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I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of survival. I observe that we as a culture are obsessed with heroes and rebels and the endless struggle between archetypal good and evil. Survival kits are becoming a thing in marketing. Preppers write blogs and have TV shows.
Interestingly, our social and cultural world actively inhibit our ability to survive in all kinds of ways. Public school education might be said to be a long indoctrination in anti-survival. We spend hours with our mouths open in front of screens in dark rooms, enchanted by movies and games. Congregations of fans share reverence for comic book characters and the happenings in galaxies far, far away. We debate, criticize and celebrate the way these carefully constructed heroes dress, speak, look, act and collaborate with special effects. We have high expectations of our heroes. We imbue them with nostalgia. We expect our heroes to be just, compassionate, intelligent, interesting, attractive, moral, humorous, strong and poised.
Meanwhile, dangerous events take place in our families; in our workplaces, subways, airports and schools; in our world.
We wait for someone to neutralize the danger, clean it all up, drain the swamp, and make it all fair. We wait for rescue. We turn a blind eye. We do whatever it takes to distract ourselves from uncertainty, fear and our own powerlessness. We watch the beast lumber toward us and deny its presence, deny its existence until we find ourselves in its belly, and then we still refuse to believe.
I’ve been reading author Laurence Gonzales. He’s written several books (see my Bookshelves page). We have Deep Survival and Everyday Survival in our personal collection. Gonzales has made the subject of survival his life’s work. He’s traveled extensively, synthesized studies and research and spent hundreds of hours interviewing people involved with all kinds of catastrophes, both natural and man-made. His books are thoughtful, well-written, extraordinarily well researched and utterly absorbing.
Gonzales uncovers the astounding complexity of human psychology and physiology as he explores why we survive, and why we don’t. He’s discovered some profound and surprising truths.
The best trained, most experienced, best equipped people frequently do not survive things like avalanches, climbing accidents, accidents at sea and being lost in the wilderness. Sometimes the youngest, weakest female has been the sole survivor in scenarios like this. It turns out some of the most important keys to survival appear to be intrinsic to our personalities and functioning, not extrinsic.
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Gonzales does not suggest, and nor do I, that training, equipment and experience don’t count, just that they’re not a guarantee. In some cases, our experience and training work against us in a survival situation, because we assume a predictable and familiar outcome in whatever our activity is. We’ve made the climb, hike, journey before, and we did just fine. We’ve mastered the terrain and the necessary skills.
Mt. Saint Helen’s had never erupted before. Therefore, all those people who stood on its flanks and watched in wonder failed to grasp that something new and unprecedented was happening. Their inability to respond appropriately to a rapidly changing context killed them. The same thing happens during tsunamis. People are awed and transfixed. They have no direct experience of a tsunami bearing down on them as the water rolls back to expose the sea bed. They don’t react in time.
There’s a model called the OODA loop. The acronym stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Our ability to move quickly through the OODA loop is directly linked to our ability to survive.
Observation, the ability to be here now, the ability to recognize what is, is something everybody can practice all the time. No special equipment or training needed. What is needed, though, is the emotional and cognitive willingness (consent, if you will) to set aside our distractions, addictions, rigid preconceptions and expectations (often invisible to us, making them even more deadly) and dependence on stimulation. It also requires a mind set of self-responsibility. It turns out movie theatres, schools, concert venues and many other places are not safe. We can debate, deny and argue; protest and rally; scapegoat and write new laws. We are and we will. In the meantime, the reality is we are increasingly unsafe in many public places, and no one has the power to wave a wand and take care of that for us.
It’s up to us to take care of ourselves. That starts with observation.
In my post on self-defense I mentioned situational awareness. Our instructor emphasized that skill as being more important than any other move or weapon. If we see or sense something dangerous in our vicinity, it’s up to us to orient and move to a safer location.
That brings up another very important survival skill: instinct. At this point science cannot measure instinct, but Gonzales’s instinct about getting on a certain plane saved his life once, and many of us have similar stories. As far as I’m concerned, instinct is part of observation. What do we observe? How do we feel about what we observe?
