This post has been simmering in the back of my mind for some while. I’ve taken my time approaching it because it seems to be something of a landmine for some people.
In simplest terms, to be grateful is to be thankful.
It’s easy to be thankful for the things we enjoy and make us happy. Thankfulness can also be a matter of routine or ritual, as in the case of saying grace before meals, or a display of good manners, like thanking a service person.
Those are the smiling, kindly faces of gratitude.
But gratitude can also wear the aspect of a hag, and then we’re in darker, grittier territory.
Part of the experience of life and relationship includes pain and trauma, there’s no getting around it. We all have a haunted cellar in our soul in which we have suffered. Sadly, many people live in that cellar, picking their scabs, reopening their wounds, and competing with others to win the Most Victimized and Best Haunted Cellar awards.
I’m not suggesting our feelings of disillusionment, pain, rage, fear, shame, betrayal and self-pity are wrong or inappropriate, nor am I victim blaming or shaming, taking some kind of high moral ground, or minimizing the tragic challenges and traumatic experiences we face in life.
Our inevitable wounds are not the point. The point is what we choose to do with them. Do we heal them or not?
It’s important to acknowledge that some people don’t want to heal. Some find the payoff for chronic bleeding too seductive to want to stop it. I don’t understand this, but I know it’s so, and I respect that choice.
We can be a motionless victim or we can practice gratitude and allow it to sweep us forward. We can’t do both.
If we do want to heal, we have to give up blame. This is a big thing to let go of, and some will choose not to. Again, that’s a choice I can understand and respect. It’s also a dead end. If we insist on holding tight to our blame, we’ve cut ourselves off from the possibility of full healing. As long as we blame others or ourselves, we’re refusing to acknowledge our own responsibility and power.
Blame and responsibility are not the same thing. When I say responsibility, I don’t mean we’re necessarily responsible for our trauma. I mean our responsibility for how we handle it, and our responsibility for our feelings. Taking responsibility for our lives is empowering. Blame leads us into an endless loop of victimhood and/or self-hatred.
We can use addiction, compulsion, and other self-destructive behaviors to numb, distract, or forget our wounds, but none of those coping mechanisms help us reclaim our power.
Healing takes time and patience. Sometimes it takes years, or even decades. There is no shortcut around our feelings. We often need support. Healing can be a messy, exhausting, ugly, extremely vulnerable business.
Healing, like relationship, is a crucible, a dark womb in which we transform our wounds into scars. Gratitude is one of the agents of that transformation, but it can’t show up until we’ve begun to actively work through our feelings.
Gratitude and forgiveness are often hand in hand. Note I did not say forgetfulness, but forgiveness. Scars are permanent reminders of our journey, but they need not be a matter of shame. We can choose to view them as medals of honor. We can choose to relate to others out of the empowerment and wisdom our scars represent rather than the wounds that caused them.
In every experience there is something to learn. We learn about ourselves. We learn about others. We learn about the way the world works. We learn about power. Learning makes us bigger, stronger, wiser, more effective, and more powerful in our lives. If what we learned is bitterness, we’re still blaming. We haven’t taken enough time, or found the right support, or finished the journey from wound to scar. Bitterness does not grow gratitude. It’s not empowering. It makes us small and shrivels our hearts.
We can’t control what other people do, but we can choose to see those who hurt us as teachers, learn the lesson, graduate, and be grateful. We can look back on the most uncomfortable experiences in our lives as the most meaningful and growthful.
Our culture encourages us to be dissatisfied with our lives as they are. We’re trained from childhood in longing and envy rather than in gratitude. The truth is that if we can’t be thankful for what we have right now, this minute, we won’t be thankful for more money, a different body, a different job or house or car.
Thankfulness is acceptance of whatever our circumstances are in the now, even if they’re difficult and we need to change them. Especially if they’re difficult and we need to change them. If our lives aren’t working and we know it, we can be grateful for accepting what is (we’re miserable) and take advantage of the opportunity to learn to manage our power in such a way that we can make positive change. Misery is highly motivating.
