I ran into a great question a few weeks ago: “What gives you courage?” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Courage, the ability to do something frightening or having strength in spite of pain or grief, is not the absence of fear. If we have no fear we have no need of courage.
Fear, in my experience, is multifaceted. My most private fears are about my own wholeness and worth. Then, there’s the fear of external forces, like a coward with a gun in the supermarket; the judgement or criticism of a loved one; or a personal loss, injury or illness.
Yet another kind of fear is one I suspect many of us feel right now, a sort of ill-defined psychic shadow, a general feeling of insecurity about the state of our world and the future. I try not to give it too much attention, but it’s always there, like a thin cloud between me and the sun. I know the only place I have power is right here, right now, in this moment, and I’m glad I’m typing at the keyboard rather than staring out the window and wondering what tragedy or catastrophe will be brought to my attention next and where it will all end.
Is that a kind of courage, staying intentional in the moment and managing our own power?
So, what keeps us going in times like these, in spite of our fear?
Oddly, the first thing I thought of was a poem I read as a teenager. All these years I’ve kept it and thought about the wagon wheel that did not break, the faithful dog, the innocent child. I’ve long forgotten where I came across it and I don’t know who wrote it.
Journal Note Long Ago
Crossing the wilderness or the sea I take with me nobody who is afraid nor do I want with me the memory of a man or woman who is afraid.
I am afraid enough myself now—there are shadows and ghosts enough now—in the meshes of my corpuscles—and so I must not ask others to go.
I keep the memory of a dog who was never afraid, a wagon whose wheels lasted, a child who had not lived long enough to know the meaning of the words Yesterday and Tomorrow.
The second thing that comes to mind about the source of my own courage also seems peculiar, but on second thought it might be a way of talking about faith. If and when I am able to identify The Right Thing To Do in any circumstance, fear ceases to have any power over me. I certainly feel it, and sometimes it seems I’ll be ground into oblivion by it, but as long as I’ve breath and a pulse I will do what I believe is right, come what may.
This is a trait fanatics and zealots of every stripe share with me, a fact which makes me pause and shudder. There is a difference, though, between a suicide bomber or the aforesaid coward with a gun and me. I don’t pretend to know what’s right for others, only myself. I’m not interested in having power over other people, forcing my ideology on those around me or taking out my frustrations on others.
My sense of The Right Thing To Do always involves my integrity and intuition, and is not weakened by the judgements and criticisms of those around me. My integrity and intuition are my own. Only I can maintain them. Without them, I am nothing.
When people talk about faith, I generally think of religion, which can be a staunch support for courage as well as a powerful motivator. However, most religions I’m familiar with require submission to a so-called higher authority, either human and/or sacred text (the author of which is frequently unclear and the original of which was written in a language and context I’m unfamiliar with). Many good people build their lives on a bedrock of religious faith and are sustained by it. That is not my way. I will not sacrifice my personal power to an external authority.
Information and learning give me courage. Literacy and curiosity are gateways to understanding, compassion and revelation. The beauty and complexity of our world and our universe, the remarkable experience of being human, the persistence of life, the perspective of history, the indomitable creativity of the human spirit — all these inspire me and give me courage.
My study and practice of minimalism has given me courage. The more objects and distractions I peel away from my space, time and energy, the stronger and more peaceful I become. Serenity, it turns out, has everything to do with living with less stuff, needing less money and concentrating on the undistracted and undiluted abundance of each moment. I don’t need nearly as much as I thought I did. Peace, joy, clarity and courage immediately flower in the space freed from stuff. I have what I need. I am what I need.
And that brings me to the last big ingredient in my particular recipe for courage. Learning to know, love and trust myself has given me courage. Part of this has to do with the gifts of aging. I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, made a lot of mistakes and collected a lot of scars. Every day I learn a little more and heal a little more. I have allowed my experience in life to expand my compassion, empathy, intuition, wisdom and ability to love. I’m a resilient, adaptable survivor, and I know, no matter what happens, I’ll do my best to my last breath.
A poem. The Right Thing To Do. Information and learning. Minimalism. Self-regard. Mix well.
