I don’t like commercial television and rarely watch it, but I caught a muted ad one morning this week from the corner of my eye that intrigued me. I saw Passiton.org on the screen and looked it up.
I encourage you to go explore this site for yourself. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful videos, billboards, articles, and stories about real people. It’s positive, optimistic, and heartfelt. One of the videos, titled Caring and set to lyrics by Bryan Adams, particularly touched me.
For some time, as I go about my life, I’ve thought about the practice of love. It’s a hard subject to write about because I don’t have good language, but it’s the idea that loving and caring for the people I come into contact with is a kind of substitute for loving my, well, loved ones.
I told you the language was inadequate!
Sometimes our loved ones are dead or otherwise unavailable for a healthy relationship, or unable to accept or reciprocate our love for them. I’ve suffered decades of emotional pain over my inability to successfully communicate my love to some of the people in my life. I realize now love is a two-way street. Some of us, and I count myself among them, have a hard time accepting or receiving love, no matter how well it’s communicated.
Let’s just say the basic communication and reciprocity of love isn’t always there. We call this unrequited love, or “skinny” love. When I search the Internet, however, romantic unrequited love is the only topic I can find useful information on, and that’s not what I’m thinking about.
I have many times wondered, bitterly, what the point is of having such a loving heart, if the people I care about most are unable to receive my love.
Since I began my current job working in a rehab pool facility three years ago, I’ve been vividly aware that making positive contributions to others is in some ways a substitute for my inability to share love with the people to whom I cannot make this contribution, for whatever reason.
Sometimes I imagine a cosmic balance of giving love to others. If we’re unable to reach our closest connections with our love, we can give it to someone who is able to benefit from it. We may be no more than an acquaintance or professional in their lives, but love is love, and most of us recognize it when it’s extended, though we may not be skilled at accepting it with grace.
Perhaps, at the same time, my loved ones are receiving love they can accept and recognize from someone. Someone who substitutes for me.
When I say love, I’m not thinking about a single idea. I think of love as a container for many things: tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness, patience, presence, service.
This is not a new idea. Stephen Stills famously sang about it in “Love the One You’re With,” and Bryan Adams sings about it in video above, which opened me up to the feeling of unrequited love, the grief and anguish of it, and this substitution method of easing its pain.
I won’t amputate my ability and willingness to love, even if it’s unwanted or unwelcome in the places I most want to practice it. What I can do is step sideways, turn aside, and share it with those I come in contact with, those who can benefit from it, those who will receive it. In this way, my love becomes an offering to my loved ones, my community, myself, and the world. Everything I do, I do for you, for them, for myself. For all of us.
I read an article about using this holiday season to clean up messes, not just physical messes, but relationship messes.
This struck me because one of the things my mother taught me, both by example and frequent repetition, was to leave the planet better than I found it. Not fixed or transformed, but a little bit better. I always loved that. It made me feel that I had the ability to do something good.
This article suggests that we leave every relationship better than we found it in every interaction. A new twist on an old lesson.
So, what does that mean?
If you’re like me, your first impulse is to go into full people-pleasing mode. But people pleasing doesn’t make relationships healthier. In fact, it has the opposite effect. A healthy relationship is based on two healthy participants, and people pleasing enables emotional tyranny on the one hand and inauthenticity and burnout on the other.
Been there, done that. Not doing it again.
If we’re going to leave our relationships better than we found them the last time we looked, we need to know what a healthy relationship looks like in the first place. This all by itself can be quite a challenge. A good way to check on the state of our relationships is to ask ourselves if we’re happy in them and our needs are being met. Our feelings will quickly tell us if our connections are healthy or not.
Hopefully, most of our relationships are closer to healthy than destructive, so if we want to leave them better than we find them all we need to do is find at least one way to strengthen them.
Relationships are tricky, because we only have 50% of the power in any given connection. We can’t force others to change their behavior, communicate more effectively, or otherwise meet our needs. All we can do is focus on our own behavior and communication skills. If our relationship is toxic, we can’t clean it up alone.
Here’s the hardest thing of all. It may be that the best way to make some relationships healthier is to end them.
