Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Awareness and accountability

I'm reading a book called 'The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment' by Isabel Losada (another present from Mags). It's about the author's journey to try and get out of a rut and find more meaning, fulfillment, etc in her life. She's up for trying anything, and then sets about reporting her findings - good and bad. I imagine it's going to detail encounters with a few quacks and con artists, as well as some genuine self discovery along the way.

In the first chapter (which I read last night while a jet-lagged Robert lay passed out next to me), she talks about going to a sort of assertiveness seminar which sounds very much like one I attended when I was seventeen. I have always been very interested in transformation, of not just being stuck with the cards you are dealt, but being in a position to change your hand for the better.

I find it a truly liberating fact that despite the family you are born into, or the town you were raised in, or your physical stature, or your nationality, you can actually influence the sort of person you are, the opinions you hold (which can be completely different to those you were raised with), and the life choices you make. You can be your very own person, and if you are lucky, even someone you may like.

In Losada's first chapter, I really tapped into the bit about accountability - of becoming aware and an active participant in your life, instead of being someone that things happen to.

It reminds me a lot of the time I met Robert. I was newly out of a relationship (specifically a marriage) that had turned very sour, had a lot of debt thanks to an apartment I was paying for and wasn't staying in, and was in a job I hated. I was in and out of the doctor's office - catching everything that was going around. The short end of the stick is that I was a mess - physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The fact that I managed to meet Robert in the middle of all of this, and that he actually wanted to be around me, still amazes me to this day.

Whenever I'd get down or start to feel sorry for myself, he'd look at me and say, "It could be worse." This infuriated me - it felt as though he didn't appreciate what I was going through and was making light of it. But gradually, I began to see what he was talking about - it was very much a matter of perspective. I was getting divorced, yes, but that was a good thing. My ex husband and I made each other miserable, and had already dragged things out longer than they should have gone on for. The debt business was through my own doing ultimately, and it also wasn't long-term, it just felt that way. A year or so later my flat sold and I was able to extinguish all those financial fires in one fell swoop, without ever having to borrow from a bank or a friend. And that's a better situation than a lot of people are unfortunate enough to be in.

The job was a bit more complicated. While I had debt, I needed a job, and as much as I hated my boss and he me (a co-created dynamic), I had to stick things out until something else came along. Ah, but again, here comes the bit about my accountability in the whole thing. I was signed up with one, yes only one, agency, and as I found out a bit later (thanks to an honest agent there) they were having a tough time finding clients. As a result I got only one or two interviews and that was it. After leaving my terrible job, I had the impetus (I needed cash urgently) to sign with another agency, who called me the very next day with a temp assignment, and subsequently kept me in work until I eventually started my own business. Had I been smarter about the whole thing, I would be registered with every agency in London from the start.

So, for me, two things stand out from all of this: It could have been worse (to quote Robert), and, how was I accountable for the things that happened in my life?

Saying this, there are some things you cannot control - like the death of a loved one, being hit by a bus, getting a serious disease, being born into abject poverty etc. But there are also everyday things, perhaps even small things, we can have a greater hand in, in terms of their outcome. For me this is a very freeing discovery, realising that I can actually influence things in my life - which allows me to take action, which is when stuff starts to happen. Scary, but also very exciting - because the alternative is stagnation and paralysis.

I was reminded of this, this past week, when I was doing my usual bitching about my weight to my sister - most likely boring the crap out of her. Unfortunately I'm just not one of those people who can be comfortable in their skin, and even at my thinnest weight (106 pounds back in 1997) I was complaining about stretch marks and cellulite. It's one of the things I hate about myself, because it's not only incredibly negative and destructive, but it effects those around me, and it's boring. Anyway, I was singing my usual song, "But I don't eat a lot, and I don't drink now, and I'm still the same weight, and I have a high fat percentage, cellulite etc." *Violin music fades out.*

According to the seminar Losada attends, this is what you call a victim (stuff happens to me) version of the story. To retell it another way, i.e. the 'how am I accountable?' way, would be: I often skip meals and then snack. I don't exercise at all, so my metabolic rate is rock bottom. I don't eat nearly enough fresh fruit and veg. And if I meet a friend for lunch, I'm partial to steak and chips or a hamburger - with mayonnaise thrown in for good measure. Oh yes, and then there's the hot chocolates in winter.

Anyway, I'm not about to go on a diet, or become Rocky, or stop eating mayonnaise completely, but at least, by being honest with myself, I know why I'm carrying extra weight. And if it's so damn nauseatingly important to me, I can either do something about it, or not - that's my choice. But I can't say I'm not responsible in any way. Now that's becoming accountable.

While in South Africa, a friend of mine asked me, "Can people really change? I mean, especially older people?" My opinion on this, taken from my own experience, is that the important thing is becoming aware of who you are and how you operate. It doesn't necessarily mean a cathartic Buddha-like overnight change, but at least you aren't on auto-pilot any more.

I started noticing how when I drank a certain amount, I'd want to smoke. Before I'd just drink and then I'd smoke. Now, suddenly, I was aware of that moment that I started to fidget, scope out the nearest smoker (and their their likelihood to give me one), and my growing desire to have a cigarette. Being aware of this suddenly gave me that moment to pause, and say, yes I'll have one, or no, I'm not going to have one. It didn't stop me from doing it completely, but it stopped me from doing it 7 out of 10 times, which is pretty good going I think. This also meant that I had a choice - and choice is something so fundamentally important to us, it's worth creating for yourself at every opportunity.

Today I'm meeting a friend of mine who as it happens is a very good example of an assertive go-getter sort of person, unlike myself. I have known her for nine years now, and about six years ago she got an Apple Mac, and fell so in love with it, she started banging on about what an amazing company it would be to work for. It really became her dream. I got an email from her a month ago telling me she had recently beaten hundreds of other applicants to get a sought-after job at Apple in London - the sort of job she'd been dreaming about all these years.

I don't know if it's what she'd fantasised it would be like, but I have an enormous amount of respect for her for having this dream and making it happen.

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