When I was a child, I picked flowers for my grandmother from her yard.
Each spring when the buttercups arose from the Piedmont soil, I picked all the sunny blooms my kid hands could reach – enough to fill a 1960s-style green drinking glass. Predictably I presented them with an eager and lasting hug. If there were more stems than one glass could hold, I gifted the surplus to my mother or one of her sisters. “I picked these for you.”
My grandmother’s response was equally predictable – “Thank you, Mit-zi,” with a shy smile.
At the time I imagined a dinner glass of flowers from a ringlet-clad girl to be better than the average Christmas gift. It spoke louder than my soft demeanor, “You are loved! I waited all year to pick these for you!”
It wasn’t until decades later that I saw my childhood floral benevolence differently.
Both the flowers and the fallen-down farmhouse around which they bloomed were, and still are, legend in our family. The greatest kindness I might have offered our matriarch, who longed to see the buds emerge each year, was the presentation of a couple of smiling daffodils and the preservation of their bright cousins in the spots where they bloomed. The most generous gesture was to leave the flowers in the ground where my grandmother transplanted them next to the simple wood-frame house her true love built for her in 1930-something.
Daffodils, or buttercups to my family, bloom once a year. Each spring-time “gift” I offered robbed my grandmother and our kin of a lengthy viewing of the miraculous birth we waited a full year to see.
A visit yesterday to this sacred spot, the killing field of my youth, reinforced why this used-to-be farm in the far reaches of Chatham County still, two decades after my grandmother’s death, offers a direct line to feelings of safety, belonging and love for my family and me. Simply seeing blooming bulbs of any variety or smelling fried chicken any place in the world takes me directly to that safe emotional space.
Last weekend, creeping through the present-day forest of wisteria, briars and poison oak to find the now hidden blooms, I imagined the distinct voices and accents of my Aunt Clara and Aunt Inez drifting above the crowded table as we ate a Sunday dinner or holiday meal. The smell of country vegetables and the sounds of men laughing as they swapped stories on the back porch permeated the pine-dotted woods where forty years after the practice began, I once again picked buttercups, their faces bowed to resist the effects of a late-season frost.
On this run-down, overgrown patch of dirt, I am reminded how deeply my family is emotionally hard-wired to this place of love and home-full-ness and how little it takes to bring us into reunion with these safe, embracing feelings.
A simple memory will do.
My weekend return to the farm also instilled how strongly we humans are hard-wired to feelings of shame and the experience of fear against a lifetime of traumas large and small.
A Christmas bell with red velvet ribbon hangs on the back door to our home place. This was a desperate warning system of my favorite uncle, meant to announce the arrival of witches and warlocks that swirled about him in the months after my grandmother’s death. Developmentally disabled, he had always lived with her and, unknown to us, he spent decades medicated to fend off paranoid delusions. With his mother and daily drugs gone, a host of voices and dark figures moved within and around him.
I stood in the doorway to Doug’s bedroom and took in the view of their small trailer from his perspective. From wall to wall lay his entire world. When Mama was alive to cook breakfast, dinner and supper and to attend as his number-one companion, this scene brought comfort.
With his lifeline gone, the view of the modest home from Doug’s bedroom was fraught with peril. Once his life-giving universe, it became a dark solar system spinning with comets of fear and confusion.
The slam of the back-porch screen door no longer signaled the arrival of a beloved nephew or niece. In his later state of grief and mental illness, that same familiar sound reinforced the hard-wired message, the perceived reality – his actual reality – that evil had come calling. Danger, danger!
Hunting daffodils in the entangled canopy of a once-open yard, I was enticed by the comparison of our feelings and the sense of well-being he and I each received from our experiences on the farm at different times in our lives.
What a contrast between the images of a safe, happy girl and that of an adult child helpless against a rising tide of evil with not a single soul to help him.
The power of fear based in real-life experience trumps facts most any day. Such conditioning is part of the natural order of things, a means of self-protection and the stuff of survival.
The reality is heavy in my home these days.
My nearly 5-year-old dog recently became terrified of the wood floor that covers much of our ranch-style square footage. She’s like a flat rock skipped across a pond, catapulted from one island of carpet to another, often pausing to cry for rescue.
I don’t know what happened to condition the beast to fear our floor.
It’s likely in bounding down the entry hall and bouncing like Tigger into our living space, a hall runner slipped or went airborne, popping her on the back side. Maybe a claw became stuck in the space between two boards. She generalized this one injury onto a lifetime of potential incidents in spite of the four prior years she lived here without harm.
