I usually start the year with resolutions. In the past I was very good at keeping them, then I gradually got worse at it, and for the past couple of years I’ve been kind of hit-and-miss about it. This year I began with only two actual resolutions, both of which I’ve kept, but I also made some promises to myself, which I haven’t. I called these ‘promises’ because I wanted to say I didn’t have many resolutions this year, but really that’s just semantics and they were resolutions all along.
Confused yet? Yeah, so am I. I’m hopped up on a large cocktail of pills and have no idea if this is making sense.
One of my ‘promises’ (or not-resolutions-but-really-they-are) was to try to put my own needs above other people’s. This is not something I am good at. Sometimes this can be a positive quality: there are times when we need to set our own requirements and desires aside in order to help others. But most of us agree that this should be weighed up against the level of pain, discomfort or inconvenience this will cause us.
This second bit is where I falter.
Partly, this is because of the perspective I have on life. My life was pretty awful for the first twenty-odd years, and so I don’t tend to get upset about some of the more day-to-day things that seem to floor other people entirely. I don’t break into pieces easily (although it can happen) and I tend to view any problems that arise in my own life with a kind of stoic tolerance: I know these things will happen, that I just need to ride them out and then they’ll be over. I am not usually prone to wallowing, or ugly-crying on the living room floor, or feeling like a bad situation is the be all and end all of life. These things can happen periodically, but that tends to be in response to some sort of huge life-changing event, rather than more day to day concerns.
This is, on the whole, a good thing. It means I have a good perspective on my own life and I’m good at not getting swept underwater in a riptide of emotion every time something bad happens.
However, it is not always a good thing when it comes to other people’s feelings.
From the way I’ve explained it above, it might make sense to assume that I have little sympathy for other people’s problems, and that I judge them in the light of the worst things that have happened in my own life and expect the same level of emotional detachment from others as I have for my experiences. But that’s not the case.
Instead, my mind tends to take the external demonstration of someone’s level of emotion, and extrapolate backwards from that. If someone seems very upset about something, even if it’s something that would barely register on my emotional spectrum, I take the level of emotion they seem to be feeling and apply it to a situation in my own life where I’ve felt a similar level of pain. I then assume that’s the level of pain they’re in, and act accordingly.
In reality, this means I’m good at listening to people’s problems and taking them seriously. It also, however, means that sometimes I can take them a bit too seriously; for example, I can assume that having the flu is provoking the same level of emotional turmoil as being diagnosed with a terminal disease. It means that when someone asks me for something, and they seem to really want it, I will probably say yes to them, because for me the level of need required before I’ll ask anyone for anything is very high, so I will assume – usually erroneously – a parallel level of need in the other person.
This is something I’m working on. It’s a quality that needs to be tweaked a bit, rather than fully eliminated: I like being someone other people come to with their problems, and I like being a good listener and being able to empathise. I also like that I’m good at putting myself to one side and focusing on another person, but in some situations I need for that not to happen.
This was what I was planning on doing this year when I made my promise to myself.
And then I broke it.
A few things happened last week that meant putting myself aside for a while and pandering to the requirements of another person. If any one of them had happened in isolation, I probably would have been alright. And if all of them had happened normally – when I’m not seriously ill – I probably would have been fine too. But they didn’t. They happened consecutively, during a week when I hadn’t been getting enough sleep, and by the time the final thing popped up I knew when I was saying yes to it that it was a bad idea. But I wanted to help, and I thought maybe I could get away with it.
I couldn’t. For the rest of the week my body made this abundantly clear. I ended up back on some of the pills I’d weaned myself off of, ended up spending a lot of time lying on the sofa / bed / bathroom floor writhing in pain, and ended up in the bath for most of the second half of the week.
It was only after all this had transpired, when I was emerging slightly from the full brain-fog this morning, that I realised what had happened: I’d broken a resolution. Strangely, I don’t feel disappointed in myself. Perhaps I just don’t have the energy for it. I do feel like my body and brain are joining forces to teach me lessons throughout this whole year-of-serious-illness thing, though, and actually on the whole that’s not proving to be a bad thing.
I am learning a lot about life, about myself and what I really want, about relationships and who I am within them, from this year. Some of the lessons – like those of last week – aren’t exactly enjoyable, but they’re useful all the same. And that’s the thing with life: I can either take the horrible lessons and sit around feeling bad about them, or I can use them as useful tools to hone my craft – my self – and move forward through them until hopefully at some point we move on to a different set of lessons that involves less organ failure.
So, that’s been my week. It was pretty shit in places, and I couldn’t eat the nice food I prepared last weekend, but it was also interesting, and at least the brain fog wasn’t so thick that I couldn’t read.
^ all I need, really. Well, plus a cat:
Other Things I Did This Week
- The book is done! I proofread it and sorted out all the errors the incompetent proofreader made, then approved the cover and sent it back. Now it’s going into print! How exciting.
- It was VAT returns week (yay) so I did that, and payroll, and a load of other business administrative tasks, which were the things that kickstarted the Week Of Doing Too Much and made my organs start growling in the background.
