Thoughts on Radical Kindness: Why writers and artists should practice it (Part 3)

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[This is part 3 of a series of blogs about kindness. Please see parts 1 and 2 here]

When I began writing these posts I kind of thought this would have been one of my ‘here are my random thoughts on this’ kind of posts and that would be it. However life rarely turns out as you expect. I have been thinking a bit about my own journey as a person, and as an artist and writer, and what I’m about really through these posts.

I actually wanted to write and make art when I was a teenager, but I also wanted to ‘help people’ and somehow got it into my head that being an artist/writer would mean that I wouldn’t be doing that (I have seriously revised my view on this now!). Instead I went off to university to study medicine, thinking that doctors ‘helped’ people so that was what I should do. While I really loved learning about the science, and believe that having the opportunity to study human anatomy through full body dissection was one of the great privileges of my life, it turned out that the practice of medicine was not for me. I left after four years to do a PhD in psychology, during which I studied things like advertising, persuasion and the impact that stories can have on us. I still wanted to write and make art, but some how I wasn’t ready, because I hadn’t really found my subject.

Later I did research into mental health and genetics, and I left a long term relationship because my then partner would not even talk about having children (hence I am quite late to the baby party). After this I had a bit of a break down really, although I would not have called it that at the time. I was depressed, very anxious, and drinking lots. I was in a bad way, and (cliche alert) I became attached to a number of men who were not attached to me.

I continued to work in mental health but the kind of work I did changed so that I was doing research with colleagues who also had mental health issues. We talked a lot, and I listened a lot, and in the middle of all of that, I found I was ready to make things and write things. I am now writing a novel in which people have experienced trauma and who live with those things. It’s also a fantasy novel, so I am trying to weave in strands of myth and magic, which makes things a bit complicated, but and I think I finally found my subject. I think this is the many splendid forms of being human and all the emotional consequences of that. 

So why do I think that artists and writers in particular should practice radical kindness? I think that, beyond just being a good person, there are a number of reasons. I think to create art, or convincing characters that really speak to people, it can really help to understand people. It can really help to understand the rich and varied emotional lives many people live. To understand people, you need to connect with people on an honest level. To connect with people, it really, really helps if you are kind. People will tell you things about themselves, and help you, incrementally, to better understand all the different ways of being human, if you are kind.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Thoughts on Radical Kindness as a Daily Practice: Part 2

img_0390[This blog is Part 2 of a series blogs – see Part 1 here.]

When I started writing this blog series I just wanted to express a general thought about kindness; that posting nice quotes or stories is not enough. We need to think about it like yoga, as a kind of daily or weekly practice to actually make a difference. I see this a potential political movement, not just a personal practice, although perhaps more developed thoughts on that can wait for later.

In writing that post I realised that I had learned a few specific things in the last few years working in mental health that were helpful to me. You may or may not find them helpful to you, so I’ve made a little list:

