Tag Archives: stories

Terra Incognita

My partner and I have been watching back episodes of Nova for several weeks now on PBS. Last evening, as we watched “What’s Living In You?” and “Can We Make Life?” I realized that part of why I like the show so much is that it’s filled with people from all over the world who know they don’t know … and they want to know.

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This is a direct contrast to some interactions I had this week with people who know … everything. They know what happened; they know everyone’s motivations and secrets; they know exactly what everyone else should think, do and say. They have no interest in anyone else’s point of view or experience. They ask no questions seeking understanding or more information. They don’t have to. They already know, and any information that doesn’t fit their story is an attack, a lie, or a threat.

In these posts I’ve referenced Kathryn Schultz’s book, Being Wrong, a fascinating and funny look at the myriad ways in which we’re all wrong, every day, though some folks seem to feel their lives depend upon winning and being right. Even when forced to admit we’ve been wrong about something, we avoid thinking or talking about it, concentrating instead on all the ways we were, are, and will be right!

We live in a world in which knowing is highly valued. Uncertainty or even, God forbid, admitting or contemplating the vast cosmos of what we don’t know, is seen by some as weakness. I suspect, however, that what’s really going on is simply fear. It makes us uncomfortable to think about how much we don’t know. If we discover things, we might have to make different choices, and most of us don’t want to do that. It’s too much work.

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Fear doesn’t empower me, and neither does being right or wrong, or knowing or not knowing, Power is in the inquiry, in the questions, in the curiosity about ourselves, each other and our world. Power is in our ability to learn, unlearn and relearn—also called resilience–as we navigate our lives. We’re all both right and wrong, ignorant and knowledgeable, whether we admit it or not, but not everyone can ask a good question. Not everyone is able to propose an hypothesis and see it through to becoming a theory.

One of my greatest frustrations in life is with people who don’t want to know. What is that? How can anyone choose to be willfully ignorant? I don’t mean that we all need to be interested in everything, as though life is one unending mechanistic reductionist set of classes. I mean that we all need to be interested … period. In ourselves and the quality of our lives and experience. In others and the qualities of their lives and experiences. In our home, Planet Earth, and how to take care of it. In problem-solving and innovation. In relationships and connection. In choices and consequences. In patterns, history and creativity.

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The old map-makers drew maps of the discovered world, labeling the undiscovered areas “Terra incognita” or “Here be dragons.” What is the difference between someone who stays strictly within the confines of what the majority accepts as known and those of us who poke and pry; open forbidden doors, jars and boxes; look through microscopes and telescopes; and sail, ride, walk, stumble or crawl in search of dragons?

It boggles my mind to imagine that some people find safety in not knowing, in not understanding. How can we make effective choices if we’re missing information? How can we heal, or learn to do better? How can we break dysfunctional patterns in our behavior? How can we have healthy, authentic relationships with ourselves or anyone else?

The hardest part of this issue for me is how disconnected I feel from people who say they don’t want to know. I think of life as an adventure, and I want playmates. I want to share what I’ve learned and learn more. I want to live the questions. I want to explore, reframe, turn beliefs and ideas inside out and upside down. I want to master new tools and skills. I feel sad when people in my life can’t—or won’t—play with me.  It’s hard to feel that my curiosity and questions are threatening to others. It silences me, and when I have to be silent, or less than I am, I’m bored.

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The older I get, the less I realize I know. The older I get, the more willing I am to be wrong. The older I get, the more comfortable and confident I am with my ability to research, read, synthesize, understand, experiment, challenge and learn. I notice how angry that makes some people, and how intolerant some folks are of questions, especially uncomfortable questions.

Terra incognita. What a wonderful phrase. Anything could be there, anything at all. I’ll send you a postcard with a footprint of a dragon.

My daily crime.

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The Breakdown Lane

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I’ve been sitting in the breakdown lane this weekend, watching traffic pass me by, (all their cars work!) and wondering why my car, which has been just fine, has suddenly stopped functioning.

We’ve probably all done this at least once, literally speaking. Metaphorically speaking, we’ve all done it many times. We go along in our small world, and as far as we know everything is status quo and just what we expect, and then, suddenly, it isn’t. Things go off the rails and all we can think is WTF?

Sometimes I’m the one who has suddenly gone off the rails. Except, looking back, I realize it wasn’t sudden at all. Sometimes the breakdown was years in the making, but I wasn’t present enough with myself and my feelings to notice the gradual fraying and come up with a plan. Grimly, I hung on, hoping, waiting, hurting myself, arguing with what was, denying my experience, trying harder, drowning in shame, crippled by fear, until I absolutely could not hang on any longer and my last fingernail tore out.

Then I let go, after it was far too late to problem solve or help myself or anyone else involved.

I still regret that I did not have the support or resources to make different choices. I hurt myself, and I hurt others. I take responsibility for my behavior and clean up what I can, but some things just can’t be fixed—and perhaps shouldn’t be in any case.

