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A post I never thought I’d write: when cancer arrives

I’ve been a healthy person all my life. I’ve only ever been hospitalised very briefly when I was able to give birth naturally to my two boys, and then last summer when I somehow contracted bacterial meningitis. I thought the latter was the defining health crisis of mid-life.

So you can imagine my surprise when, at the end of July, I was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer.

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I took the diagnosis pretty well, I think. I was prepared for it. I knew cancer was a possibility for some of the symptoms I experienced – the urge to go to the bathroom and then difficulty doing so, followed weeks later with blood. I watched the colonscopy screen as the 3cm tumour loomed into view, partly blocking the tunnel that was my large intestine, like a mountain range rather than the smooth capsules of a polyp.

I have my moments though: the thought of not being here for my boys (now four and nine years old). The thought of not keeping my contract to them to help them grow up. The idea I might not be there for them as the person and place in the world that loves them for who they are unconditionally. The fear and guilt of being forced to abandon my post.

There is no way to soften the blow of these thoughts, except to say to myself we are not there yet, and research the statistics that give me hope.

I’ve also been surprised at the moments that pang out of the blue. Usually these are when I remember myself as a younger woman – distracting myself and passing the time before the latest scan result or waiting to start treatment, and realising I’m leaning on the same tactics I used while waiting for my babies to enter this world. I was so young then, looking forward to an event that would be painful, but for the best possible outcome that I desperately wanted and looked forward to.

Now I wait impotently and impatiently for more painful experiences (in my case, surgery and possibly chemotherapy), in search of comfort and healing that will restore me to the person I was and the life I desperately want to keep living.

Feel the feelings

I made the mistake of trying to power through, after I first learned that treatment will not be swift. The NHS guidelines for treatment times from the point of urgent referral (62 days, or two months) or the diagnosis (31 days) are both outside of my reality after delays at my local hospital, and there’s nothing I have been able to do about that. When the reality hit, I cried and then tried to pretend all was normal.

But actually, the best thing I could do was go to bed early and cry. I cried until my body shook. That was what I needed.

Sometimes, we have to allow ourselves the chance to feel what we’re feeling. Sometimes what we’re feeling seems ugly to us, or a bad reflection of who we are (anger, envy, resentment…we’re taught not to indulge these in particular). Not wallow, not swallow, but feel. Only then can we honestly process it and move forward.

As the Observer’s resident agony aunt, Philippa Perry wrote, “You cannot scold a child out of a tantrum, nor yourself from feeling grief.”

In my case, a couple of bad days gave me clarity and I’ve pursued a referral to a different hospital. I couldn’t be happier, and my treatment is on track.

Smiling beneath the mask as I start my care at University College London Hospital

More than that, I’ve given myself permission to feel what I feel. Feelings are not permanent, and they do not define who we are, but they are real and valid and we need to accept them rather than resist them.

Seek enjoyment and connection and let go of what’s out of your control

The day after my down-and-out crying, I enjoyed taking the kids to the library, where we all picked out some books. I got a feel-good easy read for myself. We walked and talked and came home to read together.

The next day, I had no energy. The stress and emotional strain of the previous two days and the cumulative loss of sleep from restless nights knocked me flat. I took a much-needed nap while the kids got extra screentime. I still had no energy, but I had booked myself a swimming lane for 2pm, so at 1:30 I was packing my bag and changing into my swimsuit, wondering if I should just cancel.

That swim was glorious. Feeling my body move through the blue water, the air moving in and out of my lungs, and the water lapping around me lifted my spirits and my energy levels. The physical exertion helped move the trauma of not being listened to and not being told the whole truth by the clinical team through my body. I think I left the worst of it in the chlorinated water.

I also rebelled against the same clinical team by going to the grocery store and picking out foods I wanted to eat. I’ve been instructed to go on a low fibre diet, so have not been able to eat any fresh fruit or vegetables in a month. I’ve been limited to maybe a juice or two a day, and a tinned fruit if I’m lucky. Me, who usually eats plenty of whole fruit and veg every day, has been surviving on pot noodle, white bread, and corn flakes.

