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What I Have Not Loved

As I write this, I have just returned from a long journey across the country and into my past. I’m home again, but the journey is not over and I expect to retrace my steps back and forth for some undetermined length of time.

The physical journey, however long, is nothing to the internal journey I’ve undertaken through my memories, family dynamics and history, and so much of what has shaped my life and experience.

Before I left, I came across this poem by David Whyte:

Here in the Mountains

There is one memory deep inside you.
In the dark country of your life
it is a small fire burning forever.

Even after all these years
of neglect
the embers of what you have
known rest contented
in their own warmth.

Here in the mountains,
tell me all the things
you have not loved.
Their shadows will tell you
they have not gone,
they became this night
from which you drew away in fear.

Though at the trail’s end,
your heart stammers
with grief and regret,
in this
final night
you will lean down at last
and breathe again on the
small campfire of your
only becoming.

Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

“Tell me all the things you have not loved.” This is an invitation I’ve never heard before. My focus has been on gratitude, on reframing, and on finding something good in every situation. I call myself a pessimist rather than an optimist, though I do leave windows and doors open for good things to happen while preparing for the worst.

My friends and I talk at work about the way we avoid “complaining.” A male coworker was taught as a child to refuse to give way to pain and illness, to work through it silently and privately without “complaint.” Is complaint the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure. Three of us, all women, are more comfortable acknowledging our struggles and distress than our male friend, but none of us want to hear ourselves “whining.” Is whining the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure about that one, either.

Because of my own confusion and blurriness around the terms we use and the cultural pressure towards toxic positivity, speaking about the things we have not loved is a jarring proposal. I carried it as I traveled on cars and buses, airport shuttles and airplanes. I hardly wrote at all over the last week. One journal entry by hand on the plane and the rest of my notebook filled with to-do lists, notes, names and numbers.

But I thought about things I have not loved.

It’s not just the invitation, though. It’s the way Whyte suggests all the things we have not loved are the background against which our lives are pinned, the shadows defining the light. I think of the night sky, gleaming with stars. What would the stars be without the blackness around them? I think of candle flames, fireflies, a lone campfire in the wilderness in the black night.

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

And isn’t it true that the things we have not loved don’t go away? Don’t they stay with us more inexorably, in fact, than the things we have loved? It seems so to me. Thus the fear, the drawing away, the heart filled with grief and regret. But at the core of our lives perhaps there is a small fire, patiently burning, waiting for us to come to our trail’s end. I think some would call the small fire God.

I realize one of the largest things I have not loved is love. A strange thing to realize, and a strange thing to say, I know. But so often my love has been helpless. The strong bonds, history, and feeling (all of which I mean by “love”) I feel for my parents, my brother, and my sons have been the greatest sources of pain in my life. Five vast, dark, wildernesses surrounding five campfires, these five who are flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. These five who I could never stop loving, even if I wanted to. No matter how great the shadows around the fires, the flames burn, warm, beautiful, cleansing, regenerative. Often, I wish I could stand just outside the firelight, unseen, and simply love without fear, without pain, without wishing to be loved in return. But I do draw away in fear from the heat, the flame, the passion of the fire. I cherish the fires and would protect them with my life, but I fear them, too.

I have not loved the trauma and abuse that has shadowed what I love. I have not loved my disillusionment or the terrible choices I’ve made in building boundaries and learning to love myself. I have not loved my feelings of loss, insecurity, scarcity, and exile. I have not loved my pain and grief. I have not loved learning to let go.

I did not love walking into my mother’s home, the place where she has lived her self-imposed solitary journey into dementia and inability to care for herself. I did not want to follow her trail into the darkness of fear and denial, marked with soiled clothing and bedding, desperate and increasingly nonsensical and illegible notes and reminders. I did not want to go through drawers and cupboards of vitamins and supplements; over-the-counter remedies for pain, sleep, memory loss, skin problems and digestion issues. I did not want to fill trash bags with worn-out but never discarded clothing and shoes, a thousand used emery boards, outdated products and food.

