Climate change

There’s something of a debate at the moment, as to whether climate change is man made or not. These debates can become quite heated, with one camp berating the other for being climate change deniers, while the other insists that it’s all part of a natural planetary process that is nothing to do with humans and therefore nothing to worry about.

I have a slightly different take on the matter in that I agree that it is not man made and that it is part of the natural processes of our planet. However, I believe that one important fact gets missed out of the equation by both camps. That is, that humans are just another species on this planet and therefore we are part of its, so called, natural processes. To me, there is no denying that our activities are contributing to driving our climate in a particular direction.

Throughout the history of the Earth the atmosphere has been composed of a complex soup of different elements. This mixture initially was probably created by the geological forces of the embryonic planet and likely varied considerably in its content over millennia. Depending on the levels of certain chemicals in this mix, the atmosphere has been supportive of or lethal to life. It’s possible that life may have had many false starts as the atmosphere swung between these two states. Once life got a definitive foot hold though, it grew to be a serious contributor to the atmosphere. Over millions of years, micro organisms pumped out trillions of tons of a variety of different elements in different concentrations. So that, at different times in the Earth’s history there were higher levels of Oxygen or Carbon Dioxide or Methane or other elements. All of these differing mixtures contributed to steering the climate in a variety of directions. Sometimes hot and dry, sometimes cold and wet. Of course, other factors contributed to driving the climate; volcanic and solar activity being just two. Gradually though, life became a significant player in the creation of the atmosphere and climate of the earth.

We’ve learned that the concentration of specific gases in our atmosphere can have a marked effect on life. For example, high concentrations of Oxygen have supported large bodied animals. The fossil records show us this in the form of Dragonflies with wingspans of 60 centimetres, that lived millions of years ago when the levels of atmospheric Oxygen were much higher than they are now. There have been periods of time when the planet was arid and dry due to higher levels of Carbon Dioxide or Methane.

Throughout most of Earth’s history there has been a notable absence of one particular species. In the absence of this species the climate, driven by a variety of factors including other living organisms, has waxed and waned and done it’s thing. In general these changes have been slow to happen. The exception to this pattern being occasional cataclysmic events such as an asteroid impacting the planet.

Just a few million years ago our species evolved from a group of primates. Natural selection endowed our species with a brain structure that enabled us to step outside of our ecological niche. Now, every living thing has evolved to exploit a particular niche in the ecosystem. So for example, some birds have evolved to catch prey in flight, whereas others have evolved to catch their food in water; yet others will feed at ground level. They are all birds, but each type has evolved and adapted to exploit a particular slot or niche in the ecosystem. A Swallow can no more dive for minnows than a Kingfisher can snatch insects in flight.

We however, slowly at first but then accelerating, began to buck that trend. Driven by the same instincts as every other living organism to find as much food as possible and produce as many babies as possible, we began to move into the niches of other species. We began to claim the resources of these other species as our own. This didn’t happen overnight though. For a long time we existed like many other animals. We moved around with the seasons gathering whatever foods had ripened enough to make them edible. Meat eating was probably limited to eating carrion or stealing from predators. Those same predators were also partly responsible for controlling our populations; disease, starvation, cataclysm and war against others in competition for food also played a part in keeping populations low. While these factors were in play the need to produce as many babies as possible remained a necessity. So for thousands of years we occupied the same ecological niche as the many grazing and foraging animals that we shared the planet with.

For many millennia there weren’t vast populations of any medium or large sized animals. There have been big herds of grazing animals that have existed in their millions, but as far as we know not many species have grown much beyond those numbers. Populations in the billions or trillions were reserved for the very much smaller creatures on the planet; most of which formed the bottom of the food chain for the larger animals above them. All of these animals never moved outside of their ecological niche. This system worked pretty well for keeping some form of status quo that enabled life on the planet to persist.

Our species alone, naturally selected for a different kind of brain function to other species. It gave us the ability to manipulate first non-living matter, (stone, bone, wood) in such ways that gave us a survival advantage over other species. As we progressed, we also learned to manipulate living matter, via actively hunting other animals for food and materials and ultimately learning to create favourable conditions for particular food plants to grow and flourish. In this way we were able to expand our niches so that we could not only catch Minnows, but also snatch insects from the air. We were able to do all this without altering our breeding strategy.

In 1900 our population numbered a little over 1.5 Billion souls worldwide. In just over 100 years that figure has risen to around 7 Billion. To my knowledge, and I always stand to be corrected, no other animal of our size has ever existed in those numbers. In particular, no other animal has ever existed that manipulates the environment in the complex and complicated ways that we do. As a species we are embarked on a vast unintentional experiment with the life sustaining processes of this planet. Largely because, although we were endowed with the technical abilities to shape the environment to suit our needs. We have yet to really challenge the fundamental drives and instincts of our early primate existence; the drives and instincts of every living thing to gain as much resource as possible and produce as many offspring as possible.

