Episode 32: How do we act when the roof is on fire?
In which our protagonist struggles with the interaction between self-care and world-care
(C/W: politics, terrorism, war, mass shootings, racism, misogyny)
I slept through 9/11. I was in Australia. It all kicked off late in our evening, and I’d been so exhausted that I retired early that night. My mum realised I needed the sleep - it was, on reflection, probably my first round of burnout; my second year as a newspaper journalist and a day before the first anniversary of my father’s death - and she didn’t wake me until early the next morning to tell me what was going on. My first thought? “Best get to work.”
As a teen I had dreamed of being a war correspondent, perhaps a political one. But in 2001, my second year of working at a newspaper, I wasn’t a news journalist; I was in features. And I was in Adelaide, the forgotten outpost of Murdochland. My services were not needed. I remember getting in the lift at the end of that day and muttering about how it was “the biggest news story of my life and I spent it reviewing pop singles”.
I grew out of my newshound tendencies not long after, but I remembered that feeling yesterday as I sat down to write this missive. The world around us is crumbling, the bad guys appear to be winning, and I was sitting there being self-indulgent about my fears and burnout-induced breakdowns? How ridiculous am I? I was/am so overwhelmed with guilt - guilt at my inaction and lack of knowledge, guilt at my inability to influence, guilt at feeling guilty - that I couldn’t bring myself to write.
These episodes are designed to talk through my own personal journey through burnout and breakdown, my year of being self(ish) - they are not the place for politics and societal reflection - and yet my core purpose was swayed. The world around me impacts my ability to help myself, after all, and I felt I had to do something, say something. But what? I am ill-informed, and worse still, I don’t have the energy or the headspace to get informed. I am burned out from being burned out. I am so frustrated and angry at the world that I actually yelled at a man on the bus on Sunday (perhaps a story for another day).
The end times seem near. We are 18 months into a global pandemic that people seem to have forgotten about. The climate crisis is being ignored. Angry bros think they’re so entitled to women they shoot up their neighbourhood. And then Afghanistan collapses...
What happens when poor mental health faces a sick world?
So what can I do? What can we, as a collective, do? The best thing is to amplify the voices of those who know rather than wade in with ill-informed opinion. This Twitter thread from Bushra Ebadi has some great ideas on how to support Afghanistan and the Afghan people. When it comes to the challenges closer to home, we can keep issues in the public eye, ensure we talk about them openly and calmly. We can educate and get educated. Each of us has a story to tell, and each of our stories are important.
Last week’s events in Plymouth - a city I inherited through marriage - were terrorism. Right-wing white-man terrorism, but terrorism nonetheless. The fact the shooter’s skin colour meant that concept was initially discounted is a big part of the problem here. Also a problem: civilisation is sick. And I just don’t know what to do about it. I don’t know how to fix things, and that is eating away at me and my inherent need to make everyone happy.
So yes, I’m living in fear and in guilt. Both of these things are paralysing me, making me unable to take action. But I also have to remember that I’ll be no good to anyone if I’m not good to myself first. My awakening need to fix the world is a good thing because it means I’m emerging from my cocoon and remembering why I’m here. But it’s also a distraction, because I’m not yet ready. I’m emerging, but I’m not fully formed. My shell is still too soft. I need to keep my eyes firmly fixed inward for a while longer.
How do I know I’m not yet ready? I’m taking everything personally again. Every little thing that happens, every interaction that is not glowing, every message that goes unanswered, it’s all clearly because I’ve done something wrong. Stupid me. And then I berate myself for getting selfish when the world is on fire… Yet more inner critic, yet more distraction.
In his book Fear (see below), Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn writes:
“Many of us have big blocks of pain and suffering in the depths of our consciousness that we cannot bear to look at. We have to keep ourselves very busy to ensure that these unwelcome guests do not come and pay us a visit. We busy ourselves with other ‘guests’ - we pick up a magazine or a book to read, we turn on the television, or we play music. We do anything and everything we can to fill our attention with something. That is the practice of repressing. Most of us adopt this embargo response. We do not want to open the door for our fear, our sorrow, and our depression to come up, so we bring in all manner of other things to occupy us. And there are always plenty of things available to help us distract ourselves from what’s happening inside.”
