Stating the obvious about anxiety and the virus

There have been some incredible changes this week that affect everyone in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Two weeks ago we were making jokes about ‘car owners’ virus’ and now we’re grumbling about the lack of pasta in supermarkets and being seriously concerned about what the future holds. Most of us aren’t as worried about our own health and what will happen if we get the virus so much as the wider social implications and the health of the vulnerable. I have friends who have been self-isolating for a while now as they have underlying health issues. It’s especially tough for them. In two weeks, life has changed considerably and few of us have any experience of how to deal with the ongoing situation. Things we’ve always taken for granted have shifted and, at times, it feels like we’re in a dystopian novel.

People are reporting overwhelming anxieties about all sorts of things. I know people who are anxious about going outside into their communities and are already asking friends to do their shopping. People are anxious about how they will feed their families over the next few weeks and this leads to panic buying and greed. Some people are just plain scared. Anxiety occurs when we don’t know what will happen and we can’t predict or prepare for change.

The rate at which things are shifting now is very fast: almost daily, theatres and cinemas and cafés are closing. Sports games have been suspended. A lockdown situation may be likely in the near future and schools will probably close or partially close, which is a great strain on all concerned. Kids are worried about their education, their exams. Working parents are worried about who will look after their kids. Many people express anxiety about when and how it will end. Clearly, the most important concern is others’ physical and mental health and wellbeing. We need to make everyone else around us our first priority. We’ll make sure we’re all fine.

I can’t imagine how it would be to be seventy-plus years old and isolated in my own home for twelve weeks. There are only so many books you can read, so much television you can watch, so much cross stitching and jam making and garden digging you can do. I know people can go out for a walk but we all crave human contact: being with others, chatting, empathising. It’s what keeps the world going round and loneliness can be crippling. A friend of mine said she’d ‘go mad’ if she had to spend twelve weeks alone. There are schemes for others to write to lonely people, to Skype them or phone them. It’s a great idea: let’s make friends.

We’ll be all right for toilet roll. The daily tabloids can stop sending out scaremongering news: forget the printed words that whip up fear and hysteria and change the use of the paper: it’s perfect for lavatory tissue. It’s so important to stop spreading fear and start to reassure others that we are equal and in this together and that we’ll all keep each other as safe as we can.

We can all share food; we can Skype or phone our friends. Most of us will be all right. It’s those at risk, the vulnerable and the lonely who need our practical help. What about the number of beds we’ll need in NHS hospitals: where will extra ones be found? What about the health of all those who continue to work in hospitals, who are risking their wellbeing by currently supporting the wellbeing of the entire country? And what about the economic repercussions for all the people laid off from work, the unpaid flight crews and football ground stewards, those who work in shops, cafés, theatres and the many places that will be closed? The retail, hospitality  and leisure industries who have inadequate insurance. How will everyone pay their rent, afford their bills, find food? How will the owners manage? We have to support each other.

People such as Roman Abramovic have been impressive, allocating space from the football club for the use of health workers in the Chelsea area and paying for it. That’s a perfect example of using what resources we have to support others. The best thing that can come out of this difficult time is that people make thoughtful gestures such as this.

I hope the government will put workable policies in place now to support those in greatest need first. I’ve heard a lot of talk about infection and unnecessary contact and how ‘we’re leading the way,’ and that we should ‘expect loved ones to die,’ but not enough calm and focused practical advice and support for those individuals who don’t know how they will feed their kids. I hope this will be put in place soon: extra anxiety isn’t what we need now. I will listen to the daily updates with interest and hope that those people now worse off will be the first in the queue for government help. Political difference and political parties are not important now: call it socialism, call it caring capitalism, call it common sense. We have to help each other.

A few weeks ago, we were all talking about kindness and how we should be more positive. We have to make this a priority. I know a young mum who was scolded in the supermarket by an assistant because she asked for a second bag of nappies for her baby; I know a dad of two who has lost his job yesterday and an elderly gentleman who was shouted at because he coughed in a queue. It’s about supporting each other now, thinking of each other’s wellbeing, both in terms of avoiding the virus and in terms of practical, emotional and economic support.

Each of us has our part to play more than ever. We may not be able to see as much of our dearly loved family and friends as we want to, but we have to make sure we support everyone we can, and when it’s all over we’ll have a massive party and hug each other. There will be lots of things we can volunteer to do over the next few weeks and supporting others’ anxiety is high on the list. Let’s hope something good can come from this difficult time and we can take this opportunity to become a really caring nation. It’s time to put the ‘you’ in community and the ‘I’ in friendship!

The one about the tortured wife, the chicken and the empathy muscle

Recently, a soap opera storyline focusing on domestic abuse had me cringing with horror. The husband threw his dinner in the bin because the wife did not put any meat in the dish. The reason for this was because he controls how much she spends on food and she didn’t have enough money; he holds her bank card and allows her limited time to be out of the house to shop for groceries. In a fit of pique he sent her upstairs to the bedroom while he made a better dinner. Much later, he called her down to share a roast chicken meal with all the trimmings and the wife, placatory and submissive, tucked in and complimented him on the cooking. Watching her enjoy her meal, he told her she was eating Charlotte Brontë, her beloved pet chicken, because the old bird no longer produced eggs. She spat out her food and burst into tears.