Supposedly this low fibre diet is supposed to help avoid bulking up that could cause a blockage in my bowel where the tumour is, but the diet change my symptoms have been worse and I genuinely think it’s affecting my mood and energy.

I bought myself a juicer and stocked up on the celery, kale, apples, ginger, oranges, lemons, cucumber and beetroot I’m craving. I got a selection of soups packed with vegetables and spices, and even some yellow squash and cavolo nero to go with my sticky marmalade tofu and fried rice for dinner, and okra for adding to stews.

It might sound infintismally small, but having food I love, a book to engage my imagination, and time with my kids (when they weren’t fighting with each other…for once) was a lift to my spirits. The feeling of freedom whilst swimming was an antidote to the lack of choice I had in my healthcare.

That doesn’t make the lack of choice at the time okay, but it meant a break from misery with a feeling of joy and pleasure. It helped to know I was taking care of myself, even if I didn’t feel others were.

This has, I admit, been a hard one for me. The thing I want to control the most is my treatment and ultimate survival, and that’s where I had the least control.

There is still a lot I cannot control, and that still bothers me. But accepting what that is has helped me figure out new ways to move forward, new things that I can control.

I will try to keep posting my experience of cancer, alongside working, parenting, and living a happy, fulfilling life. I expect challenges, as I’ve already found, and hopefully can learn and grow myself in this process, and share anything I learn along the way.

A response to war

It’s hard to believe that two years ago we were preparing for a global pandemic, stockpiling loo roll and pasta.

A few months later, we would watch a Black man murdered in the street by the police as he called for his mother and said, “I can’t breathe.”

Thirteen months ago, I watched in horror with the rest of the world as a mob of right-wingers stormed the Capitol in my mother country.

Whilst still recovering from these, we now read stories of Ukranian parents trying to explain war to their children while they try to settle to sleep in underground Metro stations amid the moan of air raid sirens, as young men are called to arms and prevented from fleeing to safety.

To centre ourselves in the midst of all of this is quite rightly felt as a self-indulgent privilege and a disservice to the people who have the most to suffer in times like these. But to feel nothing as we witness these atrocities is inhuman.

So what do we do? What can we do? Or perhaps more precisely, what do we do when there seems little we can do?

Continue reading “A response to war”

Ripples

We’ve all heard of the butterfly effect, familiar with the way a single action can ripple through our lives and well beyond. I’ve treated this rather coldly and academically, like something that happens in theory to other people, not me. That comes from big actions, like election results or seismic shifts. But recent experience has me thinking again.

Here’s a long story short of this phenomenon:

  1. Afghanistan falls under Taliban control.
  2. There’s an influx of Afghan refugees to the UK.
  3. This leads to a groundswell of support from the British public, mostly in the form of clothing and goods donations.
  4. A charity I work with is inundated with donations and needs volunteers to help sort through them.
  5. I head to the tube station to pull a shift sorting donations on a random Friday afternoon.
  6. On my way, I spot what seems like a stray dog, and fall in love with her. I am ready to adopt her or at least foster her until I can find her owners, right before finding her owners’ neighbour. I hand her over.
  7. I can’t stop thinking about this dog, until I convince my family to adopt a dog.
  8. Lucy now sleeps in her bed next to me while I write this, happy in a family home after years of racing. She’s sensitive, nervous around other dogs, and very sweet with people. She loves being outside, even just sitting there listening to the birds.

My husband and I sometimes joke about our ‘fall of Afghanistan’ dog, because were it not for that, I wouldn’t have been walking to the tube at that time of day, would not have met that dog, would not have had the desire to add a dog to our family rekindled.

The thing is, it doesn’t take much.

Continue reading “Ripples”

Activism and parenting

Okay, I’ve gone quiet here.

It’s actually because I’ve been heavily involved in a lot of activism work outside of my coaching. Mutual Aid, refugee support, befriending, writing letters to pen pals in prison, writing letters to educators and lawmakers. That kind of thing.

