gettyimages.com

There’s a time-worn idiom in the English language that I’ve always loved (English Lit. undergrad, I love all forms of word-play). This idiom is a verbal visual of someone painting a floor (I guess that was common, back in the day of rough-hewn floors) ‘blindly’, not realizing that his back’s against a wall: no way to leave the scene without stepping on wet paint and ruining the floor.

“Painting oneself into a corner” means, You did this to yourself; a blind move; a stupid move. The kind of move we all make in our lives – some of us many times over. The actual mistake can be harsh words that can’t be taken back; it can be bluff and nonsense about our skills; it’s very often a lie told that is sure to be discovered as a lie. Finding yourself in a corner, with no way to back-out unnoticed (without paint on your shoes and having to re-do the floor) is embarrassing on many levels:  it’s feeling exposed and foolish. For a minute, it’s hard to know just what to do. Then, the urge to get out of that corner becomes critical and there’s just no choice. You’re going to leave a mess, and be stuck with paint on the soles of your shoes.

nottingham.ac.uk

As human beings, we all say and do things that are ignorant, or that reveal our “tunnel vision” toward a situation. Our ego gets in the way and the resulting ‘corner’ we find ourselves in escapes our attention until it’s too late. Then, we  immediately feel the absurdity and humiliation of our predicament. (Anyone who’s ever embellished their resumé and then been asked about a particular aspect of it during an interview has lived through this idiom.) It’s clear to everyone watching or participating what’s happened. It’s usually pretty clear, also, what needs to happen next. But this is what’s so very hard for most of us (unless we’re toddlers, then it’s totally easy-peasy denial).

macslist.org

Acknowledging that the predicament we’re in is of our own making, and reconciling this within ourselves is awkward. Even though making mistakes and ‘owning’ them is part of Life’s process of learning and growing, self-forgiveness — especially with a harsh Inner Critic –requires reflection and peace-making. But that’s only Part I. Part II is the way in which the person or people we’ve hurt or deceived react.

I had the opportunity today to watch and listen to someone – an older family member – realize he’d ‘painted himself into a corner’ — with snarky words aimed at a much younger relative who in no way deserved them. Within a matter of moments it was clear to me that – at his mature age (almost 70 years old) – the older man was still nurturing an ancient wound ; a grudge, to be exact; and had no way to explain (or back out from a painted-in corner with any dignity) his misplaced anger.

metoffice.gov.uk

What needed to happen right then?  “I’m sorry” would have been really good — perhaps even preventing the need for any further explanation. And what was the response from the other ‘side’? Sadly, but wonderfully, even though an apology never came, the recipient of the nasty words responded with grace by not acknowledging the misplaced anger. The younger man left the older man in his ‘corner’. Like a few people I’ve known in my life, I’m guessing he’ll stay in that corner until the garish red paint he splashed all over the floor with his words dries completely, and he can slink away. Even when Grace is extended, sometimes people don’t recognize it, or don’t feel they deserve it.

The Truth is, we all deserve Grace. We can wait, and hope it comes somehow, or, we can summon the courage in ourselves to ask for it.

videoblocks.com

I can still remember the day my teenaged son screamed “I hate you!”:  three words that totally gut-punched me and shut down the argument we were having about his extremely poor choices (for the record, the kind that threaten life and limb). I was standing my ground, holding firm, sticking to the tenets of Tough Love. Until those three words eviscerated me. Feeling almost mortally wounded, I retreated. I’ve never forgotten how that felt.

brucelipton.com

Whether we’re on the receiving end of Hate, or delivering Hate, the result is the same, as far as our bodies are concerned. In his book, “The Biology of Belief”, Dr. Bruce Lipton talks about the mind-body connection and the changes brought-about on a cellular level by negative emotions (giving or receiving). Lipton’s not the first (and won’t be the last) to connect the dots between human emotion and overall well-being.

dragoart.com

Anger – whether it’s impulsive, or becomes a lifestyle – is particularly harmful in the way it slowly corrodes our delicate internal systems. Lipton’s studies are too fascinating, too important, and much too data-detailed  (he’s a scientist, first and foremost) to summarize here. Instead, I’ll just share that Lipton’s one of my main Go-To’s,  when I’m struggling to understand hateful people.  

