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Are you my friend because I happened to be around at the right time, or because you would choose me over others if we were lined up in a row, because you prefer me to the others?
I suppose we hardly ever dare ask the question, but we should because the answer will tell us a lot about the nature of the friendship in question.
When I first moved back to my home county to work, after several years living elsewhere, I knew nobody my own age. If I was not to stay at home alone every evening, I needed to find people with whom to socialise. A friend introduced me to a University friend who was working at our local nuclear power station; another friend introduced me to some of her college friends; there were a couple of people my age working at the same office as me; there was one excrutiating evening with the son of one of my parents’ friends. Soon I had people to play badminton and squash with, to spend evenings with, to move my washing machine, to swap books with, to share meals with, even to go on holiday with. Need motivated me to find friends, but I am no longer friends with any of those people I first became friends with. They were friends of necessity, not preference, and gradually, my initial loneliness having been assuaged by those initial opportunity-friends, I began to make choices about my friendships, and those new friendships have endured since they were motivated by preference, not need. Brutally put, though I did not realise it at the time, I was using those early opportunity-friends, and I did not deserve them to survive.
Of course, we might be lucky: Opportunity-friends may turn out to be preference-friends. But the omens are not good.
At each stage of my life, at each move, there has been the same pattern of collecting opportunity-friends and then discarding them, sometimes keeping one or two who I’ve discovered are preference-friends. Those preference-friends are the ones I would pick out from the line-up, where affection and love count for more than superficial similarities of background, education, ethnicity or religion, which may even divide us.
It is a truism that those of us who are happily married trot out to those who are still seeking a partner, that the right partner will come along when they least expect it, when they are not looking, when they are happy by themselves. Perhaps this is because it is preference, not propinquity or opportunity that determines their choice.
Just as I have indulged in opportune friendships when I have needed them, so, equally, have I been the opportunity-friend, picked up because there was a need that needed filling, and then discarded when the need subsided and other preference-friends came along. It has never been a pleasant experience, especially where I saw a preference friend when they saw only an opportunity friend.
You never can see inside someone else’s head, never know where they’ve filed your friendship. Often time tells. Or distance. Or the extent to which self-disclosure takes place, and vulnerability is risked to allow intimacy in.
I haven’t moved for a long time now. I’ve stayed put and collected around me dear preference friends. I do not need opportunity friends any more, though I may do in the future. I hold out for preference friends for now.
My younger daughter has been deeply upset for the last two days. Her classmate’s mother died on Monday morning and her teacher told her class on Tuesday morning. Even as the mother died my daughter was talking to her friend about her mother’s life and her death, which was expected. News of her death came the next day with the friend’s absence. The form teacher was in tears. All the class cried, some of them overwhelmed by their feelings and unable to process them. Each of them will have gone home and sought to untangle all their feelings with their family.
I know that my daughter’s feelings of compassion for her friend are inextricably linked with her own feelings for me. When she cries, she cries not only for her friend, but for her own anticipated loss at some point in the future. It is in part her ability to imagine how she will feel when I die that moves her so. My younger daughter has a brain overly stuffed with mirror neurons and an easy ability to sit alongside other people’s feelings. She is naturally, perhaps even genetically (the ginger hair), very sensitive to other people’s feelings, and easily hurt. She is also very loving and caring. She’ll make an excellent child psychologist, or teacher. Together with her friends, she has been preparing for their friend’s return to school one day soon. They’ve even acted out role plays at break times, trying to imagine what will best help her feel loved and accepted. They’ve decided on big hugs and then normality. They’ve planned cards and presents too, despite their understanding that everything is somehow inadequate.
I’ve felt inadequate too. Because I cannot summon up the feelings that my younger daughter can muster. Not because I do not also have an oversupply of mirror neurons but because I cannot easily summon up any feelings of loss when a mother dies. If I knew my daughter’s friend, then it would be different, and I would cry for her pain. As it is, I only felt shock initially, followed by relief, when my mother died, and then a cold distance.
