One of the most important distinctions I’ve ever learned is the difference between thoughts and feelings. Sadly, I didn’t learn it in public or higher education. I didn’t learn it from my family. I didn’t learn it from my culture. I didn’t learn it, in fact, until I was 50 years old.
What I understand now is that ignorance of the difference between thoughts and feelings effectively cripples us in every area of our lives. Our misunderstanding, fear and confusion about thoughts and feelings lie like a Gordian knot in the center of our psyches, inhibiting authenticity, clear communication, satisfying professional life, and healthy relationship. Our experience becomes a murky pond, breeding anxiety, fear and isolation.
To be human is to have feelings. It’s unavoidable. Some feelings are pleasant, and some are not. As very young children, we take our cues from others and label some feelings “good” and others “bad.” That is the starting point of our confusion, because “good” and “bad” describe thoughts about our feelings rather than the feelings themselves.
Feelings 101: Mad, sad, glad, scared and ashamed. This is a short list of basic human emotions that we all experience. Our feelings occur far faster than we can use logic, reason or language. Most of us recognize these core emotions in ourselves and others, though we often deny that recognition because of our thoughts about them. For example, many women of my generation have been taught that anger is unattractive and “bad.” Men are discouraged from feeling or expressing sadness. From our earliest childhood, we are taught how to think about our feelings, rather than how to identify and express them appropriately.
As a result of all this thinking, we suppress, distort, deny, and try to amputate our feelings rather than welcoming, exploring, experiencing, and discharging them in a way that hurts neither ourselves nor others.
The problem is that if we don’t properly manage our feelings and allow them to pass through our bodies and our consciousness the way clouds pass through the sky, they become locked in place, festering and putrefying and eventually tearing us apart, both emotionally and physically.
Now I think of emotions as data, neither positive or negative. What we choose to do with our feelings is where the trouble begins, but the feelings themselves are neutral pieces of information indicating the degree to which our needs are met or not met. Our marvelous brains are evolved to collect specifics and details such as thoughts and feelings and organize them into some kind of coherence in order to facilitate life. Glad is not better than mad. Sad and scared are not necessarily negative experiences to be avoided.
I vividly remember receiving my second divorce decree in the mail. I sat at the kitchen table, looking down at those official papers, feeling a kind of numb despair, mixed with relief.
I reviewed what seemed to me a lifetime of failure. I believed I’d failed my parents repeatedly, my brother, my kids, and both men I’d married. I’d dropped out of college. I was always struggling with money. All I’d ever done was work as hard as I knew how, and it seemed to me the harder I worked, the more I failed. I must truly be ugly and broken. It was no wonder nobody could love me. That I could feel even a little relief just showed how hateful I was. I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself. I deserved to be alone.
Now look back at those last two paragraphs. The first one is two sentences long and identifies numb despair and relief, which are feelings. The second paragraph isn’t about my feelings at all. It’s about my thoughts about my feelings. My stories. My expectations. My beliefs. The second paragraph is about depression, the way I framed my past, and my inability to either accept or forgive myself. I offered myself no compassion or kindness that afternoon. I did not congratulate myself for having successfully exited an abusive marriage. I hated myself for my furtive but honest feeling of relief.
I don’t know about you, but the inside of my head is much better reflected in the second paragraph than in the first, and I would have, at that time, told you those were my feelings. They weren’t, though. They were merely my thoughts about my feelings.
I’m convinced that feelings are not what hurt us. In fact, they help us. When I feel mad, now I immediately ask myself if I’m experiencing or witnessing a boundary violation. Nearly always, the answer is yes. The emotion we call anger is helping me, giving me valuable information, pointing at something I need to deal with. That mad feeling is righteous and rightful, and it motivates action, hopefully appropriate and effective action.
Appropriate and effective action brings me to the most important aspect of learning emotional intelligence. It turns out that our thoughts and feelings, no matter how passionately we experience them, may not reflect reality.
In other words, we can’t believe everything we think and feel. Or, rather, we can believe in our experience, but not necessarily our interpretation of our experience, and this means we frequently do not make appropriate and effective choices.
Managing our feelings requires we take responsibility for them.