I like to think that in recent history we have begun to turn our intelligence away from simply using it as a tool of competition. That we might have grown weary of simply using it as an aid to becoming as resource wealthy as possible in order to increase our numbers as much as possible. That we can get to the point of realising, that allowing our early primate instincts to drive our thinking is not really benefiting us or the rest of life on this planet. I like to think this is happening, albeit slowly.

Listening

Now there’s an interesting word. It sounds simple doesn’t it. We all think we can do it. We all think we do, do it. I’m doing it right now, sitting here attempting to write about it. I can hear the wind outside the house. I can hear the water flowing through the central heating system. However, I can also hear the high pitched whine of my Tinnitus. A condition caused by exposure to too much damaging noise in my youth. It’s usually my excuse for having a radio running quietly in the background; its white noise helping me to tune out the din.

I’ve realised overtime though, that listening can involve a little more than just using my ears. People who know me, know that for many years I’ve been involved in Counselling. I’ve had a fair bit of experience of both ends of it’s spectrum. That is to say from the position of client as well as counsellor; in pretty much equal amounts. I’ve learned that there is a qualitative difference in the type of listening when counselling someone, to the type of listening on a day to day basis.

So I’ve tried to do some thinking about what it is I do when listening in the counselling situation, that is so different from listening in everyday conversation. I’ve become aware, that when counselling, I have several things going on at the same time. So I’m going to try and break down the process and itemise these actions.

Let’s deal with listening first. Here I think I’ve learned that I’m not just listening to the person in front of me. Their words, what they’re saying, the way they are saying it and their tone of voice are all important, but I’m also listening to myself. My words, what I’m saying and my own tone of voice are important too. From my perspective I’m also listening, or perhaps I should say paying attention to, my own inner dialogue and whatever feelings I might have wrapped around that dialogue. Listening to myself in this way is as important as listening to the person in front of me. I need to know my own thinking and feeling in this situation. Am I relaxed and comfortable with this person? If I am, then all well and good. But if I have feelings about what they’re saying, particularly negative feelings, then I need to be aware of that. I’ve learned that a lot of my own thinking and feeling has no relevance to this person’s situation, so I need to try and keep these out of the counselling environment.

Another thing I do a lot of is observing. Yes I know that’s not strictly listening but the two go hand in hand and, in concert together, they are important to the quality of the attention I’m aiming to give. I’m maintaining eye contact; not a glassy unblinking stare but a relaxed gaze in their direction. I’m noticing; looking for clues and indicators of stress. A very faint pinkness to the whites of someone’s eyes can mean that they are close to tears. Or a sudden flicker or increase in blink rate might be an indicator of some thought that flashed through their mind. There’s also body language to think about, how they’re sitting, the shape their body makes, is their posture closed or defensive in some way or is it relaxed and open.

Another element of listening that I consider to be important is touch. Now, unfortunately this is something that has become a bit of a minefield in our culture. It’s something that can be used incorrectly and disrespectfully. However, the simple act of offering my hand for them to hold can sometimes be reassuring. It can also be another means of reading tension. If my fingertips start to go white because of lack of blood flow, then that’s another reasonable indicator that something’s not quite right for them. Any form of physical contact has to be with consent. Some people find it helpful to be cradled while they’re weeping, others feel safer at the other end of the sofa.

I’m aware that I’m making this sound a little formulaic. And it’s not really like that at all, or at least it shouldn’t be. Most of these processes are going on just below awareness, and only come to the front of my mind when they need to.

I got to talking with someone I’ve worked with for awhile, about this subject. They reminded me that the most important thing I brought to the act of listening, was my own authentic self. That the key thing that any counsellor should be is themself. To be honest about what they feel they can or can’t bring to the situation. To own up if they are struggling in some way and to acknowledge any feelings they may have.

Something that generally can only be built over time, is the developed sense of trust in one another. It can sometimes take quite a bit of working together to build this. It can and has happened to me that someone will superimpose another personality on to me. It’s sometimes referred to as projection or identification or some other bit of psychobabble. Put simply it just means that something about me reminds them of someone in their past. If they are unaware of this it can lead them to have expectations of me that I simply can’t fulfill, and can lead to damaging consequences in the level of trust between us. Awarely handled though it can be quite useful. I have had it happen, that I reminded someone of a person they were very fond of who had died some time ago. We were able to turn this to their advantage in working through unresolved grief. With the trust and awareness built up between us, it got to the point where they only had to look up at me to see their loved one’s face and burst into tears.

I don’t want to give the impression here that I always find this level of listening easy or even desirable. On a day to day basis I’m as inattentive, insensitive and forgetful as the next person; just ask my wife. In fact, I’ll probably have to keep this piece of writing out of sight, as I think if she read it she’d probably have a seizure from laughing so much.

I’ll finish with a little tip. If you are receiving any counselling just now and you want to test your counsellors attention. Try pausing at some random point and asking them to feed back verbatim your last five sentences. Do me a favour though and don’t tell them I put you up to it, as I’ll probably receive death threats.

Dark.

It’s gone dark, and this is going to be hard to write. Not because there isn’t any light to write by; I don’t mean that kind of dark. I’m referring to my inner darkness. I’ve been here before, quite a few times in my life. These days less and less and for shorter periods.

