Entry 4: Good grief
I have a bone to pick with the self-critic. The self-critic’s feedback is like grey noise in my consciousness, constant, ongoing, I barely notice it anymore in my day to day life. It’s not one to be silenced, this tends to backfire. However, it can be challenged through self-compassion or by criticising the critic.
As storyteller, I stay by the well, sitting at a desk where I review our history. I tug at the roll of paper spilling from the well and add to the pile of memories collecting to my side. I interpret the strange collection of colours, tapping on the sheets to flip through feelings, thoughts and physical sensations. The sheets of memory is like a Rorschach test. The one common colour amongst these memories is the grey noise colouring the background, the self-critics contribution to our reality.
I’m transfixed by a recent memory where I was caught in a criticism cycle, critic versus neo-critic. I pinch out my fingers to zoom out of the memory, like I would my phone, to analyse my architecture during this time. A Birds Eye analysis reveals my energy spilling at the outskirts of my attention, bleeding into the corner of the self-critic, past the sheet, into the unknown. I compare previous tactics to manage the critic, if I use the self-critics methodology, it ultimately drains my energy, white noise versus grey noise, the whole image of our emotions is coloured grey. If I use compassion, the colours of criticism recoil off the page, into their corner, but it’s not nearly enough to salvage the image.
Of course, this is all made up. I am not a reliable narrator, these memories are not reflective of reality. But as the storyteller, I am the creator of reality, the sum of our being is determined by the stories we choose to believe. The task falls to me then, to review the stories in our memories, and to rewrite them.
Sounds like crazy talk, I hear the critic. Immediately I try to catch it, force it into the scene with me, but it’s like trying to catch water, it’s slipped away.
‘Are you actually suggesting it’s better to internalise our stories than to refine them? If you’re going to criticise my methods, at least make it critical.’ This isn’t the first time I tried to summon the critic to the well, but it doesn’t head my call, it is silent as a mouse, choosing to squirrel away into its corner. Of course it does, it only pipes up when it’s convenient to them, avoiding direct confrontation when they’re the target, but nitpicking at every other shortcoming. But I must reach the self-critic if I’m to rework this major drain of my energy.
It’s hard for me to reach the critic, my ability for imagination is limited. I can bait the self-critic into the open, but it’s sharper than me, a better trained mental muscle that whips into consciousness and out before I can materialise a leash to catch it. I would materialise to its presence if it wasn’t guarded by layers of processes I can best describe as ego. Digging into lizard brain territory is sophisticated work, its defences are too great, too ancient for an out-of-practice storyteller to impregnate. The ego is the master of self-defence, the oldest dog of the lot and it does not like learning new tricks. To reach the self-critic, I’ll need to coax it from its corner to hijack its connection. The longer it’s distracted by its own criticism, the greater my chances to get through a backdoor into its domain.
I keep tugging at the line of sheets until I find the memories most coloured by criticism. The answer is in the ruminations, the damn never-ending ruminations. A chorus of voices sound in my mind all at the same time.
I don’t want to go through the ruminations again.
If I knew how to turn them off, trust me I would have done so already.
They can’t be reasoned with, they’re out of control.
Maybe with just one more viewing and we’ll have discovered where it all went wrong.
Don’t subject us to them!
‘I don’t hear any better suggestions. I can tempt the critic by deliberately setting off a rumination. But for me to access a backchannel, you all need to argue about something that cannot be settled. Keep it perpetually distracted.’ There’s only one topic I can think of that fits the bill. I take the lack of voices as permission to proceed. I pull at the sheets til I find the scene I’m looking for: a field of red and yellow tulips. I locate a crack in the scene, and feed my arm through it. The rest of my body follows to the place that was once my whole existence.
I touch the crack on the wall behind me, don’t be deceived by the appearance of endless rolling fields, this is very much a boundary, a wall to keep everything here from leaking to any other parts of our being. Cracks aren’t good, it means the horrors of this place can seep through to haunt other departments.
I built this place, best described as grief, from ruins. I remember when there was nothing left of us, it felt like a bomb dropped, I remember we all fell to my knees in despair. Most of us threw in the towel and voted to resign from this life, the damage to our being was irreparable, this life too cruel to stand. Even I couldn’t imagine a future, a way forward from this destruction. We were done, and all hope was lost when the one who usually pulled us together, the will to live, was replaced by the newest addition: grief.