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) is another ‘giant’ in this area. Although she’s probably best known for her theory of The Five Stages of Grief, what I often — especially lately, here in the United States– “consult” (in my own head, anyway!) with her on is this:   when it comes to human emotions, there are really only two:  Love, and Fear.

ekrfoundation.org

We know a lot about Love:  what it feels like, what it can do in our lives and in the World; how our bodies ‘float’ when we engage in pure acts of love toward other people, animals, Nature and our own Planet Earth. There’s no mistaking authentic Love. Even the superficial, media-created (think: films and TV) versions of ‘Love’– often cheesy and formulaic – can still be charming and sweet in their attempt to ‘copycat’ the Real Thing. What is harder to get a handle on is Fear, because it wears a few disguises: Hate being one of them  (Kübler-Ross, by the way, adds ‘anxiety’ and ‘guilt’ as other “masks” worn by Fear).

isstockphoto.com

When I consider the times in my life that I’ve encountered Hate, of course it’s always been a hateful person or hateful people:  animals don’t hate. That may seem like an idiotic observation, but I mention animals to make a distinction between what happens when Fear dons the mask of Aggression, versus when it shows itself as Hate. Fear can cause animals and people to feel threatened and go into offensive-mode.

But Hate is entirely different:  hate is a choice. Hate takes the normal survival-instinct of Fear and shoots one thousand volts of aggressive current through the body so that ‘fending off a predator’ is no longer the primary goal:  mental, emotional and even physical annihilation is.  And great suffering is a desirable part of the process.

How do we cope with hateful people? Is there a way of reaching their hearts, soothing their fears, disarming their need to inflict pain? I can only speak from experience and share what I know about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of this thinking. In my own family relationships, I came to the conclusion that, sometimes – regrettably — Fear appears more powerful than Love.

actor Malcolm McDowell as the despot Caligula

The Roman emperor Caligula, known for his extreme sadism and brutality, is supposed to have said, “I don’t care if [the People] love me, so long as they fear me!”  Some people, it seems to me, would much rather be feared than loved. Instilling fear in others equates with power, for these types. When powerful people (who have the ability to influence your happiness, sense of safety, stability and general welfare) decide to mobilize their own insecurities in hate-filled ‘attacks’, there’s really no reaching them.

psychologytoday.org

Kübler-Ross says that Love and Fear are mutually-exclusive:  they can’t co-exist at the same time. We must always – therefore – choose to operate from one or the other. In countering Hate, it seems to me that the only strategy is to acknowledge (actively, demonstrably) that Love is the better option. But since Hate is in full-body armor in our World today, Love must shield itself also, while remaining fully ‘present’ and steadfast, in a genuine struggle for Survival. It really doesn’t matter to me if you’d prefer to call Love’s armor God, the Universe, Allah, Jehovah, Divine Spirit, Gaia, or something else. As long as we stand together under one of Love’s many names, I’m with you.

Despite having been born into an environment that most people would consider ‘advantaged’ (white, middle-class, educated parents), I was a really young kid when major dysfunction in my household erupted. Happenings that were absolutely beyond my control created an atmosphere of fear, anxiety and insecurity. My life was upended numerous times, by the mental health issues of my mother, and the volatile and sometimes violent behavior of my father. My family unit became deeply fractured a long, long time ago; and some of its members still live in that deep, dark crevasse. I was able to climb out; in part, through my education and study of human development and psychology. But also as a result of an important realization and understanding that I grew into.

As I entered adulthood, I soon discovered the value – the extreme importance – of having Choices and Options in my life. No matter what came my way, as long as I had wiggle-room to consider possibilities – regardless of how dire the current circumstances – there was Hope. I got myself into some pretty sketchy situations during my growth years, but always had the ability to feel strengthened and even empowered by the fact that I could choose my path forward. Even when the choices were ‘bad’ , or ‘worse’, not feeling helpless and hopeless was something to be grateful for. I was, and I still am, so grateful.

 “Keep your doors open, and your options as plentiful as possible” was one of my messages to my son as he was becoming a man. (Happy to say that it’s ‘saved his bacon’ several times.) But the message is actually just a part of my larger goal of remaining flexible and resilient, despite setbacks and heartbreaks, large or small.

Recently I was thinking about this:   the vast difference between having, and not having, a ‘say’ in my daily existence. Truth be told, I’d much rather be able to steer my little boat confidently, when Life buffets it with gusty winds and gigantic waves. Sometimes, however – especially lately – the only option is to Hold On and Wait it Out.

Olha Darchuk, Artist

For a while now I’ve been on an adventure of both self-discovery and  re-invention. People and situations – along with my own self-limiting beliefs and behaviors – have begun to vanish along the way. It’s a little disconcerting. Sailing along (to continue my metaphor!) with a newfound sense of freedom , I’ve been losing my guideposts:  those familiar reminders (even if they’re negative, they’re still a kind of comfort) of my former life. One by one, a person or a situation drifts behind me and away, like passing through shoals that eventually, far out to sea, disappear altogether. Just the sky and the horizon, now.

