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 your attachments or non-attachment opportunities, will become the greatest influence, how much love, the frequency and quality of experiences with affection, how warmth and belonging is essential, many will still claim this can only be sourced from your mother. Some still believe this to be true and still there are countless stories of motherless children, in non-western cultures where communities have raised perfect, healthy, worthy children.
If we take a deeper look through a longer lens, even with support, love and nurturing in the first few years, the years of neurons, wiring and firing away in your brain, we might realise beyond the arms of our mothers, how the wider ecological system is influenced by the synapses of every other organism your brain comes into contact with regardless of how you arrived in the world, were breastfeed every four hours or received your early experiences. The philosophical struggle has always been internal and external, cognitive, behavioural, believe it or see it, with many great scholars on either side, manipulating the way we see the world, see ourselves & others & explain how not only one human being could hurt another, how we could ourself.
Recent neuroscience, in the last decade or so, goes 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 & not doing as well as other kids; whether it’s glasses or freckles or short hair or long, in some environments a new person, becomes a threat to the well established social environments of young teens (sadly 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. In human childhood’s these relationship experiences 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. Back then, I could go home, go to my room, pretend I was in a different place, I had a chance to recharge. I could saddle up & ride into nowhere particularly. I could spend hours mowing the lawn & 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 & 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 & spread it worldwide, to literally crucify someone they felt threatened by, regardless of the impact or the truth, today there are few places for young people to hide unless they disconnect from technology. It’s why I ensure my young & 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 & and off button you can choose.
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 & hurt within our communities. Good people still become hurt people. Survival of a species relies upon our ability to adapt to our social environments & 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 a loving family & healthy attachments (although some may argue), surviving the social environment at that time was unbearable, taking the only decision still in her control, to end 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 & 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, so when then is the law 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 cognitive-behavioural scientific 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. It starts with changing the attitudes behind a culture, individual by individual, 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, exploring 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 & 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. Little surprises me or the levels people will go 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 & resilience, underneath the scars I truly believed if you come from a place of good intentions, kindness & compassion towards people, good things will follow; if it is to be, it is up to me & 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, enjoy the world going by. The water isn’t cheap, the NBN unreliable, it takes a bit to find a good coffee. Although, if you love vegan food like we do, you might need hunt around to find a few favourites, if you enjoy travel, can accept the lack of variety in groceries, it can work. We have the best adventures, long drives & love every short trip to the city. Despite its flaws & challenges, 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 & 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 & later believed to be where the fire had 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 & 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 & rumours, brought bottles of water, handing them out to random people, despite differences, 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 & over in my head the last time I was in the store, 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 knows who he is, wasn’t even in the community at the time, 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 & a lot of uncertainty, there had to be more than an explanation of ‘unexplained accident’. Of course with lesions all over my brain, my rationale brain, my pre frontal cortex and survival brain was on alert, I’m still challenged to remember conversations, there are huge blanks in between, so it’s no wonder my brain responded poorly to struggling with the grief & combination with 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 & 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 & had 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 tragedy, it would bring out the best in smaller communities, where people live 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 the truth, what is real, in 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 & from the boredom of people who fail to challenge gossip, go on to share stories they don’t know are 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, after getting up to mischief they shouldn’t have, knew they would be in trouble big time. So when they’d 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, I’ve forgotten who told me the story. The teacher lost his job, his marriage broke down, he was charged & as the girls feared outing their lie, they held fast to their story & the rumour grew bigger. Just like in the practice of extinction, of outing a socially inappropriate behaviour, a burst occurs before the behaviour ever changes. There was a burst, the teacher took his life, then & only then did the girls finally tell the truth. His community had let him down, the people who should have been his friends, his 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, when innocent lives struggle beneath the burden of the truth without anyone beside them helping to carry the load.
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 & slow down the tremors, manage the unbalance & 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 & 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, 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 for a building project they had been pushing for, if I could look more emotional, put on more tears it could help their cause, the 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 as the two stores next door were already occupied my business & another. So I guess it is fate really, that the fire occurred as an ‘unexplained accident’, luck the order to demolish the building was then given so quickly, the building was flattened despite a gorgeous historic well found underneath & before I could organise Heritage Vic to inspect the site, the demolition crew had orders to tear it down, fill in the well & the vacant block appeared in a perfect location for the new project. Not even the lovely historical verandah facade was saved. Whenever I travel through Europe I’m always in awe of the beautiful historic buildings carefully tendered, it’s so disappointing to continually witness an ignorance of Australia’s history & early architecture disregarded for ugly modern monstrosities.
