Success

In the last 24 hours I’ve had an Aha! moment that represents one of the biggest breakthroughs of my life.

I have always defined myself as a failure. This morning, before 7:00 a.m., I became a success. Just like that, in one blinding moment of epiphany. I lay there giggling to myself like an idiot. I’ve been doing that all day, in fact.

Standing in the shower, I had another staggering revelation. I suddenly realized when and why I created the identity of being a failure in the first place. It happened when I was very young, before I had the language or ability to understand or explain what I was up to. All I had at that age was my heart, intuition and empathy.

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We had a troubled family system. Bad and scary things were happening that I could not understand. My reasoning was that failing to please was Bad. Pleasing was Good. If I chose failing to please, if I flaunted it, if I accepted it, I would be Bad and others could be Good, and therefore loved and safe.

Of course, I didn’t think of it in any kind of logical or adult sense. What I did have, however, was a great ability to love that even then was unconditional, deep and tender. I loved, do you understand? Only that. Just love and the willingness to do whatever it took to protect my loved ones.

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In those dim years of childhood I embraced being a failure and forged the bars that were to keep me in that prison for 50 years. Failing to please was Bad and terribly painful, but I was comforted by the abilities of others to please and therefore be loved. I believed becoming a lightning rod for displeasure shielded them.

As an adult, I had two children of my own and made exactly the same choice. I endeavored to shield and protect them from physical and psychological harm, no matter what it took. They could not understand, and I could not explain my choices to onlookers because I was protecting so many different people on different levels. I could not tell the truth. There was too much at risk and the truth was too damaging to all of us. I was afraid of the repercussions on those I was trying to shield.

My sense of failure was reinforced at every turn. I was told in words how disappointing and inadequate I was, but far more powerfully, I understood it from nonverbal communication and from the choices of those around me. Once again, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I was doing the best thing for those I loved with my whole heart. I didn’t much care what happened to me if my loved ones could only be protected and happy. One day they would understand not only my choices, but the depth of my love.

The years rolled by. The children grew up and suddenly were adults. They expressed confusion and a sense of loss because of some of my parenting choices. I explained, confident of their understanding.

I realize now my explanations sounded ridiculous, but not because I failed.

I had a lifelong reputation for being dramatic and hypersensitive, which effectively erased my credibility within the family. I had no intention of burdening my sons with old family dynamics and problems that existed long before they were born. I didn’t want to hurt or betray anyone. I didn’t want the boys to have torn loyalties or make them feel they had to choose sides.

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Anything I could say, calmly, neutrally and without emotion, wasn’t even loud enough to get their attention. Trying to convey the authentic truth of my experience would have sounded (I imagined) hysterical and unhinged or, even worse, made them feel they had to take care of me. Come what may, I was never going to ask my children to parent me.

They could intellectually understand my explanation about the choices I made as a parent, but they couldn’t emotionally understand, exactly the outcome I worked for all those years! To them, it just sounded like Mom, talking too much, being embarrassingly emotional and making a big deal about nothing. (She does that.)

Do you see the exquisite irony? My explanations sounded ridiculous because I had succeeded in shielding them so well they had no idea what I was talking about. That was the flip. I didn’t fail at all. I succeeded.

Can you hear the Gods laughing? I can.

When I realized the unintended consequences of my maternal protection, it certainly caught my attention, along with changing my relationship with my kids in deeply painful (for all of us), and, I fear, permanent ways. I have never known such grief, but privately I chalked it all up to another failure of mine and a grief I deserved.

My failure label stayed firmly in place, as solid a part of my identity as my blue eyes or wild hair. It never occurred to me that I could take it off.

Until yesterday. Yesterday, another loved one I have protected made it clear to me how successful I’ve been in protecting him as well. My stoicism, my unrelenting commitment to healing and understanding, my fierce independence, and most of all my love and unwillingness to be disloyal or reveal unwelcome truths that might upset others have been so successful that the truth of my experience sounds like hysterical, made-up, unkind, exaggerated nonsense.

It was the kids all over again.

