On Not Being an Arsehole in the World

Last Friday evening I attended the launch of Ruby Wax’s new book, Sane New World. Ruby is a close friend of my neighbour, and I’ve spent a few evenings around a dinner table with her where her openness about her lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety impressed me. We human beings are not big on admitting when we’re in trouble. We’re so terrified of telling the people around us that we’re frightened and not coping that we soldier on until we find ourselves so far gone that the only option is medication. When celebs (who have a lot to lose) come out with their stuff, it really helps the rest of us be brave about our stuff, too.

Anyhow, one thing she said really stuck with me. Due to her own mental health issues, she took it upon herself to get a Masters degree in Mindfulness and Cognitive Psychology at Oxford University, and learn about the human brain and why we do the things we do. And one of the things she explained was that, when we face social rejection, the same area in our brain which responds to physical pain is activated. Which is why, when people are crap to us on social media, our hearts start pounding and our mouths go dry and we experience a surge of adrenalin. Our brains can’t distinguish between a troll on Twitter and a zombie wielding a chainsaw. The threat is perceived to be the same, so even when the snarky comment comes from a complete arb who has no meaning in your life, you practically poo in your pants.

And I was relieved to hear that I’m not alone. Because when I get a criticized on Facebook or my blog for something I’ve written (though it’s really only happened a very few times) it bothers me a lot. I mull over it for days, wondering if I was wrong or if I should have expressed myself differently. (I am actually far too thin-skinned to be this opinionated about stuff). When I see a new comment has come in, I hold my iPad at arm’s length and read it with one eye shut for fear it’s someone telling me I suck. It’s pathetic, but that’s how I am. I have a few friends whose comments I dread getting. Because, while they are nice enough people, they’re not that good at thinking through the things they say, and I regularly get stung by their words. And I guess this is why we still have wars – we have a hard time thinking beyond our own noses and appreciating that other people have different thoughts and different experiences from ours.

And this whole thing has been quite a challenge for me, because when you’re writing for magazines and newspapers, you know on some conceptual level that you have an audience, but barring the odd email you might get, your readers remain largely anonymous. When you’re blogging, on the other hand, your audience is right there, a click away. You get responses immediately, and you have to deal with them. Lots of responses from lots of people living lives and in circumstances that are different from yours. And while most are really, really nice a few can be less so, and the knee-jerk reaction is to defend your position, and even be a tiny bit not nice back. Because their comment has hurt your feelings. But then you start a war.

So, what I’ve been doing instead is only being nice. I put my thoughts out there, and they get interpreted in different ways, but I elect not to defend my position or explain what I actually meant or point out things they might have misunderstood. It is not my job to convince them that my view is right. They are, after all, as ‘right’ as I am, they’ve just had different experiences. And an interesting thing happens when you consciously operate from a place of tolerance and acceptance (and it’s not always bloody easy): the fight goes away. There is no fight, just human beings sharing their thoughts and feelings.

Yet somehow we’re raised to believe we need to make ourselves heard and stand our ground and fight for our place in the world. And I’m not saying there is no reason to push back, ever, but we’re very quick to draw our guns and go onto the defensive. I have a few people in my life whose entire ethos revolves around their egos and pushing their opinions and being the ‘rightest’ in the world, and they’re tiring and make me wonder who they’re trying to convince. And the thing is, if you can take a step back and not engage you do yourself the biggest favour. Because when people are shouting and being bullies and mean to those around them, more often than not it comes from a place of sadness and confusion. Individuals who feel loved and affirmed don’t need to sound off all the time.

And what I’m learning in the biggest, biggest way is that what you put out you get back. Give that injured inner child of yours a hug, and make a decision to err on the side of niceness. It’s easy making fires and shouting the house down, but contrary to what we’ve been taught, what takes the most strength and the most courage is being kind to the people who might not have been kind to you. And when you do that – are large and gracious – it’s astonishing, the bounty and grace you attract. And I can only imagine that the opposite holds true – be angry and aggressive, and that’s what’s you’re going to experience.

So, forgive me for sounding like the Dalai fucking Lama, but this has been a major a-ha moment for me. There are a lot of people in a lot of pain, and this makes them do (and say) really weird things. And, like Ruby says, if we could learn to be mindful about this stuff instead of going into battle at the drop of a hat, we’d all suffer less in our lives. And that’s what we human beings have in common, really, isn’t it? The quest to be happy and to avoid pain. And I’ll get it wrong and probably be annoyed before I’m done posting this blog, but it’s a step in the right direction. If we all made a decision right now that, for the rest of the day, we’ll be nice to every single person who crosses our paths – even when we feel they’re buffoons from hell – our worlds would become easier to navigate. Because, really, every one of us is crazy and a bit lost and fighting some or other kind of battle. So let’s try and remember that before we throw our word grenades.