In the hands of others

This week has been an interesting one for me. I finally emptied my office and closed the door on my career as an academic. It was sobering and exciting in equal measure, and it’s a shift in my life I really need to reflect on. Part of my difficulty with life in general is that I rarely take any time to think about how I feel. One thing I am certain of is that I need time to recover from being an academic, it is a mindset and a way of life that has enormous benefits, but, that also makes enormous demands.

Part of the problem from my perspective is that I placed my happiness, even my self worth, in the hands of others. I needed their attention. Students, colleagues, policy makers, and, most importantly of all, the wider academic community. I wanted to be heard, I wanted to be the expert, to be revered. For the most part it was to lay the ghosts of my past to rest, after all, I’d been told often enough as a child that I was worthless, that I was stupid, and that I would amount to nothing. Not by my family but by a system that valued money and status. At school I was the council estate kid; the poor boy with no future to look forward to.

And I am not alone in this. I see the need for recognition everywhere, the underlying desperation for the validation of others. When I was young I was watching Wimbledon, when a game being played between two people in wheelchairs came on. I fully expected my sister to praise and applaud it, she was in a wheelchair herself, and faced innumerable humiliations and exclusions as part of her daily existence. A few minutes in and it became obvious that people were leaving the court. I was outraged: ‘that’s terrible,’ I said, ‘they should stay and watch.’ Instead of agreeing, my sister replied: ‘why? they have the right to play, but they don’t have the right to make people watch.’

At the time I was puzzled by this, but over time I came to the conclusion that she was right. I mistook their right to play for the right to be watched because I thought their validity was dependent on being seen, that the observers gave them legitimacy. But that was never true. They were valid because they played.

And I see people making the same mistake every day.

I spend time on Twitter trying to connect people by creating lists of accounts for others to follow. I see it as a duty and a means of building a coalition of progressives able to change the world. Right wing nonsense has been dominant for too long. Selfishness, greed, growth, status, wealth, these are all norms that created most of the horrors we see in the world. I make lists so that people can feel supported, and provide a means of organising, actively challenging the current world order.

But the times I’ve been criticised for it, even condemned for it, by some of the progressives I want to reach, has surprised me. Generally, the source of their annoyance is a lack of attention. They dismiss what I do as concentrating on the quantity rather than the quality of followers/friends, then they state how superior they are by focusing on fewer, but ‘real’ friends and followers. The irony of course, is that many of them simply want more friends/followers themselves. How do I know? because they complain that they say enormously important things but are ignored, while I am driven by numbers. They are placing their happiness, if not their self worth in the hands of others. Is their message any less valid because few people respond to it? Of course not.

Similarly, I see people on social media have meltdowns and tantrums because no-one seems to hear what they say. In a fit of pique they will say things like: ‘I might as well not exist,’ or ‘I’ll just go back to my corner then’. In doing so, they are placing their existence in the hands of others. That is not a healthy place to be, even though I understand it. Their existence is invalidated by the absence of attention on social media? No way. They are valuable, meaningful, simply BECAUSE they exist.

YOU are valuable and meaningful simply by dint of your existence. You are not important because people listen to you, you are important because you choose to speak, even when others fail or refuse to listen. Yell, scream, repeat your truth, you have that right. Eventually, others may hear you, or they may not, but either way, your words matter, you matter, and those truths are real regardless of the views or opinions of others.

Painful insights

I’m on a lifelong voyage of discovery. It’s taken me so long to really begin to understand some of the things that hurt me and/or hold me back. One recent insight involved the problems I have with leaving the house, or even certain rooms. As I’ve written previously, that has everything to do with the family dog we had when I was a boy, which gave me a dread and fascination with sieges.

A much more recent insight into the self hatred I’ve always struggled with is connected to my masculinity. I was made to be ashamed of being male, and, this is the hard part, as a consequence I have harboured a real anger with the feminine. Women were responsible for most of what damaged me as a child. predominantly my older sister.

Admitting this is difficult. I was angry with feminity, even though only specific women created the issues I face. This is not unusual I guess, but it’s been a hard thing to accept let alone face. I consider myself a feminist, an advocate of equal rights, both personally and professionally. My academic mission was always to promote equality and it’s something I believe fervently in.