Despite feeling liberated – which I do — there’s really no Option for me in this. I’ve accepted that I’ve had to move past my Past. To linger would have been pointless. More than this:  I would have stopped growing and stopped discovering my Self. I can think of just a few other times in life that were more painful than “staying”, when all signs, and my heart, told me it was time for a change of course. It might be a job; a relationship; a home I’ve lived in for decades. It might be something simple, like a precious memory that only brings sadness now and must be released. It might be something vague:  a subtle sensation that I’ve completed an important Phase and am ready to expand Who I Am, Where I’m Going, and What I’m Supposed to be Doing.

lds.org

There’s evidence all around me that I should be scared, or at least apprehensive, during Major Shifts and new adventures. The fact that the current unfolding seems to be happening, guided by an unseen Navigator, without my taking direct action most of the time, is sort of unnerving. Nevertheless, I don’t feel afraid – only excited. I’ve passed almost all the little buoys (I’m really stuck on this nautical theme, but it feels right!) marking Safe Waters. I can’t tell you how I know, or why I trust that I’m going in the right direction. But I’m looking at the nighttime sky now, and choosing to sail by the stars.

As I write this, I only have a few more hours before total insanity takes over the city where I live. Here in California, aside from the excitement of a major earthquake (6.4) and numerous (150 and counting) aftershocks today, it’s also The Fourth of July. This particular holiday has been evolving (in my opinion) into a ‘celebration’ far beyond my childhood memories of sparklers and a few firecrackers smuggled in from our numerous trips south of the border. When I use the word ‘insanity’, that’s exactly what I mean. Firecrackers must feel too tame to most people, because my neighbors are now exploding small bits of dynamite (they used to be called M-80’s, still totally illegal). I’m sure the mega -Whistling Petes can be heard on other planets. And now, in our nation’s capital, we have tanks and other military bravado as part of The Fourth.  It doesn’t feel like Independence Day to me…unless, of course, the reference is to the dystopian Tom Cruise film that’s all about surviving an alien apocalypse.

‘Independence’ is a double-edged sword, and so open-to-interpretation. When I was out and about today (I’m usually a Mole Person on holidays, preferring to avoid crowds and traffic), I had an encounter that sent me into a Reflection about the meaning of ‘independence’ in my own life.  I’d gone in search of a couple of travel items (replacing a ratty luggage-tag and zipper-less ear bud pouch) and was waiting to be called by “The next available sales person”. Whenever waiting in a line, I like to observe and admire people, just going about their daily lives. I’d already noticed the young man (maybe, late 20’s) who called me to his check-out line: handsome, with dark curls framing his delicate features;  I imagined he was also a dancer, or an artist, in his real life. He looked bored, unhappy; captive? While I waited for him to scan my stuff, I made small talk:  “So, do you have a fun 4th of July ‘something’ to look forward to tonight?”

You know that thing that a salesperson does…the way their face reacts when someone takes the time to engage in conversation ? Surprise. Eye contact. She sees me. So cool. But, meeting my eyes he said, “No, I don’t really get into holidays.” I nodded and affirmed that, oddly enough, neither did I. But then this young guy went on:  “I don’t even like my own birthday.” That caught my attention and I said, with what I hoped was a gentle smile, “But, you’re old enough now, surely, that you can celebrate it –or not?” The young man said, “No, I don’t really have a choice. It’s my grandmother; she always has to have a cake and give me presents. I don’t want any of it.” Sometimes random strangers hand you ‘gold’:  they share a tiny glimpse into their lives and their most tender places. I wanted to hear more, but of course, “Next customer” was behind me.

Becoming independent – earning the right to Do What You Want To Do —  is considered an ‘adult’ rite of passage. Growing older and wiser is assumed to be the pinnacle of this ‘freedom’. But I’ve learned, over the years that – young or older – it’s actually difficult, or at least tricky, to act on self-interests while keeping yourself in-reach of others. Unless you choose to embrace a Hermit lifestyle (ok with me, I get it! ), there are instances where ‘independent’ can also feel like a lonely existence. Ironically, getting stuck in unfulfilling relationships or situations can also feel lonely. Maybe even more so.

I’m in a space now where I have more independence and freedom than I’ve ever enjoyed in my adult life. My “roots” are my small family, but they themselves are a fluid bunch. Many people around me, in fact, seem to be in the midst of personal changes that are both internal and external (changing jobs, partners, living spaces, lifestyles). Independence of mind, body and spirit is clearly a driver these days. Being able to say, “No birthday, and no cake!” without offending others seems like a small thing, but that’s where it begins. Being able to say “No”, instead of “Yes”, if you’re not feeling it, is not always an easy thing. But without those little assertions of Self in small, or big, impactful moments, others can’t possibly know where we stand, or what we stand for.

My father was a French professor and total Francophile. It wasn’t that he thought so highly of the French as individuals; his personality type just gravitated toward French culture’s well-known celebration of its own opinions and beliefs about the human condition. From my perspective (parental influence and my own travel experiences), the French have the most wonderful way of “nailing” a situation with an economy of words; or, silence and a raised eyebrow;  or, silence and the classic Gaelic Shrug (while the lower lip turns slightly out, and down). Even miniscule changes in a French person’s body language can convey that the topic (whatever it is) is probably unworthy of serious consideration.

