Monthly Archives: August 2019

The Breakdown Lane

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

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.

Just Deserts

Sometimes the inside of my own head astonishes me. It’s amazing how much of our internal framework is undetected bullshit that runs our lives. For example, this is a belief I’ve always accepted without ever thinking about it:

I get what I deserve
I deserve what I get

I have it,
therefore I deserve it

I deserve it
because I have it.

You have not got it
therefore you do not deserve it

You do not deserve it
because you have not got it

You have not got it
because you do not deserve it

You do not deserve it
therefore you have not got it.
R.D. Laing, Knots

This piece of nonsense masquerades as a Universal Law, and I believed it!

So, what does it mean to deserve something?

Interestingly, the word “deserve” comes from the Latin word “deservire,” meaning “serve well or zealously” (Oxford online dictionary). Serve as in servant? Serve as in slave?

Serve, as in somebody else has the power to judge the value of our service, regardless of how we evaluate it?

Now, there’s a slippery slope of disempowerment!

The more I mull this over, the clearer it is to me that being judged as deserving or undeserving is a human construct. It’s not real. It collapses when I try to examine it. Do we really believe that we get exactly what we deserve? Children are starving because they deserve to? People die of cancer because they deserve it? One percent of the population has most of the financial resource because they deserve it and the rest of us don’t?

No. I don’t believe that.

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My reading of current complex systems science (please see my Bookshelves page) has taught me that life is defined by living. Life wants to live, be it a bacterium, a fern, a woodpecker, or a human being. Life is persistent, adaptive, and depends on the passing on of genetic material and energy gradients. Life is solely occupied with meeting its needs for life, and most successful life teams up with other kinds of life in complex systems.

There is no deserve in all that. There is no implicit guarantee of rights or resource. Successful life often leads to population overshoot, at which point the successful species uses up its resource and predators of the overshoot population increase their population to take advantage of the abundant food and energy supply.

Photo by Manuel Barroso Parejo on Unsplash

I did nothing to deserve the circumstances of my birth as a white female in the United States. I’m no more or less deserving of life than a mycelium spore. If I die of some kind of drug-resistant organism, my death is nothing more or less than the inevitable consequence of my species being in overshoot.

We humans spend a lot of time fighting with one another, as any overcrowded population will. There’s current buzz about hate, oppression, immigration and white supremacy. My own view is that all those issues are not the root of the matter, but distractions. The real issue is our unconscious and false sense of ourselves as human supremacists, superior to the sacred cycles and processes of life and death. Most of us believe, behave, and act as though our needs are more important than the needs of other human beings, and certainly more important than the needs of all the other countless and magnificent forms of life with whom we inhabit this planet.

Photo by Seth Macey on Unsplash

We will discover—we are discovering—that we cannot stand alone, however. In fact, most life on the planet can do much better without us than we can do without it.

Life and death are the context in which all our experience is embedded. We’ve only begun to identify some of the laws that govern the way they work together. We’re only now realizing how interdependent all forms of life are, even as we actively destroy other species we depend upon for food and water.

As human beings, we have needs. If our needs don’t get met, we die. This is so for every form of life. We either live as part of a sustainable complex system or we die as a species. As individuals, we are born and live because of those who have died before us, and our inevitable death gives life to those who come after us. It’s really very simple. Debating whether we ourselves or any other form of life is deserving or not is an idiotic waste of time and energy.

The concept of deserving is one more piece of mental clutter, along with pleasing others and arguing with what is, that I’m joyfully letting go. For years I’ve hurt myself with it; it’s limited me and been a heavy burden to carry. Without it I feel lighter, freer, and I notice an increased sense of reverence and gratitude for my life and all the life around me. I am not supreme. I’m a child, a student, and one small life among many others, all of which have equal value to my own and much to share and teach, if I can set my human arrogance aside long enough to listen.

As Loren Eisley writes in All the Strange Hours: “Life, life for the purposes of life, and is that then so small?”

My daily crime.

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Respect

The word “respect” is jumping up and down in my life this week, hand thrust in the air, saying “me, me, me!”

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

This post started with more from R. D. Laing’s book, Knots:

A son should respect his father. He should not have to be taught to respect his father. It is something that is natural.

It is the duty of children to respect their parents. And it is the duty of parents to teach their children to respect them, by setting a good example.

Parents who do not set their children a good example don’t deserve respect.

As usual, I have thoughts and questions. ‘Should’ is a word I shun. It implies arguing with what is. Who says a son (or any child) should respect his father? I believe this rule has its roots in the Bible and/or other spiritual traditions. Does that mean it can’t be questioned? (This is a trick question. If you say no, I will immediately start questioning it!)

Is respect ever a given? Do we (must we) “naturally” respect others? Are we born knowing how to respect others? Are we born knowing how to respect ourselves, or do we learn by watching those around us? (For more on parenting and respect, here’s the perspective of parenting expert and author of Connection Parenting, Pam Leo.)

