Crossing the Road

If we do something but can’t observe it’s consequences, we feel anxious. This sentence struck me as raising an important facet of anxiety, how it is about fear of the unknown. I have always been troubled by not knowing how other people react to my behaviour, partly because I’m aware that I am unusual, so can’t rely on how I would react as a reliable means of assessing the likely reaction of others. Overcoming anxiety is not overly worrying about how other people react, as long as what you are going is reasonable.

Of course, having largely overcome anxiety I am still sometimes anxious. So I still haven’t quite worked out what is normal everyday anxiety and what is overly worrying, but I just feel that I continue to make progress with this, knowing that a welded down definition is impossible.

The problem in the modern world is that we communicate far less face to face. Face to face communication is much easier because you can assess reactions straight away in real time and instantly modify behaviour. For example realising someone doesn’t want to discuss a particular subject at the moment. Sending a letter an e-mail or a text is difficult as you have no idea how people will react, you don’t know what mood they will be in when the message is received and it is difficult to express your intent without being overly wordy and often your meaning may be misinterpreted.

A good general strategy for for deciding when you shouldn’t be anxious about an action is to ask ‘What is the worst possible outcome?’. If this outcome is very unlikely, which you can usually assess, then you needn’t be anxious. Sometimes that worst possible outcome will happen, low probability events do happen from time to time. However, this doesn’t mean your action was wrong as the alternative is to do nothing, which often means sitting at home not engaging with the world.

I was incredibly unlucky in when I first overcame anxiety, the worst possible outcomes happened. I basically wanted to thank someone for helping me realise that I need not be anxious and the worst possible outcome was that they would be upset. So i was completely shocked when they did seem upset, it made no sense to me, because they didn’t reply and blocked me on social media, so to me they were upset. In my assessment that outcome seemed incredibly unlikely, yet it had happened. This confused me as i was unsure how careful I needed to be when communicating freely and honestly, as this suggested I needed to be incredible careful, even to the point where I shouldn’t initiate communication, ever. Years later I discovered that she wasn’t upset by my communicating, but rather that she had interpreted my being gushy and emotional as seeking a relationship, to black-mail them into being supportive, which was never the case. The fault seemed to be the everyday sexism of male attention to females that to them suggested that 99% of the time my communication would have been manipulative. These 1% unlikely outcomes seem to have a habit of cropping up when they are important, because it is the exceptional case anyway which people try to deal with using everyday assessments. As humans we are kind of programmed to  see exceptional events as unlikely to be true. Yet it is only these rare events when people make great leap forwards.

This all suggests that anxiety assessments are about dealing with probability and in the real world we never have nice large data sets to play with to get towards the truth, we so often get one data point and have to ascertain if it is a rare event  we have stumbled upon or is there somethign unknown to us (such as an aspect of what it is like to be a woman) that we have hit which is completely unrelated to our motive.

I grew up with an highly anxious mother and grandmother and I am also an only child. I became an adult with a much more limited understanding of regular social relations than the majority of people. So instead of naturally building up a database of social interactions to guide behaviour I had to observe the world as an outsider and try and build rule systems that seemed to work. So social interactions seem more like a game than living everyday life. The problem with rule systems is they are not good at exceptionalism and if there is a big factor that has not been included in the model, it can break down frequently until that factor has been quantified. There isn’t always time to study these down to root causes.

There are other areas where there are rule based solutions and more organic, interactive, transactional solutions, such as the simple act of crossing the road in the centres of large towns and cities at zebra crossings. In Britain where there are rules they are strict and if someone is standing by a zebra crossing or is close and looks like they wish to cross, cars must stop and wait until the crossing is finished. So a pedestrian doesn’t have to think they just cross and the cars must wait.

I was in Italy recently and I never looked up the rules, leading to a few anxious moments as the cars do not automatically stop for pedestrians. Nonetheless when walking across a zebra crossing, the cars will stop whilst you are blocking their lane. Sometimes they will toot their horn to suggest you have broken the unwritten rules.

After many crossings, it seemed to me that what Italy has a more social transnational system. If you wait for a gap in the traffic and then cross, cars happily stop. However if it’s busy and there are no gaps you can still cross, but get glared at. However when busy and you wait a few seconds to cross with a group of people the drivers seem happier. Basically, it’s a social and democratic system, everyone has the right to cross if you cause minimum disruption to others. The result is that traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian can move about smoothly, once the system is complex interactions is inherently understood. Such a system appeals to me a lot, that you can do whatever you want provided you try and cause minimal disruption to others. Nonetheless, if you have anxiety you do yearn a little for harder more precise rules.

In another European culture, Germany, it is much more rule based. On a pedestrian crossing where pedestrians have a a green and red ‘man’ signal, it is illegal and finable to cross when the red man is showing. What happens is that on a deserted road at night a pedestrian will wait until a green man signal, effectively wasting their own time to conform to the rule. In Britain, for contrast, we only follow this rule when it is busy, at other times we cross on red men signals. So, in Britain we only apply the strict rules to busy intersections but not universally like in Germany.

I think most people understand that perfection is impossible so there has to be a sliding scale of when rigid rules are obeyed and when not. For example we accept loud music of Friday and Saturday evenings, but expect things to be quieter during the week. Though there is no actual law covering this. However legally, anyone who official complains about noise has the courts on their side, whether the complaint is generally regarded as reasonable or not.

Culture is diverse, not only is our society made up of incomers from other cultures, but all sorts of different kinds of people with different attitudes to rules from within that culture.  For example Italian culture is very rule based, but doesn’t seem so in a town centre where people race down narrow busy streets at night on their mopeds and the scenes can seem quite chaotic.

Social rules do seem better than strict laws, as laws are impossible to get absolutely right. However there are always those who will push the boundaries for personal advantage, and societies need mechanism for to ensure this code breaking doesn’t pay off to general detriment.

