myself to make myself feel better in the short term which is also good for me in the long term.  It is a definite win-win situation.  Of course, in the immediate term when I really do not feel like it, or halfway through it when I think I am about to spit out a lung, it is a struggle.  Even then, though, I know that I am taking care of myself and I’m glad of it.  Even when it feels completely awful, it also feels good.  This was never the case when I kept myself in my old job.  During those eternal nine years, I just felt that I was being mean to myself.  I felt that I was doing something AT me, not WITH or FOR me.

I know oodles of people who put themselves through degrees they hated because it “made sense” or to please their families.  They took class after class they hated to gain a qualification they did not want in a field they did not care for.  They often had to work very hard as they had no aptitude for that particular subject.  Their efforts would not be in vain, however; they would allow them, glory be, to embark in a career they did not want in a field they still did not care for.  It is not dissimilar to forcing yourself to eat shit today so you can eat more shit tomorrow.  Yet it goes on all the time.  My mum did that – seven years to finish a four-year degree because she just sucked at it, so she could work for over twenty-five years at a job she did not like and wasn’t suited to, which constantly stressed her and made her ill until she had to retire.  We give up on ourselves, ignore our cries for help and end up all broken and twisted inside, standing amongst the ruins of a wasted life, waiting to die.

Ok, I might be pushing it with the melodrama here, but most of us do it to a greater or lesser extent.  The weird thing is that we have a beautiful, natural, in-built system specifically designed to let us know if we are following the right path.  Unfortunately, it does not have a great deal to do with the brain.  We get so accustomed to using our brain as the fountain of all knowledge and wisdom, while it is actually incredibly susceptible to delusions.  The brain lives in a narrative universe of its own devising.  The brain looks at the Prada stilettos and tells itself how gorgeous they look and will make us look.  Meanwhile, the feet feel the very same shoes and go “ouch”.  The brain works out which course is most likely to result in us having a “successful career” or make our family happy.  The heart looks at accountancy books and feels dejected.

All my life, I have tried to think.  I have tried to analyse, understand and plan.  What I neglected to do was to pay attention to my feelings.  I ended up with a degree in agriculture but unable to feel when I am getting hungry[4], which I find wonderfully ironic.  I ended up with a “good job” that came with a lovely house, yet the time in my life I was at my happiest was when I accidentally ended up unemployed and homeless, living in the back of a small van.  I could have spent eons working out the pros and cons of that situation and most definitely would not have picked it as it was not the logical choice.  Yet it came about by accident and it was just great.

Someone posted a casual comment on Facebook which really resonated with me: “When you really listen to the body and the heart, eventually the brain catches on.”  The more I think about it, the more I believe that it’s true.  If you are really honest about your feelings they will tell you a lot about yourself and your life.  If you are not honest about them, if you repress them or ignore them, they will fight their way to the surface in warped and often unrecognisable ways.  They will not go away.  They will continue to haunt you until your life reflects who you really are, what you really want, not who you think you should be and want. 

What I am trying to work at now is at teaching my brain to read my feelings, openly and honestly.  I can then use the ol’ thinking machinery to try and work out the best possible solution to a given situation – not the most rational or popular solution, but the one that’s best for me.  I then run the solution by the feeling system and see what comes up, just to double-check.  In essence, I want my body, heart and brain to be co-operating.  It might sound easy, but it’s not. 

In order for any of this to work, I need to be honest with myself, which is not always painless.  For instance, I have the opportunity to see some school friends in the summer, which feels great and I look forward to.  The flipside of it is that I will have to see my mother, as she lives in the area.  That does not feel great and I loathe thinking about it.  I am not seeing her because I am seizing a rare opportunity while I’m in the area, but because I do not want to risk being near her hometown and getting caught out.  It is not even a case of me feeling it as a duty; I just don’t fancy the potential fallout.  Now, admitting that you do not want to see your mother, who loves you, and that in all honesty you have stopped looking forward to seeing her when you were twelve or so is not easy.  Come on, it sounds absolutely abominable.  Yet, it is true.  I can lie to myself and the world about it as much as I want, but it is will continue being true.  Now that I’ve admitted it to myself, I might be able to try and do something about it.  At the very least, it will not come and niggle at me when I’m not looking.  It’s out there, in the open, like a deeply unpleasant parasite I’ve managed to excrete.  It’s not pretty to look at, but it was rather more uncomfortable when it was burrowing through my brain.

So, what’s the moral of the story?  I think that until we are sure that we are going to act as our own best friends, we need to find a reliable measuring yard.  Find someone you love and care for – how would you take care of your children, animals, elderly relative, friends?  What would you do for them or stop them doing?  What would you allow them to go through before you stepped in and took action?  How would you talk to them?  If it’s not good enough for those you love, it’s not good enough for you.  If you treat yourself with love and honesty, well, life might not get any simpler, but it will hopefully be a lot more wholesome.

[1] “The new rules of lifting for life” by Lou Shuler and Alwynh Cosgrove.  I highly recommend it, although of course I’ve not followed the workout plans because I lack that function.
[2]  Best fitness blog ever, bar none.
[3] I was stuck in a building, needing desperately to get out, but all the doors were locked or stuck and all the windows too small.  Repeat night after night, until no longer funny.  My subconscious does not do subtle.  I am pretty sure that it wears a muscle shirt and carries a baseball bat.
[4] True fact.  I only know that I am hungry when my sugar levels drop to the point that I get woozy or agitated.  It used to drive one of my exes to distraction, as he could feel my stomach rambling when I couldn’t.  

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