Sunday, November 25, 2012

For better or worse?

November 25, 2012

Dear Friends,

Life is not fair.

Beginning with this cliché may shrink the number of readers to a record low this week. There is a reason for the risk, however.

Our emotional aversion to unfairness can be a major contributor to relational difficulties. Despite our resistance to injustice, confronting life’s essential unfairness straight-on is a necessary step in self-awareness. Failure to deal with this reality seriously undermines the skills of self-management necessary for development of good relationships.

Last week we considered the “Green Eggs and Ham” phenomenon—our rejection of portions of our emotional archives because we both dislike these uncomfortable contents and are often confused as well by their shape and power to influence us. But we dislike them additionally for another reason: they provide indisputable living evidence that life is unfair, a particularly unattractive dish of green eggs and ham.

The terrible years of the dust storms, the poverty of the depression years, the death of my mother—all of these experiences are etched inerasably in my emotional archives along with the meaning that I made to serve as context to these experiences. Although these life events were filled with drama and intensity, they are difficult to revisit for two reasons: one—easy to see—the content includes the pain, loneliness, fear and confusion inherent in those early childhood experiences. These contents, initially painful, remain deeply unpleasant to experience in retrospect. The second reason, while less obvious, is equally uncomfortable and unavoidable—these events confront me with the harsh reality of life’s brutal unfairness.

Why did the dirt come and smother Spot, the baby calf with the soft ears? Was that fair? Why did my beautiful mother whose hands made bread and whose voice made music die and leave me? What that fair? And why did I have to wear old shoes that hurt my feet? Was it fair that I not have new shoes? My childhood meaning was that the world was dangerously unfair; my adolescent meaning was that if God loved justice, then He did not love me or He would have insured more fairness in my life. My adult meaning was that if I wanted fairness in my life, I would have to insure that it happened—no one else would do it for me, so I set out to get “my fair share of the pie.”

But when I entered into my first “love” relationship as an adult, I bought into the fairy tale expectations of romance: this person—wonderful in all regards, of course—this person would insure that I never experienced unfairness again. Among many other unverbalized impossible things, that was what “love” meant.

No one will be surprised to learn that this relationship ended disastrously. However, the disaster is not the point upon which I want to focus here. I want you to think with me about the belief system that formed the unspoken context of the disaster—the belief that “love” can (and will) alter the reality of the world in which we live, and cancel the impact of the bent and broken aspects of our human personhood.

No matter with what intensity we cling to this "impossible dream," reality remains the raw material out of which we must shape our lives. Life is unfair, people are imperfect, and relationships can neither cancel the reality nor erase the impact of the emotional archives with which we live.

 This is a very un-fairy tale truth.  But once we have faced this fact straight-on, we can begin to develop both self-awareness and a clearer sense of self-responsibility. Living well relationally requires us to assume specifically and consciously our basic human responsibility to live with each other the way we are. Relationships do not provide a “maturity pass.” Indeed, mutually supportive relationships are in some aspects the by-product of accepting the life-long necessity to live with productive, sober joy in a world where our hunger for both justice and mercy can never be met in full.

Relationships cannot substitute for the unavoidable necessity to come to grips with human limitations, and the unfair, unkind and sometimes destructive acts that express our human brokenness. And we cannot escape awareness that the universe around us that gives the gift of beauty and life gives as well the stone cold destructiveness of death.

Relational skills that permit long, mutually constructive caring connections are those that are forged in full awareness of the unfairness of the natural phenomena in which our fragile life span is lived, and the injustice that stems inevitably from the human brokenness that all of us carry.

How do you deal with unfairness? How do you handle the "undeserved" in relationships?

Clear thinking about unfairness does not deal with pain alone, however.

Thinking with you that the friendship, laughter, and marvelous food that graced my life and table Thanksgiving Day were unfair too. And there was “unfair” beauty into the bargain as well: “unfair” flowers and candle light, and the "unfair" sensual delight of the satin heavy weight of a silver fork in my hand.  Now who can explain that?

