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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

WHY I WANT TO BE ALONE

In the movie Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo uttered the famous line, “I want to be alone; I just want to be alone.”  I don’t think there is a mother on the planet who cannot relate to this, especially when we are hiding in a closet trying to have a private phone conversation.  We are such a social society that I think we underestimate the healing powers of solitude.  The ethologist John B. Calhoun coined the term "behavioral sink" to describe the collapse in behavior which results from overcrowding.  Of course, his experiments were on rats, but isn’t that what we feel like when we can’t get any space?

My Dad was a big fan of the Myers-Briggs personality tests, and while I consistently scored off-the-charts for “intuitive-feeling-judging”, I was always right on the line between introvert and extrovert.  Pop pegged me for an extrovert at that time, however, because to him the ultimate determination is whether or not you derive your greatest energy from being alone or being social.  And while I would still say that being around the right people is definitely my greatest source of energy, at the age I am now I would also say that my greatest inner strength comes from being alone.
There is so much chatter in the world; endless ways to “connect” with people near and far and like anything, it can be a blessing or a curse.  I avoided social media quite assiduously until just a year ago and the culture shock of pervasive online socialization was quite alarming to me.  I have always been a call “screener” (remember the old answering machines where you could hear the message being left?) and this annoyed people (my Mom) to no end.  But eventually they (Mom) got it: I am a very socially engaged person when I want to be, but when I don’t want to be?  You really don’t want to know me.

Of course we all have those special people in our lives that we literally just cannot get sick of; Iris Murdoch’s (holla!) wonderful description of love as the quality of being “inexhaustible” to each other is beautifully true.  But these connections are unique and sacred; for the most part we are all susceptible to seriously getting on each other’s nerves.  And then there are the people who simply rub us the wrong way, no matter what they do.  They are kind of like our sacred people’s equal and opposite; just as uncommon, and just as necessary.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I am going through a difficult phase in my journey right now.  My sacred people are by my side through it, and their counterparts are exacerbating my pain, as is their function.  The one phrase I find myself uttering out loud unbidden on a consistent basis is “I want to be left alone”.  Due to my current circumstances, this is in part influenced by the “behavioral sink” I am experiencing in having very little private time.  But there is also a more energetic aspect to it—I want to be left alone to figure things out, to have some head space to myself, to make decisions without outside influence.

I am going to pick on my Mom a little bit more here (don’t worry, she can take it) because she has that classic “fixer” personality.  Like all good mothers, she hates nothing more than to see her children in pain; her typical response to our sadness was to try to “fix” or jolly us out of it.  I don’t know about you, but my LEAST favorite response to being in pain is someone urging me to be jolly.  I understand the impulse too well, however; and I am certain I have been guilty of employing the same tactic on others.
But when we are under high stress circumstances, we are literally walking a tightrope with no net; the need for balance and caution and concentration are extreme.  The last thing on earth we need is someone telling us we need to smile or handing us more things to juggle on the high wire.  We need to be left alone to complete the journey across the chasm.  The most interesting part of it for me is how much quicker I became accustomed to the “risk” factor (no net) than the stress factor.  This is a very good lesson to remember in happier, more productive times, so we don’t let stress dissuade us from taking healthy risks.

I recently had a conversation with my Mother about all the elements that are swirling about me, and she listened patiently then said, “I don’t know what to say.  I don’t know what to do.”  Believe it or not, that was music to my ears; she was just accepting where I am at and letting me be here.  She was standing by my side while leaving me “alone”.  It is good to have companions who let you be without interference or recrimination.  When you don’t know what to do, it is ironically helpful to have someone else validate that place instead of pushing you towards random action just to be doing something.
Just being is doing something, you know.  All the great philosophers have confirmed this.  Sometimes being feels effortless and light; sometimes onerous and excruciating.  But that’s the inherent design of living.  Our culture promotes “the good times” while only capitalizing on “bad times” for fear-based gain.  We don’t honor our pain, grief, tumult as we should; it is almost considered a shameful experience that must be hustled through.

My Father loved The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck and quoted it frequently.  Peck believed that depression* is part of a healthy life because in order to grow, we must be willing to give things we love up, especially parts of our self which no longer serve.  That tightrope we walk during the process teaches balance; balance increases our flexibility. 
Depression and sadness can be our greatest teachers, if only we don’t try to drown them out or “fix” them.  This is part of experiencing life whole; the retreat into the self for healing and transformation.  So when we are allowed to be in the cocoon of our pain with compassion, we do the hard work of becoming more.  More ourselves, more flexible and therefore more free.  We don’t ever move past what we don’t allow; allowing pain is the only way to healthily release it.

So when I say “I just want to be left alone” I mean I want to be allowed to be where I am at;  I want to be accepted this way too, not just when I am happy, strong and vibrant.  This is who I am today and that has got to be okay.  Self-acceptance is not a fair-weather friend.  It means every minute of every day you understand that you are valid and how you feel is your truth. 

 *It is critical to note the difference between “situational depression” and “clinical depression”.  If you suffer the latter, there is help available to you:  Depression resources

Thursday, October 6, 2016

WHY CO-EXISTING IS A DRAG

Have you ever seen one of those bumper stickers that say “Co-Exist”?  They are usually on the back of a Prius, or maybe a Westfalia van?  Sure you have, and like me, maybe you made some snap judgments about the sort of person who has such a thing affixed to their bumper, those hippie tree-huggers.  Co-Exist” they smugly suggest, like when they say you should be eating more kale.  Like this is some easy feat.  Not only is it not easy, it can also be a total drag, IMHO.  Eating kale and co-existing, I mean.

