Friday, November 20, 2015

It's Time to Get Out of the Water


There is a saying that has been rattling around in my head for the past several days - ever since the terrorist attacks in Lebanon and France last week, to be honest. You can put a frog into boiling water and he will jump out. But you can put a frog into tepid water and raise the temperature slowly and it will stay in there and allow itself to be boiled to death. 

I believe that this is what is happening in the world right now. The acts of terror that have been recently committed are ones that are reminiscent of a pot of boiling water, to be certain. But the rhetoric of Republicans in the House of Congress and GOP governors and GOP presidential candidates who want to deny refugees and propose tracking programs or selection based on religion are a sign that the water is being heated to boiling around us and it's time we noticed and got the hell out of this pot. 

Donald Trump and Ben Carson, Jeb Bush and John Kasich (and their cohorts Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) have been saturating the news with their ever-increasing intolerance of anyone who doesn’t look like them, think like them, talk like them. But if you look back at the things these individuals have said and done in the past, there is a recognizable trajectory of hatred and isolation. The problem is that because it has been ratcheted up over time, each individual statement doesn’t seem that much worse than the one before. But we are about to boil over.

Consciously or not, it is this phenomenon that leads many sexual predators to groom their victims. Many young children become convinced over time that someone in their life is safe because they don’t act in sudden, shocking ways toward them. Small incidents might seem a little odd, but often there is no real alarming behavior to point to – it is like climbing a staircase. Suddenly you’re at the top, and the perspective from up there is very different, but if you weren’t paying attention to how you got there, it is difficult to determine where you might have interrupted your path. Victims of sexual and physical abuse are often questioned as to why they didn’t say something or fight back or simply leave, but often the progression of events was subtle and continuous and it is confusing to think about when or why you might have noticed that something was wrong.

I believe that a great many people with good intentions end up following politicians like Trump and Carson because they simply didn’t understand how hot the water was getting. It is only when you’re on the outside looking in that you can see how shocking it has become. Many of the statements that have gone months before – from Carson saying that a Muslim shouldn’t be President of the United States to Trump demonizing immigrants – led up to a climate of “otherness” and intolerance that meant that Trump could stand up in public with his hands spread wide in a gesture of “isn’t it obvious?” and say that every Muslim person allowed into this country ought to be registered and monitored closely. He seemed shocked that anyone would disagree that this “management” idea was a breakthrough. Except that it was pretty much what Hitler did to Jewish citizens just before World War II.


It’s getting hot in here, folks, and if those of us who have voices don’t raise them up to point out what is going on and work to turn down the heat, we’re all in a fine kettle. We might think of all of this as the consequence of living in a country where we have freedom of speech, but when our elected officials and presidential candidates are actively talking about how they would plan to persecute people based on their religious background, it’s time to shut this shit down.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The State of Love

"Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It's an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now." Fred Rogers

"Love is an action, never simply a feeling." bell hooks

As a kid, I thought love was a commodity. Something that I could acquire if I only had the right currency. And I often felt as though I had hit upon the right combination of things to do and say and be, but, as with all other things we pay for and think we own, once I had it, I was forever fearful of losing it. Because if love is a thing not freely given, it can be taken away. I never felt as though I had the power in this particular scenario, which meant that I was always hustling to stay one step ahead.

Perhaps the trickiest part of this view of love was that the cost of it was different for each person I encountered. Mom seemed to need very little to bestow her affection on me until life became more complicated and she was single and raising three kids. Unfortunately, I equated anger and disapproval with a lack of love, as I think most kids do.

As I got older, I experimented with giving and taking away love as a way to get some control over my own life. At least, I thought it was love I was giving and taking away, but it turns out that wasn't true. I recall attempting to punish my dad by ignoring him or being strictly businesslike in my conversations with him. I gave not-so-subtle signals by withholding physical affection and not making eye contact. But I never stopped loving him, and I never stopped wanting to know that he loved me. I just thought that we had taken love out of the equation when it turns out it was there in the background while we mucked around with each others' feelings in an attempt to gain power.

It wasn't until I had Eve that I became aware that love is not a thing in the sense of other things. It is not static or transferable. I cannot give someone else my love for them, I simply love them. Whether either of us chooses to recognize its existence at any given time is another issue. As for love, it is simply there. Available. Pulsing.

With Dad, the struggle came about when I chose to focus on what he owed me for my love. I resented the fact that I loved him so deeply and he wasn't fulfilling his part of the bargain. He wasn't wooing me with apologies and admissions and the honesty that I so desperately (thought) I wanted. I resented the fact that I (thought I) had to work so hard to obtain his love - get good grades, work hard at a sport and a job, be polite and ladylike - and that one small misstep put me back at the start like a game of Sorry. But when I had Eve, I realized that I had been wrong all along. There is nothing this child can do that would ever cause me to take away my love for her. It is not even possible. The fact is, I didn't choose to love this child, I simply do. There are certainly times when I choose to ignore that fact, push it aside and focus on something she has done or said that hurts me, but the truth is, I am only hurt because I love her.