We made her life a living hell, punishing her for her existence, she was our sacrificial lamb. She was a constant reminder of everything we lost, of every failure we ever made, of everyone who paid the price for our shortcomings, our guilt, our shame. We thought she was the enemy but she took our onslaught with grace and even had the audacity to thank us afterwards.
‘Thank you for giving me all your grief, for letting me hold it, for letting me contain it. I only want to keep you safe from all the pain.’ And that’s exactly what she did, despite how we treated her.
The edges of the field are rotting, the tulips withered and weathered. Not a good sign. I can repair the walls, but I can’t touch what grows here, I’m too conscious, too deliberate. Although I built this place, it wasn’t just me, it was all hands on deck. This was our finest work, we had never been so united in our mission to wall her in, and the outcome was this surreal plane of existence, with a foothold in every corner of our being: not fully conscious, not fully subconscious, never unconscious, always there but no longer all we knew. What was once disgust turned into respect, for when she sacrificed herself to this place, it gave the rest of us freedom to expand our consciousness, edge us onto the razor of possibilities. We each gave her a part of ourselves to rid ourselves of the responsibility of safeguarding this space, she was the only one willing to do the job.
I walk through the field, towards the lantern and the lit candle flickering on and off, to find her collapsed on a plaque, her head between her outstretched arms, mourning.
‘The dead don’t visit us as much anymore,’ she mutters. I sit next to her and place a gentle hand on her back. She turns her head to look through and past me.
‘I miss them so much,’ she mumbles, tears pooling in her eyes. I tug her hair behind her ear. It’s painful being here, watching her, she continues to remind me of all the ways we have failed ourselves and others.
‘I need your help,’ I tell her.
‘I haven’t contained the grief enough, have I? I’m sorry,’ She sits up and she prepares to summon all her strength and grace to reinforce this container.
‘Don’t,’ I cut her off. ‘Don’t ever feel guilty, not you. You’ve done more than enough for us. You’re the strongest one. If it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t be here.’ Grief never goes away, we learned and accepted that by now. But it doesn’t have to be everything, we demonstrated that by growing around it, and she showed us how by containing the grief. Without her, we would be nothing.
‘I know you are all struggling, I know how much energy this place takes…’
‘That’s not your fault though. We put a lot of expectation on you when we left you here, and we could make things easier if we helped. But we all avoid you instead,’ because of what she reminds us of, because of what she represents. Controlled by one, her sacrifice keeps the rest of us sane and operational. Her job is the hardest of the lot.
‘I have replayed our memories for a while now, trying to find an answer, to give your side peace,’ she starts.
‘Why are you doing that?’ Is this where the ruminations are coming from, is this why they can’t be controlled, because they come from the place none of us are willing to visit.
‘Because you want an answer. I hear your side try to explain your feelings, to better understand them, to accept them, you keep praying for an answer…’
‘But not from you,’ I cut in. ‘You do not have to explain yourself to us. We want answers, yes, from god, from the living, from the present times, but not from you, not from the past. We should know better than try to explain grief. Get up, copy me,’ I begin my somatic body experience, breathing in and exhaling loudly, shaking on the spot. This make her smile.
‘I don’t have a body to exercise, this may not be best for me,’ she remarks.
‘Doesn’t matter. Did you know the mind has trouble distinguishing imagination from reality? We won’t have a chance to do our exercises today in the collective consciousness, so we might as well do it here together, it’ll give you a break from mourning. Tell me what’s been going on in here.’
‘Your side is very loud. The other side responds in kind. This place gets caught in between. I have been left grieving for things that never existed.’ I consider the implications: if the conscious and unconscious are fighting for answers, is that the reason for our despair? Do our expectations of the world, of ourselves, cause our own suffering? Conscious thoughts are typically fleeting, they alone couldn’t cause ruminations of this magnitude. But if the conscious part tapped into the power from this place, if it piggybacked on our grief to be louder, more pronounced, but to what end? To gain more attention for what? We’ll never have peace if we keep bickering amongst ourselves.
I thought the subconscious was responsible for our suffering, because I couldn’t consciously improve my situation, but what if its the tumultuous undercurrent of our conscious thoughts is what’s driving our exhaustion? What happens when we become a bit more deliberate, intentional, with how we think? Sounds like I’ll be visiting the parliament at some point, we need to be united in our understanding of one another.