But, the feminism I was brought up with was not really feminism, it was hatred of the male. My sister shaped my masculinity by constantly attacking male identities. I wasn’t allowed to have ‘male’ toys until I was older, and, predictably, they were all I wanted. I felt guilty for being male for most of my life. Men were aggressive, selfish, shallow, false, unreliable and on and on. Sadly, I’ve been all of those things, but I’ve also managed to avoid them.

Now, I completely understand why my sister felt the way she did. while she was young my dad was an alcoholic. He’d been invalided out of the navy and couldn’t cope, his obsessive nature had to come out in some other way. Drink was the security blanket he chose. She and my other sister were too ashamed to invite friends over, and he frequently lost jobs and wrecked cars because he was persistently drunk.

But there were harsher aspects to her anti-male attitudes. She was ill. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 13, her life was never going to be easy. From her early twenties she was adamant she would never enter a serious relationship because she didn’t want to bequeath the caring responsibilities to a partner, and she certainly did not want to pass her illness onto any prospective children. My mum told me that a young police officer pined over her for years, and even though she liked him she wouldn’t relent. She was a brave soul my sister.

Nevertheless, I harboured resentment towards the feminine that I’ve only just acknowledged. I have had to learn what being a man means for me, which hasn’t always been pleasant, but I am getting close to it. I think. I want to be strong and loving, I want to be proud of being a man, of being male. Perhaps I am moving towards it, I certainly hope so.

My sister wasn’t to blame, she faced a hurricane in her life. Every day was sacrifice and pain. And yet, she did cause me harm, she gave me a distorted view of feminism and masculinity that only I can resolve. Insights, even painful ones, provide the first steps towards something brighter.

Self Harm

I never thought I’d feel the charm, that is the violence of self harm

A long while ago I was shocked to find that a young person I knew was self-harming. In light of what she’d been through it made sense, but I couldn’t make ‘real’ sense of it. How could she do that to herself? Her poor forearm was a field of red, slashes and slices of scarlet pain. Those scars are with her for life, even though they fade with time.

At that time I told myself that I could never do that…

I was wrong. It was at the height of my struggles, when I was still trying to pretend that I was okay, when the weight of everything was bearing me down, dragging me inexorably towards the precipice. The precipice that forms the title of my second poetry book.

It never fails to amaze me how differently people conceptualise depression. Some talk about the black dog, others view it as a raven’s wing, still others a black hole. For me it’s a cliff edge, a chasm that I am inevitably sliding towards. It’s the fall that I fear. Maybe because from the time I was in my middle teens I consoled myself with the thought that no matter how bad things were, how dark the future seemed, I could always go to the nearest suspension bridge and cast myself off it. These days it’s a different bridge but it lurks ever in my unconscious.

But what about the self harming? For me it started because the pain I felt was unbearable. I had to turn what was inside out. Not only so that it could be seen, but so that I could really experience it. But it really progressed in stages.

Initially, I bit the edges of my thumbs until they bled. Whenever anyone asked, which was rare, I told them I needed to tidy up my bitten nails. That excuse only worked for so long, and, increasingly, it didn’t hurt enough. So, I began to draw the bread knife across my arm. Only with enough force to mark the skin. It did hurt, but the promise of more pain was both terrifying and seductive.

By the time I was ready to truly cut myself I was reduced to sitting alone in the dark crying and gibbering to myself, to the point that I was certain I was losing my mind. I was pretending to go to work, unable even to think coherently, much less teach or write. Pulling the serrated edge across my forearm was a release, it turned the agony outside and it showed. The pain I felt was tangible, it was written on my arm. Betrand Russell made the distinction between knowing and understanding, which I have often referred to in order to make sense of things. In this instance it helped me to move beyond knowing why the young woman cut herself, to understanding it.

Thankfully, the impulse faded as I accepted the reality that I was breaking down. Once the enormity of the fear of falling was recognised and accepted I didn’t need to do it anymore. But, I understand that it may return, I am trying not to take things for granted. I know now just how bad the pain can be, and how easy it was to make it ‘real’.