As an example, many people walk around with PTSD triggers in their brains. I am one of those people. Now and then, specific circumstances trigger my panic, but that trigger is about me, not anyone else. I don’t expect the world to accommodate my PTSD. I don’t blame others when I get triggered. I feel the panic and all the other wretched symptoms, and those feelings are physiologically real. I’m not making them up. Yet I know what I’m experiencing is not real trauma in the moment, but a memory, a ghost, an echo of an old hurt.
Our thoughts can also lead us astray. We all have convictions, opinions and beliefs, but, and I can’t emphasize this enough, we can be wrong. In fact, we frequently are wrong. We misunderstand. We assume. We deny and distort. Our logic is flawed or we are ignorant of important pieces of information. We don’t think critically or for ourselves. We make up stories in our head, tell them to ourselves until we believe them, make choices as though our stories are true, and wonder why our relationships are disrupted and our lives don’t work well.
So, what to do?
First, we need to go back to that 101 list of feelings and start recognizing, naming and accepting them when they come up for us. Where do we feel those core emotions in our bodies? What do we notice about our experience when we’re feeling mad, sad, glad, scared or ashamed? How do we manage the feeling? How is our coping style working for us? What happens if we sit down and hold an emotion in our laps without feeling compelled to take action, simply allowing it to ebb and flow through us? Who in our lives allows us to feel what we feel, and who doesn’t?
Secondly, we need to stop blaming anyone (or everyone) around us for our emotional experience. If we find ourselves in relationship with people who consistently make us feel angry, sad, exhausted and valueless, we need to take responsibility for exiting those relationships. We are not powerless. Chronic difficult feelings are asking for help, but we need to think clearly and carefully about the choices we make in order to help ourselves. Trying to feel better at the expense of someone else’s well-being is not appropriate. Self-destructing is not effective. It’s up to us to respond to our own emotional experience with kindness, acceptance and support.
Lastly, we need to monitor our thoughts, and challenge them frequently. I am constantly overhearing myself mindlessly repeating old beliefs and conclusions and saying, “Wait, is that true?” Nine times out of ten, it’s not true, or it only might be true. Another tactic I use now is to open my mouth and check out my perception. I live with a person I trust. If an interaction between us results in difficult feelings for me, I circle back around and talk about it, frequently finding out in the process that my thoughts and feelings have once again been skewed by old scars. I have misunderstood, or imperfectly understood, and leapt to mistaken conclusions and assumptions.
Talking it over with someone we trust, someone who won’t gaslight us. What a concept.
Thoughts and feelings flow through our lives, sometimes in a destructive torrent and sometimes in a slow, life-giving trickle. They arise within us, are of us, and are our responsibility. Thoughts and feelings are two distinct pieces of data, and they do not necessarily reflect reality. We are not entitled to have them validated by the world. Our thought-and-feeling experience is not more important or true than anyone else’s.
I will not be a slave to my thoughts and feelings, or those of anyone else. My emotions are my friends and guides rather than my enemies or masters. They are not a matter of shame. I don’t believe everything they tell me about reality, but they do help me understand the places in which I can heal and grow, and they are part of my decision-making process.
I feel satisfied. I think this post is complete. My daily crime.
I came across a prayer to Baba Yaga recently. I’ve spent a lot of time with Baba Yaga, who is a supernatural female figure out of Slavic European folklore. I’ve told stories about her for years, and she’s an important character in my book. She’s a powerful life-death-life-death figure and has many names, among them Storm Raiser, Primal Mother, Lady of Beasts and Mother of Witches. In spite of our long acquaintance, I’ve only lately begun to love her.
Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash
Sometimes I think the most important thing to understand about life is power. It structures every single relationship, most of all our relationships with ourselves. Power creates wars, cults, murderers, abusers, tyrants, rebels and perhaps angels.
I believe we have a great longing for our individual mislaid power, such a longing that we’ve lost track of what it is or how to recognize it in our hunger and desperation. I don’t know how else to explain our mindless obedience to the media, to our culture, to our religions, to the almighty “they” who instruct us how to live, how to eat, what to believe, how to look, how to buy and how to be.