I am not supposed to admit that, of course. Many people would see it as breaking one of the ten commandments given to Moses. Disrespecting my mother’s memory. At one level it feels like that to me, since I feel guilty for feeling that way. I am supposed to miss my mother, but I do not, and I never have. For a few months after she died I used to think she would be at the end of the phone when I picked it up when it rang, but I have never had moments when I have thought “I wish Mum was still here so she could see this, or so I could tell her that”. Sentiments that I have often heard a friend describe even though her mother died almost thirty years ago. Yes, I feel guilty. I wish I felt differently. I know she did the best she could, and that, in the minds of many, mentioning her shortcomings is extraordinarily ungrateful.
I shared my guilt with a friend yesterday. It felt as if I was taking a big risk, owning up to my lack of feelings, but she is a good friend. She surprised me, because she told me she understood, that she felt like that too about the death of her father. I should have remembered that – perhaps I did, and perhaps that is why I chose her to share my feelings with. She talked about the deaths that our children’s friends had experienced and I noticed how she described her different responses to the death of a father, and the death of a mother. I am grateful, to her for her honesty, for I felt less alone, and a weight was lifted from me, and I no longer felt guilty about my feelings. The power of friendship, of acceptance, of understanding.
So, emboldened, I am risking breaking the taboo here too.
I do not blame my mother. There are many reasons why we may not have been able to share the relationship that a mother and daughter might share. I was a forceps delivery, a difficult birth. She gave up her career and her freedom to have me and was marooned on a outlying housing estate with no car for many years. My father was hardly ever at home. She had grown up during the war, the daughter of servants, and life had been hard. Having a baby of her own may not have been as she imagined when she was working as a health visitor or midwife and looked after other people’s babies. All sorts of reasons, which I can only guess at. None of us can help our feelings, though it is also true that we can begin to change our feelings if we are unhappy with them, but it is hard work.
Changing those feelings requires me to acknowledge the lack of mothering. There is no other way. I hope I do so without judgment, with understanding, and with compassion for a woman who did her best, just as I am trying to do, for our two daughters.
In May last year I finally allowed myself to begin to look at the ghastly truth of being an “unmothered child”. I needed the support of a very experienced psychoanalyst in order to dare to take off my blindfold, and I spent those hours for many months in tears, sometimes feeling more abject than I remembered feeling ever, so successfully had I repressed those feelings. I remember an old friend cautioning me against opening Pandora’s box, and how we disagreed over that myth and its meaning. Pandora’s box was either a can of worms, or the source of all hope.
Now, having opened Pandora’s box, I know that it is both those things. The worms are there but so too is the hope. I sense the fairly widespread frustration of friends at my insistence on dissecting those worms which they wish I would leave alone. I do not think nine months is a very long time in a life and I would rather finish what I’ve started than leave the job half done. I know that I’ve eaten most of the worms, that few remain, and that I can still see hope at the bottom of the box, and that eating the worms did not kill me, even though I feared that it might. I am still here and I am OK, though a bit wobbly from time to time. Sometimes the diet of worms disagrees with me, and I retch, metaphorically, over particularly big fat juicy ones. My reactions vary depending on the day.
It is also true that you do not know what is in the box until you open it. Whilst most of the worms relate to my lack of mothering, there are many that have grown fat on my sibling relationship, and a few on my father’s behaviour. For the members of one family are all interconnected. What happens in one relationship impacts on all the others, which is why it is so important that the key relationship between husband and wife is nurtured before all others, for from that font comes the success or failure of the family.
I am an inveterate reader and consumer of books, and they have an uncanny knack of hoving into view at the right time.
My most recent bitter joy is an audio-tape of myths and stories about unmothered children read by the American poet and Jungian psychotherapist, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, collected under the title “Warming the Stone Child”. We understand our lives through stories, beginning with the fables we are fed when we are children. Some of the tales on the recording will be familiar, some less so, and we are encouraged to remember the stories that have stayed with us since childhood.
I’ve written about the books, and songs (for the same is true of songs) that I have carried in my head since I was young, and now I regard those choices with wry amusement. The Heart of Stone. Wooden Heart. The Stone Child.