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Our instinct is blunted in all kinds of ways. It’s mixed up with political correctness, including racial profiling. Few of us want to demonstrate discomfort around others for any reason these days. I invariably feel guilty when I react to someone negatively, even if my reaction is entirely private. It’s bad and wrong to judge, to cross the street to avoid somebody. It’s ugly and hateful.
Additionally, I’m a woman and I’m highly sensitive, which makes me particularly attuned to body language, voice inflection and all the clanging (to me) subtext of communication beneath whatever words are spoken. I can’t prove my intuition. I can’t demonstrate it logically. I have no wish to diminish or disempower others. I’m not a bigot. All people have energy and sometimes it’s foul. I reserve the right to move away from it. If that makes me hateful, woo, dramatic or hysterical, so be it. I’m accomplished in the art of noncompliance, but many are not.
If we only see what we expect to see, we aren’t observing. If we fail to see what we’re looking at, we’re not observing. If we can’t take in the whole picture, we’re not observing. If we look for something instead of at everything, we’re not observing. We’ve already broken the OODA loop.
Observing and orienting mean coming to terms with what we see. The plane is down. Our ankle is broken. We’re lost in a whiteout blizzard off the trail. We can’t decide how we’re going to survive if we’re unable to accept and orient to what is.
As a young woman, I did fire and rescue work. I was an IV-certified EMT, and I learned in those days that panic, fear and despair are killers. They’re also highly contagious. People who survive lock those feelings away to deal with after they’re safe again. Gonzales found that, amazingly, some people will sit down and die, though they have a tent, food and water in the pack on their back. They just give up.
I also learned that the hysterical victims are not the ones most likely to die in a multiple trauma event. They demand the most attention, certainly, but it’s the quiet ones who are more likely to have life-threatening injury and slip away into death. The screamers and the drunks, the ones blaming, excusing and justifying, are frequently the cause of the accident and retard rather than assist in the survival of themselves and those around them.
On the other hand, strength, determination and calm are also contagious. If just one or two people in a group keep their heads and take the lead, chances for survival begin to increase for everyone.
When I was trained as a lifeguard and swimming teacher, I learned something that’s always stayed with me.
You can’t save some people. It’s possible to find yourself in a situation where, in spite of your training and best efforts, the victim is so combative or uncooperative, or the circumstances so impossible that the choice is between one death or two. This fact touches on my greatest impediment to survival, which, ironically, is also one of my greatest strengths.
My compassion and empathy mean that I frequently put the needs of others before my own. I do it willingly, gladly, generously and out of love. It’s one of my favorite things about myself, and it’s also one of my most dangerous behaviors.
Consider a scene many of us are metaphorically familiar with. Someone nearby is drowning. They’re screaming and thrashing, weeping, begging to be saved. We throw them a rope so we can pull them out. They push it away and go on drowning because the rope is the wrong color. Okay, we say, anxious to get it right and stop this terrible tragedy (not to mention the stress-inducing howling). We throw another rope, but this one is the wrong thickness. It, too, is rejected, and the victim, who is remarkably vocal for a drowning victim, continues to scream for help.
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On it goes, until the rescuer is exhausted, desperate, deafened and feeling more and more like a failure. Meanwhile, the “victim” goes on drowning, loudly, surrounded by various ropes and other lifesaving tools. We, as rescuer, are doing every single thing we can think of, and none of it is acceptable or adequate. In our frantic desire to effect a rescue at the cost of even our own lives, we’ve ceased to observe and orient. We’re not thinking coolly and calmly. We’re completely overwhelmed by our emotional response to someone who claims to want help.
The survivor in this picture, my friends, is not the rescuer. The so-called victim is the one who will survive. If they do grudgingly accept a rope and are successfully pulled out of the water, they immediately jump back in.
The will to survive is an intrinsic thing, and I can’t give or lend mine to someone else. People who can’t contribute to their own survival, and we all know people like that, are certainly not going to contribute to mine, and some will actively and intentionally pull me down with them, just because they can.