A visitor to a culture, such as myself in Italy, who doesn’t know the rules, in some circumstances can raise anxiety levels. Cultural rules, usually give some leeway to visitors because they don’t know the rules, and are not seeking advantage by not knowing them. However cultures tend not to give as much leeway to the anxious or otherwise different. If you don’t know the rules in your own culture you are looked down upon, despite not knowing all the rules isn’t your fault.

I have moved around a lot and broken many cultural rules I do feel a lot less anxious in Wales, as I understand the culture more deeply and am probably have less anxiety about throwing myself into foreign cultures than most people. At home i feel much less anxiety and comfortable, there are less unknowns. However, for work reasons, I have often lived away from my native culture and have to re-learn new subtle changes to the rules every time, to the point where I am less wary of not knowing the consequences of my actions as I know my understanding of these things is poorer anyway.

The other aspect of anxiety is fear of being judged by other people. I suppose I have become hardened to a lot of judgement as it isn’t relevant to me. Perhaps in reaction to that there are other areas where I care a lot more about being judged, yet learning that I am being judged because of the actions of others rather than my own actions just makes me feel less inclined to be bothered by others judgements of me.

Essentially what i am saying is that anything is fine as long as you can justify it to yourself as reasonable, or to a peer group. Yet, I am aware that this is quite a dangerous attitude as there is nothing but my own conscience or people who think in similar ways to me guiding my actions. And if in moving away from anxiety means that i spend less time thinking everything through so deeply then I will do bad things without realising it and be judged even more harshly than I ever used to worry about. This is the thing with living in a city, you never make much progress before there is another big road to cross.

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Breaking the Silence #MeToo

Sexual harassment has been in the news recently and it is about time that this issue is more widely discussed. I’ve written on here before about how as a straight bloke it is very easy not to notice that sexual harassment is taking place right under our noses. I’m more aware of that now so I knew that there was a high likelihood of friends of mine suffering from sexual harassment. Yet it is a subject that is rarely discussed, or seems not to be with straight blokes.

So I wasn’t surprised to see on my Facebook feed lots of #MeToo postings. This social media campaign was a really good thing because it really brought the issue home when you know the victims personally, it’s no longer a statistical probability, it’s more real. Some of my friends were even brave enough to share details about what had happened to them.

Sexual harassment is perhaps the thick end and everyday sexism is the other. The everyday comments and banter just wears you down as it happens day after day.It’s a shame these things are not discussed more widely so there is greater awareness.

We are all different and sensitive to different things. As an anxious person, I too have suffered from the negative effects of everyday banter, which seems worse because it was nothing to do with my gender, so seems more personally directed.

I get the wearing down of everyday banter because I’m Welsh. When the Six nations rugby tournament is on, the banter of jokes directed between nations is part of the thing. However, being Welsh we get the jokes a lot of the time all through the year and mainly from men: The endless sheep jokes and attacks on our language, maybe be justified as merely ‘banter’ or ‘taking the piss but not meaning anything by it’ are really just tedious, but when we do get fed up of them we can usually find solace with fellow Welsh folk.

Maybe that is partly why women, the vast majority of victims of sexual harassment are women, seek solace with other women, rather than discuss the issue with straight blokes they know. and maybe that is why it is tougher on the anxious as there is no ready made group to seek solace in.

This isn’t saying that banter is wrong, it can be a bit of fun, especially between friends where we know where the limits of taking something too far are and it is established that we really don’t mean it. However men are generally more cautious about such banter with women, when they are not cautious then it is harassment. It is harassment because harassment is defined by the victim, they state when it is harassment, not the behaviour itself. Knowing the limits comes from knowing the people, which is why friends can take the piss out of each other, however when someone ‘wolf whistles’ at a woman in the street, they do not know the woman, so that is just pure harassment.

The issue with sexual harassment is that men generally don’t suffer from it, so men don’t understand it, so men are unable to know where the limits of banter are for women they know a bit from the workplace. In the same way banter affects the anxious because the non-anxious don’t understand anxiety. Really , if there were to be daily comments about how big our penises are, most men would quickly collapse sobbing in states of insecurity.

While being a victim of abuse is horrible, that such harassment is commonplace also affects blokes. To not be an anxious person I decided to be a lot more open about my feelings, which includes being open with women. Often I prefer to talk about my feelings with women as generally they listen more. However sometimes that openness can be misinterpreted as seeking a deeper relationship, or trying to get into their knickers. This troubled me because surely it was obvious from my words and how I expressed them that that wasn’t my intention. However, it took me years to realise that you can accidentally harass someone, when you don’t understand what the daily lived experience of being a woman is like.  The thing is I have been a harasser of women, but the blame for those events lies with the whole widespread commonality of sexual harassment.not anything i did or said specifically.

I’ve always been reluctant to touch women to express empathy and support because it may be inappropriate. Now I know the reason for that , because the woman may not know that I am not trying to take advantage of the situation to cop a feel. Yet straight blokes always desire copping feels, because women’s bodies are ace, yet we learn to restrain ourselves, it’s not something worth doing. Because of this blokes miss out on so much of warmth of human physical contact, to the extent that some men seek ways to slyly cop feels or worse to make up for this missing out. The solution has to be talking more about these issues, for abuse to be recognised, so these men don’t end up raping or otherwise abusing women.

Even today, there still seems to be a reluctance to take on board that everyone is different and jokes about gender, race, sexuality, nationality, mental health, religion, anything and everything else cause a lot of harm and there is too much casual banter.

This doesn’t mean that straight blokes have to somehow try and not be fascinated by women’s bodies, or that we are not allowed to talk to women we are attracted to, even if we do want to get into their knickers. What it means is simply respecting other people and realising that we can easily hurt people without realising it because we don’t know who they are. and who has been harassing them in their personal history.

 

Alcohol & Anxiety

Having grown up in a drinking culture, I do enjoy the occasional drink or three. Drinking allows people to weaken the social rules we have for a few hours to lubricate social interactions and have some fun. Drinking is an appealing way of spending time, to celebrate life  rather than spend too much time contemplating the bleakness of existence. It has been society’s way of escaping the sheer craziness of human life on planet Earth.

