KEEPING KIDS SAFE

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I’m wondering how people will remember me when I’m dead. Will my family stand beside my coffin and tell lies about me? She was a wonderful woman (sub-text – she was a right bitch!)  Will the work I have done be remembered by anyone? Will I have made a difference to anyone’s life? I hope so. I really don’t want an epitaph that is full of platitudes and fibs.

When you reach middle age, you may start to look back and consider these serious questions. Wondering if I will be seen as a ‘good’ woman is worrying me, because ‘good’ can often cover up things like laziness, indifference and unconcern about anyone but myself.  Niceness can make me as sick as nastiness, and there is a lot of that about. To be truly a nice person, you have to have a certain depth. Niceness can otherwise cover up a number of hidden sins. It can be an excuse to do nothing when there is a need for positive action. Edmund Burke once said that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing…

You have to keep that sentiment firmly in the front of your mind, because it’s often so much easier, for self preservation, to do nothing. Knowing that a child living near you could be being abused by members of the family is one of those situations where you can hover between doing nothing and speaking up.  It’s so easy to make excuses and try and see things in  positive light. But abuse is negative, very negative and should never be ignored. Better to make a mistake than to allow a child to suffer. The NSPCC website gives great advice, but often people feel that telling on a neighbour or a family member is like telling tales at school. It will sort itself out, you tell yourself. Least said, soonest mended. Not so.

The most difficult type of abuse is emotional. It’s difficult to recognise and ever harder to describe to the authorities. Parents yell at their kids. We’ve all done it. We can be impatient and bad tempered. We can’t always be saints, can we? But there is a clear line between what is normal family grumpiness and abuse. Screaming abuse in front of children is totally unacceptable, even if the abuse is directed to another adult. This type of behaviour is usually about the abuser’s own psychological damaged state of mind, because they cannot see how their behaviour will impact on any child present and listening to the tirade. My film The Lost Child looks at this sort of behaviour through the eyes of a child. It points out that adults swearing and shouting in front of children, often simply do not see them. They do not see that these episodes become memories for children that are very hard to erase. They do not see that yelling and shouting and swearing in front of vulnerable children is just as harmful as hitting them with a hammer; that the mind can be battered as well as the body.

Emotional abuse often goes hand in hand with emotional neglect; an indifference to the child’s emotional inner life, a cavalier attitude to questions by others who ask if the child is alright.  For example, a child who is going through the parents divorce and separation may behave badly at school. If the parents try to whitewash that behaviour to other family members that, to my mind, is a kind of emotional abuse. Kids behave badly in those circumstances because they are hurting. If parents choose to ignore what they are told by teachers, then I think they are guilty of emotional neglect. Listening to what children are trying to express can often be difficult, especially in highly-charged situations. You have to be able to hear the hidden agenda and to respond to it appropriately.

With Christmas almost here, there will be many cases of domestic violence and child abuse. They escalate throughout any holiday season. While most families are celebrating in a joyful atmosphere, there will be children suffering somewhere, perhaps near you. So don’t hold back. If you have the slightest suspicion that a child maybe being abused, either physically or emotionally, pick up the phone. That’s being truly positive.

Being remembered for caring about your fellow human beings is also positive.

NOT MUCH HAPPY

"Dad's Renaissance": Coward's popula...
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Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?  Difficult.  How can I decide who is a friend and who is an enemy? These days, what seemed ordinary has morphed into the extraordinary if not the extra-terrestrial!  Take the Norovirus. Smacks of the plague to me. Are they checking the holds of planes for rats? Do I really have to wash my hands every five seconds! This virus is an enemy. How can I keep it close. That saying is patently rubbish!

Then there is the money business aka monkey business that our slowly imploding government is grappling with. Global destitution to go with global warming like the perfect shoes with the perfect suit. And now a judge rules that swearing at the police is so common that it is unlikely to cause offence… The Police Federation do not agree. They told Channel 4 this morning that decriminalizing it would be a ‘slippery slope’… What the f*** is that judge talking about?

This does sound like the words of a very grumpy person, but just recently I have been standing back and letting it all wash over me, like butter on a crumpet. It’s overload, you see. I just want it all to be ordinary again. Yes, I believe that the sixties were a great time. If I have to wear spectacles, I want them to be rose tinted!  So VIVA NOSTALGIA!

I have a friend who plays sixties records and recently bought a very pale pink lipstick. She walks everywhere. Yes, you read that right. WALKS. The car stays put and her stomach stays flat…  She has bought second hand dark brown furniture for her house  – it cost nothing at auction – and instead of spending hours stripping, staining and stenciling, she has slapped it along the walls of her living room and enjoys its dreary 1950’s allure. I might even polish it  for her next time I visit, if I can find a real, cotton yellow duster.

Watching Kirsty Alsop’s new series about home making had me dancing up and down. Watching all Kirsty’s  interior decorating finds; little knick-knacks that cost a mere one hundred quid a throw that are lugged all the way from some London market to Devon in her brand new Defender, I just love her audacity. In truth she is the perfect fifties throw-back. Who wouldn’t want a Devon cottage to look like their granny’s suburban semi with Victorian stand-alone bath and hand thrown pots? And Kirsty, bless her, is soooo NICE – a very fifties attribute. You can’t take her seriously, can you? Would she swear at a policeman?