  1. Listening to, rather than talking to, people. I think this has been my major learning in the last few years and it’s also something I keep banging on about. I have even blogged about this in the past here. Learning to listen carefully to people, and to be able to show that I am listening to them has, I think, been the thing that has made the biggest difference in being able to really connect with people. I have learned a whole set skills that relate to listening over time. I will write a separate post about them at some point.
  2. Resisting the urge to ‘fix it’, and understanding that is often not what people need anyway. I think that ignoring or avoiding the urge to immediately jump up and try to fix something for someone when they are having a difficult time is really important. I am not sure if this is a British thing or more broadly applicable, but in the UK we are socially accustomed to avoiding difficult conversations. This often leads to the impulse to jump up and ‘do something’ when one arises, rather than giving someone the full extent of space and time they need to explain themselves. While practical is often help is very much appreciated, if offered too early it is often inappropriate and may just demonstrate that you weren’t listening in the first place.
  3. Resisting the urge to interrupt, or finish people’s sentences. Actually I have a really hard time with this one, because I find myself doing this quite a bit and then being cross with myself. But it’s also the biggest indicator for me that someone is not listening, or has lost patience with me when they do this. So this is an area I am working on.
  4. Don’t dismiss someone’s feelings, or suggest someone may be overreacting or making it up. Just don’t. It’s not nice. It’s not kind.
  5. Understanding that kindness may look different to different people. You can’t always get it right. I have often said things or done things that have landed badly, often when I was too tired, or took too little time to understand. It’s ok to get things wrong. It’s not ok to stop trying, or to avoid understanding why things went wrong. Try, try again. 
  6. Try not to give advice. Lots of people with mental health problems have heard all the advice before. I have found asking people what they have tried, and not tried out is a much better way to get into a conversation about what to do next. For example don’t tell people with anxiety to try a puzzle book, or a colouring book. They very probably have six of each sitting at home, half finished. Please don’t tell people to ‘go for a nice walk’. It’s not that simple. I always come back to listening. A lot of people feel a little bit better when they feel heard, and that they can trust you to keep a confidence.
  7. Don’t assume you know what someone is feeling. Even if you have been through the exact same thing, which you probably haven’t, you don’t. Let them tell you instead.
  8. Understanding my own boundaries, trying to protect them. Again this is something I have really struggled with in the past because I thought being kind meant being there for everyone else all the time, at the expense of what ever may be going on for me. Then I got really ill for a while with anxiety, drank waaay too much, and realised that this approach, amongst other issues in my life at the time, were not working. Now I try really hard to limit the time spent in social situations as I find these very tiring, and to basically give my self a sensible amount of time to do things like replying to emails and texts rather than being ‘on tap’. I think some people may have felt that I have become very anti social because of this, but I’m happy with the focus on quality over quantity. 
  9. Don’t consume things that are cruel. As a rule I don’t buy gossip magazine or tabloid newspapers, I try to avoid clickbait type articles online (with partial success). I don’t follow people like Katie Hopkins or Piers Morgan on Twitter. Most of these media forms have, in part or in full, cruelty built into their business model. Let’s think about that. They make money by spreading things like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disability hate, rape myths and assorted forms of ignorance, and untrue stories about people’s private lives. These things make the lives of ordinary people harder, and those people are often people who had a difficult run in the first place. It that what you want your hard earned money, or your precious time, to be doing? We can make things better, collectively, by refusing to reward anyone who makes money from this kind of content. Don’t pay for it. Don’t click on it. Don’t follow it. It’s like adding poison to your own well. As a happy side effect, you’ll feel a lot better without that kind of influence in your life. I have not bought a single ‘woman’s magazine’ for ten years, and I have not missed them at all.

I will have missed loads of things so please add your thoughts in the comments below.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Thoughts on Radical Kindness as a Daily Practice: Part 1.

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It’s almost ten years since Amy Winehouse died. I really liked her music and was lucky enough to see her perform twice during her first album. She was a wonderful, funny, forceful presence on stage. In later years I saw filmed footage of her at concerts and performances, and could see that things were going wrong for her, although niavely, I did not understand the extent of her distress. The world was not kind to the beautiful, talented, Amy Winehouse.

I do remember a point in time where I had bought myself a magazine and they had printed paparazzi photos of her out in the street, seemingly after having a fight, with only one shoe. At that point the penny dropped for me that I had bought a magazine that had effectively paid someone to stalk women. I have not bought ‘woman’s magazine’ since.

Not long after this Amy died. I was at a wedding with friends and we found out over breakfast with the morning papers. One of the people there said something to the effect of ‘well we all saw that coming.’ I remember thinking at the time how unkind this was, and how I didn’t really know my friend so well after all.

Over the last week or so press intrusion has been sited as a causal factor in the death of another woman, Caroline Flack. I didn’t really want to write about her, because before this happened I confess that I didn’t know who she was. I can’t comment on her work, or what kind of person she was, although the coverage suggests that she was very human, struggling along like the rest of us. One of the things I noticed in the last week that prompted me to write this post was a quote attributed to her circulating on social media. The quote went something along the lines of:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

It’s a really nice quote, and it’s nice to see it circulating. I’ve also seen a lot of those ‘inspirational, pay-it forwards’ stories recently, like some one paying for someone else groceries in the checkout when they are short, and they are really nice to see too. However, sometimes I despair at quotes and stories like this, because it feels a bit like posting the quote is enough, and then we can go back to ‘business as usual’, which is not always particularly kind. Here’s my problem:

Posting the quote, or the story is not enough.

