We are living in unprecedented times; there is political uncertainty, our welfare and healthcare systems are under immense strain, people are struggling to find security in employment and accommodation, and our climate is experiencing dramatic surges of heat, fire, and flooding. It can seem a little apocalyptic. As we divorce ourselves from Europe, we simply don’t know what will happen, and that brings fear and insecurity.
"If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favourable" - L. A. Seneca
But are we living through times of greater difficulty that our parents and grandparents? During the war years, sons went to war and didn’t come home. Food was rationed. Communication wasn’t always possible, and if it was, it wasn’t instant. So maybe we haven’t got it so bad today after all? Yet, to many people, it feels like it’s the worst of times. Perhaps comparing then and now isn’t the smartest way of assessing what today’s ills are? After all, if we compare our Western lives with third world countries, then we have nothing to complain about. But we live in the West and our problems are current day Western problems, so it’s important to put them into perspective.
Counsellors will often see clients who are feeling inadequate, isolated, unfulfilled, and lonely. Distractions fill their days as they try to find meaning and purpose in life. Of course, that is part of the human condition - an existential question mark that hovers around us - but somehow it feels that, despite all our developments and advances, we’re feeling more unanchored then ever. It might be easy to dismiss this sense of confusion as belonging to the 'young', but I see it across many age groups - people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.
Is there a solution?
How can we begin to appreciate what we have and who we have in our lives without wanting more? How can we integrate our anger at injustice and fight for rights, and at the same time, live a contented life? How can we tolerate our differences without feeling so sure we are right and others wrong? I think reflection is key.
Reflective practice is an important process in nursing care, teaching, and social work. Workers are encouraged to reflect-on-action and reflect-in action. In other words, look at what they’re doing as they’re doing it, and look at what they’ve done and how they might have done it differently or better (while acknowledging what went well). 12-step recovery groups encourage a 'look at my part' in situations and events to help people live a more reflective and balanced life. If I blame others, am I failing to see how I’m contributing to a situation?
Reflection isn’t a simple review - it’s about being able to accept responsibility for what belongs to us, and to hand over what belongs to others. It’s much easier to project the 'badness' onto others and bask in our sense of being good, when in fact all we’re doing is refusing to see our flaws. But once we acknowledge that it’s OK to be wrong, or not know, or make a mistake, we are freer to live. It’s OK to be 'good enough'.
When two friends fall out, it’s usually a case of "I'm right, you’re wrong", but to learn we have to reflect on what we did and own it; to take back that part of us that we feel is bad and integrate it. For example, the friend who is always late - their lateness is tolerated until it stops being tolerated, and then there’s a disagreement. How do they view their lateness? Is it just how they are? Is it an unconscious thing? Are they even aware they’re asking friends to hang around waiting for them? If they look at how this is impacting on their friend, perhaps they can reflect on their behaviour and work on being on time.
Reflection is a healthy part of being human. My dogs don’t have that ability. They can’t reflect on their squabble this morning and see their part in the disagreement, but we can. When we begin to know ourselves and to understand what’s important to us, using reflection as a means of being true to ourselves and our values, then I think we will get closer to leading an authentic and healthy life.
Reflection helps us to work out which port we’re aiming for and we can then avail of the wind to assist us rather than aimlessly floating trying to find meaning.