There is comfort in living in a nostalgia bubble. You don’t see the vacuous nonsense on TV because you listen to the radio.  Yes, that’s it – the RADIO and mostly you listen to Radio 4 or as I now call it, the HOME SERVICE.  I shall start to wear gloves all the year round:  white in summer, black in winter. Heaven.  Little changes mean a lot, especially when you shake hands with those friends and enemies. I shake hands with everyone these days. So much more hygienic that kissing with all the norovirus about. After all, the Queen does it.

And as for sex…. Well, it’s there. It’s everywhere.  But wow, how erotic abstaining used to be?  Where sex is concerned, are you not nostalgic for the fifties, when life was all secrets and lies?  All that polite chitchat instead of chat-up – glorious! Lots of stilted fumbling – wonderful! And Noel Coward dialogue when you do get round to speaking – “Norfolk? Very flat…”

I have come to see that my enemies are not people, most of whom I love dearly ( apart from the really bad ones) but the blah blah that threatens to overwhelm us every minute. It’s the fastness, the bullying, the hate, the racism, the violence… Oh, I could list forever. Nostalgia protects us. It’s not a cop out. Just a way of taking myself to another, imagined quieter time where I can live to my pace of life. Of course, the fifties were awful really with all those oppressed women and washing powder advertisements and as for the sixties – well the less said the better. But those eras can be raised from the dead in my head and with a few accessories, can make me happy. Yes, I said HAPPY. There’s not much HAPPY around these days…..

PS. My sister was a backing singer on this disk. Happy days!

CLEARING OUT

clutter
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A friend once told me to cut the trash out of my life. She was of the opinion that I was too tolerant; too understanding when people verbally attacked me. I needed to be more assertive and surround myself with intelligent, sensible souls who wouldn’t give me a hard time.   I had always thought of myself as a fair minded person, able to see both sides of any question. I liked the notion that I was Socratic and could weigh things up and make a decision based on common sense and compassion. But hearing my friend describe me like that, made me think. Was I spending too much time looking for the best in everybody? Was I closing my eyes to the fact that there are bullies out there? Was I opening myself up to abuse by refusing to except that we all have it in us to destroy our fellow humans and we ignore this fact at out peril?

Take the example of one country going to war against another. One nation is the oppressed and the other is the oppressor. War is deemed to be the only solution when all others have failed. Even at such high levels, our leaders descend countries into mayhem, sometimes just to defend a political ideal. In every day life, small wars are being conducted all the time. When we are involved in a difficult conversation with someone, we might take many different approaches to resolve things.  We can take the fear-inducing road: “You must do this or else there will be trouble!” or be more persuasive:  “Please do this because….”  Yet both these ways can fail miserably. Why? Could it be because we didn’t use the ‘we’ word? Giving others the sense that everyone is in the same boat can work. So saying something like : ” We can resolve this because we both know we can work together really well…”  shows that you value that person and your relationship with them.

I know that I have to keep working at ways to connect and interact with my fellow man or woman and it’s a grind! Inside me, as with everyone else, is that demanding child who wants to be listened to and get her own way, no matter what. Small kids find it hard to listen. They are too busy doing. Listening is being grown-up and all of us, at times, don’t want to be grown-up – after all it goes on for life!  But learning to listen well, can work miracles. When I was in my teens, I was incredibly self-conscious.. It was a crippling condition and it stopped me from listening to anyone because I was always listening to the voice in my head that kept pointing out my inadequacies.  Learning to listen helped me focus away from myself.

Another problem for me was high expectations. Everything had to be just right. There was no room for failure or mistakes. It took me a long time to realize that good enough was good enough; to understand that putting impossible demands on myself and other people was setting us all up to fail, big time. I now know that perfection is overrated and impossible. That’s not to say that I won’t complain when things really go pear-shaped.

The Brits used to be terrified of complaining or ‘making a fuss’.  That attitude went back a long way. Our ancestors were stoic and put up with things. These days, thanks to the media, we all think we know how to complain. But do we? It can be very hard to get a grip of a situation when you need to complain, and you know are not being taken seriously. The adrenaline starts to pump and you want to give someone a good smack. That’s what happens when kids attack each other with knives and some poor child is killed. They don’t know how to handle their feeling of injustice and rage and it’s not something that is taught in schools. It should be.  Keeping a neutral stance when you feel you have been wronged, is one of the most difficult things you will ever do, but if you can do it, it will work and the complaint will be vindicated.

Being specific and giving the other person a chance to make amends is crucial.  If that doesn’t work, losing your cool certainly won’t. Your final weapon is to take action and by that, I don’t mean killing someone. Taking action means carrying out the consequences you outlined when you started to complain. So, if your car has been badly serviced and you can’t get any sense out of the garage, remember that you told them that if they didn’t make good you would take them to the small claims court to get your money back. Then do it. It’s not a big deal. Too many of us huff and puff and do nothing because we do not know precisely what it is we can do. Find out. Be informed. Knowledge is always powerful.

