by KM Emburlyn
What If is a question never answered, and so Why Do We Ask the Question?
I’m at a stage in life where I look back and wonder where the years have gone. I remember the dreams we had, the goals we had set and still we are doing what we were doing all those many years ago. I guess it’s not so different to many in their late fifties looking down the barrel at their 60’s and 70’s thinking what if and if only. If is a potent word, if that happened, if he did this, or she had said that, all rather futile ponderings in the larger scheme of things. Never the less, they are there front and centre, larger than life.
I am often surprised at the stories told by folk throughout the socio-economic strata, their talk of when they struggled to create a home and family are familiar, the outcomes differing. It seems to me its not so much what you do or how you do it, its how the cards fall and the decisions you make along the way.
I see myself as a strong person, gifted with a love of life and humanity, painfully aware of not suffering fools gladly nor owning the capacity for patience when cheap tricks or disloyalty is involved. I was left reeling with a sense of betrayal when someone close to me played the game of negligence disowning his actions by walking past without a backward glance. It took a while to realise the word stupid featured heavily in our role as victim, a rather strong adjective when attributing it to oneself, but I believe if the cap fits, wear it.
The resulting estrangment made me aware of a need to feel accepted by those closest to me. In my late teens there was a time when I was forced to understand that to be accepted I had to conform in mannerism, speech and thought. I am able to look back on those days of misery with an understanding of cause and effect.
|Over the years I have come realise there are two forms of guilt, one is forced upon us from a court of law, the second is self inflicted. Guilt is a wonderful emotion full of self depreciating anxiety and remorse, a voluntary emotion causing unnecessary pain fed upon by those who can never forgive nor accept their own guilt.
Yesterday I was talking to a friend who had been victimised by a conman. Playing his final hand, he used words designed to finger the blame by stating how remorseful he would be if he lost her friendship. Of course he would have regrets, by losing her friendship he stood to repay a large sum of money lent to him by my very generous but naive friend.
By taking a premeditated course of action with the intention of hurting another the guilt lays squarely at the feet of the perpetrator. Unfortunately there are many who are unable to accept guilt finding a way to off load it by way of excuses. Such was the case with an acquaintance whose accountant was a family member claiming to be the best in the business. The tax department caught up with them demanding payment of accrued tax liability. Believing there was no liability on his part, the accountant claimed his actions were borne of the very best of intentions. At the time, the Oscar Pistorias court case was the focus of worldwide media attention, and the similarities in motive were too close to ignore. Good intentions have left Oscar’s girlfriend dead and her family a lifetime sentence, my friends lives have been turned upside down leaving them almost destitute.
Families are very good at offloading guilt, feeding off its effects with a gluttony of neglect. Such was the case in my own family where guilt was sustained through the power of suggestion for more than forty years.
Mum was very good at burdening guilt upon the hapless. In my early forties I was advised by my mother that in her expert opinion I was Autistic, or at best, high performing Aspergers. I was both confounded and grateful that she had inadvertently lifted a heavy cloud of guilt from my shoulders. To clarify any uncertainty I took myself to a clinical psychologist who pronounced in no uncertain terms that I was not, nor had ever been autistic, nor did I present any symptoms of Aspergers. From that day on, I understood Mum carried an immense amount of guilt about her feelings toward me. I also came to accept that I was not the child she wanted nor would I ever be, and with that understanding came a lightness of spirit and a glimmer of hope that my life would become free from a sense of duty born of guilt.
|The question I often ask myself is, what is self esteem and when does arrogance and pride overtake self belief?
I often think of my grandmother, a woman who understood her value and was self depreciating in her opinion. Then I remember the time when she remarked how a friend was a peasant. I was shocked but events since have shown the truth of her statement.
The word peasant paints an image of a worker in a field, eeking out a living from the land, with little or no education. A quick reference to the dictionary showed the meaning to include unsophisticated, rude and ignorant. This pulled me up sharp, how many times have I behaved in a similar fashion and worse still, how many times have I accused another for their behaviour? We can all be peasants and excuse our behaviour as being warranted because of anothers actions.
