Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Gentleness is strength, though toxic masculinity may not think so

\An article in the Huffpost recently drew attention to Trump's (always tactful) assertion that gentleness or sensitivity is a weakness. Trump didn't exactly say this. Instead, he called a man who had not bought into toxic hypermasculinity a 'pussy'. Toxic masulinity will always see sensitivity or compassion as weakness. I see it as a strong and very willful choice which breaks down forced masculinity and boring gender binaries. I first began thinking about gentleness as strength when my older daughter, Danny, was very young. Danny is highly sensitive and very compassionate. She will notice a great deal and respond with concern. Danny is the one who will reach out to outsiders, the one who will always lend a hand. Her compassion has been valued by many. It's helped her advance in her career. But it hasn't always been treated with respect.

Photo by Katherine Linder Photography

Eileen Aaron, who wrote The Highly Sensitive Child, showed me how to trust Danny's insights and how to encourage her to develop self care by noticing how much she could manage at any one time. As a parent, I learned the importance of acknowledging her. As a parent I really enjoyed Danny's gentleness. My partner, Jacques, is also a very gentle person. It's something I appreciate about him. His kindness is sometimes astonishing. As a second time parent, I also notice sensitivity and gentleness in Ava, my beautiful baby. Ava will hold plants gently and stroke their leaves rather than trying to pull flowers off their stalks. Like Danny, she notices a great many things. She'll point to the worms she's seen Jacques feeding, or the old enamel kettle he's been using to water his seedlings.

image by Kayla of @Kayeanp (Instagram)

Gentleness has value

With three very sensitive family members, I have truly come to value gentleness. When I looked this quality up on the internet, I noticed quite a bit of information on kindness. Danny and Jacques are both incredibly kind. They are also both very strong. Danny is persistent, determined and very bounded. As gentle as she is, she won't let people push her around.

Jacques has an incredible strength and compassion which enables him to see the other side of many interactions. Like Danny, he will keep trying no matter how many struggles he's been through. I am hoping Ava will have his strength and determination.

I'm always surprised when people point out how strong both Danny and Jacques are, and use the word 'but' within the sentence. "Danny is gentle but she is very strong." Or "Jacques is very gentle but he's a strong person." It's as though kindness and gentleness are equated with naivety or a lack of assertion instead of compassion. And yet, what I've noticed within both Jacques and Danny is the will to make a difference, to approach a situation with compassion, or to treat another person with dignity.

Compassion is an act of will

When I look at my two very gentle family members, I'm reminded of Rollo May's work Love and Will. Rollo May discusses the act of caring, or tending towards, as an act of willfulness. Unlike an all accepting, hippie style love, compassion or care takes action. Rollo May saw love as different to sentiment. He compared sentiment to feeling without a deeper awareness, giving the example of ladies crying in the theatre while the coachman shivered outside in the cold. Compassion involves reaching out, giving, caring and connecting. Sometimes it means negotiating and re-negotiating throughout the process.

I've noticed though that people who take advantage of gentleness eventually end up losing it. Both Danny and Jacques will put in boundaries when people push too far, becoming too demanding or generally make them feel uncomfortable. They will understand more than most but will eventually give up if another person keeps taking more than they will give. I think it is sometimes those people who perceive gentleness to be weakness who believe they can push too far. It's those people who eventually get to know the boundaries which have always been in place.

Image by Kayla of @Kayeanp (Instagram)

Gentleness has never been a weakness. Kindness is a choice rather than a default position. It's a choice I cherish. I've been rewarded with so much compassion and care from both Danny and Jacques. Their kindness has been one of the greatest gifts. Both will reach out again and again. But they do it through choice. It's a choice which takes strength and one which, if not valued, will eventually be withdrawn.

While Trump might hold forthright that gentleness is a weakness and toxic aggression is strength, he was eventually voted out. His aggression may have appealed to some, but thankfully not the majority.

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The drama of the gifted child: and the broken society

I used to love Alice Miller. She was big on accepting the whole self within your child. When I had my daughter, Danny, Alice Miller was there, guiding me to accept all of my child's thoughts and feelings. I wanted to embrace a whole relationship with her. To accept all parts of her. I wanted her to know that she didn't have to achieve to make me proud. That she was already everything I needed her to be. That she was her own person.

Alice Miller focuses on the child who is forced to achieve in order to be 'good enough', the child who is compelled to meet his parents' unconscious needs. The child who is unable to share that his parents were not there for him in the way he needed most, except through symptoms. The soul speaks very bad English. It doesn't say "Oh, this is what is wrong...." Alice Miller explains that symptoms tell the truth, helping a person to tell the full story. The past is put together, piece by piece, until the world is right again.