I did not love going through every stitch of her clothing, sorting, washing, labeling with a laundry marker and packing it all to take to her new home in a memory care unit. The day after I carefully loaded her dresser, newly cleaned and placed in her room, we visited and found she had dumped every drawer into her laundry basket. She was “packing” to go home.

I did not love doing any of it. I did not want to do it. It broke my heart and filled me with futile guilt and shame. But at the center of every bag of trash, every bag and box to be donated, every clean drawer and cupboard, burned the small fire of my love for my mother. Inescapable. Inexorable. In a strange way, all the things I did not love were fuel to keep that fire burning. The more shadows I found under beds, in closet corners, in drawers and cupboards she forgot she had, the brighter the fire burned. My pain and pity, my anger with her lifelong pattern of denial and rejection of any help or support, made the fire burn higher. To tend the fire is to face the darkness.

And I would not have the fire go out, though I feel torn into pieces by its presence.

Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash

It’s been a dark week, a week of deliberately moving into the things I have not loved. Drawing back was not an option. I could only step into the void. But the darkness has held a thousand small flames. The faces of old friends, both mine and Mom’s. Her animals, once so beloved but now forgotten by her, rehomed and doing well. A hundred acts of kindness and generosity. Help with moving furnishings into her new room. A cherry pie. Hugs and tears. The good-hearted friendliness of dogs. Constant support. Texts, emails, phone calls – all messages of succor and sympathy for me and my brother, for Mom. The friend who cares for the plants. The friends who keep an eye on the house. The friend who took a load to Goodwill for me. The friend who will take out the mountain of trash in the garage. And, when I came home, the arms of the friends who welcomed me back.

The shadows and the light. The things I have not loved cradle the things I do love. I am so weary I cannot begin to unravel the paradox. Perhaps it cannot be unraveled, only accepted and experienced. Perhaps Mom is wandering in her own dark wilderness, seeking the small campfire of her becoming, and when she finds it, leans down to breathe upon it, she will at last know peace.

Questions:

  • Share three things you have not loved.
  • Do things you have not loved persist in your life? What creates a background for what you do love?
  • What is the difference between complaining (whining) and acknowledgment? Do you believe it’s wrong for you to admit to personal struggles?

 

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Problem Solving

Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay

I’ve always enjoyed problem solving. It’s surely one of life’s most important skills. However, I’ve often felt blocked by others when I set out to solve a problem that includes someone else, and this brief piece by Seth Godin may have just helped me see why.

Godin makes a distinction between a problem (implying a solution(s)) and a situation, something outside our power to change.

He points out the first step in solving a problem is to agree a problem exists.

Whoops!

I learned as a child to be deeply self-reliant and as independent as possible. More often than not, asking for help or understanding made whatever situation I was struggling with much, much worse. So I learned not to. I don’t deny problems to myself, but I don’t share them readily, either. Being honest about what’s not working makes us vulnerable. It means we have to come out of hiding. It’s risky. I don’t want to be that direct and clear about my experience, because it feels disempowering and dangerous.

Learning curves are messy, and as I’ve worked on being more connected with others, I’ve gradually risked sharing problems involving others.

Sometimes I’ve received support and understanding, along with good advice and questions to help me better define whatever I’m dealing with.

Sometimes I’ve felt shut down and silenced.

I’ve never started with an objective discussion in which I clearly state the nature of my problem and ask for another point of view. Is it a problem for anyone else in the picture, or is it a situation? Do others involved feel it’s a problem worth solving? Can we agree to move forward together to seek a solution, even if there’s no easy or certain one right now?

I leap directly to problem solving before I’ve had any agreement that anyone else experiences a problem. I change my behavior, come up with strategies, and start tackling the problem. When my problem-solving strategies cause friction with others, I’m hurt and angry. This is a problem, right? I’m trying to solve my problem. I’m not asking you to solve it, I’m solving it. Why can’t you let me take care of my needs?

It would work if we all lived in bubbles instead of a web of interconnection, but inevitably, if I change my behavior, those connected to me are affected. And we don’t like it when people rock our boats, especially if we don’t believe in the problem they’re trying to manage.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Like, say, coping with a global health crisis. The last three years have been a marvelous illustration of what happens when people disagree about problems and solutions (or at least mitigations). Chaos. Undermining. Disinformation. Division. Even violence.