I know. Let’s all wince and cringe together. Ready? One … two … three! Wince. Cringe.
If there’s anything worse than ending a relationship, I haven’t found it yet.
Still, setting aside loyalty, duty, obligation, fear, investment, love, and all the rest, if two people are making each other miserable, or even if just one person is miserable, the relationship is destructive and someone needs to end it.
We could be that someone. And when I say “end it,” I don’t mean ghosting, lying, making excuses, shaming and/or blaming the other party, changing our phone number or moving out of state. I mean telling our truth, gently, clearly and firmly: “I’m feeling unhappy in our relationship. I want us both to have healthy, supportive connections. I’m ending our relationship so we have room for someone who’s a better fit. I value the time we had together.”
An unhealthy relationship is not better than none at all.
Many of our connections are not toxic, however, and coast along fairly well. In that case, how do we leave them better than we found them the last time we interacted? Not perfect, but a little bit healthier, juicer, happier?
I’ve been thinking about this question because I’d like to apply it to my relationships this holiday season and beyond. It occurs to me that making relationships healthier doesn’t necessarily mean making them more comfortable. I know much of what has made my own connections so dear in the last few years has involved a lot of discomfort as I risk being authentic and vulnerable. I also know from my own experience that my strongest and healthiest relationships are truthful, and hearing the truth about another’s experience of us, or responding truthfully to hard questions, can be quite uncomfortable. This kind of discomfort fosters trust, respect, and strong relationships.
Here are some ways I have the power to leave my relationships better than I found them:
Am I giving time with my loved ones my full presence and attention?
Do I listen at least as much as I talk?
Do I rush in and try to fix problems that belong to others or ask good questions, provide resources and tools, and convey my belief that my loved ones can manage the challenges in their lives?
Do I take everything my friends and family do and say personally?
Do I make assumptions and jump to conclusions or ask for more information?
Do I maintain effective boundaries and honor the boundaries of others?
Do I express my gratitude and love to those I’m connected to?
I’m surprised how long this list is, even without much contemplation, and reminded of how powerful we are as individuals to influence those around us.
We humans are highly social, and we all need healthy connections. The most valuable gift we have to give others and the world is ourselves. Nothing we can buy comes close. Working on relationships is messier and more complicated than buying a gift, and requires us to be honest and vulnerable. Yet we are the gift that can keep on giving to those around us, and they are the gifts that can keep on giving to us.
Cleaning up messes in the world and in our relationships might be as simple as picking up trash in our neighborhoods or reaching out to someone in our lives today and telling them how much we appreciate them. Or perhaps we have a big mess we’ve been putting off dealing with, or a relationship that needs to end.
As always, we mustn’t forget about our relationship with ourselves. When we go to bed tonight, will we be a little happier and healthier than we were this morning? If our relationship with ourselves is fundamentally broken, we don’t have much to give others. The list above works equally as well when applied to the way we treat ourselves.
Leaving the world and the people around me better than I found them. My daily crime.
I’ve been rereading James Herriot, who was a Yorkshire veterinarian. It’s been a long time since I last read him. His books are filled with love, affection and humor for the animals and people he spent his life with, but there’s another thread that runs vividly through all his books, a thread of place. He loved Yorkshire, the hills, moors and Dales, the little towns, the seasons and remote old stone farms, walls and buildings. Every page communicates his gratitude and contentment with his life and the place he worked. He and his wife raised two children. He worked all hours, and it was hard work. He was qualified before antibiotics and what we think of as modern medicine. He made very little money, but he was rich in love and contentment.
Dr. Herriot knew how to live deeply. One of his greatest joys was to pull over during his rounds and sit in the heather with his dog, drinking in the air, the view and the silence.
As I’ve been reading Herriot, the Fourth of July holiday has come and gone. I’ve never liked it. I hate noise and crowds. Fireworks are terrifying for many animals, both domestic and wild. They’re also dangerous and a fire risk. My idea of a really good Fourth is a nice, drenching three-day rain during which I stay peacefully at home.
