Broken

Photo by Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash

I recently reread Broken For You by Jan Karon. The last time I picked it up was years ago, when I was living a different life in a different place. I loved it then, but this time it spoke to me more profoundly. I was captivated by the suggestion that things, including people, might be more valuable broken than whole.

Then, in an idle moment, I picked up one of my Mary Oliver books and read this:

Landscape

Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.

Again, the theme of breaking, this time breaking darkness into black wings.

I’ve been thinking about breaking as I harvest from the garden this weekend. The tomato plants are heavy with fruit, bent and sprawling above the basil and parsley, straggling over the garden borders into the grass. The tomatoes on the ground are gratefully received by slugs and beetles, as well as some kind of gnawer – no doubt a rodent. Our resident chipmunk is my prime suspect.

Photo by Sven Scheuermeier on Unsplash

I don’t mind, though. I have an abundance, and it gives me pleasure to share. I picked everything that was ripe, harvested oregano and basil, and made a crock pot of spaghetti sauce yesterday, discarding the spoiled tomatoes in the compost, which will, in time, feed other gardens in other years.

As I chopped the herbs into thin, fragrant ribbons and the tomatoes into juicy chunks, I thought about broken things. Well, not things. Not objects. Things are just things. They’re not life. They’re not real identity, although we try hard to make them so.

I thought about broken hearts, shattered dreams, disillusionment, loss of innocence, disappointed hopes, violated trust. I thought about broken promises made to ourselves and others and fractured relationships with ourselves and others.

Objects break, but the more painful breaks are intangible. Objects can be replaced. How do we manage intangible breaks?

Sometimes a broken object can be pieced back together, but it’s never quite the same again.

But what if we made something new with the broken pieces? What if we let go of the old shape of whatever broke and spent the night thinking about what we want to make or be now with the broken pieces of what we were yesterday?

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

Some things endure: a seed, a bone, love, life, and death. Death most of all, because without it there can be no seed or bone, and no life. In time, everything breaks, and then breaks down, and then becomes something new.

Breaking then, need not be a catastrophe or a message that we are victims of malign fate, but an invitation to reshape ourselves and our lives into something greater, something wiser, something winged.

Fractures, chips, and cracks are inevitable in life. Nothing stays young and unblemished. Time and entropy sweep us along. As I approach my sixties, I find myself more and more grateful for all my broken places. From those places I write, and from those places I love. Each of those broken pieces has made me into a juicier, more complex whole.

Thinking of what I would like my life to be and making it with the broken pieces. My daily crime.

Photo by Nick Grappone on Unsplash

Reciprocity Again

It’s no secret that many small businesses are feeling devastating impacts from coronavirus. There’s a general push to support local small businesses, which are the lifeblood of neighborhoods and communities. In rural areas, many of us are also doing our best to support local farmers.

Before the pandemic, my partner and I had a weekly breakfast date at a local diner. We enjoyed the food. We enjoyed the people, both employees and other patrons, and we often met friends there for a leisurely, friendly, old-fashioned diner breakfast. The diner is a small, family-run place, and was an important part of my community and routine.

As the pandemic swept over the country, the diner closed, and we stopped eating out altogether. We did get take-out from them a few times, but we found that the food alone did not satisfy our desire for connection and community, and it seemed a chore to make the rather lengthy round trip when we could more easily, cheaply and safely cook for ourselves at home.

As the summer wanes, conspiracy theories abound, and the election approaches, fear, frustration, hostility and division are everywhere. I heard that the diner has reopened, but I’m not comfortable eating in a restaurant right now, although I do frequently support a local sandwich shop that provides take-out, has CDC recommendations posted, and is staffed by employees with masks.

Yesterday I heard that the diner is heavily advertising the owners’ political allegiance and the employees are not wearing masks.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

I felt upset by this and chewed on it yesterday and last night. My initial reaction was loss and sadness, followed quickly by the feeling that I’m being intolerant and unsupportive of my community. I took a walk at dawn this morning, listening to a couple of owls carrying on a lengthy conversation at the same time the birds were waking, and it occurred to me that community support is a two-way street.

I’ve written about reciprocity before on this blog. At the time of that writing it was a fairly new concept to me. This was no surprise, as I realized most of my relationships, past and present, were remarkable for the absence of reciprocity. It was a relief to be given language and concept for my recurring feeling of giving every bit I had to give to a relationship and getting nothing in return.

Now I recognize the lack of reciprocity in interpersonal relationships much more quickly and take steps to limit or exit from those connections.

This idea of community support, however, is a new angle on reciprocity, and it took me a while to see it.