We protect our children but society might not

I used to think that childhood was crucial. I still do. Mistreating children causes all kinds of anxiety. One of my psychology lecturers went so far as to say 'if you mistreat children, you create killers.' But I no longer believe childhood to be everything. Parents can value their children deeply, care about them and nurture them, and still send them out into a hostile world. A world where boys don't cry, where racism is rife, and where school systems are designed for certain children but not others.

As my daughter began to grow up, the child I loved and never wanted to hurt began to fear the dangers she faced. She had just started high school when Reeva Steenkamp died. She came home with frightened eyes. "Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend..." That was how the story had been told. Oscar in the foreground. The anonymous girlfriend in the background. Gender based violence eroding her sense of safety. There would later be stories of how the men women know are the biggest threats.

Danny was sensitive. She began to listen and to learn about the world. She learned the pain of her adopted 'black' friend who was searched at the airport while her 'white' parents were able to walk through the door. She learned of a library in Mali and asked questions about colonialism. She wondered why schools valued cleverness over compassion. Social injustices bothered her and began to threaten her.

There is still a place for cherishing our children

I still understand Alice Miller's need to protect children and to give them the humanity they deserve. I understand the need for the full self to be valued, no matter what. I understand the need to hold our children when they cry and be there for them when they rage. But I think we need to do more. We need to challenge a world which tries to keep our children ignorant of their human rights, which tries to assist them to fit in with dominant cultural beliefs, which upholds inequalities and indignities.

Alice Miller challenges narcissism. She challenges the belief that our children should fit in with parental needs. That the prizes and achievements a child makes are a reflection on their parents. She encourages us, as parents, to embrace the difficulties, the messiness and the neediness of small children. She encourages us to offer love, no matter what. And to be good enough. But every thought or perspective leaves out a different one. It's time to create changes outside of ourselves, to create a world where all children might feel safe, regardless of 'race', 'gender', ability or intelligence. And it's time to do this while embracing our children for who they are.

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If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.

Sheldon Kopp's book, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! Was one of my favourite books for a very long time. It looks at modern day stories and combines them with therapeutic journeys in a most intriguing way. Ultimately though, he shares that people are only really healed when they are able to step away from the gurus they trusted and forge their own paths, explaining that the therapy client in particular is often too invested in the opinions of others. From the business woman who would like to become a gogo dancer, to the beauty who needs to connect with her own beast or shadow, the tales are fascinating ones which would motivate many to seek self knowledge.

It is the concept of stepping away from the guru who fascinates me though. In a book about the psychotherapist as guru, Kopp once compared the therapist to the Wizard of Oz. He comes in disguise, seemingly more important and capable than he really is. Oz is more than human, a powerful image in the mind of those who would seek his assistance. There is the cowardly lion, the brainless scarecrow and the tin man without a heart. There is also Dorothy, seeking her way back home. Although Dorothy would later declare the wizard to be a 'very bad man' and a fraud, the wizard saw himself as a very good man. As Kopp shares, had he pointed out that his seekers already had the qualities they were looking for at the very beginning, they would simply not have believed him.

Lately though, I've been intrigued by the dark guru or wizard, the one who will not relinquish power even after his/her followers are aware of their own strengths. Followers are so often more capable than their mentors eventually. I am reminded of Asher Lev, who eventually became a better artist than his mentor, Jacob Kahn. Jacob admitted to teaching Asher all that he could and pointed out that the student had surpassed the mentor. One of my own mentors, a brilliant woman with incredible insights once said to me (about a single topic) 'thank you for showing us, including me, what you see.' I was stunned. I believe true mentoring is about humility and the ability to share how we our all on our own learning journeys. None of us have all of the answers. It simply isn't possible.

Many who seek a mentor are naturally humble and believe that assistance offers great benefits. How important, then, to ensure those people know when they have the skills to manage alone. This helps to prevent imposter syndrome, where a person always believes s/he is not ready, that extra assistance is crucial, that is always something more to learn. Sheldon Kopp, by teaching his clients to reject all gurus and to follow their own path, offers some of the greatest advice of all. The path to authenticity

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Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Welcoming Ava

It's been a long time since I last wrote on my blog. I last wrote as I became pregnant with my second child, Ava. Jacques and I were thrilled at her arrival, and although a pregnancy which occured during the COVID pandemic was a little scary, Ava was born well and healthy. I wrote an article about Ava's birth for a local magazine because when I was pregnant with Ava, many of the articles I read online were scary. I couldn't have had a better experience though.
Ava is a little gem who has brought such joy to both of our lives. At the moment, she is starting to coo and will regularly speak to us in her own little language. She is definately a nature lover and adores being outside picking the leaves, smelling the flowers and gazing at birds and lizards. It's made me realise how deeply children love nature. Danny, my first child, is still a nature lover who adores her animals. The days when strolling to the playground used to take an hour, when Danny would take time to watch the flowers grow have come back to me now. Ava adores planting seeds with her dad and watering them with an old enamel kettle. I'd had no idea that Jacques was watering flowers with a kettle, so when Ava was pointing to the kettle with such excitement, I wasn't sure what she wanted to do. After a little bit of frustration, I asked Jacques and he explained.
Once again, I am reminded of how little babies need. Ava has a lot of generous relatives who have given her so much. She has a baby jumper for when she can sit up, a lot of toys and lots of clothes. She adores her baby gym and her Clip Clop donkey rattle. Other than this though, she is happy to be carried around the garden, exploring nature. She'll sit contendedly on the patio steps with me for well over half an hour, just watching the birds in the trees. It's also been a great stress reliever for me. I have learned to calm down again, to take time to explore and to simply be mindful once again. Spending time with children is always a reminder to re-view the world.

