It's Trump. It's heartbreak. It's getting old. It's three years of therapy twice a week. It's being humbled. It's realising your rinky-dink life isn't everyone's experience. It's having your consciousness raised that the intergenerational transmission of trauma is a real thing. It's loving something more than yourself. It's having a bucket of shit fall on your head.
Or maybe it's none of these things. Whatever it is, it breaks you. Your defences come down, not because you want to, but because you have no choice. You are down on your knees, begging for mercy. When we learn we may soon die, in that instant, the seat of our consciousness shifts. We realise the supreme emotion is love and that is all there is. Or sometimes we acquire this understanding slowly and with great difficulty.
However, you survive. Later, you find you've changed. You consider learning Te Reo. You know a lot of vegans. And you vote Labour. You become what is known as left-wing, although I find that label unhelpful.
I try not to look backwards, but for the purposes of explaining my journey from smug capitalist to delicate liberal I probably need to supply a little historical context. Years ago, last century even, I used to work for the National Business Review. I really believed in the power of the market. (I still sort of do, it's just things are more complicated than most economic models allow) I preached bootstrap-style individual responsibility. I was like a bargain basement Mike Hosking, if Mike Hosking wore a lot of red lipstick and drove a cheap Japanese import.
That long-ago self seems like a stranger to me now. When I try to understand how I lost my machismo I'm not sure what happened. It is hard to think of anyone who could get things so reliably wrong. Perhaps, I needed to feel superior, more admirably rational than anyone else? I clung onto the idea there was a grand unifying pattern to try to feel safe in an unpredictable world. I was terrified. Or I was just a selfish little s***.
I do know that I found other people's pain and suffering so unbearable I tried very hard to find a way to justify it. To see other people vulnerable, or hurting, reminded me of my own wound and I was deeply in denial that even existed. I'm tickety boo! Wound, what wound? I defended against the pain of other's hurt with the Just World Doctrine: a belief that the world is fair and that people get what they deserve.
Until one day I simply couldn't anymore. I had to admit the promised trickling down didn't trickle.
Of course it was also having babies. There is nothing like bringing a child into the world to break down the delusion of individual autonomy. Donald Winnicott said there is no mother, only a mother and baby together. What he meant was our selfhood is a construct we can only make in relationship. And it is hard to hang on to the idea of fierce individualism when you need someone to help you fold your pram just to get on the bus. We are all so much more dependent than we would like to admit.
The unceasing propaganda in our time for the individual seems deeply suspect to me now. "Individuality becomes more and more a synonym for selfishness," Susan Sontag said. I used to take pride in my independence, toughness, my very badness. But that seems sad from where I stand today. It's not weak to care or to acknowledge you need other people.
We live in a society which fetishises autonomy and finds even mild dependency needs repugnant. In a Westernised individualistic society the recognition of the very human need to fuse with the other is deemed to be developmentally infantile and thus, shameful. Our institutions and health system privileges independence over connection. I felt uplifted by our new prime minister making child poverty her top priority.
Not that everything will be fixed now we have a new government. We still stand in the tragic gap, the space between what we see in the world and what we hope for, looking squarely at rejection, at heartbreak, at war, at death. The educator Parker Palmer calls this "the tragic gap," tragic not merely because it's sad but because it's inevitable. "By the tragic gap I mean the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible."
At least now I can see that. My politics changed when I learnt to offer some compassion to myself, allowed myself to be moved. So I remind myself it's okay to admit you're wrong. Those who never retract their opinions love themselves more than they love truth. (Joseph Joubert)