So often we have an ideal in our heads, or a set of expectations, that keeps us reaching for more, or different. The practice of gratitude requires us to settle down and take a good long look at what we have, what we are, and where we are. What is there to learn? What can we be grateful for? Expectations are devoid of gratitude, because they don’t reflect reality.
Gratitude takes strength and courage, especially during dark times of pain, fear, and despair. It’s also one of the most powerful choices we can make. It leads us into the light. It comforts our raw feelings. It keeps us focused on joy, and the simple gifts in each day.
In seeking gratitude, we go deeper than we’ve gone before, far beyond the fact of our wounding. We reclaim our power, not over what happens to us, but how we use such events and circumstances to water and feed our best selves. To feel gratitude is to come fully into peaceful alignment with our lives, whatever they have been, whatever they are now, whatever they might be.
I also recently developed a daily practice of sitting and focusing on my breath, which has been enormously helpful in my life. A few days ago, my partner and I had a conversation over breakfast that I found difficult, and I trudged up the stairs to my attic aerie for my Be Still Now time feeling upset and discouraged.
Usually when I’m upset I get busy with exercise, a project, online solitaire or a book in order to distract myself. I almost never sit still with my feelings immediately after an upset. However, I’m stubbornly committed to my Be Still Now time, so I got settled comfortably in my chair and began.
It was hard. It was hard to even find my breath in the midst of my discomfort. I remembered the article about helping kids become mentally strong. One of the ways to do that is to allow them to experience being uncomfortable. Remembering that, and struggling with my own discomfort, made me curious. What would happen if I made myself sit for my usual time in spite of my discomfort? What if I viewed the circumstances as an opportunity instead of a reason to give up? What if it didn’t matter if I had even a minute of peace and stillness as long as I sat patiently with my mental and emotional chaos for a few minutes, not distracting, not fixing, not thinking, not compulsively avoiding, not writing or processing, but just feeling?
Curiosity is a great gift. I wish we nurtured it in one another more effectively and consistently.
So I sat, and it was messy. My mind was all over the place, as were my feelings. I cried a few tears. I stayed with my breath as much as I could, but I couldn’t achieve the restful, peaceful place just a few days of consistent practice has given me the ability to reach. The urge to get up and do something was fierce. The urge to be mean to myself was equally compelling. I breathed and tried to let those thoughts go. I didn’t try to get rid of the feelings, but stayed with them. It reminded me of swimming in the ocean and dealing with the surge of waves.
Gradually, I settled down. Both my pulse and breathing slowed and I stopped crying. I consciously relaxed and breathed from my belly rather than my shoulders. I stopped thinking about the time and relaxed in my chair rather than nailing myself to it.
On an intellectual level, I recognized immediately upon reading that article the value of letting our kids be uncomfortable. As a mom, I refrained from saving my sons from the consequences of their choices or trying to fix everything they struggled with. In my own private life I’m stoic and don’t dramatize my emotional pain to others. Part of that comes from being an introvert, part from my difficulty in trusting others, and part from the harsh feeling that I probably deserve whatever distress I’m experiencing and thus don’t get to whine about it.
On an emotional level, though, I realized during that Be Still Now time that none of my usual coping mechanisms when faced with emotional distress are as powerful as simply being with it. I can’t even remember what it was all about now. I remember coming downstairs after I finished sitting and apologizing to my partner for being unnecessarily bitchy with him, but after that bit of cleanup the whole thing was over. I went on into the day feeling just fine.
Power and strength from discomfort. Well, not from the discomfort itself but from what I chose to do with it. Interesting.
It’s notable that I don’t convert sitting and breathing into compulsivity or hurting myself. I immediately noticed any mean thoughts and let them go. After all, we’re made to have feelings. There’s no shame in them, no unnatural deformity, no weakness. We can choose to be self-destructive, but our feelings won’t stop. I wonder to what degree my previous choices in dealing with upsets have made everything worse rather than better. Perhaps the key all along has been to sit still and let the waves crash over me until the storm passes.
Storms do pass.