See you next week.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Green Eggs and Ham?

November 18, 2012

Dear Friends,

Self-awareness entails a messy and disorganized process much of the time.

While the process remains a quintessential part of the fully lived life, most of us do not experience self-inspection as an enjoyable form of rest and recreation. We do not like the process in part, of course, because there is a great deal of painful and difficult experience stashed away in the archives of memory along with the joys and successes we have experienced. But we dislike the process for another reason: the archives of memory are compiled in ways that defy analytical logic.

After a bit of intensive excavation in our inner world, we may find ourselves echoing the opinion of the Cat in the Hat:
“I do not like green eggs and ham;
I do not like them, Sam I Am.”
We often find ourselves adding in exasperation, “…And how did the eggs get green anyway? Did I ever see a green egg in real life? This is absurd and a waste of time.”

The fact that something seems consciously absurd does not mean, of course, that it is unreal or unimportant. It means that we do not have a working cognitive context in ordinary life for the events and feelings that we have uncovered in our inner archives of meaning and memory. Often we do not recognize—at least initially—that what we are dealing with is the past that has surfaced in the present.

At one point in my work, I saw couples who were seeking help with difficulties in their relationship that their problem-solving efforts had not been able to resolve. One couple (Jack and Sally, for the purposes of this story) explained in the initial interview that their conflict pivoted around Sally’s alleged failure to “support” Jack in his career path, and Jack’s alleged failure to “support” Sally in the stress and demands of parenting three lively boys alone while Jack was traveling on corporate business.

The “green eggs and ham” in Sally’s archives included an alcoholic father whose frequent absences from home left Sally, her younger sister, and her frail frightened mother at economic and emotional risk. The “green eggs and ham” in Jack’s emotional archives included a harsh and unrewarding childhood with a critical, demanding father for whom Jack could never do enough to win approval and recognition.

As outsiders it is not difficult for us to see that for Sally the challenges of “single” parenting in Jack’s absence were real and not easily solved. It is not difficult for us to understand as well that for Jack the long weeks away from family in the context of the cut-throat corporate competition made week-ends with family a needed space for rest and recuperation.

What is less easy to identify, however, is the ways in which the past had oozed into the present for both Sally and Jack. Without conscious awareness, Sally’s definition of ‘support’ included a wordless expectation that “if Jack really loved me he would make all my old feelings of abandonment go away.” Similarly, Jack’s wordless expectation included marriage as a relationship in which he would never be criticized again.

Some of the problems Jack and Sally faced required practical problem solving. Computer and telephone could increase Jack’s participation in parenting throughout the week away. Sally could make Jack’s home-coming different. She could reduce the litany of problems and the critical non-verbal message of neglect with which she greeted Jack on his return. They could together both recognize Jack’s economic achievement, and consider whether the standard of living that Jack’s job permitted the family to enjoy was worth the cost to the family of the travel time Jack was required to invest.

But there were two things they could not do.

Jack could not make the marriage relationship erase the emotional archives left by his father’s critical rejection and his mother’s passive acceptance of his father’s emotional abuse.

Sally could not make the marriage relationship erase the archives of abandonment that her alcoholic father had left as a part of his emotional legacy.

Can a present relationship modify the impact of past experience? Of course—thankfully. Can present relationships erase the archives of past experience? No—and no amount of wishful thinking or abortive effort can make this happen.

It remains each individual’s responsibility to manage the past as it emerges within a present relationship through self-awareness and conscious acts of self-care. Present relationships provide rich resources and rewarding companionship as we learn to live with the emotional legacy of our past. However, it is an invitation to relational disaster if we expect friend, lover, spouse, sibling, parent, casual acquaintance or business colleague to erase the archives and their contents. Living constructively with the legacy of past experience remains the life-long responsibility of every individual.

