Friday, 21 June 2013

The tale of the educationally subnormal monkey. 20.06.2013

I firmly believe that the world is divided into two groups of people: those who think you can glibly classify people into groups, and those who don’t.  I thought I belonged to the latter but a squirrel showed me that I was wrong.  Yes, a squirrel.

I got back to base after deliveries yesterday, tired as hell and sleep deprived as per usual, only to be presented with a cage with a broken squirrel in it.  The poor thing had had an argument with a car and quite obviously lost.  One of the girls who work for me had found it on her way home and brought it back in hysterics.  The other girl was also upset but managed to keep her cool, plonk it in a cage and send the other girl home.  The reason she had kept her cool is that she knew that idiot here would sort it all out.

There isn’t much that can be done with a squirrel with a broken back other than help it go painlessly and quickly.  I explained that to girl no.2 and she said that she had expected that.  She was very accepting of the situation but asked me if we could tell girl no.1 that “he had died peacefully”.  I agreed, and was left with a squirrel to dispatch and a lie to maintain.

Off I went into the garage so I could do what needed to be done without anyone getting upset, and it hit me.  What about ME getting upset?  Why is it that I’m the person who gets to kill the small furry creatures?  It’s really not something I enjoy doing.  It needs to be done, so I’ll obviously do it, but why me?  More than that, why don’t I get the luxury of falling apart in hysterics all over the place and then be comforted?  The obvious answer is that I can’t be doing that, because then nobody will do what needs to be done.  At that point the little toddler who lives in my head started stomping her little feet and crying that “it’s not fair”.  For once, I couldn’t disagree with her.  It’s not fair.  It’s not fair that I seem to be in charge of dealing with unpleasant but necessary tasks.  It’s not fair that I can’t indulge in an emotional meltdown because there’s shit that needs sorting.  It’s not fair that to cap it all I then have to concern myself with the emotional state of those who were excused from actually dealing with the situation because it was too upsetting for them.  What about my emotional state?  I’m the one going around with blood on her hands[1].

It’s not just about squirrels and it’s not just me.  The vast majority of my friends are plagued by the same issue.  When there are hard decisions to be made, unpleasant tasks to be completed, loads – metaphorical or not – to be carried, we all step up and get on with it.  Hell, most of us step up even when we’re not asked, when it’s not technically our problem.  Are we stupid?  Because, sure enough, you step up enough times and it becomes expected of you.  People know that they can rely on you because you have been reliable.  And it’s ok, it’s fine, because stuff needs doing and you can do it, so you just get on with it.  Over time, it becomes what you do.  Then it becomes what you are in the eyes of those around you.

Things end up snowballing.  Once you start rescuing and fixing, there is no stopping.  Once you prove yourself capable of dealing with the small stuff, people will come at you with bigger and bigger issues.  You start out hand-feeding baby birds that have fallen out of the nest, and a decade later you wonder how you ended up with recovering domestic abuse victims clogging up your living room[2].

Things get heavier and heavier for you, because the issues you deal with get harder to wash off your hands.  I might be ridiculously soft, but every time I have to deal with someone’s injuries I feel a little bit of their pain.  If they get better it’s a bit easier, but some of the pain seems to stick.  If they don’t get better more of the pain is left behind.  It’s as if every injury you deal with was a little pebble.  Over time, the weight drags you down.

If you need to take a break because it all gets too much, you are letting everyone down.  If you end up having a meltdown as a result of all the little ones you kept a lid on, it’s as if the sky was falling on people’s heads.  People do not flock to comfort and assist you.  People stand watching you with their mouth open, aghast, or start panicking like mad.  They feel and act cheated, shocked or resentful.  You don’t have the luxury of collapsing under the weight, because you have become the lynchpin, the go-to person.  If you collapse, the whole system goes to pot.

The opposite is also true.  While you are holding things up, everybody around you can relax a little bit.  Girl no.2 yesterday kept her cool because she knew I would keep mine and the problem would be solved.  So, instead of rushing around like a headless chicken or getting bitten, she actually did something helpful in a safe manner.  That made my task a lot simpler and easier – but that was precisely because she relied upon it being “my task”.  It’s great for the overall running of the “tribe”, but it often sucks for me.

This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, and largely the result of me suffering from a serious case of self-pity.  There is quite a large grain of truth in it, though.  I have seen many of my friends come close to doing themselves in for the sake of those who depended on them.  They had helped create that dependency over time, by enabling the people around them to lean on them.

Now, there is nothing wrong in helping people.  Aside from morals and ethics, which are subjective, we are a social species.  You’d think supporting each other would be the way to go.  However, evolution doesn’t quite work like that.  If you are the person who runs into the burning house to save whoever is inside and you get turned into toast, your genes will not be passed on.  There is a lot of mileage to being the person who is horrified by the fire and reacts by flapping around, at a safe distance.

That sort of panic tends to spread, because as a species we are designed to infect each other emotionally.  Marc MacYoung explained this particular aspect of human survival in one of his lecture[3].  Imagine you are a monkey, sitting with your monkey friends in the grass, eating, picking nits and generally doing your thang.  A fellow monkey comes in at 300 mph, in a blind panic, and rushes straight up a tree.  All the other monkeys do not stop to ask what’s up – they all fly off in a similar panic and end up in the tree.  Only AFTER they are up the tree they might stop to wonder what the hell just happened.  This makes perfect sense.  If a predator is about to attack you, it doesn’t pay to stop and ask for details.  You want to trust the instincts or knowledge of your fellow tribe members and get the fuck out of the way before the monster can get you.

