Tag: acceptance

‘Love (III)’, George Herbert

You can read this poem here. I tried to type it out on the page, as it’s in the public domain, but I wasn’t able to triumph over the pre-formatting on this blog template and I kept losing the indentations in lines 2,4 and 6 of each stanza, so eventually I gave up. It was that or throw the laptop through the window. You know how it is.

Anyway. This poem is the last in Herbert’s long sequence called The Church and, as is evident, is originally a religious poem, which presents a dialogue between a speaker and ‘Love’—Christ—who invites the speaker to receive the gift of the unconditional love of God, made possible through the freely-chosen sacrifice He himself has made on our behalf. Exquisite as this is as a fleshing-out of Christian theology, I add it here, and in connection with this particular post, because I think it can also be read as an extremely psychologically-acute dramatisation of the difficulty we can all feel, sometimes, in accepting love and kindness.

At its least important this might manifest as an exchange along the lines of ‘Your hair looks great today!’. ‘Oh… it really needs washing but I didn’t have time last night’. You know the kind of thing: we probably all know someone who simply cannot receive a compliment (and that someone might just be us ourselves!). This habit of rejection reminds me of Wonderwoman’s magic deflector bracelets, which enabled her swiftly to repel and deflect anything coming her way. That’s great if it’s bad stuff coming towards us; but there’s something sad and serious about how many of us feel only conditionally acceptable/nice/good and therefore find it difficult or impossible to receive the good stuff—be it a not-so-important compliment, or something much more necessary, like care, kindness, love. We can feel we don’t deserve it.

Thus ‘Love (III)’ shows the speaker eager, at first, to receive the love, then losing confidence—’grow[ing slack]/From my first entrance in’—and coming up with all sorts of reasons why he doesn’t deserve it. Yet Love persists—’took my hand, and smiling did reply’—and challenges gently but firmly. The guest (and isn’t it wonderful that he has been invited?: love is something offered and extended to us) comes us with all sorts of excuses, deflections of and proposed diminutions to the “feast” offered: “Me?? I can’t be a guest at this magnificent banquet. I shouldn’t even be here; I’ve got no right to it, I don’t deserve it… Oh, okay then, if you’re really sure; but at least let me help, let me do the washing up….” But then, in the end, because Love persists, the speaker just caves in and accepts.

That eventual collapse into receiving something can be sudden, and lovely, and often painful, because it means letting go of the fears and the hurt. Acceptance—self-acceptance—is (as I see it) at the centre of the work clients do in therapy; it’s my job to try to provide a relationship within which they can come to see that they are lovable. Just as in this poem, it can be such a struggle to dare to believe that you are OK, or OK-enough. It’s hard, hard work. But though the ‘sit[ting] and ‘eat[ting] is the end of a struggle (as it’s the end of the poem and of The Church as a whole) it’s also the beginning of something else: of a new and potentially beautiful way of being, where self-compassion and self-acceptance make it more possible to feel the same things towards everyone else. Happy drivers let someone else merge in from the side-road ahead of them; angry ones don’t. Happy people pay it forward.

Learning to accept kindness, from ourselves and from others, seems to be a lifetime’s work. This poem reminds me that I’m not alone in finding it hard, but that it is a worthwhile and wonderful thing to do.

The Stranger in the Mirror, Jane Shilling

A few years ago, I worked part-time at Waterstone’s (yes, I’m putting the apostrophe in even though it’s now been dropped from the signs and literature; too alienating and elitist or something), where I was in charge of “MBS”: health, religion, self-help, personal development and various other things. This meant that I Iearned more than I might otherwise have done about what Steven Fry has dismissed as ‘shivering madness[es]’—crystal healing, Angel Cards, Ordering from the Universe and so on. But it also meant that I got to spend quite a lot of time upstairs, where non-fiction, poetry and other splendid things lived. I remember unpacking The Stranger in the Mirror from the tote and thinking ‘What a brilliant title. I’ll read that some day’. I knew it wasn’t time yet—but a few years later, it is time, and I’ve read it. I found it profoundly moving.

As one who has spent the occasional bit of mirror-time, of late, lifting one side of my face and looking glumly at the resulting lopsided young/middle-aged reflection, I found the book’s inspired title encapsulated a feeling which is about so much more than looks (though coming to terms with the changes in looks is a thing to do in itself). I recognised, instantly and deeply, that sense of the defamiliarisation of ourselves which time brings about. Shilling describes herself as being ‘taken by surprise’ by middle-age. I get that, and suspect that others may, too.

Quoting Julian Barnes on what he terms ‘le reveil mortel‘—that is, the moment of apprehending the reality of one’s own mortality—Shilling notes that it wasn’t so much that this was news, but that she saw her life as a failure,

nothing behind me but mistakes and disappointments, and nothing ahead but the prospect of a series of small and large betrayals by the body that I had inhabited so insouciantly until now, until the moment of final, catastrophic betrayal.

