Tag Archives: reciprocity

Life’s Debris

Last week’s post was inspired by the work of R.D. Laing in his book, Knots. The first page of this book gave me so much to think about I worked with it for several days before reading all the way to page 3:

“It is our duty to bring up our children to love, honour and obey us.

If they don’t, they must be punished, otherwise we would not be doing our duty.

If they grow up to love, honour and obey us we have been blessed for bringing them up properly.

If they grow up not to love, honour and obey us either we have brought them up properly or we have not: if we have there must be something the matter with them; if we have not there is something the matter with us.”

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In my experience and observation, family ties are the most inescapable and powerful connections in our lives, regardless of our feelings about them, either positive or negative. However we view our parents, they’re the only ones we have and nothing can change that. Those of us who have biological children must come to terms with the intimacy of conception, gestation and birth leading inevitably to loss as our children grow up and fly away into places we cannot and should not follow. Each of us must deal with these blood-and-bone connections as best we can; there is no escaping the shadow of one’s parents or the ghosts of one’s children, alive or dead. They are our greatest and most powerful teachers.

When I was a young woman, it was all so simple. I would find a good man to love and be loved by. I would get married and have children. I would love my children and they would love me.

Now that we’ve all finished laughing (or crying), let’s think about duty, just one of the thousands of hidden landmines in parent-child relationships. It’s hidden because we all talk about it without ever agreeing on what it means or questioning its role. Laing was writing in the 70s, so his language is a little outdated. Even so, is it true that it’s our duty to bring up our children to love us? Can we coerce love, even from a child? Is it more important to teach them to love us as their parent or to love themselves?

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Do we deserve their love? Have we earned it? Are we entitled to it? Does our love for them obligate them to reciprocate? For that matter, does a child’s love for his or her parent oblige the parent to return that love in kind?

The point I’m trying to make here is that these knots we get ourselves tied up in, these eternal loops of bad logic, are so often based on a questionable statement that we don’t think to question. Breaking down the statement loosens the knot.

What does it look like, to love, honour and obey? Does it mean keeping secrets? Never asking questions? Being unfailingly compliant? Is a child to have no viewpoint, opinion, need or desire independent of his or her parent? What happens when love is lost in translation? What if what my child or parent calls love is something I call enabling, and refuse to give — out of love?

Punishment. What a great incentive for love! No wonder it works so well. On the other hand, are healthy boundaries punishment? Is refusing to lie for someone punishment? Is telling the hidden or unpalatable truth punishment?

Who gets to define all these terms? Who has the power in any given parent-child dynamic? Is there a desire to share power, or is someone determined to come out on top?

None of this is what really caught my eye on page 3 of Knots, however. What stopped me in my tracks was the endpoint, the either/or conclusion. If our children don’t love, honor and obey us in the manner in which we expect or feel entitled to, either something is wrong with us and the way we raised them, or something is wrong with them.

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I freely admit this is the same either/or conclusion in my own mind regarding both my parents and my children. Either I’m a total failure and fuck-up, or they’re unhinged. I’m like a dog with a smelly old bone. I dig it up, chew on it for a while, cry, rage, hurt, feel confused and regretful, hate myself, rehash old scenes and stories, feel sorry for myself and generally carry on until my mouth is bleeding from bone chips and I’m sick to my stomach, and then I bury the bone until something brings it all up again and I dig it up to gnaw some more.

It’s not just me, either. Every single woman I know does this, either trying to come to terms with her parents or her children. Or both.

I’ve always had a talent for untangling knots. I’m not sure why it is, but I really enjoy picking them apart. Mental knots are even more fun. I think for some this endless bone-chewing provides a kind of payoff, but it doesn’t for me. I hate chasing my tail. There’s no way I’m ever going to come to any kind of conclusion about my parents, my children or myself in relation to them. What I do believe is that each one of us has in every moment done the best we could do with the information and resources we had in that moment. As far as I’m concerned, we all get a pass.

The first time I read the above page, I recognized that twisted knot of pseudo logic can be undone with good questions.

What if there’s nothing wrong with our kids and there’s nothing wrong with us or our parenting? What if love, honor and obedience are beside the point and not important? What if punishment doesn’t enter into it because it’s not useful or effective and nobody’s done anything wrong?

In short, what if we’re all just fine, not broken, not failures, not fucked up, not unhinged? What if we were good enough children, good enough parents, and our kids are good enough people, each one of us whole, loved and loving?

What if we just stopped all these contorted and painful mental gymnastics and loved ourselves, our parents and our kids as best we can, or our memories of us and them?

Peace.

Then I picked up the next book in my current stack, and read this, and smiled.

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“Why would I be embittered? It is far too late. A month ago, after a passage of many years, I stood above her grave in a place called Wyuka. We, she and I, were close to being one now, lying like the skeletons of last year’s leaves in a fence corner. And it was all nothing. Nothing, do you understand? All the pain, all the anguish. Nothing. We were, both of us, merely the debris life always leaves in its passing …” Loren Eiseley— All the Strange Hours

My daily crime.

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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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Big Enough For Blessings

Once I lived with an avid outdoorsman who fished and hunted. He frequently spent his weekends camping during spring, summer and fall. I knew how much pleasure he took in this time away from the rest of his life, and always saw him off with some variation of “Have a great time.”