Why am I talking about that here, on a blog about happiness and parenting?

Well, the two things do go hand in hand. Here’s a few ways how they do:

  1. We are human beings, not just parents.

One of the big happiness pits for a lot of parents is not having the space to be whole people. But we don’t check ourselves at the door when we are first endowed with that sacred name of mother or father in the precious mouths of our children.

And part of being human is having passions. It’s about being part of a community. It’s caring about the world. And it’s having a purpose. Our children are of course a huge purpose, and give a lot of purpose and meaning to our lives. But our children don’t have to be are only purpose.

2. Our children are human beings, too, not just our children.

Linked to the above, to be someone else’s sole purpose is a LOT of pressure. So if my purpose is entirely wrapped up in my kids, that sets a lot on their shoulders to buoy me and give me purpose.

3. We impart a LOT to our children by modelling.

A friend once told me how he could see his angry face reflected back to me in the face of his young daughter, and how weird/unsettling/funny it was. And wow, I get it now I have my own kids. I hear my EXACT expressions, tone of voice, and see my exact facial expressions in my kids, and sometimes it makes me uncomfortably self-aware.

But it can also be a great thing. So my children and I have often talked about current events, racism, compassion, and community, but I think they have learned so much more from watching me.

My activism is 100% part of my parenting. For every meeting of my anti-racism group, for every befriending phone call I make, for every financial contribution I make, and for every letter I write to someone in prison, I am showing my kids that everyone needs to keep learning and un-learning… that all humans deserve kindness and friendship… that money is not for hoarding and that we need to distribute it so everyone has enough… that we are all human and we all are in community with one another.

And alongside them knowing that they are seen, known, and loved, just as they are, these lessons are some of the most important things I can teach them.

Frankly, EVERYONE deserves to be seen, known, and loved, just as they are. Not just my kids. Not just your kids. And that’s what activism and mutual aid and reparations is all about.

If you’re interested in talking about some activism work, or getting involved, there’s an exciting project I’m supporting and I would love to invite you to get involved. It’s a Black-led project to buy and run a farm, healing centre, arts space, and school.

You can donate here: https://givebutter.com/40AcresAndASchool/alisonmccants

And for every £20 donated, I’m happy to offer a FREE 45-minute coaching call. Just let me know when you’ve donated and how best to reach you, and we can arrange a call to have 45 minutes of space JUST FOR YOU.

Somehow, someday, somewhere: a parent’s response to It’s A Sin

Like many people, I’ve been watching Channel 4’s new series, It’s a Sin. And…wow, does it pack a punch. And there’s an added layer of reflection for parents, I feel.

If you haven’t seen it or heard of it, it’s the new series from writer Russell T Davies following the lives of a group of friends in London from 1981 to 1991 as they navigate the torrential waters of the early HIV/AIDS epidemic.

So yeah, if you know anything about that era and the generation that bore the brunt of stigma, discrimination, and misinformation during a public health crisis, you know it will be an emotional viewing.

But watching it, I couldn’t help but see each character not just as myself, as a dear friend, as a brother, but also as a child of mine. And it was so. bloody. hard to see these young people going off into the world set up like lambs for the slaughter, when all they wanted was to be happy.

Continue reading “Somehow, someday, somewhere: a parent’s response to It’s A Sin”

A year in review

Well, what a year it has been.

Whilst I don’t generally worry about arbitrary demarcations in the timeline – I will happily set myself new resolutions in the middle of a June and fall asleep around 11pm on New Year’s Eve – I do think there is value in reflection and a spot of planning. And the end of a calendar year feels as good a time as any.

I’ve previously written about planning for the day, week, or fortnight ahead, using a format that helps me articulate the values that feel most relevant, as well as what feelings I crave to feel and what goals I have. Laying these out in black and white help me also see the contradictions – do I want to feel peaceful but I have set myself ambitious goals that add weight to my shoulders? Do what I want to do and how I want to feel align to my values?