The pool where I work is part of a rehabilitation center, which is part of a local hospital. There are actually two pools. One is a lap pool of about 84 degrees. The other is a large therapy pool, nearly as big as the 4-lane lap pool. The therapy pool is about 94 degrees. The pool patrons are a mix of the public, hospital staff and rehab patients.
As a lifeguard, I spend hours in an elevated chair watching people in the water and moving around on the deck. It delights me to be paid for doing what I naturally do in the world, which is to people watch. In an environment with a consistent air temperature over 80 degrees with more than 50% humidity, all of us — staff, patrons and patients — are necessarily without our usual armor of clothing, make-up and jewelry. We are physically revealed to one another to an unusual degree in a public place.
I’m struck every day by the humility of flesh, the wonder and complexity of our physical being; the almost painful innocence of small children with their rounded, unselfconscious forms; the incredible and paradoxical endurance, resilience and fragility of the human body, and the inexorable truths our unconcealed bodies reveal.
I’m touched by the everyday, patient, humble courage of people whose bodies are ill, injured and aging. I watch people participate in classes: Water walking, water aerobics, arthritis and fibromyalgia in the therapy pool, and swim lessons. I watch couples and families, caregivers and their charges, school groups and special needs groups. People come to lose weight, to rehabilitate after a stroke or cardiac event, to increase their strength and endurance, to recover from surgery or injury. People also come to socialize, to play, and to be inspired and motivated by staff, classes, music and one another.
Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash
Some folks swim laps. Others water walk and go through exercise routines with buoys, kickboards and weights. They come out of the locker rooms with walkers, canes and wheelchairs. Some need help getting in and out of the pool, or even down to the pool from the parking lot.
For the most part, people who make use of the facility are patient, pleasant and good-natured. Watching them, I wonder at their resilience. What must it be like to be so bent one can only see the floor? How does one cope when the only ambulation possible is to creep along with a walker? The joy and laughter of a wheel-chair bound young person with contorted and twisted limbs like sticks when she’s carried into the therapy pool make me weep.
There’s really no place to hide in the world, at least from ourselves. We all live in a body, and many of us struggle with loving them, including me. We spend an amazing amount of time, money, anguish and effort in disguising our perceived physical defects from the eyes of the world. We tell ourselves nobody can see our shame. No one can see how unlovely or imperfect we really are. No one will ever know.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
But we know, and our shame and self-loathing poison our lives.
I wonder, as I sit in the chair, what is it about the people who use the pool that enables them to risk physical authenticity? Do they love and accept themselves as they are? If so, how have they developed that ability? Are they unconcerned with what others think of them? Are they like me, and simply resigned to their physical reality, feeling the benefits of using the pool are more important than hiding their appearance, but privately ashamed and embarrassed?
In thinking about this, I realize my own relationship with my body is complicated. On the one hand, I feel affection, loyalty and gratitude. I’ve never aspired to beauty, whatever beauty is. On the other hand, I cringe every time I see a picture of myself, which is not often, as I hate having my picture taken and avoid it whenever possible. I think I cringe because I wish I could protect that vulnerable woman from the eyes and criticism of others. I cringe because my deepest and most private shame is that my physical envelope contains some hidden foulness that makes me unworthy of physical affection and contact. I’m not talking about sex. Sexual attraction and desire are a whole different conversation. I’ve been good enough for sex, but not good enough for consistent loving, nurturing touch. Not good enough to hold.
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
In fact, one of the biggest reasons why I love the water so much is that it touches me.
The shame I feel around this is corrosive and chronic. It’s my intention that it also remain entirely invisible to any onlooker. The pain of this hidden vulnerability of mine enlarges the way I observe others in their bodies. It seems to me we must all have some degree of skin hunger that’s more or less satisfied, depending on our situation. We must all feel some degree of physical isolation and alienation at some point in our lives. Surely every body I see is worthy of care, of love, of touch and nurture, in spite of skin tags, scars, cellulite, bulges and sags, hair distribution or absence, aging, injury and disability, too many or too few pounds.