I’m repressing by getting angry at the world. I’m avoiding dealing with my own issues by getting worked up about other people’s. I’m letting my emotions overtake me so that I don’t deal with the issues closer to home, right here inside of me. So what can I do? I can amplify the voices that know, I can keep informed, and I can keep working on my self(ish) ways. Because only once I’m whole, complete, a fully-formed empathic being, only then can I truly be of use to those around me.
This has been another rambling rant, but let me leave you with this: Stay woke, dear reader, but stay self(ish) too. You’re no good to anyone if you’re no good to yourself.
(Also, please tell me of good things to lift my spirits?)
PS: A favour, por favor?
If you’re a creative or you wish you were creative - and especially if you're a writer or wish you were a writer - can you spare a few minutes to fill in this survey? I’m doing some informal market research as I look to set up a creative coaching business, and all insights will help me to tailor what I do to what you need. Thank you 🙏
The week ahead 🗓
Writing: I’ve convinced a lot of people to do the Three Day Novel this year, so I guess I better start thinking about what I’ll write about so I can do it too. Yes, this 100% is procrastination from the folk horror novel, but I also need some creative play to reignite my writing passion and this’ll do nicely. I need crazy short deadlines for optimal output.
Work: Slowly, slowly, thinking about how I can best make work work for me. Also need to write two articles about pet rabbits, so it’s not all bad.
Health: The health, on the other hand… Walking around Kennington on the weekend almost killed me. I need to properly focus on that whole One Million Steps thing for Diabetes UK and get back to (aka actually start) the daily walking.
Routine: Self-care in the morning; work and study in the afternoon. Plus,join me and hundreds of others at the LWS Writers’ Hour every weekday: 8am London, New York, California and NZ.
On the stereo 🎧
Loving in Stereo, by Jungle
One of those outfits that you know even if you don’t know, Jungle’s 2014 single Busy Earnin’ - from the eponymous, Mercury-nominated debut album - was a soundtrack and advertisement favourite. The British electronic music project dropped a new album last week and it is 🔥🔥🔥, as the kids say. Gorgeous listening for a fun electro-soul afternoon or a late evening chill.
Off the shelf 📚
Fear, by Thich Nhat Hanh
The promo copy sounded like exactly what I need: “When we're not held in the grip of fear, we can truly embrace the gifts of life. Learn how to overcome the worries, insecurities and fears that hold you back in this perspective-shifting book.”
But it’s also coming from the mind of a celebrated Zen master, so it’s not as simple as that. Super-spiritual tomes tend to annoy me after a while, and given this is written by a monk, it gets religious. Not overly so, but even still, there is God-ing. That said, Thich is the master of mindful living, and this is a quick read that provides plenty of practices to help you work on/through your fear. Not sure I’m ever going to get to the Buddha Mind of no-fear, but I’ll keep trying!
“The practice of meditation offered by the Buddha has two parts: stopping and looking deeply. The first part of meditation is stopping. If you’re like most of us, since you were born, you’ve been running. Now it’s a strong habit that many generations of your ancestors also had before you and transmitted to you - the habit of running, being tense, and being carried away by many things, so that your mind is not totally, deeply, peacefully in the present moment. You get accustomed to looking at things in a very superficial way and being carried away by wrong perceptions and the negative emotions that result. This leads to behaving wrongly and making life miserable.
“The practice is to train yourself to stop - stop running after all these things. Even if you don't have irritation, anger, fear, or despair, you’re still running with this or that project, or this or that line of thinking, and you’re not at peace. So even (or especially) at those times when you have no problem at all, train yourself to be here, to be relaxed, to stop, to come back to the wonders of the present moment.”
Visual confirmation 📷
It was my birthday on Saturday (I may have mentioned this once or twice - unusually for me!), and I went to the cricket with Mr Lauren and the sky was actually blue and after 15 years of London birthdays the universe finally delivered decent weather for the Big Day. Thanks for all the good wishes, and thanks to the LWS writers hour crew/s for singing me the birthday dirge no less than three times.