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I think a lot about these sudden moments where things fall apart, either within us or between us. The breakdown lane is like a time out, an enforced pause. In a moment or two, the whole aspect of the day, the future, and my plans for them have changed. I realize I’m not in control. All I have is an unpleasant snarl of disappointed expectations, thwarted intentions, frustration, anger and a need to blame someone or something, including myself.

A broken car or piece of equipment is one thing. An interpersonal breakdown is another.

Few things are more painful than feeling unloved, unwanted or rejected by someone we care about. Hell, it’s painful when we feel those things from someone we don’t care about. Imagine being an immigrant in this country right now.

I have felt unloved, unwanted and rejected. I’ve also had loved ones tell me they feel unloved, unwanted or rejected by me. As I know that’s not how I feel about them, I question my certainty that others feel that way about me. If they’re misinterpreting my actions, words and choices, perhaps I’m doing the same thing.

Our feelings are real. The stories we make up about them may not be. In other words, I might feel rejected when the person I’m interacting with has no intention of sending that message. The way I express love and affection may be so different from someone else’s idea of how to express it that it’s lost in translation.

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That doesn’t mean it’s not present.

I focus a great deal on language in this blog. I do that because words matter. They have layers of meaning. It seems to me that nearly every interpersonal breakdown can be traced to a misunderstanding over a definition of terms. Getting at the bottom-line meaning of a word is as easy as looking it up:

Friend: “A person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” (Oxford online dictionary)

Pretty simple, right? We all know what it means to be a friend and have a friend.

Except that we don’t. We might agree on that basic definition, but I suspect we each assign a whole world of additional personal meaning to the word friend, and that world contains longings, memories, hopes and fears, expectations, deep needs, beliefs, and old scars and wounds.

I’ve been thinking about that. When I talk about, think about and participate in friendship, what does that mean to me? What is a friend, besides someone I know and with whom I have a bond of mutual affection?

It’s a great question. I wish I could ask everyone I know. I won’t, because for some reason this kind of question seems to make most people uncomfortable, but feel free to volunteer an answer!

At this point in my life, I’m not interested in constructing relationships out of expectations and an attachment to outcome. I’ve always operated in a framework of both of those in my relationships, and it’s never worked. In the last four years I’ve taken a clear, cold look at my previously unconscious expectations of self and others and the myriad ways in which I’ve sabotaged myself and others with attachment to certain agendas and outcomes.

What I do instead (and a joyous, fascinating, loving process it is) is observe with curiosity and interest as relationships form and change. Viewed from this perspective, it’s like nurturing a child, a garden where we’ve planted seeds, an animal, or a piece of land. Freed from my extremely limited and limiting expectations and agenda, I can watch and appreciate all the unexpected, magnificent ways we are—and life is.

It’s the difference between saying: “This is who I (or the other) must or must not be,” and “Who are you?” or, even better, “I want everything you are and nothing you’re not.” Say that (and mean it) to yourself or someone you love every day and I guarantee your relationships will change for the better.

So, now, what do I mean by a friend?

A friend is someone with whom I can laugh, explore new information and ideas, excavate less-than-useful beliefs and patterns, learn and unlearn. A friend is someone with whom I engage in a contest of generosity. I want to ask questions, pull things out from under the bed and let the cat sniff at them, be wrong, problem solve, consider options. I want to practice boundaries, tolerance, respect and being real. I want to allow and be allowed. I want relationships that make my life bigger. I want to share reading, movies, music, memories, silence, work, nature, my truths. I want someone who says, “make yourself big!” while pursuing that same goal themselves.

(Not coincidentally, this is the kind of friend I strive to be to others.)

When I consider the above paragraph, and imagine that each of us could write an equally long but different paragraph, the concept of friend goes rapidly from a simple one-sentence definition to something much more complicated and personal. This wouldn’t be so problematic if we were aware of it, but we’re not. We say friend, knowing exactly what we mean, and never considering that the person we’re talking to, who’s also using the word, means something different.

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Then, one day, these two invisible sets of definitions, expectations and desired outcomes collide and we experience, hurt, outrage, betrayal, anger, disappointment, rejection, fear and disconnection.

I admit I have no fix for this ubiquitous problem. Even being aware of how differently we define terms doesn’t save me from ending up sitting in the breakdown lane. It would be good if the problematic words in any given relationship had a tag warning us of problems ahead if we aren’t careful to understand one another from the beginning.

On the other hand, that would take out the part where we sit in the breakdown lane trying to understand what just happened, how and if to fix it, and how our choices led to it. Uncomfortable as it is, I value that opportunity.

Sitting in the breakdown lane with my heartbeat and breath. Feeling my feelings. Curious about what will happen next. Confident that when it’s time to move on I’ll know it and do so. Considering what I might learn in this space. Getting bigger. Getting bigger. Getting bigger.

My daily crime.

Mindful Acquisition

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I recently read an article on The Minimalists blog titled “Prepared to Walk Away.” The Minimalists is a blog about simplifying all aspects of our lives by reducing our physical, mental and technological clutter. For most who embrace this way of living, the first challenge is to declutter. The flip side of decluttering is mindful acquisition, and that’s the part of the essay that really caught my attention.