As I sit on the lifeguard stand, counting heads and scanning the pools, I keep coming back to courage. Courage and humility. The willingness to be seen without the comfort and concealment of clothing. The willingness to be physically authentic and vulnerable. Not a story of courage that will ever be made into a movie, but a kind of daily, humble heroism that touches and inspires me.
Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
As an observer, it’s effortful to discard childish judgements like “ugly” and “beautiful.” It’s hard not to apply an internalized rating system. I’m tainted by Hollywood, by digitally altered images and by my own private romantic fantasies. Somewhere underneath all the limitations imposed by that conditioning and brainwashing, I glimpse a vast compassionate wisdom encompassing all of us. Life, after all, is beautiful and miraculous. Doing what we can to care for and accept the body we have is an act of courage and strength. Allowing ourselves to be seen and vulnerable takes humility and heroism.
I wonder, somewhat uneasily, if we are no longer able to grasp the beauty inherent in our physical forms. We seem determined to approach the planet’s body, our own and the bodies of others as commodities and resources to plunder, manipulate and then discard when they become boring, worn-out, ill or (at least to our eyes) ugly. Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to appreciate and value everybody in every unique, individual body. Maybe our culture is so injured all we can do now is hate, judge and criticize not only ourselves but others.
Perhaps we’re determined to tear ourselves apart and nothing will stop us.
In the meantime, however, I live in a body, just as you do, and we all have a deeply private and largely invisible relationship with our structure of flesh, blood and bone. My choice is to remain present with the wonder and complexity of the human body, yours, mine and theirs. My choice is to enlarge my compassion and observation until I touch that edge of wisdom that acknowledges beauty and worth in all of physical life, be it human, tree or creature.
It’s hunting season in Maine. Several days ago a woman was accidentally shot and killed on her own property at 10:30 in the morning by a hunter. We frequently hear shots in the neighborhood, and although we don’t allow hunting on our land, there’s nothing to prevent a hunter wandering in, attracted by the deer, game birds and waterfowl on our 26 acres.
I bought a cheap orange vest I can wear over my coat for my morning walks.
Wearing orange during hunting season is such a simple and obvious safety tactic that I didn’t think twice about doing it, but the first morning I went out with the vest on I discovered a lot of complex feelings about being so visible in the world.
Photo by Andrew Spencer on Unsplash
The first thing I noted was how dangerously exposed I felt. I do not want to be seen by human eyes. I don’t mind if the wildlife sees me, but if they do I’m less likely to see them, so I do my best to move quietly and unobtrusively through the landscape, wearing neutral, natural colors. I stop and sit or lean against a tree for long stretches, hardly moving, watching the river and listening to the woods around me.
The orange vest shrieks, “Look at me! I’m here!” and I hate it. It’s more than just my preference to blend in to backgrounds and maintain protective camouflage. It seems a life-and-death necessity to avoid being seen.
I’ve been aware of my hypervigilance for some time now. I’ve never been comfortable in crowds. If I’m not able to position myself in a corner or with my back to something solid and watch, listen and evaluate, anxiety quickly disables me. I need to know where the exits are in any indoor space.
This is interesting, as I’m fascinated by people, and people watching is one of my favorite activities. I’ve frequently longed to be invisible, to watch and listen freely and leave no trace of my presence. If I could be invisible, I imagine I’d still get overstimulated by noise, activity and technologically-generated energy, but I’d feel safer.
The strength of my feelings as I donned the orange vest begged the question: What happens if somebody sees me? What’s so terrible?
That’s easy. Criticism happens. Judgement, abuse (verbal, emotional, physical), negative feedback happen. If I’m seen doing anything, I’m sure to be doing it wrong (according to the observer, anyway). I’m sure to disappoint. I’m sure to be inadequate or inappropriate. My clothes are wrong. I’m clearly behaving like a slut, going out on my own land in my men’s Carhartt jeans and old boots. My hair is wrong. My choices are wrong. If I’m heading for the northern boundary of our land, I should be walking the southern border. I’m too noisy. I’m in someone’s way. I’m too slow. I’m wasting my time and should be doing something more productive. I’m irresponsible. I’m lazy. I’m selfish. I’m scaring the fish. I’m scaring the birds. I’m scaring the animals. I should be ashamed of myself.
