On January 1st 2017, I wrote:
This morning, Eva was discussing about aiming to ‘make friends with discomfort’ in 2017. For her, the discomforts are many and multifaceted and are not limited to the discrete physical symptoms associated with treatment for breast cancer. The complex psychological effects of living with this illness and its treatment continue to surprise us, as well as the inevitable emotional instability associated with tiredness and stress and anxiety…[we] discussed further this making friends with discomfort and amended it to making friends with vulnerability and discomfort. The last weeks’ journey has been one of vulnerability in different ways. The sensation of being vulnerable to a life-threatening disease process; the vulnerability towards treatment; the vulnerability of our family to this massive emotional and practical upheaval; the emotional and psychological vulnerability we have all felt as individuals…
The last couple of years we have discussed personal intentions for the year ahead. For example, a couple of years ago my wife suggested ‘making friends with uncertainty’. Of course, by the end of each calendar year we had not risen to such fabulous heights of enlightenment that we had perfected dealing with these complex feelings and experiences. However, like goal-setting, identifying an area for personal growth is the minimal start needed in the process of change. Rather than choosing an arbitrary or completely abstract concept (perhaps making friends with vulnerability is a completely unrelateable issue for you…I would argue it’s not, but that’s another story…) choose something which you see would make demonstrable, tangible difference in your life right now if you learned that lesson. For us, these were concrete, workable concepts that we felt we could pursue in the year ahead.
Last night (New Year’s Eve, in bed by 9.15pm, thank you very much), after writing my first blog post yesterday, I was assailed by the predictable onslaught of doubts and negative self-talk: ‘what the hell are you on about? What is ‘curiosity, disrupted’? What is the deal with that shitting comma? Yes, I know it’s a fabulous grammatical tool which will bamboozle your readers with its utterly disruptive ambiguity, but really? And how pretentious is blogging anyway? Like there aren’t enough blogs in the world. And just because you had a few compliments on last year’s blog (where you obviously hijacked your wife’s experience of cancer to express your own existential angst, you bastard) you now feel like 2018 is begging for another edition of your own naval-gazing self-absorption? What about the Rohingya? Do you think they give a shit about your blog? Go to Mosul if you think you are such a gift to the world.’
Although my own internal, unfiltered, uninvited monologue sounds perhaps rather extreme when written down verbatim, I imagine it’s not too different from that which runs through the minds of us all when we choose to present our wares to the world. For many this can be sharing your creativity, whether that be in artistic form or a presentation to the board suggesting an innovative solution to a complex problem. We are called in our base human-ness to share ourselves. Some choose to do it for artistic expression’s sake; others do it to put food on the table.
Once I’d retired to bed positively bursting with optimism about my latest blog, sans phone (intention number two), I turned to the pile of books on my bedside table: The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert, Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss, Finding My Virginity by Richard Branson, Rising Strong by Brene Brown, The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard C Cutler, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer, and Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi. (No, you’re not mistaken; it’s like the self-help section of a major bookshop vomited up Bali in the middle of Silicon Valley.) All are in various states of readedness.
I picked up the first one, Paul Gilbert’s brilliant analysis of the old mind/brain v the new mind/brain, and how the biological and social evolution of the human prefrontal cortex has caused all sorts of irritating habits along with its ability to meta-analyse our internal states. He describes three types of affect (emotion) regulation systems in the human brain which he describes as:
- The driven, excited, vitality system: this is incentive/resource-focused, and is characterised by wanting, pursuing, achieving, and consuming. It has an activating effect on us.
- The content, safe, connected system: this is non-wanting/affiliative-focused, and is characterised by safeness and kindness. It has a soothing effect on us.
- The anger, anxiety, disgust system: this is threat-focused, and is characterised by protection and safety-seeking. It can have both activating and inhibitory effects on us.
These systems can also be conceptualised as relatively discrete but closely interlinked neurobiological and hormonal systems. It’s not difficult to look at ourselves in our day-to-day lives and see how and when these affective systems are driving us. (Affect is a fancy word for emotions in this context.) Emotional intelligence is the concept that by being aware of what is happening at an affect level, we can better gauge what is transpiring both in our own internal state as well as that of others. Again, it is not difficult to figure out why this is important in business, organisational reform, the doctor-patient relationship, politics, romantic and parent-child relationships, etc etc. But how often do we do it?
