Your Task…

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. – Rumi

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…As we are

 

We don’t see things are they are, we see them as we are.

Anais Nin

 

 

 

Cognitive Illusions

I read an article today about the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. I find his theories regarding the ‘conjunctive fallacy’ really interesting. Kahneman started his life as a psychologist observing soldiers performing team exercises in the Israeli army. These exercises were supposedly designed to judge which individuals would make good leaders. Men were judged on their performance on the day and the ones deemed to be appropriate officer material were put forward for training. What Kahneman discovered was that the data gathered by the observers did not often match up to the evidence of the chosen men’s behaviour and performance over the following months of training –  i.e that the judgements made on that particular day were not necessarily true. Despite the evidence, this method of observing and choosing candidates continued and did so because the notion that a person who shows leadership ability at that moment of observation is therefore a ‘leader’ is a persuasive but strangely irrational assumption.

Oliver Burkeman, who wrote the article in the Guardian about Kahneman’s new Book Thinking, Fast and Slow, described this subjective process, masquerading as a rational one, as our judgement being ‘warped by the persuasive combination of plausible details. We are much better storytellers than we are logicians.’ He gives a good example of this; people are asked about a nephew’s girlfriend; she is described to them as someone who is artistic and poetic; with this limited information they are also asked if she is more likely to be studying Chinese Literature or Business Studies. Most people answer ‘Chinese Literature’ although statistically there will be a greater number of business studies students, so more probably she will be one of those. The majority of us ignore the probability for the answer that ‘feels’ right: she’s artistic and poetic and those qualities, based on our own assumptions, would be associated more with a student studying Chinese Literature. Our answer might appear to be logical but it is not.

Kahneman writes,

Subjective confidence in a judgement is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgement is correct…declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.

He calls these slips in perception cognitive illusions and we are all guilty of them. This interests me a great deal for two reasons. The first is that I have been applying for jobs where I too have taken part in team observation, exercises as subject to problematic evaluation as the ones that Kahneman’s studies encountered and yet still used to decide if a candidate is right for a job. The second because these ideas also speak a great deal of how our own judgements of each other can be so woefully skewed, despite our own sense of certainty.

Burkeman ends his article with some sound advice:

If we can’t hope to correct such biases in any lasting way, we can perhaps seek to cultivate some humility about the limits of our mental powers. Being the puppet of subtle psychological influences we cannot even recognise is annoying. But at least we can try to remember that that’s what’s likely to be happening. Well, it’s a start.

 

There Amongst the Wreckage

I cried today. Feelings surfaced, rising up through the murk of a difficult and confusing few days; seeping through the layers of tiredness accumulated over these last few weeks of uncertainty. Love can make the strongest of us vulnerable and open; it is the nature of love to shake the walls and foundations, let the light in, allow the deluge to wash over us. It is both thrilling and terrifying; comforting and unnerving. New love, at it’s most tender and burgeoning, can have us flighty as teenagers and just as unsure; we feel every emotion possible in a single day, and we feel it intensely.

In the course of leaving my marriage of 27 years, I met, once again, someone whom I had loved many years ago. Falling in love all over again has been an extraordinary experience, one that has brought both pain – as both of us tackle the challenges of leaving long-term relationships – and undeniable joy.

No one expects when they marry to walk away from that relationship; we hope that love will endure; that we will continue to grow together as couples. For many this remains a reality, for others, we learn that we can love and be loved by more than one person in a lifetime; that couples can grow apart and that, beyond an honest effort to work at something, can reside the hurt of having to accept that a relationship has run its course. This realization brings deep sadness and guilt and a host of paradoxical feelings.

I met my husband when I was seventeen. I married at nineteen. Looking at our wedding photographs, we are children, our faces plump, fuller in the way that young people’s are before a little aging sculpts them and they lose their puppy fat. I look at kids of that age now and am shocked at how unformed and naive they are, knowing full well that I was the same but yet was making choices and decisions complicated enough for adults, let alone teenagers. I had so much more certainty and trust back then, launching out into love and life in the most reckless of ways, barely thinking about the consequences, merely living to the rhythm of my own emotions. It was a turbulent time but the deep love I felt for my husband and the bond of our friendship (which thankfully still remains), meant that moving forward was simple and direct – difficult at times but direct nonetheless.

With age comes the inevitable painful experiences that might lead us to temper our recklessness and forgo our trust in happy endings. We might replace it with a stifling caution that can, at times, keep us emotionally safe but also cripple our spontaneity and undermine our sense of faith that love can work. In short, love can get more complex and tricky, and the stakes higher, the older we get.

I never thought I would fall in love again. I had gotten to the stage where I believed that it was merely a set of psychological processes, one that could be deconstructed, explained away by hormones or nature’s imperative to reproduce. I knew that love was real, that we feel love for our children, families, friends, pets, partners etc,  but falling ‘in’ love could not be trusted.

My cynicism was really a cover for a deep sadness that the feeling of intense emotion – that perfect madness, the ecstatic sickness that falling in love can be – was lost to me. What I didn’t bargain for was that life would prove me wrong; would challenge my assumption by bringing the one person who could have touched and changed me, back into my life. And he has done just that – touched me back into life.

