I grew up in a small town in the west, very small. We moved from the city at the end of primary school and newly a teen in a new town, a small town, very small town.
The thing is no matter where you live, whether it’s a small town or a large city, your community becomes the people where you reside, you live, work, play, rest, or try to. For children it’s their formative years, where they learn to trust, learn about people and about themselves. Most scientists, whether it’s behaviour or psychology, thinking theories or behaving theories, refer to these environments as our ‘social environment’. More and more evidence is piling up on the massive influence the social environment has on the development of not only our thoughts, on the physical shaping of our brain, on it’s function and some would say where our resilience is born, shaped and cemented into existing or not.
Early theorists would tell you it was attachment will become the greatest influence, how much love and experience affection, that this warmth and belonging is essential and comes from your mother. Some still believe this to be true and yet there are many stories of motherless children, in non-western cultures where communities raise perfectly healthy children. Yet if we take a deeper look through a longer sense, even with the support, love and nurturing in the first few years of the wiring and firing of your brain, we might even notice how the wider ecological system is influenced by every human being your brain comes into contact with regardless of how you arrived in the world, were breastfeed every four hours or received your early experiences. More recent neuroscience in the last decade or so, goes even a step further in suggesting the brain, our ‘social brain’ needs to connect to other brains in a way that increases its development, just like one neuron connects to other neurons (those specialised little nerve cells that send signals to other nerve cells), so much so that a brain starved of the social environment, healthy human connection e.g. neglect or social isolation can in fact form differently; higher levels of mental health, stress, depression, the impacts of a brain without adequate stimulation to fire up and wire up.
Some years ago a young girl, beautiful, stunning, intelligent moved to a new town. No this isn’t my story yet I’ll get to that later. Like most high schools and new kids, whether you are smart & gorgeous or considered ordinary and not doing as well as other kids, whether it’s glasses or freckles or short hair or long, in some environments a new person, a new kid, becomes a threat to the well established social environments of young teens and it’s really not that different the older we become. Whether it’s a sport, a club, a group you belong, pack mentality is across many species. Yet in human childhood’s particularly they can be mean, cruel, something I know all too well. This young person begged to leave school and like most of us today, was encouraged to stick it out, kids just being kids.
The thing is, in my day when kids were being kids it was notes and phone calls with no one on the end of the phone. There were still unfounded rumours, anything to change the way people think about you. However, I could go home and go to my room and pretend I was in a different place, I had a chance to recharge. I could saddle up and ride into nowhere particularly, I could spend hours mowing the lawn and not be interrupted by the constant buzz of a mobile phone every time someone responded to a nasty rumour on snapchat or social media.
With the pace of technology also came the opportunity for kids to take bullying and cruelty to a whole new level. No longer was there a safe place for young people to have time out, websites, chat forums, social media pages popped up providing the opportunity for teens to start a rumour and spread it worldwide, to literally crucify someone they felt threatened by, regardless of the impact or the truth, there are few places for young people to hide unless they disconnect from technology and it’s probably why I ensure my young and older people do this regularly, to remind them it’s not essential, it’s not a requirement of existing, it’s just an advancement in technology with an on and off button.
I don’t think resilience only comes from childhood healthy attachment, it’s a component, one of many. Healthy human beings with loving mothers, loving fathers, good early childhood experiences still struggle through the apathy, anger, frustration, anxieties and hurt within our communities. Good people still become hurt people. Survival of a species relies upon our ability to adapt to our social environments and regardless of whether you develop an addiction or happiness or you experience anxiety or social isolation, your brain is doing the best darn job it can to adapt to whatever social environment you have been thrust into.
So, this young person and like so many others that year, doing their best to survive in a social environment that causes harm to those doing nothing other than existing, decided it was too much, despite her loving family and healthy attachments, surviving the social environment at that time was unbearable and took her life.
