I've always been someone who feels an acute sense of humiliation, not only for my own ego, but equally - maybe more - for others. I remember my mother, who taught at my Primary School, telling us a story at the dinner table when I was still pretty young. We ate together every night, playing games and swapping ideas and having to recount 3 good things that had happened that day and no bad things because my parents wanted to raise optimists and by god, they did.
As we broke bread and dunked it in our steaming bowls of pasta, she spun the funny tale of the day, in which a student had approached her to say they were feeling unwell. She'd asked about their symptoms, (as teachers do), but she tried to say both 'tummy' and 'belly' at the same time. Which is a roundabout way of getting to the punchline in which my saintly mother blurted out: "Do you have a sore bummy?"
The kid laughed at her. My family laughed at her. She laughed at herself. But the fact that I still remember this story speaks volumes to how wounded I was by her brief embarrassment, even though it hadn't bothered her for even a second.
I was just that kind of kid. Teachers liked to sit next to the kids who needed drawing out of their shell or socialising a little. The Scarlett Hawkins Chatterbox Method - in which I peppered the poor kid next to me with jokes and banter and suggestions for our worksheets - was useful for shy kids, trouble-makers and anybody that the rejected for being 'a little off'. I was fiercely protective of my friends and their little quirks, and this quality has - for better or worse - stuck with me through to adulthood.
There's a lot of psychobabble around the concept of empathy, often inextricably interlinked with the legitimate stuff. When you separate what we know from what we don't, we're left with not much: Some people don't feel empathy for other people. Most people do. And some are hyper-attuned to the emotions and sensations of other people around them to the point where it becomes distracting. Slide along the spectrum to wherever feels right for you and plant your flag.
I explain this so it comes as no surprise to you that I'm frequently delighted and beset by the emotions of people around me, even when their passion, excitement, fury or defensiveness has nothing to do with me. I'm not exceptional in this: Who hasn't found their nervous system hijacked by a foreign feeling, only to realise they're subconsciously reacting to a lively discussion happening across the room or the snide whisperings of colleagues a few desks away? Empathy is the default setting for most of humanity.
But unfortunate by-product of people who possess a pinch of emotional intelligence is that they often think they have a fistful. If you start to think you can read the vibe of anyone, you're inevitably going to get it wrong at some stage. Especially given how ambiguous humans can be, with their magnificent ability to make a facial expression that screams, "You're a fucking moron" at their belligerent boss, whilst nodding their heads and saying, "Yes, I understand." Sure, it makes for a cool party trick when you start dating someone and they think you can read their mind... But if you classify yourself an empathetic person who has a few neurotic tendencies (hello All Millennials, thanks so much for stopping by) then you might find yourself projecting well into the stratosphere. End result: Reacting to things other people haven't even thought yet... And most likely won't.
I did not learn how to ride a bicycle as a child. I just didn't. By the time I reached adolescence and all the other kids were able to hoon around town on two wheels, I was too acutely humiliated by my own ineptitude to be seen learning. It takes a surprisingly long time to teach people not to be tiny psychopaths, and I had no intention of being identifiable as the Last Teen on Training Wheels. This fear of seeing (and sensing) the pity and amusement of others was enough for me to reject every opportunity to learn, well into adulthood. And there were opportunities. There were offers - many of them - but I could visualise the way my friends would feel as I struggled and tumbled and scraped my knees. Even if the feeling wasn't malicious, even if they kept a straight face, even if they said absolutely nothing except praise, I would know. And I couldn't bear the knowing. So I shut down every offer, without hesitation.
That's how, by the time I moved to Amsterdam at the age of 25, I still didn't know how to ride a bike.
I made do on foot for the first few months, watching humanity's closest thing to wheeled humans whizz by me without a care in the world, passive-aggressively dinging their bells if anybody so much as thought about stepping into the bike lane. Before that stage of my life, even the sight of people biking filled me with a residual, burning shame that had nothing to do with them and everything to do with me.
But living in a city where there are more bikes than people - where newborns are strapped into harnesses on handlebars, teenagers dink two or three friends at a time and lovers pedal in tandem, holding hands - I desensitised to the shame because I had to. Soon came the curiosity. I watched closely at how people took off, how they balanced, how they braked. Then I called on my closest friends to please, please help me.