This makes sense to the individual, though, but not to the group.  If everyone stampedes off, the predators will end up picking the slowest and weakest.  You’ll lose your children, then your females, and that just doesn’t work as a survival strategy.  A load of strong male monkeys sitting in a tree is not a sustainable group.  So nature has a way of making sure we don’t go extinct by designing a special breed of idiot.  In a successful group there will be individuals who run towards trouble, instead of away from it.  They see a predator approaching and will try to see it off, because it needs doing.  They don’t think about it – there is no time to think about it.  A little switch flicks and they just do it.  As MacYoung says, “We all run.  We just run in different directions.”

Some people find this sort of stuff rather glorious.  A friend of mine, bless him, told me that “natural leaders always rise to the situation” when I moaned about the squirrel.  As I’m aware that my leadership qualities are pretty much equivalent of those of the poor creature AFTER I finished with him, I didn’t really buy it.  It was kind of him, and I wish it was true, but it just isn’t.  There is a lot of modern mythology about natural leaders, warriors and so on, though.  If you listen to some of Dave Grossman’s podcasts[4], he makes much of creating a mythology for figures such as policemen and soldiers.  He divides humans into three groups:
·         Sheep: kind, productive individuals who can only hurt each other by accident;
·         Wolves: who aim to predate on the sheep;
·         Sheep dogs: the protectors, living outside of the herd and somewhat despised by the sheep until the time they are needed.
I see what Grossman is trying to do and I understand why, but I don’t see myself fitting any of the descriptions.  I am no warrior.  There’s no heroism about what I do.  I am not a natural leader.  What I am, in the MacYoung mode, is an educationally subnormal monkey.  I’m not special – I’m speshul.  I am comforted by the fact that so are most of my friends.

This leaves with a problem, though.  We go forth to solve all sorts of little hiccups, so that people’s lives can proceed a bit more smoothly.  What happens, though, when we are the ones with the problem?  What happens when other people’s problems become too much for us?  We are conditioned not to crumble – it’s not our role.  When we do, in my limited experience, we can fall apart completely, because we have allowed ourselves to be pushed to the very edge of our tolerance level.  If you give 100%, there are no resources to fall back on.

The other thing that sucks, in a major way, is that by not panicking along with the rest of the tribe you can end up being labelled as cold or unemotional.  When flapping around in hysterics is considered to be the appropriate reaction to an event, the person who coolly gets shit sorted out is a freak.  Your pragmatism and ability to take effective action are seen as the result of a lack of emotional response, rather than the result of a conscious effort to keep it together.  It pisses the shit out of me when friends of mine get accused of “not doing emotions”, which happens surprisingly frequently.  I would like to retort with something along the line of “he can’t do his own emotion because he’s too busy dealing with your drama” – but you can’t do that.

It’s not just a few people being unfair, either.  It seems that as a society we have become increasingly squeamish.   In the past we used to respect those people who did what needed doing, in particular if they were of the male persuasion.  To be a “real man” you had to be able to take the harsher aspects of life on the chin.  If you couldn’t keep a lid on your emotions and deal with situations you were a weakling, hardly a man at all.  Other men would sneer.  The women wouldn’t go out with you.  I can’t say that I agree with that.  I’m all for men (and women, and children) being in touch with their feelings, but we might have gone too far in the opposite direction.  It seems that we have started valuing emotional sensitivity to a level that becomes disabling.  You just throw your hands up, get all hysterical and shout that you can't cope or face something and hey presto, you’re a wonderful, sensitive, caring human being.  Never mind that “caring” is supposed to be a doing word.

It is, of course, a wonderful survival strategy.  “Not being able to cope" these days seems the automatic equivalent to "someone else will have to sort my shit out for me".  You get to flap around a lot, making a lot of noise, and some other idiot ends up doing whatever needs to be done, however unpleasant or dangerous. Then you get comforted for your emotional sufferings, whilst the person who metaphorically took the rubbish out get the dirty looks because they now smell a bit.  Going all untogether is a great "get out of jail free" card.  Wish I could get one.

So, what’s the answer for the educationally subnormal monkeys out there?  You know, I’m not fully sure yet.  I know we’re not going to stop doing our thing.  Whether it’s because of nature or nurture, I don’t know any of us who could just stand and watch events unfold without doing “our bit”.  There are other ways of lightening the load, though.  I know that I feel a lot better for having realised that I’m singing from a different hymn sheet.  I am aware of tendencies that could be self-destructive, so I can now rein them in a lot better.  I learnt what my limits are by coming up against them at speed, and I will endeavour not to hit them again, because it fucking HURTS.  I learnt that I’m not super-human; I have the same right to ask for help that everybody else does, and if people don’t like it they can stuff themselves.  I have also learnt that I find it hard to tell people, however politely, to stuff themselves. 

The most helpful thing I learnt is that we can all be subnormal together – the support you get from fellow sufferers of this condition isn’t the same we give to “normal” people, but it’s still bloody good.  Unfortunately it is a bittersweet kind of comfort; it feels bad, because a little voice in my head says that I’m “letting the side down”, but also good, because it feels nice to know that someone’s got your back, or at least a bit of it.  Let’s face it, we’re all gonna keep jumping on grenades, rescuing damsels, fixing blocked pipes and breaking the neck of small furry creatures, whatever is necessary.  We better get used to doing it as safely as possible, because we’re going to be doing it for a long time.

[1] Figuratively speaking.  I know my shit.
[2] I shit you not.  It happened to me last year.
[3] May 2013, Bristol.  You should have been there.  It was epic.
[4] Sorry, no reference.  I pinched them.

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