I’m not sure where I’m going with my studies after this year is out, I do know that I’ve seen far too many hurt people, hurting people, too many lives being lost for no other reason than trying to be themselves in a social environment with racism, xenophobia, bigotry, ignorance and intolerance, bullying and violence. Communities, institutions and environments where individuals project their hurt onto others, unaware their battle is not outside themselves it is through trying to navigate the insecurity, the confusion they sense on the inside, hurt people, hurt people.
In Australia over 2,500 people take their lives each year, of these 75% are males. There are suggestions the law needs changing to make those who use defamatory statements to experience greater consequences. Although in the State of Victoria the defamation laws already exist, if you intentionally defame someone, to cause the harm or their livelihood, it is a criminal offence, yet the law is never used by those entrusted with the power to use it.
I’m not certain whether increasing the law or moving for change to legislation to punish those who spread malicious gossip, who attempt to hurt others in order to achieve their own goals, will actually achieve a great deal, from a behavioural perspective, punishment rarely works. What is known widely across the world, is there needs to be a significant change in our values as a society, in the way we speak, treat and live alongside each other, if we are to ever reduce the mental suffering of people who did nothing more than exist in the same space, with all our human intelligence, if so many people are suffering, hurt and taking their lives how could we possibly be considered the most intelligent species on the planet?
Learning about myself, who I am, what I love, what makes me passionate, secure, authentic and my own truth, has become the most critical part of survival. I am just as happy on my own as I can be in a group of people, I love to learn about others, even when they are not so nice, when they are giving their best and find people interesting even when they behave in an unnecessary way which impacts on others. Human behaviour, human beings who have no idea who they are, just going about their lives responding to stimuli, unaware what they seek isn’t on the outside, it is within, never gets boring, very little surprises me anymore or the levels people will go to, to meet their own needs.
I moved to another small community some years ago, to recharge for a while. I started a little business to keep the money flowing in, to make my way through a new illness, transition from one chapter to another. Maybe I had forgotten how cruel small towns can be, since high school was such a long time ago now or maybe I had just developed more faith and resilience and truly believe if you come from a place of good intentions, kindness and compassion towards people, good things will follow; if it is to be, it is up to me and the only way through the dark is to be the light.
I set up my little store after an offer to use a vacant store in town. Small towns across Australia are dying at rapid rates, this region has the fastest declining population in the State. The price of housing is the most affordable in the country, so if you don’t mind travelling, there is the opportunity to live life without a mortgage, kick back a little and enjoy the world going by. The water isn’t cheap, the NBN unreliable, it takes a bit to find a good coffee and if you love vegan food like we do, you need to find a few favourites, enjoy travel and accept the lack of variety, but…..it can work. We have the best adventures, long drives and trips to the city. I still love the country.
Sadly the new store was in a fire at the beginning of 2017. What was even more tragic was it wasn’t the fire that was the hardest to bear, it was the human behaviour and gossip that followed. I was managing my MS really well up until then this point, to say I was content with how life had turned out would probably be an understatement, things were easy, life was good. Then one Sunday I was at home, had just made my lunch, enjoying it down the backyard, had a conversation with my kids, when a neighbour knocked on the door to let us know the store was on fire. In fact it was the pharmacy the store was attached to. Later on, we would see the room that joined the pharmacy at the rear to the store and later believed to be where it started (but if you listen to the unofficial armchair forensics they had a different story to tell). Inside the store most of the damage was done by smoke and from the fire personnel who smashed their way through to save what they could. The ceiling collapsed on the storeroom, which appeared to be due the fact a great deal of the fire was in the roof or at the rear, a lot of the stock was covered in water from the hoses.
Of all the people who came to help that day, a woman in town who has the only cafe’, where I was told by a number of other businesses “never go there”, who had also been a victim of horrific bullying and rumours, brought bottles of water and handed them out to people and has continued to send a message every so often, to check in to see how I’m going. No one really knew what I did before I settled here, they thought I was ‘just a store owner’, dealt in shoes and clothing. So when I was advised by many local people not to visit this little cafe’ it told me a lot more about their personality than it did about hers (but that’s another blog).