Drinking is an escape from the social norms, unfortunately it has consequences. Those whom do not have a pleasant existence can overly turn to alcohol as the escape becomes addictive.

When I was a much more anxious person, I did enjoy the escape into drinking as this allowed me to be a normal person, unconstrained by the ties of anxiety. As an anxious person it probably took an additional pint to achieve that state of relaxation, free from inhibition that the non-anxious could do with fewer or even no alcohol. I was fortunate to never rely on alcohol to function, which alcoholics do. However, I quite often needed to drink to actually enjoy social interaction. In Britain this kind of works as much larger social functions generally include availability of alcohol.

Now that I am less anxious, I don’t feel that need to gain the effects of alcohol to enjoy socialising in large groups, though alcohol does increase the enjoyment, it just adds emphasis to enjoying socialising.

I’m sure everyone, whether they suffer from mental illness or not has that nervousness about going across to chat to the pretty girl. Alcohol helps us say ‘Why not, it’s hugely unlikely that they will humiliate me’, which I think is the fear everyone has. Alcohol has been allowing people to get together and form relationships for centuries. The thing about anxiety is that the anxious have this fear with everyone,they fear social interactions with everyone whether they are attractive or not. The normal social rule of anxiety about speaking to attractive women is simply exaggerated to the point where normal social function becomes a huge strain.

Overcoming anxiety is a journey, much like a night in town where the effects of alcohol get to the point of insobriety where we can enjoy ourselves fully, but still function. Such a state has a cost in the morning! The difference is the longer timescale and leading to a more permanent non-anxious state. For me, way back when the only time I felt  happy was when I was drunk. As I overcame anxiety i started to have moments of happiness or just feeling relaxed without drink. Over time the frequency and length of these spells increased. Happiness is never a permanent state, but a state of feeling relaxed within oneself increases in time until it is the majority of the time and eventually becomes the normal state. Eventually you no longer fear waking up in the morning feeling anxious. I used to have the idea that being happy always meant that the depression and anxiety would always be the worse afterwards, much like a hangover. However there does not need to be a hangover, you can just carry on the next day being not anxious. i still go ‘wow’ sometimes/

This state of relaxed normality is still a fairly new concept for me, but one I gather that most people have always had. It is kind of like when getting drunk for the first time and realising you can do this again and again. Gaining more experience of not being anxious is great and so enabling and having a few beers is even more enjoyable. It’s the feeling of being able to escape without a constant desire to escape.

The Fall and Rise of Respectability

My parents and grandparents went to some lengths to instil in me the importance of respectability. This concept was one I struggled to understand when I was young and then realised wasn’t important as I got older. What I did learn was that it was important to my older family and the older generation and discovered through my friends  that our generation didn’t give respectability any real value. So what I learned was how to play the game of respectability to not upset older people.

I think my main objection to respectability was that it was so complicated and seemed to lack a coherence or a logically related set of premises, it seemed like a fairly random set of rules and thus required commitment to learn. Really respectability had been important for generations, bound up with the issue of class that bound society together for a long time. Respectability is about showing that you have learned this very complex set of rules. Hence it is showing that you have been educated. This was an important badge of respectability during a period when a large chunk of society didn’t receive any formal education. The older generation are very impressed when our generation wave around degrees or have letters after our names, when my generation isn’t at all.

Much of these complex rules were not just about respectability and education but also about our culture and it’s traditions. I think the older generation have been fearful of the way my generation unpicked all the traditions and worked out which ones had sense or useful purpose to them and which were remnants of things that had once been useful but no more. I think they feared we would lose our culture and sense of who we were.

I kind of get that fear, but the rules are so harsh that they hold a culture bound to arbitrary rules that actually inhibit cultural growth. What I mean is that you can spend so much time and energy following the rules that you lack  the time to realise why something is valuable.

To illustrate this idea by example. As a child I was taken to a music concert, great, but this involved such things as dressing in uncomfortable clothes that I wasn’t comfortable wearing, sitting still and receiving instructions on how to appear I was appreciating the music. So, being an anxious child, I felt obliged to follow all these bizarre rules to keep my parents and grandparents happy, so much so that i didn’t get to enjoy the music! It was only later that I was able to relax and open my ears and really start to appreciate what the musicians were doing. So I now look down on anyone who suggests there should be ‘dress codes’ at musical concerts, if you like dressing up, great, if it’s not your thing, that is just as cool. I personally, make a point of not dressing up at all as all music should be accessible to everyone, whatever helps you open your ears is what is of paramount importance.

The other issue my cohort had when growing up was that we realised that we were growing up in rural Wales. We could look back on our families tilling the land for generation after generation and for me that meant I was one whole generation away from the land and that tradition.My cohort have been realising that in European terms our local culture hadn’t undergone the rapid changes experienced by those who went to the large towns and cities, that we also needed to learn the new etiquette of a more globalised world, especially those of us who had lost the farming tradition.

For my generation the world isn’t one of knowing the arcane rules of respectability. Perhaps we are more interested in what things are valuable and useful and disparage those things which aren’t. In a way all this is is just a completely new set of rules of respectability, with the difference in that the rules relate to the world we know rather than old traditions.

We live in rapidly changing times. Rural Wales was late in awakening to industrialisation, so when my parents generation realised that they weren’t to continue the agricultural tradition, Europe was beginning to struggle with post industrialisation, we had missed out perhaps almost entirely on the industrial era, apart from tractors replacing horses. Tractors replacing horses was surely progress, saving so much time and not needing to grow crops to feed the horses. However these very changes meant that fewer people were needed to work the farm. Many farms became one or two man operations and the rest of the family had to go and find work elsewhere, which almost invariably meant moving away.

Until that is, broadband came, and the transport network got so congested that staying at home for administrative jobs started to become the best option. Furthermore the beginnings of the effects of climate change are starting to have real unignorable impacts and the era of cheap oil and indeed it’s tractors is coming to an end. Perhaps I am witnessing the end of that  flight to cities to find work and all in just one generation.

