Tag Archives: questions

Questions Before Engagement

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When I came to Maine in 2015, I had a short list of goals. One of them was to learn everything I could about relationship and connection. I had so many questions. Why did I feel I’d failed practically every relationship I’d ever had? What was different about the ones that did work well? If I was bad, ugly, unlovable and unworthy, why was that? Was it something I could fix? Or was that a false belief, and if so, where did it come from?

Why did it seem so impossible to find the kind of relationships I had always wanted to have with others?

All my life I’ve struggled with these questions.

I realize now that all of us struggle with these questions, at least at some point and to some degree. It’s called being human.

Emotional intelligence training was a revelation, and as I learned about boundaries, needs, reciprocity and many other aspects of relationship, I began to appreciate the complexity and art involved in healthy connections.

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Relationship is a skill, and most of us don’t have great models for how to do it appropriately and effectively. Relating well to others is messy because being human is messy. I learned, and believe, that healthy connection is a primary human need and driver of behavior. I also learned to build and maintain better boundaries and separate what I have power over (myself) from places where I have no power (what others say, believe, think and do).

Over the last years, my partner and I have continued to be fascinated by the way in which we humans interact with each other as parents, family, partners, coworkers and members of the community. We observe ourselves and others and read with interest current research and insight into all the ways humans connect and disconnect, motivate and manipulate, perpetrate acts of violence and hate, build community and parent.

I’m an information junkie on some subjects, so I enjoy all this learning. I don’t want the information so I can speak learnedly or advise or persuade others. I’m not interested in labeling, judging, feeding my fear or getting bogged down in an empathy swamp. I have no ambition to be an expert in anything but my own life.

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What I want to do is see myself and others clearly. I want to understand what I don’t understand. I want to learn how to keep myself safe and meet my needs for connection.

I want to take better care of myself.

My partner and I sat in the sun this morning, watching the birds at the feeders and newly-wakened insects buzz around the rotting wood of the porch looking for summer quarters. I picked up paper and pen and we jotted down a list of things to look for when considering a relationship. I titled the list Rules of Engagement, but then crossed it off and retitled it Questions Before Engagement.

I like questions. I’ve told you that, right?

Does the person you’re interacting with:

  • Accept no for an answer?
  • Demonstrate the desire to cooperate and connect (power-with) or win and be right (power-over)? (Carmine Leo)
  • Consistently treat self and others with respect and kindness in action and word?
  • Speak in either/or black/white terms, or do they appreciate shades of grey?
  • Employ blame and shame tactics or take responsibility for their own choices? If they take responsibility, do they take too much responsibility (a sign of weak boundaries)?
  • Employ DARVO tactics: Deny, attack, reverse victim and offender? Does he/she see him/herself as a victim?
  • Make your life bigger or smaller? (Clarissa Pinkola Estes, How to Love a Woman.)
  • Communicate clearly, honestly and consistently, or avoid responsibility (“I forgot”), gaslight, give inconsistent or mixed messages and refuse to answer questions?
  • Demonstrate consistency between what they say and what they do? Keep their word to self and others? (Chronic lateness, for example, is a red flag).
  • Leave you feeling good about yourself or as though you’re hopelessly bad and wrong and/or completely drained?
  • Have boundaries (even if messy) and respect yours (even if messy)?
  • Present themselves as a whole, healthy, independent person with something to contribute or are they needy and dependent and looking for someone to nurture or “fix” them? (Co-dependency is not a healthy relationship!)
  • Demonstrate a full range of feelings and appropriate expression and management of those feelings? Is their life one long drama and trauma? Do they flip abruptly from rage to affection and back again?
  • Demonstrate flexibility, curiosity and the willingness to learn?
  • Provide an equal and reciprocal level of commitment, time and energy to the relationship that you do? (Carmine Leo) Are you doing CPR on a long-dead connection all by yourself? If so, why?
  • Last but not least: What does your intuition say? Do you feel safe with this person, physically, sexually, creatively, emotionally, financially? Listen/feel for a yes or a no and don’t second guess or negotiate a no! Extricate yourself and move on.