It’s hard to put into words, and over my lifetime I’ve realised that, whatever the words I use, it still can’t be read or understood by certain people. I’ve described it as a different state of being that robs me of any sense of connection with anything. A constant emotional flatness coupled with varying degrees of mental chaos.

I have to say that I can understand why people find this state hard to be around. Because when I’m outside of it, I find it difficult to be around people who are in the depths of this darkness themselves. I think, maybe because I know that there is nothing I can say or do, that will help them in any way to climb out of it. This demon has to be defeated from within.

The odd thing is, that I seem to be able to function on a day to day basis somehow despite what is going on inside me. I wouldn’t say I was functioning 100%, but just enough to get by while things just churn away inside. I figure that’s just part of my learning to survive in a world of others who aren’t in the same place.

One of the hardest symptoms of this is hypersensitivity. Things like sudden sharp noises or little critical asides, that I would normally brush off, suddenly cut very deep; like chalk squealing across a blackboard. And then there’s the self destructive side of it too. Oh, I’m not suicidal, I’m not deep enough in the hell of it for that these days. It’s just the sense of not wanting to be here. Suddenly the insanity of life gets to the point where I don’t want to play anymore. I find this curious, because my nihilistic view of life doesn’t really bother me most of the time; I just find the human condition amusingly bonkers.

I’m never too sure if something external triggers this state, or if I just get to the point that my inner world has become so fragile, that the simplest of external factors tip me into the darker end of my emotional spectrum.

Whatever the cause, I’m damn sure that I can’t simply snap out of it. Unless there is some form of crisis that demands attention; like the house being on fire. Coming out of this is more of a gradual process. Sometimes I can sleep it off; that, combined with the activities of the following day can serve to pull me back. Something I noticed long ago is that some form of demanding, challenging mental and physical activity can also help. However, the ability to think of that at the time and then the motivation to begin are usually sadly lacking.

Thankfully, these periods are few and far between now, and generally short lived. The light, with a little patience and self care, comes back.

Remembering Dad.

I try to recall some positive memories about Dad; it’s something I find quite hard. I have an old black and white photo of him sitting in a chair in what looks like a living room. He’s wearing a white smock coat that looks a little stained in places. So I’m guessing he’s just come in from work. In the crook of one arm, he’s cradling a baby. I’ve no idea who the baby is. I wondered if it might be me, but I was born when dad was thirty four and he looks older in the picture.

I guess I dug out this particular photo because I was looking for some evidence of tenderness. I’m not sure I see it there; there’s a matter of fact look about the whole scene and that just about sums up my dad. Life was just about hard work. About getting on with things. You faced challenges with stoicism. Life wasn’t complex back then.

He came out of the RAF after the Second World War and used his savings to set himself up with a roadside canteen, as a means of making a living. Probably a pretty shrewd move on his part as I think unemployment was quite high back then. I don’t know how or when he met my Mother but I know that they got married in a bit of a hurry. Of course, I was never told this; families in those days being a bit quiet about that sort of thing. No, I had to figure this out for myself when two months before my 25th birthday, they had their Silver Wedding celebrations.

To his credit, he took on what in those times was quite a challenge for a post war working class family, as my mother already had four daughters and a son from her previous marriage. I doubt that there was much in the way of social assistance back then, so he clearly had to bring enough money in to keep us all. Over the next ten years he progressed from the roadside canteen to manager of a works canteen and then on to his own roadside cafe. Nothing fancy, just a typical greasy spoon place selling breakfasts and lunches to passing motorists and lorry drivers. He’d clearly reasoned that people would always want food, and that this was always going to be a straightforward money over the counter transaction. A good business to be in if you had a sizeable family.

I don’t remember much in the way of quality time with him. His idea of playing seemed to be vigorous tickling sessions to the point that I got panicky. If he tried sports with us he usually ended up frustrated and angry with us. He had no patience with me at all. I’m guessing that, as I was his eldest, he had quite high expectations of me, but anything I did elicited no praise from him whatsoever.

There was much more of a gender divide back then. For boys, particularly working class boys, the education was about training in practical skills based on what they might be required to do in the world of work. So I was given toys that were appropriate to nurture me in that direction. Things like Meccano, Lego, and other toys that had a construction element. Later on I was allowed to progress to tinkering with odd broken down domestic items. One occasion sticks in my mind. Dad turned up with an old cylinder vacuum cleaner. He gave me a selection of tools and told me to take it apart. I set to the task with relish, and when I’d finished he came over and began to explain how it worked; in particular how the electric motor worked. He must have made a half decent job of this bit of tuition, because I remember the details to this day. It was one of the rare occasions that one might consider to have been some sort of bonding exercise between us. Mostly these little training sessions ended up in tears, my tears.

