Whose Need?

I stumbled across a parenting advice column in the online publication Slate recently. It caught my eye because the columnist responds to the parent’s question with another question: Whose needs are we talking about here, yours (the parent’s) or the child’s?

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The columnist describes this question as one of the best pieces of parenting advice she ever received. I’ll go further and say it’s one the best pieces of relationship advice I’ve come across.

I’m a parent, a sister and a daughter. All are difficult roles I feel I’ve failed to play adequately, although I consistently ignored my own needs in favor of what I understood as my family’s needs and expectations.

Ironically, I realize now that by far my greatest failure in life has been a failure to honor myself and my own needs. Whether or not we can please others in any consistent way is debatable, but I discover that accepting responsibility for pleasing myself, though it feels odd and unaccustomed, fills me with joy and gratitude. My wants and needs are simple and few, and honoring them has been enormously healing.

This new behavior is also a source of anguish beyond words.

The anguish arises from a conflict many of us face at one time or another—a conflict of values. I value connection and being of service to others, which involves compassion, respect, tolerance and unconditional love. I also, for the first time, value myself. I’m stunned at the destruction that occurs when these values collide.

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Is it necessary to choose between meeting our own needs and meeting the needs of others? I suspect part of the answer to that question lies in the specific needs themselves and how we view them as a culture. Perhaps it’s just my bad luck that I’m a misfit. My need to not be tied to social media and a cellphone, for example, is just as important to me as the needs of others to be firmly embedded in social media and keep their cellphones in hand, but my need is not culturally supported. Fair enough. The fact that I’m slightly out of step from most other people in my culture is not a newsflash, nor is it something that requires fixing or changing. I view diversity and deviance from the social norm as strengths, not weaknesses.

As I’ve begun to stand up for my own needs, I’ve been told I’m cowardly, selfish, destructive and hurtful to those I love best, disappointing, stubborn and inadequate. I’ll own stubborn. I don’t take responsibility for being disappointing; it’s not my job to meet the expectations of others. As for the rest of those characterizations, they’re so far off the mark of who I am that I can’t take them seriously, although they cut me to the heart.

I don’t view managing needs as an exercise in all or nothing. I can usually come up with several ways to meet my own needs and support others in theirs. More often than not, however, I’m forced into an all-or-nothing framework, which feels like manipulation or intimidation, or both. That’s why the accusation of cowardice makes me shake my head. Refusing to give in to such tactics is not the act of a coward.

Why do we tolerate and support behavior that demands others be responsible for meeting our needs, but attack those who take responsibility for meeting their own? Talk about a sick society!

The hardest thing about being unsupported in meeting one’s needs is that there’s no recourse. Trying to explain to those who aren’t interested or are committed to misunderstanding or taking our choices personally is a waste of time and energy. Our only power lies in the choice between bowing to external pressure and abandoning ourselves or living with authenticity and integrity and accepting the consequences. I know what my choice is, but sometimes I don’t know how to survive the pain of it.

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I wonder how many people are in exactly this spot; how many people move through their days and nights trying desperately to manage a balance between their own needs and everyone else’s, or agonizing over the tension between caring for others and caring for themselves when needs are not in harmony.

As human beings, we lead complex emotional lives. Needs are not the only variable. Boundaries can be very difficult to negotiate. We’re frequently unaware of how important reciprocity is in our various relationships. Ideals such as unconditional love and always being present for someone, no matter what, are lovely in theory, but do we owe unconditional love and support to those who don’t give it to us? Is it our job, in any role, to consistently put the other’s needs first in order to prove our love or justify being alive, or an employee, or a family member?

As a woman, I can’t think about needs without considering emotional labor. In any given relationship, who is doing the emotional labor of listening, practicing authenticity, organizing, scheduling, thinking ahead, staying in touch, practicing absolute loyalty, providing unconditional love or other kinds of support and nurture, managing feelings, and balancing needs? If that work is not shared or reciprocal, relationships wither and die, or the one burdened with the emotional labor does. There it is again—that choice, that terrible choice. Do we take action to save ourselves, even from our most beloved, in such a case, or do we ignore our needs and keep going until there’s nothing left of us because we are women who love?

Needs are not wrong, or a matter of shame. We all have them; we have a perfect right to get them well and truly met AND our needs are as important and not more important than the needs of others. We’re not all honest about our needs, however, especially needs to control and maintain power over others. Too often, we assume that others have the same needs we do. Those of us who want to live and let live and assume others are after the same outcome are frequent targets for personality-disordered people looking for prey, power, fuel or other benefits.

