Every now and then, that strange yet familiar feeling returns: ‘déjà vu’, it’s called… Been here, done that, I’d thought – but now I’m back here again. Again. And again. “Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear…”: those weird loops keep happening in my life. The same issues come up again and again with different people, in different places, in different contexts; exactly the same words, even. I do understand that there’s no way those people could have known that those words have specific – and painful – meanings for me, that just that gesture brings back memories that I really don’t want to recall; and yet… how? How does it happen? More to the point, why does it happen?
|I’ve been on a long trip with a colleague, and she’s been asking me detailed questions every inch of the way: every time I stop for breath, for a pause, she sends another question hurtling at me. We reach our destination; are greeted by my colleague’s partner. “I’m exhausted”, she says to him, mockingly, “Chris was talking at me all the way, and I couldn’t get a word in edgeways!” Suddenly I’m furious: she’d been pestering me all the way, and now she’s mocking me for answering her questions! And yes, I do have some reason to be upset – but not that much. By the time I cool down a bit, I realise it isn’t much to do with her at all: what really hurts so much is that it’s an exact repeat, even to the same words, of what happened so often back in school and at home – answers being demanded, and then being mocked for answering as demanded. That all happened many years ago, in another place, and with other people: yet here it is again, now, in this moment. Weird…
What issues keep returning for you – wearing different faces, different places, but still the same thread? What do you feel when they return? And how do you feel towards the people who – usually unwittingly – bring these threads back into your life?
About all I can answer is that it does happen – a lot. And a lot more than I’m willing to admit: allow myself to notice, and it becomes clear that life is full of these weird loops. If all these things which happen to me are supposed to be the results of my own choices, then what on earth did I choose? It’s crazy, frightening: better be careful not to notice it too much, or ask too many questions about it, because that way madness lies – that’s what it feels like, anyway. Almost like something out of one of Lewis Carroll’s stories: a weird garden full of strange characters and even stranger experiences, all woven together with a thread of logic so twisted that it almost seems to make sense… in a sense, at least.
Round and round the garden… a garden full of Carroll’s weird characters… that’s another analogy that’s worth exploring for a while. So imagine walking in a quiet park-like garden: you hear voices in the middle distance, and you begin to move towards them…
Turning a corner past a clump of bushes, you walk almost straight into a bevy of some of the strangest-looking people you’ve ever seen. They look like animals, or birds, and sound just like them too – but they’re all human-sized, and they’re all fully dressed in normal, if outdated, human clothes.
|Slightly off the thread, perhaps, but do some people remind you of particular animals or birds? A fox, perhaps, or a rabbit; a mouse or a rat, a pig, a hawk, a swan, a startled deer? What are the characteristics – appearance, mannerisms, habits – which these people seem to you to share with the respective animal or bird?
Given that you choose to perceive those people that way, why do you do so? What difference does it make? How does it change the way you relate with them?
The same threads, or characteristics, are present in everyone: all that changes is the degree to which they’re visible – or that we choose to see them. If so, what makes it easier for you to see them in some people, and not in others – especially yourself?