If discomfort is an opportunity to build strength, both kids and adults can benefit from it. Life guarantees discomfort of various kinds, after all. I’m in no way condoning rape, bullying, racism, abuse, or a depressingly long list of other deliberate cruelties, by the way. I’m talking about the everyday discomforts of frustration, confusion, guilt and embarrassment; the discomfort we experience physically with various aches, pains and bodily functions; and the discomfort and inconvenience of our feelings—the kind of experiences we all share.
Never has our entitlement been clearer to me than during these months of the pandemic. The simple action of wearing a mask has become a politicized gauntlet. Some people find waiting in line to enter a business in order to maintain social distancing or waiting in their cars for a chair to get their hair cut intolerable. I can hardly call it discomfort. It’s not really even that inconvenient. We can do everything but cook dinner in our cars these days, for pity’s sake.
Some folks are loud about their contempt and scorn for recommendations designed to keep us all safe, and for those who follow them. They bluster, honk their car horns, glare, and go into tirades while waiting in line for a cashier. Their attitude is one of being cleverer, better informed, stronger and braver than the rest of us.
It’s a lie. All I can see in this behavior is ignorance, fear, and weakness. Interestingly, many who refuse to mask say they do it because they refuse to live in fear. I wonder if those folks eat potato salad with mayonnaise that’s been on the picnic table all day, decline to stop at red lights, ignore a rattlesnake’s warning and don’t hydrate when they’re working hard in high heat and humidity. They’re obviously much more concerned about what people will think of their courage (a sure sign that they have doubts about it) than they are of protecting themselves or others. You know, the other people in the world to whom they might pass on the virus? Such folks have the emotional development of a toddler. Sadly, they get plenty of modeling, validation and enabling for their behavior. They’d rather die than adapt—and they are dying. Unfortunately, they’re killing others, too.
It’s not just kids who need to learn to deal with discomfort, or inconvenience, or change, or new rules. We all do. If controlling coronavirus means a certain amount of inconvenience and discomfort, it’s worth it. If ending racism means the unfairly privileged become less privileged in order that others may share more equally in resources and opportunities, and corrupt systems and institutions get an overhaul, count me in.
Life is hard enough without being forced to play a rigged game.
Going through discomfort in order to arrive at a stronger, more just and power-with global community is a path of strength and resilience. Denialism, arguing with what is, willful ignorance and support of power-over dynamics is a path of weakness and, ultimately, deselection. If you don’t believe me, observe a child who has been allowed to experience a reasonable amount of discomfort with loving support, and compare that child with one who is continually rescued from the consequences of his or her choices and the full experience of life. It’s not hard to see the difference.
It’s not hard to see the difference in adults, either.
Social change begins at an individual level. This is another chocolate-or-vanilla choice. Are we willing to embrace, or at least tolerate, discomfort, or are we too weak and fearful to consider the truth that we’re no more entitled, immune or privileged than anyone else? Racism is a human construct rooted in greed, hatred and fear. We constructed and supported it, and we can deconstruct and refuse to tolerate it. We must, for everyone’s sake. Make no mistake, if it can happen to whichever currently disenfranchised group you care to name, it can happen to any of us.
I stumbled across a parenting advice column in the online publication Slate recently. It caught my eye because the columnist responds to the parent’s question with another question: Whose needs are we talking about here, yours (the parent’s) or the child’s?
The columnist describes this question as one of the best pieces of parenting advice she ever received. I’ll go further and say it’s one the best pieces of relationship advice I’ve come across.
I’m a parent, a sister and a daughter. All are difficult roles I feel I’ve failed to play adequately, although I consistently ignored my own needs in favor of what I understood as my family’s needs and expectations.
Ironically, I realize now that by far my greatest failure in life has been a failure to honor myself and my own needs. Whether or not we can please others in any consistent way is debatable, but I discover that accepting responsibility for pleasing myself, though it feels odd and unaccustomed, fills me with joy and gratitude. My wants and needs are simple and few, and honoring them has been enormously healing.
This new behavior is also a source of anguish beyond words.
