Tag Archives: empathy

Success

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

My daily crime.

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A Recipe For Courage

I ran into a great question a few weeks ago: “What gives you courage?” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Courage, the ability to do something frightening or having strength in spite of pain or grief, is not the absence of fear. If we have no fear we have no need of courage.

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Fear, in my experience, is multifaceted. My most private fears are about my own wholeness and worth. Then, there’s the fear of external forces, like a coward with a gun in the supermarket; the judgement or criticism of a loved one; or a personal loss, injury or illness.

Yet another kind of fear is one I suspect many of us feel right now, a sort of ill-defined psychic shadow, a general feeling of insecurity about the state of our world and the future. I try not to give it too much attention, but it’s always there, like a thin cloud between me and the sun. I know the only place I have power is right here, right now, in this moment, and I’m glad I’m typing at the keyboard rather than staring out the window and wondering what tragedy or catastrophe will be brought to my attention next and where it will all end.

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Is that a kind of courage, staying intentional in the moment and managing our own power?

Perhaps.

So, what keeps us going in times like these, in spite of our fear?

Oddly, the first thing I thought of was a poem I read as a teenager. All these years I’ve kept it and thought about the wagon wheel that did not break, the faithful dog, the innocent child. I’ve long forgotten where I came across it and I don’t know who wrote it.

Journal Note Long Ago

Crossing the wilderness or the sea I take with me nobody
who is afraid nor do I want with me the memory of a man
or woman who is afraid.

I am afraid enough myself now—there are shadows and ghosts
enough now—in the meshes of my corpuscles—and so I must
not ask others to go.

I keep the memory of a dog who was never afraid, a wagon
whose wheels lasted, a child who had not lived long enough
to know the meaning of the words Yesterday and Tomorrow.

The second thing that comes to mind about the source of my own courage also seems peculiar, but on second thought it might be a way of talking about faith. If and when I am able to identify The Right Thing To Do in any circumstance, fear ceases to have any power over me. I certainly feel it, and sometimes it seems I’ll be ground into oblivion by it, but as long as I’ve breath and a pulse I will do what I believe is right, come what may.

This is a trait fanatics and zealots of every stripe share with me, a fact which makes me pause and shudder. There is a difference, though, between a suicide bomber or the aforesaid coward with a gun and me. I don’t pretend to know what’s right for others, only myself. I’m not interested in having power over other people, forcing my ideology on those around me or taking out my frustrations on others.

My sense of The Right Thing To Do always involves my integrity and intuition, and is not weakened by the judgements and criticisms of those around me. My integrity and intuition are my own. Only I can maintain them. Without them, I am nothing.

When people talk about faith, I generally think of religion, which can be a staunch support for courage as well as a powerful motivator. However, most religions I’m familiar with require submission to a so-called higher authority, either human and/or sacred text (the author of which is frequently unclear and the original of which was written in a language and context I’m unfamiliar with). Many good people build their lives on a bedrock of religious faith and are sustained by it. That is not my way. I will not sacrifice my personal power to an external authority.

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Information and learning give me courage. Literacy and curiosity are gateways to understanding, compassion and revelation. The beauty and complexity of our world and our universe, the remarkable experience of being human, the persistence of life, the perspective of history, the indomitable creativity of the human spirit—all these inspire me and give me courage.

My study and practice of minimalism has given me courage. The more objects and distractions I peel away from my space, time and energy, the stronger and more peaceful I become. Serenity, it turns out, has everything to do with living with less stuff, needing less money and concentrating on the undistracted and undiluted abundance of each moment. I don’t need nearly as much as I thought I did. Peace, joy, clarity and courage immediately flower in the space freed from stuff. I have what I need. I am what I need.

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And that brings me to the last big ingredient in my particular recipe for courage. Learning to know, love and trust myself has given me courage. Part of this has to do with the gifts of aging. I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, made a lot of mistakes and collected a lot of scars. Every day I learn a little more and heal a little more. I have allowed my experience in life to expand my compassion, empathy, intuition, wisdom and ability to love. I’m a resilient, adaptable survivor, and I know, no matter what happens, I’ll do my best to my last breath.

A poem. The Right Thing To Do. Information and learning. Minimalism. Self-regard. Mix well.

Courage.

My daily crime.

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Why Does It Matter?

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It’s easy these days to feel overwhelmed and despairing. Life is increasingly unpredictable and the future uncertain socially, economically and in terms of climate. We’ve never before been able to discuss so many issues with so many others, or been exposed to so many different sources of information, so-called facts, and opinions. As our public education system flounders, fewer and fewer people are taught to think critically, which is daily becoming a more important tool in navigating our information overload.

I heard about a comment the other day on social media directed toward someone discussing women’s rights. The man commenting asked why we’re talking about something like feminism when climate change is so pressing. Why are we wasting energy on women’s rights while the planet is getting more and more difficult to inhabit, not in some hazy future but right now, today?

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That question points to the reason we find ourselves in our present situation in the first place. Our social struggles reflect our approach to living on and with our planet. The thinking that shapes our social behavior is the same thinking that shapes our behavior as citizens on Planet Earth. If we feel we’re entitled to rape, rob or otherwise seize power and control over another human being or group of human beings, we feel equally entitled to use the planet however we want, with no thought of anyone else or the consequences of our behavior. This fertile, life-giving planet is our mother. We live on her body. The degree to which we cherish, support, honor, respect and appreciate her is the degree to which we afford the same treatment to women. It’s the same discussion. It’s not a coincidence that the increasing pressure on our physical survival is happening in the middle of the current social maelstrom.