And they did. Wobbling, slow takeoffs around the curves of Vondelpark. Forgetting to brake and simply jamming my feet to the earth as I threw the bike from my body. Smashing into the side of a parked car when a van trundled down the street, too close. A scar on my elbow that, all these years later, seems here to stay.
The problem with learning to ride a bike is that you can't do it in the privacy of your own home. And oh Lord, dear reader, did I feel every single stare. Every chuckle. Every grimace. Dutch children learn to pedal with confidence around the same time they start to toddle, so a grown woman battling so hard to do something so natural was quite the spectacle. The intensity of peoples' stares were overwhelming that I would sometimes fight back tears as I took off for the umpteenth time, praying my feet would manage to find the pedals once they left the relative safety of the cement.
But to quote an adage that is both postscript and call-to-arms: Nevertheless, she persisted.
I learned to filter out the unfiltered gaze of the outside world and focus instead on myself, my bike, my velocity. It wasn't easy, but I reduced the world down to what was me and mine, and all else became nothing more than ambience. And eventually - not easily - it happened.
On that magical, first time, the wind kicked through my hair and it felt like I had wings. I was giddy, euphoric, triumphant... And I knew that I wasn't coming back down to earth until I was damn well ready. As my legs found their rhythm and my pelvis relaxed into the seat, I was overcome with a triumphant thrill that felt so much like love, I wouldn't have been surprised if I was simply catching the vibes from someone else's heart as I passed them.
I was cycling. It was brilliant.
As you've probably already deduced, years of avoidance, denial and rejection had mutated the simple act of riding a bicycle into something of a phobia. And that fear fought hard against its exorcism. There were a couple of crying meltdowns along the way, as well as two perpetually scorched-red cheeks and a moment-by-moment battle against the negative feedback loop that oh-so-helpfully insisted that everyone is staring. But fear is flimsy - it takes root easily, but can be yanked out as smoothly as a dandelion if you practice your grip and fossick in the dirt for the stubborn remnants that refuse to die.
By the time I moved away from my beloved Amsterdam, I had developed the breezy Dutch confidence that I once found so awe-inspiring. I could make and take phone calls, balance grocery bags on my handlebars and haul a bouquet of flowers at the same time without breaking a sweat. I'd bike in the snow, criss-cross tram tracks, battle against 30-plus kilometre winds. When I'm biking, I don't give a damn if someone else is staring. Ding ding, motherfuckah. Get out of my lane.
On a bicycle, the world moves too fast for you to absorb much of anything - anybody - nearby. Instead, you become just one noisy, rapid blur in a world of noisy, rapid blurs. It's meditation for people who lack the hip flexibility for lotus pose; the medium through which communication is limited to how you share the road with other people, rather than what you think they think about you.
If my brain felt it necessary to hold onto the memory of my mother's innocent 'bummy' blip, I'm loath to imagine how many hours I wasted, agonising over now-obsolete fear. How many opportunities did I forfeit because I couldn't be brave? How much anxiety and shame did I project on other people as an excuse not to learn? And when people did react, (though they meant no harm), how long did I hold onto the shame after they'd completely forgotten about me?
Shame is the man behind the curtain, desperately puppeteering people in the hopes nobody will realise his own impotence. He found my weakness in tying something innocent to my hypervigilant sense of empathy. And once I refused to let my shame deter me from trying, and failing, and trying better - to learn the skill I desperately wanted - those ugly feelings that gnawed at me for years simply... lost their bite.
So if you're like me, and you think a little too long and a little often about the passions and grudges of everyone else in the world;
If you're highly attuned to emotional shifts and want to shroud the world in bubble wrap so it never needs hurt;
If you desperately want something harmless that you're simultaneously afraid to want;
Just... Take the emotion out of it. It's not easy, but it's necessary. Because no matter how wise or how studied or how intuitive you are, you are a deliciously unreliable narrator in your own story. And so is everyone else. We are our most severe critics, but we, too, are limited - and other people are far more diverse and interesting than whatever nasty thing we imagine they're thinking about us.
So if you're feeling weighed down by the sheer emotion of the world around you... Switch off. Breathe through it. Then get on a bicycle and fly.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.