I do know approximately when it happened. It’s also clear anxiety about hard surfaces permeates her entire being, resulting in a new phobia of walking into PetsMart, on nearby sidewalks and other places no scary thing has actually happened.
To her, like my Uncle Doug’s paranoid delusions, imaginary danger is all too real, and perhaps that’s what matters most. The danger is real to Mischief. These days just the sight of our cabin-grade cherry floor is enough to make her shake uncontrollably. Like Doug, personal trauma has re-engineered her being. She spends a lot of time under my bed.
Each time I ask, encourage or bribe her to walk from here to there, I reinforce the fear that keeps her paralyzed and isolated to my bedroom or stranded on one large area rug in our great room.
All other space is perilous ground. It’s as though sharks inhabit the sea of wood surrounding the carpeted islands of safety. We relive the trauma all day, every day.
I have tried everything.
Ignoring the issue and presenting life as usual is pointless; life is not “as usual” for her. Addressing it and forcing exposure makes it worse. Few distractions exceed her fear, and so it goes.
We’re working to master new skills and to get out of our house more to change our landscape.
On our daily walks I keep her on a short leash to put myself clearly in charge in hopes this will keep her anxiety in check. You’re not the boss, my kid – you don’t have to have all the answers. It’s not your job to protect and defend. Let go and let me take the lead.
Although it hasn’t yet helped, there’s a new grounding routine in our home.
Holding her face firmly and looking into her big, brown eyes, I tell her each night, “There is nothing wrong with you. In fact, there’s nothing you can do that’s wrong, nothing to keep you from being loved. You’re trying so hard. You’re doing such a good job, a really great job. You’re a good girl.”
No progress so far.
The dog we call Mischief is not the same clown-like pup I knew a few months ago. She and we are simply different.
I hold so much compassion for my Uncle Doug and my curly-haired pup. I also have empathy for the pair. What I mean is I understand their predicament.
Like all people, I, too, have been re-wired by select life events. A few are so painful I avoid the human connections and situations that might make such pain possible once again, even though in all reality it’s very unlikely to happen.
Once I had a trauma-laden experience of betrayal by some of the people I loved most, those to whom I gave the most. The betrayal consisted in part of slander about my character and abilities. What was said was mostly untrue, and I didn’t have the opportunity to defend myself or offer any facts.
Many months down the road I had hints of the same experience. There was backstage whisper of a failed fund-raising event, the projected results presented to me at the close of the night after one very long day and week. The presumed negativity led to an e-mail meant to prepare us all for failed results and to remind us that (in spite of its importance to our careers!) the money isn’t everything.
The looming threat was thinly veiled and all too real for me. Hints of judgment and blame, self-imposed and from without, danced around us like my Uncle Doug’s invisible demons.
After a long weekend of implicit defeat and related shame, the all-important facts were made known as the pledges were finally tallied.
Our failed event brought a significant increase in bottom-line funding compared to last year and all previous years. We stood to boast a 28% increase in net funding over our all-time best year in which two “plant” gifts skewed the results to the positive.
In short, our event rocked.
Add to that the feedback from guests that they had their best experience with us and, to some, the best event experience they ever had anywhere. Operationally it was our smoothest effort by far, although key improvements remain to be made.
A collective expectation of doom was projected onto an event that would turn out to be in nearly every way the best the organization has known.
None of this is what matters.
Just like my timid dog and my favorite uncle, the facts don’t hold as much power as the neural pathways burned deep with past messages of pain. Danger, danger! Next comes the scapegoating!
Doug understood cognitively what it meant to have schizophrenia. When the voices came calling, however, the heightened frenzy of fear trumped reason every time.
I can’t claim my Mischief has the capacity of reason to help sort the facts of our flooring. She does, however, rely heavily on conditioning and training, yet no box of treats or history of safety can undo the one experience, still unknown to me, that taught her that bare floors hurt.
Similarly, I know this second work experience did not happen in the same unsafe environment as the first – not the same players or toxic culture. In fact, the two professional experiences are almost exactly opposite. Yet just like my little mutt, I still anticipate the sucker punch.
History distorts reality.
For humans our conditioning to fear and other emotions is a daily and complex process.
We have the benefit of reason, our emotions and our own bodies to inform us of threats as well as love and pure, unrelenting joy. We have the benefit of hindsight to teach us how to change, the gift of forgiveness for ourselves and others when we fall short.
Somehow, though, we don’t often use all the faculties we possess.