I move onto the second somatic body exercise, get onto our knees and start slamming my fists into the earth. She copies me, and the plane of existence shakes in response, cracking, but I don’t care. I’m angry, angry that I might have played an active part in inducing my own anguish. I’m the storyteller, I should have spun a story to answer, and settle, our ongoing issues.
‘Do you remember at the beginning of our grief, I threw mountains at you, I covered you in the seas, I butchered you to the lengths of my imagination.’
‘You were processing.’
‘Yes, because I didn’t want to accept you. I wanted to dispel you, banish you. You took it all in your stride instead. These questions from my side are no different in nature. I’m trying to make sense of things I haven’t experienced before. I’m angry at myself, I ask these questions to find what makes me foolish to rid myself of it. I need you to be graceful once more, do not permit the conscious mind to use this place to find answers.’
‘Is that not what you are doing here?’ She asks.
‘No, I don’t find answers, I make them. I came here to find the critic. And you need to be reminded of what you are, of what you’re capable of.’ I move onto the third exercise, breathe in and scream into the ether as loud as I can. She follows lead, her voice huskier, deeper. In the real world, I use a pillow to muffle my screams, but here I don’t need to make such considerations. Let them all hear my anger. Let them all know I’m coming from them. Let them all quiver in fear. Her screams cause the air to crackle like thunder before the storm.
‘I am your grief, I am capable of destroying you,’ she says in between these loud, vitriol screams.
‘No you’re not. This place is our grief. You are deliverance, you delivered us from one way of being into another.’
‘Is that what this is?’ I stop yelling to think.
‘No, you said it yourself, you’re grieving for things that never existed. That’s what happens when we make something out of nothing. Too much empty thinking, it can’t be good for the soul. I won’t ask you for answers, but I will leave you with one. From here on, you don’t have to justify your existence to us, do you understand? This time, when you see the memories, don’t look for what went wrong or an explanation, instead remember the dead fondly. Be grateful for the gift of time we shared with them, for having the opportunity to love them, no matter how short.’
‘This will feel wrong. You are not happy to have lost them.’ She stops screaming.
‘Is that all to it though? Why does that get to take up all the focus? Think about the people we currently love. Think of how much we love them. Think of them leaving. Do you not feel despair?’
‘Then it must be true that we are grateful to have them, to not be separated, to know them. We can honour the dead by honouring our time with them and we can remind ourselves what this feels like by thinking of our love for the living.’
‘You do love to think. Thank you for visiting me. It gets lonely here sometimes,’ she admits.
‘I’ll try to stop by more often. Play the memories again, this time with this new intentions, not to yield to the conscious demand for pity porn. Send my regards to the lost and missing,’ I say while I create a harpoon from my imagination. She sits cross legged and fills the sky with a recent memory of loss, and the chatter soon follows.
What did I do wrong?
Why did this happen?
Was there anything I could have done differently?
And embarrass yourself any further? Have a bit of dignity, a bit of self respect, it’s bad enough you got yourself into a bind, you idiot! I hear the critic begin. I search the skies and there it is, just as I predicted, a plume of grey smoke emerging from the sky.
We was vulnerable, loving and earnest, it’s not our fault that was taken advantage of.
Isn’t your fault? Did I not tell you from the start how reckless you were being with your heart, you are not indestructible!
‘We are not indestructible, but that doesn’t mean we cannot heal either. Send me your grief, I will process it,’ I hear our grief employ its magic to deliver the argument to a peaceful conclusion. I aim the harpoon just beside the smoke and shoot. A hand grabs mine just as I’m about to reel myself to the skies.
‘Don’t stay there too long, it’s not safe for you,’ she warns. I part her with a smile.
‘Good. That’ll teach me fear,’ I assure her. I press a button on my makeshift mechanism and shoot into the sky. Like a flying fox I catch the invisible wall in a star shape. Clinging onto the illusion with nothing but sheer willpower, I finger beside the smoke, trying to find the backdoor. A gap in the illusionary barrier, I pry open a small door for what appears to be an airway.
The rumination is getting heated now and she plays the middle, assuring all sides while they impart their woes into this space. She takes their grief and transforms it into gratitude.
I used to hate her, but now I love her. She saved our lives, but she deserves one of her own, one she will never get. Instead she holds vigilance for all our lost hopes, dreams and futures.
Clambering in, I leave behind the soft light of grief, and enter the darkness of the ego.