Of course there was an investigation of the fire, detectives and a forensic team came up from Melbourne, I kept going over and over in my head the last time I was in the store and how I would light 3 candles each day, a little thing I did in memory of my son – repeatedly questioning myself, did I blow them out, could it have been something I did, you had to slam the front door really hard to close it, could something have fallen, could I have inadvertently caused something to happen, had the fridge short-circuited, did I leave the air conditioner on. A local authority, yes I’m careful about pinpointing who, but I’m sure he knows who he is, wasn’t even in the community at the time and started a rumour suggesting I was behind the fire. I’ve come to learn something I hadn’t taken enough notice of before the fire, where there is smoke there is definitely fire. When someone is making up a story, spreading gossip, it’s usually to deflect from their own untruths, where there is motivation, there is cause, beyond all reasonable doubt. Like a narrative I couldn’t end, over and over in my head, no sleep for days, loads of tears and a lot of uncertainty. Of course with lesions all over my brain, my rationale brain, my pre frontal cortex and survival brain was on alert, I can’t remember conversations and there are huge blanks in between, it was no wonder my brain responded poorly to struggling with the grief and MS at the same time.
The detective was very nice. A few days later she returned to tell me she had gone into the store and the candles were in the same place I had said they were. The fire was deemed an ‘unexplained accident’. It was an old building, sometimes they said mice chew through wires, anything could have happened, but it didn’t stop the rumours. On one occasion a drunk at the local pub told me they heard a rumour I had started the fire, so I asked him how much did I get as a result, he couldn’t answer; on another I was informed I’d been sent to the psych unit at Ballarat when I had actually gone to the neurology ward for an MS flare, on another one of those involved in putting out the fire had told someone else they had seen me there just as it started, despite my children being with me at home after I had just had my lunch and called me from down the backyard. It didn’t matter what the fact was, that’s the thing with gossip, it has a momentum of it’s own. Well surely people must have all the answers if they started the story where is the ending? No one cared to be honest. Not only were they unaware every last cent went into that store, it was the only income I had coming in, I would never financially recover from all the time that comes without value when something like this happens or from losing my business. I didn’t owe anything to anyone, the only person affected would be me, not only did it make no sense it had no value, yet gossipers don’t unpack the truth nor do they care.
You would think in times of something tragic it would bring out the best in smaller communities, where people live a lot closer, alongside each other, where something small can have such a significant impact on the entire community. Then I reflect on my sister who took her life in a small community, how much she endured and suffered and was let down by people who cared more about status than they did about really connecting with each other, standing up for what is right, for the truth, what is real and creating change that helps others rather than just themselves. It wasn’t to be and like previously, I’d forgotten how living in a small community can intensify the impact of a small rumour and from the boredom of people who fail to challenge gossip, go on to share stories they don’t know or either true or have any basis at all.
Years ago I knew of a story where two young girls who were late home from school, they’d gone to get up to mischief they shouldn’t have, knew they would be in trouble big time and had heard a rumour of a teacher sleeping with a student, told their parents they were with this teacher who had made unwanted advances. The ripple affect of such a small lie was catastrophic. I was working with a children’s service at the time, the teacher lost his job, his marriage broke down, he was charged and as the girls feared outing their lie, they held fast to their story and the rumour grew bigger. Just like in the practice of extinction, of outing a socially inappropriate behaviour, a burst occurs before the behaviour changes. There was a burst, the teacher took his life, then and only then did the girls finally tell the truth. His community had let him down, the people who should have been his friends and family, had also let him down, so often today the truth doesn’t set people free or bring peace, when the weight of untruths is too heavy to hold.
So for the next 12 months after the fire I had no income. Not a cent coming in, the only $ I had at that time was when the insurance finally processed. I wasn’t entitled to any government payments or support and well things were pretty tight for a while, I decided to sell my house. My MS flared, I ended up in hospital with no movement in my side, I started a new treatment, started losing my hair and decided the best thing was to cut it short for the first time in a few decades. I began an additional new drug to speed up the neuron to neuron communication, particularly where the damage was in my brain, so I had the capacity to consider working again, could make it to the sink for water when I was thirsty and slow down the tremors, the unbalance and well a few symptoms I keep between myself and my specialist.