Whose need is this? Answered honestly, the question opens a door to better parenting and better relationships in general. The question is an invitation to intimacy, respect, power-with, problem solving, tolerance and unconditional love. It also shines the bright and sometimes terrible light of clarity on our agendas for others and theirs for us, and the true quality and health of our relationships. If we can’t or won’t identify, respect and support our own needs along with the needs of others, we’ll surely extinguish ourselves as a species.

Asking “Whose need is this?” My daily crime.

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Terra Incognita

My partner and I have been watching back episodes of Nova for several weeks now on PBS. Last evening, as we watched “What’s Living In You?” and “Can We Make Life?” I realized that part of why I like the show so much is that it’s filled with people from all over the world who know they don’t know … and they want to know.

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This is a direct contrast to some interactions I had this week with people who know … everything. They know what happened; they know everyone’s motivations and secrets; they know exactly what everyone else should think, do and say. They have no interest in anyone else’s point of view or experience. They ask no questions seeking understanding or more information. They don’t have to. They already know, and any information that doesn’t fit their story is an attack, a lie, or a threat.

In these posts I’ve referenced Kathryn Schultz’s book, Being Wrong, a fascinating and funny look at the myriad ways in which we’re all wrong, every day, though some folks seem to feel their lives depend upon winning and being right. Even when forced to admit we’ve been wrong about something, we avoid thinking or talking about it, concentrating instead on all the ways we were, are, and will be right!

We live in a world in which knowing is highly valued. Uncertainty or even, God forbid, admitting or contemplating the vast cosmos of what we don’t know, is seen by some as weakness. I suspect, however, that what’s really going on is simply fear. It makes us uncomfortable to think about how much we don’t know. If we discover things, we might have to make different choices, and most of us don’t want to do that. It’s too much work.

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Fear doesn’t empower me, and neither does being right or wrong, or knowing or not knowing, Power is in the inquiry, in the questions, in the curiosity about ourselves, each other and our world. Power is in our ability to learn, unlearn and relearn—also called resilience–as we navigate our lives. We’re all both right and wrong, ignorant and knowledgeable, whether we admit it or not, but not everyone can ask a good question. Not everyone is able to propose an hypothesis and see it through to becoming a theory.

One of my greatest frustrations in life is with people who don’t want to know. What is that? How can anyone choose to be willfully ignorant? I don’t mean that we all need to be interested in everything, as though life is one unending mechanistic reductionist set of classes. I mean that we all need to be interested … period. In ourselves and the quality of our lives and experience. In others and the qualities of their lives and experiences. In our home, Planet Earth, and how to take care of it. In problem-solving and innovation. In relationships and connection. In choices and consequences. In patterns, history and creativity.

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The old map-makers drew maps of the discovered world, labeling the undiscovered areas “Terra incognita” or “Here be dragons.” What is the difference between someone who stays strictly within the confines of what the majority accepts as known and those of us who poke and pry; open forbidden doors, jars and boxes; look through microscopes and telescopes; and sail, ride, walk, stumble or crawl in search of dragons?

It boggles my mind to imagine that some people find safety in not knowing, in not understanding. How can we make effective choices if we’re missing information? How can we heal, or learn to do better? How can we break dysfunctional patterns in our behavior? How can we have healthy, authentic relationships with ourselves or anyone else?

The hardest part of this issue for me is how disconnected I feel from people who say they don’t want to know. I think of life as an adventure, and I want playmates. I want to share what I’ve learned and learn more. I want to live the questions. I want to explore, reframe, turn beliefs and ideas inside out and upside down. I want to master new tools and skills. I feel sad when people in my life can’t—or won’t—play with me.  It’s hard to feel that my curiosity and questions are threatening to others. It silences me, and when I have to be silent, or less than I am, I’m bored.

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The older I get, the less I realize I know. The older I get, the more willing I am to be wrong. The older I get, the more comfortable and confident I am with my ability to research, read, synthesize, understand, experiment, challenge and learn. I notice how angry that makes some people, and how intolerant some folks are of questions, especially uncomfortable questions.

Terra incognita. What a wonderful phrase. Anything could be there, anything at all. I’ll send you a postcard with a footprint of a dragon.

My daily crime.

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Scapegoat

I’ve been exploring the concept of scapegoating. The information I’ve uncovered so far indicates the idea originates in the Bible, though I won’t be surprised if I discover pre-Christian roots to the practice.

Briefly, in Biblical times, two goats were chosen when the community felt it needed cleansing. One was a sacrificial goat, who was killed to appease the Divine. The other goat was symbolically laden with the so-called “sins” of the people and driven into the desert to die, thus eradicating all that sin.

Sigh. What a ridiculous coping mechanism. If only it was that easy! Eradicating real or perceived “sins” by assigning them to innocent animals and then killing them strikes me as immature, cowardly, impotent, and completely ineffective.

