Looking back


A couple of weeks ago I performed a little annual ritual: putting all my Christmas cards in a shoebox, and taking the chance to have a leaf through the box’s older contents. It’s a little saunter around the Museum of Me. And not all of it is nice: a letter here or there from someone I fell out with or treated badly; funeral orders of service and an obituary cutting. These made me sad, though I’m glad I’ve never yet succumbed to the annual temptation to throw some away – it seems important to hang onto the ones that remind me of bad things, just as much as the ones that remind me of good.

But there are also letters from former pupils expressing thanks, leaving cards from jobs I barely remember with heartfelt good wishes from names I can barely match to a face, and slips of paper on which people wrote puns or jokes. In a similar moment of tidying and sorting, I found my grandfather’s old hip flask in the kitchen cupboard – something I’d forgotten I had at all. When I opened its box, out fell two slips of paper, each with a poem on it. Reading them, and the circumstances of finding them, brought a lump to my throat.

I tend not to live in the past – or at least, I try not to. I think it’s important in life to be present in the moment where we are now, and to appreciate that for what it is. But it’s nice from time to time to look back, especially with a few things to jog the memory. It reminds me that the past is made of neither gold nor shit, but the same messy mix of the two as now.

Photo credit: Rich Bowen via Flickr

On being alone


I feel a certain ambivalence as I grow older, remain single, and as more and more of my friends partner off and have children. There is a mild sense of envy, along with a smidgen of guilt, because the envy doesn’t sit well with the genuine happiness I feel on their behalf. The happiness comes from generosity. The envy, perhaps, comes from fear.

I enjoy living alone, but this enjoyment has a double edge. It doesn’t always feel that being alone is a conscious choice, and there are different kinds of ‘alone’. In an overcrowded office I long for peace and quiet and space; in the Tube or a crowded bar, I resent intrusions into my personal space. I hanker after a particular kind of aloneness that I would describe as ‘solitude’, because loneliness is a different, more corrosive thing.

Loneliness has many facets, and can result from either the quantity or the quality of one’s relationships, particularly how they change over time. While friends are fulfilling the demands of their careers and their children, their friendship, though rewarding, is less accessible. It can be hard to meet new people, except through work; and work itself brings busyness and purpose – important things – but sometimes ‘career’ can feel more like a verb than a noun. Loneliness can eat into the fabric of lives, finding the unwholesome corners where doubts and regrets grow.

So detachment from others, being by oneself, can be both a shelter and a source of pain. I’ve always found meaning and interest in paradoxes like this; they capture life’s ambiguities and openness.

Some of this musing is a result of the psychotherapy I’ve been doing. It’s been a longer and more challenging process than I’d anticipated. I used to be rather dismissive of what I thought of as ‘psychobabble’: ‘thinking about X brought up some difficult stuff for me…’ and so on. I thought of myself as a highly rational person, very sure of who I was, quite in control of my emotions. Therapy unfurls some of these beliefs, turns them over, and reveals that my inner life is more complex, murkier to my conscious mind, than I’d admitted. Scarcely surprising, but the hold of self-image is strong.

The smidgen of envy that I feel for friends who are in happy relationships feels like a whisper hinting at what I want. All romantic relationships fail – until one doesn’t – but I’ve taken some wrong turns in my love life. I said detachment was a comfort, enabling a kind of distance. But on bad days, or in the small hours, it snarls into loneliness, at times bordering on desperation. Not all my decisions have been bad, but I’ve been ashamed of some. At best there is a sense of chronic frustration and thwartedness, albeit with the bittersweet consolation of obtaining Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth.

I originally went into therapy hoping to get some understanding of why my love life was always going wrong. But the different corners of the mind are interdependent, and the subject matter pretty soon encompasses family, friendships, work, school, childhood, and everything else. A strange consequence of therapy is the realisation that to be a person is to be surprisingly consistent in many apparently disparate situations. Different kinds of relationships stimulate many of the same emotional responses, because they are all rooted in the obscure mulch of a single individual’s experience.

Realising this can be painful. You dredge up memories that challenge, hurt, and anger you, especially when you think how this or that that experience might have influenced your subsequent actions. At times, I’ve also found therapy bitterly amusing, as it becomes plain how easily a therapist is able to identify thoughts and feelings which I’d thought were deeply buried secrets: how ironic it is that some of me is so opaque to myself, while so transparent to others. It felt like discovering that I had been living in the same house as an intimate and possibly mad stranger all my life, blind to all his obvious traces.

More than anything else, I’ve gained a feeling that I am not just what I think I am: that there are eddies and undercurrents; that what I actually do (in anger, in joy, in any situation where I am not really thinking) expresses as much of myself as what I consciously think about myself. Going along with that is a sense of acceptance, too: one feature of being alone is a certain simplicity, a willingness to accept oneself, a self-respect, a sense that generosity to oneself is a condition of sanity, not a reward to be earned. Another gain is a sense of myself as a whole, indivisible personality: the idea that I am more or less what I am, and that I had better know that, and allow for it, rather than wishing it were otherwise. This is not the same as ‘beating myself up’; instead, it feels more like shining a light into my darker corners, and getting to know their shape.