I felt very sorry for the poor wife. As a vegan, I felt very sorry for the chicken although I would imagine plenty of non-vegans felt the same way: we all love out pets and it’s not easy to eat a creature with a name, albeit that of an expired author. An episode later, we see the husband in a panic because he thinks his wife has left him; he is weak and damaged and he can only relate to the ones he loves with deceit, control and spite. Of course, I felt sorry for them all but the wife’s situation is paramount in this instance. A soap opera, well-written and well-performed, can inspire empathy in the audience. To me, the episode with the slaughtered chicken was a modern-day Titus Andronicus.

I’ve just edited my next novel and one proof othat a story will stand up is that, having  picked through it a dozen and more times, I still feel empathy for the characters. I’m writing a new novel: having reached 75,000 words, I stayed awake at night wondering how the characters must feel in their current situations, feeling sorry for their plight. That’s silly: I’ve already plotted the ending: I know how it works out. But empathy is an unavoidable emotion and it’s good to practise these feelings by becoming involved in literature and drama.

We need to apply empathy to real life situations too. It’s very easy to feel compassion for made-up characters that we don’t really know and then become negative and critical about those we do. And real people we’ve never met are often obvious targets for Schadenfreude and envy: famous faces are sometimes objectified and condemned without empathy in the press and the public are invited to copy their example. Phrases such as ‘body-shaming’ and ‘trolling’ are relatively new terms and are linked to negative actions, words and thoughts.

The plight of the abused wife on the soap opera is not fantasy; the reason such dramas can move an audience to feel compassion is that they reflect the real world from a safer place. They are, as Bertolt Brecht might have said, Lehrstücke, learning plays devised to inform the audience about an opinion and to initiate understanding through acting. In short, if we feel for the plight of the wife, we can apply the same empathy elsewhere, to other people and their situations. For example, if we’re in a café and the waiter is bad -tempered or if we’re on a bus and the driver is grumpy, they might have all sorts of personal problems they have hidden below the surface. Maybe it’s better to smile and wish them a nice day than to report them or leave a bad review.

I watched my team play football the other evening on television: no-one played brilliantly but one player in particular wasn’t on his game. A later player rating in a newspaper would give him 3/10. The commentator said how bad he was; how he was completely reprehensible when an opposition player scored. I cheered pundit Jermaine Jenas when he spoke up in defence of the player, explaining that he’d recently returned from injury and it would take a few games before he returned to normal fitness. How refreshing to be empathic rather than critical.

It’s not always easy to reach out to the bad-tempered, the diffident or the distant people we meet. But it seems important to think beyond what we’re presented with. Because we have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, perhaps it’s important not to judge or to criticise. And there are a whole lot of people out there who are lonely, anxious, stressed. There are people bulk-buying hand wash to save them from viruses; people losing their rights to live and work in this country; people who have health worries, money worries, relationship worries, even imaginary worries. Often people don’t show their anxiety; they make jokes, they shrug their troubles off and then go home and weep alone. We’ve all been in that position at some time, so we all know how it feels.

Reaching out and showing acts of kindness and empathy are not always easy. Often we all have so much to absorb us in our own lives that it’s easy to forget. But the recent soap opera episode reminded me that some people’s experiences, though their lives may seem normal on the outside, are anything but ordinary in reality. I was glad I watched the episode of the soap opera, even though I was horrified by the husband’s cruel behaviour and the death of the chicken: the programme gave me an opportunity to flex my empathy muscle. It’s important to keep it well-toned.

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On being kind to others

Blame isn’t something I want to spend much time thinking about: it’s like anger: it is a negative emotion and, although it has its place, it can also do harm to everybody concerned and mostly it doesn’t resolve problems. Blame is often a knee-jerk reaction to a situation that we find difficult to deal with:  it’s easier to transfer responsibility in someone else’s direction whether they are at fault or not.

As a teenager, I found it easier to blame my parents for things that I thought weren’t perfect in my life. Retrospectively that was very wide of the mark. I was responsible for what I said and thought and did; no-one else was in charge of that aspect of my life. Of course, parents aren’t perfect – why should they be? They are human and fallible – that’s what makes them special. For a short while, I believed my parents dumped all sorts of negative attitudes on me – a low self-image, being an outsider, not being good enough. But that wasn’t true: I was responsible for what was in my own mind. Besides, my parents had parents too and I know they all had a much harder time of it than I did.

The cycle of blame incorporates a mistaken belief that we shouldn’t ever get things wrong. It’s perhaps better to deal with difficulties as they happen calmly and fairly, and not put all the responsibility for life’s occasional negatives onto someone else. I could offer a much longer list of my parents’ brilliant traits than the things I mistakenly blamed them for – love, loyalty, generosity, the desire to enable, to defend; humour, fairness: I could go on. I’d give anything now they are no longer here to tell them what great parents they were. So, thanks to them, I can try to deal with my own problems now by not blaming others. The one single thing we can control in life is our own thoughts and I choose to let negative thoughts go as quickly as possible and try to move forwards.