He later writes,
…We require both a sophisticated and an agreed form of welfare-focused social organization to contain our potential tribalism and abusive power hierarchies, and we must also recognize that, if we don’t understand and train our minds very carefully and learn to be wary of allowing ‘new brain/mind’ competencies to be directed by ‘old brain/mind’ passions, we’re going to be in trouble…We are a species that has evolved to thrive on kindness and compassion.
That last sentence struck me. We have evolved to thrive on kindness and compassion.
It makes sense on first pass; we know that we ‘feel’ better when others are kind and compassionate towards us…but we rationalise it along the lines of, ‘I don’t live in a world where I can expect to feel pleasurable feelings all time.’ Which is true.
So what does compassion actually mean? Is it a weak sense of gushing over pictures of malnourished orphans on the other side of the world? Is it something only nurses feel? Is it intrinsically related to the maternal and the feminine – that whole stereotyped characteristic which is not championed and modeled by the (generally) male leaders we follow? (A whole other issue and problem which I would love to write about at some point.)
Compassion is derived from the Latin com- ‘togther’, and pati– ‘to suffer’.
To suffer with. To suffer together.
As a doctor, I am galled by the focus on ‘personal resilience’ which is extolled as the answer to the ‘tribalism and abusive power hierarchies’ that haunt my archaic and ponderous profession. A medical school colleague of mine was found dead late at night in the operating theatre changing rooms back in Scotland in August. In Australia, stories abound over the past few years of doctors who have suicided in the pursuit of what was traditionally considered an altruistic and compassionate vocation.
So what would happen if we lived compassion? I have clues and ideals and visions of what could happen, and I will strive in my relationships and professions and society to be a ‘compassion disruptor’. To be explicit: it is not about simply being nice to people or ourselves. Compassion is about stepping out of our comfort zone and proactively engaging with our own, and others’, suffering.
Here are some examples of questions about how compassion could disrupt:
- In a meeting, a manager publicly humilates a colleague for a genuine mistake they have made. How would you engaging in their suffering affect them? Do you fall on the side of, ‘they made a mistake so they deserve this’, or ‘we all make mistakes and it is not helping the situation by humiliating the perpetrator of it.’ Mike Maples Jr., a partner at Floodgate, a venture capital firm that specialises in startups, says, ‘I find it is better to be focused on honoring the discovery of the truth rather than determining who is to blame.’ Would being compassionate, focusing on the ‘discovery of the truth’ (e.g. a root-cause analysis to identify the chain of events leading to the mistake) rather than lambasting an individual be more helpful?
- When facing a client, and presenting a solution to the problem they have presented you with, you end up receiving all the credit and praise. You know, however, that a junior associate was the one who came up with the paradigm. The client knows your CEO personally and is likely to mention you favourably. How would compassion towards your junior colleague affect this situation? You know that they stayed late finishing the proposal; how would you empathising with them ‘in their suffering’ change your response? The moral or ethical answer is not difficult to deduce; but would you choose to believe that being seen as charitable and humble is something you would rather be valued for rather than being perceived as cut-throat and win-at-all-costs?
- As a doctor in a busy emergency department, you are faced with an emotionally dysregulated young person who has self-harmed. They have presented to your ED multiple times, and have a history of cannabis and alcohol misuse. You have treated other family members of this person, who have a selection of forensic charges and substance abuse issues between them. How could the situation be defused by you responding with compassion? How have people usually responded to this young person – both professionals and other family members throughout his/her life? Is acting compassionately likely to smooth the transition of this patient through the ED to the appropriate inpatient setting, or as appropriate to be discharged with follow-up? How does your previous experience with this patient, and other similar clinical scenarios, affect your decision to ‘suffer with’ or to reduce your emotional engagement with this patient?
In 2018, I wonder how we can change our relationships if we acted compassionately? How could we treat ourselves differently (more effectively) if we responded with an awareness of our old mind/brain – that reactive, defensive, safety-seeking part that avoids danger, and which is hijacked by the new mind/brain which chastises us for being in the situation of experiencing those feelings?
If we can change in our intimate relationships?
If we can change in our family relationships?
If we can change in our professional relationships?
If we can change in our societal relationships?
If we can change in our relationship with and to the Other, seeing our selves reflected there?
It could be great.
(But honestly, that f***ing comma.)