Instead of sticking to the facts of a situation or even considering how another person’s own scars or intent might play a role, we tell ourselves our own unique “stories” that explain why it all went down, what we lacked internally or in relation to others that made it happen, that we were doomed to be screwed. We limit ourselves through emotional Calvinism, a predestination based on incomplete interpretation of present events based on past pain. It always ends this way.
My unfortunate work event was in the end a non-event. It was also a gift. It serves as a reminder that even when we think we have self-reflection down, we’re always at risk of hitting symbolic speed bumps that rattle our security and throw us off course. It’s also a powerful reminder of the application of fear to human behavior.
I’m fine. We’re fine. Our event hit the (positive) record books. Nearly everyone holds us in the highest esteem.
More important than all that, I know after a time of reflection that what hit me hardest was not that prognostication of doom offered to me as a favor at the close of the event or the ensuing e-mail meant to soften the financial failure by praising the process.
What weighed most on my spirit was my interpretation, the supposed “knowing” that what was really going down was professional danger and personal betrayal, attempts to focus blame and hold others from embarrassment. My heart raced with the same fear and helplessness of that other work experience as I was shown the results before they were made public, giving me a chance to know before our board was told. The shame of a failed career had already set in. I literally felt it.
My quick reaction was a strong need to reinforce my personal fortress. If you don’t let people know you, if they can’t get in, they can’t hurt you. Okay, fine – that’s how it’s going down. I’ll take it, but I’m not letting anyone else go down with me. Bring it. I own it. I’m not taking the committee or a new coordinator with me, and I won’t make you look bad. Don’t worry.
All that is my “story.”
The reality is what happened and what I made of it are somewhat similar yet somewhat different.
In ways my interpretation is fair. The timing of the disaster-preparedness talk was not sensitive, and a bottom-line conclusion was reached before the pledges were counted. The e-mail seemed off with its parenthetical phrase about the importance of success to our careers. Both were borne of fatigue and fueled by fear, though well intended.
At the same time the meaning I made of the actions is not real. I falsely connected some dots in an exhausted and defeated attempt to protect myself from future pain – (soon to be) inflicted by people I let in, colleagues I allowed myself to care about. In fact, I could feel the sting and my racing heart already.
Just like Mischief, I’ve been down this wood floor before.
Picking buttercups on my grandmother’s farm last weekend, I thought about my dear dog. I am Mischief. We are all at times that same strawberry-blonde cockapoo afraid to take the next step.
What we most need is a benevolent caregiver to hold us firmly by the face, look us in the eye and gently say, “There is nothing wrong with you. In fact, there’s nothing you can do that’s wrong, nothing to keep you from being loved. You’re trying so hard. You’re doing such a good job, a really great job.”
The kind caregiver may be someone else, but we are all destined to the experience in which the only person who can say these words resides inside. In the end we sit alone in our pain and silence, and only we can dig up and fertilize the eternal message of love that is already planted within us.
Like Mischief, our conditioning from life’s pain can be greater than any set of facts or any future learning. Sensing danger, we live with profound anxiety that keeps us land locked on our own plush islands of safety, isolated from other people and other options for living. We limit our own possibilities.
Like my dear pup, there may be nothing except time to help us through the rough spots. One deeply painful experience or relationship may only be undone by hundreds of nurturing moments. Without proper attention, the wound may not heal at all.
The examples are as varied as we people. They may be more or less familiar to you.
Self-protection, like much of life, falls across a continuum.
On the more benign end lies avoidance in its myriad forms. Most of us can quickly rattle off our avoidance inventories. In order to elude pain, we [fill in the blank].
Experience teaches us not to touch a hot stove. In the same way, we learn through being burned to avoid certain relationships or life events. It’s the reason we find types of people or situations suspect or why we deny an obvious truth or difficult conversation, the elephants in our proverbial living rooms.
On the other end of the continuum lie the most difficult experiences of fear and pain. Post-traumatic stress traps people in Groundhog-Day-type reliving brought on by the simplest of triggers – a noise, a smell, a lonely night-time walk. In these cases it’s not as though it’s happening again; it is happening, and we continue to pay a real psychic and physiological price each time life takes us to that place where it all waits, fresh and raw.
Somewhere between these extremes lies much of life, specifically 96 percent if you accept the normal curve. It’s the personal battlefield for nearly everyone. Here are our masks, our puffed-up credentials, diversionary techniques, compensatory behaviors, perfectionism, judgment and our addictions. Here we manipulate, act helpless, play dirty and strike preemptively. I’ll get you before you get me.