The anguish arises from a conflict many of us face at one time or another—a conflict of values. I value connection and being of service to others, which involves compassion, respect, tolerance and unconditional love. I also, for the first time, value myself. I’m stunned at the destruction that occurs when these values collide with the values of others.
Is it necessary to choose between meeting our own needs and meeting the needs of others? I suspect part of the answer to that question lies in the specific needs themselves and how we view them as a culture. Perhaps it’s just my bad luck that I’m a misfit. My need to not be tied to social media and a cellphone, for example, is just as important to me as the needs of others to be firmly embedded in social media and keep their cellphones in hand, but my need is not culturally supported. Fair enough. The fact that I’m slightly out of step from most other people in my culture is not a newsflash, nor is it something that requires fixing or changing. I view diversity and deviance from the social norm as strengths, not weaknesses.
As I’ve begun to stand up for my own needs, I’ve been told I’m cowardly, selfish, destructive and hurtful to those I love best, disappointing, stubborn and inadequate. I’ll own stubborn. I don’t take responsibility for being disappointing; it’s not my job to meet the expectations of others. As for the rest of those characterizations, they’re so far off the mark of who I am that I can’t take them seriously, although they cut me to the heart.
I don’t view managing needs as an exercise in all or nothing. I can usually come up with several ways to meet my own needs and support others in theirs. More often than not, however, I’m forced into an all-or-nothing framework, which feels like manipulation or intimidation, or both. That’s why the accusation of cowardice makes me shake my head. Refusing to give in to such tactics is not the act of a coward.
Why do we tolerate and support behavior that demands others be responsible for meeting our needs, but attack those who take responsibility for meeting their own? Talk about a sick society!
The hardest thing about being unsupported in meeting one’s needs is that there’s no recourse. Trying to explain to those who aren’t interested or are committed to misunderstanding or taking our choices personally is a waste of time and energy. Our only power lies in the choice between bowing to external pressure and abandoning ourselves or living with authenticity and integrity and accepting the consequences. I know what my choice is, but sometimes I don’t know how to survive the pain of it.
I wonder how many people are in exactly this spot; how many people move through their days and nights trying desperately to manage a balance between their own needs and everyone else’s, or agonizing over the tension between caring for others and caring for themselves when needs are not in harmony.
As human beings, we lead complex emotional lives. Needs are not the only variable. Boundaries can be very difficult to negotiate. We’re frequently unaware of how important reciprocity is in our various relationships. Ideals such as unconditional love and always being present for someone, no matter what, are lovely in theory, but do we owe unconditional love and support to those who don’t give it to us? Is it our job, in any role, to consistently put the other’s needs first in order to prove our love or justify being alive, or an employee, or a family member?
As a woman, I can’t think about needs without considering emotional labor. In any given relationship, who is doing the emotional labor of listening, practicing authenticity, organizing, scheduling, thinking ahead, staying in touch, practicing absolute loyalty, providing unconditional love or other kinds of support and nurture, managing feelings, and balancing needs? If that work is not shared or reciprocal, relationships wither and die, or the one burdened with the emotional labor does. There it is again—that choice, that terrible choice. Do we take action to save ourselves, even from our most beloved, in such a case, or do we ignore our needs and keep going until there’s nothing left of us because we are women who love?
Needs are not wrong, or a matter of shame. We all have them; we have a perfect right to get them well and truly met AND our needs are as important and not more important than the needs of others. We’re not all honest about our needs, however, especially needs to control and maintain power over others. Too often, we assume that others have the same needs we do. Those of us who want to live and let live and assume others are after the same outcome are frequent targets for personality-disordered people looking for prey, power, fuel or other benefits.
Whose need is this? Answered honestly, the question opens a door to better parenting and better relationships in general. The question is an invitation to intimacy, respect, power-with, problem solving, tolerance and unconditional love. It also shines the bright and sometimes terrible light of clarity on our agendas for others and theirs for us, and the true quality and health of our relationships. If we can’t or won’t identify, respect and support our own needs alongwith the needs of others, we’ll surely extinguish ourselves as a species.