The Eyebrow speaks volumes.

 “J’Accuse!” (first proclaimed and penned by French author Émile Zolà, author and journalist in 1898), translates as ‘I Accuse You’, or, more colloquially, This Whole Situation is Your Fault. Over many years, “J’Accuse!” has become an enduring trope in movies, television program dramas and sitcoms, and even animated ‘adult’ cartoons. In whatever context, the exclamation’s usually shouted with an attempt at a French accent, and accompanied by a dramatically-pointed finger in the face of the wrongdoer. “J’Accuse!” came into my mind today, after a couple of major ‘This is Your Fault!’’ moments in the media (print and recorded conversations) that feel, as I mentally compiled other recent moments, like indications of a developing Tsunami of Blaming and Shaming in Western culture.

In the United States, we’re in the throes of our 2020 presidential election process. During a recent debate of hopeful candidates, verbal fireworks erupted when one accused the other of making “hurtful” (racial bias-related) comments. The verbal blast (shaming) went on for some minutes, while the accused hung his head and looked contrite. Regardless of whose side might be considered more correct or sympathetic, the spectacle was deliberate in its assignment of blame, and its effort to demolish an opponent’s credibility and worth as a potential Leader of the Free World. This “J’Accuse!” moment clearly came from a place of pain, for which there was no immediate balm. Blame, with a large dollop of Shame on the side; called-out in public, and reverberating around the world.

Just a few hours later, scanning the latest print headlines, I came across an editorial claiming to be written “on behalf of Millennials”, by a self-identified 30-something person. The title of her piece was,  “The Baby Boomers Stole My Future!” The editorial began with a presentation of  trends and statistics related to significant life choices being made by Millennials. But it continued in its speculation that those choices were, and are, the direct result of Millennials feeling impacted (impaired, thwarted, highjacked) by the decisions of those born between 1945 and 1964 (so-called Boomers). It was a scathing rebuke (“J’Accuse!”) of the collective (as she viewed it) greed, selfishness, disregard, and ignorance of the Children of The Greatest Generation. According to the editorial, but for the Boomer generation, the vast majority of “dysfunctional” Millennials wouldn’t be so nihilistic about their futures, so anti-social (about jobs, marriages and babies) in their commitments, or living like gypsies (or in their parents’ basements). Regardless of whether or not these accusations are accurate (read the autobiographical book “Sea Stories”, by Ret. Admiral William McRaven, for a polar opposite view of Millennials), the editorial stands – recorded for posterity — in its potency of Blame and Shame.

Most of us have felt, at some point in our lives (maybe even repeatedly), hindered by people and circumstances beyond our control. We may have been born into unloving families or raised in the midst of violence, addiction, or severe mental incapacity. One of the most poignant and angst-ridden Blues songs (all about pain)  I’ve ever heard is Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign”. As the songwriter says, “I’ve been down since I began to crawl; If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”  Sometimes simple survival in the Arena of Life can feel like a miracle in itself. Lies, betrayals, abuse & neglect, bullying, persecution, or just idiotic decisions on the part of someone else may have stunted our growth, diminished our sense of self-worth, stymied our ambitions, or kept us locked in a prison of despair.

Is there any value in assigning Blame for what others may have done to us? Is there something worthwhile to be gained through Blaming and Shaming people who’ve harmed us? Is there an expiry date for either, or both? After a while, even those with the most legitimate-seeming complaints may feel like scolds, whiners, weaklings – being told to Just Get Over It – compounding the hurt. An injured person who blames and shames usually wants acknowledgement (no guarantees there!), and often seeks some kind of justice or reparation (maybe, maybe not). Some injuries can be tended-to, even “fixed” in some way; but most can never be undone except through the decision to Forgive.

I lived my own life, for many years, in the clutches of the need to Blame:  primarily, family members whose impactful behaviors ran the gamut from thoughtless and hurtful, to truly vile. I eventually realized that Blame (and its partner Shame) is like a dead-end street: you’re not going anywhere unless you turn around and re-trace your steps, back to yourself, and choose a different path.

I’ve been confronted by personal and professional jealousy my entire adult life (who knows why — I’ve always been pretty low-key about whatever assets I have). Not confronted directly, as in verbally, but informed by an organizational ‘rumor mill’; even when I was a relative newcomer (aka, ‘peon’) in the org. pecking order. Have I been jealous of other people? You bet. Jealous people are ones to keep an eye out for. Not all of them are like me, feeling quietly insecure, in my private moments, acting out these emotions through insomnia and obsessive worry. Some jealous people are assertively so – feeling the need to “take someone down” a notch or two. I’ve seen this in action more than a few times, in different organizational settings. I’ve felt this when I’ve been on the receiving end at work, and even within my own family.