Here hide the people who believe there’s nothing wrong with them, that they have no uncomfortable or unprocessed emotions, as they operate motor vehicles, projecting their fear and anger onto mere strangers also hurling fast in metal tubes down the interstate. What’s wrong with you? Idiot!
The real trouble with all of this is by avoiding or denying pain, we: a) don’t really avoid it, we simply hold it off in the short-term at the expense of ourselves and the people around us in the long run; and b) we fend off pain at the expense of love and joy. That’s right – by blocking hurts and fear, we also cut off our capacity for joy and love and a host of other good feelings.
The real miss is not in protecting ourselves. That’s only natural. As survival instinct, it’s inevitable.
The problem is we generalize, using inductive reasoning to hijack one experience and classify all past and potential experiences under the same (unfortunate) label. Scary. Painful. Shameful.
According to my Zen calendar and William Blake, “To generalize is to be an idiot.” Let me be the first to call myself guilty.
My hairdresser puts it differently. He tells me it’s a blessing and a gift we can generalize from one experience to our bigger lives in order to stay safe, but the problem is we sometimes mess up.
And how, Brad.
We do have some choices, even in the toughest of times.
First, we can always stop to listen. Only when we quit talking and cease thinking can we hear our own truth. You can’t fix what you don’t see, or hear in this case. Stopping all action is required in order to know what old story we’re conjuring up or what (un)real or actual trauma is being relived. It is wise to be mindful and give our pain the attention it seeks.
The next thing we can all do is offer compassion to the person who is stuck on the great-room rug, whether that’s you, your disabled and schizophrenic uncle or one very anxious mutt. Sometimes the only soul who can offer you life-giving compassion is you. While all others may fail us, we always have the choice to embrace ourselves in our most vulnerable, embarrassing or painful moments.
We’re called to do this without judgment. It is one thing to judge a dog for her stupidity in fearing a cherry floor and quite another to recognize that although it’s inconvenient and doesn’t seem rational, she’s where she is for a reason, and only stepping into her fur coat will help us (and her) unravel the knot that has her trapped. Accept and love her without any need to change her. Likewise, accept yourself and your present circumstances without any need to judge, blame or change. Start where you are, with awareness and without criticism for what got you there. Accept yourself. Harder yet, love yourself unconditionally in spite of it all.
Be a student. Sometimes we’re taken to places one time or a dozen times for the simple gift of finally learning the lesson. What does the experience teach? What can I learn, and how can I grow? When I find myself in a familiar self-limiting situation, welcoming a new-old feeling, I sometimes say out loud, “You again. I see you. What’s the lesson you’re here to teach?” By opening myself to learning, I short circuit the suffering that comes from resistance or shame.
Give yourself credit for small things. My Mischief sometimes forgets to be scared, running freely through the house. Other times she struggles for a minute or more before finally placing a single paw on the shiny floor. But she does it. She moves forward with courage in spite of gripping, all-consuming fear. My goodness, Chiefy, you’re such a brave girl!
It’s all too easy to see only our shortcomings, as well as the flaws of others. What’s harder and, frankly, more brave is to offer the benefit of the doubt. Wow, Uncle Doug, you have a made-up family no one else can see, but you’re more loyal to them than many people are to their families. You are less alone than some of us surrounded by people.
Another take is this: Doug, I can tell you’re afraid, and I want you to know I can’t imagine how you could feel anything else given your mother’s death and your isolation. I can’t imagine how that feels. I won’t tell you what is or is not real, but I will always tell you I love you.
Here’s a true story. Doug asked me one time about his created family, “Mitzi Lou, is it true? Do they exist? Are they real?” All I could say was, “I don’t know, Doug. I don’t see them, but I can’t tell you they’re not real for you.” He politely thanked me.
Imagine granting someone this grace. Now can you imagine granting grace to yourself for your own madness, for being trapped on your figurative great-room rug? You got there for a reason, you know. Cut yourself some slack.
The neural pathways of pain can keep us stuck or limited in less effective ways of relating or being. Our unique patterns become so commonplace we confuse them with truth. We believe our wood floor really is inhabited by sharks, or, once again, by undermining and betraying “friends.”
The paradox is our freedom from the great-room rug, freedom from our own self-imposed delusions, lies in harnessing the power of the very pathways that sometimes hold us captive in our unique yet universal prison cells.
As a child, I learned early the science of memory through repetition. Like many kids, I took piano lessons. I practiced faithfully, and I learned the more times I played a piece, the easier it became to bang it out by memory, to play without trying, without having to think about it.