Some people think of minimalism as something practiced by wealthy elites who live in large, white, coldly antiseptic, ultra-modern spaces. It’s trendy right now to declutter and organize, an interesting push back against the relentless consumerism of the twentieth century. I hate clutter and love to be organized, but that isn’t what most attracts me to the practice of minimalism.

What I have my eye on are the intangibles in life, the stories, beliefs and habits that accompany us through our days. How and why do we acquire such things? How much of the acquisition is conscious rather than unconscious, and how heavily are we influenced by the people around us and their stories, beliefs and habits?

Minimalism, when I discovered the movement in the last months, seems to synthesize many of the ideas and thoughts I’ve discussed on this blog, including letting go, quitting, boundaries, the failure of money, being right, outcomes and rewriting our stories.

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It seems to me that the vast majority of our mental clutter is carelessly acquired or thrust upon us as an obligation. We humans are powerful in our ability to absorb influence, and we’re fatally prone to addiction. Our consumer culture has exploited these weaknesses mercilessly, from alcohol, sugar and cigarettes to video games, social media and the Internet. The media grooms us from childhood to be mindless recipients of stimulation to buy, to believe and to comply.

Critical thinking is unfashionable, to say the least. I look around me and see shriveled attention spans. Fewer and fewer people seem to respect or even recognize peer-reviewed, verifiable, fact-based science from the idiotic and ignorant ravings of malcontents, manipulators and madmen who peddle hatred, bigotry and misinformation to the masses from television, radio, the internet and social media.

Thus, we’re positioned, mouths agape, eyes reflecting the sparkle and shine of baubles and distractions, minds numb, stumbling through life with one eye on some kind of a screen at all times, while words and assertions assault us from every direction from thousands of gaping mouths and talking heads and millions of busy fingers.

Mindfulness? You’re kidding. Who has the time, quiet and space to even think about what mindfulness means, let alone practice it? How many people feel that the only way they can face their life is to avoid mindfulness at all costs?

Decluttering a closet is one thing. Can we sort through our ideas and habits and discard what’s unattractive, outgrown, outdated or worn out? It’s agonizing to consider a piece of clothing, especially a costly one that seemed like such an exciting deal when we got it, and realize we don’t wear it, don’t like it or it doesn’t go with anything else we wear. We’ve invested money in that item. It’s in good shape and of good quality. We can’t just discard it. What a waste! We’ll never get our investment back out of it.

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Ideas, habits and beliefs are even harder to walk away from. We might not have spent money in acquiring them, but they tie us to our tribe, our workplace, our church, our family and our community. They influence our favorite social media platforms, our news and radio purveyors and our identities. Our addictions cement us into communities of other addicts, or at least into communities that enable our addictions.

We know everything about holding on: holding on to power; holding on to identity; holding on to our beliefs; holding on to stuff, either because we want to or someone else expects us to; holding on to grievance, outrage and fear. What we don’t seem to understand is how holding on locks us into place. We can’t grow. We refuse to learn. Fear has killed our natural curiosity and drive to explore.

On the other hand, a willingness to discard any object or intangible in our lives, if necessary, means we consent to grow, change, learn and be flexible and resilient.

Mindful acquisition is a conscious activity, an agreement we make with ourselves to buy that new item or explore a new idea or relationship, fully prepared to walk away if the item, idea or relationship become, at any time, a detriment rather than an asset.

It’s easy to think about objects in terms of money. Beliefs and habits are less concrete, yet our habits cost us far, far more than what we lose when we discard an expensive coat we just don’t wear. Talk to anyone who has tried to be in relationship with a workaholic or a substance, screen or gamer addict about the cost of our behavior. Money is, after all, only a symbol of value we agree to use. Our intangible clutter costs us relationships, connection, our health and sometimes our lives.

At first look, it seems that being willing to walk away from relationships weakens our ability to connect. In fact, I think in the long run it strengthens healthy bonds. If I know both I and the other party are prepared to walk away, I’m responsible for making a choice, over and over again, to stay, nurture and invest in a healthy connection—for both of us.

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Practicing mindful acquisition requires me to pay close attention to the thoughts, beliefs, ideas and habits I give time and energy to or consider adopting. Do they increase my power and joy or diminish it? How does my mental and emotional clutter interact with my relationships and ability to communicate and contribute? How do these intangibles affect my heath and energy?

The irritating thing about personal power management is that it takes work and mindfulness. We can’t stay asleep at the wheel. Sure, reclaiming our stolen, lost or dormant power is a rush, but then we have to be responsible for our needs, priorities and choices, choices about what enters our lives and choices about what we discard or walk away from.

Our lives are limited. At 55, I’m beginning to feel the edges. I want to minimize my clutter, from items to intangibles. I want to let light and space into my home and serenity and clarity into my head and heart. I want to feel the flow of energy in the form of money, love and creativity without distraction.

Mindful acquisition. My daily crime.

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