As an aside, in my experience those who thunder about the “sins” of others are the most destructive and guilty of all. Just ignore the man behind the curtain!

The role of a scapegoat seems to be essential to human society. We scapegoat individuals and we scapegoat groups. One of the reasons I’m more and more resistant to labels is that they support and feed our ability to scapegoat others. Scapegoating is the root of genocide.

Scapegoating is abusive, and it’s a psychological trick, a distraction, a projection and a manipulation. Worst of all, it’s dishonest.

It’s also, frequently, murder, by which I mean the deliberate destruction (or attempted destruction) of an innocent. Ironically, family systems that scapegoat children often choose the most sensitive, empathetic, loving and talented child (often the healthiest family member) and set out to begin a systematic long-term campaign of destruction of that child so that others within the family can avoid responsibility for their own lives.

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One can spend all day online exploring scapegoating. It’s depressing research. Those who are scapegoated have a horrendous experience of pain, isolation and rejection that frequently leads them into addiction and other self-harming behaviors, and cripples their ability to form healthy relationships, particularly with themselves, and make positive contributions. Many scapegoats do, in fact, go metaphorically out into the desert or wilderness and die.

But not all of them.

Let us not forget that of the two, the scapegoat is the one who survives. The sacrificial goat is out of time and out of choices, but not the scapegoat.

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What happens when the scapegoat is spit upon, reviled, cursed and turned away, staggering and stumbling under everyone’s unacknowledged shadows, darkness, feelings and fears? What happens in the lonely black cold of the desert night, in the blazing, thirsty grit of the desert sun?

A long, slow death by inches from despair, isolation, thirst and hunger?

Do scapegoats meet other scapegoats, and if so, do they compare notes and experiences and support one another in surviving and healing, or do they, in their turn, scapegoat those they meet and perpetuate their own misery and damage?

OR do they meet an Angel, or another aspect of the Divine? Perhaps they reclaim and reanimate themselves. Maybe dreams and visions come to them. Maybe a fearsome Hag or an animal guide teaches them to find or create water in the desert. Perhaps a desert mouse or a scorpion appears and relieves the scapegoat of all that does not belong to it, either burying the toxic waste of others in the clean, hot sand of the desert or, better yet, sending the poison back to its source(s).

Perhaps scapegoats meet the Devil in the desert. Do you know the meaning of The Devil card in the Tarot? Authentic experience. Some people fear authentic experience more than anything else in the world, and they’ll do anything to silence, destroy or stifle it. Who is more feared or hated than the Whistle Blower, the One Who Tells Their Truth?

Maybe tribal shaming and exile are in fact a release from prison and a doorway to personal power. Maybe the desert has been waiting to embrace the scapegoat for an eternity, waiting with gifts and spirits and guides, waiting with wisdom, patience and healing.

When we flush the toilet, we don’t expect to see the contents again. Occasionally, something goes wrong and we do see the contents again! Very disconcerting. Imagine being a bearded patriarch with a paunch and a fine embroidered cloak of arrogance and entitlement. The beard hides a weak chin and the paunch hides a frightened, impotent, controlling personality that is unable to be wrong, learn or grow. In order to relieve the chronic stress of maintaining a pseudo self and constant unacknowledged fear, the patriarch symbolically loads a goat with all his unwanted psychological and emotional shadow and darkness (which he has just increased) and drives it away with rocks and blows.

Now imagine the goat returns some time later, strong and broad-shouldered. It dances in the moonlight on stardust hooves outside the city walls. Its thick, silky coat stirs in the desert wind. The twists and spirals of its horns gleam like marble sculpture. Free and unburdened, the scapegoat has become a wild, enduring, sensual creature of primal instinct and power.

The patriarch, by contrast, has become smaller, weaker, and more wretched.

I’ve reached two conclusions about scapegoats and scapegoating.

The first is that scapegoating doesn’t work. Not only is it ineffective, it’s weak, and, frankly, I’m embarrassed for those who engage in it. People who scapegoat others are only drawing attention to their own meagre hearts and intellect. They can’t meet their own gaze in the mirror; they prefer to displace and project their self-hatred, fears and feelings onto others.

The second conclusion I’ve reached is that the day we are driven into the desert from the gates of our loved ones or our homes as scapegoats may also be the day we are reborn into something fine and powerful, something wild and resilient and enduring.

Consorting with scapegoats. My daily crime.

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A Horse With No Name
America

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

After two days in the desert sun
My skin began to turn red
After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

After nine days I let the horse run free
‘Cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
there was sand and hills and rings
The ocean is a desert with it’s life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

Songwriters: DEWEY BUNNELL© Warner