He seemed to have very little patience with any of us; very quickly getting quite irritated. Like many men of his day, he was the family disciplinarian. The go to person for punishment. We weren’t regular recipients of beatings, but he could certainly dish it out. Holding one of our arms so we couldn’t run away, he would deliver several sharp slaps to the back of our thighs. Always with an open hand and, “where it wouldn’t leave a bruise”, he would say to my mother. The effect on me was to make me fearful of authority. Which, from a social perspective, was quite useful for the world of work; one has to have compliant workers who know their place.

Yet, the same man was capable of very kind actions. There was an old tramp who would appear at the back door of Dad’s business, and this old guy would pick up a brush, mop and bucket and set to swabbing out the Ladies and Gents toilets. As payment for this little chore, Dad would fill up his billycan with hot tea and give him a sandwich; which he would consume while sitting outside leaning up against the wall of the cafe. Not exactly an attractive welcome for prospective customers, but he was tolerated. He would then disappear, turning up weeks or months later and doing the same again.

Occasionally other rather more furtive characters would appear at the back door and there would be a quiet huddle where my Dad would hand over some cash. I later discovered a drawer containing a selection of odd watches, electric razors and other assorted bric-a-brac. It seemed Dad was also a bit of a soft touch for people who were short of money; so he was a kind of unofficial pawn broker. I think it’s fair to surmise that some of the items were knock offs, and so they were rarely reclaimed.

Come to think of it, most of his kindnesses involved giving out money. On a trip to a fairground I was witness to him hand out money to some local children, so that they could enjoy the rides. Later in life, whenever I or my brothers visited, he would suddenly push his hand into our shirt pocket and leave behind a wad of notes; ignoring our protestations that we didn’t need it. If he got wind that they were struggling for some reason, he would wrap considerable sums of cash in newsprint and post them to family members at the other side of the world.

I came to the conclusion that this was the only way he could show any form of caring or love. Because of his psychological make up, other ways of expressing these feelings simply weren’t open to him. Thinking about it now; I find that very sad.

I realise now that I learned very little of his early life. He wasn’t one for talking much about the past. He reckoned that his grandfather was a master mason and had worked on the Liver Building in Liverpool. Even this story only ever came out if we were passing through that city and his memory was jogged. He would also occasionally talk about his time in the RAF. Some of these stories were pretty grim. He was ground crew only and from what I could gather he didn’t seem to have a specific role; just called on to do whatever was needed. One of these tasks was to recover bodies, usually from beaches. One story he told was of the time he joined a team digging out what remained of an aircraft that had nose dived into the ground. He would relate how, when they got to the poor sods who were still in it, the pilots face had literally peeled back to one side of his head. He told this story in a very calm and matter of fact way; with no intention to shock or horrify at all. I can’t help feeling though, that these experiences must have had a formative effect on his psychological make up.

A friend asked me why I delve into the past like this. It seems it’s something they couldn’t do themselves; fearful of what they might dig up. I was taken off guard by the question and so struggled a little to answer. I guess for me thinking about the past helps me to understand myself a little better, and what I’m reaching for in remembering Dad is, that if I can find some level of compassion and understanding about him, I might also achieve some form of self compassion and understanding.

I don’t believe it!!

We like to consider ourselves as a thinking species. That not only were we endowed with consciousness, but that we also got to use our brain to work things out in a way that other animals didn’t. We sometimes refer to ourselves as the rational or logical species. That we can think through a problem and work out that A plus B inevitably leads to C. We even got to the point, of realising that we can also think about our own thinking. Or even think about thinking while we’re thinking. Although I might have to think about that one.

Anyway, where is all this going, you might well ask? Well, we are also endowed with another ability that, it seems to me, also marks us out as a distinct species. We have the ability to believe. Now this is a function or concept that I have some difficulty getting my own mind around. I can’t quite figure out why we as a species are blessed, some would say, cursed with it.

A few years ago, I was a participant in a discussion group. Just an informal thing for mainly older people who wanted to keep their grey matter ticking over. It was customary, at the end of each meeting, that the choice of the next discussion was suggested by a member of the group. On this particular occasion it seemed to be my turn; so I suggested the topic might be, “What is Belief?” There seemed to be general agreement that this was a good suggestion and it might be quite a challenging subject for discussion. I had no idea just how challenging it was going to be.

The following week there was quite a reasonable sized group around our table, and I thought that this bode well for an interesting debate. However, right from the start it became clear that this wasn’t going to be straightforward. As each person picked up the topic they began to talk about their own particular belief, usually their religious belief. Even the chair of the meeting held forth for about 5 minutes about his own particular belief. Nobody seemed to -get- the question. I didn’t want to know what their belief was; I wanted them to examine the whole concept of belief as a human trait. So I ended up leaving the meeting feeling quite frustrated.

In retrospect I realised that it simply wasn’t going to work anyway. For the simple reason that in order to examine the question “What is belief?” one might have to question one’s own beliefs, and the one thing that a deeply held belief will not tolerate is being questioned. Because it runs the risk of being exposed as fraudulent and thus ceasing to exist.