It’s a caucus-race, they say – whatever that is – and they want you to join in. They’re so enthusiastic about it all that it’s obvious they wouldn’t be able to notice even if you said “No”; and suddenly they, and you, are all off in this race. Or dance. Or something. It seems to consist of running madly round in circles, bumping into each other, making lots of loud noises, jumping up and down in wild excitement – a kind of cross between a stock-car race and the mad circus of the Stock Exchange. Just as suddenly, it all stops: everyone flops onto the ground in whatever way they can. Everyone has won, apparently; but now they’re all looking at you, because they seem to think that you’re the one who’s going to give everybody prizes…
|The caucus-race sounds crazy, but there’s no shortage of everyday examples: is your workplace one, perhaps? Do you feel you have to join in with everyone else’s mad dance, even when you don’t want to? Why? And what happens when they make it clear that they’re all expecting some kind of prize or ‘gift’ from you?|
A few mumbled apologies, and you’re on your way again: they’re so engrossed in their game that they’ve forgotten you already. You’ve barely made your escape, though, when it becomes clear that you’re not going to get away that easily… Striding towards you, from the other direction, is a tall, spiky woman, dressed all in dark red – everything about her is the same dark red, from her shoes and her long dress to her face, her hair, her hands, and the pointed crown she wears on her head. “If you’re going to get anywhere”, she snaps at you, “you’ve got to run!” She grabs hold of your arm, and starts running, dragging you with her – without asking where you want to go, of course. “Faster!”, she yells, “Faster! Faster!” You’re both running so fast that everything’s a blur – but she still wants you to run faster than ever. Exhausted, you stop – and realise that you haven’t moved an inch. You’re in exactly the same place where you started: all that running, just to stay still! “Of course!”, snaps the Red Queen. “What did you expect? If you actually want to move somewhere else, you have to run much faster than that!” And with that comment, she vanishes: presumably she can run fast enough to get away from here…
|Having to run ever faster and faster, just to stay still: how often has that happened in your life? What was the context? Who are the people with whom you find yourself doing this?
When you know you’ve run – or worked, or whatever – as hard as you can, and somebody tells you “that’s not good enough – you’ll have to do better than that!”, what do you feel – towards yourself, and towards them?
Over to the left you can hear the clinking of china and cutlery – it’s obvious that that’s going to be the Mad Hatter’s tea-party, and it’d be best to watch from a distance! There are quite a few people there, and they seem to be playing a strange variant of ‘musical chairs’: running round and round the long table, chanting something, then all suddenly sitting down and shouting and pointing at the one who hasn’t found a chair. You get a little closer to hear what’s going on – taking care to keep out of sight! – and hear them chant, over and over, as they run: “round and round in the usual old game – I take the credit and you take the blame”. Then when they stop, they shout “it’s all your fault!” – and the hapless victim runs off into the bushes, head hanging in shame and despair. Not exactly a pleasant game – but a disturbingly familiar one…
|“Round and round in the usual old game – I take the credit and you take the blame”: that ever-popular pastime called ‘passing the buck’! How often have you found yourself caught in one of these ‘blame-games’, where everyone is trying to grab the credit if it works, but set someone else up as the scapegoat in case it doesn’t? What were the circumstances? In what ways – and why – were you involved? If you found yourself being set up as the scapegoat, how did it feel when all the blame was dumped on you? Were you able to see it coming? And if you did, why weren’t you able to pull out of the game in time?
On the times when you managed to avoid being the scapegoat, what did you feel when someone else was landed with everyone’s blame? How did you feel towards the scapegoat – and towards yourself?
Time to get away from here. But you find that you can’t: there’s something weird going on – the path seems straightforward enough, but somehow it must have a hidden wriggle or twist, because whatever you do, you keep coming back to the same place. Who can you turn to for help? Not the Mad Hatter – that’s for sure! Perhaps the gardener you can see over to the right, crooning his little rhyme: “he thought he saw a banker’s clerk descending from a bus; he looked again and found it was a hippopotamus… if that should stay to dine, he said, there won’t be much for us…” Oh. Perhaps not the gardener, then… But there must be someone in this mad garden you can turn to for advice – mustn’t there?
A garden-full of advice
“Depends what you mean by someone“, says a quiet voice just beside you. But there’s no-one there, in amongst the mass of flowers: no-one you can see, anyway. “I don’t think it knows we can talk”, says another voice. Who? The flowers, of course… this is getting crazier every minute… “If you want to get out of the garden”, says another of the flowers, “it’s no use going the way you expect – life’s never as simple as that! When you’re stuck, and can’t get to where you want, you have to walk away from it instead – keep your goal in mind, but walk the other way!”
|The flowers’ advice – “keep your goal in mind, but walk the other way” – may seem a little crazy, but it’s another variant on Inverse Murphy: if things aren’t working in expected ways, allow them to work in unexpected ways! Sometimes – often – this weird approach to problems does work out: when has it happened in your life?
