How the moods and unhappinesses of others can blow through us like high winds or stormy weather.
These passing flurries offer opportunities to re-examine boundaries — our unrealistic longings to save or rescue others, to infect them with our own infectious gaiety, to remind them of their duty to feel grateful and therefore sort-of happy, to recoil from their anger or judgmentalism, to change them rather than risk being changed by them. Relationships with those closest to us are often a kind of symbiotic porousness, so that we expect the loved others to absorb our feelings, values, morality. When all too often we are in thrall to their vicissitudes of mood or circumstance. The friend saddened by chronic illness, the neighbour filled with bitter complaints, the contagious anxieties of family members.
And it is important that in stressful times we are kind to ourselves, tender and gentle, nurturing. But sidling in alongside that gentle kindness comes self-pity, the habit of seeing ourselves as misunderstood, under-valued, put-upon, overlooked, hardwired for abuse of some kind. So that as we go about daily routines we find ourselves muttering the old phrases of despondency and victimization: This always happens to me. Nobody ever cares about how I feel. Nothing ever works out for me. might as well not be here. It’s unfair. It’s never going to work out. It always ends up this way.
Siren songs we need to put aside, the self-absorbed maladaptive language we learned as helpless or vulnerable small children who saw the world as bleak and all the dice loaded against us. Reality black and white, more shadow than light. Tunnel vision. Because there are always alternatives, other open-ended visions, possibilities, alternative stories. The one-dimensional story is only a small aspect of the truth and distorted by pessimism.
There are many, many stories to choose from, many roads to take, many ways of seeing. We know this and yet we keep forgetting.
A brisk walk always helps — to get outdoors and let the wind blow away cobwebs and dusty corners. I sometimes climb to the summit of a hill from where I can look out over not just the valley below but passes and ravines cutting through mountains, meandering river courses, flood plains and stretches of open unfarmed land, wide empty wilderness. Places where we can remind ourselves how to breathe freely. Take a break from self and others.
And writing offers a similar sanctuary. Rebecca Solnit in Guernica:
Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.