This time, though, I finally got it. I finally understood that I have succeeded, not failed, in everything I wanted to do out of love for others. Every single thing! I have failed to please, yes. I’ve failed the expectations of others. I’ve failed to be perfect. I’ve failed to keep the family glued together. I’ve failed in trying to force others to be happy and healthy. I’ve failed, most miserably of all, at protecting others from themselves. But none of those failures are real. None of those things were my job or within my power in the first place. They were impossibilities, not failures.

On the other hand, I have succeeded at failing! I did manage to attract negative attention so that others were at less risk. I did carry and sometimes express the emotional burdens of those around me who couldn’t deal with their emotions. The role I chose as a scapegoat did, in a fucked-up kind of way, help keep the family functional enough that we all survived. My “failures” made others look more successful by contrast. My willingness to be the problem child, the dramatic one, helped keep my loved ones out of the line of fire, at least a little bit.

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As a parent, I succeeded. I raised two sons. They are not perfect. I made mistakes. They have baggage to unpack like all the rest of us. Their wounds, however, are different than mine. They were not hurt in the same ways I was. I successfully shielded them from the bombs and grenades that shattered me. I believe they know they are loved and worthy, and that I am proud of them.

What I’m most proud of is my success at loving. Just that. Loving myself and loving others. Nowhere along the way have I lost my ability and willingness to love, absolutely, completely and unconditionally. I love my family of origin. I love my children.  I see now we don’t always get it back, the unconditional love, respect and loyalty we lavish on others. That’s okay. Invisible love, refused love, unrecognized love and unreciprocated love is still love. It’s The Right Thing To Do. It’s the only thing to do. It’s the best I have to give.

As for myself, I feel reborn. I am not a failure. I have never been a failure. I have succeeded in loving and doing my best against all odds. I accept that others may not understand my actions and choices or believe in my love, but that’s their failure, not mine.

This day has revealed to me that every ten minutes or so I call myself a failure, no matter what I’m doing. For the first time in my life, I’ve paused to examine all those so-called failures and discovered .  . . nothing. My identity as a failure is nothing more than a mindless habit. It’s my automatic apologetic response when I cook the bacon too long, don’t properly anticipate my partner’s wishes, want to go to bed early, am standing in the way (nobody ever stands in my way—it’s always me that’s in the wrong place!) or blow off doing an hour of exercise.

I have successfully mastered the art of failure. Bored now. I’m going to go be successful.

My daily crime.

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A Recipe For Courage

I ran into a great question a few weeks ago: “What gives you courage?” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Courage, the ability to do something frightening or having strength in spite of pain or grief, is not the absence of fear. If we have no fear we have no need of courage.

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Fear, in my experience, is multifaceted. My most private fears are about my own wholeness and worth. Then, there’s the fear of external forces, like a coward with a gun in the supermarket; the judgement or criticism of a loved one; or a personal loss, injury or illness.

Yet another kind of fear is one I suspect many of us feel right now, a sort of ill-defined psychic shadow, a general feeling of insecurity about the state of our world and the future. I try not to give it too much attention, but it’s always there, like a thin cloud between me and the sun. I know the only place I have power is right here, right now, in this moment, and I’m glad I’m typing at the keyboard rather than staring out the window and wondering what tragedy or catastrophe will be brought to my attention next and where it will all end.

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Is that a kind of courage, staying intentional in the moment and managing our own power?

Perhaps.

So, what keeps us going in times like these, in spite of our fear?

Oddly, the first thing I thought of was a poem I read as a teenager. All these years I’ve kept it and thought about the wagon wheel that did not break, the faithful dog, the innocent child. I’ve long forgotten where I came across it and I don’t know who wrote it.

Journal Note Long Ago

Crossing the wilderness or the sea I take with me nobody
who is afraid nor do I want with me the memory of a man
or woman who is afraid.

I am afraid enough myself now—there are shadows and ghosts
enough now—in the meshes of my corpuscles—and so I must
not ask others to go.

I keep the memory of a dog who was never afraid, a wagon
whose wheels lasted, a child who had not lived long enough
to know the meaning of the words Yesterday and Tomorrow.

The second thing that comes to mind about the source of my own courage also seems peculiar, but on second thought it might be a way of talking about faith. If and when I am able to identify The Right Thing To Do in any circumstance, fear ceases to have any power over me. I certainly feel it, and sometimes it seems I’ll be ground into oblivion by it, but as long as I’ve breath and a pulse I will do what I believe is right, come what may.