But in addition to the more day-to-day and week-to-week planning, I find it helpful to reflect more broadly, more vaguely, at any transition point.

Continue reading “A year in review”

Good servant, poor master

I first heard the phrase about something is a good servant but a poor master in relation to money. “Money is a good servant but a poor master.” And it struck me in its simple truth.

People with money will be the first to say how little it matters, but anyone who has worried about how they’d pay the bills, or realising they’ve overdrawn their account trying to pay for the most basic of groceries, or driven their car on empty praying to make it home until they could get paid tomorrow, knows it matters a lot when you don’t have it.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can pay for a home you own instead of renting from a spendthrift landlord. It can pay for courses so you can retrain and leave the job you hate to do something you love. It can enable you to travel and see the world. It can buy paint and canvases or a computer on which to write your novel.

But the biggest thing money can buy is the ability not to think about it. Having enough money that you don’t have to worry about it but not so much that you think it means more than it does is the goldilocks zone.

This is the real meaning of good servant, poor master. When money serves your life and greater goals, it’s great; when your life revolves around getting more of it, it’s awful. Money, in and of itself, is quite neutral. It’s our relationship to it that makes it helpful or toxic.

And it struck me there are other things like this. What else makes for a good servant, but a poor master?

Technology

Mobile phones, social media, the world wide web of information all at our fingertips, what’s not to like?

A lot, obviously. Internet trolls come to mind. As do relentless notifications and a nagging sense of missing out on something whenever I step away from my phone.

On the one hand, it’s great, because social media sites have been built to give us a dopamine hit every like or retweet. Who doesn’t secretly enjoy when they get loads of likes to a comment or post, or whose post is shared and becomes viral? On a deeper level, as a US immigrant living in the UK, I know facebook has enabled me to keep in touch with people from old neighbourhoods, from across the Atlantic, from school, from old jobs, from phases long since gone from my life. It’s been nice reconnecting with old school friends or the person who was my best friend and idol for a few short years when we lived next door to each other.

But it also means getting caught up in an argument about Black Lives Matter with my (apparently, I’ve learnt) racist great Aunt. Or feeling bombarded by 57 messages from my son’s class parents Whatsapp group during a working day that was already overwhelming, wondering what bomb had befallen the school, only to find it was nothing remotely relevant to me.

So how to reap the rewards without the drawbacks?

It will vary for each of us, as each of us has a different relationship to our tech. For me, I’ve had to limit facebook and make sure I do more fulfilling and enriching things in those pockets of time throughout the day when I think, “I’ll just check facebook to kill time…”. Before I know it, twenty minutes will have passed and instead of feeling connected to old friends I feel aggravated by arguments about masks. So instead, I try to limit my facebook to certain times of the day, and never first thing upon waking or last thing before bed. I’ve also found I needed to switch off notifications on every. single. app. I. have. Warning: the apps do NOT like this, but once I find how to do this for each app (some more forthcoming than others), I’ve never once regretted it.

As soon as I realise I’m starting to get my news from facebook, or I’m scrolling further in the newsfeed *because* I’m bored, it’s time to switch it off. Since re-activating this rule (I fell off the wagon big time during lockdown), I’m reading and writing much more, and my life feels all the richer for it.

News

Speaking of news, another “good servant, poor master” area is the news. As Rutger Bregman writes in his most recent book, Humankind (which, along with Utopia for Realists, I highly recommend):

“Imagine for a moment that a new drug comes on the market. It’s super-addictive, and in no time everyone’s hooked. Scientists investigate and soon conclude that the new drug causes, I quote, ‘a misinterpretation of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, [and] desensitisation.’

“Would we use this drug? Would our kids be allowed to try it? Would government legalise it? To all of the above: yes. Because what I’m talking about is already one of the ten biggest addictions of our times. A drug we use daily, that’s heavily subsidised and is distributed to our children on a massive scale.

“That drug is the news.”