I have been working along side people with sometimes significant mental health problems for the last four and a half years, and I also spent a good amount of time talking to people who were thinking of suicide as a volunteer. This certainly doesn’t make me an expert on kindness, but it has given me a crash course in what practicing kindness can mean. In my experience genunine kindness is rarely about paying for a stranger’s shopping at the supermarket (although it can be about that). It is often about small gestures, and is as much about what you don’t do, as what you do do.

It means not interupting someone when they are trying to tell you something, even if you think you know what they are going to say. It means not giving advice, even if you are sure you are right, before you have taken the time to really try to understand the other person’s experiences. It means actively showing you are listening, that you care. It means putting down your phone. It means acknowledging you don’t know the answers, or that you don’t understand something. It means avoiding sentences that begin with ‘At least…’ It means not consuming click bait on the internet. And it means doing these things every single day, even when you are tired, or stressed, or distracted.

In a world where our politics and our media are becoming increasingly macho and frequently cruel, we, on mass, have a role to play in changing the direction of things. It means practicing radical kindness with each other, everyday, and it means refusing to support or consume things that are cruel.

This has turned into a rather lengthy blog post and I still have more to say – I will publish part two to this blog next week, so look out for that.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

 

Lessons on listening

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I’ve been thinking about what to put into this post for a week but have struggled a bit in working out what it is I’m trying to say exactly. I suspect there will be more than one post as I try to tease this out.

Over the last 5 years one of the most significant things I’ve learned is the importance of listening. In all of the important roles I’ve adopted at different times (researcher, manager, volunteer, artist, partner, daughter, sibling, friend) listening has been an important part of what I do (most of the time more so than any of the ‘talking’, truth be told). There has been a growing public conversation about the importance of talking in the mental health world in the last few years. There have been significant efforts to encourage people to reach out, to talk, and these are really important. There are multiple platforms through which we are able to connect, digitally or otherwise, but often little thought is given to the ‘listening’ that this assumes. For someone to reach out and actually find some comfort there needs to be a Listener. I think for these efforts to be truly successful we need to develop not just the capacity of our community to talk, to express themselves, but also the capacity to listen. And ‘just listening’ isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Listening well is actually an important skill. I once had a boss who huffily told me ‘pah, listening. What is listening? I listen’. In doing so interrupted me mid-sentence and failed to hear the complete thought I had at that moment about the importance of being heard. This was not a good example of listening. During the past few years I have done some training on my listening skills, and volunteered for a time to have long, careful conversations with people who are suicidal. Here are a few things I have learned:

  1. Everyone has one infuriating friend who will continually tell you the same story over and over, or make the same point over and over. Think for a moment. Is it possible that this person feels like they have never truly been heard?
  2. Listening well is an act of mindfulness. Truly listening to someone requires you to be present in the moment. It requires you not to sit there agonizing over what clever witty thing you are going to say next.
  3. It’s ok not to know what to say next. Silence can sometimes be your friend.
  4. It’s ok to ask ‘I know you are going through something. Are you ok? do you want to have a cup of tea, a little talk?’
  5. It’s ok not to have any answers, to not know what to advise. Often people, both in their good times, and in their bad times, aren’t asking for advice, they are asking to be heard.
  6. Listening well, listening carefully to a person without a personal agenda, is an act of profound kindness.

On this blog I talk a lot about creativity and arts practice, and maybe this post seems a little left of field. But in my own arts practice I have found listening to be an important part of it.If you listen to other people well you will inevitably end up learning something interesting about the world around you, or about yourself. Listening is fundamentally rewarding, in that it adds richness and depth to your understanding of the human experience.