Is this due to the arrogance of ego and self pride, that we are unable to see ourselves behaving in a derogatory manner justifying it as righteous indignation? In truth, yes, it probably is. I cringe when I read again the emails written in self righteous indignation after my father’s passing, knowing I had sold myself short. It would be easy to excuse my actions by pointing the finger at the incoming emails, but the reality is, I held no responsibility for the writers actions, I was responsible only for mine.
There is a progression from a place of self recognition, knowing from within what feels right for you and listening to that instinct. I have lost count of the number of times I have ignored that voice of warning and found myself uncomfortable in my own skin. My fathers passing was the catalyst which helped me understand how false pride and ego can destroy lives and relationships. I also learnt to understand how pride and ego can disguise an awareness of self.
I think to my brother who finds comfort in family and business connections, who takes pride in never having made a mistake, I think to my mother who took pride in being an artist of some note and saw herself as always being right, I think to my father who took pride in his family connections and being a member of the Mensa club. Did pride make them happy people? I dont think so, in fact I would go so far to say that they were three of the unhappiest people I knew. They spent their lives looking for the great I AM accolade from society only to be bitterly disappointed.
I AM comes from within, from self knowledge and honesty. A simple statement, simple to understand, difficult to achieve. To know yourself is the greatest gift, a commodity which cannot be bought or sold, but easily stolen.
|Sometimes its easier to toss our dreams for no better reason than obstinacy.
My father at fifteen fought his parents wishes to go to sea, and by twenty five, he had passed his Master Mariner exams qualifying him to the rank of Captain. He spoke of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean with passion, his memories of countries seen vivid in the telling. The man I knew was a shadow who wafted in and out hidden behind a newspaper or in front of a TV screen, an intelligent man, witty, charming, very debonair when the occasion suited, he came equipped with an on/off switch. It wasn't until I read his biography after his passing that I learnt about the man hidden behind the shadow.
He died as he had lived, alone, separated from the world around him by disillusionment, a man with big dreams which never saw the light of day. For years we would hear him blame that person, or this company, or stupid people whose stupid decisions caused him to miss opportunities. As far as Dad was concerned life was about being Captain of the ship, guiding the vessel into safe harbour from the bridge, issuing commands not to be questioned by those who were there to obey.
Despite being surrounded by family and friends, he was the loneliest person I knew. He was a good man at heart, wanting to be loved and to love but he never understood the meaning. He had been a lonely child, viciously beaten by his father, ignored by his mother, cared for by Aunts and Uncles, a child who lived in a dream world of ships and travel. I also discovered he was a man of great courage and determination, a man I could admire.
Dad told the story of how he had flung his cap into the sea signifying the end of his dreams and I suspect, with his cap went his courage. We can all take the easy road and live in the pit of if only’s and blame game, only to end our days with regrets.
With every mistake comes an opportunity to learn and from that learning comes the occasion to never make that mistake again. Slip ups create a building block in the foundations of the person we know ourselves to be shaping our self esteem. Too many of us beat ourselves up, looking to blame or excuse easing our self inflicted burden when in reality mistakes are merely ill formed decisions guiding us on our path into the present and future.
It takes courage to look forward gathering strength from the past moving into the present and future with a passion born of belief in ourselves.
We are responsible for ourselves and our actions. I am reminded of this every day particularly when confronted with situations where I begin to question myself.
I have started a job doing what comes naturally, talking to people but because I have to learn new skills through trial and error, something starts to curl in my stomach causing self doubt. It is easy to roll around in pain, finding blame elsewhere, looking to the company, the training, the system or whatever it may be, but the fact is, there is only one person who is captaining my ship and that is me.
Someone once said that where ever we are, whatever we are doing, that is what we had planned and thinking back over the years, I think they may have been right. One example was when I was eighteen and nursing, I skipped a couple of shifts and spent the weekend with my then boyfriend. The fall out was a verbal thrashing by my mother. I spent many years blaming my mother for her outburst, but on reflection I realise I had orchestrated that weekend as a means to an end.
Self worth is a valuable tool enabling us to live our lives confident of the decisions we make. The decision to go nursing wasnt mine to make, it was my mother's. The irony is, the decision to leave nursing was also my mother's. Why didn't I say to my parents I wanted to leave the profession of their choice? Because I was frightened of the outcome.