This year, in addition to the usual associations, we have a pandemic. Each of the holidays this summer seem to be dividing the country more and more painfully, and all the hype and noise around escalating infection rates, distortions, denials, lies, economic concerns and travel concerns made me feel particularly anxious and miserable this year.
My Be Still Now practice has developed nicely. I’ve done it every morning for more than a month and it’s become a useful and enjoyable habit. It occurred to me, as I was sitting over the holiday weekend, that during this time I have an experience of depth. As I breath and watch my thoughts move across my consciousness like clouds across the sky, I sink down to another kind of being, below the sound of boats, campers and ATVs passing the house, below my agonized empathy for animals, below my fear of fire, and below my general anxiety about the pandemic.
In the space of sitting, I move beyond and beneath clock, calendar, distraction, and compulsion. There is only the peace of breath, sun and rain, birdsong, wind, growing things, and the cycles and seasons of this place and my life. I feel peaceful and content. There’s nowhere I need to go and nothing I need to do. It’s all right here, right now.
We all have access to this deep life, but it seems that the modern world conspires to keep us away from it. We are assaulted by so much noise, so much seductive glitter and shine, so much chaos and so many voices. Clocks, calendars and screens rule our lives, as do the numbers in our bank accounts and on our bills and credit cards. We are completely caught up in short-term, surface activity.
To live deep is to remember geologic time and rediscover patience and perspective. To live deep is to climb into the mossy throat of an old well, filled with sweet water that knows ferns and frogs and underground springs. Living deeply takes us to the roots of things, the quiet musk of earth, mycelium, mineral and microorganism. We enter the endurance of bones and seeds, the long memory of stone.
Most of all, living deeply takes me below my thoughts and into my feelings. It’s in that deep space that I find all the women and children I have been and all the wounds I’ve neglected. Without thoughts attached to them, my feelings are intense, yet simple. I discover an affection and empathy for my fears, old and new. I gain intuitive understanding and insight into my behavior and choices.
I meet myself in the depths, my most primal, innocent, wise self. I put my arms around myself, kiss my own shoulders. Gratitude wells in me, along with comfort and love. Creativity and inspiration blossom. I rest.
This deep time anchors my day. I usually sit for less than an hour. Even 20 minutes of retreat below the surface agitations of life provide me with balance and peace. Living deeply prevents me from speeding and helps me control my compulsions. It helps me stay conscious as I make choices about how much media I allow into my life, how much distraction, and how much noise. It opens me to the simple joys of working in the garden, sitting in the sun, watching the trees move in the wind, listening to the birds, and playing with our two kittens.
James Herriot had fears, inadequacies and troubles, just as we all do. He knew a thing I’m only just learning, though, and that is the skill of downing tools and simply being, welcoming the joy of uncomplicated presence and feeling gratitude for the experience of life in all its magic and mystery.
The meaning and experience of life is not on a screen, on a calendar or clock, or in dollars and cents. Those are but glimmers on the water, the topmost leaves on a tree, a passing cloud, ephemeral and only meaningful because we make them so.
The real stuff of life is slow, deep, quiet and timeless. We carry it always within us, but no amount of doing or having can unlock it. The key is being, just that.
I’ve noticed the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” popping up frequently in conversations lately. As a lifelong introvert, I also notice a lot of misunderstanding about what the term means.
I start, as you knew I would, with definitions. However, it happens that I disagree with the online Oxford Dictionary definition of introvert, which is “a shy, reticent person.” As I look at other dictionaries, I find that “shy” is widely used to describe introversion.
I’ve recently discovered a website called Introvert, Dear. I,D defines an introvert as “someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments.“ Now that’s introversion! I’m not shy, but I do get overstimulated.
Introvert and extrovert are, inescapably, labels, and regular readers know I regard labels with a jaundiced eye. These two descriptors are not black and white. Rather, each describes one end of a continuum, and we all have a place on that continuum at any point in time. We may slide back and forth, depending on context, but there is no perfect or normal place to be. We’re the only ones who can decide what’s perfect and normal for us on any given day.
