Like so many clichés, “Oh, no, not another ‘growth’ opportunity!” is obnoxious, in large part because it’s true.
Opportunity, or a set of circumstances that make it possible to do something (Oxford Online Dictionary), does not guarantee a positive outcome, and is most definitely a gift with strings attached.
I would go so far as to say
the greatest opportunities are likely to be hidden under paralyzing layers of
fear, dread, and pain.
Opportunity demands responsibility. No wonder we so often avoid it! It takes a determined effort to excavate opportunity, an effort requiring time, honesty, and dealing with our emotions, defenses, habits and denial.
Hence, the cliché. Growth is
frequently uncomfortable and expensive.
I suspect every one of us has a secret list in our heads of events and possibilities we simply cannot face. Usually, we feel that way because we’ve already lived through them and they were so traumatic we’re determined to never go there again. In essence, we’re afraid of ghosts. We think we’ll die if we have to face another loss, another attack, another rejection or another battle, forgetting that we’ve obviously survived the first time(s), and thus are older and wiser.
What to do when we fear
we’ll have to revisit some traumatic setting or situation? Freeze? Fight? Flee?
Probably all of those, in
one form or another. Yet there is another choice. It’s not an easy choice, but
it’s an option.
Reframe. Reframe. Reframe.
Setting aside for a moment our history, our memories, our stories and scripts about what did happen and what will surely happen again, setting aside our fear, rage and pain, wiping the blood out of our eyes, taking a deep breath and searching for opportunity is the work of heroes. Such a choice feeds our power, rather than diminishing it.
If we can catch even a glimpse, a whisper, a rumor of opportunity, the next step is to identify what we might do with the circumstances we dread most. What is that dread about? What has not healed?
What, in fact, do we need, and how do we turn the circumstances we most fear and wish to avoid into an opportunity for hope, healing, closure, forgiveness, letting go, or whatever it is we need to do?
Now, there’s a mighty
Some things in life are inevitable. We can kick and scream, deny and avoid, distract and pretend, but we know some things are inevitable. I’d rather figure out how to think about inevitabilities before they occur. I can’t think when I’m shaking with dread. Dread is a dead end. It fills my mind with a dull roar, it overwhelms my senses, and it hangs out with despair, depression, powerlessness, futility and a lot of other bad actors I don’t want to have anything to do with.
Dread makes me want to run
like a panicked rabbit. Opportunity embraces me like a mother.
It is possible to insist our emotions, like fear and dread, sit quietly on a bench (with beer, bubble gum and baseball cards to keep them occupied) while we interview Opportunity. It takes some practice and self-discipline, but we can succeed in feeling our feelings and setting overwhelming emotion to the side unless we’re being actively hurt in real time.
Here are some interview
questions for Opportunity:
Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be
well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
I first heard that quote five years ago. It gave me comfort, because it allowed the possibility that my feeling of isolation and alienation at the time was a normal response. The problem, I find, with taking too much responsibility is that one stops excavating interpersonal challenges. Instead, we assume it’s all our fault because we know we’re broken. This attitude effectively blocks further inquiry into what the people around us are up to. If we can be taught or manipulated into believing we’re the core of the problem in social interaction, our shame and guilt give those around us a free pass to behave however they like and treat us however they wish. No matter what happens, they can count on us to blame ourselves.
A friend of mine recently pointed out a lot of social media
buzz about normalizing obesity. As I am not on social media, I did some
research into memes and articles about this issue, and everything I saw made me
think of the Krishnamurti quote.
Here again I see sloppy language. Almost every source agrees that carrying too much weight on our frame is unhealthy. Unhealthy, as in bad for one’s health. Not ugly, stupid, lazy, lacking self-control, or a whole host of other slurs, taunts and unkind criticisms that many overweight people have endured their whole lives.
Obesity is unhealthy. The fact that we have so many people struggling with obesity in this country doesn’t change unhealthy to healthy because it’s so common. A growing population of obese people signals a profoundly unhealthy society. Normal, as in usual, typical or expected, does not imply useful, healthy, functional or positive.
