One of the most curious paradoxes in life is that the more you give, the more you get. I understand this intellectually. I write about it quite often, especially in my horse pages. (My red mare has her own Facebook page, because she is far to magnificent to be confined to her Scottish field. She must gallop about through the ether and share her loveliness with humans from Dunedin to Dundee.) I know very well that if I want my mares to do all the wonderful things I would like them to do, I must not ask of them but I must offer to them. I must give and give and give, and never demand a thing. And then they give me everything in return.
So, I do know this. But I often forget it. Or it sort of gets stuck in one of the sealed chambers of my mind and does not manage to translate itself into my actual life.
In this lockdown, I’ve had many days where I think: I’ve got nothing left. I’m overwhelmed, I’m stretched too far, I’m absolutely empty. And then the instinct is to retreat. I shut down. I curl up into myself and shut the door, literally and metaphorically, and wait until I feel I’ve got strength and spirit again. It’s a combination of the behavioural and the instinctive and the evolutionary – I become a prey animal, going into the freeze response. You see this in frightened creatures the whole time. (I saw it only last night in a dog with whom my big thoroughbred was trying to make friends).They think: if I stand very, very still then the big bad wolf won’t eat me. The wolf won’t even see me.
This might work in the wild, but it doesn’t work for the domesticated human. The I’ve Got Nothing Left response just makes me feel crappier. And it’s not just a physiological thing, where I’m trapped in the sympathetic nervous system. It’s an incorrect category thing. It’s a labelling mistake. I’ve written, on my label, in capital letters: empty, done, nothing.
And then I stop and think about it and realise this is all nonsense. This morning, I had three intense teaching sessions, back to back. I was working with people of different ages, with different needs, on different landmasses. They all needed something entirely particular from me, and I gave it to them. I was all out.
This is my job, of course, but helping people learn and write and express themselves and set their creative minds free is a vocation, really. I go the extra yard and give absolutely everything, because I love it. I love it when we have the Eliza Doolittle moment – By George, I think she’s got it! I love it when the light dawns after the long, dark night. There is nothing more fulfilling or purely satisfying. Nothing else, except perhaps when I can send my mares into their Place of Peace, makes me feel more like a human being with a meaning and a heart that is good for something.
I should be exhausted now, after all that offering. I had to rummage about in my intellect and in my empathetic sense and in my imagination. It was hard work. And yet I don’t feel emptied. I feel alive. Perhaps too, it is the connection thing, making bridges with people I don’t know very well, making strangers into compadres. The sense of connection is something that has got lost, in the coronacrisis. So many of us have not been able to see the people we love. We have lost our families, our crews, our communities. And there is a haunting, humming sense of dislocation and atomisation, as the wider sense of threat throws everyone into amygdala hijack, so that they are all looking for gnarly subjects to argue about. The fury and frustration and uncertainty must go somewhere, so it lashes out into Twitter rows and political tribalism and raging invective. Being kind and being reasonable and being connected can feel very, very difficult.
When I teach, I feel connected. I’m not just hoarding the knowledge and experience I have gathered over thirty years. I can give it to another living soul, another questing mind, another hungry spirit. That does not diminish me. The more I give it away, the more I find within. Someone wise once said that the best way to learn something is to teach it. My students inspire me to learn more, to explore and play, to throw open those closed doors of the mind and gallop into the limitless prairies beyond. And that is a truly beautiful thing.