- I interviewed some people about living abroad: Leah from Australia, who now lives in Indonesia; Stephanie from the USA, who now lives in New Zealand; Phil from Canada, who now lives in South Africa; and Stella, a Kenyan-Nigerian expat who now lives in Malaysia.
- I interviewed Amber Schroader, CEO & Founder of Paraben, about the Internet of Things, mobile forensics, and BBQs.
- I put together a new business strategy, which I will be presenting (via Skype) to a client today. Hopefully it will streamline our processes and make things easier all round. But I came up with it while drunk on codeine, so fuck knows.
- And I bought the cat a present to make up for having someone take the sofabed away (which she used to enjoy sleeping under), but being a cat, she didn’t appreciate it.
- Going through some notes I’d made based on my teenage diaries, I found these words of wisdom:
I’ve always been a little ray of fucking sunshine, as you can see.
The Reading List
This week I read:
- Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas, which was excellent and not at all what I expected. As soon as I’d finished it I went on Amazon and bought all the available copies, and now I’m sending them to various people. Full review will be coming up at some point when I have more brain.
- Consider the Ravens by Paul A. Fredette & Karen Karper Fredette, which is about hermits and the solitary way of life. I almost didn’t buy it because of its religious title, and because the blurb sounded like it might be a self-published evangelical Christian book, but I bought it anyway and I’m glad I did. It was more reflective than I expected and I enjoyed it.
- The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter – I’ve been reading Slaughter’s books for years, originally because they were good crime novels. Gradually, however, they seem to have morphed into good crime novels that also have important social messages woven through them; specifically, messages relating to what it’s like to be a woman. I’m not sure if this is something Slaughter has started doing more often, or if I’ve only started noticing it over the past two or three years, but in either case I’m liking it.
- A Pelican in the Wilderness by Isabel Colegate, a much-hailed work about solitude and hermits which has been recommended in just about every other hermit-related book I’ve read recently (and there have been many). It actually wasn’t quite as good as I’d expected: there were interesting bits, sure, but I don’t feel like it’s necessary reading for people who are interested in the solitary way of life. However, that may be because a lot of the content is similar to several other books I’ve read – there are only so many times you can read the same stories about the Desert Fathers before they start to seem overly familiar – so perhaps if you haven’t read anything else about hermits, this might be a good starting point. It’s certainly highly recommended by lots of people.
- A Simplified Life by Verena Schiller, which initially I was skeptical about but turned out to be better than I’d anticipated. It’s the story of a woman who decides to live a solitary life, and the book says it weaves in three strands: her own life, the history of the place she’s in, and “the universal journey shared by all men and women – our human condition.” When I read that in the prologue I thought it sounded like an ambitious goal for a book a mere 191 pages long, and as it turned out I was right. However, if you go into the book hoping for a pleasant and interesting discussion of a life lived simply in a remote location, you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t expect it to speak volumes about the human condition as a whole.
- The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman was recommended to me by a good friend, but I opened it with trepidation for two reasons: firstly, we don’t often like the same books, and secondly it’s set in the past, around the time of WWI, and I tend not to be a fan of historical fiction, especially fiction set in the backdrop of wars. It also had an annoying clickbaity blurb. But actually it was very good, and managed to perfectly walk the line between being emotionally moving and not giving in to cheap heartstring-tugging tricks. This is a very difficult line to walk, so I greatly appreciated that. It also had more quotable lines than I’d anticipated, and on the whole was a good novel.
- A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland – I’d read How To Be Alone a few weeks ago and not been massively impressed, so I didn’t have high hopes for this one. However, I’d already bought it so I decided to see it through, and I’m glad I did. How To Be Alone was a follow-up book, after A Book of Silence had already been published and some readers had apparently pointed out that it was about solitude as much as about silence. How To Be Alone was also published as part of one of Alain de Botton’s dubious philosophical ‘schools’ of books, which made me dislike it before I’d even opened it. A Book of Silence had everything I felt its follow-up lacked: academic rigour, a beautiful sense of self and place, interesting insights into silence and solitude (but mainly silence – I don’t get why people complained about it). It made me think, and it made me want to write to Maitland and talk further about some of the themes in the book. It also made me want to read her thoughts on reading, because she had some interesting things to say about reading aloud vs. reading silently, and about whether reading can truly be thought of as ‘silence’, and what communication means in this context. I’d certainly recommend it; and if you’re planning to read How To Be Alone, don’t. Read this instead.
Interesting Things On The Internet This Week
- Plug in your headphones / turn up the volume and watch / listen to this. It made me smile so much.
- Jillette Johnson released her second album and I liked it as much as her first, which almost never happens to me.
- If you’re a philosopher, take this survey. It’s interesting and I really want to see the results.
- An article about how variable-centered research is a poor method for understanding persons or how psychological processes work, and why this is a problem for psychology.
How was your week? Did you make resolutions at the start of this year? Please tell me you broke them too so I don’t feel alone in my failure. 😉