I had long given up hope of many people understanding how it feels to be a stone child, which is why it felt like being wrapped in a warm blanket and cocooned in acceptance to listen to these tapes. The weaknesses and the strengths of the unmothered child are my weaknesses and my strengths, and the weaknesses can be healed, and the scars can be worn proudly, and the strengths can be used for the good of others, especially others who also know what it is like to have been an unmothered child. She describes how an umothered child has a fragile flame inside her, which can easily be blown out by criticism, how she feels as if she is walking around without any skin, how she can collapse suddenly when a criticism today brings back the hurt of yesterday, how she can have an almost psychic understanding of other people, how she can have healing powers and extraordinary intuition, and how she often gets stuck in unhealthy relationships attracted by the slightest whiff of love, like the moth to the flame, and then stays too long. And the stone child can be warmed by cultivating an internal mother who thaws out the stone child and keeps her safe, and helps her grow a thicker skin whilst retaining her intuition as her protection.
Maybe, somebody who reads this will be an unmothered child too. When the time is right, listen to the recording. Though your spouse and children may laugh at the funny sing song voice (mine did at first), you’ll find magic in the words, and hope, for, as she says, inside every half burned piece of wood is a spark which can be fanned into a steady flame. And that spark is always there, and the potential for the flame to be fanned never disappears, and the flame will shatter the stone. But you have to feel in order to heal, and the darkest night of the soul precedes the dawn.
Leaden cannon balls
Weighing me down,
Attached by cords to depressed thoughts in my head.
Mouth drooping, an inverse smile.
On the outside.
A foreigner, not one of the tribe.
Envying the easy connections,
The allusions understood,
The feeling of belonging,
At home in your collective condition,
In your grief, your outrage, your sadness,
Your hopes and your festivals and your faith.
A shared history that I do not share:
Like trembling poplars springing up from the same
Network of roots,
Your organic growth feeds off yourselves.
Offspring like ramets, spreading you further afield.
While I stand alone, in my own space.
Leaves whispering in the aspen grove,
Stories passing from one to the other
And I bend to listen, but cannot understand.
An understanding that is deeply emotional,
For me only ever intellectual.
This is who I am, they say,
And you are different.
The black poplar,
Not one of us.
Different foods, different habits, different smells:
Alienated by my differences.
Apart, other, separated.
Never one of you.
Useless to try.
And my eyes are still heavy
The mouth turned down.
“The aspen’s main method of reproduction is vegetative, with new suckers, or ramets, growing off the roots of mature trees. The numbers of new shoots produced in this way can be very prolific, especially after a major disturbance such as fire, with the density of ramets reaching 70,000 per hectare. Aspen has an extensive root system, and ramets have been recorded growing up to 40 metres from a parent tree. Because of their access to nutrients through the parent tree’s root system, aspen ramets can grow very quickly – up to a metre per year for the first few years. As the ramets grow, they remain joined through their roots, and all the interconnected trees are called a clone. They are all the same individual organism and are therefore all single-sexed, either male or female. Each clone exhibits synchronous behaviour, with, for example, all the component trees coming into leaf at the same time in the spring. A clone can also sometimes be identified by the specific colour its leaves change to in the autumn.”
I thought fellow bloggers and readers of blogs might be interested to read this doom-laden assessment of blogging – why we do it, and why we shouldn’t do it. Notice the author of the article, and the title of the book he’s written (shown at the end of the piece).
I take my hat off to those bloggers I’ve followed who have been brave enough to write about some of the worst days of their lives, and in taking that risk have humbled their readers by their honesty, have halved the problems of their readers by their sharing, who have made me laugh, taught me endlessly, become my friend, opened my eyes to different countries and cultures, shown me different ways of seeing things, helped me work out many of my own thoughts, and have changed the world for the better with their words.
Now, read on …
Danger online: Perils of revealing every intimate moment
Anything goes on the web. We find out why we share personal details online and explain our obsession with social networking
So Chelsy Davy announced the end of her five-year relationship with Prince Harry via Facebook alongside a cutesy icon of a broken red heart. Well, of course she did. It’s 2009, isn’t it? And nothing is now too personal, private, painful or indeed plain boring not to be paraded online and reduced to fourth-form abbreviations.