I don’t have to let that happen, but in order to avoid it I need to be willing to see clearly, accept what I see, cut my losses and act in my own behalf. Real life is not Hollywood, a comic book or virtual reality. It’s not my responsibility to be a savior, financially, emotionally, sexually or in any other way. The word survivor does not and cannot apply to everyone.
It’s a harsh reality that doesn’t have much to do with being politically correct or approval and popularity, and most people have trouble facing it, which will inhibit their survival if they ever find themselves in an emergency situation.
Gonzales covers this at some length in Deep Survival, and he rightfully points out that compassion and cool or even cold logic are not mutually exclusive. People in extreme situations sometimes have to make dreadful decisions in order to live, and they do. A compassionate nature that does what must be done may buy survival at the cost of life-long trauma. Ask any combat veteran. This is the side of the story the Marvel Universe doesn’t talk about. Survival can be primitive, dirty and gut wrenching. Sending blue light and thoughts and prayers are not the stuff of survival.
Clear orientation leads to options and choices. Evaluating available resources and concentrating on the basics of survival: water, food, shelter, warmth, rest and first aid are all essential. Thinking coolly and logically about what must be done and breaking the task into small steps can save people against all odds.
Sometimes, death comes. Eventually, we all reach our last day. In that case, there’s no more to be said. Yet the mysterious terrain on the threshold between life and death is remarkably defining. I wonder if perhaps it’s the place where we learn the most about ourselves.
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I’ve known people who stockpile weapons and ammo, bury gold in bunkers, build off-grid compounds and obsess about survival equipment and bug-out bags. Many wilderness schools teach basic and advanced survival techniques. Some folks put all their financial resources into prepping for catastrophe and collapse. I’m nervous about the state of the world on many levels myself, so I understand, but I can’t help thinking that investing in a story about living in a guarded, fully-equipped compound is not much better than investing in a story that water will continue to run from faucets, a wall socket will deliver electricity and grocery shelves will hold food, forever and ever, amen.
After reading Gonzales, I’m considering that maybe simply living life is the best preparation for survival. Trusting my instinct; learning to manage my power and feelings; being aware of the limitations of my experience, expectations and beliefs are all investments in survival. Simply practicing observation is a powerful advantage. I don’t have money to spend on gear and goodies that I might or might not be able to save, salvage or retain if things fall apart. The kind of investment that will keep me alive is learning new skills, staying flexible and adaptive, developing emotional intelligence and nurturing my creativity. No one can take those tools away from me and I can use them in any scenario.
We’re born with nothing but our physical envelope. Ultimately, perhaps the greatest survival tool of all is simply ourselves, our wits and our will.
Survival. My daily crime.
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Arguing with what is.
Possibly the most fruitless endeavor in the world.
Yet many of us consistently argue with how we are, how others are and how the world is.
Arguing with what is is like living in an unending war. Clinging to a story inconsistent with what is requires constant vigilance. Our lives begin to revolve around the fear that the truth we refuse to acknowledge will escape or be exposed.
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We cannot allow that to happen, so we put all our energy into convincing ourselves that what is isn’t. Then we start trying to persuade others to validate our particular reality because God speaks to us, or we’re especially victimized, marginalized, enlightened, rich or powerful. If we can’t persuade others, we try to create and enforce rules requiring them to fall into line, to agree, at least tacitly, with our point of view and belief system. We scorn critical thinking, science and evidence-based data. We discourage questioning, careful definitions and nuances. We create jargon, acronyms, blacklists and smear campaigns. We enlist the sympathy, empathy, kindness and compassion of well-meaning but naïve people. We set up zero sum games, use gaslighting, violence, abuse, projection, deflection, sweeping and inaccurate generalizations and distortions. We hurt ourselves, and we hurt others.
Arguing with what is is a full-time job.
My particular version of arguing with what is takes place mostly in my head. For example:
I don’t feel loved.
What? How can you say that? Remember that one kiss at the beginning, the most passionate kiss of your life? You know you want that again! Think of how funny he can be, how charming, how much fun! If you don’t feel loved it’s because you’re not trying hard enough. You’re ungrateful. You’re disloyal. You’re a bad partner. You don’t deserve him. You want too much. You’re needy and demanding. Of course he loves you, he’s just not comfortable saying it! You are happy and loved. Get a grip!
