The day after Christmas, I did something wrong. It was also pretty stupid. I do wrong and stupid things all the time, but this one was in public.
I idiotically waded into a fox row.
There is a barrister on Twitter whom I follow. He tweeted something about having killed a fox. It sounds almost impossibly thick of me, but I didn’t pay much attention to that. He has always seemed an intelligent and humane man, so I think I assumed he was either exaggerating for shock effect, or had done it to put a wounded animal out of its misery, or was protecting his chickens. It was the responses that drew my attention. They were all very much on the side of the fox. And this triggered something deep inside me.
I know now what I did not know then: it was a core belief. A very kind person sent me a fascinating article about this later in the day. Core beliefs are ideas that are so much a part of you that, when they are challenged, your brain feels it like a physical attack. Your amygdala fires up, and you go into the fight reflex, just as if you were protecting yourself from a marauder with a gun. This is why you sometimes react disproportionately to something which, really, in the wide scheme of things, does not matter that much.
One of my core beliefs, I realise, has always been that foxes are bastards. I had never examined this or challenged this. I grew up in the countryside, and had seen the pitiful corpses of chickens and bantams after a fox had been. Everyone around us had such stories. I knew also of the tiny lambs carried off by what I grew up to see as ruthless predators.
Another of my core beliefs is fairness. To my childish mind, it was incredibly unfair not only that foxes picked on vulnerable creatures who had absolutely no chance of fighting back, but that they did not - or so I believed - kill to survive, but for pleasure. Why else would they kill every single poor chicken, but take only one?
This childhood belief was bolstered, as I grew older, by the fatal outrider of confirmation bias. I only paid attention to stories about foxes behaving badly. There! I thought. See! They are the serial killers of the animal world. The shining knights in armour were the beleaguered farmers, desperately trying to protect their flocks and fowl from a wily enemy. The stories we tell ourselves are crazy powerful, and this one had an almost mythical strength in my mind.
Everywhere I looked, it seemed, there were defenders of the fox, taken in by the fluffy cuteness, whilst nobody seemed to be standing up for the chickens and the lambs. And that was what was I believed was happening on Twitter, as the furious hordes weighed in.
I’ve been struggling this Christmas. One of my oldest and dearest friends died suddenly not long ago, and I’ve been wrangling with my old companion, grief. There can be a fury in grief, but I told myself I had no anger at the unfairness of a light gone out too soon. I was going to mourn my friend in a straight, honest way. I would look the sadness in the whites of its eyes, and accept my own vulnerability. Of course, it’s never as simple as that. I don’t think I was doing good, straightforward grieving at all. I was pretending that I was managing, when in fact I was drowning, not waving.
And all that hidden, denied anger over the profound unfairness of a wonderful person taken from the world found its release on social media. (There are several levels of stupidity in what I did, but to march into a public row when I was missing a layer of skin was possibly the most foolish. I’m far too sensitive at the best of times, but in sorrow I have absolutely no defences against anything.)
So I said something asinine about not understanding why everyone was defending the fox when foxes are the Charles Manson of the animal kingdom. What about the chickens? I said. Then, in the middle of what I did not realise was an amygdala hijack, I compounded the error by adding two tweets on my own timeline. I deleted them all once I realised my absurdity, but I think I said something about how I did not understand why people were allowed to dislike any animal except the fox. You can not be fond of cats, I said, but you have to love the adorable fox.
As you can see, pretty much everything I wrote was factually inaccurate. I was also anthropomorphising, a sin I sternly try to avoid in all other circumstances. But my blood was up; my core beliefs had been threatened by the crowd; I was beyond rational thought.
What happened next was horrible at the time, but is really interesting to me now. The mob - and that was what it felt like - turned on me. It felt like they were the foxes, and I was the chicken in the coop. I was 'disgusting' and 'moronic' and 'a revolting hypocrite'. This was partly because of the Charles Manson thing, I think, but also because of the context. It read as if I was cheering on the bloke with the bat. I believed, in my folly, that I was sticking up for the chickens. (You can see from this how clouded my brain was.)
I felt stunned and flayed and frightened. I tried to gather my wounded wits. I remembered that I had seen a truly beautiful thing on Facebook not long ago. A gay man was attacked by a women who made a violently homophobic remark. Instead of scolding her or shaming her, he met her with extreme empathy and kindness. By the end, they were friends, and she was no longer making horrible remarks about homosexuality. The power and grace of that response, and the courage too, stuck with me.
