Tag Archives: complexity

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Meditations From the Garden

I tried hard this week to come up with a way to write about racism and hate in general, but I just couldn’t get a creative, thoughtful grasp on it. No wonder. Hatred is not creative, unless in a negative sense. How many ways can I hurt or murder someone because of my judgement about their worth? Not the kind of creativity I’m interested in.

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I’ve been sitting out on the front porch in the sun, relishing the breeze, watching the thumb-sized bumblebees plunder the lupine and the hummingbirds zoom around the feeder after a couple of hours of mulching, weeding, watering, trimming and planting. I haven’t been reading or writing, just drinking a large glass of mint and lemon iced tea and feeling happy, absorbing the peace and beauty of this day, enjoying the wind chimes and the sun on my skin.

Alongside the driveway we have a lupine bed. It wasn’t planned. It started, years ago, with one plant that now has become countless plants. There’s also echinacea, several kinds of wildflowers, and this year we put in pink poppies, two cleomes, lilies, sunflowers, and a starflower.

As it wasn’t a formally planned bed, the first clump of lupine went into a hole in the ground and grasses and other native growth mingle with the flowers. I’m building a border out of dead wood from our downed trees. The flowers have self-seeded and the bed sprawls, in no particular shape, most of it with undefined boundaries.

Yesterday, my partner and I were looking closely at the lupine, which is in full bloom.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I have learned, since I came to Maine, about holistic gardening and land management, and I’ve understood that effective gardening is not creating a concentration camp for plants. Nature is an effective gardener, and a bed like ours, organic, dynamic and without any kind of fertilizer, pesticide or other chemicals, demonstrates the diversity necessary for the health of the whole system.

As we looked closely, we found a cluster of juvenile Japanese beetles on a low, sheltered leaf, and another cluster of tiny ticks. Obviously, the bed is a good nursery. A variety of bees were present. We saw a lacewing, an excellent predator, and aphids. Yellow jackets zoomed around, along with dragonflies (another welcome predator). Immature grasshoppers were plentiful, and spiders. Several kinds of butterflies floated above the flowers.

We didn’t see slugs, ants, praying mantises, caterpillars, earwigs or ladybugs, but they’re probably all present, along with mice, shrews and perhaps a mole.

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The lupine and some of the grasses are now quite tall and thick. Other, later-blooming plants like echinacea are coming along, but not as high yet. As the lupine fade and lose height, the echinacea will come into its own. The bed is filled with wild low-growing plants, too, like clover, basil, grasses, dandelions, chamomile and violets. With any luck, there’s a grass snake or two under all that growth, and maybe a toad or a lizard in the cool, damp shade.

Milkweed grows there. When it blooms it will feed the endangered Monarch butterflies.

We don’t water the lupine bed, aside from giving the new seedlings a little drink when it hasn’t rained in a few days. We don’t cultivate, weed, or really mess with it in any way. The logs I’m using for a border are to help my partner when he’s mowing and keep the self-sowing lupine in check. Now and then we use our sharp little hand scythe to keep the tall grasses from overshadowing the seedlings.

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Mostly, though, we just enjoy it. It’s perfect. It doesn’t need much help from us. I’m very aware that the life we are able to see, both plant and animal, is dwarfed by the life in the soil, which is full of bacteria and other microorganisms, including viruses. The bed is at the foot of a tall maple stub that was more than 200 years old when it fell a couple of years ago. I would not, for any amount of money, rototill or otherwise disturb the soil, the roots of the dead tree or the layers and layers of leaves and other vegetable matter.

I will never rototill again. The best way to build soil is to build soil with layers of organic matter, all kinds of organic matter from all kinds of animals and plants. Rototilling disrupts microorganisms, mycelium and roots binding the soil together.

Diversity is balance. Diversity invites symbiosis, “a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups.” (Oxford online Dictionary) A diverse garden is a healthy garden in which predator and prey are balanced. Diversity includes a variety of colors and textures, growing patterns and flowering times, nutritional needs and abilities. Diversity means that what we deliberately plant is just as important as native plants, otherwise known as weeds. Diversity supports the food web and the web of life.

What a concept, right? What lovely, elegant wisdom. I could never, in a million years, come up with such a complex, thriving garden as one lupine plant has created over several years at the base of a dead maple tree.

A healthy garden is filled with life and death; natural cycles and seasons; growth, blossom and decay that seeds and feeds the next cycle.

What a garden is not filled with is hatred, politics or pretence. There are no riots. There is no outrage. If one population gets out of control, either the host plant dies or the predators increase until balance is once again achieved. This life-death cycle is not personal. Viruses, insects, trees and dandelions don’t hate. They’re too busy living and reproducing or, in the case of viruses, replicating and looking for hosts.

A garden is honest, true to itself.

Dirt under my fingernails. Mosquito and black fly bites. Grubby knees. Wonder. Peace. Gratitude. Reverence for diversity. My daily crimes.

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Resource

This summer is about resource. I’ve never picked a one-word summer intention before, but today I realize it’s been thrust upon me, willy-nilly. The Summer of Resource.

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I’ve been working with the idea of minimalism, which forces one to take stock of resource in the wide sense. What is resource? Oxford online dictionary defines resource as “a stock or supply of … assets that can be drawn on by a person … in order to function effectively.”