One of the biggest and most obvious differences between introverts and extroverts is that extroverts recharge by socializing with others, while introverts recharge by being alone. Introverts are inward-turning, preoccupied with thoughts, feelings and experiences rather than external stimulation. Interestingly, science is discovering differences in dopamine production and reception may be related to introversion and extroversion, which is to say these parts of our personalities are neurobiologically and genetically wired in, like our eye color.
Introversion is not a defect of character, a weakness, or something that needs to be fixed or changed. Many artists of all types, including some big Hollywood names, are introverts. I relish my way of being and have no interest at all in becoming more extroverted. I’ve frequently been told I’m no fun, which used to really hurt but now makes me smile. Nobody on the planet knows how much fun I have every day by myself!
Introverts are not necessarily socially awkward or shy. We may be quiet and reserved at times, but needing to limit our social interaction doesn’t mean we don’t need, appreciate and enjoy social connection. We don’t hate people, but we may struggle with large groups of people and noisy environments because of overstimulation. Most introverts don’t like small talk, not because we can’t do it, but because it feels empty and shallow. We want and are able to make a more authentic and meaningful connection and contribution.
What this means is that large gatherings like weddings, parties and reunions are a kind of nightmare for some introverts. Not only do we become overstimulated and exhausted, a wretched combination, but we are unable to contribute anything that feels authentic and meaningful, which makes the whole event a painful waste of time and energy we’ll need a couple of days (at least) to recover from.
(How do introverts throw parties? Buy snacks. Invite no one.)
Which brings me to a sore spot in my own psyche. Feeling unhappy at large social gatherings does not mean I have nothing to offer. I have a great deal to offer, as do many introverts. Introversion is strongly associated with being a highly sensitive personality. Many introverts are intuitive, thoughtful, compassionate, creative people who are willing to explore life deeply. Because we choose only a few close connections, we have the time, attention and energy to be loyal, dependable, and good listeners and resources. We introverts give the gift of presence. Presence isn’t flashy or sexy or brightly colored, but it’s there, consistently reliable and steady. Sadly, presence is valued less and less in our culture. We’d much rather have a new phone, or a thumbs up, or a thing we bought in order to prove our affection.
A person who finds boundaries rude will certainly have trouble with introverts, because we need a lot of boundaries in this noisy, attention-demanding, chaotic, busy culture to protect ourselves. Introverts are often misinterpreted as being rude, cold, selfish, or stuck up because we must take care of our need for solitude in order to stay on our feet. This means we say no. Sometimes we say it frequently. For some folks, no is simply unacceptable for any reason. The fact is, I build and maintain boundaries with others because I want them in my life, not because I don’t. My no is not a rejection; it’s a choice to care for myself rather than care for another at my own (heavy) expense.
Some people define this as being selfish. So be it.
I’ve also received feedback that sensitive, introverted people “drive me nuts.” Here’s a newsflash: Those who insist on crowding us, drowning us out, violating and/or challenging our boundaries and being contemptuous of our marvelous sensitivity are driving us nuts! Please back off. Let us be. We don’t want to be like you. You be you. Allow us to be who we are.
One of the superpowers of introversion is the ability to enjoy my own company. I am never bored when I’m alone, though I’m frequently bored by the conversation of others. I’m self-sufficient. I don’t need other people to validate me, soothe me or make me happy. (Oddly, some people appear to find this fact highly insulting!) I’ve known people who can’t bear to sit quietly in silence with themselves or anyone else. This is as appalling to me as my glorious hours of solitude are to an extrovert!
What, exactly, am I doing during those hours of solitude?
I’m calming my environment with natural light or candlelight rather than electric light. I’m listening to music I find relaxing at low volume or relishing the sound of silence or the natural sounds coming through my open windows. I’m exercising slowly, deliberately and mindfully, being fully present with my breath, pulse and muscles. I’m sitting with a cup of tea, quietly gazing out the window or with my eyes closed. I’m reading. I’m ignoring the phone and my e-mail because I’m busy not being busy. I’m processing my hours and experience out in the world—observations, conversations, thoughts, feelings, interactions. I’m playing Mahjongg solitaire and remembering everything works out in the end, one way or another, and there can be order in seeming chaos. I’m doing spiritual work, ritual, and practicing gratitude.