What’s a “good example,” and who gets to define it?

What the heck does respect mean, anyway?

According to Oxford online dictionary, the meaning of respect includes “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicted by their abilities, qualities, or achievements” as well as “due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.”

Aha! Two distinct meanings.

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Across both digital and face-to-face human interaction, I see a troubling pattern of boundary loss and deliberate blurring of terms such as respect. It seems that suddenly we are expected to blindly respect, in the sense of deeply admire, everyone, no matter their words or actions. Worse than that, we’re supposed to agree with the ideologies and beliefs of others. Respect and agreement have come to mean the same thing. If we don’t agree with someone’s thoughts, feelings and beliefs, we’re haters and bigots. We have no respect.

Newsflash: Agreement and respect are not the same thing. They are not mutually exclusive, but they have different meanings. They may appear together. They can and do exist independent of one another.

Additionally, disagreement is not hate and is no measure of compassion, which can be fully present with either agreement or disagreement.

I found a perfect explanation of this in the Wiki entry for conflation:

“In an alternate illustrative example, respect is used both in the sense of “recognise a right” and “have high regard for”. We can recognise someone’s right to the opinion the United Nations is secretly controlled by alien lizards on the moon, without holding this idea in high regard. But conflation of these two different concepts leads to the notion that all ideological ideas should be treated with respect, rather than just the right to hold these ideas.”

I can understand the desperate search for some kind of certainty in life, some kind of code-breaking formula that helps us make sense of everything from relationships to global change. I also understand that many people are so busy trying to survive and cope with their day-to-day lives that discussions, explorations and distinctions of the kind I’m preoccupied with have no meaning. The world is full of people who take the attitude of TLDR (too long; didn’t read). It’s so much easier to attach to a meme or belief system along the lines of they’re for me or against me.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Unfortunately, reality is a lot more complicated than that and life is not black and white. Nothing is certain. People change. New information appears. We’re frequently trying to unlearn. In spite of how much we want to be right, much of the time we’re wrong. Refusing to take in any new information for fear it will threaten our safe place to stand will not keep us in control or protect us. What it will do is wither our critical thinking skills, our curiosity and our appreciation of others.

I endeavor to treat everyone respectfully, by which I mean I have space for people to believe what they believe. In general, I am successful in this intention. That being said, I view respect similarly to tolerance, as a peace treaty. Nobody likes to be attacked, and I’m no exception to that. I don’t attack others, but I will defend myself. I don’t think we’re all automatically entitled to respect, and I certainly don’t think I am. I’m also perfectly prepared for others to disagree with me on any given subject. That doesn’t mean (to me) we can’t have a respectful conversation about the issue we disagree upon, and it doesn’t mean I excise people from my life who hold different beliefs than I do.

I also recognize there are people in the world who intend to silence all disagreement and demand respect from everyone without giving it. This is cluster B behavior, and it’s about power and control over others. This population in particular seeks to conflate things like respect and agreement, using malicious and often ridiculous labels and jargon, threats, punishment and violence to silence and intimidate others. This behavior is called coercion. Some people say they want respect, but what they’re really after is agreement. Respect alone does not satisfy them.

I was once confronted by an extremely unpleasant woman who demanded to know if I am pro-choice or pro-life. It wasn’t her business, but I had no wish to escalate her drama, so I answered her truthfully and quietly: “Both.”

She immediately became both abusive and threatening, demanding I answer one way or another and telling me I couldn’t be both.

Excuse me? I can and am both. I said above I can understand why people adhere to black-and-white thinking, but I will not have it forced upon me. I don’t agree with such thinking or trust it, and I refuse to employ it. I was willing to respect her right to an either/or ideology, but I pushed back when she tried to force it on me.

Ironically, I find myself to be The Enemy, even among loved ones, because I disagree with some current ideologies, or I refuse to take a polarized stance. As I am one of the least judgmental and most respectful (in the sense of “due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others,”) people I know, this is a bitter twist, and the injustice of it hurts. Reciprocity is nice, if you can get it.

Which brings me to the last aspect of respect I’ve been thinking about, which probably should be first, if I wrote this essay in order of importance.

What about self-respect?

Who teaches us to respect ourselves, or is that innate or “natural?” If it’s taught, do we learn best if the adults around us model self-respect and support us in giving it to ourselves? If it’s innate, can the adults around us damage our self-respect or force us to choose between respecting ourselves and respecting them? If we have little or no self-respect, are we greatly compelled to persuade or coerce others to support our beliefs? What brings us more satisfaction, respecting ourselves or feeling respected by others? Can the respect of others ever replace our self-respect?

As usual, I have more questions than answers, but I can say two things with confidence:

Respect and agreement are not the same thing.

I have no power to make others respect me, but I have complete power over whether I respect myself.

My daily crime.

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