This year has only just begun, and yet already I feel weary. Like many of us, I am still trying to make sense in my heart of the events of 2016. Globally, it was a year of shocks, relentless warfare, too many pointless deaths, and so many much loved icons leaving the planet, all of which has seemingly evoked an accumulating collective response of existential post traumatic shockwaves. We live in turbulent times.
For most of my life I have managed to maintain a high degree of optimism, no matter how dire my individual circumstances have been. In recent years that has been liberally sprinkled with the kind of sceptical realism that takes over from the happy go lucky attitude of youth, and often manifests as dark humour. Well, you have to laugh, don’t you? But I seem lately to have lost my smile.
On a personal level, this has been possibly the worst year of my life. There has been a tsunami of events and their emotional repercussions I still feel unable to write about. I’ve found it difficult to hold on to my habitual sense of positivity. I’ve noticed myself withdrawing further from the world, the crueller it seems to get. I don’t feel proud of being a human being. Even though I mostly choose the kinder response to what life throws at me, I have to accept responsibility for the aspect of being human that is punishing and greedily self-motivated. We are all in this together. It isn’t good enough to divide the world into me and not-me.
When I was younger I had the energy to be a larger part of the change I wanted to see happen in the world. One of the things our sixth decade tends to teach us is how increasingly powerless we are. We no longer have a public voice, unless we are famous. Most of us aren’t. We can’t go on protest marches and hold banners because our stamina isn’t up to it. And anyway, we’ve begun to wonder what in any case the point would be. The more things change the more they stay the same. Or in some cases become considerably worse.
I have learned I need to keep my private voice quiet, and to be careful to speak only the things that matter. Is it true, is it kind, is it helpful? And if it isn’t all of those things, is it worth saying at all? For a writer this can be the cold kiss of death. I need to communicate, and although I have for the most part maintained the will to be honest, the things I want to say aren’t always received well, however kind and clear the intention. Someone told me the other day that they had come to realise that I found it easier to tell the truth in writing rather than in the room with someone. Although at first it felt as though my integrity was in question, a flash of welcome insight showed me they were right.
Too often I have held back from hurting someone’s feelings by expressing my own hurt or anger. Empathy is a helpful attribute, but in certain circumstances it can also make a coward of me. I realised after that comment how much simpler it usually is to put my empathy and compassion for the other in unspoken brackets when I am writing something that needs to be conveyed factually and succinctly. Those words can seem cold and hard on the page, whereas my efforts to speak them face to face can become fuddled with affectionate bracketing. I want to be understood, but I want even more to be understanding. I can always see the other person’s position, sometimes more clearly than my own.
I gave up making New Year resolutions quite a while ago. If I have intentions I keep them mostly to myself. But this year, having spent the last one facing a number of unpalatable truths and releasing the last shreds of various illusions, I have resolved to be kinder to myself: to expect less of myself in terms of my own high standards; to consider what I really need without apologising so much; to ask directly for what I want and refuse what I don’t, rather than stomach disappointments; and most importantly of all, to welcome love back into my life.
Last year gave me plenty of opportunity to reflect on what I have lost: what has long been lost, and what I have let go for other people’s sake; for the love that never was, or never could be; for the sacrifices I have made for people who never noticed or cared that I made them; for the loneliness that has dogged me since I was a small child, just one step behind like a shadow attached my soul. The kind of honesty I have tried to bring to bring to most of my dealings most of my life, (with a few unfortunate lapses), I have applied to looking at myself: to what is left of me after all these losses have been accounted for. The truth is that at the beginning of 2017 I feel sad.
What makes it worse is that I feel ashamed of feeling sad. In writing this I am struggling to defy the inner voice that says this is self-indulgence of the worst kind, that instead of morosely dwelling on my own feelings I need to be focusing on what I can do to contribute something to other people. But I’m also aware that if I were one of my own therapy clients saying this I’d be reminding them that compassion needs to be a 360 degrees process. Loving oneself in pain and sorrow is essential to allow healing in through the cracks in the wall of the prison.
The paradox of being an embodied human is that our bodies offer us the most incredible opportunities for pleasure, release and self-expression – and can also become the cage in which our physical, mental or emotional suffering can pace back and forth, snarling with grief at how trapped we are by our pain. It’s exhausting to be in continual pain and to find no solution for it, to feel abandoned by our coping mechanisms and strategies for survival, to see no end in sight and feel that no one else can understand our dilemma.
This is such familiar territory for me. Knowing it so deeply is what has enabled me over the years to dive alongside other people into the fathoms of their darkness and hold a glimmer of light to guide them. It’s the one gift we can offer one another: to share the burden of being human with as much empathy as we can muster. We all experience pain, grief, disappointment, and endure the seemingly unendurable, and none of us get out of it alive. We all long to be loved unconditionally and be held securely despite all evidence that points to how impossible this is. If we are lucky we had some experience of this at the beginning of our life, but many of us didn’t and somehow survived with the blueprint for what that might look like still intact. How amazing we are, really, when I reflect on that.
In the legend of Pandora’s Box, hope is the last and only thing preserved when all other ills have escaped into the world. It’s the one thing we hold on to, however magnificent an illusion it might sometimes turn out to be. I’m aware that 2016 left me with very little to feel hopeful about, and that this is a bitter fruit to taste, and not one I wish to share. Perhaps there is a time in our life when we need to relinquish all hope for what can never be and accept the beautiful simplicity of the truth of what lies behind our illusions.
As I tiptoe carefully through the broken pieces of debris from the fallen walls of my past life, I am nursing this small glowing ember of hope in my hands. Not enough yet to keep me warm, to create another thin blanket of safety in this tragically unsafe world, but enough to light the way for myself. I can see happiness just a few steps away – although who knows how long it will take me to make those steps when I’m so weary. I know that no one else can bring it closer, that I have to be the one to find my way to where love waits, where it has always waited. Gratitude for what is, and the balm of forgetting will lead the way.