What do you feel when you’re stuck, and someone gives you apparently nonsensical advice? Where do you feel this feeling? And what do you feel – about them, and about yourself – when what they advise turns out to be right?
You’re thinking about whether to put this crazy advice into practice, when you’re startled by a loud yell from behind. “Ahoy! Check!” comes the yell again, as a man on horseback canters up to you, and promptly falls off. As he picks himself up off the ground and dusts himself down – white armour clanking as he does so – you notice that his horse is festooned with an incredible amount of junk and jetsam: tattered bags and bits of old rope, a piece of fence, a wooden sword, a tin dustbin-lid, even the wreckage of what appears to have once been a beehive. “Ah, I’m glad you noticed that”, he says, pointing at a small object you hadn’t yet noticed, “it’s my own invention.” You look at the tangled mass of wire, in the midst of which is a tiny piece of cheese: is this some kind of mousetrap? “It’s to prevent mice from climbing on the back of the horse when I’m sitting on it”, he says with pride. But mice wouldn’t do that anyway, would they? “Ah, but they might, you know. So I invented this, just in case!” Oh, no, not another one…
|Who do you know that’s an inveterate collector of ‘unconsidered trifles’, their pockets and bags kept full of all sorts of unlikely items ‘just in case’? Do you, perhaps? If so, what are all these items? How often – if ever – have you used them for the purpose you expected? How often have you used them for a purpose you didn’t expect?
The White Knight was in some ways Lewis Carroll’s self-portrait: a shy, timid man, he too used to travel around with all sorts of toys and trinkets in his pockets, with which to start up a conversation with a child and her parents. You’ve probably shared with others quite a few of your own collection of items: a pin or a pen, perhaps; a tissue or a packet of mints. What conversations or other weird twists have ensued from that simple choice to share something with strangers?
It’s clear that you’re about to receive a lengthy lecture on the climbing habits of mice and the finer points of mousetrap design, but instead you both see a glint of red armour in the wood beyond. The White Knight leaps into action… sort of… it takes him some time to struggle into the saddle, and he falls off three times even before he gets to the trees… As he vanishes erratically into the shadows, you can still hear his thin voice calling out the challenge, “Ahoy! Ahoy! Check!”
Shaking your head in disbelief, you wander off to the side, and hear two more voices in earnest discussion. One seems a little upset: in fact, it’s the Mock Turtle, sobbing sonorously at the Gryphon, who in turn is paying little attention to anyone but itself.
|The Gryphon and the Mock Turtle: two more archetypes – two more threads of the wyrd!
Who do you know who, like the Mock Turtle, is constantly crying and complaining, trying to claim what John Bradshaw described as “that special attention which is the prerogative of the miserable”? Does this habit of theirs make it easier, or harder, to relate with them?
And who do you know who, like the Gryphon, are so full of themselves that they’re interested only in reflections of their own ideas? How do you relate with them – rather than being talked at by them?
How often do you find yourself meeting up with people like these – people who demand your attention, but rarely if ever reciprocate? When you find yourself sucked into their space, how do you feel, towards them, and towards yourself? How did you come to be trapped there? And how, at last, did you break free?
Whilst you’re there, how easy is it to notice that, in the midst of the constant stream of “me! me! me!”, there is useful information for you? If you did notice it, what did you learn?
Self-centred though they may be, they don’t seem quite as mad as the others, so you walk up to meet them. Their conversation – if that’s what one would call it – seems at first to be about school, because they keep on talking about lessons. But it turns out that the conversation’s more about the lessons of life itself – which is why the Mock Turtle’s tears are flowing. “I’d… be happier… if… the same old hurts didn’t… keep… coming back”, it sobs, sadly. “Ah”, says the Gryphon, “that’s the point about the lessons, you see. Everything that happens is a lesson: we’re supposed to learn from them. Don’t know why, but we are – call it fate, if you like. If you don’t understand what the lesson is, old thing, you get to do it again. And again. And again. The lessons tend to come back anyway, but each time you grasp a bit more of it, it doesn’t come back so hard. The whole idea, y’see, is to get the lessons to lessen. Hah! Rather proud of that,” it says, turning to you. “Clever pun, don’t you think: ‘get the lessons to lessen’?”
|Whatever you may think of the Gryphon’s attempts at humour, it may have a point. If, as it suggests, most things which happen to us are more like ‘lessons’ from the weavings of the wyrd – happening not so much ‘to’ us as with us – then it’s up to us to understand what that lesson is: or it’ll simply come back again.
