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Sometimes we are the disaster

I think about writing this article every time I do some gardening. One of the things I've learned to do as I’ve got older is to try to do things mindfully, and in the case of gardening, this means, where I can, working by hand. I do use power tools for some tasks, but they distance me from the earth and the plants, so I weed and trim by hand wherever I can.

The thing that strikes me every time is that – however slowly and gently I go – however carefully and thoughtfully I work – five minutes’ garden work causes havoc. Not only for the plants I deem weeds, but also for the vast numbers of small creatures that make their home in every square inch of the garden. When I work by hand, it’s impossible for me to avoid the impact of my presence and my activity.

This grieves me immensely, and I keep doing it, sorrowing and apologising as I go.

I once said to my therapist, many years ago, describing how I behave around people: “I try to stay invisible. I try to have as little impact as I possibly can.” He responded: “How can you become a therapist if you want to have no impact?”

Oh. Right. Gulp.

Like a lot of people with low self esteem, I’d grown up believing it was best for all concerned if I stayed out of the way. I had perfectionist tendencies, and basically if I couldn’t do a thing pretty much perfectly, I wouldn’t even try. I was terrified of getting it wrong, especially with people, and particularly of causing pain or harm to anyone. I had poor boundaries, people pleasing tendencies, and I hurt people nevertheless. Because sometimes disasters happen to us, and sometimes we help people get through a disaster, and sometimes we are the disaster.

Sometimes we are the disaster.

If our psychological survival revolves around being perceived as good and kind and never any trouble to anyone, then that’s an unbearable thought. We’ll tie ourselves in mental and emotional knots to avoid becoming aware of it. “I mean well, so I can never be the cause of pain.” “I’m the good guy here.”

Through the black-and-white thinking we tend towards in these states of mind, we think if we’re not utterly good, we must be utterly bad. Another time I told my therapist that I had to look after everyone all the time, because if I stopped, I thought I might turn out to be a psychopath. Bless him for not laughing in my face; but I guess he knew I needed to tolerate that possibility: I might be a psychopath.

I don’t think I’m a psychopath. But I do think sometimes I’m the disaster. You ask the hundreds of ants whose lives I disrupted this afternoon. Or the woodlouse who darted from one cluster of leaves to the next as I methodically destroyed its habitat.

I’m not writing this to excuse cruel or callous or unethical behaviour, mine or anyone else’s. I’m not saying it’s OK to cause hurt and harm. And I think, if we have any impact on the world and the people around us, it’s inevitable that we will, sometimes, regardless of our best intentions.

I’m saying that what’s important is to take responsibility for the impact we have. To be willing to consider that something we did turned out disastrously for someone else. To be ready to apologise, and seek to repair relationships when things go wrong. And we just can’t do that if we need to see ourselves as impeccably good.

My name is Amanda, and sometimes I’m the disaster. I’ll try not to be, but sometimes I will be anyway.


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