This is a trait fanatics and zealots of every stripe share with me, a fact which makes me pause and shudder. There is a difference, though, between a suicide bomber or the aforesaid coward with a gun and me. I don’t pretend to know what’s right for others, only myself. I’m not interested in having power over other people, forcing my ideology on those around me or taking out my frustrations on others.

My sense of The Right Thing To Do always involves my integrity and intuition, and is not weakened by the judgements and criticisms of those around me. My integrity and intuition are my own. Only I can maintain them. Without them, I am nothing.

When people talk about faith, I generally think of religion, which can be a staunch support for courage as well as a powerful motivator. However, most religions I’m familiar with require submission to a so-called higher authority, either human and/or sacred text (the author of which is frequently unclear and the original of which was written in a language and context I’m unfamiliar with). Many good people build their lives on a bedrock of religious faith and are sustained by it. That is not my way. I will not sacrifice my personal power to an external authority.

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Information and learning give me courage. Literacy and curiosity are gateways to understanding, compassion and revelation. The beauty and complexity of our world and our universe, the remarkable experience of being human, the persistence of life, the perspective of history, the indomitable creativity of the human spirit—all these inspire me and give me courage.

My study and practice of minimalism has given me courage. The more objects and distractions I peel away from my space, time and energy, the stronger and more peaceful I become. Serenity, it turns out, has everything to do with living with less stuff, needing less money and concentrating on the undistracted and undiluted abundance of each moment. I don’t need nearly as much as I thought I did. Peace, joy, clarity and courage immediately flower in the space freed from stuff. I have what I need. I am what I need.

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And that brings me to the last big ingredient in my particular recipe for courage. Learning to know, love and trust myself has given me courage. Part of this has to do with the gifts of aging. I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, made a lot of mistakes and collected a lot of scars. Every day I learn a little more and heal a little more. I have allowed my experience in life to expand my compassion, empathy, intuition, wisdom and ability to love. I’m a resilient, adaptable survivor, and I know, no matter what happens, I’ll do my best to my last breath.

A poem. The Right Thing To Do. Information and learning. Minimalism. Self-regard. Mix well.

Courage.

My daily crime.

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The Breakdown Lane

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I’ve been sitting in the breakdown lane this weekend, watching traffic pass me by, (all their cars work!) and wondering why my car, which has been just fine, has suddenly stopped functioning.

We’ve probably all done this at least once, literally speaking. Metaphorically speaking, we’ve all done it many times. We go along in our small world, and as far as we know everything is status quo and just what we expect, and then, suddenly, it isn’t. Things go off the rails and all we can think is WTF?

Sometimes I’m the one who has suddenly gone off the rails. Except, looking back, I realize it wasn’t sudden at all. Sometimes the breakdown was years in the making, but I wasn’t present enough with myself and my feelings to notice the gradual fraying and come up with a plan. Grimly, I hung on, hoping, waiting, hurting myself, arguing with what was, denying my experience, trying harder, drowning in shame, crippled by fear, until I absolutely could not hang on any longer and my last fingernail tore out.

Then I let go, after it was far too late to problem solve or help myself or anyone else involved.

I still regret that I did not have the support or resources to make different choices. I hurt myself, and I hurt others. I take responsibility for my behavior and clean up what I can, but some things just can’t be fixed—and perhaps shouldn’t be in any case.

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I think a lot about these sudden moments where things fall apart, either within us or between us. The breakdown lane is like a time out, an enforced pause. In a moment or two, the whole aspect of the day, the future, and my plans for them have changed. I realize I’m not in control. All I have is an unpleasant snarl of disappointed expectations, thwarted intentions, frustration, anger and a need to blame someone or something, including myself.

A broken car or piece of equipment is one thing. An interpersonal breakdown is another.

Few things are more painful than feeling unloved, unwanted or rejected by someone we care about. Hell, it’s painful when we feel those things from someone we don’t care about. Imagine being an immigrant in this country right now.