The trick with rote memorization is this: it’s all well and good if you’re practicing the correct notes and tempo. If, like me, you make the same musical mistake time and again, you make it all the harder to unlearn your mistake. In fact, there is no unlearning a tune you can play without thinking. The only remedy is to re-learn in the correct way and practice 4001 times the right way if you practiced 4000 times in the wrong key.
The up side is there’s a way out. Better said, there’s a way through.
It’s the way of spiritual practice, and it requires repeated and focused attention. It’s called practice for a reason, after all.
With this tool, it is possible to become aware of the places we get off key, before ongoing mistakes and negative reinforcement are made. Mindful practice allows us to create even the slightest pause of awareness between our feelings, our (false) assumptions and our actions. That’s all it takes. Add a little more practice, and the pause grows. We no longer stumble headlong into old patterns of behavior based in false realities, our made-up illusions littered with emotional Calvinism that predestines us to future pain because of past experience. It always ends like this.
New learning takes time, and we’re always at risk of slipping back into old ways of doing and thinking. However, the more we travel a fresh, judgment-free path, the easier it is to rise up and get back on a life-promoting course.
Practice deepens neural pathways. It’s up to us which paths we take.
Another paradoxical technique is the harnessing of distraction.
Just as we divert to avoid tough feelings, we can distract for the good. We have the power to use the present moment to take us to safe places that reinforce our being.
About once a year I long to kick around on our used-to-be tobacco farm. I go alone to see the pine needles that line the forest floor and to smell the nearby creek or the persistent scent of rose-smelling soap in my grandmother’s bathroom.
More often, when I need security or belonging, I close my eyes and mentally “go there” to the rust-colored velour sofa resting on rust-colored shag carpet in a modest if not sparse home that smells of pine-scented wood cleaner and day-old chicken grease.
The key once again is the tool of the neural pathway. Harness the tool to establish security instead of fear. Pick a safe, validating place and practice being there through the power of your own imagination and focus.
The farm is not the only place of comfort or respite I visit when a grounding reach is in order. The Grand Canyon at sunset is always at my command as is the company of a few trusted friends who are now dead. The judgment-free zone they each offer years after their deaths is always attainable.
Creating a neural pathway to a secure place happens in the same way our deceiving trenches of fear are dug from real-life experience. The difference is the driving force, the fuel that makes it happen. We are thrust forward either by fear or love.
When the gasoline is fear, we instinctively self-protect, shut down or attack. Our (false) “stories” kick into high gear, and we limit our own possibilities, or those of others.
When the fuel is tolerance, acceptance or even love, the outcome is substantially different.
Please hear this: I’m not suggesting a cold, hard reality, whether my wood floor or your own personal pain or injustice, does not exist. I’m simply saying in addition to accepting the raw reality of where you are, reside also in another place.
The beauty of paradox is you can walk with one foot in each world. Two truths are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We can accept two or more seemingly conflicting realities at once.
You can hold yourself (or another) in love and sit with pain and simply receive it. You can listen for what your experience teaches while accepting the whole awful lot. Allow it to be without adding emotional accelerants yet also without denying how pain and injustice feel. Resist leaning in either direction. Just sit straight up and accept the whole reality of where you find yourself.
My Zen calendar offers two related nuggets:
Each of us must journey through the dots, beyond the dots, and to the truth alone. (Russell Hoban)
The cure for pain is the pain. (Rumi)
There is a powerful world of invisible sharks. Some are the aftermath of real-life, hard truths. Others are preemptive disasters generalized onto current or yet-to-be events to keep us safe from harm. They are there to keep us from getting burned again.
At the same time there is whole universe of invisible embrace and acceptance, love that is freely available, not reliant on the validation of a single other soul.
We have within us the power to utter the most compassionate or hateful of unspoken messages in choosing the next step forward, fact-like assumptions that arise without our having to think about them.
When in doubt, go with compassion. Keep it real, but also pick buttercups.
Remember to treat yourself as you would your best little dog, the kid with the blonde and red curls who tries so awfully hard to take one single step forward in spite of overwhelming fear.
Be aware of your hard truths and hurts. Accept what’s real and release the rest, your interpretations and stories. Ask yourself what the universe is trying to teach you; the answer is yours alone and necessarily correct. Connect with a grounding place twice for every one time you find yourself down an old, shadowy path. Embrace and love yourself in spite of it all as you would your own dear pup.
There is nothing wrong with you. In fact, there’s nothing you can do that’s wrong, nothing to keep you from being loved. You’re trying so hard. You’re doing such a good job, a really great job.