Gillian Roddie has seen more than her fair share of life’s ups and downs. Here, she looks back at it all and dispenses some of the best advice that she has…
“Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.” – Baz Luhrmann, Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)
I was born in the (very) late 70s. The halfpenny was still in circulation, the Rubik’s cube wouldn’t be released for another few months, and divorce in Ireland was still another 16 years away. I was getting ready to start sixth year when Princess Diana died. I watched the Twin Towers falling from a bar in Bali as I nursed a bad hangover. I was 24 in 2004, the year Facebook was released and smoking became outlawed in workplaces. I’m even old enough to have travelled in a plane with a smoking area down the back. I was given the Now 20 album on cassette on my 11th birthday which included such bangers as Something Got Me Started by Simply Red, the truly outrageous Let’s Talk About Sex by Salt n’ Pepa, and the practically pornographic (for its time) I Wanna Sex You Up by Color Me Badd.
Growing up I’ve had my heart broken so badly I thought I would never feel happiness again. I’ve had a nervous breakdown, tried four different types of antidepressants, five types of birth control and I was old enough to try a cosmopolitan cocktail when they were popularised by Sex and the City in the late 90s. I’ve started and then dropped out of a PhD. I’ve had a doctor tell me that my child might not make it out of a hospital alive. In recent years I’ve been rejected from more job interviews than I care to remember and my address book has enough people who have drifted in and out of my life to fill a cinema. On the plus side, I’ve got a fairly robust pension going.
I’ve seen some shit, man. But as chaotic as these things might appear, they all have something in common: they all came to an end. You don’t really notice it happening at the time, but no matter how awful the situation, somewhere in your head there’s a small voice that quietly logs that you make it through, and life has a habit of going on. My heart mended, my kid survived, I got great jobs and I look forward to cashing in my pension when Gen Z are only discovering the joys of grey pubes.
As you get older, and the shit keeps happening, you continue to keep moving forward, and you begin to realise that this is part and parcel of the whole existence rollercoaster. There’s good and there’s bad, and everything in between, and no matter how good it is or bad it is, both are ALWAYS transient.
When you’re young, your brain tells you you’re the centre of the known universe. You are biologically primed to be selfish, and it’s largely not your fault, not consciously anyway. Teenagers show activity in a different part of the brain to adults when they make decisions – the superior temporal sulcus vs the prefrontal cortex.
The superior temporal sulcus is the part of the brain most responsible for very basic behavioural actions, whereas the prefrontal cortex is adept at more complex functions like processing how decisions affect others. In other words, empathy is a skill that develops as we get older, not only through the experiences we live through, but also our neurodevelopment.
During my own difficult experiences I wished so hard for someone, anyone, to tell me that everything was going to be okay. I’m certain at least someone did, but perhaps I wasn’t willing to hear it. Let’s face it, when we face tragedy for the first time, at least when we’re younger, it’s common for us to feel that no one has ever felt the despair that we were experiencing, partly because we couldn’t quite believe it hurt so badly ourselves.
Now that I’m the other side of the above Luhrmann quote, doing the dispensing of the advice rather than listening to it, I can understand the unwillingness; when I was 20 years old, my forthieth seemed a lifetime away and how could anyone that old POSSIBLY understand how hard life is and it’s so unfair and no-one has ever had it this hard and why does this hurt so much and oh I’ll never feel good again and end scene.
With age, experience and hindsight I can say with absolute honesty that I would give anything to spare a younger me, or a young anyone, the pain of it all. When I say “this will all be ok”, it’s not a platitude. It’s someone who has faced losing three lives, including her own, and seen the world continue to turn, the sun rise, and waves of joy and sadness tidally crashing down. The waves never stop, and shit has a way of blindsiding you throughout life, but you get better at bracing yourself against it, and your emergency rations and toolkits get better stocked with time.
We recall bad memories with more detail and more emotional weight than we do good ones thanks to something called our negativity bias. We’re not entirely sure why, but our brains have a tendency to process and recall disproportionately more negativity than the good stuff.
And this might be why the older we get, the more we feel the urge to offer advice, solicited or not. Having run the gauntlet of life a little, we know that the worst case scenario very rarely comes to pass, so roll with it as best you can.
Of course, there’s a difference between being patient with someone doling out asked for advice, and those who offer it unsolicited and unchecked – this behaviour tends to come from a need to seek control and order of a situation, a lack of self awareness and a grandiose sense of self. And no one needs that in their lives on top of the unpreventable shit.
But dispensing advice – when asked for – isn’t just to help the listener. It’s an extended act of our own processing, a small but significant salute to ourselves for surviving whatever befell us, an instinctual reliving of the hardest memories driven by our brain’s own negative bias, softening the edges as appropriate for the audience.
In years to come, Covid-19 will form the backbone of the stories we tell to the younger generations, likely the ones currently waiting (im-)patiently for Santa to arrive in a few short days. Just as we remember where we were when the towers fell, or our reactions to the seminal interviews Diana did before her untimely death, we will recall our bread starter of choice that helped us through this pandemic event.
We will use it as a backdrop to tell them of our experiences of loneliness and confusion, and how we managed uncertainty that turned from weeks to months and into a new year. We’ll laugh about the bread cultures wondering if there’s a chance the one in the old hot press in that house we shared with the ex is still there, possibly even alive and belching its gases away?
We’ll tell them of the Christmas that changed us, the one that was so hard to celebrate without loved ones we lost to “that bloody virus”, or stuck abroad because the world put England in quarantine with 24 hours notice, or just wasn’t the same because we stayed at home and didn’t really do much. And we’ll smile wistfully remembering the memories of the summer that followed it, when the world began to bloom again, when a jab in our arms gave us permission to live with full hearts, and the weeks that followed were a hazy but incredible blur.
Even if you swear blindly you won’t be that person, the “I remember when Covid…” storyteller, I promise you will, because you too will want to share the secret that eludes us when tragedy and trauma hits us first – that this too shall pass, and everything will be okay. Because even if the memories are sometimes so raw, even years later, that the very thought of them hurts our hearts in places we thought we’d long since mended, revisiting it and reframing it as proof that life can go on and thrive beyond when hope is lost, is a lesson our prefrontal cortex will seek to share with others. Covid-19 is collectively testing us, but we’ll get through it, and we will thrive again.
This, too, shall pass.
(If you haven’t heard it before, or heard it in a while, I strongly recommend listening to that sunscreen song – the advice is just as relevant today as it was 21 years ago, beautifully proving its own point…)