Of course, it becomes much more difficult not to blame others as the level of negativity increases. We live in a world where bullying happens frequently; it is often even accepted and applauded. It happens in the workplace; it happens in relationships and marriages, between friends and it’s rife on social media. Bullies are not always easy to identify. A boss might disguise bullying as strength, leadership, loyalty to the business or a need to control important outcomes. Internet bullies often don’t reveal their names and  form groups to apply pressure. Sometimes bullying hits the victim between the eyes like a sucker punch; sometimes it’s more like a slow-acting poison – you realise it is happening much later, and the pain eats away for a long time.

I’m sad to say that I bullied a little girl when I was eight years old. She was nine and called Rina. She wanted to be my friend and I hit her and pushed her away because it made me feel less of an outsider if she was even more despised than I thought I was. I did it twice then I realised what a terrible thing I was doing and why I did it. On the estate where I lived, defending yourself was the norm but that was no excuse for cruelty. I’ve been making up for Rina ever since by trying my best to be kind, although that’s no use to her now. I often wonder how she is.

As writers, I suppose we are ‘bullied’ by the odd cutting review. Amidst a throng of kind comments authors receive about our books, a nasty-worded criticism is not important enough to outweigh all the positive support. When I was first published, I prepared myself for a bad review by reading talented and successful writers’ negative comments. Someone thought Gail Honeyman’s number one best seller was so badly written that it wouldn’t pass GCSE English. Someone else remarked that James Joyce’s The Dubliners was complete rubbish. I think that puts the odd negative remark given to more humble writers in perspective perfectly, although I agree with my mother’s wise words when she said ‘If you can’t find something good to say, don’t say anything.’

I read lots of books and some I don’t like: they’re just not for me. I’d never dream of criticising the author: someone else may love the book and what right do I have to want to influence another reader negatively? It’s just easier to put the book down and read a different one. But I do write lots of great reviews. It seems that people who bully or who need to hurt others have real confidence issues of their own and perhaps being nasty offers them a temporary release from their own pain. It’s no excuse but it shows, perhaps, how important it is that kindness reaches everyone.

Shappi Khorsandi, a great wit and comedienne, wrote on Twitter this week about her feelings when she was first trolled. She said her father consoled her by saying that the trolls were probably people who kept their dogs locked up in a shed all day and she should ignore their comments as being worthless, or words to that effect. He’s right, but Shappi’s tweet led me to wonder what sort of people want to bully others, anonymously or not. They are clearly people who are unhappy. Like my actions towards Rina as a child, they hurt others in order to feel better about themselves.

Then sometimes, as a result of overwhelming negativity, tragedy strikes, most recently in the shape of the suicide of Caroline Flack, wounded by so much disapproval from others. Blame has been aimed at social media and unkind critics. But it’s too late now to take back the things that were thoughtlessly said and written. Things have to change: we need to blame and criticise less and be kinder to others. We can control what’s in our minds and it’s important to think good thoughts about other people and not revel in unkindness. The ‘Be Kind’ movement is very timely. It’s important to shift this negative culture of blame and shame, hate and highlighting faults. It’s time to focus on healing, health, happiness and compassion.

I’m a great believer in keeping ourselves healthy and safe in mind, body and spirit. Negativity and meanness create a bad cycle. George Orwell said that people at fifty had the face they deserve and I interpret that as meaning that people who have scowled for fifty years don’t look happy in middle-age. I worked with a woman who took every opportunity to bad-mouth all the people she came into contact with to someone else. I thought it was sad but it may have been no co-incidence when all her teeth rotted. So much bitterness can’t be good for us.

Once during my working day I offered a happy ‘Good morning’ to a colleague and she turned on me, snarling ‘Why are you always so bloody cheerful?’ I told her that I hoped her day would improve. Sometimes kindness doesn’t work, but I felt for my colleague that day as she hurried forward to her office head down, gnashing her teeth. I hoped that someone else would be there to give her support. She was a nice person. Some people’s problems can’t be helped by just a single moment of sweetness.

It’s not easy to keep ourselves positive all the time, but we can help each other. The world brims with opportunities for Schadenfreude, for rejoicing in someone’s plight, for heckling those in the spotlight, for finding fault, envying and baiting others. Blaming and bullying exists on many levels and we must actively try to stop it. Reaching out, smiling, offering a hand of support or a positive affirmation brings its own benefit. We can help people to see themselves in a good light or to walk away from toxicity.

Solidarity with others is an act of kindness. Sunshine warms; ice chills. Let’s all do ourselves and everyone else a favour and be nice. After all, it would seem that the bullies, as much as everyone else, need a gentle reminder that they are all human beings and the world is a better place when we all try to be humane.