Welsh farmers have largely always looked down their noses at all the city people, sitting in offices not producing very much of any real use. They are largely right of course. Whilst they have been spending all their days proudly producing food for people to eat. After all owning land was the height of respectability. European history has always been about the those at top of society who own the land.

The thing is anyone can farm. Humanity for most of history has been made up of farmers. It was only during the industrial period when modern conveniences enabled rises in living standards that land, farmland, for a time lost it’s value, enabling a generation of farmers to finally own their own land. It can be viewed that they got lucky to have ended up with the the thing that meant respectability to the very last generation that valued respectability.

I grew up with the concept of ‘look smart and wear a collar and tie’. The dual meaning of smart of being educated and dressing well, is perhaps no accident as both meanings are really about respectability. There is some evidence of this word ‘smart’ flipping in meaning as the meaning of respectability changes. We now talk about being ‘street smart’ and making smart decisions. These newer meanings of smart are not about old respectability but more about being a useful individual and contributing to rather than exploiting society.

The great irony for me growing up of wearing of ties is that the people who wore ties all the time were and still are the big business executives and politicians who made decisions for their personal gain and failed to appreciate what the communities they effected needed. It seems to me that the wearing of a tie is a mark of the disrespectful. I grew up during the Miner’s strike, and the baddies were all wearing suits. I only wear them when etiquette and tradition demands though.

Anyone who analysis society realises that the things that respectability valued, such as land or education are largely acquired by luck or an odious obsession with garnering the facets of respectability through acting in a disrespectful way, such as the acquisition of land to be a rentier, rather than actively working the land. Somewhat paradoxically respectability regards those who are respectable by luck of being in the right family  in the right place much more highly, rather than those who have acquired respectability by behaving disrespectfully by the new generations definition. Perhaps because the mistakes of the previous generations of the powerful were more innocent and on a smaller scale than those made by those in power today.

So, whilst my generation watch as the old respectability does, we are witnessing the rise of a new one where what is regarded as respectable has flipped and  is utterly different and instead values being true to yourself and your community, rather than learning the rules to be someone different and of entering a sub-community. Where diversity and difference is at last valued and conformity isn’t. The interesting question now is whether or not respectability will flip again in a new direction with the next generation or whether we stop valuing people’s acquired traits at all. I’m sure if either of these two directions is more worthy than the other.

 

Waiting for the bus that never comes

I used to hate waiting for buses. It was the not knowing how long you had to wait, whether it was worth getting my book out, whether I had time to pop to the local shop, an answer to whether  the bus had been cancelled so I could go to the pub for a pint or two whilst waiting for the next one. Often these days you can use an app’ on your phones which will tell you where the bus really is and how long it will be, which solves all these problems of lost time waiting and makes bus travel a lot less annoying.

Unfortunately there is not an app’ for the UK government. Brexit is like waiting for the bus that never comes; We know the service will be crap but at least we may soon be on the ruddy thing and we are no longer waiting.

We are in this strange Brexit zone. No-one talks about Brexit anymore, I think we are all fed up of going through the same tired arguments yet again, the arguments that frustratingly never get around to their logical conclusion. There doesn’t seem much we can go about it and we don’t want to open up those divisive arguments again. Of course we do make lots of jokes about how pathetic the UK is being by not having a Brexit plan and trying to wing it and keep the important electoral demographics happy during the process, rather than formulate sensible policy. I’m sure those outside the UK are making the exact same jokes.

It’s not only Brexit fatigue, it’s this whole three year period whilst the UK negotiates Brexit on the fly, with no plan of what to do with it. We kind of want to know what will happen at the end so we can start preparing for it and start thinking about how to adapt to it. We are waiting again without knowing when the bus will turn up. With this Tory UK government having decided to take all the responsibility for Brexit and secured government by a gnat’s wing to do so, there seems little to do but get on with our lives in the meantime.

When and indeed if Brexit does happen, I expect the vast majority of people to be disappointed, only a particularly bizarre few are going to get what they want. The big issues of the “debate” over Brexit of immigration and better regulations are not going to be tackled as there is unlikely to be any agreement of how best to resolve these problems. Of course we could actually have a debate, work through the issues and come up with sensible policies, but that isn’t how the British state works. The EU doesn’t work that way either of course, but is perhaps less likely to do anything truly daft, which was always my argument for remain; that the UK can and should do more to sort out our problems rather than waste years on Brexit with no plan for post-Brexit.

I am still aware of all the problems with the EU: economic migrancy, regulations that don’t really apply and are a hindrance to the UK economy, the Eurozone holding back the economies of Southern Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) etc. The problem with Brexit was that acknowledging these problems but not offering an alternative, not looking at what the alternatives are, the arguments never got beyond this beginning of forming an argument, taking the first premise as a conclusion.  A great weakness of the EU was failing to sort out the CAP. The CAP was a strong argument for Brexit, however the UK has not promised to replace it with anything better, instead suggesting that agriculture won’t get any subsidies, but don’t worry we can import lovely unhealthy foods like chlorine chicken and hormone beef from the US, making food regulation even more complicated. How is this better than staying in the EU?

The other powerful Brexit argument was that the UK would never be offered a choice on the EU again, so Brexit should be voted for to give Britain the chance for modern democracy and reform of our failing institutions. However instead of preparing for this, instead we hear about binding ourselves to a different set of damaging “free trade” deals.

We know that both of the major Uk political parties are slaves to their focus groups, rather than what is best for economy. Tory Bliar’s  [Tony Blair] “Labour” government, only implemented limited devolution to gain votes and the Tories only had Brexit to win an election as well. Britain just needs to end this ghastly Westminster system, have true democracy and that means Wales getting to decide it’s own affairs, rather than decided by these two lots of political careerists.

Much of the motivation for Brexit was hope, hope for new systems that actually worked and performed their function to be developed, rather than continual decline in living standards. Paradoxically, the only way for Brexit to work is bring Westminster government crashing down and allow genuine reform from the bottom up. We are still waiting for that but anxious that that day may never come.