At this time in my life, and at this time in my country’s history, I cling to Baba Yaga, because she represents sanity in a world becoming more insane by the day. The prayer reminds me of what true female power is—and is not.
True female power wastes no time on despots and bullies who conceal their fear and impotence behind dishonesty and the willingness to use force. It’s not her business to prop them up. They have nothing she needs and they’re not worth her attention, for they shall not endure.
Photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash
True female power is real. It’s authentic. It’s not bound by chains of political correctness, manners, fear or ideology. A woman in her authentic power is, according to need and whim, a child, a wild woman, a bitch, a seductive temptress, a crone, and a creature of magic. Obedience and compliance are not in her nature.
True female power seeks the hidden thing, within and without. She pares away layers, stories, masks, facades, dreams, visions, expectations, and shoulds. She’s a persistent poker, prier and meddlesome busybody in holey tennis shoes. She opens drawers, boxes and jars, looks behind forbidden doors and never stops asking questions. She refuses to shut up, close her eyes or pretend, and views everything by the stark light of a fiery skull without flinching. She doesn’t need anyone to agree with her, and she doesn’t need everyone to agree with her. She doesn’t argue with what is. The truth cannot escape her.
True female power doesn’t prostitute for love and validation. Baba Yaga eats sulfur to make her farts more momentous and fertilizes her body hair to make it grow more abundant. She’s hairy legs and iron-tipped fingers and teeth sharpened on bones. She takes a lover when she feels like it, but she kicks him out of her bed before dawn and doesn’t offer breakfast. Her body is not for sale, her hair is the color it wants to be, and she has no use for a painted mask over her face.
True female power is a teacher of magic. She teaches the sorting of one thing from another, cleansing, lighting a fire, the alchemy of cooking. She’s the power of the cauldron, the cup, the womb and the growing seed. She’s the wisdom of bone and blood, seed and water, life and death. A woman in her authentic feminine power learns to feed and nurture the magic of her intuition and creativity. She knows they are the most priceless jewels she will ever have.
True female power feels huge, deep feelings of rage, grief, joy and lust. When fear accosts a woman in her power, she spits in its eye and knocks it down on her way forward. An authentically powerful woman knows how to cause earthquakes with her dance, bring rain with her tears, melt rocks with her passion and sow stars with her joy. She allows no one to make her small.
True female power expresses all her fine feelings. She shrieks, curses, cackles, stomps, grumps, slams and mutters. She will not be silent. She stays up all night drumming and dancing if the mood takes her, and sleeps all day when she wants. She collects secrets, stories, marbles and insults with equal enjoyment. In fact, she says and does exactly what she wants to do and say.
(Yes, I said marbles.)
True female power is ancient and enduring. It’s coarse silver hair, aching bones, pearly stretch marks, lumpy thighs, scars and wrinkles and cracks and crevices. A woman in her power bleeds, first red and then the invisible silver blood of wisdom that arrives when the children of her body have become ghosts that live only in her memory. A woman in her full authentic power smiles kindly on the young and beautiful, because they are not yet capable of her wisdom.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
True female power knows how to live through the night alone, how to wander in the desert, how to go underground and live in a cave among the roots of life when necessary. She survives the conflagration, the invasion, the prison sentence, the betrayal, the loss, the beating, the chaos, the flood. A woman in her authentic power is rooted in the stars, in the trees, in the mountains, in the sea and in the earth. She welcomes the cycles and seasons. Change is her strength. She knows how to bide her time and let die what must, because she knows her power will endure in women who come after her.
A woman in her power is not confused. She knows there’s no authentic power in money or position, youth or beauty or hairless legs. She knows her wellspring of power is internal and if she can’t find it, no one will. True feminine power defines her own success, her own goals, her own agenda, her own spiritual practice, her own beauty and her own rules.
Baba Yaga’s specialty is too-good maidens of all ages. That’s how I met her. When the Baba is finished with such a maiden, she’s either saltier and wiser or dead. Baba Yaga eats the dead ones with vinegar to cut the sweetness.
It’s a good time for prayers. Perhaps it’s always a good time for prayers. Here’s mine.