The fact of the matter is that simply existing has been taking a lot out of me recently.  Putting one foot in front of the other has seemed Herculean; never mind walking and chewing gum at the same time.  I find myself wandering from task to task with the sort of ambling hopelessness of a shipwreck survivor; while I’ve somehow managed to not drown, supplies are dwindling and morale is low.  What little I have left of either, I’m in no mood to share. Co-exist, indeed!
Having been backed into the corner by the infamous “circumstances beyond my control”, I crouch here recognizing that many people live their whole lives this way.  Withdrawn into a place of self-protection and energy conservation, the mere act of existence takes all of their cunning.  They have no stamina or space to consider “the other guy”.  As I know (hope!) that I am living here as a temporary accommodation, I realize it is important that I take note of how it feels, so that when I encounter someone who lives here all the time, I will remember to have compassion for them.

Ah, compassion!…co-exist’s prettier and more palatable sister…we all like the idea of compassion because (ironically) it makes us feel good about ourselves.  Oh, it does, don’t deny it!  We LOVE situations where we can easily flaunt our compassion and we also will tolerate situations where we are able to extend it somewhat less graciously.  When we can’t feel compassion, however, we still need to somehow co-exist.  Without rancor, if possible; with it, if not.

I think we all accept, at least on an intellectual level, that we never know the whole story about what another person has lived or is living and how that drives those behaviors we don’t understand.  Obviously we are currently in the midst of an election cycle where the vast majority of us are utterly dumbfounded by the other side, whichever it may be.  It is clear at this point that there will be no reconciliation, only co-existing.  Hard work!

Even people with whom we agree can be hard to co-exist with…ask anyone who has lived with a roommate.  In marriages, in work relationships, in families and extended families…the need for healthy balance, give and take and mutual respect means that the whole concept of co-existing is somewhat laughably na├»ve.  Successful relationships of all kinds require effort and frequent checking in to make sure the playing field stays as level as possible.  Bumper sticker wisdom be damned, maintaining any level of healthy intimacy is also hard work.
For me, one hugely difficult aspect of co-existing has always been watching people I care about undermining themselves by taking on unhealthy or unsustainable situations then fighting like hell to sustain them.  Or not taking care of their bodies and their health, in spite of living with discomfort and other alarming red flags.  Or spending so much time and energy building a case for why they can’t do this or that that if they had re-directed that time and energy, this and that would already be done.  How easy is it to co-exist with people who act victimized by their own choices?  Not very!

Because when people we love make obviously bad decisions and then complain about the negative consequences of their bad decisions, it is hard to feel compassion for them, right?  And we enjoy feeling compassionate, it makes us feel like we are good people, right?  So the question becomes are we more upset by the fact that they are authoring their own unhappy story, or by the fact that they are making us feel like we are not good people?  No, seriously, I’m asking you.
I recently had the following comment left on something that I wrote:  “You seem like you’re very self-absorbed”.  Um, duh.  We are all self-absorbed; this is why co-existing is such a drag.   We are absorbed in our own reactions, feelings and intellect, and this makes it challenging for us to ever truly put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes.  However, in our self-absorption and meticulous cataloguing of our own experiences, we learn compassion for people we can relate to; but we also tend to avoid people we cannot relate to, and therefore avoid the uncomfortable growing pains of trying to understand where they are coming from.

The older I get, the more I realize that merely co-existing will not be enough.  Like Dr. Suess’s Star-Bellied Sneetches, we fail to recognize that we are ALL Sneetches and at the end of the day our attempts to separate out the people or groups that we feel threatened by or don’t understand is as much folly as the Sneetches bankrupting themselves by trying to maintain their status as “special”.   We are all “special”, and this may be the greatest reason of all why co-existing is a drag.  We are each having an entirely unique experience in this life, and we yearn to somehow share this experience with others; when our attempts to share ourselves get criticized or shut down (“You seem like you’re very self-absorbed”) we tend to withdraw.
And how about when the way we were born (our race, our sex, our sexual orientation) or how we were raised (our religion, our education, our culture) gets criticized?  How does it feel to be criticized for those infamous “circumstances beyond our control”?  We need to do better than to co-exist.   We need to recognize the plain reality that some of us were born with stars on our bellies and some were not, but there will be no peace until we stop attacking each other for our differences.

CO-EXISTING is the greatest challenge of the human condition, and the most important one!  And while fences (healthy boundaries) make “good neighbors”, we cannot build walls to keep each other out.  There will always be another con-man who is happy to profit from our foolishness, our divisiveness, our fear.  But no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that “the other guy” is the problem, inevitably we must realize that it is our need to have others conform their lives and behaviors to our expectations that is the real problem.  That is the bald truth, and why co-existing is such a drag.
When we recognize that 95% of the time it is our reaction (and not “the other guy’s” inciting behavior) that is the problem, we face the reality that peace on earth really does "begin with me".  Only when we are peaceful with ourselves can we co-exist with others gracefully.  So this is the hardest work of all!  Co-exist with every aspect of yourself, the good, the bad and the ugly peacefully and see how dramatically the world seems to change.  Total drag, but it’s the only way—you must be the change you want to see. 

Btw, Ghandi never said that, sorry.  Oh, and eat more kale.  Sorry about that, too.