EVERY now and then I like to show off my painted dresser, because it is so brilliant it practically qualifies as a cabinet of curiosities. It contains vintage tins and books, china spill-vases, old family photos, and an array of other things that come under the heading of bibelots and knick-knackery. I’ve noticed that, when I share images of it on social media, it divides the world into two: those who say “Wow! That’s amazing!” and those who say, “I wouldn’t want to dust that!”
I implore you, dear reader: strive to enter the Kingdom of Curiosity by the first of these two gates. Otherwise, you will end up like the old woman tossed up in a basket, 20 times as high as the moon. “Old woman, old woman, old woman, quoth I. What are you doing up so high?” You may recall that this prototype astronaut wasn’t blown away by her adventure. It wasn’t one giant step for womankind. No. She was doing housework. “I’m brushing the cobwebs from the sky.”
My newest granddaughter is just learning to talk. One of her first words was “Wow!” Over Christmas, she said “Wow!” to every lit-up tree that she spotted. I want to be like her. I don’t want my mind to race ahead and worry about needle-shed and the glumness of taking the decorations down again. I don’t want to be fretting, even as I hang the baubles, over what to do with the tree carcass at Epiphany. Sufficient unto the day are the sky cobwebs thereof.
ONE of the other things that my granddaughter has learnt to say is “Oh dear!” I guess she’s heard her parents saying this whenever she falls over or drops something. She now says it herself when she’s feeling sad. I want to be like her in this, too. I’d like to be better at sympathising with myself when things go wrong.
My sympathy guns are primed and ready when other people are suffering. I’m quick on the draw with bouquets and hugs. But there’s a curious embargo on self-kindness — especially if you went to the right sort of Sunday school. Those of us who did know how to spell “joy”: Jesus first, Yourself last, and Others in between.
I’ve been doing a bit of soul graft in this area over the past couple of months. I learned a few years back not to call myself a stupid idiot whenever I made a mistake, but, rather, to talk to myself as I would talk to a good friend.
I assumed that this meant that I’d mastered the art of self-compassion. You fool! Or, to render this into the correct self-care vocabulary, “That’s interesting!” Finding things interesting is another doorway into the Kingdom of Curiosity, by the way. Who can say what we will discover inside?
I FOUND several surprises waiting for me. It emerged that there were subtler things to refrain from doing on the grounds that I would never treat a good friend in this way. I wouldn’t for example, ring up a beloved fellow writer and say: “Not sure you will have spotted this, but you’ve got another 1* review on Good Reads. Let me read it to you.”
I wouldn’t then make follow-up calls at five-minute intervals for the next two days, quoting choice sections, and suggesting detailed ripostes. Nor would I pursue her round the house alerting her to every reflective surface that offered an unflattering image, pointing out that she’d let herself go, comparing her with other people, and urging diet and exercise regimes.
Yes, very interesting. This might have implications for the idea of loving your neighbour as yourself. If we treat ourselves meanly, mightn’t we end up with judgmentalism, defensiveness, and competition as our default responses to those around us? “Oh no, I’m a bad person! I should be better at being kind to myself so that I can be kinder to others.” If some such thought flitted across your mind, then this would be a good moment to say, “Oh dear.”
We all know how to do this for a little person. We say something like, “Oh dear! My poor darling. You fell over. You dropped your precious thing and it’s broken. But it’s OK. Let’s see if we can mend it.” Love, love, love. The trick is to hunt out the little person inside ourselves and say this to them.
The long view
NOW I stop to think about it, if you can say “Wow!” and “Oh dear!” you’ve got most of life’s bases covered. These words are the friends who have been helping me through January this year. It’s worth being kind to ourselves, but it’s also worth locating the things that make us go “Wow!”, and, wherever possible, throwing ourselves in their path. (Or else loitering in their vicinity if we haven’t got the energy for throwing ourselves about.)
January is almost over now. It’s beginning to look as though we are entering the last phase of the pandemic, too. Dare we say that? It’s hope that kills us, as the old saying goes. But I think that this is because there are two types of hope: long and short. Short hope is the killer, because it focuses on specific measurable outcomes, and hope like this is easily dashed. Long hope renews life as we lift up our eyes to the glorious horizon, and keep on going.
Catherine Fox is an author, senior lecturer, and academic director of The Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.