Small businesses are valuable and it’s hard work to make a success out of them, mostly because giants like Amazon and Wal-Mart undercut them so easily. One of the things I love about living in rural communities is getting to know the artisans, farmers, and others engaged in unique and high-quality arts, crafts and food production. I’ve never owned a small business, but it seems to me if I did I’d work hard to provide my customers with the best product and experience possible. In return, I’d be grateful for those who patronized me and told others about me, as I’d want to attract all the customers I possibly could.

Photo by Sven Scheuermeier on Unsplash

This is reciprocity.

As a customer, it doesn’t occur to me to wonder about the political views or underwear color of a small business owner. My interest is in the business’s product or service, not the owner’s personal choices.

I have no need or desire to control whether or not people wear masks or social distance, unless I’m at work and it’s my responsibility to do so. If I’m uncomfortable with lack of masking and social distancing out in the world, I leave rather than making a scene. I also feel no need to lead in any situation with my politics or ideology. Neither are the most important things about me.

I still patronize most of the places I visited and bought from before the coronavirus, although I go a little further out of my way now, even if it does take extra time or an extra dollar or two, to support small businesses. I have encountered some hostility and glares in various local businesses that I assume are about me masking, but nobody has said anything to me about it, and (being an adult) I know how to ignore dirty looks.

However, the diner is a different proposition. Plastering a small business with political signs and posters feels to me like a Keep Out, as their presidential pick is not mine. It feels hostile and hurtful. As I said, we aren’t in a hurry to eat in anywhere just now, but it was my intention to return to the diner and resume our weekly habit one day.

Photo by Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash

Except now I don’t feel welcome.

I also don’t feel safe. I can only assume people who refuse to mask in their business feel no need to take other precautions, and I don’t want eat food prepared and served by those who don’t follow CDC guidelines, both at work and in their private lives.

I’m sad about this. It’s hard to feel like a part of a community and then suddenly feel I don’t belong, after all. My affection for the diner, the people there, and the food is real, and I wish them all well. I thought we were friendly acquaintances and it never occurred to me that differing political views would disconnect us.

But I wasn’t responsible for the disconnection. I’ve missed the diner all these long weeks, and looked forward to the day we could resume going. I want to support this particular small business, and I feel unable to. I won’t go out into the community and bad mouth them, but I won’t be giving them my business, either, or recommending them to others.

Maybe they don’t want support from people with my politics and coronavirus concerns. Maybe their choice is to support the false equivalency of the two. Maybe we as a culture are deciding that divisiveness and politics are more important than good will and community, but that’s not and never will be my choice.

During these times and all times, we need to support one another. The best support is mutual, reciprocal. Communities need small businesses, and small local businesses need communities. I want to be a part of that, but I need some support as a customer in order to show up and buy.

My conclusion about all this is that breakfast at the diner is yet another sad loss. I’m not going to compound that by distorting my efforts to stay as healthy and safe as possible into intolerance and lack of support. Neither are true of me. Both might be true of others, but I can’t do anything about that.

Supporting businesses that support me. My daily crime.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

Patterns and Labels

We humans make and seek patterns in everything we do. Sometimes we’re conscious of these patterns, and often we’re not. Discerning patterns is an evolutionary advantage that’s helped us survive, as the complex web of life is filled with them. A rudimentary example is patterns of color on dangerous reptiles, plants, fish and insects that warn of toxicity.

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

We organize and sort patterns into objective taxonomies and hierarchies as we learn and strive to make sense of our world, and we label them.

I’ve been thinking about labels for years, and I’ve written about them previously. Our tendency to create labels and slap them on others has become more vicious and hysterical than ever before, and I’m concerned about this entirely divisive trend.

Language is an agreed-upon set of symbols. Nouns describe specific objects or ideas. Nouns are, by their nature, exclusive. That’s why they exist. A pencil is not a door. A tree is not a river. Labels are nouns, too, but they can be sloppy and imprecise, and they’re weighted with a lot of subjectivity and emotion. If we talk about a pencil in mixed company, we’re not likely to cause a scene. If we talk about being a Republican, or a feminist, or an anti-vaxxer, we’re asking for trouble.

Many people create and use labels as social weapons in order to convey hatred and contempt rather than specific objective meaning.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

The complex system we call life on earth is infinitely complicated, and we, as parts of that system, are also complicated.

Subjective labels are superficial, a mere glimmer on the surface of a deep well. They’re all about one-stop shopping and contain the emotional maturity of name calling. They often originate with individuals or groups who seek power over others. Anyone, regardless of education, experience, or expertise, can label anyone else, and frequently do, ruining credibility, reputations, and careers. Labels are limiting and confining. They concentrate a personal attack on one perceived aspect of a human being and ignore all the rest.

