Years ago as a student nurse on a night shift one of my patients fell out of bed. She was an elderly lady with dementia, and very distressed. It was not uncommon in those days to be left alone and unsupervised on a ward at night and to have one qualified nurse ‘keeping an eye’ on several wards at once. We had all been sent on a safe lifting course and cautioned never to try to lift a patient alone, but what’s a girl to do? Here is my patient on the floor with her hospital gown up round her ears, in pain and distressed and no-one is coming to help. She was a large lady and in those days I was a tiny little thing (the joys of being 24 and able to live on chocolate and stay as thin as a whippet!!) , but I managed to get her back into bed, soothed and settled until the staff nurse arrived to assess her. I was told off for lifting her, and that I should have left her on the floor until help arrived. There is no way I could have left that lady on the floor for close to half an hour. The next morning I woke up and couldn’t move my head. I was prescribed a neck brace by Occupational Health and sent back to work the next day. For eight weeks I worked wearing this collar, as my neck muscles got weaker and weaker and this has left me with a life long issue with my neck. Now my neck is like my temperature gauge of how stressed I am, so I know that when I wake up with an echo of that stiff neck and can’t turn my head to the right, I need to address my stress. I recognise that as my stress builds I start to hold a slightly ‘braced’ posture…think of the image of someone on a roller coaster ride who really does not want to there: shoulders up by their ears, arms stiff head pulled back in terror. So what has been stressing me out?
Aside from all the change and disturbance caused by the pandemic, I have found myself at times despairing of human kinds tendency to create division and pass judgement on one another. I am as guilty of this as the next person but I am trying oh so hard to keep this behaviour above the level of my awareness so that it cannot do untold and unseen damage. It’s often not the behaviour that we are aware of that causes us and other problems, but the unconscious patterns lurking beneath the surface like the hazard posed by an iceberg to a ship navigating icy waters.
There have always been divisive issues in our society hence the old adage never to discuss politics or religion at the dinner table. We identify ourselves as subscribers to certain beliefs and then divide ourselves along the fault lines of those beliefs into groups. All through life we have to make decisions about what to do at any given moment that cause us to identify with one group and dis-identify with another. And remember you can be a member of lots of different groups at the same time, even when there is conflict between the beliefs of those groups. Let me give you an example from my own life experience of belonging to lots of different groups at the same time.
I birthed both of my babies at home: the first a long and difficult labour lasting 22 hours, and the second a very large baby of nearly 11 lb. I was a stay at home Mum who practiced attachment parenting (basically I lugged my babies round in my arms all the time) and co-sleeping which meant no-one got any sleep because the baby was snuffling and grunting around in the bed all night. I started my parenting journey as a lone parent for which I was criticised for being a ‘drain on the state’ and then a respectable married lady with another baby, which no-one seemed to object to. I then became a divorced woman with two children by different fathers. And it seems LOTS of people have an opinion about that and not many of those opinions were positive. My babies wore terry nappies and plastic pants which I washed in the machine and I breast fed on demand for the first year (even less sleep). I weaned them onto a vegan diet and made all of their food by hand. I also had both of my children vaccinated, sent them to nursery and then school and was a big believer in rules and routines, rather than the libertarian parenting style which is led by what the child wants to do. So I belonged to lots of different groups at the SAME TIME. When I told people I was booked for home birth I got two reactions. One was “You can do this go girl!” and the other was “That’s dangerous, don’t you care if your baby dies?” Many of my friends at the La Leche League breastfeeding group practiced libertarian parenting and were unimpressed by my talk of strict bedtimes and routines.
Most of my friends had their baby in a cot in a different room from day one, and I was regularly quizzed about letting my babies sleep in my bed. Didn’t I CARE if I rolled over in the night and suffocated my child?? Similarly I was admonished from both sides of the vaccination debate and told that I was doing the right thing not only for my baby but for public health, and also that I was doing the wrong thing and putting my baby at risk unnecessarily. I made my decisions based on my own research and instincts. I didn’t make those decisions because I was ill-informed or stupid. Usually when we make a choice, if we are lucky enough to have choices, we do so with the best of intentions and informed by the facts that we can access. But once we have made those choices, we have a tendency to stand by and defend those choices and reject the opposing view as wrong. And this for me is where the problem really starts.
I try to remember that not everyone has the same choices as me, or the same life experiences as me. I also try very very hard to believe that everyone is doing their best with the tools they have. I came across this notion that everyone is doing their best whilst reading Brene Brown’s book, “Rising Strong” where she relates this story.
Brene was asked to go take on a speaking engagement that she was neither particularly interested in, nor especially well paid for. For various reasons she felt ‘obliged ‘to agree to do it, and later found out that all delegates had to share rooms. Brene has a particular aversion to sharing a room with a stranger so was feeling tense before she even got to the venue. When she walked into her assigned room she found her room-mate sitting on the sofa, eating a doughnut, with her muddy boots up on on the seat. Brene offered her hand to introduce herself and the woman responded by wiping both of her sugary sticky hands on the sofa cushions before extending her own hand and saying “It’s not our couch!” The woman then went out onto the balcony and lit a cigarette. Brene felt she must say that it was a no smoking hotel and the woman countered with “they didn’t say anything about the balcony!” Brene then pointed out that the smoke was blowing back into their shared room. The woman replied “we can spray some perfume around.” Brene admits to being enraged by this womans behaviour and chose to leave immediately after giving her talk to avoid sharing the room. She then relates that she found herself in a bad mood with everyone she encountered on her way home and the days that followed. She took this experience to discuss with her therapist. After relating the story in some depth her therapist asked;
“Do you think it is possible that your room mate was doing the best she could that weekend?”