Recently I was conducting a group interaction in a way that was less formal, more transformational for the participants. I was lucky to have a very experienced colleague observing how I handled myself with this group (I’ll always ask to be observed, if I have the option, when trying-out something new with teams). I also had onlookers who were taking notes, so as to be able to make informed comments in our de-brief. When the time came to do so (de-brief), I was amazed by the ‘mix’ in the feedback.  I use the word ‘amazed’ because I continue to marvel at how people in the psychological professions (a supposedly enlightened and more humanistic group, right?) can seem like experts at walking the tightrope between professional detachment and personal criticism; careful not to engage in what looks like score-keeping or one-upmanship; skilled with “left-handed compliments”. Turns out, I’d done well with my group that afternoon (per my experienced colleague) – too well, in the estimation of some, based on their ‘snark’ wrapped in‘recommendations’ for my improvement.

What causes people to act jealously? I believe, at its root, jealousy’s prompted by fear:  feeling  a need to competefor attention or resources, typically. If I don’t feel good enough (in whatever capacity you choose), I’m going also feel threatened in ways that are very primal:  hard to understand, hard to talk about, and hard to overcome.

What’s difficult for me to comprehend, is how common jealousy can be among my older, wiser female colleagues. It’s impossible to not feel the need, when someone is being so obvious about it, to reassure a jealous person through repeated acts of deference or humility:  “I don’t need to take the lead on ( project); go for it!” Or, “I’ve had lots of chances to speak at (event); I’ll be the note-taker and you can run the show!” No. With a jealous person, such “largesse” only increases the ire. Once, when I felt caught in a vortex of no-win exchanges with a deeply jealous woman (I think it was both personal and professional for her), I pulled a last-resort move. I was new to the organization (a negative); was hired from “outside” (another negative); younger, single (considered “on the prowl”); more educated, and more “worldly” in my experience. This was the Intel I gathered before I asked for a private conversation with this person who’d been trash-talking me behind the scenes since my hire.

My ‘last-resort’ is a personal conversation in these instances. Why is talking one-on-one a last resort? Because jealousy lives in a very tender place in a person’s being. It’s not an easy emotion to discuss; you can’t just call-out a person’s glaring insecurities. (Well, you can, but working with them afterwards will be hell for the entire team). The topic has to be approached sideways, with tact, diplomacy, discretion and gentleness. The end of this story is a happy one:  we became friends and the gossiping and back-stabbing stopped. Still, the more I engage with a larger circle of people over time, the Green Eyed Monster (origins, Shakespeare’s play “Othello”) continues to play a part. Attending to the jealousies of other people can be a bore and anxiety-producing. Each time I do it, however, I recognize in myself the fears we all cope with, at one time or another. On a purely pragmatic level,  I’ve worked too hard to get to where I am, to let jealous people highjack my progress.

Sending Love…

My interest in what I call My Tribal DNA has increased over time. Not the popular “Twenty-three-and-Me” kind of sleuthing we can do to determine our cultural lineage. No, I’m referring here to how my sense of Self was formed, based on the experiences sent to me, via the DNA of my ancestors. This is a huge area of scientific study: how things like wars, famine, migration, and exposure to violence and other traumas create changes in our gene pool. In many instances, this is done through words.

It definitely helps, when you’re trying to figure yourself out (focusing on reasons behind the negative stuff, usually) to have a basic idea of who your grandparents and great-grandparents were; where and how they lived; and the events they may have lived through. In a previous Post of mine, “Wait for Me…”, I shared a story about my maternal grandmother (born in 1898) who’d lost 7 siblings to the dominant illness of her time, tuberculosis. There are parallels, nowadays, for this kind of loss. But, other than my granny, I know of no one else in my biological tribe who’s lost seven immediate family members during the formative years of growing up. I can only imagine the deep pain, seeping into the remaining family members, quietly and gradually changing their internal biology. Words of hopelessness, and grief, uttered in hushed tones. Words of frustration and anger shouted to the heavens. “Why?!

The experiments of Dr. Masaru Emoto have offered proof, for years now, that thoughts and feelings affect physical reality. Emoto’s research has helped me understand how and why I’ve been so incredibly hard on myself for most of my life. I can’t summarize here (do justice to) these amazing studies of how spoken words affect water-crystal formation; hopefully, my Readers are already familiar with Emoto’s research. (If not, it’s really a worthwhile detour). The takeaway for me is that Words Have Extraordinary Power. More than I was ever taught through The Golden Rule; more so than I ever learned in psychology and leadership classes.