Patterns are deeply embedded, often invisible at first glance, but powerful and complicated. The ability to discern and learn about patterns requires critical thinking and a careful process of objective inquiry. We need precise language to describe the many dimensions of patterns. Discerning patterns is not a personal attack, but an observation of behavior and other characteristics (our own as well as that of others) that helps us survive.

Understanding and recognizing patterns gives us the power to manage them usefully and effectively.

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

Many of us are aware of uncomfortable patterns in our lives. Some are caught in a loop of choices that result in health consequences such as obesity, pain, and addiction. Others are unable to find the right job, the right place to live, or the right partner. Many of us spend a significant amount of time making the same choices, over and over, and getting the same unsatisfactory results, because we don’t know what else to do.

As we are social beings, our relationships are important, and destructive patterns involving our connections with others can be devastating. Fortunately, there are smart, observant, thoughtful people in the world who recognize behavioral patterns, create tools and use their experience and education to support and teach others how to discern and effectively manage problematic patterns.

One such person is Bill Eddy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Family Law Specialist who has more than 32 years of experience providing therapy, mediation, and representation for clients in family court. Eddy co-founded the High Conflict Institute and has become an international resource for managing high-conflict behaviors. He’s written several books, all of which I highly recommend. In fact, his book, BIFF, is an essential handbook for life as a member of the human race.

What I like best about Eddy is that he’s not a labeler. He uses precise scientific language to describe some personality types as context and background, but the thrust of his work is not in diagnosing or labeling, and he actively encourages students and readers to refrain from doing so. His goal is to help us recognize problematic patterns of behavior and teach us how to handle them effectively, kindly, and compassionately while maintaining our own dignity and healthy boundaries.

Photo by dan carlson on Unsplash

Power-with and win-win, in other words.

Nowhere in his work have I seen Eddy suggest we self-apply his methods, but I have my own less-than-useful patterns and character traits, and his strategies help me manage those as well as the behavior of people around me.

In Eddy’s language, high-conflict behavior patterns include consistent:

  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Unmanaged emotions
  • Extreme behavior
  • Preoccupation with blaming others

–(BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, LCSW, ESQ.)

The beauty of Eddy’s tools is simplicity. Anyone who’s ever been hooked into an angry, defensive, escalating, and totally useless high-conflict interaction (and who hasn’t?) knows how exhausting, disheartening, and disempowering such interactions can be. Eddy’s approach is entirely different and much simpler, but it requires us to give up several juicy things.

In order to manage this behavior pattern effectively, we have to give up on winning and being right. We have to give up on taking things personally; trying to change, “help,” or control someone else; the satisfaction of personal attacks; and trying to please. We must learn to manage our own emotions, because two people, neither of whom can deal effectively with their feelings, will get nowhere. We must decide if we want to contribute to conflict or resolve it.

Photo by Lukas Budimaier on Unsplash

In short, if we want to reclaim our personal power and manage difficult behavior patterns more effectively, we have to start with ourselves and our own behavior, feelings, and impulses.

Responsibility strikes again.

If we are stuck in a destructive relationship at work, at home, or in the community with a high-conflict personality and we feel helpless and hopeless, the first step in finding a better way is an honest assessment of what we want. If we want to continue to be a victim; if we want revenge or to freely express our frustration, rage, or contempt (as in throwing around labels); if we want to be validated or approved of; if we want to force others to see it our way, apologize, or be just, Bill Eddy has nothing to offer us.

If we’re stuck and committed to finding a better way, accepting that the person we’re dealing with has an observable, consistent pattern of high-conflict behavior and may not be interested in the same outcomes we are, and accepting responsibility for our own behavior, Eddy can show us the way back to our power and sanity.

Dealing effectively with high-conflict behavior patterns does not mean we have to be disrespectful, intolerant, or uncaring. It doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own integrity or boundaries. It doesn’t mean we have to stop loving people. Best of all, recognizing problematic behavior doesn’t mean we give up on the whole person. Many valuable employees and community members exhibit high-conflict behavior patterns.

In fact, Eddy’s tools apply to any human interaction, as they involve brief, informative, firm and friendly scripts appropriate and effective in all contexts, whether consistently high-conflict, potentially high-conflict, or entirely friendly.

Labels create and escalate conflict rather than resolving it. Recognizing patterns and learning how to work with them can help us resolve conflict.

What would you like to do?

My daily crime.

Photo by Roderico Y. Díaz on Unsplash