Everywhere in chains…

‘Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains’ – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I hear mine rattling all the time – big, heavy, rusty, noisy old things, each burdensome link forged from the layers of collective ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ preached with well-meaning solidarity by the holy trinity of family, culture and society I grew up with.

It’s not that I consciously pay deliberate attention to them all now, more that having internalised all those messages from birth, having stored them away in my subconscious over the years, I now have no way of telling where the essential me ends and where the social adaptation and cultural conformity begins – we’re all kind of merged together, entwined. And that’s the problem with all these internalised messages – they’re in you, they become part of you, habitual and ritualised, even though they’ve not actually originated from you at all, and many may in fact be at odds with your natural-born feelings…

So with all these ‘ought’ and ‘should’ and ‘always’ and ‘never’ rules playing over and over in my head all the time, limiting my decision-making from deep within my psyche, perhaps it’s no wonder I feel so closed in, squashed down, confused and ambivalent about so much in life.

As the years pass I’m slowly realising just how much I’ve repressed and restricted my own physical freedom in life. Yes, I’m an adult, and in many ways I am free to choose my own path – but if I want to be accepted, ideally it has to be this particular path, or maybe even this one at a push, but that path definitely leads to being ostracised and outcast… so I may have been born physically free, but nevertheless I still go everywhere in life dragging my mental chains with me…

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On being spontaneous…

I know it sounds like a bit of a contradiction in terms, but I’ve always had to work really hard at being spontaneous. I don’t remember being particularly spontaneous as a child – but then I suppose whatever you do or don’t do at any given time isn’t really up to you when you’re young, is it? And any nascent spark of spontaneity that may have existed beforehand definitely fizzled out like a damp squib after having my first baby a scant month before my 19th birthday. Following hot on his heels was my second baby a year later, and then my third and final little one arrived a couple of months after my twenty-first birthday.

Babies need routines and familiarity, require regular feeding and changing and patterns of sleep to the extent that pre-planning to the nth degree even the ‘simplest’ of excursions to fit in around those routines became second nature, as automatic as breathing. At this early stage, such belt-and-braces planning brought me precious windows of relative freedom to enjoy the fruits of my labours, stopping me feeling too overwhelmed by it all. Then one by one the babies became toddlers, and then they started school, and that required yet another whole different level of regimented logistics to accommodate.

And when I became a single mum at 24 after a very acrimonious and stressful breakup, out of sheer necessity my planning skills cranked up yet another gear as I juggled earning a living to support my family with keeping up with the housework, DIY, gardening, and all the while still being mum. I have to say I’d have been stuck without my parents’ invaluable practical help at this point, but it was still hard work, and legally the children always remained my responsibility. And perhaps not surprisingly, responsibility and spontaneity made decidedly poor bedfellows… the weight of the former seemed to crush the sheer light-heartedness out of the latter, leaving it all shrivelled and deflated like a punctured balloon.

So nothing was ever truly done on the spur of the moment for me – my moments didn’t have spurs, instead they kept me on a tight rein, always holding me in check, always keeping me alert to having to stay one step ahead of the pack. Only by planning well in advance, keeping track of work shifts and school times and appointments and what felt like a million other timeslots in an ongoing rolling plan in my head could I occasionally create a prospective gap in advance where, all other circumstances permitting, the possibility of making a ‘spontaneous’ decision might potentially be accommodated somewhere along the line.

And it’s a habit I have retained to this day, creating little planned pockets of prospective ‘free’ time to be filled by unplanned, supposedly spur of the moment events. But otherwise I pretty much stick to my set routines, day in, day out. It’s a habit that has long outlived the necessity to do so, and what once kept me safely anchored to a full family timetable has now become a bit of a mill-stone around my neck. So I’m trying hard to break the habit of always pre-planning everything while sticking to those tired old habitual routines that no longer serve any purpose other than to keep me tied down with invisible chains.

And here I am at 50 years old, still working hard at being spontaneous – but this time I’m learning to let go when I can and just go with the flow, wherever it takes me on any given day. Deciding how to spend my time at the time, on the wing, and changing my mind on a whim as the mood takes me. Learning to open my world up to new opportunities instead of quietly and cautiously closing it down, keeping a lid on it, effectively squashing the life and soul out of anything and everything I choose to do…