Joan was perfectly happy in her cosy home – until the new neighbours moved in next door. Loud, aggressive, intrusive and abusive, they made life a living hell for the private and reflective single woman. “What have I done to attract this into my life?” she mournfully asked me, believing that she must be responsible. Being a dedicated ‘spiritual’ follower, she had absorbed and accepted the belief that everything she experienced in life – good, bad, or indifferent – was all her own work.
“You aren’t responsible for this,” I asserted. “For one thing, other people live on that street, not just you, and they too are being affected. Are you suggesting that you have collectively drawn these unreasonable thugs to your previously peaceful environment? And if so, for what reason? Sometimes these things just happen. There is order in this world of ours – but there is also chaos… and sometimes chaos just shows up.”
After weeks of suffering, she finally decided to call upon the services of a well-known and much-feared local ‘bad boy’ who’d developed a soft spot for her whilst visiting the shop she used to own. He and some of his friends paid the troublesome neighbours a little visit – following which, they suddenly became much more amenable and pleasant. So, what is the moral of this story? I have no idea, to be honest. Maybe it is that sometimes the only productive thing we can do is to fight fire with an even bigger fire. And, whilst I don’t encourage the use of threatening behaviour, I was pleased that Joan stopped blaming herself and believing that she was powerless. It might have turned out that the only answer was to move house; however, she ultimately decided that she wasn’t going down without at least a bit of a fight – and it paid off. Spirituality isn’t about being passive or allowing ourselves to become the helpless victims of other human beings’ bad attitude and behaviour. Sometimes we just have to step up and be counted.
Julie had become the saddest woman I had ever met – which made me sad because she didn’t use to be that way. She had always been a gentle, compassionate, and lively soul, with deeply held spiritual beliefs that gave her comfort and pleasure. Until her beloved husband died – and then it was as if someone had turned off the light, leaving her to fight her way through an endless grey mist. She clung to spirituality like a comfort blanket, which, in itself wasn’t surprising or wrong. However, what did alarm me was her assertion that she had attracted certain things into her own life, including some dealings with an unpleasant and manipulative woman who was causing her a lot of unhappiness. When I told her that I didn’t believe that she was responsible for every single thing that she experienced, her face crumpled in pain and confusion. “But that’s what I’ve always been taught and what I’ve always believed,” she replied, sounding almost afraid. And no matter what I said she remained unconvinced, so I let it go. Questioning ‘spirituality’ was more painful for her than accepting responsibility for things that were clearly not her fault.
Curious about where this belief that we attract everything that we experience, I did some research. I wasn’t surprised to find that it has its roots in the 1970s dawn of ‘new age’ thinking, which followed on the tail of the declining hippie movement (although the actual birth of what is referred to as new age enlightenment occurred in the 1800s). Despite the fact that most modern-day spiritual devotees would shun the term, it was widely accepted and used well into the 1980s. For some, spirituality is a religion – even though they would emphatically deny that it is. And it has its share of evangelistic followers who preach and teach it to anyone who will listen. However, modern spirituality is a pick and mix, custom-built to suit the believer – and dependent upon the source of their education. The idea that we have created or invited in every single experience we have is one that was introduced by the new age movement, before being handed down as an absolute truth (although the degree to which the individual buys into it is their choice). Please note that I am not suggesting that we human souls aren’t responsible for anything that happens to us – only that we are not responsible for everything. However, beliefs are beliefs, and many people will hang onto theirs as if their very life depends upon them. I have no interest in converting anyone to or away from any particular belief; I just don’t like to witness other human souls suffering because they have been assured by some spiritual ‘expert’ that whatever comes their way is entirely their own fault – and even possibly a consequence of some past-life transgression (of which they have no conscious memory and no way of changing). I suppose it depends upon what spiritual means to us, personally. It can be about joy and child-like freedom… or it can be about blame, misery, and the learning of lessons. We get to take our pick.
There is a certain brand of spirituality that is like every other conventional religion; it piles guilt upon the heads of its followers. As a child, I attended a staunch, uncompromising, Catholic primary school. It was made clear that God was going to punish us for virtually everything, including not going to church on a Sunday (for which we were also punished by the headmistress on a Monday morning, courtesy of a stinging slap to the upper leg, which would leave a scarlet hand imprint for hours). We were rounded up and made to attend confession every week, so that we could admit to our monstrous, childish sins… you know, the unspeakable acts being cheeky or not doing our chores. Not many under-elevens have robbed a bank, gotten drunk and then beaten or murdered someone, or coveted their neighbour’s ass, I imagine. The priest on the other side of the curtain, in that dark, stuffy little box, probably had a few laughs at some of the revelations; I know that I used to make sins up because I could never remember what I’d done wrong since the last time that I was last hauled up to beg for God’s forgiveness. Of course, God wasn’t entirely unreasonable; three Hail Mary’s and one Lord’s Prayer usually cleared the slate for another week. Thinking about it, in terms of guilt and punishment, Catholicism is preferable to spirituality in that you are let off the hook with the mindless repetition of a few verses. With spirituality, you can’t tidy things up so easily because you are always attracting… and then you’ve not only got to deal with whatever problem comes along, you’ve also got to figure out why you pulled that awful person or situation toward you in the first place. I understand the philosophy. It is supposed to be empowering, it is supposed to place control of our life in our own hands. However, as is sometimes the way with we human souls, we put our own distorted slant on things and then present them to the world as if they are nuggets of great wisdom. Or, we just listen to what someone else has to say before adopting their beliefs as our own – without challenge or question.