More to the point, we bring it back again, in order to find out what it is we have to learn. In my own case, one
Are you aware of some of your own ‘lessons’? For examples, look at some of the repeating patterns and loops that have happened in your own life. How many not-quite-repeats of the loop did it take before you began to understand the lesson? And what did it take for you to ‘get the lessons to lessen’?
Enough ‘advice’ for the moment, perhaps? It’s obvious that the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle will continue talking at each other all day, and they’ll do it whether you’re there or not. So you wander away, back towards the trees, and see another figure in white, lying on the ground, apparently sleeping – and wearing, like the Red Queen, a crown.
A royal muddle
Whoever it is, it’s snoring loudly; or rather he’s snoring, because his small, straggly beard and moustache are just visible. Twitching slightly: presumably he’s dreaming. “Dreaming about you“, says a sharp voice in your ear – which turns out to be that of the Red Queen again, irritable as ever. “You’re only a figment of his imagination, a character in his dream”, she says; “when he wakes up, you’ll vanish, as if you’d never been.” And she moves as if to wake him…
|“Last night”, wrote one of the old Zen poets, “I dreamed I was a butterfly. Or is it that it’s now that I’m asleep, and that I’m a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?” There’s no way we can tell: dreams have their own weird reality. And yet the existential anxiety this creates is all too real: Who am I? What am I? How can I prove that I exist? Perhaps this is one of those ‘lessons’ that we’d like to lessen…
Is this an experience with which you’re familiar? If so, under what kind of context – and with whom – does it tend to arise?
And who do you know that, like the Red Queen here, deliberately plays on your fears? Why do they do it? If you do it to others, why do you do it?
Looking pleased at your obvious discomfiture, the Red Queen leaves the White King to his snoring, and returns to talk at you. “You’ve been talking with the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, I see – not that those idiots know anything, of course.” You mention that the Gryphon had some interesting comments to make about the lessons of life. “Lessons? What do they know about lessons? Why, in my school they taught us everything there is to know about arithmetic: I doubt if they taught you that.” You attempt to murmur that, yes, you did indeed study arithmetic at school, and a great deal more besides, but the Queen quickly cuts you off. “Prove it! Divide a loaf by a knife – what’s the answer? Can’t say? There, you see, I knew it. Useless! Doesn’t know any arithmetic at all! The answer’s sliced bread, of course!” And with a patronising – matronising? – smile, she vanishes again.
|You’ll know, in a matter of moments, that nothing you say here would be right: nothing is going to shift the Red Queen’s smug certainty in herself. It really doesn’t matter whether she’s right or wrong, because you’re the one who’ll take the blame in any case: you know she’ll always be able find some way to twist whatever you said, to make you out to be the fool every time…
Familiar, perhaps? Who do you know that’s like this – constantly constructing put-downs so as to prop up their delusions of their own superiority?
Placating someone like the Red Queen doesn’t work: they simply take, and never give in return. Responding aggressively to their selfish rudeness doesn’t work either: you’ll get hit with a torrent of righteous indignation and blame. Since almost everything they do is based on setting up a ‘no-win’ for others, if you play the game their way, you’ll always lose. So how do you create a relationship with them in which everyone does ‘win’?
A sigh of relief: she’s gone. But you hear a rustling noise; you look up, and there in the tree above you is an enormous cat. Grinning. At you. Showing all its many sharp teeth, yet with wry amusement, as if it knows something you’d rather it didn’t. It makes a most peculiar sound in its throat – a cross between a yowl and a purr, but with a hint of words – and then fades away, leaving behind only its grin. A cat without a grin, yes; but a grin without a cat? What’s that supposed to mean? Weird indeed…
Confused, you walk round a corner, and there in the distance are a group of very thin people – thin from the side, at least – apparently painting a rose-bush. Not painting a picture of the bush – painting the bush itself… why? You walk a little closer.
