A passionate compassion…

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I feel haunted and chilled to the bone – it’s cold and icy outside but that’s not the cause of this feeling of sad unease. Last night I watched what is usually considered light entertainment (and I’m sure by some, even as banal brain dulling fiction) but there is no denying that sometimes soaps on the telly tackle some pretty hard-hitting topics. The one turning my blood cold is a storyline where a young school-girl has been the victim of long-term, unrelenting emotional torture from her peers – I want to say bullying but the treatment is just so cruel it doesn’t seem to do it justice – and has resulted in her attempted suicide. It’s just so incredibly sad and one of those times where I wish so much that it was just another example of over-dramatic, unrealistic rubbish. Sadly though, the story is one that is all too commonly repeated in the media nowadays and one with which I am personally familiar after growing up in a not-so-brilliant comprehensive school.

Now I am well aware that this might make for a somewhat depressing and ‘serious’ blog entry but I feel so passionately about anti-bullying as a subject that I am obliged to write about it anyway. I think the reason it affects me so badly is two-fold – an absolute empathy for victims of bullying in all its forms and a desire to understand the despicable behaviour of those who take the decision to bully and torment.

To give a small snippet of background, the girl in the storyline has been visibly and quite obviously deteriorating emotionally and physically for some time while those around her miss or ignore the signs. She is 17 and at an age where life should be fun and the years ahead filled with excitement and opportunities to learn and grow. Instead the only path she can see is one ending with a bottle of vodka and a gutful of pills. Tragically, right to the very scene where she is about to try and end it all, people are doing her down and treating her with absolute contempt. I literally sat there on the sofa feeling sick with sadness for the situation. The thought that any person in this world (and particularly so many young people / children) could feel just so awful about life that they would consider ending things is beyond words to me… That so many people miss the signs and the opportunity to help makes it all the more upsetting. Couldn’t we all just be a little more aware and vigilant if it might help to save a life? I’m not saying the signs are obvious or even that there is always a way to save the situation but it seems to me that us adults have more that we should be doing to effectively tackle these awful situations.

The second disturbing aspect to the storyline is the attitude of her tormentors and those around her who did nothing to help. The coldness in the eyes and the denial of any kind of responsibility even when a young girl is lying on her deathbed is the thing that chills me right to the very core. How any person on this planet can find it amusing or entertaining to treat another with such contempt, disrespect and cruelty is just impossible for me to get my head around. I studied Psychology at university and looked into the minds and behaviours of a whole range of psychopaths and sociopaths and yet I will never, ever understand how a person could drive another to such despair and seemingly not bat an eyelid at the heartbreaking result. The final point of sadness is then how the school chooses to deal with it after the fact – denial, denial, denial. They ran a workshop and had a policy on anti-bullying and somehow thought that a piece of paper and half-hearted tick box exercise would constitute a robust and effective strategy…although I suspect if they reflected and were honest with themselves, they would know where the buck truly stops. The storyline in this soap just highlighted a prevalent and unrelenting problem in schools, offices and indeed within the playground of life generally. It also spoke to me of the disappointing fact that victims of bullying are let down by the people closest to them everyday.

But I wonder why I feel so incredibly incensed and distraught about it all because although there is a general consensus amongst most decent people that bullying is wrong, I’m yet to find anyone to talk with on the subject where I get a similar sense of feeling and shared injustice (correct me though if anyone reading this feels differently). I guess I have always had a burning passion for social justice and giving people a fair chance in life. I also ardently believe that respect and compassion should not be earned but instead freely given as a basic human right – bullying and any kind of ill-treatment of people is so counter to that value that perhaps it explains my intense feelings on the matter. I’ve also often thought that life can be tough enough on its own without having to put up with the cretins of this world who laugh and pick at others’ misfortunes.

So, what am I going to do about it I wonder? It’s all well and good writing on the subject but results and change are to be found in action, not inaction. Well I can’t say exactly what I’m going to do other than to think about it ALOT and find a way to make a difference. If I could, I would like to look every victim in the eye and tell them it is not their fault, that they ARE worth something and that they are a truly brilliant person capable of so many things…do NOT let those small-minded cretins win. And to the bullies… simply to tell them how utterly disgusting and repulsive their behaviour is and that one-day karma will bite back.

So, my humble lessons on what I know to be a highly complex subject with no ‘quick fixes’?