The strength in recognizing these questions and their answers does not derive from judging or labeling others. The power is in our own ability to navigate intelligently through the world of people we all live in. I myself have communicated poorly, been codependent, been self-destructive, made myself small, and had poor boundaries. I’ve also worked hard to learn to be more effective and heal. Now and then we’re all inflexible, or disrespectful, or unkind.

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Perfectionism is a black hole I refuse to get sucked into and certainly don’t expect from others. We need and form all kinds of relationships in life with all kinds of people. Certain behaviors from a colleague or roommate might be acceptable; the same behavior from a lover could be a deal breaker. There is no one size fits all in terms of relationship. We have to figure it out for ourselves.

We all have good days and bad days. This list is intended to specify red flags that might occur intermittently or consistently across time. A pattern of red flags is a sign to go carefully and stay present and aware with our interactions. There are millions of well-meaning people in the world. There are also millions of narcissists, borderline and other Cluster B personality-disordered people, psychopaths, sociopaths and other predators and vampires. It’s up to us to figure out how to spot them and avoid or free ourselves from them. Failure to do so wastes our time, energy and love.

Questions before engagement. My daily crime.

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Living the Questions

I haven’t very often met a problem in life I couldn’t solve. I have moments of bewilderment, of course, but I generally am able to figure out what’s not working and how to fix it. At times the fix is so difficult I delay, avoid, deny and procrastinate until I’m forced to take the action I knew I was going to have to take from the beginning. Such delays frequently make everything worse, but sometimes it takes me a while to do what I know must be done.

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Now and then, however, I find myself completely stymied. There seems no solution, no detour, no fix within my power.

Being self-sufficient and self-reliant, when this happens I feel panicked and despairing. It usually does not occur to me to ask for help. I’m more likely to withdraw and try to figure out what the hell to do privately.

I’m in the habit of making daily notes, a kind of abbreviated journal. I do keep a journal as well, but my daily notes are in the form of a brief list, noting things like exercise, working hours, what I’m reading, what’s in my attention, and little snippets of observations from the day. I also note any creative inspirations.

It occurred to me this morning, as I walked down through a soggy field to the brimming river that borders our property, that it might be time to accept that some problems have no solution, at least not at the moment we want them. I remembered Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite poets, writing about living the question.

“…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903 in Letters to a Young Poet.

As I make and review my daily notes, I have a lot of judgement about how I spent my time. I often feel I’ve wasted my day or not produced enough. I’ve always concentrated on doing and having rather than being, and I’m hard on myself when I don’t see activities in my daily notes that I was taught to define as “useful.”

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I wondered, while I was walking, what would happen if I wrote at least one question in my daily notes about my activity and stopped judging the way I spend every single second. Can I faithfully record my daily experience without judging it either positively or negatively?

Can I note my current unsolvable problem clearly, simply, honestly and neutrally, state my feelings about it, and formulate a great question? For example, if I’m binging on my favorite numbing activity, instead of beating myself up over it can I make a note about doing it and ask myself about the feelings I’m trying to numb?

It takes a kind of mental strength to live peacefully with questions, to pause and hold them in our laps and refrain from desperately seeking answers. I have several times been connected to people who disliked and resisted questions. That always catches my attention. I think of questions as a tool for opening up lost or hidden feelings and thoughts. In fact, as I grow older I’m beginning to value questions more than answers, even though questions contain the most tension. Maybe an answer or solution, after all, is not the goal.

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Judgement feels good because it relieves my tension, but judgement is limiting and small. It weakens power and reduces possibility. Questions keep everything wide open and foster curiosity and flexible thinking. Judgement is black and white.

I assume that all problems have a fix and all questions have an answer. That might be true. On the other hand, maybe some problems feel unsolvable because they are, or what I need to work with is my perception. Maybe what I call a problem is in fact a gift I haven’t yet unwrapped properly.

Unanswered questions and insolvable problems. I don’t like the way they feel. I’ve always resisted giving them time, space and attention. That hasn’t worked particularly well, and I’m ready to try something new. We seem to be much better at judgement than questions in this culture right now, a trend that is both divisive and dangerous. There are questions aplenty, but it’s increasingly difficult to tell truth from lies, and many times the questions themselves are not honest, but merely tools for labeling and judging.