Okay, so first off, I’m NOT talking about ‘mainstream media’ like it’s some great conspiracy. Nor am I suggesting it behoves any of us to stick our heads in the sand, especially with so much disruption to the norm at stake right now. We owe it to ourselves and our fellow citizens to pay attention to our governments, especially now as so many true colours are showing.

But…

The daily news cycle, just like social media, knows what keeps our attention and will use that, even when doing so doesn’t align with our intentions for following the news. We may want to be informed citizens, but often the news coverage creates an unrealistic perception of the world. As violent crimes or airplane accidents have fallen in recent years, news coverage has increased significantly.[1] [2]

The important thing then isn’t to swallow the news hook, line, and sinker, or to assume staying glued to the news will necessarily help you be a good citizen. What do you need to know more about in order to act – either to vote, or protest, or petition, or simply be aware of so when the time comes to act, you know where you stand? Focus on that, and let go of the rest.

Advice

Taking advice and listening to others is a real virtue. It’s one I’m not great at, myself, which puts me at risk of seeming like a real pain-in-the-ass know-it-all. I don’t think I am a know-it-all, but I have learned that I am reluctant to take advice and like to learn things for myself.

However, I remember a point in my life when I avidly sought out advice, and that was when my first son was born. I read the books that friends recommended. I devoured blog posts. I asked fellow new mums at coffee mornings and sing-along groups.

Then came the night my then-six-month-old couldn’t fall asleep and lay screaming in his cot, while my husband and I stood over him. I was in decision paralysis. Anything I did was going to damage him for life. Leave him to cry a few minutes? His cortisol levels will soar as he thinks he could be eaten by a tiger any minute. Pick him up and nurse him? He will never learn to self soothe. I turned to my husband, saying, “You’ll have to decide! I have read too much to know what to think anymore!”

So sometimes, advice can be useful. It broadens our horizons and helps us see other perspectives. It’s been so helpful to listen to others’ experiences during 2020 – to truly hear what my friends of colour have experienced, and what they would like their white friends to do to support BLM. To understand how my trans and non-binary friends feel about a Biden/Harris ticket. How my middle-aged cousins feel about rioting, the police, and the military. How my long-term Democrat friends feel about third-party voters when so much is at stake.

But when it tips beyond that, it can leave us either angry, disenfranchised, bullied, or paralysed. I know that no matter what I do, I will not please everyone. My vote in November will offend someone, who thinks I’ve either sold out or thrown it away. Speaking up about BLM may seem like whitesplaining, whereas being silent can easily be seen as complicity.

Ultimately, I can listen, hear, empathise, and understand. But my decisions will be my own. The advice is useful as it feeds that decision, but it cannot stifle the decision or take it away from me.

What to do when they start to become bad masters

We will all experience times when any of the above might start to overstep their usefulness and start to negatively impact our well-being and happiness. But what to do without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

As with most things, there’s no one answer of the ‘right’ way to deal with any of these issues. Not just that two people will have different solutions based on their lives and dispositions, but even the same person may find different approaches most helpful at different points in their life.

So instead of solutions, here are some questions to get you thinking.

How does this serve me?

What am I looking for when I turn to money/the news/technology/advice?

How else can I meet that need?


[1] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.929.624&rep=rep1&type=pdf

[2] https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/theplanetruth_chapter.pdf

Control in an uncontrollable world

My narrow cottage garden has a low fence separating itself from our neighbours’ gardens on either side. When we first moved into this house, the garden was in dire straits. Heavily pregnant, I opted to pay a gardener to help sort it, including levelling it and laying new grass. It looked almost artificial in its perfection – a plain, even ground. It was almost too bare, too plain, without any other planting, but it made the garden serviceable for my then-four-year-old to play safely.

Fast-forward two years and we have grapevines spilling over from the garden to the right of us, and no less than three tree saplings have started growing (an ash, a bay, and a cherry). These grew through the root systems of my neighbours’ trees to the left of us. Reaching under and over the fence, the trees have continued to reproduce.