All the work, hard work of building a little store in a little life based on giving back and spreading good karma; all the relationships I’d established, the people I worked with, the amazing companies I hand-picked because of their commitment to social projects, giving back to their communities, fair trade products, all the miles of driving to visit and meet in person, all gone in one afternoon. My initial thought was to rebuild, if anything I’d learned I might be small but when I put my mind to something I am fierce, I fight back hard. Being knocked down many times had taught me that staying down meant a pretty boring view, the only way to get through adversity was to get back up. The inspector first said the building was salvageable, yet the strangest events began to unfold and even now the term correlation does not equal causation borrowed from psychology, I sometimes wonder about the darnedest thing, how one event leads to the opportunities that arise from the flow of others, whilst we can never really establish beyond all reasonable doubt, some things just don’t add up.
Within days of the decision to save the building, owned by another business owner who I rented the little store from, a ‘demolition order’ was placed on the building, which had been previously assessed as salvageable. It was the strangest thing to pull down a lovely old building that had no reason to be destroyed. Two days we were given to clear it out or the Council would take it down for the owner. So the stock was cleared, rubbish thrown out, the insurance guy had to get in fast. I didn’t really have time to process much and yet it was only 24 hours after the fire, I was still in a brain daze of not even really taking in what had happened or the flow on affect, when I was approached by someone on a committee to ask if they could use the tragedy of my business to push for government funding to build a project they had been pushing for and if I could look more emotional and put on more tears it could help their cause, timing was impeccable if not to say insensitive.
I had forgotten completely about the push for this project. They didn’t have a location at the time, I had heard rumours they wanted to purchase the little supermarket right next door to where my little store was, yet they needed more space, it wasn’t quiet big enough and the two stores next door were already occupied my business and another. So I guess it is fate really that the fire occurred as an ‘unexplained accident’, and the order to demolish the building was then given so quickly, the building was flattened and despite a gorgeous historic well was found underneath, before I could organise Heritage Vic to inspect…….. the demolition crew tore it down, filled in the well and a vacant block appeared in a perfect location for the new project. Not even the lovely verandah facade was saved. Whenever I travel through Europe I’m always in awe of the beautiful historic buildings saved and it’s so disappointing ignorance of Australia’s history and early architecture is so often disregarded.
Every time I drove past the vacant block their was an ache in my chest and I held back tear, each time it was difficult to pay the electricity bill or put food on the table or pay school fees, I even sought out a financial counsellor for the first time in my life to make sure we didn’t go under and yet the rumours didn’t stop. Despite using the stores tragic ending to push for funding, no one visited except a couple of good people we had come to know. The values promoted by the community are certainly not available to those who are new to the community, only to those who follow and don’t ask questions.
It’s the strangest of human behaviours I find myself often reflecting on, I mean ,violence I can see a trajectory from so many antecedent events, yet when people go about their day spreading gossip which hurts others, without any truth or reason, they become mules, tools, for those who seek to purposely cause harm. I can only say it comes from a deep sense of personal inadequacy, from places I do not understand or identify with and so, therefore unable to articulate. What makes a person create stories that hurt others can only be from a place to meet an unmet need of their own and so the only feeling is that of empathy, hurt people, hurt people.
So the owner of the block decided to rebuild, hired someone to act on their behalf because the relationship with the authority to authorise was as painful as our own. We both struggled with permit approvals, the decision-making and hoop jumping lagged on. They eventually offered me the purchase of the block, which I declined as we had decided to purchase a little house just up the road and thought surely permits would be easy, since there were no other stores of our kind in the region and we had hoped to add in a gallery, a social environment to run art classes, provide food like you had never seen it before, however the hurdles and obstacles continued, even our ideas, taken and adopted by other businesses.