I don’t feel happy or loved.
I had this ding-dong conversation with myself for years. I desperately and repeatedly tried to convince myself I was both happy and loved, but I could never quite silence that deep internal voice that went right on saying, “I don’t feel loved.” It wouldn’t shut up. After years of this nonsense, I finally got so exhausted I stopped arguing with my true feelings and ended the relationship. Then, one day I came across narcsite dot com and immediately recognized the narcissist-empath dynamic.
You know what? I was right. I didn’t feel loved because I wasn’t, in fact, loved.
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Arguing with what is means fear and self-doubt are my constant companions.
So what’s the other side of the coin? What’s the fix for arguing with what is?
This magical phrase: However this needs to be, it’s okay with me.
Say it aloud: However this needs to be, it’s okay with me. Is it a lie? It usually is a lie for me when I first apply it to any given situation. I want things to be predictable, controlled and adhere to my expectations and standards. I expect that of myself, of others and of the world.
I haven’t had great luck with that expectation. The rebellious world is chaotic, unpredictable and unexpected. I’m not in charge of anyone but myself, and my feelings (along with the rest of me) are disobedient and refuse to be controlled.
My need for control and predictability are rooted in fear and lack of trust in myself. If, at any moment in any day, however things need to be is not okay with me, I know I’m dealing with fear or lack of self-trust, and those are both places where I have all the power. That instant refocus from avoiding, denying or refusing an inconvenient or unexpected truth or reality over which I have no power to the very center of my power clears away anxiety, confusion and fear. What happens in me, in a day, or in the world is not really the problem. The problem is in the way I manage my power and my choices. Addressing my own power and choices allows me to say, with perfect truth, that however this needs to be, it’s okay with me.
Being okay with the ways things are doesn’t mean endless love, light and turning the other cheek. It doesn’t mean I accept boundary violations, bullying, coercion, violence or any other kind of power-over games. It doesn’t mean I tip-toe through life pleasing others, following rules and keeping silent. It doesn’t mean toadying to the political correctness police. It doesn’t mean I feel no frustration or disappointment, or that the status quo should remain unchallenged and unchanged. It means clarity about where my power is.
Nobody wants a flat tire, herpes, an unwanted pregnancy, a cancer diagnosis, mental illness, the flu or to lose a loved one. We don’t want superstorms that wipe out our homes, the uncertainties and anxiety of climate change or food and water shortages. Nobody voted for lead in their drinking water, or to experience genocide. Nobody wants to be silenced, attacked, abused, marginalized, shot or scapegoated.
Yet all these things are. They’re real, along with many magical, wonderful things, and I can’t change the way things are.
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I can only change the way I am. I can decide when and how to speak. I can decide how I interact with others. I can listen, learn, research, ask questions, think critically and decide where I stand on important issues. I can speak up for those without voices. I can pay attention to my own integrity and operate within it. I can disengage, refuse to pick up poisoned bait, move away from where the blow is going to land (sometimes) and learn self-defense.
I can say no.
I can learn to trust my own courage, willingness to love, intelligence, feelings and ability to adjust and adapt to whatever happens. I can choose confidence and curiosity as companions.
I can make sure that however I need to be, it’s okay with me.
I can surrender to others in all their strengths and imperfections. Each one of us is however we need to be, sick or well, destroyer or hero, weak or strong, power-over or power-with. People in the world are okay with me, and I choose who I engage and connect with, who I support or hinder, who I share power with, who I collaborate and cooperate with and who I allow in my life.
However this minute, this hour, this day needs to be, it’s okay with me. If I catch the flu, it’s okay with me (Ugh). If I can’t get out of the icy driveway to go swimming, it’s okay with me (Rats!). If I reread the rough draft of this post and decide it needs to be rewritten before tomorrow when I post, it’s okay with me (what a pain in the neck!)
I can accept what is, deal with it, and go on.
