‘Ogres are like onions’

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That little phrase is from Shrek of course – and together with the following quote, pretty much summarises what I am about to say in this post:

‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’ – John Watson (aka Ian MacLaren)

People can be terribly irritating, frustrating and just plain annoying. Yes, people can be ogres sometimes – and it’s hard to respond nicely to ogres. But we must. We can really all do a lot better than we are these days. I am a rather fiery person – let’s just say I don’t ‘suffer fools gladly’. So I am talking to myself here too!

Let’s start by remembering that ‘ogres are like onions’ – by this I mean, of course, that ogres/ people have layers! I would like to talk about these ‘layers’ – without intending this to be a comprehensive list, I think of people as being shaped and influenced by roughly five’ layers’. Most of these are obvious and widely understood, but I think a quick reminder can help us all to extend grace to those around us, instead of judgement.

First, the external/ circumstantial (current) layer – this is the most obvious layer – current external events and circumstances of course affect our moods and responses in any situation. However, different people may react with less anger or irritation to the same external events, e.g. traffic or long queues in a shop. This is due to their different personalities, and also the very different deeper layers that their lives and personalities have been shaped by…

The next layer ‘down’ is the internal/ biological (current) layer – heavily determined by chemical processes (e.g. hormonal cycles or brain chemistry) that are the physical manifestation of our thoughts, moods and feelings.

But this is complex and works both ways – sometimes our thoughts, moods and feelings are simply the product of chemical processes, and imbalances can lead to anxiety, depression or delusionary thinking. In other words, we don’t always respond to real external events and situations – a lot of the time our only issues or threats are in our own heads!

At other times we over-react or react inappropriately, because our perception of what is really going on is somewhat blurred by our own internal workings (think ‘PMS’ or how overwhelming everything seems when you’re exhausted!)

Then there’s the genetic predispositions/ inheritance (past, now present) layer – and this is even more complex than the previous layer. It is a mix of the genetic ‘blueprint’ you are born with, and your ‘inheritance’ inadvertently passed on to you from your parents and wider cultural background in other ways.

The reason I am not separating these into two distinct layers, is that they are far from (discernibly) distinct. It’s very difficult to tell what genetically predisposed behaviour is, and what is learned and acquired at a very early stage from our parents and family. Think of it as a sort of ‘dance’ between your very inflexible genetic makeup, and your slightly more negotiable socialisation…

The outcome of this ‘dance’ is of course further complicated by the effects of the other layers – from individual personality and intelligence to wider circumstances and family dynamics.

Arguably the most important layer is ‘mind’: where the preceding 3 layers and following 2 layers meet and mingle… Where the ‘dance’ between what is predetermined and what can be negotiated, reshaped or even discarded, takes place daily.

Again, this is a complex layer, as ‘mind’ is in itself affected by, even seemingly dependent on, our physical bodies and processes, as well as being influenced by many of the other layers… In fact, the truth is that all of these layers are interdependent and largely inseparable… (For this reason, some might even argue with the framework I am using to discuss all of this – but I would urge them to remember this is simply a handy conceptual ‘tool’ for discussing the complexity of human behaviour)

Deeper than our conscious ‘mind’, there is a murky, mostly unconscious layer of past feelings, experiences and formative ‘baggage’– stored in our body and mind. Although unconscious, it nevertheless has a strong influence on what we think and do – which is why psychoanalysts have long made this the focus of their enquiries.

But not all of us need to go through extensive therapy to ‘manage’ this layer, rather than having it unconsciously rule us… I think being mindful of its existence is more than half the battle won – we will be more in control of ourselves if we constantly question our own motivations and reactions, and challenge ourselves to ‘rise above’ these irrational (or ‘sub’-rational?) fears, desires, assumptions and prejudices.

Deepest and murkiest of all – so poorly understood in fact, that it is widely dismissed as a fanciful invention – is the level of the character/ ‘soul’/ ‘heart’/ ‘spirit’ – our very core, ‘essence’ and ‘being’.

My use of many quotation marks in the preceding sentence is intended to convey the contested terrain we are on when we attempt to discuss this ‘layer’ – it is not only very difficult to find the right words to describe what I am referring to here, but also almost impossible to pick words that don’t hold controversial connotations that many will reject outright, and so stop listening to me from that point on.

So I will not go into this too much in this piece, but invite those who are interested in those sorts of discussions, and the ‘spiritual journey’, to read my blogs of that nature here.

Briefly though, I would say that the spiritual journey, and the journey of life in general, is fundamentally about this core/ centre, our ‘being’ – and how we express, grow or heal that innermost part of us. This can also be seen as a process of negotiating and even in a sense ‘breaking through’ all the other layers, to ‘be who we really are’, fully and freely, rather than continually reacting to our circumstances, others, our past experiences, etc.

Returning to my quote at the start of this piece, we all need to remember to treat each other with greater kindness and forbearance… for we are all fighting a great battle – a many-layered, multi-dimensional battle, in fact…

Might sound melodramatic, but really, sometimes just getting through the day is a wonderful and praiseworthy achievement for many people. In fact, I have been in seasons of my life where I could scarcely get through an hour without constant prayer – and the pain was so great that I couldn’t imagine making it to next week, let alone beyond that…

Some of the people you meet every day – those annoying, irritating, aggressive, crazy people… could be feeling as desperate as that! You just don’t know about all the layers of pain, frustration, confusion, loneliness….they are dealing with.

You may feel that’s a pretty intense and extreme example, but on the other hand, as Henry David Thoreau said:

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.’

Bear this in mind as you cross paths with your fellow human beings – we are all travelling through life as best we can. We all need a bit of grace, a bit of kindness, a safe space to ‘be’ and perhaps even an encouraging space where we can release our songs!

What a beautiful world that would be – if we all aimed to create these safe, encouraging spaces around us… I’m not sure we/ I can do that consistently and fully, yet…

But please, while we strive for such a lovely ideal (join me, will you…?)- let’s at least just be nice to one another!

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