Growing up with negative words or too much critical analysis in the family can change a child’s physical chemistry (just as Emoto’s water crystals were affected by words like Love, and Hate). I don’t feel that my family, two or three generations back, were a bunch of mean and dysfunctional nut-jobs. But I can piece together how their conversations– their words and vocal tones – could well have been fearful, angry, sad, stressed and utterly confused. My ancestral family, based on my research, were emotionally-tough people; they had to be, just to be able to survive in times fraught with challenges and unwanted sacrifices. If I’d lost so many children, I’d be a complete “basket-case”. I can only imagine how they were able to get through that.

My strong ambition to achieve; my perfectionism; my self-criticism; my worry and fears; my sense of life being a ‘struggle’ – usually over-exaggerated – is clearly a part of my tribal DNA. I don’t offer this as an excuse, but an explanation for, and a way of understand, a lot of my “issues”. I also think of this imprinting (and its results in my life ) as a reason to try to change this emotional DNA in raising my own child, and through my contacts with other people (and their conversations).

Words don’t just nurture, encourage, diminish or debase on-the-spot (as in the instant-impact of social media). Harsh, or loving, words are also creating generational patterns of attitudes and behaviors across the globe. Bringing about change begins with my own understanding of the power I have to resist those words (The Critic) that cause me to be less than I know I can be. With others in my life (even my pets!), making sure that my words soothe, even when I’m tempted to “go off”, sends a ripple — I believe — of Hope into the world.

When I worked with extremely at-risk adolescents, the vast majority were growing up in emotionally and physically toxic environments. In a formal study I did, it was remarkable (and disheartening) how much yelling and verbal abuse occured daily in their lives. But, I also felt a resilience emanating from many of these kids; a determination to someday live in a way that was vastly different. Despite the verbal messages of, “You’re not smart enough to…” “You’ll never be more than you are right now (pregnant, under-educated and unemployed)”, these young people were already in the process of canceling-out the ability of such words to shape their futures.

Current reality may be very tough; we may be harrassing ourselves constantly with negative messages. If we choose to, however, we can begin to change outcomes by noticing and questioning where this stuff comes from. I remember a short blurb I began seeing in my college Psych classes, about the power of words and the temptation to use them recklessly: Is it True? Is it Kind? Is it Helpful? This little check-in can nip sabotaging self-talk right in the bud, before it takes root in our souls. It’s a slow process, but it feels so good when it becomes habit. And it will.

With Father’s Day approaching, I was thinking back to the many things I learned from my father while growing up. His childhood was marred by the Depression years. His perspective and message to his three kids was usually “Here’s the grim reality; deal with it!” Got to love those Greatest Generation men and women:  they don’t ‘play’. Not overly emotionally-intelligent, my father focused on practical lessons that, ironically, eventually became metaphors for coping with Life. Learning how to change the oil in my car turned into a lesson in Self Reliance. As did learning to keep a kitchen garden, fix a flat, splice a garden hose, find a stud in a wall, catch and clean a fish, and myriad other survival skills he believed a woman should have.

One of my earliest lessons , as a really young kid, was how to swim. In a river on the outskirts of our city, I learned how to float, dog-paddle, then actually swim (never with much grace, to this day). True to my nature, pretty soon I began pushing my own limits. One day we were swimming in a large lake in rural Virginia, near my father’s ancestral home. I was showing off, I think, by trying to swim out to a rock where my much older cousins were lounging and laughing together. I became exhausted about halfway to the rock. I had to admit to myself, I wasn’t going to make it. There was momentary panic, but then I turned on my back, puffed up my lungs, and floated on the surface of the water. I closed my eyes, tilted my head back in the sun’s glare and focused on the pink and orange swirls on my eyelids. I let the water in my ears muffle the voices on the rock, and soothe my pounding heartbeat. I stretched-out my arms and legs, letting the water and rippling waves from nearby ski boats slide under my body, as if I was a water bird and the lake was my home. No longer in panic-mode, I turned and swam back to shore and realized how really good it felt to be on terra firma.

Talking with someone very dear to me yesterday, I heard over-whelming exhaustion and frustration with his career, turning into the kind of panic we all feel from time to time: “I thought I could do this, but I can’t”; “I thought I wanted this, but I don’t”. Our realization is that we’re mid-way through a mistake – we’ve mis-calculated, mis-interpreted information, made the wrong choices – and we’re now feeling ‘stuck’. Sometimes the answer is simple:  rest for a minute, then turn around and swim back to the shore. But sometimes it’s not at all evident what the next step should be. We feel immobilized.