In this instance, I’m thrilled, as I love trees and they are flourishing, making the once tidy-but-bare garden lush. But it got me thinking about the highs and lows of our interconnectedness.

Of course, there is no more glaring example of this than the current coronavirus pandemic. Emotions understandably are running high, as my choices affect my community, and their choices affect me. To wear or not to wear a mask. To observe social distancing or not. To quarantine or shrug it off.

It is why countries are starting to penalise those for breaking quarantine and fines in some cities around the world for failing to follow mandates for face coverings. Our very independence of choice is threatened, because one person’s choice to enter a shop without wearing a mask impacts the choice of the person working in that shop to limit exposure to a potentially fatal novel virus. What the families of the children in my son’s class at school do impacts us, as he will be in a ‘bubble’ with them come September.

So what can we do when the actions of others effects us, and yet our control over those actions is limited or non-existent?

Clarify the circles of control

This has been helpful to me in so many ways on so many occasions. Author Stephen Covey popularised this idea which, like the best ideas, is simple yet profound.

Imagine three concentric circles. Innermost is the circle of control – the things you can control directly – what you eat, whether you choose to wear a mask, what you put in your garden.

Outside that is another circle of influence – what your partner eats, promoting mask-wearing amongst your social circles, asking your neighbour if they can trim the vines that are starting to encroach your garden. You don’t have total control, but there are some steps you could take that may influence the outcomes.

And beyond that is the circle of concern – what foods are available in the grocery store, the global spread of coronavirus, climate change. You can’t really control it.

The trick with this is two-fold: first, clarifying what goes where in and of itself is helpful to understanding how you feel about it. For example, I realised how much was outside of my control at the start of lockdown. That wasn’t comforting, per se, but it was helpful to understanding why I felt so emotional and anxious.

The second is looking at how you can expand the inner two circles. What can I do that takes something outside my control and puts it within my circle of control? How can I build upon my agency?

This can be seen in lots of quite popular ways, such as baking or organising cupboards or taking on a DIY project around the house. You get the dopamine hit of reward for accomplishing something, and you are filling your brain’s attention with something you can control. Coronavirus may be raging outside but my kitchen cupboards are ordered and under my total control.

Then looking at circle of influence, there may be things in my circle of concern that I could influence in some small way. Petitions, letter-writing campaigns, donating to charity are all popular ways of making some influence, even if the wider systems and issues are beyond our control.

There will always be things in that outermost circle. That’s life. It’s like the old serenity prayer – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”

This tool helps us gain the wisdom to know what goes where, so we can spend our energies where we can make a difference.

Parenting in a pandemic and navigating a polarised society

If you, like me, have been struggling with some of the many decisions and opinions that coronavirus is throwing at us, then this post is for you.

As parents, we are having to make all sorts of decisions. And there are so many deeply polarised opinions, many of which can trigger quite strong reactions in all of us.

The school question in itself has created a lot of turmoil for me, not least because there are so many different viewpoints amongst my circles. And frankly, some of these viewpoints are expressed strongly and in absolutes. There is literally no opinion I can have, it seems, that won’t rub someone the wrong way.

This in itself is not new. As parents, we can easily feel judged about everything. It feels a long time ago when I learned I needed to just connect to my gut, listen to the evidence and ultimately decide for myself and my kid. It’s simple, but not always easy.

But the pandemic has forced us to appreciate how much our individual choice impacts the wider community. My choice to wear a mask (or not) impacts you, either directly (I could get you sick) or indirectly (the more people refusing to wear masks could increase the spread of the virus and prolong the situation).

This struggle between personal choice and collective responsibility is also happening amid a widening awareness about privilege.

My view on reopening schools or easing lockdown is of course influenced by my own privilege. That I have a job I can do from home makes me lean more towards slower easing of lockdowns. That I have found a way to work effectively whilst keeping my kids at home will allow me the privilege to feel differently about schools reopening than perhaps a parent who is finding that more difficult for any number of entirely valid reasons.