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, although, 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, who 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, however, when people go about their day willingly spreading gossip which hurts others, without any truth or reason, they become mules, tools, for those who seek to purposely cause harm. I can suggest this type of harmful human behaviour, stems from a deep sense of personal inadequacy, from places I do not identify with and so unable to articulate in words to understand it’s purpose. What makes a person create stories that hurt others can only be from a place to meet an unmet need of their own, the only consequence to follow can be empathy, hurt people, hurt people, otherwise the cycle continues.
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, hoop jumping lagged on. They eventually offered the purchase of the block, which I declined. We had decided to purchase a little house just up the road, thought surely permits would be easy, since there were no other stores of our kind in the region. We had hoped to add a gallery, a social environment to run art classes, provide food like you had never seen it before, however, the hurdles & obstacles continued, even our ideas, taken & adopted by other businesses.
Then I was at a yoga class teaching outside the community, a person approached at the end of the class, a little intense for a student yogi, to ask why I had obstructed the new community shopping precinct development 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 & compassion to be asked something that was a complete utter untruth, where does this stuff stem from? On the drive home, it went over in my head & 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, 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 or ease to establish a new business in a struggling community; the battle after losing our businesses, we assessed were not worth the money or time it cost. I had fancy new plans yet it was far easier to write-off the costs, with so little support in the local business community, in fact the only business owners to encourage us, were the little supermarket & 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 why hurt people, hurt people, particularly the most vulnerable in the community, 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 & as a writer/storyteller, a lover of the science 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 & mind-map out the stories path, through the eyes of those who experience it. Just like science, you take a hypothesis, you conduct your experiment, you write- up your results, maybe this would be interesting.
With a sheer stroke of luck, a story evolved, whether it is fiction or true will be up to the readers to decide. A little Bryce Courtney, a little Kathy Reichs, a lot of damn good experience, with 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, I stepped back into the life I knew well, not the shop owner small minded community one. I returned to the skills & passion for working in the environment I enjoyed. I went back to study, 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 also cared little for intolerance, gossip or greed. I reminded myself daily with my yoga practice & 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, it’s as if it is the course that was destined all along. Out of sadness & 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, he would always remind me “you can’t change what they do or say, you can only 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, changed the way I responded to things outside of my control. It was as if the words of that jolly little bear Winnie the Pooh would become the best words I heard ever, what we need isn’t outside, what matters at any given moment is what is going on inside, 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. 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 with that of another mentor I had at that time who reiterated the quote. Today I know this through Skinner’s theories on reinforcement & operant conditioning, on the tragedies and sadness, the grief, the loss, the horrible things people do to others in the name of progress, greed, anger, violence, that hurt people hurt 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 & events happen outside of your control, I’m sorry for the grief, the suffering, the loss you will experience. I just hope you can see the good in you, the person who remains despite how unfair life has been, then stand up & raise up your chin & go grab the life you deserve, you are more & 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, away from 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 want to trust, 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, listen to that human instinct which lets us know when the light bulb is flickering, begging to be turned on, turn away from those who need to push their hurt selves onto you.
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 subjects 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, don’t change if your intentions are to love who you are, to be yourself in all your beautiful uniqueness. If we could encourage people to get to know themselves, what makes them tick, what lifts their heart & 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, if we could build communities with love & compassion, maybe it could be the ripple the world needs.
So a little while later, after catching my breathe and taking a long hard look at a series of unfortunate events to us although, 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, so if anything now, it makes for the start of good fiction writing & might increase the value of my property, so why sell.
I have a really blessed life, despite some of these struggles & challenges & I’ve learned how to respond & 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 & 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, how powerful reinforcement can be.
Somehow, I’m not sure how or can define it really in words, I balance this with eastern philosophy, see how suffering is rooted in the human beings attachment to things, to people, to the stories they are told & by lifting that attachment, which goes against the grain of western theory, to just completely let go of the need for attachment to anything or anyone, 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 & live through an image they aspire to fit, driven by a monetary or materialistic success they believe will bring happiness, I will find the peace individuals long for. 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, a weightlessness that weighs so many down.
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, be the change the world & communities need?
May all those who suffered and lost their lives at the greed, anger & hurt of people attempting to meet their own needs by hurting others, may you rest with eternal peace.
Namaste readers xo