I’m taking a walk. I’m swimming. I’m dancing with all the passion and sensuality I can muster (which is considerable). I’m sitting in the locked car in between errands, appointments, and working hours reading, or breathing, or dozing, or eating a take-out lunch.
I’m in my own soft bed with crisp sheets and heavy blankets. I’m reading. I’m sleeping. I’m just resting. I’m listening to the tick of the clock and drifting into a nap. I’m licking my wounds. I’m watching sunlight, moonlight, dusk or dawn steal across the ceiling and walls.
I’m writing, and writing and writing. All the time. Everywhere.
My hours of solitude make it possible for me to bring my best self into my treasured relationships. Ample solitude allows me to be fully present and supportive as a professional and team member at work. It allows me to push out of my comfort zone occasionally and do something more than ordinarily social, knowing I’ll have what I need to recover afterward.
It allows me to write.
I have delightful extroverts in my life. I value and enjoy them, and they drain me. I don’t think anything is wrong with them, and I don’t think anything is wrong with me. We have differing needs and personalities, and much to learn from one another.
I think of myself as a goal-oriented, disciplined person. Most of the time I know what I want (at least I think I do). Some of the time I’m intentional and present with my choices. I like routine and can be both dogged and stubborn.
Outcomes have always been important to me. I set my sights on what I want to happen and started trying hard to achieve that desired outcome.
I don’t remember ever being taught that creating certain outcomes is the way to live successfully and happily, but that was a belief around which my choices and behavior were structured. A desired outcome was success, and therefore good. An outcome I didn’t want was failure, and therefore bad.
I didn’t consciously notice for much of my life that trying to create just the right outcome never worked that well for me.
When I came to Maine and learned emotional intelligence, I started thinking about personal power and I finally really looked at how strongly desired outcomes motivated me. I was furious when I first came across the idea of letting go of outcomes. What I heard was invalidation and rejection of my ability to make long-term goals and plans and steadily, a step at a time, work toward them. I also thought I was hearing it was inappropriate to have dreams and desires. How could one navigate through life without caring about outcomes?
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It took time, a lot of exposure and a couple of difficult and painful events, but eventually I understood that investment in outcomes was the problematic piece, not having needs and desires or the degree to which we are disciplined and can tolerate delayed gratification.
We do not have complete power in the way things work out because our goals and plans inevitably include others.
By others I mean other people (the job, college or mate we want), whatever our conception of the Divine might be, and influences like the weather, the stock market, the tax return we counted on, the housing market, the weather, our state of health, and a thousand other variables.
Outcomes are as unpredictable as a loose cannon on a rolling deck, yet I based my happiness and sense of worth on them for most of my life.
For the most part I was unhappy, anxious and felt like a failure.
Then, somewhere I read or heard this little phrase: “However it needs to be, it’s okay with me.”
When I first came across it, I felt angry. It was a blatant lie. I was reluctant to think it, let alone say it. On the contrary, I was deeply invested in outcomes.
But it didn’t work well to live that way, and I kept noticing that.
For some time I watched myself using all my energy in the tension of trying to create specific outcomes that eluded me.
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In my usual buttheaded fashion, I hung on grimly. If I wasn’t seeing the outcomes I intended and wanted, it was because I didn’t deserve them. Or I didn’t work hard enough. Or I was so broken and stupid nothing would ever work for me. Or the world was against me.
It was much easier to hate myself, an old habit, than consider the possibility that none of us can really control outcomes. It was easier to blame others than change myself.
What we can control – the only place our personal power resides – is what we do with ourselves in terms of our beliefs, choices and behaviors.
Deciding how to think about outcomes is part of our personal power.
I formed a conscious intention of experimenting with letting go of outcomes. One of my very first explorations into that was this blog.
