In Which My Mother Helps Me Consider What’s Important

By what guidelines do you think we are judging good and bad, right and wrong, at this moment in Western society? I found I was asking the question in the wake of Andrea Leadsom’s comments about motherhood, and the furore over Black Lives Matter in America. And I am wondering whether the answer lies in the odd pickle we seem to be getting ourselves into over the difference between morality and ethics. Let me explain, and to do so, I’m going to talk about my mother.

My mother was born into an age of morality. Back in the 40s, behaviour was judged by an absolute system of black and white rules. There were no excuses, no mitigating circumstances, and very little in the way of compassion. Couples could not live together without getting married, babies could only be born into marriages, homosexuality was a sin, foreigners were not to be trusted, you kept your house tidy and turned up to church on a Sunday, and respectability was all. Of course what went on in private was entirely unregulated. What mattered was to show yourself to be on the right side of the rules in the public space.

Now, my mother was a war baby. My grandmother never told her who her father was, and my mother had to grow up with the stigma this conferred. My mother, who has a mind like a steel trap, let me assure you, grew up with far less education than she should have had because school was an uncomfortable place for her, and she was wounded in her self-esteem. She has never had the confidence to which her looks, abilities and character should entitle her. And yet could anyone be more innocent in the situation in which she found herself? Nothing my mother did warranted the stigma that attached to her in her early years. I can only hope her life spent as the essential heart of a close-knit, loving family has managed to make up in some way for this rank injustice.

Over the 60s and 70s people began to wake up to the unnecessarily stringent harshness of their morality. They began to understand that people should not be condemned for the rest of their lives because they made a mistake, or because they were different to the rigid standard of ‘normal’. And this was because morality was gradually giving way to ethics. Morals are the rules imposed on a group, whereas ethics are the guiding principles we choose for ourselves. Morals are specific to historical time and place, whereas ethics are eternal, and transcend the society we live in. The way I understand this is that ethics are often primarily concerned with how we treat the other person, based on the understanding that what unites us is much more profound than what separates us; we must all suffer the difficulties of the human condition.

Two of the great forces in this shift into ethics were feminism and civil rights. In both cases the premise of the argument is that men and women and people of all skin colours are fundamentally the same. But society has made some of those groups second-class citizens in the eyes of others, thanks to longterm, systematic discrimination. Much as those people who had been discriminated against were angry, and with every right to be so, their intention – explicit in feminist circles – was to ‘raise consciousness’. In other words, to remind others of basic human similarity, to help others understand what it was like to walk in their shoes, and to promote the ethical necessity to ensure fairness, justice and equality for all.

The psychologist Alfred Adler argued that one of the great motivating forces in each individual is to make up for the painful feelings of inferiority we harbour by finding ways to feel superior. He felt that childhood would pretty much wound everyone, one way or another. We’d all emerge from it feeling awkwardly, shamefully inferior in some respect or other, and the counterpart of that unpleasant condition would be to search ruthlessly for reassurances of our superiority. Now, morality is a fabulous way to do this, because it has simple rules and no excuses. If we catch someone trangressing a moral boundary we have every right to look down on them. They have done wrong. They are inexcusable and must be punished.

But ethics has a very different perspective. The ethical position suggests we consider how we ALL struggle with these feelings of inferiority, and that the way to move forward isn’t to seek this fallacious sense of being superior to others, but to have compassion for ALL our wounds and weaknesses, in our broader collective.

If women and ethnic minorities hadn’t believed that the people around them could be enlightened and changed, there wouldn’t have been much point in them fighting for the right to equality. The ethical position acknowledges that the world is often a badly misguided place, full of damaging and dangerous misunderstandings, but it is fundamentally optimistic. From that shared place of humanity, we might all choose to deal with our fears and our insecurities in better ways, in the fullness of justice and compassion. And it is a choice. Morals are imposed, but ethics are the principles we choose for ourselves, and so the path towards them is always an education.

We are supposed to live now in an age of ethics, where we understand that each individual is the same but different, and that’s okay. But of course it isn’t okay, because there’s a tendency for people to want to turn ethics into a morality, to have absolute rules that brook no excuses. So if someone makes a sexist comment, we want to invoke a moral rule. There’s a tendency to want vengeance, to shout that this is wholly unacceptable, the person has fallen on the wrong side of the law and must be punished; they must be humiliated and ashamed. I can understand a warrior stance against backsliding, but I wonder if some people believe that only anger, shame and humiliation will educate (though schools gave up with that approach a while back, because it causes as many problems as it solves). In any case, all this is a moral perspective on the problem, a case of people being wrong or right, good or bad, without nuance.