Stating clearly what I want, has taken time to learn.My education meant that I was taught to always put the needs of others before my own. Very principled.  I don’t disagree that in a perfect world it would be a perfect way to live. But it ain’t perfect out there, and we have to balance getting what are legitimately our rights with what is a workable compromise – for everyone. It’s a tough job.

So, clearing clutter for me means clearing out all those behaviour and attitude patterns that don’t work. It means being able to recognise them and replace them with something better, more workable. It means not running away from people I find difficult, or trying to change them, but accepting them as they are and asserting myself with intelligent compassion.  Can I do it?  I’m only human. I can try.

WHAT’S THE POINT OF FEELING?

Figure 15 from Charles Darwin's The Expression...
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What is true empathy? It is the way we humans recognize and then identify another person’s feelings. It’s how we can put ourselves into their shoes and know what it feels like. But if you are unable to identify your own feelings, you are unlikely to be able to adequately empathise with someone else. You may read about feelings in books, see them portrayed in films and on TV, but this is very different to experiencing those feelings yourself. To be able to relate to others effectively, you need to acknowledge and accept your own feelings. If you have never experienced intense feelings you will find it difficult to understand how others feel them. If you have never felt you wanted to fight against some injustice or have been fiercely angry, you will find it hard to understand and empathise with those feelings in others. So you need to ‘feel’ in order to empathise.

As a Forum Theatre practitioner, I ran workshops where participants were given the chance to ‘rehearse for reality’. We set up scenarios showing difficult and complex relationship situations and enabled people to try out different solutions, using their own experiences to inform them. Emotional awareness helped us to empathise with others and use our life experiences to explore solutions to the problems portrayed. Forum Theatre can be very useful in helping people define empathy and the ways in which it can enhance relationships. Emotional intelligence is innate and helps to guide our actions.

Recognizing when another person needs empathy from you can also be very difficult for some people. In our materialistic consumer ridden society, spending money can replace giving a loved one the empathy they need. A child is miserable and sulky, so we buy them sweets or a toy. Giving them time to share and acknowledge their feelings with us is often too difficult because we are used to appeasing people with money. We all fantasies about winning the lottery; what we would do, how easy our life would be. We have become entrenched in believing that with money we will never have to feel pain again – we can be eternally happy. If only.

To ‘feel’ things emotionally can be a scary prospect for many people. We can numb feelings with drugs and alcohol. We can show indifference or be in denial. But in order to fully empathise with others we must have the courage to identify, accept and acknowledge our own feelings. Today, too many people are given pills the minute they feel sad and receive a diagnosis of depression. Real depression is a serious condition, but these days, we are under pressure to be happy all the time and there is little space in our lives for a healthy rainbow of emotions that will make us more rounded people.

Often when people are feeling the most emotional pain, they shut down. In the UK we have for years battled with the ‘stiff upper lip’ syndrome, which encouraged men to suppress their emotions at all costs. They may be locked up and that often leads to serious depression, because to shut down our emotions is a dangerous thing to do. This emotional blindness can cause much misery and does not lead to fulfilling relationships.

Fortunately not everyone is like this. Some people are lucky enough to be able to express their emotions clearly. You can read their eyes and facial expressions, so you know how they are feeling. So, being sensitive to yourself and to others is part of good communication and that makes sense. In business the outcome is a happier workforce with less unrest and stress. A sensitive and empathetic employer will get the best from staff. By validating their feelings, not rejecting their opinions, by acknowledging the need for empathy, a clever emotionally intelligent employer will recognize how valuable empathy can be in the workplace. To totally ignore feelings is setting the scene for discontent.

Toured the UK  in association with Rethink UK
Jane Bellamy and Mike Berenger in The Tameness of a Wolf by Lyn Ferrand

The more you know about someone through empathising with them, the more compassion you can show them. You can see the connection between their feelings and your own. Getting to know someone on an emotional level helps you to understand their basic emotional needs and to realise that they are probably the same as your own. That helps you to identify with them and hence to be able to empathise and show them compassion. We all have emotional needs, even though we may try hard to deny or suppress them. That’s when the trouble starts… So compassion is a mix of empathy and understanding. If you can empathise with someone, you will understand them far more than if you turn away and refuse to engage.  If you understand them better, compassion for them will be easier.

But what happens when a person becomes a murderer? If you have no feelings or are not in touch with them, you are unlikely to have much of a conscience. You may not feel any remorse or guilt for your crimes. Feelings help us navigate through life safely and we ignore them at our peril. So how do we become someone out of touch with feelings? Well, the experience of a very bad childhood can make us close down to our feelings. Abuse in childhood might make us unable to ‘feel’. It’s an inbuilt safety net that stops us from feeling any more pain, but it also prevents us from feeling compassion for someone else in pain. Our ability to empathise may also be missing. It is likely that prisons are full of people who cannot ‘feel’ and cannot express either empathy or compassion.

I truly believe that our feelings should never be negated. They are essential to a happy, safe and productive life.