Spiritual. Such a confusing word. There are probably as many different connotations for it as there are for ‘happiness’ or ‘work’; it just seems so subjective. And because the word is used in so many contexts, it can often be misleading, or alienating. Does it mean religious? Mystical? Weird? Unscientific? Does it relate to me or not?
We’re all familiar with the scene that’s become somewhat of a cliché: a person taking a picture of their food, a famous site, or themselves without seeming to appreciate the moment or their loved ones around them (children included). There is a drawing that shows a man drowning in the sea, and dozens of spectators holding out their phones to film him rather than help; this tendency in modern times has been exaggerated for comedy’s sake, but it persists and resonates because we know it is sort of true. Phones are whipped out to capture every moment - but truly for what? To remember? To share? To document? Because everyone else is doing the same? Whatever the reason, it seems that we are constantly leaving the enjoyment of the present experience, in pursuit of something else.
On a Sunday a few weeks ago, I had some free time. With two small children and a busy weekly routine, free time is not something I feel I often have. But it came and curled up on my lap like a purring cat and - truthfully - I almost felt uncomfortable with the prospect. It can take a lot of ‘unlearning’ to really relax and do things that have no immediate outcome or purpose. So, I decided to take my youngest daughter for a walk - a walk at a leisurely pace, with no fixed destination.
Really, what did we do before social media? A trivial question to some, maybe. But an increasingly important one for those of us logged into it on a daily basis. The thing is, I don’t mean ‘how did we manage before?’. Clearly we just did, and most still do. And we were probably healthier - in all senses - without it, too. But I’m more curious about what we all did with our TIME before social media.
When I became a mother nearly four years ago, I discovered very few organised spaces in which to properly connect with other parents about our common experience. I say very few, but I must extol and recommend La Leche League and their incredibly supportive groups for mothers when it comes to breastfeeding and beyond. I have found that most other activities, however, centre around entertainment for the little ones, and it is all too easy to attend and leave without interacting in any meaningful way with the other adults in the room. In this way, the days can seem varied and interesting - even frenzied - for our children, but not so much for us. And isn’t our wellbeing crucial if we parents are to discharge our sacred job well?
People used to write letters to each other all the time. They would share their news, their feelings, their plans - and beyond these, their reflections on the timeless questions of life. Letters were an externalisation of the internal, stemming from a time far back when the private thoughts of a person had otherwise little opportunity for expression. Letters transcended time and space, sickness and isolation, and the social limitations of meeting and speaking in person. We learn so much about historical persons and their relationships by reading their personal letters; in fact countless books are simply compilations of these letters, sent from one lover to another, from one poet to another, from one sister to another. Letters are beautiful treasuries of language, heartfelt and unedited, annotated and illustrated, intended to be read by one or two pairs of eyes only. They are a far cry from pieces of writing today, crafted out of multiple drafts and autocorrections, that are easily perused or circulated at a click by millions of readers all over the world. But are private letters really a lost art? Or have they simply evolved?
The human conversation. It is an everyday but powerful thing - an exchange of thoughts and ideas that sets us apart from the animal kingdom. For us, a conversation goes far beyond communicating information. It can inspire us, and even change us. It can make us understand ourselves and life differently. It can transport us to another place, and its effects can be permanent. But, like most things, conversations can be used for a higher purpose, or undertaken casually, almost unconsciously. It is this second type of conversation that I’ve noticed we all tend to fall back on most of the time; it seems we adopt a sort of ‘narrative’ that we use and reuse all the time, without really thinking about it. But how funny it is that, despite this sophisticated conversational faculty we have as human beings, we often choose to communicate very little about our inner selves and the important questions of life.
Despite the popular emphasis on chaos and despair in the world, there’s still a lot of goodness out there. There are good people, good causes, and good developments absolutely everywhere. It’s really down to us whether we choose to notice it or not, and then whether we choose to align ourselves with it or simply go with the flow of negative trends. And while it is essential to critique and oppose the bad, it is also important to highlight and celebrate the good.
A few weeks ago, my daughter had a tantrum in the middle of a public square. So it was not just a public tantrum, but one with an audience of slightly embarrassed, slightly fascinated spectators on benches! They looked on unabashedly, with stone-faced expressions. Not that I could glance in their direction for long; I was too focused on my writhing, screaming little girl. But I felt the stares, the judgement, and it was oppressive. One older man passed me and started shaking his finger directly at my daughter, saying ‘behave!’ in an angry voice. I was horrified, but told him politely enough ‘I’m handling this, thank you’, but he repeated his same phrase. So I repeated mine. To which he said ‘it doesn’t look like you’re handling it’, and walked off. It appalled me that I should have to deal with this sort of interference on top of an already stressful situation. I called back sarcastically ‘thank you for your support!’, and then felt the unfamiliar weight and fire of conflict arrive in my chest - at a moment when I really needed help, and calm.
Back at the start of the academic year, my social media feed was awash with ‘first day at school’ and ‘back to school’ pictures of the sweet little faces I know in my life. Some were accompanied with written updates by proud parents on how it went - mainly that their child had gone into the classroom happily and excitedly, barely looking back and not a tear in sight. I didn’t read anything like ‘and she wailed and shook in my arms, not wanting me to leave her. I waited a while, my heart aching and unsure what to do. As the teacher ushered her in, I tried to stop myself from crying too. What a first day!’.