I have felt unloved, unwanted and rejected. I’ve also had loved ones tell me they feel unloved, unwanted or rejected by me. As I know that’s not how I feel about them, I question my certainty that others feel that way about me. If they’re misinterpreting my actions, words and choices, perhaps I’m doing the same thing.

Our feelings are real. The stories we make up about them may not be. In other words, I might feel rejected when the person I’m interacting with has no intention of sending that message. The way I express love and affection may be so different from someone else’s idea of how to express it that it’s lost in translation.

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That doesn’t mean it’s not present.

I focus a great deal on language in this blog. I do that because words matter. They have layers of meaning. It seems to me that nearly every interpersonal breakdown can be traced to a misunderstanding over a definition of terms. Getting at the bottom-line meaning of a word is as easy as looking it up:

Friend: “A person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” (Oxford online dictionary)

Pretty simple, right? We all know what it means to be a friend and have a friend.

Except that we don’t. We might agree on that basic definition, but I suspect we each assign a whole world of additional personal meaning to the word friend, and that world contains longings, memories, hopes and fears, expectations, deep needs, beliefs, and old scars and wounds.

I’ve been thinking about that. When I talk about, think about and participate in friendship, what does that mean to me? What is a friend, besides someone I know and with whom I have a bond of mutual affection?

It’s a great question. I wish I could ask everyone I know. I won’t, because for some reason this kind of question seems to make most people uncomfortable, but feel free to volunteer an answer!

At this point in my life, I’m not interested in constructing relationships out of expectations and an attachment to outcome. I’ve always operated in a framework of both of those in my relationships, and it’s never worked. In the last four years I’ve taken a clear, cold look at my previously unconscious expectations of self and others and the myriad ways in which I’ve sabotaged myself and others with attachment to certain agendas and outcomes.

What I do instead (and a joyous, fascinating, loving process it is) is observe with curiosity and interest as relationships form and change. Viewed from this perspective, it’s like nurturing a child, a garden where we’ve planted seeds, an animal, or a piece of land. Freed from my extremely limited and limiting expectations and agenda, I can watch and appreciate all the unexpected, magnificent ways we are—and life is.

It’s the difference between saying: “This is who I (or the other) must or must not be,” and “Who are you?” or, even better, “I want everything you are and nothing you’re not.” Say that (and mean it) to yourself or someone you love every day and I guarantee your relationships will change for the better.

So, now, what do I mean by a friend?

A friend is someone with whom I can laugh, explore new information and ideas, excavate less-than-useful beliefs and patterns, learn and unlearn. A friend is someone with whom I engage in a contest of generosity. I want to ask questions, pull things out from under the bed and let the cat sniff at them, be wrong, problem solve, consider options. I want to practice boundaries, tolerance, respect and being real. I want to allow and be allowed. I want relationships that make my life bigger. I want to share reading, movies, music, memories, silence, work, nature, my truths. I want someone who says, “make yourself big!” while pursuing that same goal themselves.

(Not coincidentally, this is the kind of friend I strive to be to others.)

When I consider the above paragraph, and imagine that each of us could write an equally long but different paragraph, the concept of friend goes rapidly from a simple one-sentence definition to something much more complicated and personal. This wouldn’t be so problematic if we were aware of it, but we’re not. We say friend, knowing exactly what we mean, and never considering that the person we’re talking to, who’s also using the word, means something different.

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Then, one day, these two invisible sets of definitions, expectations and desired outcomes collide and we experience, hurt, outrage, betrayal, anger, disappointment, rejection, fear and disconnection.

I admit I have no fix for this ubiquitous problem. Even being aware of how differently we define terms doesn’t save me from ending up sitting in the breakdown lane. It would be good if the problematic words in any given relationship had a tag warning us of problems ahead if we aren’t careful to understand one another from the beginning.

On the other hand, that would take out the part where we sit in the breakdown lane trying to understand what just happened, how and if to fix it, and how our choices led to it. Uncomfortable as it is, I value that opportunity.

Sitting in the breakdown lane with my heartbeat and breath. Feeling my feelings. Curious about what will happen next. Confident that when it’s time to move on I’ll know it and do so. Considering what I might learn in this space. Getting bigger. Getting bigger. Getting bigger.

My daily crime.