Baba Yaga, Grandmother, we offer you our sweat, tears, blood, milk and urine. Initiate us into life and death with our own blood and bone. Lead us back into love for ourselves, our bodies and our earth. Help us, your daughters, find our authentic feminine power again.
In the last couple of years, a lid has been gradually slipping off a container in my mind labeled ‘BOREDOM,’ and I suddenly realize the contents of the can are now moving into all the cracks and folds of my memories and experience.
I don’t have much interest in boredom. I’m never bored and I’m greatly irritated by people who are. When I expressed boredom as I child I was either given something “productive” to do or told that sometimes everyone has to do things they don’t want to do.
As a parent, when my kids expressed boredom, I gave them a long list of tasks or “productive” things they could do to help me. They usually declined, but they also learned quickly to stop saying they were bored.
I’ve often been told I’m boring.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
There. That’s all I have to say about boredom.
Life was much more cut and dried before I became educated in emotional intelligence. Now I’m suspicious of cut and dried, especially if it has to do with feelings, patterns in my life or things that keep showing up. Boredom keeps showing up. People say they’re bored and I feel disgusted. People say they do self-destructive things because they’re bored and that excuse infuriates me. I take the boredom of others personally, as though I’m not entertaining or interesting enough to keep them engaged.
If I’m not interested in boredom, I ask myself, why does it make me so mad, and why does it keep catching my attention?
A couple of days ago I decided this week’s post would be about boredom, so I really started to think about it. I tossed around the concept of boredom with my partner. I thought about all the places it’s shown up in past relationships. I sat down and Googled boredom and looked at articles, quotes, memes, images and definitions.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve come to the page, either to write or research about something out there—a behavior or pattern I observe around me in other people—and discovered it’s not out there at all, at least not exclusively. It’s in here.
Remember what I said a minute ago? “I’m never bored.”
I’m suddenly realizing that’s not true. In fact, I suspect I’ve been chronically bored my whole life. The feeling of boredom, along with so many other feelings, simply got denied. It wasn’t until I started living more authentically here in Maine and stopped being bored that I could begin to see the colossal depths of my previous boredom.
Naturally, I’ve felt enraged when others express feeling bored while I can’t.
But why can’t I express it? What’s so shameful about boredom?
Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
First of all, being bored means you’re not working hard enough. You’re not being productive. You’re wasting time. You’re useless! You’re lazy! You’re a quitter! You’re irresponsible! You’re letting others down! You’re not pulling your weight! You’re a burden! You’re a failure!(This eventually trails away into a wild-eyed, gibbering mental shriek.)
When all the arm-waving drooling hysteria stops and I can think rationally again, what I’m left with is BUSY=GOOD and BOREDOM=BAD. This has the look and feel of first-grade logic to me, and I’m skeptical. I’ve spent a lot of my life staying busy in order to please other people and a lot of that busy was dead boring. School, for example. Busy and bored are not opposites. Busy without purpose is a recipe for compulsivity. On the other hand, the condition of being undisturbed and private with a book, paper and writing or coloring pens or even just a window and a cat with nothing in particular to do is a real pleasure.
Photo by Danny Postma on Unsplash
Somehow, somewhere along the way, boredom became the enemy in our culture. It’s a whine, a complaint, a danger and a discomfort to be avoided. It’s a weakness, even a sin (if you think in such terms). Boredom is a condition that must be fixed. Bored children get into trouble. Bored adults are not productive. Boredom is an excuse to use and abuse substance. People eat out of boredom. People have affairs out of boredom. Boredom, in fact, is to blame for a lot of undesirable behavior and choices.
Really? I don’t accept this. I’ve learned that feelings—all feelings—can be thought of as value-equal data. We’re human. We have feelings. Some are more uncomfortable than others, but isn’t that largely a product of all the thoughts and judgements we attach to them? Feeling a feeling doesn’t mean we have to act it out in ways to hurt others or ourselves. If we make choices that are destructive, our feelings are not the problem. What we do with our feelings is the problem.
It follows then, that if I’m bored and I can call the feeling by name and recognize it, there’s information there for me. What is my boredom telling me? Here are some things I associate with my own boredom:
I’m not interested.
I’m not engaged.
I’m not authentic.
