Friday, 29 July 2011

Love Letter to Myself

I do hope this doesn’t make anyone feel like puking. But I got this idea from another blogger, and due to a recent painful experience I really need it now. And I can recommend it to anyone whose self-esteem needs a boost! How often do we criticise ourselves each day? Writing a love letter feels a lot better, I can tell you!

Dear Michael

Your self-esteem has taken a vicious blow recently, so I know you need to know how much you are loved. I want to tell you that you are very special to me, and that I know you are a good person. I should know! – I know you better than anyone else does, because I’ve lived with you every minute of every day for forty-five years! You may not always feel or believe it, but you have some special qualities you can be truly proud of. I know how kind and supportive and empathic you are to your friends. How much you are willing to listen and care and understand when they have precious few people in their lives who are able to do that for them. I know how sensitive you are: how this makes you vulnerable to hurt, but also sensitive to the hurts and feelings of others. I know how intelligent and creative you are, and also how playful; while perfectly capable of speaking and behaving as an adult, you are not ashamed of your inner child and your capacity for play. This too connects to your love of animals, which was with you throughout your childhood and has recently been revived. I know how much you care about the myriad forms of life on this planet, and the dangers that threaten them – and how you see humans as an integral part of the ecosystem with a unique responsibility towards all species. I know how much you care about peace, justice and human rights, even though your willingness to fight for these causes has led to emotional suffering in your own life. That this too is a part of your sensitivity, and of the anger you feel towards those who persecute and destroy. You are not afraid of the stigma that so often comes with mental distress or illness, and are willing to admit your vulnerability and share it with others. Not only have you had to deal every day with some very difficult circumstances over the past seven years, but you have come through the worst time in your life and are now endeavouring to share the benefits of your learning experience with others, with the aim of reaching out and helping others with similar problems. And you are trying to be honest and real in your relationships with others, despite difficulties you’ve had all your life which have made it hard to show your true feelings in so many situations. I know how much you are trying to grow – away from the pain and fear of the past and the pull which it has on you, and into someone who can admit to fear and vulnerability but still develop new and stronger resources for your life in the present and future. You are always searching for new ways to look after and respect yourself and all those around you, through your growing holistic view of health and well-being, your willingness even to investigate one of the world’s main religions (you, an agnostic!) because you believe in love and kindness and compassion towards all. You are sometimes all too painfully aware of your shortcomings, and this too makes you vulnerable to the effects of those who can use that awareness to hurt you. But you are learning to develop kindness and compassion towards yourself, and in support of that I want you to know that I like and love you anyway. None of us is perfect and you know that all too well, but I see the good in you clearly and I love you for who you are.

Michael, you love beauty and wisdom and I can see that too, so clearly. You love art and nature and science, with its attitude of vulnerability and willingness not to assume the truth but to keep on testing, questioning and opening up to new uncertainties. You love the beauty of women, and your sexuality is passionate and open and full of longing. And you love the earth and the other planets, and all the wonders of the universe that lie beyond. You love the fact that the cosmos is vast beyond imagining, and that whatever humans do there is a vastness that they cannot touch. But you still love humanity and life on earth, even though you struggle with pessimism and fears for the future. You are a caring person and I love you for it.

You know you have shortcomings, but you feel them all too painfully at times. Remember that the only people who have deeply hurt or been cruel to you in your life (including this latest attack, which caused you such pain because it was by someone you’ve cared about so deeply for so long), are people who were abused themselves and were probably acting out their own suffering. They are also people who didn’t know you well, like your friends know you, like Sally knows you, like Angie knows you, and like I know you. All those who really know you, appreciate you for who you are, without idealisation but simply acceptance of what they see of your self. There are far more of these people than there are of people who’ve hurt you, and they know you far better. You can trust their judgement, as you are gradually learning to trust your own.

Not only do I know you best, but I love you too. I will help you uncover the parts of you that you’re afraid of, that you have always found it hard to express or admit to. And even when you find parts of yourself that you don’t like, and that others criticise you for, I will still love you. I will be by your side and inside your heart at all times, and help you through every difficulty and crisis. I love you. And I know that you don’t have to idealise in order to love yourself. You are okay. You can trust yourself. And you will be fine.