I ran into a great question a few weeks ago: “What gives you courage?” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Courage, the ability to do something frightening or having strength in spite of pain or grief, is not the absence of fear. If we have no fear we have no need of courage.
Fear, in my experience, is multifaceted. My most private fears are about my own wholeness and worth. Then, there’s the fear of external forces, like a coward with a gun in the supermarket; the judgement or criticism of a loved one; or a personal loss, injury or illness.
Yet another kind of fear is one I suspect many of us feel right now, a sort of ill-defined psychic shadow, a general feeling of insecurity about the state of our world and the future. I try not to give it too much attention, but it’s always there, like a thin cloud between me and the sun. I know the only place I have power is right here, right now, in this moment, and I’m glad I’m typing at the keyboard rather than staring out the window and wondering what tragedy or catastrophe will be brought to my attention next and where it will all end.
Is that a kind of courage, staying intentional in the moment and managing our own power?
So, what keeps us going in times like these, in spite of our fear?
Oddly, the first thing I thought of was a poem I read as a teenager. All these years I’ve kept it and thought about the wagon wheel that did not break, the faithful dog, the innocent child. I’ve long forgotten where I came across it and I don’t know who wrote it.
Journal Note Long Ago
Crossing the wilderness or the sea I take with me nobody who is afraid nor do I want with me the memory of a man or woman who is afraid.
I am afraid enough myself now—there are shadows and ghosts enough now—in the meshes of my corpuscles—and so I must not ask others to go.
I keep the memory of a dog who was never afraid, a wagon whose wheels lasted, a child who had not lived long enough to know the meaning of the words Yesterday and Tomorrow.
The second thing that comes to mind about the source of my own courage also seems peculiar, but on second thought it might be a way of talking about faith. If and when I am able to identify The Right Thing To Do in any circumstance, fear ceases to have any power over me. I certainly feel it, and sometimes it seems I’ll be ground into oblivion by it, but as long as I’ve breath and a pulse I will do what I believe is right, come what may.
This is a trait fanatics and zealots of every stripe share with me, a fact which makes me pause and shudder. There is a difference, though, between a suicide bomber or the aforesaid coward with a gun and me. I don’t pretend to know what’s right for others, only myself. I’m not interested in having power over other people, forcing my ideology on those around me or taking out my frustrations on others.
My sense of The Right Thing To Do always involves my integrity and intuition, and is not weakened by the judgements and criticisms of those around me. My integrity and intuition are my own. Only I can maintain them. Without them, I am nothing.
When people talk about faith, I generally think of religion, which can be a staunch support for courage as well as a powerful motivator. However, most religions I’m familiar with require submission to a so-called higher authority, either human and/or sacred text (the author of which is frequently unclear and the original of which was written in a language and context I’m unfamiliar with). Many good people build their lives on a bedrock of religious faith and are sustained by it. That is not my way. I will not sacrifice my personal power to an external authority.
Information and learning give me courage. Literacy and curiosity are gateways to understanding, compassion and revelation. The beauty and complexity of our world and our universe, the remarkable experience of being human, the persistence of life, the perspective of history, the indomitable creativity of the human spirit—all these inspire me and give me courage.
My study and practice of minimalism has given me courage. The more objects and distractions I peel away from my space, time and energy, the stronger and more peaceful I become. Serenity, it turns out, has everything to do with living with less stuff, needing less money and concentrating on the undistracted and undiluted abundance of each moment. I don’t need nearly as much as I thought I did. Peace, joy, clarity and courage immediately flower in the space freed from stuff. I have what I need. I am what I need.
And that brings me to the last big ingredient in my particular recipe for courage. Learning to know, love and trust myself has given me courage. Part of this has to do with the gifts of aging. I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, made a lot of mistakes and collected a lot of scars. Every day I learn a little more and heal a little more. I have allowed my experience in life to expand my compassion, empathy, intuition, wisdom and ability to love. I’m a resilient, adaptable survivor, and I know, no matter what happens, I’ll do my best to my last breath.