It never failed to make him mad.

He said it “put pressure” on him when people wished him well.

I felt both dumbfounded and amused by his attitude. I couldn’t imagine feeling insulted because someone who loves you wishes you a great time.

I’ve been remembering that man this week because I’ve been thinking about giving and receiving blessings.

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Traditionally a blessing was an important social exchange. If one was lucky enough to meet an incognito god or goddess on the flanks of Mount Olympus or in some other lonely place and received their blessing, they were broken open to receive it fully, their deepest and most private hopes, fears and pain exposed. It took courage, strength and humility to receive such a gift.

The poet David Whyte suggests we must make ourselves large for the exchange of blessing. To give such a favor is an act of generosity. To receive it is an act of growth. In the last several days I’ve thought a lot about making oneself big enough for blessing. I’ve remembered specific words and ways in which I’ve blessed others, including the simple blessing of my love.

Sometimes I’ve felt that the love I gave another in words and actions was recognized, appreciated and fully received. Other times I have not, and I’ve always made that about me. My love was unwelcome and had no value. Now I wonder, though. Perhaps it wasn’t me at all. Perhaps they were not big enough in that moment to accept my blessing.

That thought leads me inexorably to wondering how many times I have not been big enough to receive a blessing from someone else. I’m forced to admit there have been plenty of times; probably many more than I’m aware of.

Am I big enough to be loved hugely, or receive a large sum of money or have my creative hopes realized?

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I’m not sure I am. I’m big enough to be loved moderately, but hugely? No, that feels like too much. I can feel myself tensing, rounding, drawing my knees up and wrapping my arms around my body as I imagine someone trying to give me huge love. I’m not worth that. I’ll be sure to disappoint. They’ve mistaken me for someone else.

I’m too small for such abundance. I choose to be too small. I’m afraid to stand up straight, open my arms and heart wide, and accept huge love. I choose to limit what comes in. I’m afraid of the pain of being broken open. I can make myself bigger in spite of my fear, but I usually don’t in order to accommodate a blessing.

Therefore, I impoverish myself. I have people around me who love me. Perhaps they love me as deeply as I love, and they long for me to receive it as I long for my love to be received, but my own inability to be large enough to allow their blessing into my life makes the energy of their love impotent and weakens our connection. My fear and choice to be small, hard and rigid, like a rolled-up porcupine, not only limit me; they limit others as well.

My most frequent prayer on behalf of others is that they might experience the greatest good. I use that specific language because I know I don’t know what the greatest good is for any of us. Sometimes what we want the most in life is not in our best interests. Sometimes the hardest experiences are the most useful to us. Sometimes what we long for is what we most need. I don’t know. I’m not big enough to know. I can’t see far enough down the road to judge the value in any experience. All I can say, along with everyone else, is what feels pleasant and what feels uncomfortable to me in the moment.

Oxford online dictionary defines blessing as “a beneficial thing for which one is grateful; something that brings well-being; a person’s sanction or support.” We all can make a list of crises in our lives that later turned out to be blessings in disguise. Maybe it’s all a blessing – each breath, each heartbeat, each tear, each drop of blood and sweat, each moment, each life and death. Gratitude is a practice that could encompass all our experience.

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To receive a blessing is to allow an expression of support, affection and maybe even love touch us. It’s an act of trust in the intention of the one who blesses us, as well as faith in our own worth. We need one another in this life, and healthy reciprocity makes connections stronger. It’s not enough to be the strong one who maintains safety by extending love and support while accepting none; we must also be willing to be down and out, to be lost and confused, and to receive help and encouragement in our turn.

Last weekend two friends and my partner helped me empty out my flooded storage unit, chip ice, sweep water, put down pallets (transported in my friends’ truck), and put everything back again. We were ankle-deep in mud, slipped and slid on ice and splashed around in water as we worked. It needed to be done and I wanted to do it. I know I needed help. Yet from the beginning I was blocking the support and caring around me. I fussed about my friends using their Saturday to undertake such a messy job. I felt bad about using their truck. I was worried somebody would hurt their back heaving my wet mattress and box springs around. At the same time, I was deeply touched and uncomfortable because I could feel their caring and concern and I didn’t know how to take it gracefully. I wanted to be big enough to accept friendship and love from these dear ones, but it was really hard. I know, however, that I’m not good at receiving and I want to be better. I also know, had our positions been reversed, I would have greatly enjoyed helping out a friend on a windy spring Saturday morning.

I endured my discomfort. Now that it’s done, what I will remember is not what was damaged and lost, or even the mess. What I’ll remember is that the four of us tackled a necessary job, worked together and had a good time doing it.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

It was a blessing. I stretched as wide as I could to receive it.

I need more practice.

When I tell someone I love them, or wish them a great day, or the greatest good, I mean it. It’s not just words. My heart is in it. When I light a candle and reach out with all I am to a loved one who is far away, I’m offering the best I am as a blessing, a candle in dark times, a comfort in distress. I want the gift of my love and support to be received and used.

Probably the best place to start is to learn to receive with more grace myself, to expand, and to humbly accept whatever blessings come my way, whether plainly visible or in disguise.

Have a great day, readers. Greatest good to you. Blessings.

My daily crime.

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Jennifer Rose
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