I don’t feel a connection.
I can’t make a contribution.
It’s too easy; I know how to do this; I can do more.
I don’t understand.
I’m exhausted or ill.
I’m overwhelmed with some other painful feeling, like fear, rage or grief, that I’m refusing to deal with.
I have a boundary problem; I’m taking on something that belongs to someone else.
This entire list is a map that tells me where I’ve been, where I am and where I might go next. The feeling of boredom is the ground I stand on to read the map. My boredom doesn’t need to be fixed. There’s nothing shameful about it. On the contrary, it holds essential information and experience for me. It defines choices and supports power. Busy can’t create this essential space and quiet, but boredom can.
So much for not expressing boredom because it’s bad and busy is good. What else stood in my way all these years?
You see, I’m female. (By which I mean uterus, ovaries and menses.) Good girls, nice girls aren’t bored—ever—by males, including but not limited to male teachers, male family members, male romantic/sexual partners, male classmates and colleagues, and male bosses.
Now, before anyone climbs up on their high horse, understand that I don’t hate men. Not at all. I’ve historically gotten along better with men than women, in fact. Also, I know things are different now than they were in the 60s and 70s when I was being socialized—sort of. There’s a lot more awareness and discussion of feminism and sexual politics.
However, a big part of my training had to do with “respect,” (also loyalty, responsibility and duty) and just about the only person not included in those I was taught to “respect” was myself. Respect was demonstrated by things like being silent while the men spoke, obedience, and being properly grateful for and attentive to mansplaining . Respect meant adapting, adjusting, and limiting myself so as not to challenge, threaten or compete with men. My role was to learn to “act like a lady” and be compliant, sweet and attractive.
You might not have noticed, but that training wasn’t notably successful.
Boredom and respect are not a happy team, so of course I kicked boredom to the curb. Respect meant love, validation, tribe, straight A’s, husband, children, a good job and a normal life. Boredom with addiction, violence, abuse, rigid thinking, inability to grow, absent creativity and curiosity, uninspired sex, toddler-level communication skills, power and control games, mind fuckery, omnipresent TV, unending housework and financial grind was absolutely out of the question.
As for other people calling me boring, we’ve already covered that in a previous post. It’s a projection. My feeling of boredom is not about others and their boredom is not about me. I’ve been a lot of things in my life, but boring isn’t one of them.
That empty can in my mind labeled ‘BOREDOM’ was filled with something I want and need. Who knew? Going forward, I’m reclaiming my boredom. I’m welcoming it like the wise old friend it is, naming it, honoring it, embracing it, standing hip-deep in it and reading the map of my life to chart a course for what I’d like to do next.
And I will never, ever again try to fix, discourage, stifle, diminish or deny someone else’s boredom. I will instead congratulate them for feeling such a vital, vibrant feeling and ask them my favorite question:
Last weekend I took my own advice and surrendered to the now of my life. Two big, heavy wooden doors opened like wings and I came home to dance between them.
One of my dearest friends introduced me (kicking and screaming all the way) to dance more than ten years ago.
“No,” I said, “I can’t do that.”
“No,” I said, “I don’t know how.”
But she, in her infinite female wisdom, nagged and niggled and poked and prodded until at last I agreed to try it. Once. Just to get her to shut up about it!
So I tried it and found myself there, waiting. I rarely missed a dance for years and years afterward. Ours was a small group of dancers, ebbing and flowing over the years, but the core group remained remarkably the same. Sometimes there were only two of us. It didn’t matter. It was a safe place, a place to be with myself in candlelight, a place to be in my body without thought, shame or responsibility. Everything happened at dance. We raged, we sobbed, we hurt, we lay on the floor. We shouted and clapped, farted, belched, giggled, played, pounded on the walls and danced until we drooled. It’s one of the few places in my life where I’ve felt I belonged.
Leaving my dance group was the most painful loss when I left my old life and came to Maine. I knew I could never replace it, but I hoped to find another place, another group, another dance.
The farmhouse I live in is more than a hundred years old and that means the ceilings are low. I don’t need a lot of room to dance by myself, but I do need to be able to move freely. I did dance a couple of times the first winter and spring I was here, but I had to make myself small so I didn’t scrape the ceiling with my hands and my mind was filled with what I’d left behind. It was so painful I didn’t want to face it again.