Is normal a goal, or is it merely a cop-out? Is normal something we aspire to because it makes us bigger, or is it something we have to make ourselves smaller in order to fit into? Who gets to decide what is usual, typical or expected? What are the consequences of choosing not to be usual, typical or expected?
I can answer that one. Consequences include tribal shaming, deplatforming, silencing and other violent, destructive and coercive responses.
Normal is one of those words that we define ourselves. Normal describes something that’s not aberrant or abnormal. Abnormal is the absence of normal. That distinction can be useful, but in a limited way. Conflating normality with Good and abnormality or different with Bad (or vice versa) is mindless, black-and-white groupthink, the kind of ideology that drives genocide, religious persecution and racism.
Our culture and context help us define normal, but if our society is profoundly sick, to be well-adjusted and “normal” within it is to be profoundly sick.
This is particularly true when I look at money. I’m noticing an ever-widening gap between money and value in my own life and in the lives around me. Until recently, I thought of all resource as money, and a life without some magical amount of money that I never defined and could never access would be a safe, successful life.
But money is only one kind of resource, and for me it’s the weakest kind. This thinking is definitely not normal by our cultural standards, but I believe it’s becoming more common. Minimalism is a growing trend, and those of us who explore and practice it are very clear about the relative value of money, time, contribution, experience, relationships, creativity, relaxation and joy. If earning money burns up all our other resources, we can’t replace them. Money won’t buy them back for us. A tree, an afternoon in the sun, a lap full of a child, the arms of a friend, the ability to lend someone a helping hand, are all beyond the power of money.
I don’t say that money is bad or useless. I am dismayed,
however, at what a God we’ve made out of it in this culture. During my lifetime
the middle class has disappeared and the chasm between those very few who have
significant financial resource and the billions of us who don’t seems likely to
tear the planet apart.
A lot of sad people out there think money is power. It’s
not. Our power is in our intelligence, our hearts, and our souls, not in our
bank accounts. We have to make ourselves increasingly small and, ironically,
impoverished, in order to adjust well to our deteriorating and unsustainable capitalist
In this house, we’re frequently in need of money to pay
bills, buy groceries, keep up with car costs, buy a new pair of swim goggles,
and buy a new fan for the furnace (our old one is beginning to sound like an
airplane falling out of the sky when it kicks on). Most of the time, we don’t
have money when we want it, but we manage to have what we need when it’s
I used to feel terrified, ashamed, and like a failure because of my lack of financial resource. My relationship with money ruled my life. My hunger for more was never satisfied. When I had more I caught up with all my expenses and then I was broke again. It was a game I could never win.
I see now it’s a gameno one ever wins, yet we all go on compulsively playing it, chasing the lie that enough money will provide us with love, success, healing, healthy relationships, confidence, power, and a sense of purpose and meaning. We’re so busy playing the game we have no time to recognize or welcome into our lives the things that do have the power to give us what we want.
Ultimately, accumulating money for its own sake is an expression of impotence. What’s more sterile and pointless than a lot of digits sitting in an account? The tool of money is useless unless we put it to work. If (when) the economy crashes, a piece of paper with our account information on it will be of less use than toilet paper.
What will matter is our ability to form loving, compassionate connections with others and our willingness to collaborate sustainably with Planet Earth. Our ability to both teach and learn will be important. Our skills and integrity will be important. Our laughter and creativity will be essential. If we can translate whatever financial resource we have into these things, we’ve made good use of our money. We’ve invested in sustainability and resilience, real resource for real life.
Frequent readers know how much I enjoy playing with frames.
If we feel rebellious, noncompliant, alienated and crazy, perhaps the problem
is not us at all. Perhaps the problem is that we’re trying to fit into a
profoundly sick society, and the fact that we can’t means we’re retaining some
measure of health, even in the face of tremendous social pressure.
Those rebellious, noncompliant, alienated and I-feel-crazy ones
are the people I’m writing for. Those are my people. Their courage, compassion
and generosity are the wind beneath my wings. Our shared truths, tears, scars,
love and broken places shape a womb where a healthier life for all can be
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.