Fear of Welsh

A lot of people are afraid of the Welsh language. I think that there are a lot of complex reasons for this rather odd fear.

I have just done a whole week in the Welsh language, doing everything in the language, living in a house with fellow Welsh learners under the guidance of our tutor. I remember feeling somewhat scared about the prospect of only speaking in Welsh for a whole week as we sat around the dining room table preparing not to use English.  I was nervous of losing the comfort blanket of my first language for a whole week.

Yet, it was an enormous amount of fun. Perhaps the most important aspect of the no other languages rule for the week was not being able to ask: “What is the word for X in Welsh/ Beth ydy’r gair am X yn Cymraeg?”, not being able to use a dictionary and having to rely on finding ways to describe things with my limited Welsh vocabulary or simply using gestures. This also meant not being able to use the internet for a whole week.

The result of this single rule was to live in the Welsh language, to think in the Welsh language, to enter an entirely different world really. Instead of simply looking for the equivalent English word or expression, I  lived in Welsh, enabling a close personal relationship with the language. It was a very special and unique experience. Indeed it is one most Welsh speakers never experience, as Welsh speakers always encounter someone who can’t speak Welsh in any given week, or simply use an English word for somethign they don’t know how to express in Welsh.

It was very very mentally tiring not being able to use the vast amount of understanding of the English language I have acquired. English almost became a ‘foreign’ language, which meant that sometimes when walking in the street and overhear someone speaking English, it would sound odd and garbled as I was indeed thinking and being in Welsh.

There were a couple of occasions during the week when I would encounter fear of Welsh from English speakers. The first time was when as a group we were laughing and joking  about a Welsh sign. A man approached and asked ‘Are you lost?’ As we couldn;t speak English someone said ‘Dan ni’n iawn diolch [We’re fine thanks]’ and smiled. A smile is almost universal and I’m sure he understood that we needed no help, however he persisted ‘I don’t speak Welsh’. I made an apologetic face ‘Dan ni’n iawn, diolch, rhaid i ni siarad yn Gymraeg yn unig [We have to only speak in Welsh]’. Suddenly he raised his voice ‘ I said that I don’t speak Welsh, you are being very rude’. At which point our tutor, who was allowed to speak English, intervened to try and explain this unique circumstance and an argument proceeded. The thing is this is a fairly unique aspect of Wales and the Welsh language , in that almost every Welsh speaker can speak English too and many monoglot English speakers are troubled by the Welsh language as this man obviously was, he felt threatened by it, that he has encountered a rare situation where he was unable to communicate. The thing is in most of the rest of the world this doesn’t happen, you cannot assume a knowledge of English you encounter people who don’t speak English and you do communicate with gesture and tone of voice and broad feelings are communicated. Having said that there are Welsh speakers who don’t speak English, in Patagonia in South America, a bilingual Welsh-Spanish speaking community and indeed a few Welsh learners from non-English speaking countries. The man had an negative attitude to the Welsh language and was hostile towards it.

I experienced this again after the language immersion experience. For the first day after, i stayed predominantly in Welsh. I visited a local castle and asked for my ticket in Welsh, quite naturally, The lady at the counter responded ‘I don’t speak Welsh’ at which point i reverted to using English and asked politely for a ticket in English, however she shied back from the counter and another lady took over my transaction. Another encounter with fear of the language.

Of course as a learner of Welsh I regularly experience language fear when talking to strangers, particularly first language Welsh speakers, especially when you don’t know their attitude to a Welsh learner. It’s partly a fear of being judged on your ability and risk of appearing to be a simpleton, which in effect you are at the time, and this is coupled with all the incessant language politics we suffer on a daily basis in Wales. My week in Welsh, has helped me grow my confidence in Welsh so much, being in Welsh I don’t have the cloying memories of anxiety I experience in English. It’s like I have a different version of my personality in the Welsh language.

As English speakers, we are just incredibly lucky to be able to travel in so much of the world in our first language, so many British people, never learn another language, never placing themselves in a situation where they have to learn to use another language to communicate. I think that some of these people simply find it threatening when people use non-English languages in Britain, the phrase ‘Why don’t they speak English’ is often heard in the certain circles in English society, lobbied at the Welsh speaking community and other language communities. However, an I have learnt that being able to exist in another language is a truly wonderful experience. As a Welsh speaker, sometimes I want to experience the world in Welsh and sometimes in English. Hiding within only one language and being hostile or fearful of other languages is just a very odd desire, to want everyone else to be as similar to you as possible. As learners we now our fearful feelings are somethign to get over to leave behind, non language learners ar perhaps not ready to take a risk in a new situation and wish to remain fearful?

 

Awakenings

Waking up to a new day, a new start, a whole day of possibilities is a very wonderful thing. However, it often doesn’t feel like it, often we are worried about all sorts of things or just feel like we can’t face it this morning. So, when we go to bed there is a sense of not knowing what things will be like in the morning. For those who suffer from anxiety or depression this sense of the unknown is not a neutral thing, it grinds us down with excessive worrying.

Waking up in a broader figurative sense, with a full realisation that much of your own worries are unnecessary, turns those rare happy bouncy days into somethign more regular, more likely. When there is a bad day, there is a real reason for it, such as bad news. This is what waking up from or recovering from anxiety is like, the troubles come from the world rather than from inside ourselves.

Perhaps the greatest thing about not being anxious anymore is being able to feel with other people, to be on the same track as other people some of the time, to share success together or even endure bad times together on the same emotional wavelength. This enables a real sense of connection with other people, enabling you to be open with people and it not to be terribly inappropriate and enabling you to empathise with what others are communicating to you.