In Colorado we danced in a yoga studio. It was a beautiful space — clean, high ceilinged, wood floored. Perfect. Our little town was safe after dark. The studio was easily accessible, heated, had a bathroom available, and for most of us it was less than a five-minute drive to get there.
Since I’ve come to Maine I’ve searched for a local group. I’ve talked to several women about dance. Some have been intrigued, but they’re busy, or they have partners, or we don’t live very close together, or there’s no place to get together and do it. You know.
Here, the nearest town is twenty minutes away in good weather. I’m sure there are places in town we might use, but I don’t know where. Or who. Or how. I’m intimidated and overwhelmed and it seems ridiculous to try to find a suitable gathering place when there’s no dance group to use it.
So I stopped trying. Too painful. After all, now I have a partner to hang out with in the evenings. I told myself I’d keep thinking about it, look for openings, and eventually, maybe, be able to start another group. Or even find one. One day. When we had more money. If we moved somewhere else. If we had a better car that could actually deal with driving on winter nights.
But this summer there’s a lot of movement and change, not all of it comfortable. I’m learning a lot. I’m feeling a lot. Writing is good, and so is swimming, but dance accesses something deeper. I’ve known for a few weeks now I need to find a way to get back into those depths for my sake and for the sake of my loved ones.
So I decided to quit playing games with myself and figure this out.
Naturally, an old farmhouse in Maine comes equipped with a barn. Ours is a total of four stories, a typical New England nineteenth century barn. There’s a bat colony in the top of it and it’s an apartment house for rodents. It’s constructed of gorgeous beams and posts with high ceilings and huge blocks of stone in the foundation. Windows look across the tops of the trees and over the river valley, most of them without glass now. We have six cords of hardwood stored in the garage level and miscellaneous stuff on the top two floors. The spirit of the building is in the bottom, though, which is accessed through two huge heavy wooden doors that are permanently propped open in the back of the building. This area is mostly underground and the stone foundation can be clearly seen. There are old pens and animal stalls built by hand from the plentiful wood here; not boards, but logs and saplings, rough cut. The mowed area in front of this lower floor is not visible from house, driveway or road and is surrounded by trees.
So, I built a playlist of good music, a mix of old familiar dance tunes and some new discoveries. I swept and raked, picked up trash and got rid of some impressive spider webs. I found an old rusty tin can, filled it with dirt, and stuck incense in it. I put on a skirt and some jewelry, found a pair of light shoes I thought would work (I’ve always danced barefoot), grabbed a yoga mat to sit in the grass and stretch on and went to see what would happen.
They were all there, my dancers. It seemed to me I could almost reach out and touch them. They mingled with the ghosts of animals who once lived in this barn, long dead; generations of birds, now flown from empty nests in the rafters; and the dirty lace of old cobwebs. My feet felt clumsy and heavy in shoes and it wasn’t night, but my body remembered how to move and my brain remembered how to lie down and rest. The music swept me up, pushed me with sharp elbows and knees, shook me by the scruff of the neck, played with me and soothed me. I danced with my expectations, my stories, my fears and limitations and loss. I danced with my disappointment and grief and rage. I threw down my rigidity, refusal and denial and danced in their blood. I danced with the joy of coming back to myself.
I danced in an old barn, in a new life, but not alone. The past is still with me, the dancers I knew green and supple in my memory. The pain of change is not, after all, too great to bear. I don’t need money. I don’t need a better car. I don’t need anything that hasn’t been here all along. I don’t need to wait for anyone else or anything else. I just needed to surrender to what is now.
So this one’s for you, my dear Bobbi; for you, Jill, in all your beautiful sensitivity; for you, Rena, who taught me so much about strength, courage and being real; and for you, Pat, who brought essential balance to our group and allowed us to dance with a playful small boy.
Half a world away, you all still honor my dance with your presence.
The experience of dance is a hard thing to convey to someone who’s never done it. I’ve written extensively about it, however, in my book. Please see ‘The Hanged Man’ page for a new excerpt.