Just trust.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

A Life True to Myself

For the past few weeks, as some Facebook friends will know and for reasons which are too personal to go into here, I’ve felt intermittent but sharp pangs of ‘iPad envy’. At times, though I know it’s ridiculous, it’s been quite a strong feeling. “I must have an iPad! I wish I could afford an iPad! Can I find a way of affording an iPad?” And even the additional complication of envy for someone I care about: “So-and-so can afford an iPad – they have such a successful career and comfortable life and they can afford an iPad and an iPhone and God knows what else and IT’S NOT FAIR!!!!!

In my case, although I do have a fondness of electronic gadgets and mini-computers, my hankering for an iPad is based on an association with something far less mundane, so it’s not quite as pathetic as it sounds. But even so: when I reach the end of my life and look back at whatever regrets I have (and I expect there’ll be a few!), will my lack of a soon-to-be-obsolete piece of hand-held technology be one of them? Will the absence of a high-flying career, ‘successful’ in society’s terms, be one of them either?

Probably not.

Yesterday, a Facebook friend posted an article by Bronnie Ware called ‘The Five Greatest Regrets of the Dying’ ( Don’t stop reading now! – it’s not morbid, honest! Bronnie Ware used to work in palliative care with people who had gone home to die, and during her work she learned the commonest regrets which they typically had in the last few weeks or months of their lives.

These were:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier (this was the ultimate realisation that happiness is, to a far greater extent than commonly realised, an attitude).

On a personal level, the two regrets that leap out at me the most are the first and third. That’s because they are both aspects of living that I’ve always had profound difficulties with, both aspects that I’m working through the most in therapy. Like many people, I experienced both subtle and unsubtle pressures while growing up, to conform to certain expectations of how I should behave, what kind of ‘career’ to go into, even (subtly) how I should feel – and of course I’ve continued to experience those pressures, not least from myself. It’s not unrelated to the third regret: I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. Only now, in middle age, am I learning to be more authentic and free in my relationships with others. Many of the biggest regrets I already have are because I couldn’t bring myself to express my feelings to (and for) others, in life situations where doing so might have brought so many positive things into my life, and much sooner.

What strikes me too about these regrets is that they have little or nothing to do with what society, the media, the government, or our peers, tell us we should want most in our lives. We are told to work hard. We are told to buy more things. We are taught that we are worthy if we earn a lot of money, have a lot of expensive things, and are young, desirable and have lots of sex. We are certainly told that we should be happy. Yet even this is sold as something which is dependent on our having other things (money, products, sex appeal, sex). We are not so often told that happiness is an attitude – unless it’s along the lines of “cheer up!”, “smile!”, or similarly (un)helpful encouragements.

None of these regrets have anything to do with the iPad, the iPad 2 or any other very expensive piece of plastic with a tiny piece of hi-technology inside.

Ware’s article, far from being morbid, was for me both a comfort and a wake-up call. It’s comforting to know that some of the things I want so much currently, as well as the status anxiety that often troubles and preoccupies me, are things that will probably seem very insignificant in the last months, weeks or moments of my life. And it’s a wake-up call because it’s never too late to start trying to live authentically and honestly – but the sun is getting lower, all the same!

I’m forty-five years old. My partner is fifty. Neither of us are old, but then we’re no longer that young either. And I already have so many regrets about my teens, twenties, thirties, and even about the present. I have chronic health problems which make it much harder to achieve some of my dreams, to live the kind of life I so much want to live. But things like valuing my friends, learning to express my emotions honestly to others – those are not out of my reach at all.

They’re not out of anyone’s reach – unless they are unfortunate enough to live in solitary confinement. The things that tend to matter most to us, when we reach the end, are the simple, non-material things.

As Bronnie Ware says: “It all comes down to love and relationships in the end.”

And her last words: “Choose happiness.”