As a parent, I have discovered it is harder to encourage self esteem than it is to tear it down. One of the joys of parenthood is watching your kids learn to captain their ship without your assistance. I dont think any parent gets away from some blame from their kids for whatever it was they did or didn't do, but, at the end of the day, it doesnt matter. What is done, is done, move forward. Many of us climb on the cycle of blame, which, as it turns becomes faster and faster until eventually someone falls off. This is when relationships break down as it did between my mother and myself.
It’s comforting to blame someone rather than look at yourself. It wasnt until I found Mums painting ‘Looking Through the Looking Glass’ did I begin to understand. We are a mirror image of the other, independant of thought, spirit and emotion, not tied in any material way other than reflection. We as parents and children tend to forget this, tying ourselves to family perceptions losing ourselves and our self confidence amidst a flurry of expectations.
|Its not that easy to put the past aside as though it didn't exist. Like it or not, it is a part of you, a part of who you are. The trouble with the past is, it has a habit of meeting us head on. The trick is how we deal with it.
I handled it pretty badly. After Mum passed, I believed it was an end to an era and it was time to move on as a person in my own right. Despite this I felt trapped in the past, unsure how to move forward.
A few years later when my father passed away, my brother jokingly suggested that with our parents gone, we need not have nothing more to do with each other. I was stunned, and so when the emails began to arrive pointing the finger at my supposed transgressions, I lost the plot.
On hindsight, what I should have done is recognised the emails as an overflow of perceptions passed down from one generation to another and hit delete. Instead, I retaliated. Humans often confuse logic, instinct and emotion in their decision making processes, balancing them against past experiences and this instance was no different.
Death and divorce are similar in that they create a myriad of emotions, the difference being, death is clean cut, divorce leaves ragged edges. I remember Mum saying it would have been easier if Dad had died because she was constantly reminded of what she had lost, rubbing salt in a raw wound. Much the same can be said of an estrangement between families, shared feelings and memories will last a lifetime.
Over the years we find ourselves attending the funerals of those we loved, becoming very aware of our own passage through time. We start to look to those left behind, who share those memories reminding us from where we came. There is a saying, ‘You don't know where you are going if you don't know where you have been’ which is very true. We are unable to turn our backs on the past because it is part of our present and future.
Having said that, I don't believe we need to hang onto the past, but use it as a point of reference when faced with circumstances which remind us of times gone by. There is going to be a day when I meet my brother again, and I know unbidden memories will come to the fore, but I am hoping I have learnt enough during the intervening years to remember that I have no control over my brothers assumptions about me, they are his responsibility.
|Acceptance is a hard lesson to learn, it is in our nature to fight that which we don’t like about ourselves and others. In my case it was the realisation that I was willing to conform undermining the person that I knew myself to be in order to be accepted by those around me. This created a vortex of frustration. Now that I look back, I realise this was a really dumb thing to do. It served no purpose and it wasn’t fair on those I cared about.
We grow independent of the genetic garden from which we are bred not to be bound by expectations nor tied up in yellow ribbon imprisoning dreams, hopes and desires. In an ideal world, family is the safety net where we fall, confident of the support, love and assistance until we are well enough to continue our chosen path. Unfortunately, the world is not ideal, it is inhabited by humans who by nature are quixotic in their desires and beliefs. Much like the caveman, modern man is the hunter, fighting for survival by fine tuning moral values to meet perceived needs.
Relationships drift between warm and cold filtering through gaps in communication and self interest. I saw an incidence of this over a financial issue. They were good friends, close in fact, he was a financial consultant and she was in business. Because of their friendship, she followed his advise in good faith only to discover years later that she had lost everything. His response was that she was to blame for not reading the contractual agreement made at the beginning of the transaction. She was both hurt and confused by his charge, when she knew she had diligently read every clause and had been assured it read exactly what had been promised at their various meetings. That he had misled her in his assurances was painful, but worse was yet to come. In the hopes he would offer due diligence and pay some recompense she made the choice to default on the option of taking the case to court. In this she was disappointed.