I’m not a scientist, though I endeavor to be a critical thinker. However, I’ve done quite a bit of reading on the subject of complex systems and earth systems science, including Darwin’s Unfinished Business by Simon Powell, Animate Earth by Stephan Harding, Overshoot by William Catton and Gaia’s Revenge by James Lovelock. Everything I read confirms what I intuitively recognize.

Everything matters. Everyone matters. It’s all connected.

The days are gone when we can tell ourselves that what happens on the other side of the world doesn’t affect us and we need not pay attention or worry about it. We have so far exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity for our species that the actions of each individual have an effect on the whole. As human population oozes and bulges into every biome all over the globe, we also directly affect every other form of life: Animal, plant, insect, fungi and microorganism. We displace other species, poison their habitat and compete fiercely for resources. We have no sense of our own needs or the needs of others, but focus on what we want, and we want it allright now. We deserve it. We have a right to it.

Certain groups of men have no intention of sharing power, dignity and economic resources with women, let alone sharing the planet with fungi and Monarch butterflies. Some groups would eradicate cattle from the globe before learning how to integrate them back into the healthy complex system they were part of until we threw things out of balance with our numbers and ignorance. Others work to bar immigrants, saying they’ll take our jobs, they’ll soak up social resources and they’ll poison our communities with their foreign tongues and culture, too ignorant and short-sighted to grasp that we are only enriched and strengthened by the presence of other cultures.

It’s all the same discussion. It’s all connected.

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We are only now beginning to glimpse the miraculous web of life on Earth, only now getting a sense of Earth as a sentient complex system, self-regulating and self-sufficient, and the knowledge may have come too late. Complexity is life. Complexity is resilient and creates the ability to learn and adapt. Any behavior or ideology that seeks to minimize, disrupt, or eradicate complexity is destructive. Those who work for purity, for homogenized patriotism, for the complete power of one religion, sex, diet, complexion, body type or expression of sexuality are actively tearing apart our world and our future.

Our inability to live peacefully and cooperatively with one another is our inability to respect and care for the land under our feet. Our willingness to tolerate slavery, sex trafficking and bureaucracy that destroys families, indigenous groups, human rights, reproductive choice and other natural resources is the same willingness to worship the false idol of money, buy whatever we want when we want it and discard it later with impunity. If we can’t buy what we want, we take it, or steal it. This is the definition of rape culture.

Complexity is about integration. One way to interpret the old stories is to consider each character as a separate part of the same psyche. In other words, we all have an innocent Red Riding Hood maiden inside us, and we all have an old bedridden grandparent, a parent who warns us of the dangers of leaving the path, a wily predator and a heroic figure who saves the day. A healthy adult learns to know and accept his or her shadow side, as well as more admirable characteristics. Spiritual wholeness consists of a well-balanced masculine and feminine, no matter our biological sex. If we are unable to integrate all these voices and archetypes, all these facets of personality, feelings and thoughts, and operate as a whole complex psyche, we’re crippled, and we’re certainly going to be unable to take our place as an effective, joyous and elegant part of the wider complex system of Planet Earth.

So yes, it matters. It matters if you use a plastic straw and throw it away. It matters if you toss your plastic cup out the car window. It matters if you support the tobacco industry because they’ve successfully addicted you. If you throw one less item away today, it matters. If you recycle and compost, it matters. If you stop rototilling your garden, which damages the soil, it matters. The way you treat the people and animals around you matters. We don’t have the power to stop or change the enormous transition we’re caught up in ourselves. We may never see validation, recognition or negative consequences for the choices we make, but those choices do matter, because we’re all inextricably connected, like it or not, deny it or not.

Megastorms matter. Lead in drinking water and cancer clusters matter. Water conservation efforts in Cape Town matter. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria matter. Fires, earthquakes and volcanic activity matter.

People matter, too. Our experience, feelings and thoughts matter. I don’t matter more than you or anyone else, but, as a living creature on the planet, I matter. The way I treat myself matters. My health matters, and my creativity, and my ability to learn.

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If we can’t wrap our heads around the essential value and importance of each life, including our own, and support each individual in their personal power, we will absolutely destroy all non-human life on the planet and ourselves with it. If we’re really serious about equal rights, we need to learn to share our rapidly diminishing resources, and I don’t mean cars, technology and food delicacies grown half a world away. I don’t mean diamonds, designer clothing, private airplanes and yachts, and mansions housing a family of four. I mean basic food, clean water and habitable land. We each need to take responsibility for our addiction to instant gratification, convenience and all the latest tech, toys and trends. We need to let go of our entitlement and work together to create a sustainable standard of living for everyone.

So yes, food and water politics, sexual identity politics, human rights, healthcare, education, families and children and immigration all matter. They’re all road signs and mile markers. The question is whether we’ll travel in the direction of destruction or use these issues as opportunities to build bridges, enlarge our empathy and heal our disconnection from ourselves, from other humans, and from all other life, paving the way to managing climate change as elegantly as possible.

I know what direction I’m going in, not with hope of reaching some kind of utopia, but because it’s the only direction that makes any sense to me. Many, many people disagree with me, I know, and I’m going to have to fight the mob going in the direction of destruction. That’s okay. I never seem to be traveling in the direction of the majority, so I’m used to it, and there will be others going my way.

In the meantime, I walk the tightrope suspended over the paradox at the heart of modern life. I fight to maintain power and authority in my own life and use it for the greater good as well as my own benefit. At the same time, I acknowledge that I am but one life among uncounted living beings on the planet, spinning through space with everyone else towards an uncertain future. My power is present, but limited. If I make even the smallest difference for good in my lifetime, I’ll probably never know, and no one else will ever see, and that’s okay with me.

It still matters.

My daily crime.

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Jennifer Rose
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