When I think about resource, it’s a jigsaw puzzle, and like a jigsaw puzzle, every piece counts if one wants to end up with the whole picture. When I hear the word “assets,” money is the first thing that comes to mind. Then there are external natural resources, which are also closely tied to money and more finite every minute.

In a capitalist economy, that’s as far as most people explore resource. What’s the bottom financial line? What’s the cost versus benefit projection? What’s the tax picture? How expensive is firewood, oil, electricity and food? What is the interest rate? How affordable is housing?

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Sadly, this is a short-sighted and nonsustainable view of resource. It’s also incomplete, because it doesn’t include the intangibles that can’t be quantified in terms of monetary value, and so become invisible. These include space, time, creativity, soulfulness, heartfulness, love and compassion. Also, more subtly, faith, patience, playfulness, innocence and integrity, some of which qualities are targets of active contempt in this culture.

How do we quantify the resource of a life, any kind of a life?

Pick a closet in your house. Open the door. What’s the square footage of that space resource? What’s in the closet? Any item you don’t want and/or don’t use is not a resource. It’s just junk clogging up you space. “It’s mine,” “I’ve had it all my life,” “I paid a lot of money for this,” “my favorite aunt gave it to me” and “some day I might need that” are not indicators of resource. A resource helps us function effectively, remember? Any item we don’t use but hang onto anyway isn’t helping us function effectively. Our shoe collection, baseball card collection or belly button lint collection might temporarily give us pleasure, bolster our self-esteem, distract us or even be a financial investment (probably not the belly button lint, but remember Pet Rocks?), but our collections frequently cost money to acquire and demand space, time and management. They own us as much as we own them.

Even money, inappropriately managed, becomes an ineffective resource.

We are constantly assaulted by sophisticated marketing persuading us to buy products that will make our lives better. Most of us know intellectually we’re being manipulated, but the lure is irresistible. We’re so hungry for love, for healthy relationships, for comfort, for distraction, for beauty. It’s an empty promise, though. We buy, but we’re still hungry, so we buy more, like the good little brainwashed consumers we’ve become.

Many folks here in Maine harvest wood off their land in exchange for financial resource. Some harvest sustainably, but most clear cut. People sell what resource they can in order to stay afloat financially. I understand. I’ve done it, too. That destroyed forest, however, is–was–a natural resource of unimaginable complexity on a finite and increasingly depleted planet. Systems scientists are only now beginning to glimpse the intricate interconnections between life on Earth–all life on Earth, not just human life.

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Life is resource.

Clear cutting a few acres of wood might help us face the immediate necessity to buy firewood this summer and heating oil over the winter. We can quantify those costs. We can’t quantify what the loss of those few acres are in terms of healthy land, water, air, and the innumerable forms of life that were destroyed with the trees. We don’t know exactly how the destruction of a few acres here in central Maine contributes to cumulative global breakdown and change, because we’re not aware of all the complexities of our dynamic living global system. It’s too big to think about, too far away. Many of us are simply trying to survive for another day or week or month in the long spaces between paychecks. We’re far too overwhelmed and desperate to try to grapple with the whole picture. After all, if we can’t get through today there is no tomorrow.

What will the last tree be worth in dollars? In possibility? In beauty?

I can’t think about resource without thinking about sustainability. Working 60-hour weeks might provide comfortable financial resource, but it’s not sustainable. Using up money, time, space, patience, and even things like hope faster than we create or save them means we’ll run out, and when we run out of resource our lives stop functioning effectively–fast. Then we’re forced to shape a new life, whether we’re prepared to or not.

Renewable resources need time to renew. Few of us feel as though we have enough time, and what time we do have is sucked up in earning money, dealing with the consequences of how we manage it, and relationships. It’s possible to set aside time for self-care and creativity, but it requires discipline and boundaries. It’s possible to grow food and harvest natural resources sustainably, but not as long as we value money over all other resource and our population continues to be in overshoot.

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Like everyone else, I have needs and limited resource available to help meet them, but if my life is too cluttered, noisy and/or busy, I lose track of both my needs and my resource. I forget that I’m more than my ability to pay the bills, more than the numbers in my bank accounts. The practice of minimizing helps me remember to appreciate and protect all my resource, and make clear choices about sustaining and strengthening what I have so it supports who I am.

Minimalism encourages a kind of inside-out thinking. Not “I need a bigger house,” but “I need less stuff in this house.” Not “I need more money,” but “I want to spend less money.” Not “I need more time,” but “I want to do less with the time I have.”

Less, not more. The goal is to have what we need, but not more than we need.

What investments will truly increase my resource, financial, emotional, creative and intellectual? Only I can say. I’m the only expert on my own needs. I’m the only one who can identify the unrecognized or poorly managed resource in my life and implement different choices. No advertisement, expert, tweet, social media post or self-help book knows more about me than I do myself, and none can make choices for me. It’s all on me.

Rats.

It will be an interesting summer. I’m letting go of objects, some in exchange for money. I’m liquidating a financial asset to pay debts and invest in my ability to spend less. I’m investing time, energy, faith and hope in my creative work.

I think about effective living all the time. What, exactly, do I need to have and do to live effectively, and what do I have and do that are not helping me achieve that goal? What does “effective” mean to me? What does my particular expression of being require to thrive? What are my total resources, and how renewable or sustainable are they? How can they best be invested in order to create more?

The Summer of Resource. My daily crime.

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