One of the biggest problems with attachment to outcomes for me is that the outcome looms so large it overshadows the hundreds of small pleasures in life, as well as my delight and curiosity in the journey I take through each day. I’m too busy trying to get to an outcome to notice or appreciate anything else. Attachment to outcomes means there’s only one very specific way I can feel successful or happy, and in order for that to happen all the stars must align just right and everyone and everything around me must behave exactly as I want them to. Otherwise I’ll be resentful, depressed, discouraged, hurt, or some other kind of miserable.
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Attachment to outcomes is also a relationship killer. Whatever it is that we want our children, parents, spouses, colleagues, bosses and friends to do or be (or not do or be), the fact is they are not pawns on our chess board. They are not paper dolls. They are not (hopefully) ours to control.
If we cannot accept our loved ones (or ourselves, for that matter) for who they are, we will lose them.
Attachment to outcomes comes with a heavy burden of fear and anxiety. As long as an outcome is “good” or “bad’ in our minds, both hope and fear attach to it. We invest energy in trying to avoid certain events and foster others. We try to figure out how to manipulate and influence the situation so it turns out the way we want.
We lose sight of the others around us very quickly. If we have our hearts set on a job, for example, even though we’re not well qualified for it, we do whatever it takes to get hired, never considering someone else might be a better fit. Someone else might be more desperate than we are for the job. The organization might need a specific set of skills and talents we do not possess. Another job opening we’re not yet aware of might be the place we’re most needed and will be most happy.
Attachment to outcomes can make us small and rigid, selfish and resentful.
So what does it look like to let go of outcomes?
Change and the unexpected are no longer fearful, but interesting. We make space for them. We have increased room for others because we’re not trying to control them. We take life less personally. We are confident and clear in our own power.
To let go of outcomes is to let go of distractions. It frees up space and energy to consider our own integrity, expression and needs. If we want to give a gift, we do it without worrying about how it will be received, if it will be reciprocated or how it will be judged. We give because it makes us happy and gives us pleasure to do so.
If we are artists, we create because it gives us joy, because it’s what we were born for. We don’t use our talent as a tool to leverage fame and riches. That doesn’t mean fame and riches won’t come or our art is not worth getting paid for, it just means that’s not an outcome that drives us.
Letting go of outcomes means letting go of feeling victimized, resentful and betrayed. We don’t take disappointment personally. Life is not all about us.
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Letting go of outcomes makes room for cooperation and collaboration. We see others more clearly, lovingly and respectfully. We’re a more elegant team player. We enjoy working with others without the need for competition or power and control. We look for ways to share and nurture power. We give up the blame and shame game.
Letting go of outcomes means letting go of regrets. We make space instead for all outcomes, whether intended or not, comfortable or uncomfortable. We go forward with our best, most honest and heartfelt effort and have fun, letting the rest take care of itself. We use our time and energy to cultivate curiosity, wonder and gratitude for whatever happens.
Letting go of outcomes starves our anxiety, depression and insomnia. If we can position ourselves in life with confidence, surrender and acceptance, we build resilience and joy.
Let me hasten to say releasing outcomes is hard work. I find, somewhat to my chagrin, that at times I’m invested in my resentment over the way things work out and my sense of betrayal. I don’t want to be soothed, comforted, or challenged to consider my experience from a different perspective. I want to be left alone to suck my thumb and pout, my version of a tantrum. Managing my expectations and attachment to outcomes is a work in progress.
I also do not deprive myself of the pleasure of making and achieving personal goals that have to do with exercise, building skills, playing, relaxing or learning new habits. Those kinds of outcomes are well within my power to pursue.
When I feel frustrated and as though nothing ever works out for me, I’ve developed the habit of saying that phrase aloud to myself: “How ever this needs to be, it’s okay with me.” If it feels like a lie in my mouth, I start poking at the situation and asking myself why I’m attached to a particular outcome. I put my energy into taking a step back and reevaluating the situation until I really am okay with whatever outcome occurs. I summon my curiosity, warm up my gratitude, invite my sense of humor to awaken and go forward.
It’s the difference between rolling out of bed and telling the day how it must be in order for me to be happy or rolling out of bed wondering what the day will bring and choosing to enjoy whatever that is in advance.