Or I can argue with what is.
It’s a chocolate-or-vanilla choice, and we make it a hundred times a day.
Whatever you choose, it’s okay with me.
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And so, after all, it was no use,
That desperate determination to please.
In the end a hidden, untamed thing
Always looked out of my eyes,
Beseeching for freedom,
And none of us could beat it down.
Now all the rigid outlines of my life
Have fallen around my feet in graceful folds.
I’ve counted silver threads and lines
And granted freedom.
If there’s no lover for what I am
I can kiss my own shoulders.
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My partner has trained in Aikido, and he relates hearing the above advice years ago from his teacher. Ever since he repeated it to me, I’ve been turning it over in my mind.
We lately found a Tai Chi teacher and joined a class. I’ve wanted to do Tai Chi for a long time, and it’s every bit as much fun as I always imagined it would be. I practice it every day, and part of my practice is meditating on that wonderful piece of subtle Eastern wisdom: Don’t be where the blow lands.
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Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art focusing on energy manipulation, practiced for defense and health. Many of the people in the class we joined are there to address balance and strength. I’m happy to support both my balance and my strength, but I’m learning Tai Chi primarily as a grounding and centering tool.
We’re learning a series of specific slow, repetitive movements that flow into one another. Each movement is called a form, and each form has its own, often poetic name: The bow, the crane, windmills, the lute. Tai Chi emphasizes locating and moving from one’s center, and it’s interesting how difficult I find that.
Learning the forms and stringing them together is no problem for me. It takes a lot of repetition to get arms and legs coordinated and figure out proper positioning, but I like repetition and want to practice. What I notice, though, is how easily I lose my center. I reach or step too far. I find myself up on one toe or another when I’m not supposed to be. I put one foot directly in front of another, like a model on a catwalk, instead of maintaining a more stable, wider-based stance. My ankles are weak and unsteady. If I’m doing one form at a time in isolation, I can tighten my core and be solid, but Tai Chi is flowing movement, albeit slow, and after a few different forms my center is gone.
Losing my balance in this way is a perfect metaphor for the way I’ve lived my life until recently. My energy and attention were always directed outward. I had very little ability to support myself; I relied on external support and I didn’t distinguish toxic inputs from healthy ones. I was too hungry and had too many unmet needs; I took a lot of poisoned bait. Not only did I stand where blows landed and bullets sped, I made a camp there and called it home. I believed I needed those blows and bullets, that they meant love, that it was my responsibility to endure them, and that I deserved them.
We can’t avoid life. Harsh words, verbal attacks, physical violence and unexpected events like fire, flood, riots and sudden public violence are going to happen. Even so, there are ways in which to meet life’s blows with all the grace and elegance of Tai Chi, and as I practice the forms and movements, I think about the skills that allow me to absorb the blow, to flow with it, and to step away from where it landed before it can be repeated.
I’m a big proponent of self-defense and I always carry a knife. I’m not afraid to fight. One day soon I’m going to learn to shoot and buy myself a gun, which I will carry. That kind of self-defense is a separate thing from my practice of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is not about any kind of an aggressor lurking in an alley or a parking lot; it’s about emotional and energetic safety.
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Tai Chi, along with swimming, dancing, ritual work, walking and writing, is a way to call myself home, back to the center, back to my bones and the source of myself. Maintaining my center absolutely requires my undivided presence. I can’t center properly if I refuse to know all of who I am. I can’t maintain balance if I refuse to love all of who I am. The minute I try to amputate bits and pieces of myself, deny my thoughts and feelings or start tearing myself down in any way, I’m standing (again) where blows are guaranteed to land. When I catch myself justifying; pleading; waiting for external validation; trying to please; choice-making out of fear, denial and self-doubt, I know that I’m standing on the shooting range with a target pasted over my heart and head.
I’ve spent too much of my life staggering under loads of other people’s shit, carrying vampires and dragging chains. Confusion, fear, perfectionism, disempowerment and constipated unacknowledged feelings have all kept me standing where the blows land. Arguing with what is has cemented me in the path of bullets. Clarity, self-confidence, making friends with my feelings and reclaiming my power allow me to deflect, block or better absorb the blows that come my way.