What expectations in relationships do you have? Are you expecting present relationships to erase, rewrite, or reframe painful pieces of your past?

Thinking with you today about the incredible gift of relationships: they can indeed help us reframe the meaning of the past. Thinking too, however, that we produce disastrous relational consequences when we think that erase or rewrite are the same thing as reframe.

See you next week.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

There and Home Again

November 11, 2012

Dear Friends,

Somewhere in my hoarded collection of significant objects is a set of “worry beads” that a colleague brought me when he returned from a sabbatical in Greece. At first glance, the object looks somewhat like a secular rosary. Polished amber beads separated by tiny gold beads are strung on a fine gold chain that ends with an intricate final knot of chain and small chunks of raw amber. But "worry beads" are not a religious object. As my friend understood it, "worry beads" were designed as an aid and discipline to “telling your worries one at a time.”

I have kept the worry beads because they are beautiful both to see and to touch. But I have never used them to “tell my worries” for several reasons. While the beads are a useful reminder that dealing with one thing at a time is often a wise procedure, I do not think it is helpful to “tell” troubles by counting separately every single piece in every specific pile of difficulty with which we may be confronted. Counting in this fashion can easily contribute to a sense of being overwhelmed. It can lead to the kind of thinking that Albert North Whitehead warned against when he said, “Beware of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Counting every single place where the roof is leaking does not necessarily produce the energy or ingenuity required to initiate roof repair.

But beyond the emotional risk entailed in “telling” over a litany of trouble, this process distorts what may be the most difficult dimension of managing the difficulties we face in life and in relationships. While we may choose to deal with one issue at a time, we rarely, if ever, have the luxury of dealing with an issue that is unconnected to other aspects of life. Life indeed does happen while we are busy doing (and thinking) about something else, as the old adage says, but to complicate matters further, life happens in plural, not singular, so to speak. The storm that damages the roof often happens the same week that the hot water heater fails and the car insurance comes due. Counting the specific leaks in the roof does not necessarily produce a practical sense of the broader context in which the roof problem must be considered. While it is certainly ridiculous to attempt simultaneously to mend the roof, write a check for insurance, and replace the hot water heater, it is the difficulty of managing a life space in which all three tasks must be dealt with that provides the challenge.

This example pivots around an imagined householder’s list of challenges that are commonplace, ordinary and concrete. In contrast, the things with which we must deal simultaneously in relationships are not so easily seen nor understood, and are infinitely more complex. Further, we must deal with them not as single beads on the string of living, but as the sum of life experiences by which we are shaped.

As I wrote earlier, I carry into relationships the memory of that terrible April dust storm, the eerie light, my frightened parents, and memory meaning that I made: the world is unreliable: it can be dark in the afternoon, and dirt, not rain, can fall from the skies. I knew too, somehow, that the dirt covered some of the cattle and they died although my parents did the best that they could to keep this fact from me.

Then three years later my beautiful mother, who sang wonderful songs and filled the kitchen with the smell of baking bread, died. One stormy April night, I went to bed frightened because my mother was sick and I was not permitted to sleep in my bed in my parents's room. I woke up to a world in which I would never hear her voice again, never feel her tuck me in to sleep. My world had turned upside down, and I was now alone to make my way in a world in which there was no mother to comfort when there were bad dreams in the dark, and no one to teach hope by stories in which things did turn out happily in the end.

The ways in which the long shadow of these events—together, not just one at a time—cast a long shadow into my adult life and relationships are oblique and often appear disassociated to others. I choose to have three cans of coffee in the pantry, and I seek both to be gentle with myself and self-controlled in living out my understanding of this. Nevertheless, it can prove difficult at times to respond graciously when others tease about my tendency “to hoard.” While my curiosity leads me at times into adventures that reflect the “Tookish” part of me, my personal traveling songs, like those of Bilbo the Hobbit, end with the adventurer’s arrival home, “There and Back Again.”

