When I was young we were given lots of responsibilities both directly and indirectly to the point that I grew up feeling everything that happened was somehow my fault. In one of my first counselling sessions following my initial laspse into clinical depression I recounted a story from my earliest memories. I was young, only about 3 or 4 years old, and my granda used to take me to his allotment with him on his bike. I stood on the pedals and he pushed it. There were two ways to go; one went past the abbatoir and the other was quicker, taking a more direct route. I was too young to know why the animals were in pens at the abbatoir, I just knew my granda took me past so that I could see the bullocks, sheep and horses and poke my fingers through the spaces in the fences to stroke them.
One day we were going to the allotment as usual and he asked me which way I wanted to go. He already had the handlebars turned in the direction of the abbatoir but for some reason I pointed to the other way so he straightened the bike and we went the short route. As soon as he did that I was ill with worry that I’d upset him, had hurt his feelings somehow, and for years, even beyond my counselling sessions, I could still recall that heart-sick feeling I felt all those years ago. I have no idea why I thought he would be upset but what was interesting for me was when the counsellor asked, ‘Why did you feel at that young age that you were responsible for his happiness?’ I don’t really know that answer to that one either, but the question triggered the start of my journey into self-awareness. I have always been bossy and needed to be in control but now I recognize that this was in part because at heart I felt ultimately responsible for everything that happened.
The hair shirt that I assumed for the rest of the world has not been an easy garment to wear or to get rid of, but little by little I divested myself of it enough to be able to identify what is really my responsibility and what I choose to take on as moral responsibility. I’ve learnt that the only person I can control is myself, but as a member of the human race I can choose to affect actions and outcomes by signing petitions or trying to raise awareness of issues like poverty, modern slavery, human rights abuses, torture, environmental damage and so on. I still have to remind myself not to take it personally when my efforts don’t work, when people don’t share my views on the urgency of matters or only want to “look after our own”. I wrote the following poem in frustration at what I saw as indifference to the poverty and suffering in the world but now use it to remind myself that we are all doing the very best that we can, we just do it differently.
The house gasps
dust won’t settle
nor walls stay silent
but the world
is writing a poem
in another room