So opening up a deeply held belief seems to be fraught with danger for us. But why, I ask myself; when using our rational mind so successfully seems to solve so many puzzles for us. Why this division in our thought processes. Well my own thinking about this, I’ve discovered just recently, seems to be backed up by some science. Or at least some theoretical models done by psychologists. Belief is considered to be the simplest form of mental representation. A core building block of consciousness. So I’m guessing it goes back a very long way in our evolution.

I’m thinking that very early on, before we developed the ability to reason, we functioned mainly instinctively. We just needed to know if whatever we were confronted with was something to eat or something that was likely to eat us. Not being too analytical at that time, we probably decided that if something looked like it could eat us, we didn’t stick around in order to find out. Even if the creature was benign, if it looked like a predator it probably was one. So maybe belief was early hypothesising, driven by our instinct to survive.

I’ve long felt that belief is closely related to fearfulness. Ask someone to consider abandoning a deeply held belief they might have and there is usually a look of apprehension or even horror; as if they couldn’t countenance such a thing. It simply doesn’t compute.

One of the hardest things, I find, is convincing someone with low self esteem just how good they are as a person. They’ve spent their entire life telling themselves that they are somehow a lesser person than anyone else. Dig deep enough and one may find the roots of this belief about themselves is in early childhood. A simple message from outside of themselves, continually delivered by adults and peers, that simply got stuck in a mental loop and became a core belief. Followed by a lifetime of repeating that message to themselves over and over again. Until they end up believing all that negativity to be based in fact; when in reality it’s a million miles from the truth about who they are.

I’m wondering if as a species, we will outgrow belief and move beyond it to being completely rational. Or perhaps find that the only reason we are human at all is precisely because of belief. That it is something necessary to our humanity. I like to think that it will always be part of us, but we will grow to accept that it is not an absolute. That we will ultimately allow reason to be the final arbiter.

Anyway, after much thought about the subject, I arrived at my own definition of what belief might be. I offer it for consideration by anyone that might be interested. I’d love to hear your own thinking.

Belief: The aware or unaware choice of an individual to accept a position as fact. Without any evidence that proves that position, or in the face of any evidence that disproves that position.

 

Goal Setting!?!

Well done for getting this far! I’m saying that because I figure most people would have seen the title of this post and moved on without opening it. In most people’s minds it’s probably just a groan worthy subject. And I get that, I really do. However, now you’re here, I’ll attempt to make things as entertaining as possible.

I was at a workshop last night, where the main topic was goal setting for 2019. I can vouch for the fact that pretty much everyone there inwardly groaned too. But by the end of the evening each person felt they had got something worthwhile out of working with the subject matter.

From my point of view it got me thinking about the whole topic. In particular, why is it such a groan worthy subject? Why do we instinctively shy away from it? After all, we do it all the time. And we’ve been doing it ever since the day we were born. We have to have been doing it; otherwise we would have been stuck in the same place for a lifetime. You might think that’s been the case for you; but I can promise you it hasn’t.

I once learned that an aircraft’s autopilot makes mistakes on a continuous basis. I’d keep that to yourself by the way; particularly if you’re on an airliner crossing the Atlantic. It actually needs to do this, in order to achieve its goal of getting you from A to B. The aircraft’s navigation system needs signals from locations outside of itself in order to calculate exactly where it is and which way it is pointing. However, because of a variety of other external forces that are constantly acting on the aircraft, eg, random cross winds, it needs a constant stream of these signals from known fixed points on the ground. Although these days probably from space too. With this data it can then make the necessary calculations to correct its path towards your destination at point B. Where you can disembark and get on with the serious business of enjoying your holiday.

I’m guessing that this is the way that any navigation system works. From us using map and compass in the hills, to the Satnav in our cars and even the latest craft heading to Mars. All constantly checking for errors and making the necessary corrections to keep on track. In a not entirely dissimilar way, this is how we set goals too. Except that it’s a little more complex for us. I suspect that we inwardly groan, at the prospect of setting goals, because life has taught us that they don’t always work out as straightforward as we would like. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just take simple easy steps from A to B to C to…… yeah, now that does sound boring.

So there’s a lot can go wrong for us. Our external navigation beacons can malfunction. Making it a lot harder to pinpoint where we are in life. Our own inner software can screw up, so that we misinterpret the information we receive.

I know from my own life experience that goals can dissipate like smoke when I realise that my reasons for setting them in the first place, had absolutely no basis in logic. And when these knock backs happen the effect can be, at best, dispiriting and at worst devastating. If this kind of thing happens often enough, then it’s little wonder that many people inwardly groan at the prospect of setting themselves yet another goal.

In some therapeutic models, there’s a much overused word at the moment…resilience. It’s the ability of something to return to its original form after it has been deformed over and over again. A bit like a rubber ball or an elastic band. It’s used as an analogy for the ability of a person to pick themselves up, dust themselves down and continue with life. I guess the thinking here is that as long as we stay focussed on our goal, we will ultimately achieve it if we just bounce back from all the setbacks on route and just keep going. However, even an elastic band if stretched enough times will, instead of snapping back, just snap.