Phew. I’m not resorting to cliche here when I say I found this book piercingly honest. I simply mean that Shilling’s realness, her willingness to say things that others might dismiss as “feeling sorry for herself” (how I LOATHE that phrase), instantly, painfully found their way to the heart of me, and to some of the sorrows and terrors I have about midlife, ageing and dying. Never having laboured under the burdens of great beauty and stylishness, I don’t relate so immediately to the the chapters about dress and style. But the stuff about middle-age as a reckoning point, a place where we review, reflect, acknowledge, lament, grieve…? Yes. I wept many times as I read this book, but am glad to have done so. They were the howls and keenings which denote irrevocable loss and, as such, were necessary and important.

I loved the directness and honesty of The Stranger, manifest from the Preface—’At 47 I thought that  steady nerve, a good haircut and an enquiring mind would be sufficient protection against most of the outrages that middle age might inflict. By 50 I knew better’—and throughout.  Without being Eeyore, or denying what there is to be celebrated about ageing, Shilling refuses to have the realities of middle-age elided or given some misleading gloss. Commenting on Gloria Steinem’s description of later life as a ‘”go[ing] back to that clear-eyed, shit-free”‘ way of being that childhood enjoys, but with the welcome addition of the kinds of power and agency children rarely have, Shilling notes:

Although there are good reasons to be upbeat about growing old, it is a mistake to think that life’s journey is circular. Getting old does not involve a return to anywhere. It is an onward passage to an unknown destination.

And the unknown is often frightening. The Stranger in the Mirror honours the intensities to be experienced in middle-age. It has much about being lost—from oneself, in the world; familiar waymarkers and trig points shift or vanish in middle-age—and about the fear which comes with being lost, and loss. It celebrates life’s richness and owns the anguish of things passing. Shilling seems wonderfully qualm-free about sharing her emotions, and I love that. We read to know we are not alone.

It is refreshing that Shilling offers us no consolatory rom-com narrative of Salvation-through-Relationship (though the importance of relationship, or relatedness-with-others, is never denied). I was rejoicing in feeling so accompanied, right until the final two sentences of the acknowledgements: ‘My dear son Alexander tolerates with patience and generosity the trials of having a writing mother. He is the point of it all’. At the time of first reading those closing words, they plunged me into despair: I felt abandoned and—for some time at least, while gasping with pain—betrayed. Now, more than 2 years (and a lot of grieving) since I first read those words, I can deal with them, see them for what they are: her truth. Not the truth.

As you will have gathered, The Stranger in the Mirror is not chirpy self-help, hot-flushes-and-the-highway-to-happiness style! Nonetheless, I found it very helpful indeed; an absorbing, moving read which made me at home in Shilling’s world and more so in my own. I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

‘+1+2.4→-1+0.0; 1/10→1/5’: difficult maths in the Dark World

Some of you who are following these pages may know—

Wait. Before I go on: those of you who are following these pages: thank you. I’m not yet ready to use “message” as a verb, but I do appreciate being, um, contacted, whether privately or publicly. And it’s wonderful to know things I say are resonating. Is it bad that I want to use the slogan for the Syrius Cybernetics Corporation? Share and enjoy, companions, share and enjoy.

Anyway. Some of you who are following these pages may know that, in the hope of spreading the word about what the afternoon knows, I’m recently embarked (read more…)

thing 4: ‘world enough, and time’: a water-pilgrimage (part ii)

So: we walked the 25ish miles from Frome to Bath, stopping to swim, eat and pour water at various points along the way.

Sounds like a kicking weekend, huh? But this turned out to be one of those experiences where time seems to expand to accommodate all the stuff its brings. I think of this as herniated time—time which bulges sideways and intrudes into eternity, or timelessness, or both (if they’re not the same).* All this to be obtained merely by putting one foot in front of the other.

The morning’s walk on day one took us across fields, past poplar-copses (we stopped to listen to the wind in the leaves) (read more…)

thing 4: ‘so pricketh hem Natur in hir corages…’: a water pilgrimage (part i)

There must be some kind of equation for packing.

If N=number of things you’d like to take, C the number of things you feel you can carry, and P what you can actually fit in your pack, the initial relationship between N, C and P can be assumed to be something like N>C≥P. After that it gets a bit confusing; but the net result is definitely F, which is what you say when you pick it up for the fifteenth time that day and your shoulders are very, very angry.

I was off to Somerset for a two-day water pilgrimage from the Holy Well at Frome to Aquae Sulis, the springs which feed the baths in, well, Bath. (read more…)