“I have never know anyone who loves coming home to her own bed like you do,” a friend recently remarked as we arrived back from an out-of state trip to a conference.  “H-m-m,” I answered. It was one of those insightful observations that require either a very long explanation or no comment at all.

Would you expect a relationship that required me to “live out of a suitcase” for long, indefinite periods of time to be an easy one for me? What are the combinations of experience that most powerfully shape your choices? Can you describe to yourself the way this shows in your relationships?

Thinking with you that those things that we seek in present relationships can sometimes carry a dangerous unacknowledged debt to the past.

See you next week.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Rulebooks without words?

November 4, 2012

Dear Friends,

Life happens, the old cliché warns us, while we are doing something else. And in a somewhat similar fashion, our rule book for relationships is shaped wordlessly while we are engaged in living and talking about something else.

“Do you really have a rulebook for relationships?” a friend asked dubiously after reading last week’s blog. “I don’t think many people do.”

Perhaps guide book is a more helpful phrase than rule book, but everyone does indeed have an internal guide book that shapes the way relationships are formed and managed. Relationship difficulties can (and do) spring from faulty beliefs that form the content of this internal guidebook, of course. But dealing with content (good or bad) requires us first to grapple with the frustrating challenge of translating our internal wordless guidebook into language, making words for what we sense as truth so that we can consciously think and choose about the ways in which we relate.

A colleague in graduate school was the intellectually brilliant child of two college professors, one of whom was a closet alcoholic, and the other a gifted enabler for the alcoholic partner. In the world in which Nancy [not her actual name] grew into adulthood, tolerance of human differences was a highly valued trait. She was taught, “It is wrong to judge the behaviors of others; live and let live.” Consequently, Nancy’s relational guidebook contained a wordless rule: when others do things that hurt you (for example, turn up intoxicated at your birthday party), you must not say anything—you must give them, uncritically, the right to behave as they choose even when their behavior is hurtful to you. No objections permitted.

Would you be surprised to learn that Nancy’s relational history included “friendships” in which others took unfair advantage? Nancy was the recipient of a family trust, but it was not her generous family allowance that made Nancy an easy mark. It was not a personal approval of violence as such that made Nancy tolerate abusive behavior from others. The problem lay in Nancy’s wordless rule that she could not object to the behavior of others nor place limits upon their behaviors. Initially Nancy had little if any conscious understanding of this, however. Relationships in her life reflected people “just doing what people do,” and Nancy responding in the way that “any tolerant person” would behave.

One day early in our clinical training, a supervisor bluntly confronted Nancy. “Why do you tolerate such abusive behavior from that client?” the supervisor demanded. “Where are your boundaries?”

Nancy was annoyed and somewhat insulted by the question. Talking about it later with me, Nancy said, “I was fortunate; I had parents who taught me to be more tolerant than the majority of people. Bad behavior just doesn’t bother me.”

During training, the process of bringing her wordless rule of “no objection permitted” into words required a great deal of personal struggle for Nancy. Forming relationships characterized by mutual concern for mutual well-being will perhaps never be automatic for Nancy—early learning retains surprising power throughout a lifetime. But once Nancy was able to put her “rule” into words, she could establish a conscious relational guideline that included both true tolerance and the necessary boundaries required for responsible self-care. Learning to practice the new rule was not a simple matter, but for Nancy the pay-off in mutually beneficial relationships was well worth the struggle.

Thinking with you today that it is a life-long challenge to understand the meaning we have made of the experiences we have lived. I can readily remember my Dustbowl Depression childhood in the Kansas prairie, but I am still uncovering the wordless rules I crafted out of that experience I lived.

As life happens this week, become self-aware. Watch yourself being you, and take a quiet moment to consider: what wordless rule might you have been following just then as you acted in that way? What have you lived that translated into the wordless guideline that may have shaped that relational moment? How can you say the sensed "truth" you just acted on?
Knowledge describes the journey; wisdom knows what the journey means.

See you next week.