The thing is, that it’s our viewpoint of goals and goal setting that is the problem. There’s a tendency to see the whole process as somehow fixed and linear,  and that somehow we must stay on the track we’ve set without letting anything deflect us. In my view that’s just wrong. We are not remotely like that aircraft navigation system. Which, because of the inflexibility of its programming, can only go from point A to point B.

If we can imagine that airliner having a navigation system with a flexible intelligence. It could get within 50 miles of, say, Jamaica and suddenly decide to go to Barbados. It would piss of its passengers. Until they realised that it was chucking it down in Jamaica, but nice and sunny in Barbados.

Our goals are always fluid and flexible. And we can make choices about them. We can change our minds as many times as we like. We can abandon a goal completely; something we should do if we realise that it’s unworkable or maybe even detrimental to us in some way. We can change direction, shift our approach and head towards it from a completely different angle.

In the book “Alice Through The Looking Glass”, written by Lewis Carroll, there is a point in the plot line where Alice is trying to get to the Queen. However, she finds that as she walks towards her, she simply gets further away. So it’s suggested that she walks in the opposite direction; as soon as she turns round to do so, the Queen is standing in front of her. The term for this latter approach by the way is Paradoxical Intention. It’s used in some psychotherapeutic practice, and it can be a pretty powerful direction in some situations.

So next time your own goal seems further away than ever. Sit down and have a think about it. Maybe you need to change your viewpoint; alter your approach. Or maybe even, like Alice, just turn around and walk away from it.

Why speak? Why write?

I’ve suffered a certain amount of frustration with my writing just lately. There has been the usual imposter syndrome. Who am I kidding, I’m not a writer, who’s going to read this stuff anyway, what’s the point?

To be honest, I don’t think these blog posts help me to feel any differently. There’s something more than a little disheartening about writing something, putting it out there and having it simply disappear into the ether without any feedback at all.

But then I ask myself the question, why do I need feedback? After all, by my own admission I lack confidence in my writing. Inviting feedback risks leaving myself wide open to almost any kind of criticism. My school teachers did enough damage in that respect.

So it gets me thinking about why we as a species communicate at all? Why do so many of us feel positively driven to communicate? Millennia ago one of our ancestors must have made a sound that began to mean something particular to their group. Quite possibly a babies cry was the first word to be understood, not just by the mother, but to all around her. Might this have been the root of all language. Given that we were so small and helpless at that age did we, out of necessity, quickly learn that this utterance gave us some power and control over other members of our group?

Of course every living thing has some means of communication; chemical or bio-electrical signals. Possibly even non living matter; if we choose to see the laws of physics as a form of communication. But, as far as we know, we are the only species to have developed speech and from that, complex language. Further down the line we discovered ways of communicating without speaking; perhaps beginning by scratching symbols into the earth.

Now, natural selection is not known for wasting time, energy and resource making changes that do not give a species some kind of edge in the survival game. So I’m kind of doubtful that these skills of communication came about, simply as a means of personal entertainment or self reflection; at least initially anyway. There had to have been some form of survival value in passing on information in the ways that we do.

I’m guessing that we quickly learned that these skills of communication weren’t just useful for attracting attention when we needed it. We learned that we could convey our thoughts to other members of our group. We could use language to organise ourselves as a group in order to find food and shelter. So we had the beginnings of cooperative behaviour; something which also gave us a survival edge. Although I accept that cooperation probably developed earlier than verbal skills.

When I was very small, back in the early 1950s, there was a very different attitude to raising children. They were seen mainly as a practical problem. That is, they had to be fed and watered, kept warm and safe, but not seen as needing very much attention beyond that. At least not until later on in their development. The concept of emotional development didn’t seem to be considered as important as the development of intellect or motor skills. The idea that all of these things needed to be considered equally, didn’t seem to be part of the equation.

So what might happen to a developing human if their attempts at communication go unheeded, or are misinterpreted? From a personal perspective I’ve often wondered why I’ve always had a deep sense of isolation; even in a group. The clues to what might have happened for me, or rather what didn’t happen for me, lie in my current situation; which is as a step parent and grandparent. I’ve married into a family environment that is completely different from mine as I remember it. I’ve been witness to how a new person is celebrated even as they enter this life. And that celebration continues right through their early years and beyond. They are encouraged in their endeavours. As far as possible their learning situations are made as joyful as possible. They are held and cuddled if they are distressed. They are never hit. Most importantly they are never left to feel they are alone; unless events contrive to put them in that position. And they’re never left on the naughty step for any length of time.

All of this behaviour is the polar opposite to my own experience as a child. I think back then it would have been seen as mollycoddling. Boys in particular were seen as needing toughening up. While I wasn’t beaten, I knew the slap of an open hand across the back of my thigh. If I cried at all I was threatened with being given something to cry about. Criticism seemed to be the norm for me, from my peers as well as the adults in my life. So it’s little wonder that I ended up quite shut down. I was fearful and therefore avoided, anything that might have made me the centre of attention. To this day it makes me cringe.