I recall reading a parenting book at some point that cautioned that parents should remind their children often that they are loved unconditionally, and for a while I went about my life believing that my parents' biggest mistake was in not telling us that. I vowed to remedy the situation by telling both my children and my parents that I love them unconditionally. But these days I feel as though all love is unconditional. If I truly abandon myself to loving another being, I cannot place conditions on it. It is doing love a disservice to pretend that it is a commodity that can be earned or paid for. Perhaps the best part of all of this for me is the knowledge that love exists out there in the world in vast quantities. Regardless of my actions or accomplishments or physical appearance, I can access love at any time. That's a pretty cool thing to remember when things get tough.
 

Monday, November 09, 2015

Just One More Thing...(there's always one more)

The gifts just keep coming. I have read every book by Brene Brown at least once and I've compiled pages and pages of handwritten notes, written down quotes, and had some of the most fascinating conversations thanks to her work. Her TED talks inspire me endlessly and often, when I go back and re-read parts of her books, I discover things I hadn't noticed before.  She is definitely on the short list of women whose work impact my life every day, who have changed how I parent and learn and make my way through the world. (It's a pretty awesome list, including the likes of Gloria Steinem and Maya Angelou).

My most recent revelation thanks to her latest book, Rising Strong, comes as a result of digging a little deeper into the layers of my life. In one part of the book she writes about people who identify themselves as 'helpers,' and notes that the trap of using that label to build yourself up is that it becomes hard to be the one who asks for help. I underlined that passage and made notes on a separate piece of paper because that message resonated so deeply with me. For most of my life, I found control and self-worth because I was able to help other people, lift them up and provide emotional and logistical support. Well, to be honest, I didn't often provide emotional support until I was a lot older. "Fixing" things was a great way for me to feel as though I was being useful and helpful and it kept me from having to feel the pain of others, to truly empathize.

I was in my thirties before I learned about the concept of holding space for others. It took a lot of practice and a willingness to sit with discomfort for me to not immediately leap to problem-solving and balm-offering when I saw loved ones suffering. I am still practicing acknowledging and sitting with a stranger's pain without rising to the challenge of making things better in some physical, tangible way. Dr. Brown is absolutely right when she says that tying my own self-worth to the fact that I'm a helper means that if I need help, my self-worth takes a big hit.

I will admit, however, to some amount of patting myself on the back when I absorbed that portion of the book. About ten years ago I slammed up against a wall of depression that stopped me in my tracks and if I was going to be able to move forward, literally continue to exist on the face of the planet, I had to start asking for help. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't easy, but I was lucky to have some pretty tremendous people in my life who were willing to support me. I swallowed my pride shame (I think they might be the same thing, or at least two sides of the same coin) and accepted childcare, meals, help around the house. I learned to get better at saying no to helping others in every single situation where I was asked to help and, over time, I began to warm to the idea that I was not an island. So when I read her words about letting yourself be vulnerable enough to ask for help and accept it, I nodded my head and congratulated myself on having learned to do that.

I should have known better. (Remember the pride/shame thing?)

The universe has a way of smacking me upside the head when I'm feeling a little too smug.

Literally one day after I scratched my notes on yellow lined paper, I was tested. I was feeling good, preparing to get away with Bubba for a long weekend of fun, and I got a phone call that rocked me, that threw me right back into the space I had spent so many years cultivating. I was needed. My problem-solving skills, my particular calm-in-a-crisis, my physical presence was requested, nee, necessary. I spent several hours on the phone working out logistics, asking other people for help and trying to design an airtight plan so that I could keep my plans with Bubba. And while this is my space, my forte, my wheelhouse, I couldn't help but lose it once everything was in place and things were going to be okay.

What is this about? I wondered. I had averted disaster, well, helped to avert it. Well, asked for help to avert it. Wasn't this what I was feeling good about yesterday? My ability to ask for help so that I don't shoulder the burden alone? That's the goal, right? I had done it. Why was I feeling so awful?

Most of my personal revelations come about when I walk the dog. This one was no exception. It hit me so hard I'm surprised I didn't fall over. I am pretty sure I made some sort of whimpering noise when it hit me, but I did manage to stay on my feet and I don't think the dog even noticed.

I have gotten good at asking for logistical help. That much is true.
What I haven't yet learned how to do is to ask for or accept help holding my pain. I have no idea how to open up and let my pain out into the world so that I don't have to keep it all myself. I am good at writing about it (distance, anyone?) and sharing my story, but if I am in the room with someone and I am really hurting, I don't know how to accept empathy without feeling shame.

More work to do.
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