Then I was at a yoga class teaching outside the community and a person approached me at the end of the class, a little intense for a student yogi, to ask why I had obstructed the new community shopping precinct in the little community, they heard a ‘rumour’ I had written to object, I’m not sure how I responded after just teaching an hour of kindness and compassion to be asked something that was a complete and utter untruth, where does this stuff stem from? On the drive home, it went over in my head and like the flick of the headlights to high beam, strange how some moments, light up the puzzle pieces, which always felt like one was missing and didn’t seem to fit. Whilst we may never really get the truth out there or know the reason the fire started, the mind ponders on the ripple affect how one tragedy has as been mighty advantageous to others.
We didn’t get our permits, my daughter has decided to reside in the house, the other business owner, decided they wouldn’t rebuild, both frustrated by the lack of support and ease to put new business into a struggling community; the battle after losing our businesses we assessed were not worth the money and time it cost. So I had fancy new plans and had to write-off the costs, however there was also very little support within the local business community, in fact the only business owners to encourage us, were the little supermarket and the other cafe’, who really, given we were going to serve food you would think it would be the opposite. I was even asked a few weeks ago why I turned down the offer to open the store in the new complex, the funny thing is I was never asked yet it seems like a good rumour to spread if you are covering your backside. The truth being, I would have turned it down anyway, I’m really content with how life is working out.
It had been some years since investigating and despite having always had a passion for the behaviour of what people do to others, I’d forgotten what it was like to look at the big picture via the little piece by piece of a puzzle and as a writer/storyteller, a lover of science and human behaviour, it seemed the only way to sometimes tell a story is to put in down on paper, to dissect the pieces, the personalities, unpack the ideas, instinct and mind-map out the story path, through the eyes of those who experience it. Just like science, you take a hypothesis, you conduct your experiment and you write- up your results, this would be interesting.
With a sheer stroke of luck, a story evolved, whether it is fiction or true will up to the readers to decide, a little Bryce Courtney, a little Kathy Reichs, a lot of damn good experience and great instincts, along with a timely, demolished building, a business owner in the way, paving the way for a vacant block right in the space one was needed. A tragic story used to gain government sentiment for a struggling community, rumours in attempts to destroy any good person in stood in the way of progress, any business owner or reputation. If you’ve ever heard the phrase from the days of the Vietnam war, we had to destroy a village in order to save it, you would know how tragic is the human being justifying hurting others in the pursuit of their cause.
I put my house on the market and I stepped back into the life I knew well, not the shop owner one. I returned to the skills and passion for working in the environment I enjoyed. I went back to study and earned a scholarship, let go of the need to fix what felt like was broken, I just opened up my hands and let go. I remembered how resilient I am, I surrounded myself with the good friend’s I had developed over years, trusted, good, kind people, authentic people, those who neither also care little for intolerance, gossip or greed and reminded myself daily with my yoga practice and meditation, of the microcosm of communities being just a small drop, a pinprick in the greater world, where there were so many people who did not behave like this or have a need to. I charted a new course and wow it’s as if it were the course that was destined all along, out of a lot of sadness and struggle, life has being going from strength to strength for all of us under the same roof. Nothing is little anymore other than a few minds and the big world with all it’s opportunities just keep appearing, one nice person after another.
When I was going through a far more difficult time years before, I had a fabulous GP who sadly passed away suddenly from an aneurysm a short time later and he would always remind me “you can’t change what they do or say, you can change how you respond to it”. I was referred to yoga at the time, a naturopath, had massage regularly, began for the first time understanding how critical it was to change my thinking, which altered my behaviour and the way I responded to things outside of my control. It was as if the words of that jolly little bear Winnie the Pooh was the best words I heard ever, what we need isn’t outside, what matters at any given moment is what is going inside and it’s been that way all along.
The thing is, so many people think they have time. Time for hate, time for greed, time to do what they want to others in order to achieve a goal which is outside themselves. Time to say horrible things, time for gossip, time to avoid the truth, time to meet their own needs anyway they decide. There isn’t time. There is no certainty about tomorrow or the next, there is only the here and the right now and I for one will not be wasting time on rumours and small minds.