We are not responsible for what happens to us in childhood. It is completely beyond our control. However, we are responsible for the way in which we think and behave, as adults. We are not responsible for other people’s unreasonable behaviour, and we have no power to change them – unless they themselves believe that they need and want to change. We are responsible, though, for allowing others to continue to hurt us long after we have recognised the reality of the situation. We are not responsible for where we are born on the planet (and neither is it an achievement to be proud of), or of the conditions we face as a consequence. We are responsible if we choose to add to other human beings’ misery and deprivation, in order to gain power and control. It is a cold, hard fact of life that some of us are born into more fortunate circumstances than others. I do not have an explanation for that, that I would confidently offer up as an immutable truth. I do not believe that we have willingly and voluntarily chosen to be born into poverty, deprivation, and desperation. I do not believe that we are being punished for some past life misdemeanour. Which, of course, means that there is uncertainty in this life – and that’s a problem, because we human souls are afraid of uncertainty. It means that we can’t feel safe. We’d rather accept responsibility for everything that we experience because it helps us to feel that we are in control – even if the price we have to pay is despair when we go through yet another rough patch.
I do believe that we are responsible for our everyday lives and the way in which we respond to all of the experiences we have. And to say that it isn’t easy is an understatement. When we see others continually facing tough times, we can feel horribly guilty about our own good fortune (though genuinely grateful, at the same time). Many years ago, when my life was at its lowest and darkest point, a good friend said to me “I don’t know what to tell you. I have never known anyone have such bad luck.” And that was exactly what I needed to hear because it woke me up, bigstyle. Was I experiencing bad luck… or were the consequences of my choices and actions coming home to roost? If I stayed put and changed nothing, would my life improve? I knew for sure that the answer was a resounding no. Obviously I couldn’t transform my life overnight, but I could at least change my mindset and take the first step – and then the next. It took me six years from that point to get onto a better, healthier footing, and even then there was work to be done. I had to remove myself from the main source of the problem, which took time – but I knew that if I didn’t, mine and my children’s lives would be blighted with misery and lack forever. I wasn’t responsible for a certain other person’s approach to life or their behaviour… but I was responsible for mine. And, throughout those dark days, a number of ‘spiritually enlightened’ individuals caused me to feel overwhelmed and without hope… because, after all, as they reminded me, I had chosen that pathway – and my crushing financial struggles were the result of me not being open to abundance. What did I expect when I wasn’t giving the universe the right message? And, on top of that, I was negative – and God only knows, negativity is not allowed in the company of those who have ‘arrived’. Now, I’m not arguing with the fact that my choices and my poor money management were absolutely at the bottom of most of my problems; at that time, I was my own worst enemy. However, in my defence, I was also dealing with some pretty big s**t that was not of my making, and if there was a lesson to be learned (apart from the obvious), it was not to let the dark side win. Being spiritual isn’t about being passive – or trying to find a twee, instant answer for all of life’s problems. Negativity exists. The dark side exists. Completely unreasonable human beings exist. Sometimes we mess up, or stay too long in the midst of awfulness. We are all products of our past and wisdom can only be achieved in hindsight. I think that what probably lies behind some of the most unhelpful spiritual beliefs is resistance and avoidance. A woman I know was telling me that she had recently stayed in a hotel, and, as she stepped into the lift and pressed the button for her floor, the doors shut – partially crushing a little mouse that had suddenly appeared. I said “oh no, poor little thing! How awful! It must have spoiled your evening.” (It definitely would have spoiled mine!) She shrugged and replied “not at all. After all, it chose its own fate.” Well, maybe it did, maybe it didn’t – no one can say for sure, either way. However, whatever happened to compassion? I’ve always found this conviction that we all choose our own life circumstances and death offensive and disturbing – but not for the reason that you might think. The problem I have with it is that it is smugly dismissive of human suffering. I was almost lynched at one particularly self-satisfied spiritual gathering when I asked if anyone there was actually willing to stand over a woman whose child was dying of starvation in her arms and remind her that it was all okay because she’d chosen that experience before birth? They were furious with me, with a woman calling me negative whilst a man went one step further and informed me that I was pure hatred. I suspect that some people prefer to think that way because it offers them a form of protection against the stark reality of the human experience. Even if it is true that we all select our own incarnational experience before we get here, it is no comfort to us when we are in the throes of suffering – as the flesh and blood beings that we are, born with the capacity to feel pain, fear, and grief.
So, whilst we should and we must take responsibility for our own thoughts, choices, decisions, and actions, there is still much that we haven’t created or invited. I know a woman who has experienced loss after loss in her life, including her best friend (whilst in her teens), two sisters (one at birth, the other at the age of thirteen), her disabled daughter, and her father. She continues to get on with her life – somehow – and I have a huge amount of admiration for her. Who would be cruel and stupid enough to tell her that she herself had agreed to all of that? Only someone who relishes the idea of waking up in a hospital bed, I imagine. As I said earlier, I think that ‘spirituality’ is, for some, a form of escapism. Life is precious and miraculous… but also brutal and challenging. It is the uncertainty of life that makes set-in-stone, not-to-be-questioned beliefs so attractive. However, we need to be mindful that we don’t allow ours to go to our head, passively-aggressively shutting others down when they’re in a dark place. Refusing to encourage, reward, or validate victim mentality is one thing; blaming, shaming, and piling on the guilt is another.