I’m intentional about living with the wisdom of choosing not to be where the blow lands. Reclaiming my center and moving mindfully from danger, not only physically but creatively and emotionally, all but eliminates my fear and anxiety. Concentrating on grounding leaves no room for anything but strength and rootedness. The meaning of my life is not out there, in the noise and chaos of what others think, say and do. The meaning of my life is in here, centered within the container of my body, expressed by what I think, say and do.
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Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see if I can remember the windmills and the lute from yesterday’s class.
My daily crime
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A good thing happened recently. I declined to take poisoned bait.
The bait arrived in the form of a terse email from an individual with whom I’ve recently done business. I’ve never met them in person. I approached our business transaction with a willingness to negotiate, share power, cooperate and communicate directly, thoroughly and clearly. I saved all documents, contracts and emails regarding our business, and upon successfully (in my view) concluding our interaction, I moved on with a sense of gratitude, satisfaction and relief.
More than a month later, I had an email expressing frustration and blame.
It felt like a slap in the face, unexpected and hurtful.
My immediate impulse was to strike back, followed quickly by the thought that I hadn’t communicated well and I could fix things by explaining myself (again). Obviously, I had been misunderstood.
Then I decided to pause for a day or so and think carefully about this.
The fact is, I have a longstanding deeply-rooted pattern of believing I’ve been misunderstood due to my inept communication. This belief keeps me firmly locked in escalating attempts to explain and be heard and understood. What I’ve failed to perceive, over and over again through the years, is that I’ve frequently been in relationships with people who had no interest in explanations. They were deliberately fostering misunderstanding, drama and conflict because it fed them in some way.
This, by the way, is a very common strategy of narcissists, psychopaths and borderline personality disordered people. I’ve written previously about projection and gaslighting , two tools frequently used to control others.
Deliberately keeping another in confusion and on the defensive, constantly changing the goalposts and passive aggressive tactics like the silent treatment are all baited hooks I’ve eagerly swallowed and writhed on for years. Words can’t convey the anguish and erosion of self that occurs in the context of this kind of long-term abuse. I’ve crept away from relationships like this as nothing more than a cracked shell of woman, my sexuality and femininity withered, my emotions torn to shreds, my body impoverished and barren, and firmly convinced of my own worthlessness, ugliness and inadequacy.
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A perfect set-up to fall for it all over again.
But not this time!
This time I had hard evidence. Over and over, I checked the timing of contract and closing, emails sent and received, all the fine print. It was all right there, the date my responsibility ended and the date after that of a sudden dissatisfaction I was expected to fix.
I concluded I’d done nothing wrong. On the contrary, I’d consistently demonstrated the kind of integrity I aspire to in every interaction. I went above and beyond. I provided explanation, suggestions for resolution and alternate options, along with names and numbers of possible local resources.
That email was bait.
So, a couple of days later I took a deep breath, opened my email and replied with sincere wishes for happiness and success. One sentence. Then I signed off and hit “send.”
This happened about three weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s a small thing, but it reveals to me how very far I’ve come in healing, growth and wisdom. I now know that I have the power to decline an invitation to struggle. I recognize poisoned bait for what it is. I know it conceals a hook, and that hook no longer tempts me. I don’t need to waste any energy in defense or repeated explanations. I don’t choose to revisit old bones of contention and chaos. I accept that people think what they think, make up and believe the stories they make up and believe, carry the assumptions they carry, and none of it has anything to do with me.
Misunderstanding certainly occurs, but it’s not that difficult to clear up, given two adults who intend to. The trick is to identify as quickly and accurately as possible if the person I’m interacting with is an adult who to intends to clear up misunderstanding. In the case of my email, that person was only peripherally in my life and we’ll probably never interact again, so I didn’t bother. However, we all have people in our lives with whom we have ongoing connection. In those cases, I use a single question to clarify “misunderstanding.”
“Is there anything I can say or do to clear this up and repair our relationship?”