Asking an honest question and living without an answer. Challenging judgement. My daily crimes.

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Parenting, Raven Style

 

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We have the great privilege of living close to ravens. These intelligent and entertaining birds make the area off our deck part of their daily rounds, because that’s where we fling the mice that are caught in mousetraps in the kitchen cupboards, as well as the occasional discarded egg or food rubbish. They’re wary birds. Any flicker of movement in a window sends them aloft, no matter how tempting the morsel on the ground. They make a variety of sounds, but can also be as quiet as a shadow as they wheel over the house, circling and examining the grassy slope below the deck.

This year a pair nested nearby and raised at least one fledgling successfully. Both parents feed the nestlings. A few weeks ago, some instinctive wisdom told the raven parents it was time to stop feeding the fledglings and all hell broke loose in the neighborhood.

The first we knew of it was a plaintive croaking cry, vaguely like a canine yap. We heard it over and over again, clearly coming from something on the wing. It began down over the river and moved up the hill to the house and then I could see the birds. The fledgling was pudgy and puffy, the way all young birds are at the adolescent stage. It looked a little bigger than the adult birds, but not nearly as sleek and not as skilled a flier. The adults flew around it in what looked like a mixture of distress and encouragement, and the youngster complained. And complained. And complained. For hours. Then for days. From first light until sunset it went on.

We watched the parent birds, looking more harried by the day, try to go about their usual rounds up and down the road for roadkill, over our place, over the river and pond, followed everywhere by their noisy, clumsy, demanding offspring, who certainly had the ability and strength to feed himself, if not the desire. At rest, the youngster would gape pathetically, begging each parent in turn for a regurgitated mouthful. Repeatedly, the parents turned away, flew away, dogged and determined.

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Ravens are great generalists in terms of their diet. I’m sure the fledgling watched his parents eat carrion, fish, frogs, small reptiles and mammals, insects and plant matter. What we were witnessing was not starvation due to lack of available food, or lack of parenting. What played out before us was nothing more or less than adolescent outrage and parenting far superior to anything I ever achieved.

Both my partner and I are parents and worked for years with parents and children. We watched the ravens with a mixture of amusement, empathy and irritation. “Go find your own dead thing,” my partner muttered, imagining the parent birds’ conversation with the importuning fledgling and making me laugh.

When my two sons chose to leave the little mountain town where we lived and finish out their high school years with their dad in the city, I knew it was the right thing for them to do. It was sooner than I had anticipated, true, but we all recognized they had outgrown the school, the town and me. We were no longer living in harmony.

When I found myself alone, I grieved for a long time. I also sold the house and started shaping a life for myself with the good feeling of a difficult job done to the very best of my ability. I’d given all I could and it was time for them to fly and find their own lives. In the space where they had been for fifteen years I could build new freedom and possibility.

Except that they were nearly always in my thoughts. We had long phone conversations. I fretted because I couldn’t interact with them face-to-face and I knew many things were happening in their lives that they weren’t telling me about. They did tell me of jobs, roommates, broken-down cars, financial difficulties, bars, music, both new and old friends and romantic entanglements. They called when they were broken-hearted, scared, confused or just pissed off. Frequently, by the time I got off the phone, I was in tears and spent the rest of the day upset, or lay sleepless wondering what I could do. What I should do. What I should have done as a parent that I didn’t do that might have avoided the current crisis.

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I discovered that parenting adults is extraordinarily stressful and difficult, with none of the sweet pay-offs I had when we were a family living together. I didn’t see them playing and laughing anymore. I couldn’t touch them or hold them. We couldn’t hang out quietly together. I couldn’t cook for them or watch their faces and bodies mature, marveling at these two people their father and I created.

I’ve recognized in the years between their leaving me and now that I wasn’t the excellent parent I thought I was. I was, in fact, merely adequate. I made a lot of mistakes. I was in many ways ill-equipped to parent. Single parenting is an almost impossibly hard road.