I really didn’t get it until a little further down the track, I had loads of experiences to support this rationale, my GP’s advice and that of another mentor I had at that time who reiterated the quote. Today I know this through Skinner’s theories on reinforcement and operant conditioning, on the tragedies and sadness, the grief and loss from the horrible things people do to others in the name of progress, greed, anger, violence, hurt people hurting people. We cannot change others, we can only change ourselves and through changing how we respond, we evoke change elsewhere. Someone can take from you, if you allow them to. When tragedy and hurt strike from the anger and events happen outside of your control, I’m sorry for the grief, the suffering and the loss you will experience. I just hope you can see the good in you inside, the person who remains, that despite how unfair life has been, you stand up, raise up your chin and go get the life you deserve, you are more and better than any event that attempts to steal from you the best that you can be. If we could only learn more how to change the way we respond, step back from reinforcing the hurt of others, to strengthening the reinforcement at all, remove the power, then maybe, just maybe we may actually begin to evolve.
I wish I could have shown this, shared this with so many of the beautiful people who have taken their lives as a result of what other people have said. I wish my sister had known, no matter what she was feeling, we would have been there for her, that living without her is much harder than dealing with any uncertainty or confusion she was experiencing. I wish I could have shown them hurt people hurt people, when you learn about human behaviour, any behaviour, you will discover it’s never about you when people gossip, spread rumours, make up stories, say nasty horrible things, it’s how people respond that reveals the truth, it never tells your story, it tells their own. It’s why behaviour is so predictable. We want to believe in people, because inside ourselves we trust, so we want to believe others are trustworthy. The thing is, not everyone is on the same path or experiencing the same journey or want to be. Listen to your gut instinct, sense the body and listen to that human instinct which lets us know when the light bulb is flickering, begging to be turned on.
If you know who you are, if you know you are a good, honest, kind and compassionate person or creative or different or maybe you dress in a way that doesn’t align with the local code or have ideas on subject no one else is interested in, maybe its your sexuality, relationship status, the way you wear your hair or friends you hang with. Guess what, it’s ok to be you. If we could encourage people to get to know themselves, what makes them tick, what lifts their heart and spirit high, what makes them passionate about life, to create a place where they belong even in small communities that try to push people out, anyone who is different than the status quo, anyone who disrupts their agenda, nothing will alter what they know to be true, you could live anywhere, be anyone you choose to be, live life you deserve.
So a little while later, after catching my breathe and taking a long hard look at a series of unfortunate events to us and fortunate for others, wouldn’t you know it, the funding got approved for the new shopping centre, to be built on the land where the ‘unexplained fire’ once occurred and if anything now it makes for good fiction writing and might increase the value of my property, so why sell.
I have a really blessed life, despite some of these struggles and challenges yet I have learned how to respond and not respond. I’ve learned through yoga to not be hung up on what I can’t control, the behaviours of others. I’ve learned and become passionate about Skinner’s work, about the science of human behaviour, the stories people tell through their behaviour yet be able to stand back from the heat, how human beings will do just about anything to meet their own needs, even if it hurts others in the process.
Somehow, I’m not sure how or can define it really in words, I balance this with eastern philosophy, that suffering is rooted in the attachment to things, to people, to the stories and by lifting that attachment, which goes against western theories to just completely let go and be content with being, with letting go of any need to fix myself or see myself as broken, let go of any desire to fit in or stand out, to resist any urge to wear anything other than what I feel comfortable in or conform to any standard set by others who have no certainty about who they are and live through an image they aspire to fit. By just practicing being present in the beauty of each moment, allowing others to be responsible for their own karma, life takes on a whole different perspective.
You think you have time?
How much time do you have?
How much are you willing to give up to pursue anything other than being the best version of yourself?
How much time do you devote to being present in each of your moments?
How much time do you have for the truth, to stand up, speak out and be the change the world and our communities need?
May all those who suffered and lost their lives at the greed, anger and hurt of people attempting to meet their own needs by hurting others, may you rest with eternal peace.
Namaste readers xo