They’re thin, these people, yet wide – almost like playing-cards with head and limbs attached. And they are putting paint onto the roses, as quick as they can. They see you; jump up and down in evident panic, trying to hide the paint-brushes; and then realise that you’re not who they thought you were, and go back to painting the flowers again, even more hurriedly than before. What are they so frightened about? Intriguing… weird…
You walk right up to them, and ask what they’re doing. “Oh, you give us a fright then!”, says one – literally One, it has a single bright red heart-shape on its flat back, whilst others have more. “Thought you was the Queen, like. What’re we doin’? Correctin’ a little error like wot Three ‘ere bin and done. Queen wanted red roses, din’t she? Three thought ‘e’d planted a red one, but when it growed, the flowers come up white. She won’t like that, will the Queen: have our heads off if we ain’t careful… Oh no! ‘Ere she comes!”
And here she comes indeed: not the Red Queen, but the Queen of Hearts, with her full entourage – including the Executioner, his axe at the ready. “What is the meaning of this! There shall be no mistakes in my realm! Off with their heads!”
|I can remember, all too vividly, a real-life example of the Queen of Hearts: a senior sales manager from the head office of a large supermarket chain, visiting a local branch. “We have a national special on strawberry gateau”, he yelled – he never merely spoke to anyone if he could help it; “why is it not on display?” “We don’t have any”, said the branch manager, “we ordered it, but Distribution haven’t sent us any yet”. “That’s your problem!”, shouted the head-office man, “I want it on display, and I want it there now!” Terrified, the branch manager turned to the warehouse supervisor: “Ah… ah… get the strawberry gateau on display – quickly!” The supervisor in turn started to say, “but we haven’t got any in stock”; then realised that her manager knew that too, so turned to the nearest junior staff member and said loudly, “get the strawberry gateau from stock – now!” The junior took only a moment to realise what was going on, and then took the only sensible action under those circumstances – he ran to the warehouse, and hid, until the visitor had gone!
Who do you know that, like the Queen of Hearts or the head-office man, tries to rule by fear and intimidation? How do you work with – or in any way relate to – such people? What effect does their bullying have on other people’s relationships with each other? And what effect does it have on everyone’s ability to get the job done well? In that sense, does the bullying ‘work’? If not, what does the bullying do?
The painters try to hide behind you, but they’re quickly caught, and dragged away. There is the terrifying ‘crunch’ of an axe hitting something that isn’t wood… And now, for the first time, the Queen turns to notice you. “What is this… this…” – she looks you up and down, in evident disgust – “this thing?” She looks round angrily at her terrified entourage, then back at you. “What is it doing in my realm? Take it away – at once! Executioner!”, she screams, at the top of her voice, “Executioner! Off with its head!”
This madwoman screaming at you, and people beginning to move towards you: they’re so frightened of her that it’s clear they’ll literally do anything – even “off with its head!” – just to keep her quiet… You’re terrified, panicking, you want to run away, anywhere but here… But for some weird reason you remember the flowers’ advice – “go the other way!” – and you go towards the Queen instead…
Either you’ve vanished, or they’ve vanished: it’s impossible to tell – whichever it is, you’re free, and out of the garden at last.
You still feel a few of the effects of the fear the Queen of Hearts set out to create in you: sweating hands, pounding heart, and so on. But they’re fading too, like the last vestiges of the Cheshire Cat’s grin. Stuck in her bullying, she probably thought that fear is power – that others’ fear is her power; yet by facing that fear, and coming towards it in a different, and perhaps weird way, you found your own power to break free from hers. Where there’s power, there’s fear; but by facing our own fear we can find that where’s there’s fear, there can also be power – our own power. So fear and power, and the weird mistakes we all make about them, are what we’d better look at next.