Please, if you are seeing the dog, or the wing, or the chasm is calling you, please tell someone. Find an outlet. A friend, a family member, a sympathetic stranger, anyone. In the UK we have the Samaritans. Wherever you are, if there is a service available, use it. The pain can diminish, even if it never entirely goes away.

Sorry

I am sorry. Sorry for the person I have been, the terrible mistakes I’ve made, the people I have hurt. Often, it’s been through trying to gain attention, or when I’ve been at my lowest, when I’ve felt most lost. At various points, I’ve been ill, but there can be no excuse for it. I have to, as we all must, take responsibility for ourselves.

I have been so hung up by my own needs and problems at times that I haven’t thought anywhere near closely enough about the needs and problems of others. I am truly sorry for that.

I do want to be better, do better. I sincerely want to escape the damage I sustained in my life and help other people where I can.

I have been taught the power of forgiveness, and I will not squander it. Bigger people have shown me how a true grown up should behave.

I will not overlook that lesson. I will forgive, as I have been forgiven, and will move forward with hope. Where we have done wrong the only recourse is to accept it, feel true remorse and aim to do better.

So, for the person I’ve been, and for the harm I’ve done, I am truly sorry. It doesn’t have to be the hardest word.

More is less, or less is more?

It all began for me in terms of having less. My family was.materially poor. We had very little money because we lived on welfare, and, on a council estate, which was one of the worst regarded in our small town.

Welfare. Such a negative word for something so vital. Scrounging, laziness, idleness, being workshy, so many megative connections, and in my experience, they’re the exception rather than the rule. My family relied on welfare because my dad lost a lung serving in the navy during the war, and my sister (who worked well beyond the medical recommendations) had an advanced form of rheumatoid arthritis.

Personally, I was treated badly by very many people because of those unfair connections. The police, teachers, friends and their parents, and random strangers. One mum didn’t want me coming around to her house because she was afraid I’d steal things. I never would have, but I was envious of those who lived in their ‘own homes’, had plenty of toys and regular holidays.

There WAS more, I could see it all around me.

Then my dad died on Christmas Eve when I was barely 16, so, I left school and trawled the local industrial estate asking everywhere and anywhere for some form of paid work. In the end, a builders merchants took me on. It wasn’t a great job, mainly lugging heavy things around and serving builders with timber, cement or sand, but it was something.

However, there was STILL more, and I could see it.

To reach higher I went to night classes and gained some very basic qualifications. That enabled me to get an office job in the civil service. An administrative Assistant no less. My dad would have been really proud. He had wanted me to join the navy or the civil swrvice, because both were seen as safe and secure employment options. I was on my way…

Except, I wasn’t.  It was awful, and I knew that on the first day. Cooped up for 8 hours a day in a stuffy environment with a roomful of more mature women. As a young, active lad it wasn’t the nicest of places. Disillusioned, I bought stuff. Music, videos, collectibles. Collecting stuff was a kind of ‘more’. It would surely fill the hole I’d always felt.

All that happened though, was that I got myself into debt, which added a layer of anxiety to the everyday misery. Forrunately for me, my sister was brilliant with money and she bailed me out. But that left me with a dilemma, what ‘more’ could I aspire to?

The answer came from a strange place, in the shape of a driving instructor. She was reading for a psychology degree at the local university and encouraged me to do the same. Well, not to study psychology, but to ‘do something with my life’.

As a result I enrolled on an access to higher education course hoping to become a social worker. I truly wanted to help people. I worked hard; cycling to work every day, running during lunchtimes, using the gym, and then going to evening classes twice a week. It was gruelling, and I recall sitting in a cubicle in the dark at 9pm one evening, crying with exhaustion with only the prospect of a six mile cycle ride home in the rain.

But, I had an aim. Earning a degree would prove some of my teachers wrong, especially my disdainful art teacher. As it turned out the social work degree was oversubscribed which meant finding another course. My choice was social policy (welfare studies) with a community work.diploma.