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Saturday, 28 October 2017

Women's voices, Harvey Weinstein and sexual assualt

I've been reading the New Yorker, and Annabella Sciorra's story of shame and upset at what Harvey Weinstein had allegedly done to her.  What stood out for me was the shame that she felt, and her horrible reluctance to tell her story because others would 'know' what she had experienced.

It brought back the terrible memory of sitting in a lecture, and having a professor explain to us that when women are sexually assaulted, their strongest emotion is not fear or rage, but shame.  Shame wasn't the only emotion Annabella Sciorra expressed.  She shared her fear as well.  And hers was a fear so strong that she was unable to tell her story.  Initially, she denied being Weinstein's 'type'.

For me, it is these two factors - the fear of speaking out about rape or sexual assault due to shame, and the fear of speaking out because of, well because of sheer terror, that are at the heart of this story.  The terror of feeling physically vulnerable and unsafe is a cruel dynamic that puts a woman at the mercy of a predator.  The shame she experiences is an equally social dynamic.

In a fit of helpless frustration, I saw a woman speak out earlier this week about 'Hollywood', as though the women who were being assaulted had this happen purely because they were in a strange place, an out of this world place, where fantasy is made, and all women are sexy or glamorous.  This made it seem as though sexual assault only happens to women who make a living dressing their best, putting on make up and styling themselves to look their best (and possibly their sexiest).

This, I think, is one of the reasons women might feel ashamed about rape or sexual assault.  It is those social myths which point out that a woman has been sexually assaulted because she is somehow extra - ordinary.  She was a Hollywood type, for example, and perhaps her clothes were too sexy, or her hair too glamorous.  Perhaps she was dancing, or drinking, her skirt was too short, or she was so desperate for a job that she ended up in an uncomfortable situation.  In other words, perhaps if this woman did something 'wrong', and she is to blame for what has happened to her, normal women, everyday women, will be safe.

Putting the blame on a woman for sexual assault, whether the focus is on her clothing, her occupation, her hairstyle or her posture, blames a woman for her assault.  Likewise, if we see a woman as guilty because 'she shouldn't have been out at night', or 'she should have watched her drink', we place the blame on a woman for her assault.

Rape or sexual assault is dehumanizing, and it robs a woman of her voice, her physical boundaries and her feeling of safety.  After suffering such a terrible crime, a woman would feel ashamed, and she would feel ashamed because her humanity was robbed from her.  She becomes afraid to speak about because to share this feeling of degradation means going back into this terrible space.  Sexual assault is a violation.  A woman would not want to share it because sharing means having to recall it.

But what if a woman knew that no matter how hard it would be to share, her story would be treated with empathy or compassion?  What if her story was accepted and treated with empathy, and she knew that nobody would ask her about the length of her skirt or the height of her heels.  Where she was, how many drinks she'd had, or the career she'd chosen to do, wouldn't come into the picture.  Instead, she would share knowing that her voice would make her powerful.  What then?

It's a hard question to answer, because women do not generally share stories of sexual assault under these circumstances.  They do not assume that the automatic response would be empathy.  Brene Brown shares that empathy helps when it comes to shame, because it provides us with an antidote.  We don't have to share an exact situation or circumstance.  We don't only have to relate because we have shared  this experience too.  We relate because we are human.  And when we do, we take away some of the stigma or shame.  We do this to give a woman her humanity back.

When it comes to men, unpacking the social myths we tell about rape is important.  We can no longer just quietly mutter that 'boys will be boys' and leave it at that.  There is a need to give the majority of men their humanity back too.  Depicting men as base creatures who simply cannot help themselves if put in the same room as a 'Hollywood' type is unfair.  It lowers the standards, and says that men should be forgiven for being wild beings who are quite simply out of control.  It silences the voices of feminist men, men who would work towards changing gender related norms or beliefs, and men who would remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation. We need to see men who rape as predators so that we can see it for what it really and truly is - a despicable act carried out by a man who abuses his power.

If Annabella Sciorra believed that there was a system which would protect her, and a culture which would empathize deeply with her experience, would she have felt as scared to come forward?  Where are the gaps which prevent women from speaking?  And why do we find fault with women who do speak out?


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