As the lady was telling her story, I found myself travelling back in time to situations where I had adjusted my moral compass to suit another, justifying it as a necessity to maintain the peace. A few weeks later, I found myself drowning in white hot anger while working on a painting which stirred up emotions I hadn’t been willing to acknowledge. With silent tears, my hand reached for the palette knife recklessly smearing the figure with wild gashes of red paint. Once the storm had abated, I realised the anger was towards myself for being such an idiot. For most of my life I had put my family above me, almost godlike in their sanctity, when in fact they were, like me, flesh and blood, no better or no worse than I. At that moment my father, mother and brother became my past.
|Sibling relationships can be interesting. There is competition and there are the inevitable fights and arguments however, at a time of crisis there is the certainty they will be there for each other, but like everything in life, there are the exceptions to the rule leaving a sense of disappointment and cynicism.
The recognised brand name ‘Broken Families’ us usually associated with the term ‘Divorce’, but there are broken families who hang together for the sake of the children. Such was the case in my own family. My parents disliked each other intensely, had done from they day they walked down the aisle. As a child watching the malicious mental and emotional abuse I remember wishing they would divorce hoping for some peace to gather myself and my thoughts. I did get my wish but by then, the damage was done.
Game playing is a foible of human nature, unconsciously in the most part, we say or do what needs to be done in order to achieve our ultimate aim. We frown upon manipulation or harming another to reach a goal, and yet, as parents we run a danger of doing exactly this under the pretext of keeping our children safe. Mum was a dab hand at manipulation, it was her game plan when all else failed. She would often sit us down for what seemed hours talking at us about a situation she had dreamt up over night, and by the end of the conversation we would come to realise she had convinced herself it had actually happened. In my case, war would erupt and accusations would fly over something that not only had never happened but hadnt in fact crossed my mind. As far as I could understand, it was a no win situation and the only way out was to apologise for something I hadnt done.
Mother/daughter, father/son relationships are known for their moments of competitive controversy. In Mum’s and my case our relationship was a never ending contest of wills. Mum’s determination that I should become a mirror image of who she imagined herself to be was equalled by my determination that I should be anyone other than, combatting the intrusion with passive aggressive behaviour. Our relationship became a game of cat and mouse and the only way to hide was to tell her what she wanted to hear.
Before Mum passed away, we had the oddest conversation. We were strangers communicating through a concrete wall sensing the other’s thoughts frightened to put words to those thoughts. I overheard her explain to a friend later that we had come to an understanding. I think back to that moment now and find myself scratching my head. What understanding had we reached? That we loved each other but didnt like each other?
|Parents hold the balance of power where children are concerned which in itself is not exactly earth shattering news. We all know children follow the template until they are of an age to start questioning, a time when parents learn to pray, dreading that phone call or knock on the door. Its hard to let go and accept your role has changed to that of customer service/administration officer. Its even harder when they call to say they have stuffed up and want to know what to do. The temptation to say ‘I told you so’ or to start yelling is almost unbearable particularly when you know its the last thing they need to hear. Parenthood I have learnt is a lesson in self control, a role where your own concerns and emotions are secondary to those of your kids. Most parents want to see their children happy whether by design or happy accident, and we as parents get marked out of ten once we get them through their teenage/young adulthood years without major calamity.
I cant help but think of my mother’s attitude all those years ago when I was going through my dramas at that age. There was a sense of futility on my part, never good enough to meet expectations, looking to my parents for sustenance of self esteem only to find criticism. School was a living hell, every day greeted with dread, knowing I didn't fit the mould. My peers were sophisticated, their knowledge of all things normal lay beyond my comprehension making me more determined to appear to be a person of self worth.
Assumptions based on perception annoy me and was surprised by my own culpability. Not so long ago, my best friend from school confessed how isolated she had felt explaining the struggle she had in trying to fit in. I had always been in awe of her intelligence and apparent self confidence, and felt uncomfortable when I realised I had got it wrong. We are all prone to making assumptions about people we know and in particular of those to whom we are closest. Such is the case in my own family.
We are very good at telling stories of our childhood, laughing at the games we played, times shared and of course our many and varied misdemeanors. What has me a little non plussed is how childhood follies are used as a yard stick of the adult today. Some how forty or more years of marriage, raising a family, making a living disappear into those few years of youth when you were but a shadow of your family and parents. But its not just in my own family this occurs, it happens in every family and I wonder why it is?
I am thinking in particular of a brother and sister, one compliant the other not, the standing joke was that the son was the product of the milkman, which of course was not the case but was used as an illustration of the differences. What impressed me was how the girl’s childhood misdemeanours were consistently used as a term of reference to her character until well into adulthood.