It's nothing personal

Have you noticed that when you’re travelling somewhere, perhaps even in a remote place, you bump into someone you know? It’s a good reminder that you should not get into any mischief because someone will spot you no matter where you are. We were holidaying on an island at the southern end of the Barrier Reef before Christmas. This place is 60km off Gladstone and is very much a ‘close to nature’ experience where you camp beneath the trees in the company of noddy terns, shearwaters and turtles. Camping to the right of us was a family from only two streets away from our house in Iluka, to the left a group of lads from Ballina, and further up the beach a bunch of school kids from Murwillumbah. The North Coast was there in force: quite a coincidence.

The little noddy terns nest in trees on this coral cay that are very fragile and have extremely short roots. It is not uncommon for whole trees to fall over so you have to be very careful where you pitch your tent and rest your weary head. At Christmas time the terns are hatching their eggs. So when a limb falls off or a tree falls over, as one did across the annex of our tent, there is mayhem and eggs are lost or chicks die once they are out of the nest. We lost a tent annex; the terns lost much more. Interestingly, the terns spend a few hours flying around in circles looking confused and then move off and start building another nest somewhere else – hopefully on a more secure tree.

Sad as this is, the event is pretty random. And there is nothing personal about it at all and nature means nothing by it. Perhaps the smarter ones know something about where not to build their nests and their offspring are more likely to survive. Other than that there is no real reason for this event.

The human species, as a whole across all cultures, doesn’t deal with the unexpected, the unexplainable, and generally random events very well. When we don’t understand something we often invoke superstition to explain it rather than looking for a rational explanation. Ancient peoples explained natural disaster, death and so on through superstition and we have not changed much today even thought we like to think ourselves as rather sophisticated. We make up stories and they somehow become lore in our own minds and thus the truth.

Often, when bad things happen to us it is nothing personal. It does not have to be the result of our being bad, our personality, an intentional act of bastardry by someone else (although it might be and that is a different matter), or the hand of some supernatural power. Sometimes bad things like being made redundant, the death of someone close, someone falling out of love with you, your children eventually leaving home (but I need to be convinced that this is really a bad thing), and getting sick just happen. Blame is not a very useful thing in my experience and leads to anger towards others or self that paralyses us and makes it harder to deal with the loss. Attributing cause inappropriately to try and explain the event is also equally paralysing.

The much more difficult thing to do is to fully experience the feelings associated with the loss or event as part of normal life. Believe it or not most people manage grief quite well and eventually get their lives in order. But then we aren’t that rational are we?

Dr Stewart Hase is an Adjunct Fellow with Southern Cross University and a consultant psychologist.


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