A poem. The Right Thing To Do. Information and learning. Minimalism. Self-regard. Mix well.
I came across a poem by Ursula K. LeGuin (see below) and found it beautiful and timely. The wheel of cycles and seasons has swung around to the resurrection of light once more, and we wish one another a happy new year, each of us with our own hopes and fears for the months ahead.
For much of my life, I equated love with protection. When I became a parent, the vulnerability of my sons added exponentially to my own. In common with many parents, I struggled fiercely to protect them through infancy, childhood and beyond. Naturally, we protect others from what we ourselves most fear. In my case these fears include pain, loss, addiction, abuse and abandonment. I tried to shield my children from those people and experiences that hurt me, lest they be hurt in the same ways.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
Certainly, in the case of small children, animals and others who have no voice or are unable to use it, protection can be an act of love, but I’ve thought for some time now that we carry it too far, especially when we seek to “protect” our perfectly capable adult children, partners and friends. At some point our impulse to protect others becomes selfish. We do not want to bear witness to a loved one’s pain, let alone our own. We do not welcome the responsibility of telling the truth. Protection becomes a pathological means of disempowering others and binding them to us because we don’t want to be alone or the independence of our loved ones threatens us.
To be over-protected is to be without the freedom to develop confidence in our own good sense, strength and courage. We’re never allowed to stumble and fall and we don’t have to figure out how to comfort ourselves, clean our scraped knees and move forward. We over-protect out of fear or control, not love, and our constant vigilance of our loved one or loved ones teaches them fear as well. Fear makes our lives smaller, not bigger.
This new year, I don’t wish you photoshopped health, prosperity and happiness, and I don’t have a list of resolutions I hope will lead me to those things, either.
This year, I wish us each the ability to stand in our own power.
May we learn to love our bodies as they are. May we live joyfully in our skin. Let us teach our bodies new things and work with them to become as strong and healthy as we can. May we allow our bodies to be and to change.
This year, may we make mistakes. May we become lost and confused, and then find our way again. May we find out we’re wrong, and tell everyone. May we be vulnerable, get hurt and heal ourselves.
May we wander far from home without a map and walk a thousand miles, exploring new places and ideas. May we listen to a different kind of music and read a different kind of book. May we do something we’re afraid of.
Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash
Let the new year bring us laughter that makes our bellies ache and tears that fall like warm rain on our anguish. Let us fall head over heels in love with something or someone as though it’s the first time we’ve ever done it and we just know it will all be perfect. Let us make friends with our rage and give it something productive to do. Let us tell someone about our deepest shame.
May we know loneliness, boredom, disappointment and humiliation, and balance them with companionship, engagement, satisfaction and validation.
Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash
May we risk, dare and dream. May we learn to believe in ourselves. Let us burn our candle at both ends. Let us wear ourselves out with living. May we hear our lives whisper and speak our own truths. Let us learn and grow. Let us allow ourselves to be seen and rejected.
May we long for a home, find one, make one and lose it. May we make another and choose to walk away from it. May we learn how to come home to ourselves no matter where we are or who we’re with.
May we let go of our protection. Let us tear ourselves away from it. Let us outgrow it. May we feel what we feel with every cell of our body. May we make our thoughts, emotions, curiosity and creativity big and hold nothing back.
Go out into the sun flood of your life, my friends, my sons, my family, and know that I hold you in my heart. Know that I believe in you. Know that I neither ask for your protection nor seek to protect you, for none of us need it and love is bigger than that.
Go out from me into the new year, dear ones, and if you choose to return, please bring strange things.
Please bring strange things. Please come bringing new things. Let very old things come into your hands. Let what you do not know come into your eyes. Let desert sand harden your feet. Let the arch of your feet be the mountains. Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps and the ways you go be the lines on your palms. Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing and your outbreath be the shining of ice. May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words. May you smell food cooking you have not eaten. May the spring of a foreign river be your navel. May your soul be at home where there are no houses. Walk carefully, well loved one, walk mindfully, well loved one, walk fearlessly, well loved one. Return with us, return to us, be always coming home.