Just as before, I worked hard. My goal was to be the best student (which I was, if we measure that by grades), to get a degree and then become a communtity worker. The problem was, in the academic environment the rock stars were obviously the academics. Thus, when my lecturer came to me in stage two and said ‘you should do a PhD’, I was smitten.

A PhD! Me, a doctor of philosophy. That had to be more! I worked even harder than before, earning my degree, breezing through a postgraduate duploma and then on to the doctoral programme.

There were no scholarhips at that point so I had to teach virtually full-time to pay for it. It was tough, but I knew I had to get that PhD. That became my ‘more’. Being a doctor would heal the gaping wound in my soul. As a doctor I would have more, BE more.

Except… it didn’t work like that. I sat in the pub after my successful viva as Dr Radical Rhymes feeling ‘is this it?’ the anti-climax was devestating. What now?

A job! Or, in academic terms, a post would do it. A lectureship. Failing that it was my first published paper, my first book, my first research grant, my first…. on and on and on. Nothing was more, nothing I gained, earned or achieved equated to the more I’d spent my life working towards. Was there actually such a thing as ‘more’ for me?

Yes, as it turns out, and also no. You see, after all this time, after all the disappointments and strving and disillusionments I have found ‘the more’ and it’s simple. I am more. Not because I have a title, or because I earned good money, or because I iowned a lot of things, but because I was always enough. I couldn’t fill that hole because it was the shape of my own adequacy, of recognising it.

And so I’m about to leave the world of academia, and I am not afraid – well, maybe a little bit – because I don’t need it anymore. I’m embarking on a. new adventure, but this time I’m not chasing anything. There is no ‘more’. More is endless, fathomless, infinite and hopeless. More, for me, has always been less.

Now I just want to be grateful for things, aware that no matter what, I am enough. Of course, I’m not there yet, but I intend to work hard at it, without the judgement or self loathing that drove me previously. What more could there be?

Spending time

What a curious way of talking about the elapse of time, that we ‘spend it’. And yet, why should it be a surprise? Don’t we live in market economy after all? Isn’t time money? Ummmm, no, it isn’t.

What if we used something like ‘used our time’? That seems more appropriate to me, it conjures up the idea of value, use value. What is a valuable way of using time?

My wife showed me a Ted Talk above, given by a man called Leonard Skinner. My first instinct was to turn it off. Not because it was irrelevant or boring, but because it scared me. Without spoiling the ending Leonard has carried out a time analysis, and he comes to the conclusion that we are selling our time simply to enjoy our retirement. Selling our time to employers, capitalists, for the privilege of a few good twilight years. It was an analysis I couldn’t dispute. He was, and is, right. We don’t spend time, we sell it.

Now, I’m in the process of leaving my day job partly because I’m sick of it, but also because my employers don’t want to gamble on my mental health, they’d rather I left than have to support me. I am leaving with a heavy push.

But the funny thing – aside from my initial terror – has been the reactions of others. What would I do for money? Wouldn’t I feel a loss of identity? And, last but not least, how would I spend my time? Some of my friends seemed truly panicked for me.

The answers to those questions have surprised me. I will miss the money, of course, but I can do other things. I mean, I can write other things, and, I can draw and paint. Except the money I make will now, a proportion of it anyway, benefit people through increased charitable donations.

In terms of my identity, I’ve discovered that I am more than my job title. I am a husband, a father, a friend, a poet, a writer and an artist I am NOT a job title. There is much more to me, much more to all of us, than that. Next time someone asks me: what do you do? I’m going to say: ‘live’.

And as for how will I spend my time? I won’t, I will use it instead. I will be and I will create. I’m re-reading a beloved book at the moment and it has amazed me how much I’d forgotten… but not forgotten, never read before. I have ‘read it’ many times, but never properly, never savouring it. Always in a rush to finish, or to move on to the next thing.

No more.

This time I will read it. Immerse myself in it. Really engage with the reading. And that is how I intend to use the time I have left on this remarkable planet. I will use my time by living it.

Privilege

These men are gifted everything, their achievements aren’t their own;

Silver spoons and virtual crowns and hearts carved out of stone.

But if we gave them what they ‘want’ – a meritocracy-

They’d plummet to the bottom drenched in pure hypocrisy…