To be anxious is to be living with a big shield around you, it’s stops people getting in and stops you getting out. It’s a pointless shield, cutting yourself off from your own emotions and those of people you care about. Of course you need to protect yourself from chaos, but some trust in the world and other people is necessary, you have to go an journey and trust that it will be all-right, that there aren’t monsters lurking around the corner. I think that in the modern world to increase trust in the world at the very time the world is becoming less trustworthy as our sense of community is under attack

This is what recovery from anxiety gives you. The first flush of super positivity and energy from getting there is amazing. Once you get used to it you realise some quite important things.

Firstly that modern society has got it so wrong, we are all increasingly living in our own worlds, we are not communities that bond together and share the ups and downs, we are on our own rides, much like the person suffering anxiety or depression.

Secondly, a sense that we post-anxiety people are always going to be on this different ride, simply because all those years we have suffered anxiety and cut ourselves off from the world we have learned social skills in a much different way to other people. We have learnt social rules in an academic way, through trial and error, to find ways of getting by and causing the least damage to ourselves and to other people. Whereas the non-anxious learn more ‘naturally’ with their feelings bouncing off others feelings and finding what works well, rather than what limits damage.

The difficulty with getting older is that we have more responsibilities and less time to play, less time to learn, so there is a sense of knowing that we will never really catch up with these abilities, the shadow of anxiety will always remain with us. This is compounded by the fact that other people do find it odd that as a more mature person you are acting like someone much younger and you just have to blot that out to keep learning and not drift back to anxiety.

It’s unlike learning a second language, where you can put the time and effort in to catch up on the language skills. Yet, second language learners know they will never quite gain that true fluency that comes from learning a first language. It’s like second language speakers miss out on being a child in that second language. Even though we can play like a child in the language we will never be children in the language. I think it’s a different thing with learning Welsh and being Welsh because many of us are learning a language that we wish we had been brought up in, rather than learning a foreign language to better explore a different culture somewhere else in the world. There is a sense of it being bizarre to learn a ‘native’ language later in life. Yet it isn’t!

It isn’t because it’s the same thing as overcoming anxiety, it’s learning a set of skills that we should have learnt when we were much younger. But, you can’t be young again, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still learn and make your own life better.

Anyway, I’m off to live in a closed community for a week, an immersion week of Welsh only, no English, no other languages, just Welsh, kind of trying to experience growing up in Welsh! I’m really looking forward to it, it’s such a rare thing outside of families and when grown up and so very special.

Oh, and the UK is suddenly having a General Election. I have so much to say about that. It seems to be about a battle for Britain and those of us who feel a part of Britain, whether Welsh, Scots, Cornish, Northumbrian or even just English, of those for Britain and those against. Those who seek to divide and those who seek unity. Those against Britain are miles ahead in the polls, it’s very disturbing, so I feel that I should do whatever I can for the dear people of these isles. Anyway, but that’ll be for when I’m back here at this keyboard and knocking on people’s doors. If you are in the UK and thinking about voting Tory or UKIP, please please please please think very hard about whether that choice is really the best for Britain.

Hwyl fawr tan tro nesaf / Goodbye until next time

Privileged Ignorance & Harrassment

I am a privileged white male. As such I haven’t ever really suffered from discrimination or harassment. I have never been racially abused or been sexually discriminated against. I have on occasion suffered a little homophobia from men who presumed I was gay.

Yet, in spite of this privilege, I have suffered from anxiety. I have been hyper-sensitive to discrimination that never really came my way, it was all in my own head. Having overcome this anxiety I ran into a new problem, that people were still behaving peculiarly around me, notably women and something seemed to be triggering it. This issue vexed me greatly and had me going around in circles trying to work it out for years, wondering if I had overcome anxiety after all.

I eventually worked out that the reason for the shift in the behaviour by these women, was that they had decided that I was seeking a relationship with them. The thing is, i wasn’t seeking a relationship, well no more than I do with everyone. I mean I wasn’t trying to force a closer or indeed a sexual relationship. Yet once they had ‘decided’ this, their behaviour towards me changed completely. In itself this isn’t a problem, the problem was that it bugged me for not knowing why the behaviour had changed and made me anxious again.

However, most of us are attracted to other people and it is a ego boost, a positive thing when we discover that other people are attracted to us. However the reaction to me seemed something much stronger, much darker and more sinister.

The answer dawned on me one evening in London. I was following a man and a woman down the street, they seemed to be having an argument. This seemed quite a normal occurrence until the man stopped and walked the other way, he seemed almost instantly calm as if he didn’t know the woman. It then dawned on me that perhaps he didn’t know this women, who was striding purposefully on, looking straight ahead, you would at least think about looking around to a friend or partner who had left an argument. I then realised that he may have been simply harassing her, or giving unwanted attention to this woman and quite possibly sexual harrassment.

This may well have been an everyday incident on a city street. However it was new to me and I began wondering how much abuse has been taking place in front of my eyes, yet somehow I had been blissfully ignorant of it.

If you are lucky never to have really been abused, you do not know what it is like, or what it looks like. If you live within a privileged bubble, such events are not on your radar. Being a reasonably educated person, I tend to socialise with other educated people, so this world of discrimination and abuse must happen elsewhere outside this bubble. So safely enconsed in this privileged bubble we don’t even notice such abuses when they may be right in front of us.

The thing is, I’ve been an anxious person and am highly sensitive, why hadn’t I noticed all this going on before. If I hadn’t noticed it, then surely it must be even harder to spot for more conventional white males whom are more central in the white male privilege bubble.

This revelation opened up this horrid tawdry world of abuse that exists everywhere. In particular, it made me realise the shit that women have to put up with, probably on an almost daily basis. If you are regularly harassed you are going to develop strategies to protect yourself.

Hence, I had stumbled upon the reason why these women were behaving strangely towards me. They were detecting cues and clues for potentially abusive behaviour from me and raised their guard. This was such an amazing relief for me to uncover, there wasn’t anything wrong with me, I really didn’t need to be anxious! There was no reason, or anything about me as a person that was being  guarded against, but simply a manifestation of how awfully too many of my ‘fellow’ white males behave.