Well needless to say Brene did NOT think the woman had been doing the best she could and went on to express her opinion that some people just don’t care about the rules and are selfish and narrow minded and just plain WRONG. Over the weeks that followed she became increasingly aggravated by the notion that the woman was doing her best, and whilst talking the incident over with a friend she finally found someone who agreed with her point of view. At last! Brene felt validated in her opinion of this monstrous woman!! Her friend THEN said “Let’s take breastfeeding for example.” She told Brene that she had really struggled to breastfeed her daughter but had persevered through infections, cracked nipples and sleepless nights and finished off by saying “If you’re not going to breastfeed for at least a year, you should think twice about having children. You’re NOT doing the best you can and do you not think your children deserve the best? Quitting is lazy. And if quitting really is your best, then maybe your best is just not good enough.” Brene had only managed to feed her own babies for a very short time and felt utterly shamed by her friends judgement of her as a mother and the assumption that she had not tried her best. But it did lead her to the realisation that her life was better when she assumed that people were doing their best, as this kept her out of judgment and allowed her to focus on what IS, rather than on what could or should be.
This was such a powerful lesson for me, and one that I have been trying to put into practice on a daily basis and frequently failing (But I am doing my best).
The pandemic seems to have heightened this human need to divide into factions and throw rocks at each other. I have heard of two new tribes that we have created:
The “Covidiots” and The “Covirtuous”.
The Covirtuous believe that anyone who does not comply to the letter of the rules on lockdown is a Covidiot: a person who has no respect for the law or for other people and is therefore stupid, selfish and irresponsible.
The Covidiots in turn believe the Covirtuous to be mindless sheep, unable to think for themselves, or to apply common sense, or cope with any kind of nuanced reasoning. Do you remember the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song Two Tribes? “When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score.”
And I am sick of the point scoring. Life is nuanced and complicated and I truly believe everyone is doing the best they can. We don’t KNOW what motivates people to make the choices they make, or even what choices they have access to, and we make that judgement call at our peril. Bob Marleys first single was a track called “Judge Not” and here are the lyrics:
“Don’t you look at me so smug
And say I’m going bad
Who are you to judge me
And the life that I live?
I know that I’m not perfect
And that I don’t claim to be
So before you point your fingers
Be sure your hands are clean
Before you judge yourself
If you’re not ready for judgement
The boat of life is rocking
And you may stumble too
So while you talk about me
Someone else is judging you
A very on point message for our times hey?
And then came the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on the 25th May 2020 when a police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds killing him. And again the tribes form and the point scoring rages on: protestors being blamed for prompting the second wave of the virus, whilst those who did not take to the streets are accused of turning a blind eye to police brutality.
With all of this going on I am not sure I want to come out of my bunker really.
But I have a ray of hope.
A few years ago I was having a conversation with my son Theo about my own prejudices. We were talking in particular about my lack of understanding of the Transgender Community and my son explained to me why I needed to adjust my thinking to be more open minded and inclusive. My lack of understanding came from ignorance: I had met very few Trans people and had not until quite recently heard the term “Transgender.” But as my son very patiently pointed out, ignorance is not a rationale for prejudice, it identifies the need for education. And he was right. I took it upon myself to listen to interviews with people describing their own trans experience, and to talk to experts in the field of inclusivity and empowerment, as well as many more discussions with my son and daughter and their partners who are all much more informed than me, until I had a better understanding. And my belief system shifted in the light of this new understanding. I had to strip myself of my previous view based in ignorance and fear, admit and accept I was wrong and evolve. I asked my son if he has hope for his generation and the future and this is what he said: “I believe that everyone deserves and should have the same rights and no-one could convince me otherwise. But I would like to think that I could talk to someone who does not believe in equal rights for all and get them to change their mind.”
And that for me was a ray of light. When the sunshine streams in through a dirty window you can see the grime and you get the opportunity to clean it (and you know how I LOVE to clean!)
Recently I was sent a podcast called “The Blinding Light of Sophisticated Pseudoscience.” It was a robust discussion of the validity of various alternative health practices, and the participants were all very clever scientists. I enjoyed the debate though I did not agree with much of what was said, but the most important thing I took away with me was this. One of the scientists was talking about how to engage in debate with someone who holds the opposite view to you and this is what he said:
“Have you ever changed your mind on a subject after you have been called an idiot?”
A very good question and well worth a ponder. Funnily enough my neck has eased since I revisited the notion that “everyone is doing their best” and I have taken it as an opportunity to base this weeks lessons on releasing tension from the upper body. This weeks relaxation is about understanding that everyone is made of the same stuff with the same struggles and that we have the choice to create connection rather than division. We are all entitled to an opinion, that’s the easy part, but perhaps we need to learn when to voice them and when to keep them to ourselves. Here is a fantastic t-shirt that my daughter wears with pride, I think I might have to get one (because as we all know daughters just LOVE it when their middle-aged Mum copies their style…)
I will leave you with this track from Bob Marley which contains the reworked lyric from his earlier song:
” The road of life is rocky and you may stumble too
So while you point your fingers someone else is judging you
Love your brotherman!”
Enjoy. Have a little dance, it will do you good
(with heartfelt thanks to Ros, Theo, Gareth and Rachel for being so patient with me when my views were so out of date, to SC for your burning desire to make the world a fairer place and how you are bringing that to life in your company, to SH for teaching me that a single occupancy room is a BIG DEAL , to AB for sharing so much info on BLM, to PD for sharing the Sceptics in a Pub podcasts and teaching me not to call people idiots!)