We based our dance practice in Colorado on the work of Gabrielle Roth, and I still follow this template. Please see my web resource page for links. Also, here’s a wonderful piece about the power of dance.
Last month I posted about our power and ability to say both yes and no to others. This morning I’m thinking about another level of yes and no; that is the yes and no we say to life. At this level, the term ‘consent’ is useful. Consent means to “give permission for something to happen,” according to a 2-second search on Google.
Consent is a huge and complex topic and there’s a great deal of discussion about different aspects of it. For the purposes of this post, I’m using consent in the widest sense; the way in which we approach life.
Several interactions this week have made me think about the mysterious difference between people who consent to learn and grow and those who don’t. When I think about my observations, and people I’ve known, it’s clear to me the difference between these two kinds of people has nothing to do with age, sex, money, education, employment, intellect or family. It has nothing to do with the color of our skin or the god(s) we worship, or where on the planet we live, or what kind of horrors we might have endured.
I’m acquainted with a writer who sent me a piece in praise of stubbornness, a quality she admires (as do I) in herself and others because to her it means a determination to survive and do well, regardless of limitations, real and perceived. (Thank you, A!) We might mean the same thing by consent and stubbornness, or close to it. I see the ability to consent to learning and growth, over and over, no matter how many times we’re knocked down and cut off, as a kind of stubbornness — a refusal to give up, to close down, to conform to something that doesn’t work for us.
Without even trying I can identify seven people in my life, past and present, who don’t consent to the experience of life, the flow, the dance, the mystery and uncertainty, the synchronicity and the billions of invitations that arise for exploration, connection, understanding, growing and being.
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
These folks are easy to spot. They resist. They argue with what is. They deny, distract, fall into various addictions. They don’t communicate effectively. They care about winning, being right and power-over. They have rigid stories and expectations. Everything that happens to them is a personal insult or a crisis. They’re victims. A good, deep question is a grave threat. To my eyes, they look miserably unhappy. They repeat the same patterns, over and over, dying a little more with each fruitless repetition. They do not consent. They refuse.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
Every single one of the seven people I’m thinking of has had opportunities to learn, to grow, to change, to make different choices. They all had people in their lives who loved them and had information, tools and skills that might have enriched them. They all had people in their lives who valued them and wanted their contribution. They each had at least one person in their life who would have done anything to support them in learning and growing, and that person was me.
Most of those relationships are behind me now, because I have this unforgiveable quality of consent. You might say it’s my daily crime, in fact. My life now is based on the why, the what if, the whose rule is that, the help me understand. My life is about teachme, show me, share with me and what do you think? My life is about doing more of what works and letting the rest go. People who refuse and people who consent invariably have friction, because their needs are opposite. There’s just nowhere meaningful to go.
People who consent are not perfect or perfectly happy people. On the contrary, their lives have been filled with mess and miscalculations, abuse, addictions and other painful experiences, but they’ve learned from everything and everyone. People who consent don’t look at their lives with bitterness or frame things as mistakes. They see teachers, opportunities and fascinating things learned and yet to learn. People who consent are endlessly curious. They’re always thinking about what they don’t know and questioning what they think they do know. They’re always seeking the hidden thing. They’re more likely to ask questions than proselytize or lay down the law. They’re not interested in power games or being right or winning. They seek to understand, to explore, to exercise choice, to manage their own power. They can laugh at themselves. They can and do say no, but they say it to protect their integrity and needs, not to shut out or control life.
People who consent choose happiness. That’s the most important one for me. I’m still reaching for that. I’ve always been a person who consents, but I’ve also chosen to stay limited in many important ways. As I’ve learned to discern between refusal and consent, I see that living life from a state of consent results in joy. Again, it’s got nothing to do with age, beauty, money, status or any of the things that the culture says we’re defined by. Joy, at the end of the day, is a simple thing, arising out of being at peace with this wild ride we call life. Joy is consenting to surrender, consenting to feel and experience, consenting to feeling fear and doing it anyway, consenting to give up trying to control all the things we can’t control. Joy is composed of tears, blood, loss and disappointment, pain and growth. We already have it. It’s here, sitting on your shoulder as you read this and mine as I write.