I could not reply to all the angry strangers, but I did engage with a few. I took the kind gentleman (I wish I could remember his name) as a model. ‘Thank you so much,’ I wrote, pushing myself to be genuine and not passive-aggressive, ‘for pointing that out’ and I went on to find something good in the fury. There were good things, if one bashed through the abuse. There was passion and honesty and directness, so I emphasised those. I admitted my tweet was badly-worded and impulsive, which it was, and I ended up in harmony with a vegan who started off being incredibly angry, and ended up being gentle and courteous.
Among the rage and the insults, there was good information. Inspired by this, I went and looked up some facts about foxes. One of the good arguments was that they are only following their natural instinct when they kill, and that to give them human intentions of ruthlessness, or murderous glee, or evil cunning was a category error of the worst degree. And that is quite correct. My core belief, which I had never tested, was wrong. I learnt something about the natural world.
I think I will always feel sorrow and pity when I see a group of decapitated chickens, but I won’t ascribe it to some malicious delight on the part of the predator. Pretty much everything I said yesterday was wrong. It’s quite painful to let go of a profound belief, but it’s liberating too. And I can still believe in fairness, I just don’t have to lay unfairness at the feet of the foxes. Nature, after all, is red in tooth and claw, and that is a reality, not a moral choice.
What I also learnt was to think before I type, most especially in times of vulnerability. I had been trying to protect myself, as I navigated the stormy seas of painful emotion, and instead I laid myself bare. I ruined my own Boxing Day, which is usually one of my favourite days of the year. I managed to feel a wash of joy when the beautiful, bold Clan Des Obeaux won the King George, but the bruised, battered feeling of having been set upon returned almost at once.
I was upset by the venom and the intemperate language, and I was also upset by my own wrongness and folly. The fury that rained down on me, I saw, was because those other people probably had their own core beliefs threatened. I kept thinking - why can’t they just tell me they don’t agree, or they think I am in error, rather than calling me names? I see now that this is the red mist of the amygdala, which goes straight for ad hominem. It is the most ancient part of the brain, and the least under the control of modern humans. It does not deal in ‘Perhaps you might find you are mistaken’. It goes straight for ‘You are a truly bad person and must be destroyed.’
I rather wish the people who turned on me in outrage might read this, so they can see that, although their methods were brutal, they did teach me a lesson. They taught me not to go on the offensive or the defensive, but to part the curtains of pain and see whether there is a greater truth. Which, of course, there was. I’d been trading in non-truth, in this particular area, and now I am enlightened. They won’t read it, because they don’t follow me. They are part of the wider Twitter universe, and they will have moved on to the next big story by now. But I’d like them to know that they did me a favour. Another of my core beliefs is of the absolute majesty of good manners. I have discovered that sometimes a bit of rudeness can shock open the hard nut of an entrenched belief.
I write my mea culpa anyway, even if it will only be read by seven people and a goat, because here is yet another of my core beliefs - you have to embrace your mistakes. You have to lean into them, you have to bash through the humiliation, you have to make amends.
I also learnt something beautiful, in all my wrongness. I learnt that there is a huge amount of kindness and restraint in the turbulent waters of the social media. There must have been many, many people among my three thousand and something followers who thought, ‘Goodness, she’s got in a frightful muddle on this one.’ Only one of them (one!) was critical, and that criticism was very mild. The others either politely ignored my raddled thinking or could see that I was not quite myself and held their fire. Many, which is astonishing, were gently sympathetic, as if they could tell that I'd got myself into a fix of my own making.
I have not said much publicly about my lost compadre. I do not want to make a parade, and also I have this powerful feeling that it’s not my grief to write about. It belongs first to his family, and there is a matter of privacy and respect. It is, truly, not all about me. I always want to write about everything, because that is how I make sense of the world. It is how I have always mended my broken heart. But this was not my story to tell. (I mention it cautiously here, because I think it’s an important strand in this parable, for about three different reasons. It’s an example of how grief can make you clumsy, and how denied parts of sorrow will find their route out in curious ways, and how just trying to be stoical and British does not always work.)
I had, however, referred to it in oblique ways, and I think my thoughtful, good-hearted Twitter band must have sensed there was something going on. So they gave me a pass on the moment of fox madness. And that in itself is a truly remarkable thing, and something that touches me very much.
There, it is all out now. I wish I had been able to make it pithy, and funny, and wry. But it wasn’t really any of those things. It prompted a new perspective, and a great wash of tears which I had been bottling up inside, and a rueful, relieved acknowledgement of my own flawed humanity. So perhaps Boxing Day was not ruined after all. One learns good life lessons in the most unexpected ways.