Here I defer to Joan Didion’s words, from her brilliant essay ‘On Self-Respect’:

“To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.”

‘The ability to discriminate, to love, and to remain indifferent’: this is the point, the end, the grail, the state of mind that is described by religious mystics, the thing that I have been reading about in Meister Eckhart and Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion – a state of detachment, grace, and consolation. It’s as close I can imagine to what it might mean to experience God’s love, to make meaning out of that beautiful but subjective concept: to know that you are as you are, that your being is somehow given, that you may not like every aspect of yourself, and you may not have made yourself deliberately, but that you are somehow stuck with it. This seems to me a much more realistic, and honest, way of viewing one’s own personality than the platitudes and deceptions of ‘self-help’ books, with their doubtful promises that you can wish your dreams into being.

Didion says at the beginning of her essay that ‘innocence ends when one is stripped of the illusion that one likes oneself’. She seems to go on to say that self-respect is the consolation that emerges from this disillusion. I can’t match the icy elegance of her prose, but I find it gentler and more appealing to reframe what she says in my own terms: that maturity and solitude lend us a feeling of wholeness which, turned back on itself, exposes the illusion that it matters at all whether one likes oneself.


The amount of solitude which is attainable or would be wholesome in the case of any individual life is a matter which each of us must judge for himself… A due proportion of solitude is one of the most important conditions of mental health. Therefore if it be our lot to stand apart from those close natural ties by which life is for most people shaped and filled, let us not be in haste to fill the gap; let us not carelessly or rashly throw away the opportunity of entering into that deeper and more continual acquaintance with the unseen and eternal things which is the natural and great compensation for the loss of easier joys. The loneliness which we rightly dread is not the absence of human faces and voices – it is the absence of love… Our wisdom therefore must lie in learning not to shrink from anything that may be in store for us, but so to grasp the master key of life as to be able to turn everything to good and fruitful account.

Caroline E Stephen, 1908

Image: Challot via Flickr

An itching conscience

On the train this morning: lots of litter on the table opposite – newspapers and coffee cups and such. A woman sitting down at that table picks it all up and dumps it all down on my table, then says “what?” in response to my incredulity and raised eyebrows.

So I say that there is probably a bin at the end of the carriage. She says there is never a bin on trains, and anyway, she didn’t leave the litter on her table. (I think: you did leave it on mine).

I pick up the cups and paper and take them to the bin at the end of the carriage, figuring that since they’re on my table now, they’re my problem. As I sit down again, the woman says to her travelling companion, loudly and pointedly: “He only did that to show me up.” And since we left the station, she’s been shooting resentful looks at me, checking whether I’m sending aggression back at her. I’m annoyed, but I don’t want an argument. Instead I ponder the strange ways that people are niggled by their conscience, and the things they do to find scapegoats for their feelings.

The funny thing is this: when we got on the train, we were the only people in the carriage. She could have chosen from any litter-free seat, including two other pristine tables.

As could I. I could also have cleared away the litter on her table before sitting down at mine, which probably would have been more responsible. But I just chose to sit on another table.

As I sit here with her bad mood jumping the gangway towards me, I think about the situation. Responsible it might be, but I don’t go around clearing up litter wherever I see it. I don’t think many people do. But if it’s near where I want to be then I see it as my problem to clear up. Her attitude seemed to be closer to: “if I didn’t make the mess then it’s not my problem, full stop.”

What does this say about social behaviour and our attitudes to our environment?

We both (and those who left the litter in the first place) had the notion that disposing of mess was someone else’s job. We differed in the efforts we would make to facilitate that: the original litterers none at all, the woman opposite very little, and me a little more.

She also seemed to experience pangs of conscience about palming it off on me, or at least about her bad manners, though whether she recognised them as such is another matter – I think actually she blames me for makig her feel bad.

But we both wanted to do something about it when the litter affected our immediate surroundings.

I can’t help feeling there this situation has some applicability when thinking about wider environmental questions such as climate change. As people, and as a society, do we see our environment as something that affects us? A thing we are part of? Probably most people perceive, on some level, that the planetary environment is too remote and abstract to them to be real. And do we have a clear idea how to clear up our mess? No: not only do we not really see that its ours (simply by virtue of our being human), but also there are too many incompatible ideas about what to do. Among these we tend to choose the one that costs us the least effort and trouble, with some variation among people in the extent of inconvenience they are willing to accept.

Anyway: a mundane situation, but it made me think, as well as feeling a little bit more pessimistic about people than I did when I left the house.