Blogs, Facebook, Twitter – all are forums in which people are suddenly prepared to share anything from heartbreak, marital discord and a diagnosis of chlamydia to what kind of new stair carpet they are getting. Even celebrities, who you might think would have enough public exposure, cannot seem to resist the extra fix of performing to an audience. Alan Carr recently confided that eating broccoli had given him wind. Phillip Schofield provided this gripping insight: “YAY – home-made soup for supper.” And Chelsy Davy changed her online profile to read: “Relationship: not in one.”
Concerns, though, are growing about the decline of the private self. Many people are questioning the wisdom particularly of blogs in which ordinary people write regular updates about their children and spouses, and they are asking whether we are surrendering our privacy too easily.
There are more than 100 million blogs in operation worldwide that are written – and read – with great enthusiasm. Spilling your guts to an invisible audience can feel good. There are undisputed cathartic benefits. But where does it end? A general (though, it must be said, not total) rule is that the more personally revealing the blog, the higher the number of regular readers. Is there then a temptation to expose more and more of yourself, like a striptease artist peeling off her clothes?
Via Times Online, we asked former and current bloggers to tell us their views on the subject. The response has been huge. While many believe that blogging is harmless, especially if you use a pseudonym to protect your identity, others fear a creeping desensitisation towards squandering personal privacy. And there’s a danger that you can spend more time on your blog than with your family. It was a minor thing that convinced Laura Witjens that her blogging career had to stop. After years of writing a lively update about her work, life and family she was attending a conference in France when a stranger walked across the room and inquired about her daughter’s teeth.
Witjens had written in previous blogs about how her child had fallen and broken her teeth. But suddenly in that moment she felt exposed. The realisation hit home that this wasn’t a game: she was imparting real information about her real family to real people in the real world – people who “knew” her but whom she didn’t know. Was this wise? “It just didn’t feel right,” says Witjens, who had previously been shocked by the severity of people’s criticism of her on the blog. “I realised that I had allowed it to spin out of control. I had to ask myself what the consequences are of meeting people who ‘know’ everything about me, have judgments and ideas, even before they meet me.”
The wake-up call for Steve Almond, a US author and blogger, came last year. He started writing his popular blog, Baby Daddy, to chart his experience of becoming a father. But he threw in the towel, saying that he was concerned about his daughter one day growing up and reading it and because he and his wife were becoming anxious about some of the audience. “When you make your private life public, when you seek attention in that broad a manner, you’re inviting not just the cool and the loving, but the angry and aggrieved,” Almond writes. He suggests that we all should focus more on face-to-face interaction.
Witjens believes that it is “human nature to prefer gory details, interesting stories or unusual angles” and that one reason dooce.com, written by a Utah-based mother, is one of the most popular blogs in the world is “that she shares absolutely everything”. This has become highly lucrative for the author, Heather B. Armstrong: advertising revenue on her site is rumoured to be about £20,000 a month.
But this is not the case for “normal” bloggers. So why do it? Why have we spawned a generation of people with a constant need for exposure? Young people will meet their friends for a drink in a pub and the next day the photos are all over Facebook. Couples have a baby and the pictures are on the internet before the child has taken its first feed. Is blogging just another form of attention-seeking?
“All we’re feeding is our need to communicate and our own vanity,” Witjens says. “You quickly work out that writing about anxieties or someone’s irrational behaviour attracts more comments and gets more readers than the ‘another happy day and all is jolly’ variety. ”
The trouble is that, unlike face-to-face conversation, we have no idea how our words are being received. Psychologists say that because we are communicating in a non-personal environment to strangers it tends to make us “braver”, more forthright than we would normally be, the better to impress our personalities on others.