Conversely, another white middle-class person’s insistence that schools reopen because they are struggling to work from home with their kids at home is speaking from the privilege of having healthcare and being lower risk, whereas someone from the Global Black Majority may feel differently after seeing the higher rates of mortality amongst her ethnic group.

Each of these people could very easily label the other as selfish. In a way, they’d be right. One person’s opinion to keep schools closed and lockdown measures in place could seriously harm a person unable to earn money if my views were enacted. Another person could harm someone at risk if their choice of reopening the local school led to illness or death.

How do we reconcile the challenges and different forms of privilege we’re seeing to the very real need to come together as a global community to get through this pandemic with as little heartache and harm as possible?

Step 1: Own our challenges honestly and without shame

Just like with parenting in normal time, people will have different specific challenges. It’s like when one of the mums in the mum-and-baby group had her baby sleeping through the night and another is running on caffeine and fumes after being up all night, every night, for months. But that exhausted mother has been able to breastfeed without issue whereas another mother battled tongue tie and poor latch until deciding to bottlefeed formula (which she still feels sensitive about).

And that’s okay. They are all okay. It doesn’t mean any of them are doing anything wrong because they’re struggling where another one wasn’t.

We will each have different struggles through this, and it helps to be able to understand our own challenges without feeling ashamed. If I don’t admit my struggles to myself, and can’t see them as valid struggles without internalising them as a personal failing, then I cannot see how they are shaping my world view.

Step 2: Own your own privilege

Just as we can own our challenges, we can reflect upon and name our privileges.

And as with our challenges, owning our privilege or helpful circumstances isn’t about shame or apologising. It’s just seeing it for what it is.

And just as our challenges can shape our worldview and political opinions, so can our privilege, especially when left unexamined. I could favour policy decisions that could really harm someone else in another situation, but not see it.

Step 3: Listen and appreciate others’ struggles

This is only possible when we can understand and own our own struggles and privileges without defensiveness.

As we understand the challenges that others are having, even if they do not resonate with our own lived experiences, we can start to understand why there are so many different views on contentious issues.

Step 4: Reflect, discern, decide, and act

Ultimately, we will not all agree on any course of action. Of course we won’t. This doesn’t mean we cannot and should not act on our convictions. But by going through steps 1-3 above, we do so without blindly being swayed by our own personal circumstances. We do so with eyes open to the challenges we are all facing.

This also means we can try to find holistic solutions. If there’s a negative externality to what I have decided is the best way forward on an issue, then we can start to talk about how to address that. Yes, it’s a bit like finding a medicine to treat the side effect of the cure, but we need to be able to talk about solutions without believing in a magic cure that has no downsides for anyone. But if we can honestly strive to understand the full lay of the land, we’re in a much better position to be able to problem solve creatively and innovatively.

Before I go…

I admit that the reason for writing this post is that I needed to read it. I have not always been doing the above. Far from it. We will still feel angry and triggered by people for refusing to wear a face mask in Costco or for someone saying your selfish or politicising an issue for having a different opinion to them.

But it’s also so freeing to be able to name and own our own challenges and privileges.

The other part of the above steps where I know I’ve personally not followed my own advice recently is the step of reflection and discernment. Partly it’s because there has been very little time and headspace.

A large part of this though has been that a lot of the conversations on this topic I’ve been having have been on social media, which is not built for discernment. I read a post or comment, I feel an emotional response (often anger or vindication), and I reply immediately before scrolling on. And repeat. Many times over.

So I personally will be going back to limiting my social media usage and making sure to have more time to reflect and discern, to read without replying. Only through following these steps do I feel I can act with conviction – whether that’s to campaign for schools to remain closed, or to decide whether it’s safe/responsible for me to take my family on a staycation, or to find my way forward to promote racial equity.

Journal prompts

Here are some prompts to journal or reflect upon that I’ve found helpful to explore my own challenges and privileges.

What has been hard for me lately includes…

I’ve surprised myself in finding ways to cope / finding some things easier, such as….

What circumstances in my life have helped me?