I wrestle with the endings – the hurt that both our estranged partners are feeling; the life-time of shared experiences left behind – on a daily basis. It isn’t easy to walk away from home and security; from a world that is safe and known; from companionship, from people who have perhaps witnessed us at our lowest and our best. However, sometimes we reach a point when we recognize that something in us is dying, and nothing less that the most drastic of measures will save us.

Today, when I cried, the man who has brought that love back into my life, held me. And in that simple but deep act of sharing I see that – there amongst the wreckage –  love is a green shoot, surprisingly resilient. It grabs us and shakes us beyond our will or reason back into life, wringing out of us the fear and the passion; the joy; the churning uncertainty and the stillness at the heart of chaos. Love is fingers entwined in the darkness; the soft touch of the future on your cheek; it is a song once lost, now remembered…and when it comes, it changes everything.

 

React or Respond?

I am endlessly fascinated by the differences in emotional response that a situation can draw from people. Why is it that a specific set of circumstances can stir such a maelstrom in one individual but make little impact on another? I suspect it is because no one event in our lives happens in a vacuum; to use email terminology, our lives have ‘threads’, histories that continue to feed our present for good or bad.

I tend to think there is a difference between reacting and responding. For me, when we react, it is often from a place that goes beyond thinking; it is often ‘knee jerk’, an emotional response that is linking in with past experience – quite often of a painful kind – colouring our perception and shaping our current actions. In short, we are not just dealing with events in the present but bringing in a whole host of past baggage, viewing the situation through an accumulation of old hurts. We often do this without realising; oblivious to how that pile of unrelated stuff has been sewn together in our minds. If a present situation has a similar theme or tone to past hurts, we might immediately and unconsciously link the two; over time, if we continue to link situation after situation, any future experience that triggers this thread can be crippling and we react with the unthinking visciousness of a wounded animal – we lash out; we fight our corner; we attack because that place, over years, has become such a vulnerable one for us.

However, when we respond we become conscious of what drives that reaction. Responding suggests a relationship between us and our environment at the moment something happens, we are not just being driven by an established, internalised pattern but looking outward and taking the situation on it’s own terms. Responding requires us to examine and question our own reactions; it asks that we be open to the ambiguity and complexity of an event; be open to the possiblilty that our own view is one of many.

Reaction is rigid and inflexible; has a need to be ‘right’ in order to feel safe, that it might serve to protect and cope with those deeply vulnerable feelings that have accumulated over the years. Response is flexible and yeilding; willing to see the part we play in a situation; able to see multiple viewpoints and therefore remain open to learning, growing, changing and moving on.

Both of these ways of dealing with life brings their own challenges. Responding means often having to accept what might be difficult for us to acknowledge about ourselves, others and the situations we find ourselves in. Reacting can build yet more hurt, causing us to psychologically stiffen and seize into mental patterns that are emotionally destructive.

When we react we build yet another link in that painful chain that binds us to the past; when we respond, we give ourselves the opportunity to free ourselves from those binds. The world widens and deepens and we can breathe a little easier.

 

Too Full To Talk

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing

And rightdoing there is a field

I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass

the world is too full to talk about.

Rumi

i like my body when it is with your

i like my body when it is with your

body. It is so quite a new thing.

Muscles better and nerves more.

i like your body. i like what it does,

i like its hows. i like to feel the spine

of your body and its bones, and the trembling

-firm-smooth ness and which i will

again and again and again

kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,

i like, slowly stroking the shocking fuzz

of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes

over parting flesh . . . .

And eyes big Love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you quite so new

ee cummings

The Heart of Home

I have been blessed with some wonderful friends. Two of them – the very lovely Tracey and Ian – have shown enormous kindness putting me up whilst I have been finding my feet. Without this, life would have been such a struggle and I remain eternally grateful for their continued love and support. Separation is a tough thing without those who love you being there; they become the temporary emotional scaffolding that keeps you upright and relatively stable at a time when the ground beneath you shifts dramatically; when both life and you feel like the’re in danger of collapsing.

This week I have secured my very own home, although I have to wait a wee while to move in. It is quite a moment for me, having never had a home of my own, always having lived with someone. This simple yet momentous move will be the beginning of a completely new stage in my life; one I have no expectations of; one I feel completely open to let develop as it may. I know that amongst the excitement there is a little trepidation. Will it feel lonely and empty? Will I? After a life-time of living with others, I am about to find out.

Luckily, I have those I love close by – some very close by! – and so I know I will never be truly stranded. This balance between being with others and being alone is one we all have to explore, even when we co-habit. We are all individuals, and no matter how much we might love or feel close to another, we need to feel happy with ourselves, our aloneness. Being together and being alone do not have to be mutually exclusive; we can experience both, each enriching the other. This is my hope.

And then there is the home you find in others – whether you live with them or not – that sense of knowing, of being known and loved, that really needs no bricks or mortar to give it substance. When you have both a home that shelters you, and a love that does that too, you have everything…