An ethical perspective would be to educate or enlighten the person who made the sexist comment; to challenge them for sure, but not to aggress them. In ethics, the question is fundamentally how you treat the other person. Sure, it’s wrong to insult someone in a sexist way. But to scream for the blood of that person on social media, to humiliate them in public, to ensure that they lose their livelihood for their mistake, well, that’s every bit as unethical as the insult was in the first place.

And why should we not turn our ethics into a morality? Well, because of people like my mother, that’s why. Because morality can be so harsh and unbending, so restricted in its ruling, and yet so specific to its time that innocent people do get caught in the crossfire of something that’s ridiculous 50 years later. That’s why we let the law deal with the timeless rules of morality, with the extreme cases of murder, grievous harm, theft, slander, and so on. Because morality can ruin people’s lives if they end up on the wrong side of it. And, with rare exceptions, that’s too harsh for the everyday problems of getting along together in a mixed society.

So we’ve had a couple of big ethical issues happen in the Western world lately. Andrea Leadsom’s foolish remarks about motherhood, and the Black People Matter argument over in the States. In both of these cases the debate has moved almost instantaneously into a punitive, vengeful, moral realm. I place the blame on the media, which is the punitive, vengeful, moral realm par excellence. The media are totally unethical – they will ruin anyone’s lives without a second thought if they can make moral mileage out of it.

I seriously think that we should not let the media have our conversations for us. Ethics rise naturally to the surface when we become real to one another. When we speak openly, not defensively, from our vulnerabilities. When we actually listen because we want to understand the problem. Forget the media – sisters, let’s talk about how irrelevant it is to our friendships whether we have kids or not. Black, white, East, West, we all need to keep talking to people who are different to us, to be reminded time and again how much we share. Then these screaming headlines in the papers – Having Children Makes You A Better Person! – Black Lives Matter Is A Racist Comment! – can be met with the words ‘don’t be so ridiculous’, and a turning towards positive things. What unites us is far more powerful than what separates us.

I think we have to keep asking ourselves: what is truly important in a life of limited time and energy? Is it more important to express anger and hatred, or love and kindness? Is it more important to catch people out, or to explain to them why they made a mistake? Is it more important to reassure ourselves we’re right, or to recognise the insecurities that make us all crazy sometimes?

Here’s what I think is important: try to understand the other person, and be kind. Understanding and compassion neutralise far more powerfully than any violence can.

 

p.s. In case you were wondering, I told my mother what I was writing and gained her permission to tell some of her story. Thank you, Mum!

And Finally, Some Reviews

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been (though I expect you have much better things to think about), then a partial answer is: writing for Shiny.

SNB-logoYes! Shiny New Books, issue 10, is live today. It’s full of the usual stock of bookish goodies, lots of reviews, features and interviews, and these are the books I’ve personally recommended:

A clever and compelling novel about a troubled marriage.

A classic novel that I doubt anyone has read.

A non-fiction account of a profession that’s had a lot of bad press.

A brilliant piece of shrink-lit.

A literary novel that won me over, even though it wasn’t the sort of thing I like best.

And please do check out the BookBuzz section, which includes special features by our friends, Elle and Arti Ripples.

Enjoy!

And After Another Long, Unexplained Absence…

The new edition of Shiny is out! – but you probably already know this, as we went live last Thursday and I am only now managing to produce a blog post.

SNB-logoAnd why is this, I hear you cry? Well, let me give you the details.

Casualties so far in 2016

Mr Litlove

Trapped nerve in shoulder.

Throat infection.

Monster cold from family party at Easter.

 

Litlove

Uveitis in eye followed by WEEKS of chronic eye strain.

Cystitis once.

Cystitis twice.

Yeast infection from antibiotics.

Mr Litlove’s cold – though I caught this mildly and it is negligible in the scheme of things.

Abscess in tooth, resulting in more antibiotics and the prospect of an unpleasant trip to the dentist.

 

This last one was the worst. I came home and wailed that this was AWFUL. I’d barely got past the last batch of antibiotics and now I had another and the supremely dreadful choice between root canal work or extraction.

‘But this is great!’ said Mr Litlove. ‘You’ve got something definite and it has a name and they know how to fix it.’