The great thing about this, is I can now detect it. So, when I start seeing a lady being uncomfortable with me, I am able to recognise it and back off and fortunately this doesn’t mean  I end up in uncomfortable situations anymore or lose friendships because of it anymore. I am aware of my own privilege, though I view it as a curse, it has clouded from me truths about the world. I am always welcoming people who are not members of this odd group of people called ‘white males’ into my circles and am always amazed now by how happy  people are to accept white males into their circles despite the potential increased risk of abuse.

And a Very British Coup

The enormity of what has just happened is slowly sinking in. Have my worst fears been realised, it seems so. It is why i have been so upset and concerned these last few days.

Today’s developments seem to confirm the worst. Today the deadline for nominations for the next leader of the Conservative party (the Tories) and the next Prime Minister of the UK, to be decided by the 120,000 odd members of the party. The coup is that all the candidates are from the hard right of the party, all pro-Brexit and all against holding a General Election in the autumn. So, what this suggests is that Brexit will happen after all, the members of the Conservative party will not be able to do anything about it, the ordinary people who canvas and campaign on local issues). ‘Well that was the democratic will of the UK’, I hear you say. If only it were that simple. what this  means is the completion of the wholesale taking over of the political establishment by the hard-right, a very British coup.

The market fundamentalists, the corporatists will then simply take over. Everyone left in the UK will suffer as more and more wealth is taken away from the general population to give to the few at the very top. Britons will become slaves.

The whole EU referendum was a stitch up job and not an exercise in democracy at all. a dreadful campaign was fought, the leave campaign was orchestrated to offer hope to appeal to those struggling from the effects of austerity, such people have been duped. Even if the vote had gone for remain, the result would have been the same, a victory for the neo-liberals, except orchestrated through the EU, with trade deals such as CETA and TTIP.

This right have been in power for over thirty years and they have been very clever: They allowed housing costs to escalate, trapping people into mortgages or otherwise insecure housing. One thing human beings cling to is having a roof over their head, so fear of losing this can be a very powerful tool. They have made work more insecure, less meaningful, again tying people into the system. Allowing the basic cost of living to rise so high, forcing people to make severe compromises in the attempt to earn a higher wage to strive for comfort and security. Essentially that have put everyone, apart from the lucky few at the top who can milk the system, in debt. Debt is essentially a powerful means of control, it’s not just housing, it’s education too, the ways out of poverty towards a comfortable existence entail taking on huge debts.

This right have also managed to wrest control of the political system. The Tories forced the Labour party into a adopting a soft right ‘Blairite’ position as the only perceived means of winning an election, allowing the situation to continue to worsen and ultimately leading to what has happened this week.

This week the Labour party appear to be imploding. The party members finally elected a moderate left wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, one of the very few people untainted by the Blairite shift. However as the Labour party benches in Parliament are full of those who have made it up the party machine adopting Blairite compromises, they have failed to see their own situation and have duped themselves into believing that a true alternative to this Tory right plan is possible. It may have been their last chance.

They have even cobbled the Tory parties ancient foes the Whigs, or the Liberal party, by placing them in the position of taking the blame for the worst policies of the coalition government, whilst miraculously escaping blame from those on the right themselves.

Even the real conservatives (the venerable party of old, pre-Thatcher times that believed in a level playing field, family, social mobility, equal opportunities) and the upstart UKIP  has been conned. The leave campaign from this more traditional right had at it’s heart  a campaign about freeing small and medium enterprises and family businesses from the excessive ‘red-tape’ associated with EU regulations, for greater democratic control to truly represent the people. The whole campaign of misinformation was designed to cloud the real issues. ‘To take back control’ was the slogan, these people will not be helped by the neo-liberals in charge as they will find they have even less control.

All this in a society where the mainstream media outlets are very right wing and highly selective in what news they report, have become active conspirators in the coup, even the BBC, once seen as a bastion of fairness, is no little more than a government news agency. If the Tories proceed with Brexit, they can still claim they didn’t think it was a good idea and then blame Brexit for whatever ills befall the UK economy whilst entrenching their own power.

How has this final, coup been achieved. The Tory party contained both this new nasty breed of corporatist, neo-liberals and the more traditional ideology of the real conservatives. for the past thirty years the Tory party has been divided over the issue of the EU. the referendum was portrayed as an attempt to once and for all end Tory squabbling over EU issues and as a sop to UKIP to enable the Tories to win the last general election. However what it really achieved, which I was afraid of, was the effect of eradicating the pro-EU pro social co-operation, real conservatives from positions of influence in the party. Even Cameron himself, can be viewed as the last real conservative, but he couldn’t achieve anything, constrained by the powerful forces in his own party around him and a misplaced party loyalty. The real tragedy is those traditional centre right people, who seem to be the last to notice what has happened.

The people who are wealthy or are people of the hard and moderate right, are probably celebrating. Everyone else now faces some tough choices: Stay and suffer, Stay and fight or  leave and seek a life in one of the few remaining nice places left in the world.

So, what to do? In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we have a developed civic nationalism (a solidarity with all people who live in our community) and should campaign in earnest now for independence from the UK. Yes, our economies will suffer even more, but we can ensure the basics of a roof over our heads, heat in winter, food, the opportunity of productive work and hope. Real economic growth will take time. England, will sadly have an even tougher battle, as those in power have been so effective in dividing opposition.

In the pub last night, conversation turned to George Orwell’s ‘1984’ being reasonably educated it is easy to forget that not everyone has read and understood this important book. I wish I wasn’t so paranoid about this, it just seems that the whole referendum was about the destruction of European culture, of support for our fellow human beings, for working together to solve problems, of the social contract. going back to the feudal system, which I don’t think is the country anyone really wanted back.

