For about the past month I’ve been reading a book called Rewriting the Rules, written by the brilliant Meg Barker. After hearing Meg’s talk at TedX Brighton, and hearing in it echoes of my therapist Chiara’s insistence that we don’t have to live by the guidelines set down when we were younger, I kind of had to get it and absorb every word. Reading it is a great work-out for the facial muscles, because there’s lots of reflective frowning, and quite a few chuffed and surprised “Hang on, I’m actually doing that!” moments.
I can see me saying to my parents, as I did when I read The Happy Depressive, that they need to read it, because it explains so much about my experience of life right now and recently, and what I’m working on and processing and benefitting from, but feeling the need to say almost straight away that it’s an extreme version of all of that.
I can imagine friends and colleagues casting a glance over the synopsis and wondering what kind of extreme lentil-eating free-loving liberal I’ve become, particularly given my destinations of choice for next year’s adventure and life beyond.
I might be mind-reading a bit and exaggerating a little for dramatic impact. But the point of the book is that most of us, whether we realise it or not, don’t understand – have trouble even considering – anything that isn’t within our “normal” experience, and how unhappy and uncomfortable that makes us, and the people around us.
One of the things Barker is at pains to point out is that we’re all on various points of various continua regarding all manner of rule-lead situations – whether that’s our sense of gender identity, our desire for, well, desire, how we view love relationships compared to friend and family relationships, how we deal with conflict and so on – and we shift along those lines depending on what’s going on in our lives at any particular time.
The thing about friendships and relationships: Stop and think for a moment about how you know if you’re in one versus the other. Are they actually separate things? Why is the person we fancy so different from the people we spend the majority of our lives with? Well, that’s easy, we fancy them. But if you dig a bit deeper, it opens up all manner of questions.
What’s the difference between the friends I go for coffee or an evening at the pub with, just us, and the people I would consider as dates, and the people I’d consider relationship material? It’s obvious, right? You feel differently about relationship people. So are they more or less than friends?
Okay, to be in a relationship with someone, yes, I have to fancy them. But why does that often quite superficial thing make them more worthy, more likely to get my jokes, more likely to understand every deepest bit of me than the friends who’ve known me for years, or the ones I’ve made more recently and with whom I’ve yammered about everything and nothing over too much caffeine or beer? (Because I fancy them.) I’ve said before how I like to spoil the people who mean something to me, and yeah, if I fancy you, you probably get a little bit more spoiled than my other friends. I always feel like it’s blatantly obvious, that you can see from the Moon, how I feel about the men I like – but my goal is to make my attitude to them more like that I have towards my “normal” friends. That’s nothing to be sneezed at – what I might lack in number of friends I hope I make up for in quality of connection – and if I manage it I’m less likely to be horribly disappointed by the crushing realisation that good grief, Superman-made-local is actually a fallible human. It’s hard work, made no less so by culture’s insistence on The One and Soul Mates, and that people who are “just friends” are totally different, somehow inferior, connections – with the frequent misunderstanding that causes over being able to be good mates with someone without there being something romantic or sexual to it.
It’s interesting – and sometimes quite difficult – to see where on any particular continuum we fit, and what feelings that stirs up in us, and in other people. It’s remarkable how much of my experience of a very tame life seems to fall just outside the accepted boundaries. It’s eye-opening watching how other people react when you seem okay with the uncertainty while you work out where you are right now, and what comes next. It leads to this moment before they recover themselves where their unease shows through (I don’t get this. I’m really quite boringly normal – I am! – but to see them struggling to understand how a person can be not happy, or feel unable to connect with the world, or be left-of-centre, you’d think I was from some other universe where there are seven perceivable dimensions, or Hull or something).
Mum, for example, is saying the right things about my decision to walk away from a good job with prospects-if-I-want-them for a beach nearby but who-knows-what-else, and now she and Dad are retired she gets completely the concept of doing things while you’re able and living in the moment. But there’s still that flash of concern and that’s-not-really-completely-sensible-is-it? when I say I don’t know what I’m going to be doing this time next year, that I have ideas and things I’d like to try, but no real timetable or aim, and that I’m mostly okay with that.
In a related vein, a friend was saying the other day that she was losing the will to keep trying to explain her feelings and situation to her mum, because she didn’t want to try to express something so complicated to be faced with that look of incomprehension reserved for creatures from another dimension: “…when you realise that talking to someone about your stuff is more about helping THEM to feel better than helping yourself. That.”
People don’t like feeling useless or unable to contribute to the situation. I’ve got one very good friend who often sits listening to me pouring my heart out with this look of utter bewilderment on his face, because he doesn’t have a clue what to say in return. Frankly, that’s fine. Just having someone hear you as you get it off your chest is enough sometimes. When it isn’t, tea and biscuits work wonders. Advice – never, unless it’s requested. But people can’t help themselves. Faced with someone who’s obviously in pain or doesn’t know what to do or finds themselves outside normality all of a sudden – well you can’t do nothing, can you? You have to help. So you tell them what to do. And if that isn’t what they’d do, or what they want to do, then instead of coming across as the good friend, you put their backs up and risk getting your own nose out of joint when they say that’s not the point, or they’ve tried but it didn’t work.
Seriously, if more people could master just sitting with someone else, doing nothing more than pushing the packet of biscuits across at reasonable intervals, we might not be more fixed or less confused, but more of us would feel less misunderstood and angry, and more loved and accepted, and life might feel a bit easier. If you can’t master doing nothing, it’s also perfectly fine to admit: “I don’t know what to say.”
This is big stuff to process and accept, and while I’m completely fine with hurling myself into uncertainty quite happily, I still bristle in varying degrees at the unknown when it’s caused by someone else.For me, it’s about communication. It’s amazing what you can accept if you feel some sense of inclusion. Grab a packet of digestives, put the kettle on, and really communicate – and if that means sitting and actually listening and reassessing our own place in the universe, being instead of doing, then that’s what we have to do.