I struggle with how to word precisely what I wanted to talk about, yet I tried my best. So stick with me.
In NUI Galway (where I am in my last year of college) there is a long corridor in one of the largest buildings, called the Concourse. Essentially, if you’re not studying nursing, medicine, business or engineering, the likelihood is that you spend most of your day there.
The expansive corridor has always seemed quite intimidating to me. In truth, I find it like a runway. You’re walking, people are watching. But here, there’s no smoke and mirrors. If my face looks shiny it’s because of sweat bordering on anxiety over an assignment, not because of someone’s artistic decision. There’s no attractive way to walk down a corridor on the phone and eating a banana at the same time. And yes, this is silly. But because I feel it and so many others I know do too, it’s as legitimate as the air we breathe.
Last Monday, I was walking down the fateful corridor with a headache bordering on a migraine. I was less than a point on the pain scale away from losing it. My shoulders were curled inwards and my face was pale. I could feel how clammy I was. My palms were sweaty in my pockets and my stomach churned in response the pain. I was already innately aware of my less than perfect appearance when a group of four boys walked past. Whilst they didn’t say anything to me, once I had passed them I heard them make a joke about how unhappy I looked and just how unattractive that was.
Trust me, this didn’t upset me. But there was a time in the recent past that it would have. Instead of rolling my eyes and walking on, I stopped and leaned against the windows along the Concourse for a minute. The walls are panelled with open windows, capturing light but never letting in enough air.
Without caring what I looked like (which was most certainly less than normal), I looked at everyone that passed by. It was just reaching the change over of classes and throngs of people were emerging like tributaries connecting to a larger river.
People desperately hung to their friends chatting loudly, and all the while fixing their hair or clothes. More than twice I heard both boys and girls comment on another’s appearance, both negatively and positively. Most unnerving, however, was the way in which those walking alone moved. They walked with such a speed that I was reminded of the distinction between predator and prey, yet they seemed unsure from what they were hiding.
Something in my chest ached at the sight of this as I wondered how many times I had looked just like that. Worse, I wondered how many times I had pretended to not feel those emotions altogether.
As I’m in my final year of university, I am very familiar with that corridor. I know the panic of searching for a seat in the library and how the college cafeteria feels when you’re lacking a friend group to engage in a group denial of social anxiety. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing what everyone else is or you know that others must surely feel the same. Because right now, you’re alone.
Perhaps it is because it is my final year that I am having these thoughts. Perhaps on some cosmic level I needed to go through those daily tortures to recognise the absurdity within them. But being perfectly honest with you, I don’t think so.
As always, it’s all about perspective.
When I was three I hated anyone who wore all black and all motorcycle drivers without exception. Worse still, (I’m trying my best not to be embarrassed) up until very recently I found cows terrifying. This is huge flaw when living on an Irish dairy farm or even generally being Irish. So, what’s changed?
Well, nothing. I’m still Jen. Freckles and weird allergies included.
Nothing is different except for my perspective. Before when I used to feel a deep and irrational fear for bovine animals and worry about my hair walking down a long corridor, I was viewing the situation too closely to myself. I saw the hallway as personally terrifying and cows as personally terrifying to me.
It is in an instantaneous moment like a light switch that means we can understand that cows have more of a rational fear of us, when we shift the perspective and understand how they view us. Cows view us as users. We use their bodies, and thus, they fear us.
People, students walking on the Concourse, are all being innately selfish. We are looking, judging, seeing in comparison to ourselves when no one else is. Therefore, quite frankly no one cares about us as much as we think they do.
For me, this just reiterated the disservice I’ve done to myself all of these year by not caring about me first. How could it be seen as anything other than a disservice? No one but ourselves understands the intricate care we need in order to be content and healthy, yet we entrust others the care for us and priortise us when we won’t?
Of course, our boyfriend/girlfriend/mother/father/dog will try their very best to care for us to the fullest – yet they will not succeed. This is not through any fault of their own, but rather our own misunderstanding that to give ourselves care and comfort above others is selfish.
Worse still, we judge those who practice this self-directed compassion as self-indulgent.
More times than I can count, I have said commented about someone’s self-indulgent nature with a sneer. Once, at the age of twelve my cousincaught me looking in the mirror, touching my hair. She laughed and joked that I was becoming egotisically. I felt shame that has no doubt caused me to remember the moment so vividly. Now, I understand that self-awareness and one’s ego are not synonymous.
Self-compassion, as a practice, is for the benefit of ourselves. All things ego, is for the benefit of others. Ego is painting your own portrait to perfection and making it mandatory to hang in every house you can reach. Self-compassion is taking a crumpled bed sheet and smoothening it as best you can and accepting the lines you cannot make fade as a part of you.
I thought this as I leaned against the windows of the Concourse corridor watching people. I touched my forehead lightly as though the headache was now forming a bruise on my skull that would never fade or heal. I frowned, yet immediately caught myself in the action, remembering how sombre my face can look and how unapproachable that makes me.
But is it my aim to be approachable? No. Approachability is a by-product of contentment but not the main produce. I was not born to be physically pleasing to passersby, who may be perturbed by my Wednesday Addams facial expression. My aim was to be my own aid, best friend and guidance – and no one else will ever come into that equation without my permission.
I pushed myself away from the wall and walked home, knowing this headache needed a dark room and silence, not another lecture hall. This decision was something I would have usually faffed around. I might have worried about missing coursework or appearing indifferent to a lecturer. But now, I know better.
Worry is a treadmill emotion. It gets you nowhere and simply exhausts you.
On the way home, I did not monitor my facial expression for anyone. Though, admittedly, I did laugh aloud when I remembered what my grandmother said to me when I forgot to smile at her friend when we went to town;
‘Youll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.’
She never considered that maybe, just maybe, I’d never want to catch anything at all.
Anyway, that’s enough ramblings for now.
(See, without a smile, I look semi-displeased. But I can live with it.)