Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise (Daniel 12:1)
In a crisis, I look to myself. It is rarely my first instinct to seek help or counsel elsewhere. I partly do this because I have a certain amount of faith in my own resources, and I partly do it because I possibly have less faith in the resources of others. That might be construed as arrogance. It could also be looked at as being indicative of fear or mistrust. It could also hark back to my default supposition that nobody is sufficiently interested in my shit to give it the time it warrants. And why should they? Why should my problems be anybody’s concern but my own? Why should anyone put down their load so they can take the time to help me with mine?
I accept this as a reasonable premise from which I take a step closer to self-reliance. I absolve others of the responsibility to care about me. I choose to be my own guardian, my own keeper. I embrace this independent thinking with such zealous self-abasement that I may as well boulder myself up in a cave Lazarus-style and munch lichen till the end of my days. What a great time that will be. I will weave among the stalactites and stalagmites, moving like human floss between their slow growing teeth as I muse on my predicaments and congratulate myself on not being a burden to my fellow travellers.
Well done me.
The simple truth is, there is only so much you can achieve by yourself. I do turn to myself when life starts to beat the hell out of me. I can get painfully introspective and self-excoriating. If things get really challenging, I can easily succumb to dark depressions and languish in abject defeat at the bottom of an emotional abyss, where there are no geological formations to spice up the scenery. That existential paralysis is a cul-de-sac that leaves nowhere to go. The only way out is to emerge from the dark space that held you and turn your face back to society, where the possibility of a positive exchange with another person becomes your lifeline. It is unsustainable to stay inside forever. Turning outwards is integral to survival. That internal energy can consume us, it can fossilise us, it can lock us in until we forget how to move towards others.
That inability to be comfortable with other people creates a dissonance that is alienating to both you and them. I still struggle with that impulse to turn away when I am ill-disposed to be seen or heard by others, but I try to cultivate and nourish the idea of ease. I want to travel amongst others with ease. I remind myself that the stakes are much lower than they might feel and that I stand to lose almost nothing by simply being present and open to an incidental interaction. It seems to me at this particular point in human history that being open to the idea of remaining still and calm in the company of others, without fear or prejudice, is very desirable. We are living in discordant times – isn’t it worth asking how a more harmonious dynamic might be pursued? How can we ease ourselves through the woodlands of fear and anxiety, of social breakdown and ideological enmity?
We could start by accepting that the unease we are experiencing is probably universal. And one of the most profound consequences of this is the sense of fracture, the sense of things, and people, falling apart. The feeling that things are no longer stable eats away at our faith that all will be well. It speaks to the child in us that fears the dissolution of the parental unit. All institutions on some level are analogous to that parent-child dynamic. The child grants parents the illusion of omnipotence. They are all-powerful, all-protecting, all-knowing. Being the buffer between the child and the dangers of the world, the conclusion is that as long as they are in place, safety is assured. Touchstones, landmarks, beacons, monoliths – when they crumble, our sense of security is fragmented also. Where then, is ease to be found?
I think it is important to stress that your ease is not in someone else’s gift – it is something to try and gift yourself. Embark on a rebuilding project, a reformation or a restoration, it does not matter, but give yourself the permission to locate the blocks with which to reassemble your world. But before you start building, pause and reflect on what institutions you would like to put in place. Are you able to identify the things that make you feel safe? Can you name the things that make you feel secure enough to keep turning towards society, that allow you to keep an open mind, an open heart, and an extended hand? If none of us can answer those questions successfully, then our collective unease has become a dis-ease – a malaise that afflicts our social functionality. If that extended hand that is either expressing an offer of help or a request for help cannot be part of our world, then we have allowed ourselves to be debilitated by a sickness of soul; and if that’s not disease, I don’t know what is.
We are living in a time of unwellness. Politically, socially, economically, psychologically, emotionally and environmentally. In different corners of the world, we see people turning on each other, not to each other. In doing so, we are rejecting a treatment for our ailments that has existed since the first human societies congregated on the planet. What brings a society together? What keeps a society together? What compels that alliance in the first place? Surely it is the belief that we are safer together than apart. Surely it comes down to the very basic principle of mutual care. Not mutual regard. Not mutual love. Not mutual indifference. Mutual care – a simple agreement that I will watch your back and you will watch mine. An understanding that I will extend the limits of my interest beyond myself because we will both become the beneficiaries of that engagement.
To return to the idea of self-reliance then, it is perhaps arguable that self-reliance is vulnerable to morphing into self-interest, whereby the assumption that nobody cares about you persuades you to no longer care about anybody else, and that way lies misanthropy and, in my opinion, despair. The form of that despair is the conviction there is no longer something to love in mankind. That is a truly desolate position which precludes the possibility of social harmony, of shared social aspiration, of the desire for human connection.
I recognise in myself the occasional potential for that level of disengagement, but I have had too many positive experiences and relationships for it to hold sway for any sustained period of time. Reaching towards others has proven time and again that as good as my own resources are, they fall some way short of the type of resolution and fulfilment I experience when I subject my concerns to the care and interest of those I trust. Doing that has helped safeguard, amongst other things, my mental health, my marriage, my family and my livelihood. It has allowed me to keep faith with myself and my beliefs about the better inclinations of humanity. It has allowed me to keep faith with love.
And by love I do not mean romantic love (though that is not not a priority!), but rather a love of all others. The belief that on a deep level it is to my benefit and to the benefit of those closest to me, that I regard fellow humans as objects of care and regard. The belief that not to love them is not to love myself; that to disregard them is to disregard myself. I cannot travel alone. I cannot do it all by myself. I embrace the care and interest of others, and I am glad for my care and interest in them. That is where I locate my own humanity. The prioritising of that conviction is one of the key institutions upon which I build my world.
I want to dedicate this post to my aunt (and godmother) Michèle. It is her birthday today and she remains to me what she has always been – an ever-dependent source of light and positivity, a point of fun and laughter, a provider of interest and support and encouragement. A touchstone. A beacon. An institution. I thank her and I love her. The flowers below, Michaelmas Daisies from my parents’ garden, are for her. The quote at the top of the post, which captures something of my aunt’s supernatural powers, refers to the archangel Michael, for whom the flowers are named and whose feast day this is.
Do you have ease, unease or disease? Are you happy reaching out? Where are your institutions located?
Postscript: In the coming weeks I plan to start a podcast which I will probably host on the website. It will be an extension of the blog and continue the exploration of the themes and topics I routinely return to, largely oriented around wellness and positive psychology, but not excluding warranted rants and digressions. I hope you’ll stay with me.