This direct, simple question seems to encourage surprisingly honest answers, albeit answers I haven’t wanted to accept or believe. However, if the answer is some variation of “no,” then everything immediately becomes blessedly clear. I want to repair. They don’t. Continuing to engage is a waste of our mutual time and energy, and if any kind of a hook remains dangling, I know it’s a manipulation. They’ve made up their mind, and I have no power there.
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
The words on the screen fail to convey the annihilating heartbreak attendant on understanding that someone you care about and even love doesn’t value your relationship enough to make repairs, but arguing with what is has never worked for me, and I think we owe it to ourselves and others to pay attention when people tell us who they are, no matter how devastated we might feel or how much we want to deny what we hear.
I don’t think of this as too-sweet maiden, politically correct, starry-eyed liberal ideology. Neither is it a religious thing for me, or some kind of higher moral ground tactic. It’s not about making nice and giving others the benefit of a doubt, turning the other cheek, or making excuses for why people do the things they do. It’s also not a blanket rejection. I’m perfectly prepared to turn aside into another conversation, activity, or form of connection. I’m also perfectly prepared to walk away.
No. This is about dignity. It’s about wisdom. It’s about self-defense and self-care. Explaining oneself once, apologizing if warranted, taking responsibility if appropriate, is healthy, adult behavior. Distortions, refusing to hear or accept explanations, verbal or physical threats or violence, scenes, emotional meltdowns and shame and blame games are signs and symptoms of dangerously abusive relationships, and I’m no longer available for those.
I’ve changed my diet and I don’t take that poisoned bait anymore.
I’ve had a bellyful of it already.
My daily crime.
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I went to a self-defense class last weekend, and it changed everything.
I’ve been thinking about self-defense a lot lately. In the past month or two I came across a book by Kelly McCann titled Combatives For Street Survival, illustrated throughout with photographs. That book opened up a whole new world to me. Not only is McCann direct and clear, he has a no-bullshit approach to the techniques and skills of self-defense. He knows what he’s talking about, as he’s an ex-Marine and has a wide variety of experience all over the world. He’s not interested in ideology. The only thing he’s interested in is what works to discourage or disable (note I did NOT say kill) an attacker, and he makes the point, over and over again, that if you’re forced into a fight in spite of good situational awareness and avoidance tactics (preferably running like a rabbit), you’re more likely to live if you learn a small set of flexible techniques and practice them.
What struck me most forcibly about McCann’s book was that it represents permission to defend oneself. No one ever gave me that before. On the contrary, it seems to me all I’ve ever learned is that self-defense is not allowed. Self-defense is disloyal, a betrayal, dramatic, hysterical, disobedient, shameful, disruptive and makes others uncomfortable. For God’s sake, don’t make a scene!
I think a lot about boundaries. Self-defense is maintenance of boundaries. So, according to what I’ve learned in the world, maintaining boundaries is inappropriate. In fact, self-defense is violence, an act of aggression.
This is complete nonsense. Self-defense is not offense. Self-defense doesn’t come first. Self-defense is a response to threat or violence. Self-defense is not entering a building with guns blazing. It’s not swaggering down the street picking fights. It’s not bullying, machismo, unprovoked hostility or aggression. Self-defense is not a power grab.
Self-defense is a willingness to protect a boundary. It’s the right to say yes or no. The point of it is not whether others respond or respect our boundaries (although that would be nice). The point is not whether others come to our assistance when we’re under attack. The point is we have a right to protect ourselves.
Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash
So, with all these thoughts jostling around in my head, I went to a free self-defense class at the local community center.
The class consisted of about fifteen women, age range high school to 50s. The instructor was a local martial arts teacher and he had female and male students with him to assist. It was a three-hour class.
Two things happened there that I’ll never forget.
The first was learning how to punch. This is not a thing I’ve ever wanted to learn. I don’t have much upper body strength, I know it’s easy to break your hand punching people or things, and I’ve no desire to punch anyone, ever. However, it was part of the class, so I learned. Then the instructor and male assistants filtered through the class, coming to each of us and asking us to punch them in the abdomen.