For those who have experienced bullying in its many forms:

  1. Please, please, please speak up to someone and tell them what you are going through. So many people would love to help and will work with you to find a way to tackle the situation in a way that suits and doesn’t compromise you in any way. But before anyone can help and support you, they need to know what’s been going – however, big or small it may seem.
  2. There is always a way out that doesn’t have to end in you getting hurt or ‘going away’. It is your right to be here  and  to be treated with respect –  if anyone tries to take that away from you then they are the ones in the wrong so why in the world should you have to be the one to ‘disappear’?!
  3. Bullies will never go far in life – trust me I  know. One day their stinking attitude will be their biggest barrier and that karma I talked about earlier? It’ll be back to bite right where it hurts.

Schools, employers, parents, carers etc

  1. Don’t bury your head in the sand. As a favourite philosopher of mine once said “If you look into your own heart, and you find nothing wrong there, what is there to worry about? What is there to fear?” You have a duty of care to all those who are under your watch and unless you can be 100% confident that the person you care for isn’t experiencing bullying / is the bully then there is some soul-searching to be done and there are some open and honest conversations to be had to make sure the signs are not being missed.
  2. Take a preventative stance – don’t wait for things to go wrong before anything is done. Forget books, policies and tick box exercises as standalone measures…preventing bullying is about setting expectations about a positive and respectful culture and behaviour and instilling the values in people that make it impossible to bully without going against those core values. It can be a long and tough road to change cultures and to teach values but truly, this is the ONLY way in which bullying will be stamped out for good.

All of us:

  1. Treat every person you meet with respect and value them as individuals – we may not like everyone that we meet and we may not agree with their view of things but there are still ways to interact without (sometimes subconsciously) treating them badly, dismissively or disrespectfully.
  2. Stay aware – anyone can be a victim of bullying or harassment and they won’t always feel able to speak up. We all have our own challenges to deal with but by being more vigilant maybe together our society can prevent the tragedies associated with victimisation. I don’t believe it should be ‘every person for themselves’ – some people are stronger in certain situations and its about time they stuck up for those  who are struggling

I realise some of the above may sound a little preachy but I’m really just sharing what I feel might actually help to make a difference. I want to live in a society where nobody ever sits idly by and witnesses bullying and I certainly don’t want to continue to be part of a world where suicide and self-harm are ever considered an acceptable consequence. One day I will find a way to really do my bit (I’m already doing a few things and recognise I could do more) but for now I’m actually going to feel glad that the storyline of this tv programme has moved me so much – perhaps it shows my motivation and desire to do better for our young people so that no-one leaves this world lost and without hope.

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Testing times…

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When I moved house recently, I was daunted by the prospect of doing it all on my own. I’d always had this vision of moving where all of your friends and family take a box, sit you down with fish n chips and a glass of bubbly and help you plan where everything could go. How on earth was I going to get four full cars worth of heavy boxes and furniture across a long courtyard, past a heavy closing door (which, by the way, gives you a damn good smack on the bum each time you walk through it) and up 52 steps without collapsing at the top in an undignified, emotional, heavy breathing mess? But two days and an aching body later it was all completed and it showed me that when you set your mind to something you can ruddy well get it done. I also realised that in some ways I’d set myself a test…I could have begged my friends and my family for help, could have asked them to change all their plans to lend a hand but instead I began to think that if I could things done on my own without relying on others, then I would truly be ready to live on my own. So I did and I now know I definitely am 🙂 The purpose for this anecdote is to set the scene for this latest musing… I’ve noticed more and more that life is made up of a series of ‘tests’ and challenges – some for us to pass or fail but others that we make for people to try out against. I guess it’s our way of reaching a decision about someone, a situation or a choice – if you pass the test then it was meant to be and if you don’t, well it wasn’t right in the first place anyway.

Take New Year resolutions. I confess that I love setting them. I see it as a great chance to look ahead to a new year and have a really good think about what I want to achieve – they also provide something tangible to reflect back on as another year passes by.  But what are resolutions if they are not just a series of little tests? If we don’t meet our aims for a year we often feel we’ve failed in some way and when we do achieve them, we get that great feeling of success and contentment. Resolutions seem to be our way of testing whether it has been a good year or not…we measure ourselves by the goals we set and our ability to meet them. It makes sense in a lot of ways…we are by our very nature stimulated by challenge, reward and outcomes – these little tests are a good way to ensure we get all of these things.

But I also think tests are used in decision making too – a way to make a judgement about the best thing to do or to check whether the right course of action was taken. I recently took a decision to bare my soul to someone – I really made myself vulnerable and it took a lot of courage to do. There were a number of reasons for deciding to take that path including the start of a new year (and letting go of past of ghosts), being honest and true to myself, wanting to move on, wanting to help the other person etc. But then it struck me today, the situation and my subsequent approach to tackling it also provided a very a good test of the other person’s nature. Who, with even an ounce of decency, respect or heart would not understand what it might have taken to lay my feelings open like that? The way the person chooses to react tells me a great deal about their character. I could only ever truly love someone who has a good sense of decency, empathy and respect for others – someone who faces issues head on rather than run from them. A shame then that it seems I’d understood this person wrongly – they have failed my test, but in doing so, allow me to move on without ever looking back. The day will come again when they try to make contact but because of the outcome from this little test, the decision at that point will be an easy one for me.