Well, I’ve had a good run at health issues with names so far this year and frankly, you can keep them. I’ll take my nebulous chronic fatigue any day, which usually leaves me safe in my own home and without the need for medical intervention. Ten to one I’ll have the tooth extracted, as it’s been nothing but trouble since I concussed the nerve and the root canal work may well not be entirely successful. My mother assured me most comfortingly that an extraction is the sort of thing that’s worse in anticipation than in actuality and it ought at least to be quick. The dentist did warn me I wouldn’t be able to chew so well on that side of my mouth, but I pointed out I hadn’t chewed on it for the past two and a half years anyway. So. Now I just have to hope the antibiotics work (they are working, just more slowly than I’d hoped) and that I can avoid a second yeast infection. Sigh.

It’s been kind of Mr Litlove to keep me company in ill health. We were sitting on the sofa, staring at the walls not that long ago and he said: ‘We ought to be living the dream. We have an idyllic lifestyle and all we’ve done so far this year is be ill.’ ‘Tell me about it!’ I said. We are as usual oddly opposite. Mr Litlove is someone who can’t be ill quietly; there is never any need to ask him what the matter is. Whereas I get more still and more silent the worse I feel. He said he found himself wondering at one point if he’d caught chronic fatigue from me (I thought it was a bit late in the day for contagion) or whether we should have the house checked for poisonous gasses. I can understand Mr Litlove’s chain of events easily – he’s in the middle of a huge life change after all, which is tiring, and he got the throat bug from going back and forth to the doctors for me, and then his cold from a family party where it was rampant. He thinks that my run of illnesses have been provoked by fighting off this abscess for a while, and the dentist did warn me the swelling probably wouldn’t go down completely because of the scar tissue, since it had been there some time. I don’t know. I like it as a theory and wish it were true, which means I distrust it. What if this is just all about my heading-towards-fifty-hormones? What if this is the new reality?

On a more positive note, I have recently been able to read a bit again – up to two hours a day if I take plenty of breaks to rest my eyes. Which was absolute bliss after such a long, long drought. Before that I’d been forced to entertain myself with Woody Allen-esque scenarios in which I imagined travelling around the different departments of my body. So I might visit my brain to find the operatives bored and cranky, complaining there’s not enough to do. To which I would point out that the place is in a mess, half the cooling fans have burnt out, there’s litter everywhere, a good clean would make a lot of difference, etc. But they tell me that it’s no use, they can’t get any help from Maintenance. So I then visit Maintenance, where they suck in air through their teeth and say it’s a difficult time and what with all the recent problems, resources are low, maybe if they could get more supplies…? So I go to Accounts and Distribution, who are up in arms; they really need more nutrient income but they keep being ram-raided by that criminal, Stress, who makes off with all the good stuff the moment it’s delivered… And just recently I had a little fun with antibiotic ninjas storming the besieged Northern Gum Territories.

Well, you have to find amusement wherever you can.

This is true more than usual this week as Mr Litlove, now pretty much fully recovered from his cold, has gone away to Devon for a chair-making course. We’d agreed much earlier in the year that he’d go alone as a five-hour car trip is well outside my comfort zone at the moment, and normally I don’t mind a week on my own to watch what I like on telly and eat chicken risotto every night. But he’s only been gone an hour and I am missing him dreadfully. I think I’m a little lower in spirits than usual, what with this run of illnesses. But hey, I’ve hardly read any of the reviews in this edition of Shiny – and I must mention the kindness and understanding of the other eds, which has stretched beyond the pale this year! – and I’ve been feeling too rough even to look at what’s going on in the blogworld lately, so I could catch up. And I can make myself chicken risotto and watch an old movie I’ve watched so many times that I don’t need to strain my eyes on it (and I prefer rewatching movies to seeing them for the first time). And I have Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Solitary Summer by my side to read a few pages at a time, because there was a woman who really knew how to make the most of time alone. So I will do my very best to avoid a pity party.

If you happen to stop by, tell me what you are doing this week. I’d love to know!

 

 

Various Unmentionables

I was driving north in a car with a man that clearly I knew, though I couldn’t place him. It was some kind of escape, a getaway. We needed a place to stay for the night and so we stopped with some friends of his, just beyond the border. There was a teenage boy doing his homework at the kitchen table, and upstairs, a very young girl child, asleep. We were given a bed for the night, and as darkness fell, I suddenly realised that I knew how this story ended. It ended with a stranger slipping into the house and knifing all the inhabitants, except for me. How did I avoid the massacre? I wasn’t sure; I thought maybe if I rolled out of bed and hid beneath it, I could pass unnoticed, but then I would have to witness what happened next.

