Sunday, 7 June 2020

The templates of our lives

The revelation

I had an insight the other evening, as I drove home down the country roads here in West Sussex.  I was leaving an late volunteering shift at our local hospice, and thought - so many of us feel we don't fit in.  So many of us suspect that other people have the answers to life, and that we do not.  It makes us feel vulnerable, it makes us doubt ourselves.  Most of the time we say to ourselves that yes - it is those other people who have it right and yes, we are wrong.  We have it wrong.  It takes courage and life experience to realise that we are barking up the wrong tree.  What suits others does not have to suit us.  And perhaps, there isn't just one right way, but many, and we have not found ours yet.

But if we don't feel we belong, it makes sense for us to think that other people, all of whom may look as if they are having a great time and belonging all over the place, they must have the answer.  It takes time, experience and self knowledge to realise that those others may feel as out of it as we do.  And we don't know if they feel they aren't getting it right, they don't let on.  In which case, maybe other people imagine we have the answers, and have our lives sorted.  Oh it gets complicated.  We just do not know.  But we feel, and feel very strongly.  And often, we feel very badly about ourselves. 

The insight that I received on the way home from the hospice that evening was that we think that there is a template.  A template of a correct way of being, and that we have to fit into it.  The template holds it all together, we feel, and if we fit ourselves into it we will be safe.  We will be one of those belonging, comfortable, enviable people that surround us.  We will feel good about ourselves, because somehow, we will be right.  We will be safe, and all will be well.

I imagined this template as a flat, person shape, made of light with a grid pattern inside. Each of us wants to lay down the image of ourselves onto it but only very few of us fit.  Our arms are too long, our legs too short, our shape all wrong.  Instead of the fit being perfect like those children's toy shapes that slot perfectly into the correct hole, we lay our image down and we are all over the place.  We do not fit.  What is wrong?  The template, or us?  So we look at this mismatch and blame ourselves for being wrong, and keep it to ourselves that we don't fit.  No one must know, we would be so ashamed.  We keep trying.  One day, we say, we will manage to fit our own image onto this perfect template of life, and then all will have been worth while.  And then I wondered about the template at all.  We all have one, a template to show us what we think we should be, how things should work, and what is right.  There is probably a general template in our culture about what is right and wrong, about how to proceed in our society, general rules of behaviour and expectations, and what not to do.  That template is big enough for us to fit ourselves into it, and flexible enough for it to mould itself around us, so that on the whole, we know what is expected.

The difficulty is the other template that we aspire to, that we believe is the right one to be in, the one
that try as we might, we cannot ever quite fit.  The one that we use to make ourselves feel bad about ourselves.  The one that we feel would make everything better if only we could lay our image down onto it and find a perfect match.  Oh dear.  And if we can't do this, we blame ourselves and feel we are the odd ones, and that something is secretly wrong with us.  We keep quiet about it because we feel ashamed.  And we just keep plodding on, trying to fit ourselves into the template we have for ourselves, the one that never quite works.

Everyone else has it right

The revolution.  

What if we realised our template was unrealistic, and threw it out?  What if we got fed up of not ever fitting into it, got rid of it, and created one that was tailor made for us?  Can we do that?  Yes.  There comes a time in life when we think, oh to hell with things.  What is all this struggle for anyway?  We lose patience with the lifestyle we aren't quite having, with the narrative in our heads that tells us we are not good enough, with the longing for things that are just too much trouble to get, and we rebel.  Damn it, we say, where am I in all this?  What do I really like doing?  And we are shocked to realise that we do not like pleasing people all the time in case they a) notice we feel inferior b) might give us something we think we need c) we might miss out d) we really don't know how not to.  We are stunned and relieved to admit we like lying around in shell suits on our days off eating cheesy chips and drinking orange squash.  We don't want to improve our minds with Tolstoy, we want to read Agatha Raisin.  We do not like doing good and neighbourly things for everyone all the time, even though everyone else thinks we are fabulous.  In fact we hate it and we would rather watch Great British Bake Off on telly every time.  Oh lord.  Perhaps our template needs to be more personal, more creative, less driven by other people.  What if everyone laughs at me, we may think at first.  What if I put on weight, and what if I don't get promotion, and what if all those other people (who we believe do fit the template we are struggling with) do really well and everyone loves them, and what if I just stop caring?  Well, what if?  If these things bind you (mustn't put on weight, mustn't miss the promotion, fear everyone else will do better than you etc), and make you unhappy, and never change, then they aren't for you.  One door closes, they say, and another opens.  Time to make your own personal template for your life, and have it fit you so well, and be so flexible and forgiving, you do not know why you didn't do this before.

I visited a dying lady recently, and noticed pencils and a pad on a table near her chair.  I asked if she liked to draw, and she was silent for a long time.  Maybe the question upset her, I thought, and prepared to leave her in peace.  But she spoke and replied that she had not used her art stuff since the 12 September.  That was the day she received her diagnosis, and was given a short time to live.  She stopped wanting to draw on that day.  But she said that for the first time she can remember, she is content.  She is happy.  No one in her family understands it, she said, but all of the pain and difficulties in her quite traumatic life, have gone.  Who would have known, she said, when my life was so hard as a child, and I was looking for any kind of happiness, that I would get it when I have a terminal diagnosis, and I cannot move.  She said that she had been trying in all the wrong places, with all the wrong people, all of her life.  She had been homeless, in prison, and had felt driven to find answers and to fight.  And now, like a paradox, with everything taken from her, she has found peace and a sense of who she is, and every day she is grateful.  She doesn't know how it happened, but it has.  And now, she says, she knows who she is.  She's sorted her funeral, her will, found a God that speaks to her, and she has found peace.  It was after this conversation, driving home, that I had my insight.  She has found, created, got, the right template for who she is.  She no longer needs the old one. 

Ditch the template! 

The realisation

I had an unrealistic template for most of my life.  As a child I felt I didn't belong, and that there was a proper way to do things that bypassed me completely.  I didn't understand why I had to try to be someone else. Who I was, I felt, was not quite acceptable.  I hated this, I felt trapped and restricted and wrong but I had to find a way to adapt.  Of course, I rebelled, and was torn between trying not very well to please everyone and trying to assert my real self.  I realise now that my real self was perfectly fine. I was a fairy, a free thinking, alternative, creative non conformist little dumpling but my mother wanted a well behaved, tennis playing, clean and tidy obedient little girl.  My poor dear mother.  She had struggled all of her life with rejection and invisibility and in a sad twist of fate, in trying to prevent me from ever having to suffer as she had, created for me exactly the same experiences. 

On the journey back home from the hospice the other night, when I had the idea about templates in our lives, I saw clearly the template my mother had created for me, and how it had never, ever been right.  I saw her own template for herself and how damaged that had been; how little kindness and expectations she had for herself.  Though I had given up the imposed template successfully over the years, some of the fear of rejection and being unseen and unheard remains. 

I don't want to wait until I am dying to find peace.  I had the image of this person shaped hole, with a grid inside, that I had taken from my mother, and how I had never wanted to lie myself down on it, had always fought against it.  I had never thought of it all like this before.  Now, I imagined myself lifting off of this wrong template and creating a new one, where I could lie myself down in it and feel at home, have it fit me, and feel safe and contained by something supportive and affirmative and light.  I can give up all this stuff that doesn't work, I don't have to deal with it a moment longer.  I am creating a new template where I do belong, and where being a dumpy fairy is a good thing. 

Peace at last.

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