Pamela Briggs, Professor of Psychology at Northumbria University, whose research interest is in computer-mediated communication, says that people compensate for the fact that they don’t get the complex interaction of face-to-face conversation by putting more into their e-mails and blogs. And it tends to be “the sparser the medium the richer the revelations”, she says. We disclose more on e-mail and new media, but we also feel that we are somehow detached from it. “But it can be a dangerous thing because you don’t get the feedback from them. People need to understand the impact that they are having.”
Daniel Wegner, a Harvard psychologist, says that we have been “shaped to be sensitive to each other on a face-to-face basis” but when we are alone in a room typing it is easy to become oblivious to the consequences of sharing information. And people can be cavalier about protecting their privacy. Who, after all, bothers reading the privacy box on a website? Briggs, who works with people developing the technology to protect information on the internet, says that in future privacy tools will get better.
Ella, who responded via Times Online and writes a “no-holds-barred blog about motherhood”, confides that it is not the people she doesn’t know who have caused a problem but those she does. “I regret writing some of the posts.I’m sure that my private thoughts – private, even though they were read by friends, family and others and who understand that they are reading something that I might not otherwise discuss with them – have been used against me.” She is now considering starting a new blog that none of her immediate circle will know about. But Franziska, who blogs under her real name, rejects the idea that she feels the need to reveal more to stay interesting. “I have blogged about very personal things such as having lost my baby,” she writes, “which drew more responses than any other post. But if someone said that I did this only to keep my blog interesting I’d be offended. Blogging for me is the silent way to ensure staying sane sometimes.”
Another blogger , who writes under the name Nappy Valley Girl and satirises the baby-centred area of South London in which she lives, says that you have to be careful if you tell your friends and family you are blogging and in sometimes censor yourself. “I wrote a fairly personal post about my experiences at boarding school and got hauled up by my father about it at a family party,” she says.
There are others who worry that blogging can be so obsessional that the author sometimes puts the virtual life before the real one, never really living in the moment.
Kelly Graham-Scherer, a Toronto-based blogger who writes as Don Mills Diva about her life with a young son, admits that she once “pulled out a camera to capture a temper tantrum rather than deal with it straight away”. She writes: “ I think all writers who document their experiences for the public run the risk of falling prey to the desire to give people something truly gripping to read.” She adds that when her partner Rob suggested taking their young son to the zoo she found herself saying: “It’ll be great. I’ll take so many pictures – it’ll make such a cute blog.”
“Not until Rob gave me a look did I realise that without thinking I had considered whether an activity we all enjoy would also translate into something my readers could consume,” she says. She thinks that blogging, especially about children, are positive things. “What are any mommy or daddy blogs, if not love letters to our children?” she says.
Few blogs can backfire as badly as Jessica Cutler’s did. The former congressional staff assistant wrote a blog detailing her sex life, some of it with high-powered lovers, under the guise of The Washingtonienne. But her identity was revealed by another blog and she was fired. Later she said that she thought an anonymous blog a safer medium than private e-mails to friends, which could be forwarded.
But another blogger known as Potty Mummy says that “experience has shown me that it’s impossible to remain anonymous once you’ve disclosed your approximate location, your profession, the number, age and gender of your children, and the nationality of your husband. I was ‘discovered’ by friends who found out that I had a blog and when I refused to give them its address, they simply put in a few relevant search words on Google and there I was.”
She says that something has always stopped her from lapsing into bitchiness. “Without getting too pious about it, my approach to blogging is ‘Is it going to upset anyone I care about if they read it?’ If the answer is yes, then I don’t post it. Aside from the fact that once your most intimate thoughts are on the internet they can never be recalled. At the back of my mind was the thought that someday one of my loved ones might discover my hidden scribblings.”
But how authentic are blogs anyway? Are we totally truthful in them or partly acting? In an article in Psychology magazine entitled “The Decline and Fall of the Private Self”, Jamie Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, believes that blogging has elements of theatre with people, say, blunting the edges of ugly revelation with humorous comment, always with an eye on self-presentation. “If you’re writing and you know lots of people are going to be looking at it you’re going to change things to make yourself look good.”