It saddens me to share that I have more than a few friends who are in jobs, careers, education programs, cities, relationships, marriages and other situations that feel stalled to epic proportions. The moment we realize that we’re in this ‘place’ is a moment that requires, first and foremost, stillness. The ‘rut’ we’re in is our heart speaking a Truth that our rational minds often ignore. Once that Truth is faced (as painful as it may be), we can transition from rut, to ‘holding pattern’.  Regardless of how dire a situation seems, with no solution readily apparent, as long as there is breath in our lungs, we have Choices we can make that will provide a measure of relief. Some choices involve truly horrible-feeling consequences. In a previous Post, “Who Do You Envy”, I shared with my Readers the story of a friend of mine who realized she had to leave her decades-long marriage. She’d known for many years who she really was (a woman who loved women), but had never felt able to be this person. Her decision to leave the ‘rut’ she felt she was in shot through her family like a white-hot arrow, piercing the hearts of the adults and children involved. My friend’s ‘holding pattern’ was finding a place of her own to live. This lasted almost two years while the personal and logistical details of her separation and divorce were worked out.

The last phase of moving ourselves out of a rut is recognizing the ‘opportunity’ before us. What that opportunity turns out to be is wholly dependent upon the person and the original ‘rut’. But one thing that’s universal in this process is the absolute necessity of seeing beyond the current scenario you’re in. You might detest the job you have, and mentally leave the ‘rut’ by realizing you want something more-aligned with your needs and desires. But you’re in a ‘holding pattern’ because that new job hasn’t materialized yet. The ‘opportunity’ lies in being able to turn on your back and float, so that your heart and mind together, have time to sift through your options.

As you listen to your heart and face any ‘ruts’ or ‘holding patterns’ you might be in, I hope that your options extend beyond having to swim back to shore. But, sometimes back-tracking a little, taking more time to rest and re-assess, is the best move. Back in the days of horse-drawn carts, when a wooden cartwheel got stuck in a rut, instead of whipping the horses to pull harder, the wise driver coaxed his horses gently:  step forward, step backwards, rocking the wheel in the rut just enough to lift it up and out. Easy does it.

Here in the U.S., June is “Pride Month”. This Community for sure  has cause to celebrate but, also obvious and factual reasons to believe that ‘the work’ hasn’t even really begun, and will not allow much rest. I’m certain that the headlines in my city, reporting ongoing injustice and violence toward human beings whose lifestyles are considered offensive, are not exclusive to where I live. I wonder, however, if a month dedicated to marginalized (and often demonized) human beings is impactful, in increasing awareness and changing minds. I used to include the word ‘tolerance’ — next to awareness (compassion, and love). But tolerance, for me, just isn’t a strong enough “ask”. I even wonder about that word, as though permission is sought, or needed for being true to one’s Self.

When I was just a child, homosexuality was not exceptional. Both of my parents were literary nerds, and Oscar Wilde was a featured favorite in our household. My father had male friends who were gay; and, my parents’ dinner parties drew male and female same-sex couples. I can still recall that, during one such party, a guest had brought Mapplethorpe’s recent coffee table book, which buzzed in the conversation all evening ! I suppose this upbringing was more European than WASP: I didn’t ‘register’ people-in-the-process-of-being-themselves as anything more than ‘different’ from my parents. It was only when I grew older that I realized the pain, the fear, and the legitimate threat experienced by non-heterosexuals.

As I mentioned in one of my previous Posts (“The Legacy of Suicide”), my mother took her own life when I was 10 years old. When I was about to turn 12, my father re-married. I adored my new step-brother Jeff immediately. He was just a year younger than me, an only-child and a bit spoiled by my step-mother. He was brilliant in math and science, and possessed a dry wit before he’d even entered the ‘ironic’ teenage years.

As we grew into those years, we remained very close. It was only when he left California to pursue his first graduate degree did I feel things between us change. When he returned, Jeff had an ‘edge’:  wary, cynical; not just witty, but sarcastic and almost mean. Unhappy. One evening in early September we were all gathered at the family home, celebrating my birthday (I was turning 30, I think). The champagne flowed freely; the house and yard reverberated with laughter. Suddenly, my step-brother shot out of the front door (I was standing on the porch with friends) and announced he was leaving the gathering. He had tears in his eyes. Jeff tried to brush past me but I grabbed him, looked deeply into his eyes and demanded to know what had happened. He told me, “I just came-out to Mother and Daddy!”. It was a punch to the gut (How did I not see this??), but I held on to him – or tried to. He wrenched away and I went inside to search for my parents.

Jeff’s life after that night took him to places – physically (he went to another out-of-state university for his PhD), and emotionally — where I could no longer connect easily with him. To his credit, when he was in town he’d always suggest a get-together. But in our parents’ home, in his mother’s presence, things were pretty horrible. As I later learned, my father had accepted Jeff’s lifestyle, but my step-mother had turned bitter, resentful and vicious. Jeff’s choice, as she saw it, had deprived her of her own anticipated future as a grandmother. It was a terrible, divisive, painful wedge in our lives.