The thing is there are lots of positive things to come out of the referendum: increased political engagement, a greater understanding of issues and a strong call for a change to address the issues raised. But, my concern is that this hard right government, will continue not to listen and impose some kind of Brexit in it’s own narrow interests that doesn’t resolve the problems but will increase it’s own power and influence, rather than deliver for all the people of Britain. The UK should not to anything other than commit to listening and addressing. the real problems

 

I want my country back

This phrase has been heard numerous times over the course of the UK EU referendum. I have wondered what exactly it means to the people who utter it. Most accounts of this phenomena describe it as a  nostalgia for a society from the past, for simpler times and a desire for some of those elements to make a return. This is a sentiment to which anyone over over a certain age can relate to at some point.

For some it is a desire for a monocultural monoethnic conformist world where everyone thinks and behaves the same way. Quite why anyone would want that is beyond me, I grew up in such a world and hated it, I couldn’t wait to get away and explore the world. This view betrays a fear of the different, a fear of our fellow human beings. We are all different, so such a view just seems nasty.

However, often this nostalgia is for positive things. A friend and I of similar age were talking about growing up when we just went off exploring with our friends, climbing trees, building elaborate dam systems in local streams, making complex underground maze systems in barns full of straw bales, generally getting very muddy indeed. As long as we made it to someone’s house in time for tea or not home before it got dark, we were not reprimanded  (well only about getting muddy and we sensed our parents didn’t really mind, that the criticism was for forms sake). This is a world that can be longed for. a world where children are not stuck inside, lacking socialising with their peers, exploring themselves and the world around them. Longed for because it was a healthier childhood.

This EU referendum has highlighted this desire for better things from the past, such as affordable housing, education, secure employment or food. however it seems that instead of looking for the fundamental reasons why, much of British society is now worse, people are instead looking for someone else to blame, in this case immigrants (whoever they are, as we are all immigrants). There was a video on YouTube of a man being shouted at in Bristol to be told to ‘Go back where you came from?’, to which he replied ‘Do you mean Cardiff? [where he was from!]’. I don’t understand why anyone would blame people for things, or specifically people who are in some way different, for the problems. It is systems, governmental policy, not thinking things through, that are the problem.

A hatred of people, creates it’s own destructive downward spiral. Once you start blaming ‘other people’, you disconnect yourself from other people. This is highly dangerous and antagonistic. This is the force that creates terrorist groups such as ISIS, who hate everyone who is not a member of their group. So, people then hate ISIS, which leads to hatred of the people in ISIS, then fuzzy thinking and group-think take hold and suddenly it is all Muslims who are to blame, then all Arabs, then one day you have a referendum on membership of the EU where the debate becomes about immigration. Culminating in today, where a MP (member of the UK parliament) was shot by a gunman because he apparently disagreed with his locally elected MPs views.

For me, the country I want back is one of respect and tolerance. Where you behave as you see fit, without fear that some maniac isn’t going to shoot you, where children will return home at the end of the day.  A world where extremism, such as Nazi Germany was something we read about in history books.

This modern curse of extremism affects all of us, whoever we are, wherever in the world we might be. Last week another gunman killed around fifty people in a nightclub in Orlando, USA. Once we got over the shock that another fifty lives had been lost to this extremist disease, we realised that this was an attack on the LGBT community. I am not a member of the LGBT community and being a white, male heterosexual I haven’t encountered or really able to empathise with such discrimination. Anyway the attack was in a LGBT nightclub. LGBT nightclubs are safe spaces, places where members of the LGBT community can be themselves, with less fear. If you are not discriminated against you don’t know what it is like. I’m only really getting my head around this myself.

Last year I was in Germany. I was walking down the street and a guy shoulder charged into me and ran off. I turned to my friend (my host in Germany) to ask what had happened. He said “Well if you are going to walk around in a floral shirt, this sort of thing happens”. I was wearing a floral shirt and it was pointed out to me that almost all the German men wore striped shirts. It wasn’t for being Welsh, or foreign that I was charged at, but because my attacker assumed that I was LGBT. This incident didn’t affect me, I continued to enjoy my holiday. However if such things were a regular occurrence, an everyday thing, I would feel more and more excluded and perhaps seek out safe spaces where all the other non-stripey shirted people went.

So it seems that extremism enforces sub-cultures, which is the opposite of this nice simple world everybody really wants. So to get out of extremism perhaps requires strange things to happen.

And then there’s me. I have written about how I used to be an extremely anxious person. Someone who tried to exist in the shadows, not stand out, not say what I really thought. I tried to say and do what I thought people expected me to do, but I couldn’t, I failed at this, it is just easier to be myself. I was behaving as if I was being discriminated against, when I wasn’t at all, so I was really happy to realise that I am able to be myself, to do such things as cry when Wales loses to England at the football as I did today. However I have since learned how much of this awful discrimination there really is. It’s not just race, it’s gender, sexuality, age, nationality and many other things. There is this ‘expectation’ that we are supposed to be able to conform to, but no-one can say what this conformity actually is, or what it is for? Traditional values? like living in mudhuts, scraping a living off the land with no modern tools? Following one interpretation of a contradictory religious text, written thousands of years ago, when most people did live in mudhuts?

It’s quite simple, there is nothing wrong with respecting other people. Jesus taught that we should respect other people, why do so many ‘Christians’ act contrary to Jesus? Respect has to be learned. We do all get angry. Anger wells up for all sorts of reasons: when we hear people whistling when our national anthem is sung or when a gunman shoots a hard working woman with two young children. We all get angry.

Anger does not have to lead to hatred, we should all learn to control our anger. Like as children climbing a tree when the branch starts to break because of our weight, after getting to safety our first instinct was to blame the tree! We learn the folly of anger. When our football team loses, we don’t hate the winners, we learn to walk away knowing that our day will be some another day, when a gunman goes on a gun rampage in Florida, we do not blame the non-LGBT community, we feel sorrow for those with lost loved ones. When a politician is killed, though we do really get angry at politicians a lot of the time, we appreciate that they are a human being too and that the gunman is a flawed human being too, just like the rest of us.

So, lets stop blaming the tree. Lets go back to a world where we listen to each other with respect, where we exclude no-one, where our mothers would scold us if we ignored the new kid, where we don’t have problem with people being different as we are all different.