Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Theory of Everything - and achieving stuff

My partner and I went to see The Theory of Everything yesterday. We'd seen the trailers and read some of the reviews already, but even so, were quite unprepared (both of us) for the impact of the film. 
Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne with Stephen Hawking
I didn't know much about Stephen Hawking, to be honest. I'll have to do some reading now. In a way, going into the movie with little background knowledge possibly wasn't a bad thing. I was very ready to be 'told' the story. Above all, the strongest impression I was left with wasn't so much the man's brilliance, as his strength of character and utter refusal to give up, in the face of the seemingly impossible challenge of a disease that was going to rob him of everything but his mind. 

The early scenes as he's struggling with losing coordination, before he's diagnosed, had me wiping tears away - I SO remember that stage with RA. Realising that something is happening, but not knowing what it is. Keeping on with normal life despite the changes, because that's what you do. Then the point - in Hawking's case in the film, following a crashing fall in the quadrangle at Cambridge - where it's taken out of your hands when the doctors enter and the investigation starts... I'd like to make a clear disclaimer before I write any more - I'm not, in any way, trying to medically equate RA with Motor Neuron Disease. They're very different diseases. What I can identify with, however, is the loss of 'normal' function and the confronting reality of having to face a life that is going to be very different to the one ahead of someone in good health. 

For me, this movie is a story of triumph over circumstances, and one that holds a valuable lesson for everyone. We ALL have 'stuff'. It might be illness and/or disability. It might be family issues. It might be learning difficulties. It could be ANYTHING. The notion of a 'perfect' life is a myth! If we can accept that, we can put ourselves onto a much more constructive approach to dealing with life as it comes to us.

My own experience of being diagnosed with a chronic, degenerative disease was accompanied by lots of well meaning, but totally misguided, advice to slow down, stop doing a lot of the things I was currently doing (and loving), rest more, give up stuff, and so on. I was twenty eight, had just gone back to work as a chef, was singing in the chorus of an opera company part time, had a six year old at school and a nursing seven month old baby when things started to change. It was another year before I had a diagnosis. That was twenty three years ago, and I STILL get people telling me what I can and can't do - "because or your arthritis". 

One of two things happens when you tell someone they can't, or shouldn't do something. Either they cave, or - like me - they get bloody minded and do it anyway to prove that they can! Either of those responses can come from their innate personality, or it's something they've learned to do due to circumstance. Among other things, I'm an artist, so I'll use the following analogy simply because it's something that comes up regularly in conversations I have with all sorts of people. How many people do you know who say they can't draw? Now, take a room full of preschoolers, give them paper, crayons or paint, and what happens - they draw and paint without any thought about can or can't - it's just about the pure joy of making marks on the paper, and the results are wonderfully spontaneous and creative. Take that same group into school, and how many years is it before you start hearing "I can't" - and WHY? 

I watched this with my boys, both of whom have considerable ability with a pencil and other creative endeavours. Over the years, as I fought their teachers on this matter, I realised that so much of what got in the way of them continuing to have the joy in the drawing process, and therefore, the desire to keep doing it and exploring their creativity, was that they were told that what they drew was 'good' or 'bad', 'right' or 'wrong' - and those judgements affected their perception of their own ability. My younger No.2 is very much an innately bloody-minded type, so it had less effect on him overall. No.1, however, had to be carefully nurtured through that, and I fought many more battles on his behalf, right into high school, until he finally dropped art to fit in the subjects he needed for Year Twelve. 

The point of the analogy, of course, is that when we pass judgement on people's ability to achieve things, we do more than just say the words. We can be, with the best of intentions sometimes, seriously undermining their confidence in their own sense of what they can and can't achieve. There are a gazillion memes that float around on social media sites that allude to the idea that the only thing that blocks us from achieving things is ourselves. Unfortunately for children, that's something they have to learn, and sadly, it's something many people don't start to even begin to understand for themselves until their childhood conditioning has well and truly bedded in and blocked them from all sorts of potential. 

There were all sorts of things I envisaged myself doing, as a child, and most of them I didn't do - voicing them brought down, all too often, responses of "don't be ridiculous" - because I was a girl, or because we lived in the country, or because they were outside my parent's areas of understanding or interest. I lost interest because I came to feel that those things were unattainable. When it started to happen to my children, I regained my voice on their behalf.

In his early teens, No.1 joined the RAAF cadets, and within a couple of years was seriously considering heading into the air force once he'd finished school. His father's response to that was to start bombarding him with all sorts of awful statistics about life expectancy for fighter pilots (he wanted to be top gun, of course!), and other hugely negative aspects of being in the defence force. He came to me asking what I thought. I took a moment and gave him two answers. One, that as his mother, I was horrified by the idea because there is NO parent on the face of the planet that wants to see their child going into a profession that, by its very nature, puts their lives at risk. He took that on the chin, and asked what the other answer was. I told him it was his life and his choice, and if he chose to do that, I'd back him all the way, because I had no right to stop him making his own career choice, regardless of how I might feel about it. As it happens, he didn't join the RAAF. But, one of his mates did, and I believe he took some of that conversation to his mate's mother when she had a huge melt down about it.

The bottom line is, and this is what's been running around my head since the movie, no matter what life throws at us, we are only limited by the blocks we make for ourselves. It's probably the single most valuable lesson we can start teaching our children from the very beginning - encouraging them to have a go, even if we, from our perspective, might consider that they may not succeed. Ultimately, that's for them to discover - and then find another way to tackle it! 


  1. You are so right, we are only limited by the blocks we make for ourselves. I wish I realised that truth slightly sooner but yes we can bring up our children with a very different mind set to what we experienced. It is always disappointing to see others limited by the expectations of others. Great post.

    1. Thanks, Arabella! It's a tough one to learn, and so much of the social conditioning that happens these days seems to be counter to learning it...