But here’s the funny thing. There is a flip side to my desire to go unnoticed. Part of me still craves that positive feedback. There’s a bit of me that is inwardly jumping up and down shouting, “hey, look what I’ve done!” “Please engage with me; tell me what you think”. Of course the key word here is, “positive”. Understandably I’ve grown up being my own worst critic. So I don’t really need it from anyone else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for glowing praise. Just an odd word here and there; something genuinely felt and meant. It goes a long way towards undoing the damage of the past.

Mr Whippy’s busted flush.

I’d just spent a lovely hour or so with the grandchildren in the park. Kicking or throwing a ball around while their Mum and Grandma chatted on a bench. I think the general psychology here was to tire them out before teatime, but somehow it seemed to me that I was doing most of the running around. While my aim was quite reasonable, there’s seemed to be quite random. I was putting it down to their youthful lack of coordination, and not some plot to get me puffing and blowing like an old boiler.

We all got quite hot and bothered, so headed back to the car park where there was the inevitable ice cream van. It seemed to be Mr Whippies all round, with lots of syrup and sprinkles. These weren’t served up in cones though. They were in plastic cups and almost bigger than a child’s head. Inevitably, it seemed to me, two of the children either couldn’t finish them or decided after a couple of mouthfuls that they didn’t like the disgusting green goo that passed for syrup. So this meant we now had a couple of large, melting pots of ice cream to dispose of.

We looked around for some waste bins; absolutely none in sight. Then someone mentioned that there was one in the public toilets. So grumpa volunteered to get rid of them and, they were all too eagerly thrust into my outstretched hands; dripping profusely. My first obstacle was the toilet door, which had a lever handle. Quite tricky to manoeuvre while balancing a couple of melting ice creams. Once inside I quickly realised that there wasn’t a waste bin in here either. What was I to do? It was going to be even harder to get back out as I would have to find some way of pulling the inward opening door while balancing the ice creams. I wandered over to the one and only toilet, which luckily was unoccupied. I thought, what the hell, and tipped the contents of each beaker down the pan and flushed.

If some young inventor was looking for a new material for manufacturing buoyancy aids, they could do a lot worse than Mr Whippy ice cream. The damn stuff would not go down. I flushed and waited for the cistern to fill half a dozen times, but only succeeded in washing off the green goo and sprinkles. Both blobs of ice cream even retained a vague shape of the plastic cup they’d been served in. So that both of them looked like the floaters left by some poor soul with a dreadful dietary condition. I left them to melt a bit more and busied myself mopping up the trail of drips, that I’d left behind while wandering around in there looking for the nonexistent bin. I also decided to kill a bit more time washing out the plastic cups in the hand basin. Which just happened to have one of those push top taps that cut off automatically after one tenth of a second. What fun! Then there were the sprinkles….. which turned out not to be sprinkles at all, but bits of broken Oreo biscuit. Which were just that little too big to pass through the mesh of the outlet. Given that these were at the opposite end of the colour spectrum from the ice cream; I figured they would be just as startling to the next user as what was in the loo. So a few more pushes on the tap top with one hand and some dexterous manoeuvring of the bits of biscuit with the other, they were eventually persuaded to go down. Job done at the sink, I turned my attention back to the ice cream jobbies in the loo. They were still there, and looked to be in the same state that I’d left them. I pressed the handle just as there was a rattling from the door, which turned out to be the 6 year old grandson who had been dispatched by grandma to make sure grumpa hadn’t collapsed in there. Quite what a small boy was going to do if he found his grumpa collapsed in the gents hadn’t really been thought through. But he was the only other male in the group so he duly stepped up to the bat. I told him I wouldn’t be much longer and turned back to the recalcitrant confectionary, which now seemed to be bracing itself against the porcelain. “One last push”, I said to myself, and immediately thought that a rather unfortunate turn of phrase given the situation.

Feeling defeated, I comforted myself with the thought that it would probably have melted enough in a couple of days and made my way back to the car park. Where I discovered, as if to add insult to injury, the dribbles of ice cream down my trousers.

Olfactory Resonance

I’m not at my best in the morning. My mood can take an hour or so to climb out of the pit it’s in. But this particular morning something happened to give my usual sense of gloom a kick up the backside.

I’d just parked up at my local gym; my morning exercise routine being something else I used to warm up my mental and emotional engine. As soon as I opened the car door I was lifted out of my seat and transported to another place and time. Memories of my childhood came flooding back to me. I was standing on top of a grassy embankment; the grass flattened in a downhill direction by the opened out cardboard boxes that we were using as makeshift toboggans. The sense of fear and exhilaration came back to me as I saw myself sat on my sheet of card and, grabbing the leading edge to pull it upwards, prepared to push myself forward to start my out of control race to the bottom of the slope. Then the adrenaline rush as I began my descent and accelerated.