Similarly, another experience I will share is in relation to job searches and applications. When considering applying for a job recently I contacted a woman (the person who the advert told me the position would be directly accountable to) with a polite and friendly enquiry about the role. The response back could be described at best as frosty and abrupt. I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt however and call her up to see whether her demeanour over the phone was any better…it was not. She failed my test miserably. The attitude I should have experienced should have been friendly and welcoming of an application – instead (and I suspect in the current economic climate many companies make a similarly tragic mistake) her responses sounded like she had her pick of hundreds so why on earth was she wasting time on my questions. The sad thing about this situation is that many decent candidates (who have a good deal of choice about which jobs they apply for) will do as I did and choose not apply since the attitude speaks volumes about the person, team and organisation you would work with and for. In this situation my test probably saved several hours of wasted time in applying to an organisation I would ultimately not enjoy working for.

The thing about this concept of ‘testing’ though is that I think the extent to which people set or undertake them varies a lot. Some people set tests and challenges rarely, while others do it all day every day. I think I’m probably one who does it quite a bit unknowingly (unknowingly that is until my mini epiphany today!). I’m sure there are others who do the same… For example, have you ever found yourself feeling disappointed that a friend didn’t make it to a party or an evening out? That in itself could be seen as a little test of the friendship – your disappointment perhaps indicating you feel they’ve failed you a little bit as a friend. Or have you ever felt pleased that you managed to avoid the booze for a week, month, etc? A little test of your willpower and the joy you feel at having passed that test. Or maybe you asked a colleague at work for a favour and they were too busy…a test of their reliability in the future perhaps.

But I think testing and challenging yourself and others in life can be a positive thing – it allows us to know our boundaries and understand where we are at with certain people, situations and dilemmas. But the challenge this presents is when we begin setting unrealistic goals or living the entirety of our life by the results of a test – it inevitably can only lead to disappointment. Testing a situation or testing yourself can be a useful tool but doing it too much can mean constant pressure, intensity and stress. I suppose the trick is to get a balance – live your life as a journey to be enjoyed and occasionally use tests to stretch yourself and achieve great, realistic things.

Nowadays it sometimes feels as though there are tests everywhere too…at job interviews, to volunteer, to give blood – they are even popping up in magazines, newspapers and occasionally down the pub! I joined a dating website recently and a guy emailed me to tell me to say that before we could speak properly, he wanted me to undertake his compatibility test! (In case you’re wondering, no I didn’t take it 🙂 The very fact I had to do that meant that unknowingly he’d failed my test relating to spark, and conversation!).

So I suppose in musing over this there are three things I’ve learnt:

  1. Challenges are good but keep them realistic – life is tough enough without beating yourself up for not achieving the unattainable or failing to pass the impassable. A good challenge pushes the boundaries while staying mindful of your individual abilities and talents.
  2. Failing at one test sometimes means you’ll succeed at another – each time I ‘fail’ to secure an interview or ‘fail’ to go on a successful date just means that I’ll succeed at / with something or someone else. In fact as with my earlier description of a personal situation, sometimes it’s even a good thing that people don’t pass your tests – your time can then be given to people and situations that truly deserve it
  3. Testing  times can both develop and reveal character – through regularly facing challenges you can develop as a person. Equally through sometimes testing your perception of others, you can get a good glimpse of the true person      underneath. No one likes to feel like they are continually under the  microscope or under exam conditions but the odd challenge from time to time can help to clarify or reinforce a feeling where previously there might have been confusion.

In concluding I guess I would say to use the idea of testing in a positive way. No good can ever come of feeling like you always have to fail or succeed; instead use the idea to reinforce what you probably already knew deep down inside. Going back to my first paragraph… of course I knew I could live successfully on my own otherwise I would not have made the decision to move, but the physical and emotional test of being able to move everything on my own just helped to silence the niggling little doubts at the back of my mind. The same can probably be said with my job application scenario and with my ‘declaration’ to someone clearly not right for me.  Sometimes it’s better to run the test and get your answer than always wonder ‘what if’. But perhaps more importantly you could even say that the best decisions, the best people and the most amazing experiences are those you never need to test or question at all – you just know when it’s right 🙂