A large young man, over six feet tall, solid, strong, with hair dyed strawberry red, came and stood toe to toe with me, grinned, and said, “Hit me.”
I looked up into his face. “I don’t want to do this.” (Variations of this statement could be heard all over the room.)
“Go ahead. You won’t hurt me.”
This, I reflected, was probably true. Even if I’d known how to punch, I doubt I could have really hurt him. That wasn’t the thing holding me back.
I was being asked to deliberately, in cold blood, hit a nice young man who might have been my sons’ age or even younger, a stranger, in the stomach with my fist.
In that moment, I began to see the enormity of the disempowerment of women around self-defense and boundaries.
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash
I said to him, “I’ve been hit before, but I’ve never hit anyone else.”
His face darkened. “Then here’s your chance.”
“But it wasn’t you!” I said, on the edge of tears.
He stood there, waiting. I doubled up my fist and hit him.
“Again,” he said.
I did it again.
“Harder! Put your shoulder into it!”
I did it harder. Not as hard as I could, but harder.
“Good.” He stepped in front of the woman next to me.
This was happening all over the room. I saw women in tears. I saw women “hitting” with force that wouldn’t have knocked over a kitten and then apologizing abjectly. Eventually, with a lot of coaxing, most of us tried with at least moderate strength at least once. This single exercise took a large chunk of the total class time and was the hardest part of the whole class for me.
We knew, at the end of the class, there would be an opportunity to role play with one of the assistants or the instructor and demonstrate some of the techniques we’d learned. The instructor spent a lot of time talking to us about situational awareness, body language and the psychology of violent attack, and emphasized making noise in order to create an audience and discourage an attacker. He gave us language to use (WHAT DO YOU WANT?), and demonstrated. It was very clear, and the easiest part of the training—no new moves needed.
When it came time to role play, the instructor asked for volunteers. The nervousness in the room was palpable. Nobody wanted to do it, though there was an agreed upon safe word that would immediately end the role play and the situation was completely contained and controlled.
This is not the sort of thing that intimidates me, so I volunteered first and chose as my attacker the strawberry-haired gentlemen who so kindly encouraged me to hit him! Everyone laughed at this, because he was the biggest assailant I could have chosen. He was very pleased. He’d thought no one would pick him for this part of the class.
I strolled along in the middle of the classroom and he came up behind me and grabbed my shoulder. I turned around and asked him, loudly and aggressively, “WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
He grinned and transferred his grip to my upper arm.
I faced him, got my hands up and yelled into his face, “BACK OFF!”
It wasn’t him I was yelling at, though. It was a whole crowd of other faces, both male and female, people who have hurt me with fists and words, people who have shut me down, shut me up and taught me to be small and silent. I felt like a snarling wolf, a cornered tiger. With those two words, I reclaimed my willingness to self-protect and the power to do so.
I surprised him. He flinched back a little and his grip loosened. The instructor wanted the role play to continue until he felt that each woman had done something that gave her a chance to run. In less than a minute I was back against the wall with the rest of the audience.
One by one, with a lot of encouragement, every woman got up and tried the role play.
Not a single woman was able to use more than a moderately loud voice or any kind of an aggressive tone. They sounded terrified. They sounded weak. Their tone of voice was begging and pleading. The ones who did manage a puny blow or an evasive maneuver apologized to their pseudo attacker even as the attack continued. The instructor prompted, over and over again, “Louder! Shout out! Let us hear you!”
They couldn’t do it. Some even said, “I can’t!”
This assortment of ordinary women with a wide span of ages couldn’t be verbally aggressive with an attacker, even though they had full permission, were encouraged, supported, totally safe, and had my example paving the way.
Are you understanding this? These women couldn’t defend themselves, even verbally. All the guns and knives and skills in the world wouldn’t have helped them.
It boggled my mind.
Ever since that day I’ve been thinking about the power I felt when I yelled, “Back off!”
Ever since that day I’ve been thinking about a culture that silences, shames and disempowers women to the point that so many are unable to protect themselves.
Self-defense. Another daily crime. Count on it.
Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash
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