When we can’t find validation for our feeling of urgency around a problem, then what?

I can’t answer for anyone else, but I set out to ease or solve the problem with solutions I have the power to implement. Sometimes they’re small tweaks. Sometimes they’re extreme, scorched-earth, desperate choices because I saw no other way.

Sometimes my problem is someone else’s convenience, pleasure, or deliberate choice.

Sometimes, and this is worth mentioning loudly, I tackle problems not belonging to me. I do it out of good intentions, with a desire to strengthen connection, but it rarely works out well. The problems of others are not mine to solve. It’s hard for me to understand mild bitching is not a plea for assistance in solving a problem. This is an area in which I continue to work on healthy boundaries.

Refusing to help, stalling, or obstructing problem-solving doesn’t stop me from going forward with solutions to my own challenges. It simply sends me underground, which is where I work most comfortably anyway.

Another block to solving problems: The Status Quo. Good old SQ.

If, and it’s a big if, we can agree on the problem, the SQ will immediately spring to life and block every attempt to make different choices. The SQ is comfortable. It knows what to expect. It understands how current systems and dynamics work. If something changes, the problem might become worse. It might multiply into several other problems. Change is hard. It might cost too much money. We don’t have time and energy for it right now. We’re not focused. We’ll forget. We’re too distracted. It’s not that big a problem, after all. In fact, why are you making such a fuss over nothing? Are you tired? Or sick? Or about to get your period? Are you in menopause? Are you having a bad day, sweetheart? Why don’t you relax and have a drink? Or a pint of ice cream? Or a pill? Or a cigarette? You’ll feel better then.

Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?

The SQ, you see, doesn’t want to lose any power, especially power it stole from others on the way to becoming the SQ. If you solve your problem, the SQ might lose ground. Not acceptable. You wouldn’t want to solve your problem at the expense of the SQ, would you?

I’ve written before about Bill Eddy’s work on high-conflict personalities. One of his strategies is to ask people who are dissatisfied or actively complaining for a plan. This acknowledges the perceived problem, invites ideas about solving it, and helps the high-conflict person feel heard and validated. It also asks them to take responsibility for changing the situation in such a way that a refusal is obvious and public. It forces active contribution rather than passive trouble-making. Are they complaining as a habit, or are they serious about creating a better way to do things?

Image by Valeria Lo Iacono from Pixabay

I’ve tried this, and in real life some people will simply shrug and say, “I dunno.” They have no plan. They have no interest in a plan. I don’t know if they don’t see a problem needing a solution, or they’re lazy, or simply deeply invested in complaining and don’t want to lose the source of their complaint. For whatever reason, they stonewall the process of problem solving.

Some folks will respond to a request for a plan. Often, people do have ideas about what might work better, what might be worth trying, or are interested in coming up with a new system. They only want an invitation.

A third response is the most problematic. These are the people who refuse to be clear. They won’t admit there is a problem, but there might be. They won’t admit it needs to be, might be, or could be solved. They won’t take any responsibility for the problem, even if they’re an involved stakeholder. They refuse to consider solutions and possible outcomes. They stall, obstruct, and speak for the status quo.

They don’t openly refuse to cooperate, but their noncooperation makes the message clear: It’s not who I am. I won’t remember. It’s silly. It’s too much trouble. It’s inconvenient. I’m not doing that!

I’ve drawn a new map for problem solving:

  • Define the problem. Be sure it belongs to me.
  • Seek agreement on the defined problem from others directly involved with or affected by it.
  • Ask everyone involved (including myself) for a plan. Consider each plan. Think about why, how and if it might or might not work. Come up with possible outcomes, positive and negative, for each plan.
  • Choose a plan, or to delay, or redefine the problem as a situation, at least for now.

I can’t help feeling it’s far easier to just solve problems on my own. Seriously.

On the other hand, I’m not alone in my house, my workplace, my community, or my life. Probably a good thing. Problems are inevitable, and solving them can be a team sport.

But not with everyone.