I can’t remember who was with me. Maybe some friends, or my younger brothers. I do remember that we were joined by a couple of girls though. Something that added a different frisson of excitement. We were all pre-pubescent; probably about ten years old or younger. I remember a different set of feelings beginning to creep into my psyche; gently pushing aside the usual childhood senses I had. I didn’t know what they were; just that they were vaguely not unpleasant. We started to rough and tumble; boys pushing girls, girls pushing boys. We were losing control and falling off our bits of cardboard and then continuing to the bottom of the slope by rolling down. It was then I noticed the eldest girl. She was dressed in a blouse and skirt, and as she rolled down the slope the skirt rode up her thighs, to reveal her navy blue knickers and just peeking out from the hem of these the rosy pink skin of the cheeks of her bottom against the green of the grass. The effect on me was electric. I think it was the first time that I felt anywhere near turned on in such a positive and pure sense. I guess the fact that we were all laughing and happy helped to boost the sense of warmth and joy I felt at that moment. I didn’t understand what I was feeling, but I didn’t feel I had to either. We were all just enjoying our collective sub-erotic reverie.

At least until the older girls came along and shattered the moment. Oh, they didn’t mean any real harm. But their shout of, “oooh! What are you boys doing to those girls!” rounded off with a loud burst of teenage giggles, managed to cut through the innocence of our play like a chainsaw through a venerated Oak tree. I think that, serious minded child that I was, I suddenly felt like the feelings I had were in some way inappropriate.

Anyway dear reader, what was it you may ask, that was powerful enough to whisk me off through time like that. Well, just next to the car park there is a meadow. It usually has livestock grazing on it. But this year the farmer had decided to leave it to produce some winter fodder. A crop that had been cut just a few days before I got out of my car. The weather had been hot and sunny enough to dry the grass and herb mix quite quickly. The perfume from that field was wonderful. I wanted to lie down in it; as I probably would have done as a child. I could almost feel the pricking of the stubble in the skin of my back, the warmth of the sun on my face, the buzz of the insects in the air around me and, enveloping all of these sensations, the scent of freshly cut hay.

That “N” Word

Language is an incredibly powerful thing. Even single words can evoke strong feelings in us. There are words that can make us feel joyful, happy, sad, angry; even disgust and revulsion. However, there is one word that, as a white person, I cannot bring myself to write; let alone utter. It is now, more often than not, referred to as the “N” word.

There is someone, let’s call him Joe, that I’ve known for more than 20 years now, who has recently been subjected to this word. Joe is Black, of African Caribbean descent. So it is highly likely that he is descended from the people who were shipped over there and forced to work as slaves for white people. This period in our history is where the N word originated as a label and derogatory term for Black people.

Joe recently started a new job working in a unit for looked after young people. His charges, through no fault of their own, have some complex psychological issues. Which meant they could be quite challenging at times. They were very skilled at getting under the skin of their carers. In Joe’s case they were occasionally singing a current popular song and using the N word in the lyrics. Now in public Joe was used to occasionally hearing this word. He didn’t like it even when it was used by other black people under the heading of reclaiming the vernacular. So he decided that, as this was a working environment, he would bring it up as an issue with his line manager.

This is the point that everything went pear shaped for him. I think he expected some form of united front from a team of enlightened, educated, socially aware colleagues. Maybe a collective zero tolerance approach coupled with an education programme. Instead he found that the attitude of his line management seemed to be that he should develop a thicker skin. They even set up an informal role play where one of his managers used the N word to his face and then asked him how he was going to handle it. I should make it clear at this point that everyone else in this working environment is white.

What’s sad and bad about this scenario is the lack of recognition that, given that he is the victim in this situation, it’s not his responsibility to do anything about it. Black people have been doing something about it for centuries. Fighting back against white oppression on as many levels as they can. It’s now up to us pink people to begin the process of change within ourselves; to begin to recognise and accept where we might be falling short of the mark.

How many times have I heard someone claim, “I’m not a racist”. A phrase that is almost always followed up with, “but”. Usually uttered by someone who genuinely can’t see the inherent contradiction in that statement.

Even now Joe recognises that there is no malice in the way his managers have attempted to handle the situation. He realises that they are not out and out white supremacists. What they did was crass. Effectively just dismissing it as his problem and dumping it back in his lap.

So Joe now finds himself, having put in a formal grievance, fighting for his job. As he is in his probationary period in the post, they seem to be countering the grievance by questioning his suitability for the role.

From my point of view, I have always taken the position that all of us white folks are racist. It’s just a question of degree. As a child I was introduced to my first black person by an older sibling who had brought him home from college to have dinner with us. I don’t remember batting an eyelid about it. But I do remember the reactions of some of the adults around me. I picked up that they weren’t entirely comfortable around him. I think that somehow that set a seed in me for my own disquiet around some black people. That and a lot of other bits of misinformation picked up later on in life. However I did seem to develop an awareness that this discomfort is not based on anything real; I try to own it and not let it interfere with my own thought processes and behaviour.

I just find it terribly sad that, as white people, we still seem to be stuck in a state of denial about this issue. Maybe it’s a sense of guilt that keeps us from really examining ourselves. But our guilt is of no use at all to someone like Joe. What he needs is for us to recognise and understand his struggle. And then for us to change instead of expecting him to.