Even those who choose to extricate themselves from the virtual world, are encouraged to do so with a dramatic flourish: why just quietly fade away from a social networking site when you can commit virtual harakiri, aka “Facebook suicide”? Admittedly, the Facebook Mass Suicide Club has attracted only a cult membership of 168, but the futurist Richard Watson, who makes predictions for 2009 in his book Future Files, believes that this is the year when we’ll start to “unplug” our lives, and begin reclaiming personal or family time. Just as owning a mobile phone or BlackBerry was once seen as aspirational, he says that not owning one (or using one sparingly) is becoming a signal that a person has his or her priorities in order or has staff to take mundane calls.
For the time being, though, the future of blogging seems as bright as Chelsea Davy’s face. People just like the act of writing – and most of all keeping an audience, however small, rapt. “I know I might regret it one day,” says Alison, another blogger in Hertfordshire. “But at least I can always say that in a tiny way, I made my mark.”
Fears of being out of the loop
Time was when the internet was only for bored young men and technology geeks. Not any more. According to a survey last month, bored British housewives spend 47 per cent of their free time surfing the web, a higher proportion than workers, the unemployed, students or the Chinese. So how, in the past decade, did we get to a point where millions of us spend vast tracts of our time hooked up to sites such as eBay, Google and Facebook?
Few people know that the story of the net starts with Norbert Wiener, a mathematician who was asked to build a more responsive anti-aircraft gun for the Allies in the Second World War. As the enemy was constantly moving, Wiener concluded that its design needed to recognise that human beings were becoming messengers on a continuous information loop, responding to a continuous stream of information. Later, with the emergence of computers, some theorists began speculating that human beings could be treated as processors on a giant electronic information loop.
You probably associate the word feedback with respondents to Points of View or your annual performance review, but the idea originated from the engineering of electrical systems, information fed back into a system in an instant response to information that comes out of it. Like those systems, our compulsive urge to spend hours on Facebook or Twitter firing off our most fleeting thoughts arises from a desire to, having sent a signal, have one returned to us – to close the circle of our previous engagement. Feedback is what improves your eBay rating, and a continuous cycle of messaging and feedback is what keeps you in touch with your friends on social networks online. Feedback is the glue that holds the internet together, which explains the pull that grips people and pulls them back again and again, and why they begin to feel twitchy when they haven’t checked their Facebook page for five minutes.
What all this adds up to is a new kind of self that many of us now inhabit – one who has grown up to crave a constant cycle of electronic instruction, one who needs to be in the information loop via e-mail, text message and online networks at all times. When inhabitants of “Cyburbia” return there compulsively to check for updates, they are only trying to ward off a persistent fear of falling out of the loop.
Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea that’s Changing How we Live and Who we Are, by James Harkin will be published in February 5 by Little, Brown. Available for £16.19 from Times BookFirst: 0870 1608080; www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst
=* Joint ranking
Names that Alistair would approve of:
Thomas (Tom), Harry, Charles (Charlie), William (Will), James (Jamie), George, Alexander, Henry, Archibald (Archie), Edward (Ned), Benjamin (Ben) (only just), Louis, Frederick (Freddie), Robert (Scots only), William (Will), Alexander (Alex), Francis, Angus (Scots), Hector, Hugh, Huw, Hugo, Miles, Angus (Scots), Quentin, Rory (Celtic), Hamish, Giles
|41||FREYA =*||PAIGE =*||JASMINE||ELIZABETH||AVA|
=* Joint ranking
Source: Office for National Statistics
Names that Alistair would approve of:
Emily, Sophie (though Sophia is better), Emma (past its best), Lily (bit media), Charlotte, Isabelle, Isabella, Millie (Camilla), Daisy, Poppy (younger sibling only), Imogen, Sophia, Alice, Isabel, Isobel, Anna, Rosie, Isla (Scots only), Sofia, Madeleine, Martha (iffy), Rose, Alicia, And Felicity, Cecilia, Miriam (Catholics only), Eliza, Miranda, Antonia, Henrietta, Louisa, Florence, Cordelia, Cressida, Octavia, Celia, Frances, Georgina, Allegra, Annabel, Arabella (Bella), Beatrice, Flora, Kitty, Tilly