I talk to other mothers of adults. Some talk at length about their kids — how proud they are of them, how close they are to them, how successful their kids are. Those parents need no questioning or encouragement. Their conversation is full of their kids all the time, without prompting, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the offspring in question is ten or thirty.

Other women, though, acknowledge kids, grandkids and great grandkids, but are not nearly so forthcoming. I’m of that tribe now. Given a sympathetic listener and a relationship of trust, these women tell stories of various addictions, mental illness, toxic relationships, unplanned grandchildren and great-grandchildren, financial struggles, pain, anger, grief and guilt. We find ourselves raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We co-sign for loans we can’t afford to pay off. We wonder what we did, or said, or didn’t do or didn’t say that resulted in our kids’ addictions, struggles and unhappiness.

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The love that was once the center of our lives and priorities, the strongest, purest feeling we’ve ever had, gradually becomes bewildered and confused. We look everywhere for the children of our memories, but they’re gone. Now, in front of us, are adults. From adults we want responsibility, appropriate boundaries and reciprocity, but our adult children want the unobstructed flow of our nurturing, support and unconditional love to continue uninterrupted, just as it did when they were children.

I didn’t think it would be like this, and neither did my friends.

My thoughts and feelings about my experience as a parent are so tangled I can’t see anything very clearly. Perhaps that’s why I was so taken with the ravens. The animal kingdom has a kind of brutal simplicity with regard to parenting, an instinctive wisdom that’s followed without concern for what anyone else thinks or cultural and societal norms. The raven parents knew what to do and they did it and endured a few days of discomfort.

Does that mother bird now worry about whether the young adult is happy or not?

Sigh. Probably not.

I notice that I never even consider blaming my parents for my happiness or unhappiness. Why, then, do I persist in blaming myself for my adult sons’ choices? Why do I think it’s any of my business at all?

Because I love them.

And so?

And so I want them to be well, and happy, and have good lives.

There are deeper truths, though. I want to be able to think of myself as a great parent. The proof? My adult kids have happy, healthy lives. See how great I was? I also want them to be happy so I don’t have the discomfort of knowing they’re unhappy. How’s that for a piece of maternal selfishness?

So, what, exactly, does a happy, healthy life look like? Is it a life we can boast about in company to illustrate the competence of our parenting? Is it the life “everyone” approves of? Is it the life I approve of? Why do I think I know what a happy, healthy life is for anyone except myself? Most important of all, why do I think I had the power to determine the kind of lives my kids would have?

As parents, we have a lot of power, at least in the beginning. But our power is all mixed up with other factors which are not in our control, like genetics, culture, geography and politics. If we judge our parenting effectiveness by the perfect happiness of our adult children, we’re all monumental failures. Life is not one unbroken experience of unadulterated happiness for anyone. Happiness is, in any case, a lazy, childish goal. What does it mean? Something different to everyone, probably.

What about competence? Yes. I want my kids to be competent. I want them to be able to learn. I want them to have the power to make their own choices and the strength to deal with the consequences. I want them to know how to self-care and love others. I want them to be compassionate, respectful and responsible.

I want those things for them, but I also want them for me so I can feel that I parented well and gave them the kind of start every child deserves.

Parenting is an odd business. We enter into years of chaos and hard work and watch our children grow up, never realizing we’re growing up, in many ways, alongside them.

As parents, is it about us, or is about our kids?

I suppose the honest answer is that it’s always about both, although it feels shameful to admit that out loud.

On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Who knows?

Ravens are solitary. We still have a couple in the neighborhood. I wonder if the youngster has left to find new territory. In time, he may find a mate and raise his own fledglings. He may be killed by a car, a gun, or a predator. He’s on his own in the big world to live his life, however that is, and die his death, however that is. Will the parent birds know? If they know, will they care? Would their knowing or caring assist the young bird in any way, or have they given everything needed already, including forcing the adolescent to begin feeding himself?

I don’t have answers. Nobody I’ve spoken to has answers, but we’re all asking these questions.

I wonder what the ravens would say.

I’m off to find my own healthy and happy afternoon and give my concerns about everyone else a rest.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

My daily crime.

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Jennifer Rose
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