A sane voice spoke to me, saying. I think this is a dream? And if this is a dream, maybe you want to wake up now? Because I really don’t like the road we’re on.

I  came to; darkness in the room, but definitely in my own bed. The clock said 3.15 am. I lay back and started playing Julie Andrews on the soundtrack inside my head, singing ‘My Favourite Things’ as a soothing technique. Mr Litlove was stirring. ‘It was just a nightmare,’ I told him. ‘Do you want to tell me what it was about?’ he asked. I thought about lying in the silent darkness with one anxious brain cell functioning, describing knife-wielding maniacs. ‘It was so bad, I don’t even want to,’ I replied. ‘Uh,’ said Mr Litlove.

I should point out here that Mr Litlove has mastered the art of talking to me in his sleep. In the morning, he has no recollections of what he has said. At that point I realised what else was odd: I didn’t have my mouthguard in. This much-detested contraption came about because I bruised a nerve in my gum one night, an experience I have no desire to repeat so I put up with the mouthguard despite the fact that it is too big for my mouth and hateful. I felt about on my bedside table, but it wasn’t there. So I really wondered what I’d done with it. Had I maybe thrown it across the room? I judged my subconscious was wholly capable of such an act.

‘Now what’s the matter?’ Mr Litlove asked. ‘I’ve taken out my mouthguard and I can’t find it,’ I told him. ‘Well I think you’d know if you’d swallowed it,’ he said, a statement that amused him greatly when I repeated it to him in the morning. I put my hand straight down on the duvet and there it was. This was good news; if this was the kind of night my brain was having, I felt that teeth-grinding might well be a part of it.

I am 46 going on 47 and the perimenopause is a reality. There has been a notable increase in nightmares these past few months, and if my chronic fatigue is worse, I think my hormones have a lot to do with it. Fatigue, anxiety, poor sleep, muscle aches and brain fog are all perimenopausal symptoms, and they are chronic fatigue symptoms too. So I feel like I’m getting a double dose. But what I also notice is that this isn’t something that women are allowed to talk about much. It’s not a cultural story, even though every woman alive will go through this rite of passage. And it’s quite a rocky journey for some of us; even at our luckiest we’ll have four years of being hot, clumsy, forgetful and volatile.

Can anyone name me a novel in which one of the main female characters is going through the perimenopause or menopause and this is a significant part of the story? (The spellchecker on this site doesn’t even register the word ‘perimenopause’.) I’ve been thinking but I can’t come up with any. Even women don’t write about it much, maybe because of some dim historical memory of being considered ‘irrational’ one week in four and therefore denied the vote. It’s just another taboo, too much icky information, and very little in the way of glamour or heroism. They don’t print t-shirts saying ‘I survived the menopause’ (and if they did, they’d be sold for male partners to wear). And yet it’s such a powerful, vivid experience.

I tend to think that menopause is the emotional last-chance saloon. Any issue that you haven’t dealt with up until now is going to rise up front and centre. My reasoning is that hormones magnify; their task is to take the small thing that bothers you and whack the volume up until your internal ears are bleeding. Denial may no longer be an option.

I saw my reiki practitioner last week, and she was describing the experience of working with a hormonal woman – ‘like she had a thousand volts flooding through her system’ – who was then given HRT: ‘and she was perfectly calm and back to normal; I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.’ So biology is to blame, as it is with chronic fatigue, essentially, but all we have is our psychology to deal with it, in the absence of drugs that is. I’d been talking to my practitioner about my ongoing issues with my eyes, the worsened chronic fatigue and the perimenopause kicking in, and her advice was to focus on three things: 1) empty my brain and try to avoid overstimulation, 2) practice grounding and 3) try and be grateful where possible, alongside any frustrations. So I have been doing those things, and the result has been good; it helps. But my dreams have been much more vivid.

And it occurred to me that my nightmare could be analysed very usefully. I think my deepest fear is that I will escape what is intolerable, only to end up in an even worse catastrophe. This can grind me to a halt, unable to move forward. On a more everyday level, I think my problem is I treat even small difficulties with the things I feel disempowered over but emotionally invested in (my son, my health) as if they had the potential to become a multiple homicide. I do struggle to maintain a sense of proportion in situations that worry me. Mr Litlove thinks that things will just come right, if he watches television until the crisis passes. Whereas I think things will only come right if I throw masses of my energy at them. We both seem to have lived the truth of these beliefs, and we both recognise that, at present, we need to become a little more like the other. Maybe I can use those pesky hormones to motivate me.