In what ways do I feel ‘lucky’?

In what ways do I feel ‘unlucky’?

This is going to be uncomfortable

This is not a post about being happier. If anything, it marks an uncomfortable journey I’m on as I examine my part to play in the wider world, and particularly as an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement.

What I’ve done: I’ve read up on some of the lesser known parts of US history, such as the Kirk-Holden war (which is really WTF territory – thank you to Michael Harriot of The Root for the heads up). I’ve donated to several bail funds and charities supporting the movement. I donated to the GoFundMe for Breonna Taylor’s family on what would have been her 27th birthday. I watched footage of protester after protester getting their first amendment rights trampled on: a grandmother shot between the eyes with a bean bag pellet (she may lose an eye). A 20-year-old student shot in the head when police shot the wrong person (he faces a long recovery and brain damage). A 75-year-old man’s skull cracking, heard from across the street, when police push him and walk past. A community organiser shot in the groin with rubber bullets when he tried to de-escalate a protest (he and his wife don’t know if they’ll be able to have children now). And many others, from journalists, to medics, to children being tear-gassed. You’ve probably seen them, too.

And I read.

I read about George Stinney, Jr, who was executed in 1944 when he was just 14 years old, for murders he may well have had nothing to do with. Don’t google his name unless you are ready to see the photos of him tearfully pleading his innocence as they strap him into the electric chair. He was the only black person in the courtroom when he was convicted. Even him mother couldn’t sit behind him or hug him after the guilty verdict.

I read about Kalief Browder, held at a detention centre at Riker’s for nearly three years (2010-2013) awaiting trial for a burglary he again may well have had nothing to do with. He was assaulted by officers and other inmates (there is footage of these assaults; I cannot watch). He attempted suicide while being held there and finally succeeded two years after his release. He was 22 years old when he died. His mother visited him every week, bringing him fresh clothes as the prisoners had to wash their own clothes in buckets that left rust marks on them.

I watched a video of a young man lying prone in his own front yard while police officers held him at gunpoint (May 2020). He had allegedly run a stop sign. His grandmother came to stand beside him to to deescalate a situation where her grandson might be shot. Women’s voices can be heard screaming for the police to lower their guns as the young man is clearly terrified. The fear in his own voice, and his family’s voices, is chilling.

And I am filled with shame that as a mother, I haven’t done more to help the Black Lives Matter movement. Because I can relate to each of these women, and the anguish they’ve gone through, not because I’ve ever been treated so detestably for the colour of my skin, but as a mother who knows what it is to love your children.

Sure, I have tried to eradicate racism in my own life. I had vaguely, notionally supported Black Lives Matter. But I had hesitated too much, too long, when I heard of a black person’s life taken by the police. I assumed another side to the story. I believed, even partially, in the police statements.

Sadly, it took watching the police issue statements that were shown to be bald-faced lies by video footage from other protesters to make me realise how readily I had trusted the establishment to tell the truth. It took seeing these atrocities happen in just about every state, in many different cities, to truly show me the ‘few bad apples’ defense was not nearly good enough, and that people would be suffering intolerably as we shrugged and held up our hands, as if to say, “What could we do?”

I was listening to a podcast just now, an interview between Krista Tippett and therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem as they discussed race (incidentally, in Minneapolis, just before lockdown). Among the many, many things he said that struck me, he said:

“…this idea of being able to land this race question in a way where white people are uncomfortable is a fallacy. It’s performance art.”

Resmaa Menakem
(in the On Being podcast here.)

So sharing my reflections, my reading from the past few days, and writing this raw post now, is part of moving into that zone that is distinctly uncomfortable. I need to ask why I haven’t done more. I need to reflect on that connection I feel to these mothers who have had to train their black sons to play the game so they don’t die in a stop-and-search. I need to go beyond book clubs and performative gestures that make me feel better about being a white woman in a white man’s world. I feel I owe it to those mothers, who could be me, and those boys, who could be my boys, but for the fact of our skin, and our histories.

Black Lives Matter.