Ever since I was a child, I have wanted to be good, and win approval. In my early years, this was easy – just be quiet, work hard, and do as I was told. As I grew up, it started to get more complicated. Hard work was well received by my teachers, but made me a target for teasing and unpleasant remarks by my friends. Being quiet started to become a liability, rather than an asset. Emerging into the wider world after my studies were finished, I was faced with a whole range of conflicting opinions on what was the right thing to do. Moving to a different country, even my basic conceptions of politeness were challenged. Still, I managed fine, as most of the noises people made were still approving, and I could see I was competent at my work.
In recent years, it all changed. If anything, I was receiving more praise than ever at my job, and developing new skills, but, ten years into my career, I felt I had never achieved any real effect, and I blamed my own inadequacies. Then, my ultimate test arrived. I became a mother, something I desperately wanted to be good at. But it was so hard, the hardest thing I had ever done, and it singled out all my weakest points. It went wrong so often, and when it did, there were plenty of people around to point out what I was doing wrong and how I should do it differently. Even when I felt I was doing the right thing, there were those who told me otherwise, leading to nasty conflicts with people I loved and respected, but simply did not agree with. I started to feel that I was hopelessly inadequate and backwards compared to everyone around me, and that the only solution was to constantly monitor and improve my own behaviour to catch up to the rest, an impossible task. Having started off as a good child following simple rules, I now felt like a stranger in a despotic regime, with a capricious secret police constantly changing the law to fit their whims, and ready to jump on me for any misdemeanor. By the time I had my second daughter, the stress was unbearable, and I was at breaking point.
Desperate for help, I started coaching. My hope was that my coach would lay out an improvement programme that I could follow until I was a confident, capable person who knew the right thing to do and could persuade others to follow. But I didn’t really believe that was possible.
I was right.
My coach couldn’t do that.
She didn’t even try.
She told me that I was fine as I was.
This was clearly nonsense and was very unhelpful. I needed someone to make me better, not murmur soothing words. But, step by step, my coach dismantled the hell I had created for myself. She showed me two very important things. The first was that there is a very small core of objective facts that we all agree on. The rest is completely subjective, constructed from our own perceptions, coloured by our prejudices, and skewed by our previous experiences. It follows then, that good and bad, success and failure, right and wrong are also individual perceptions rather than universal truths. The second was that I am a person with many faults, who makes plenty of mistakes, and often doesn’t know what to do – but so is everyone else, even those people I admire.
My thought-image of myself as a hopeless pawn in a despotic state dissolved, and a new one started to emerge. In this, I was on a boat, sailing on an ocean. In the ocean, there were many other boats, each different, from warships, to speedboats, to little houseboats. Each boat had its own captain, and its own rules. We were sharing the same water, so sometimes we would get in each other’s way. I might change my own course to let someone go by, because I was afraid of them, or wanted to help them – but that was my decision. I might try to avoid collisions, or if I really wanted to get somewhere, I might have to bash my way through and dent a few hulls. After all, the others could also choose to get out of my way. My fellow captains might offer advice or criticism, but I would choose – literally – whether to take it on board or not. What worked for a liner, might not be right for my small vessel. I could improve my navigation skills or renovate my boat, so that I could maneuvre better around the other boats, or reach new destinations. But whether I did that or not, I still had my place in the ocean. I would never be the most powerful warship or the fastest speedboat, but on board my ship, I was captain.
While I was a little embarrassed by my ‘boat’ story, it gave me so much peace to think in that way, that I finally mentioned it to my coach. She did not laugh, but asked an unexpected question – what was my boat called? The question prompted the same sort of stomach-churning, toe-curling reaction I get when people ask me things such as ‘what sort of fruit would you be?’, but I dutifully promised to think about it. Later, the name popped into my head – The Quiet Wave.
While the name wasn’t produced by any rational thought process, with a little reverse engineering I was quite pleased by it. The quiet wave can pass unnoticed, but under the surface it has power and energy, and it keeps on moving to where it wants to go. Sometimes, even, it can move someone else. Finally, I have always loved the Hokusai print ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, with its beautiful depiction of sea and mountain. Then, in an art documentary, I heard that according to Japanese traditions, the picture should be read right to left. Do that, and it turns from an image of nature’s beauty to a scene of terror – the fishermen in their boats are about to be swamped by the tidal wave. For me, it is a good example of how perception changes how you experience life. Only, in my case, it has been the other way round. The tsunami deliberately crashing down on me because of my own failure, is just a patch of rough water that many other boats are also struggling with. That makes it the perfect symbol for my blog.