What happened after that I can only describe as Jeff’s slow descent into a kind of ‘hell’. He ultimately married a man he seemed to truly love. But Jeff became a heavy smoker, drinker and drug-user. The only time he seemed in high spirits was while ‘high’. I remained close to him, but my love was not enough. He felt he’d betrayed his mother, and she was doing nothing to convince him otherwise.

When Jeff was in his mid-40’s, he developed an aggressive lung cancer that eventually spread to his liver and brain. He called me on the phone, to tell me when they’d first found it in his lung. He begged me not to tell our parents; he expected even more anger and recriminations from his mother. When he became critically ill, our parents thought it had all happened in less than 6 months. But Jeff had been nurturing deep sadness, confusion, and dis-ease for over 10 years. I know that, in the end, my step-mother realized the mistake she’d made. She herself connected the dots:  Jeff’s despair and decline, with how she’d responded to his sexuality – punishing him, as a profound disappointment — for years. He just wasn’t the kind of person to give his mother ‘the middle finger’ and get on with his life. So he got on with his death.

Pride Month, if it’s the best we can do in the meantime, is “ok” with me. But I know I’m not the only one who’s lost someone I love, because they just couldn’t take the pressure of trying to live and love outside The Mainstream. In my view, a ‘Month’ is just “ok”, but not in any way enough to support our fellow human beings in feeling whole, happy, and cherished.

I just read a Post from a Vlogger who’d connected with me yesterday. She’s decided to move to another country (radically different from her own) and begin chronicling her new life in her posts and videos. I’m loving how many women are out there, doing things that satisfy the soul ! 

I realized, as she excitedly related her transition process (choosing personal mementos to bring to her new apartment, for starters), that a lot of my major Transitions have felt disruptive to my inner equilibrium in some way. Marriage; the birth of a child; a change of job; moving to a new city; divorce; the death of a parent; a major rift in my family unit. My Transitions have always involved or impacted other people, so the ‘ripple effect’ of change reverberated all the more. How will my husband adjust to our salaries being out of balance? How will my son adapt to his new school? How can I possibly cope with my extended-family’s ‘drama’—while I’m trying to work, parent,  and go to graduate school?

There was a period in my life that the Transitions came so fast and so furiously that I felt like I was being pummeled by huge waves, similar to an actual experience I’d had in Hawaii. After my son was born, when he was around 5 months old, we went to the island of Kona for ten days. The birth had been brutal (after 23 hours of labor, my body said “No Way!” to the 10-lb. watermelon trying to make his exit). When my feet finally hit the warm sand (my husband was setting up the pup-tent with the baby, on the beach), I’d failed to notice a large, red, triangular flag, flying straight-out horizontally, in the gale force winds. I entered the water and almost immediately, when I turned briefly to wave to my husband and son, was clobbered by a wall of water that felt as solid as a mountain. If you’ve ever been struck by this kind of wave, you know that your first sensation, after the initial body-slam, is tumbling:  end over end, flailing with arms out, nothing to grab on to but water. And the ocean, forcing itself into your mouth, up your nose and into your eyes, which have been shocked wide open. This is how my series of Transitions over, I’d say it was maybe two years, felt. Exhausting. Fearsome. Over-whelming. The kind of changes that impact your sleep, your ability to keep healthy routines, and, ultimately, your certainty that you will even survive them.

When I was tumbling around in that huge wave, knocked off my feet (and out of my entire bathing suit, by the way) in about 10 or 12 feet of water, I had the weird thought, “Ah…so this is what drowning feels like!” My husband was on the beach, with the baby. It wasn’t likely that he’d plow into the surf, infant in his arms, to rescue me. In the seconds that I was tumbling, with a pressing need to gasp for air, everything got calm – even with this monster wave roaring in my ears. I remembered something I’d read. Instead of trying to right myself vertically (struggling to find the seafloor with my feet, or, to tread water), I did my best to tuck my legs in, making my body into a ball-shape that the wave would then toss up onto the shore. Which is exactly what happened. I’m convinced I would have drowned shortly, had I not done this.

And so it is with our Transitions, when they plow into us en masse – or, when a singularly frightening change hits us, without our having time to prepare. The impulse is to ‘resist’; to rail against the confusion, the force, the nonsense, the threat; and, to dwell on the powerlessness we feel. There’s a particularly cruel irony (and bizarre logic) that drunk drivers often survive crashes that kill their victims precisely because their bodies are so relaxed (intoxicated) at impact. The body’s urge to ‘resist’ can hinder survival.

The best book I’ve read on coping with difficult or painful times of change is by William Bridges, and is titled “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes”. At this point in my life, my ‘seas’ are mostly calm; but I’ve also committed to the habit of never taking my eyes off the waves (though I’ll admit here that my Nature is to still ignore Red Flags from time to time).