Wow. No wonder I don’t want to be seen. Who knew the perils?
I didn’t know, until my ugly orange vest dredged all this up from my swampy subconscious.
On subsequent mornings, as I’ve walked in my orange vest, I’ve thought about the tension between being seen and avoiding being seen. How can anyone be in the world without being seen, even the most self-effacing of us? Refusing to be seen is refusing any healthy human connection. How do we get hired without being seen, or accepted for college? How do we follow our creativity or passion if we’re afraid to be seen? How do we engage in face-to-face conversation or discussion, or participate in politics or as a volunteer?
Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash
On the other hand, how much exposure is too much? How can we avoid being seen by the shooter at the concert, in church or in the movie theater? We seem to be gradually becoming more and more captive to the Matrix, which makes us increasingly vulnerable to identity theft, technological sabotage and cyber-based terrorism.
I sometimes feel I carry protecting my privacy too far. I can’t say I regret not being on Facebook and other social media, as I’ve yet to hear about anything there that I need. On the other hand, not having a cell phone in today’s world creates a lot of problems for me. My personal issues with being seen are in the context of much wider social issues about exposure and safety. I don’t have any answers for the wider social problems. I wish I did.
For myself, though, it’s clear I need to address some of my subconscious beliefs about what will inevitably happen if I am seen. I’ve also developed a thicker skin about being criticized and judged. At this point in my life I’m really not much interested in the criticism and judgement of others. What interests me is how I feel about myself. My list of terrors about what happens if I’m seen is decades out of date, and I’ve already survived those consequences many times over. More of the same is boring rather than terrifying.
I’m stuck with my orange vest for several more weeks, and that’s OK. I’ve come to terms with it. In fact, I’m grateful to it, because it exposed some old wounds that needed attention. I’m stepping into plain sight In many ways in my life, this blog being one of the most prominent and challenging. Now I’ll practice walking this land in plain sight as well.
I went to the dentist last week. I spent the usual hour with the hygienist and then the dentist breezed in to give me four or five minutes of exam, comment, teaching and friendly conversation. Thankfully, I don’t require more than this, as my teeth are in excellent shape. In the course of those few minutes, I used the term “permaculture,” and he asked me what it was. I gave him a brief answer, and on the way out the hygienist said I had a “high dental IQ.”
“She has a high IQ, period,” he responded as he left.
I almost got out of the chair and went after him to explain that I’m the dumb one in the family, and certainly don’t have a high IQ.
As I’ve gone about life since then, I’ve thought a lot about that interaction. I’ve also been feeling massively irritated, isolated and discouraged. This morning I woke out of a dream of being in a closet groping for my gun, my knife, even my Leatherman, absolutely incandescent with rage, because a man outside of the closet was having a dramatic and violent meltdown, intimidating everyone present because of something I’d said or done that he didn’t like.
I wasn’t intimidated. I was royally pissed off.
When I had my weapons assembled, I stormed out of the closet and came face-to-face with a clearly frightened woman who was wringing her hands and making excuses for the behavior of the yelling man. I screamed into her face that he could take his (blanking) opinions and shove them up his (blanking blank) and unsheathed my knife, not because of her, because of HIM.
I woke abruptly at that point and thought, I’m not depressed, I’m MAD!
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
While I showered and cooked breakfast I sifted through IQ and conformity and cultural and family rules, economic success and failure, work, invalidation and silencing and keeping myself small. I thought of how pressured I’ve always felt to toe the line, be blindly obedient, follow the rules, ask no questions and be normal. Normal, as in compliant, and refraining from challenging the multitude of life’s standard operating procedures that “everyone knows.” Normal, as in not daring to resist, persist, poke, peel away, uncover. Normal, as in never, NEVER expressing curiosity, a thought, an experience, a feeling or an opinion that might make someone uncomfortable. Normal, as in never admitting that the way we’re supposed to do things doesn’t always work for me, and frequently doesn’t appear to work for others, either. I slammed around the kitchen, turning all this over in my mind, letting the bacon burn, and finally pounced on a keystone piece to write about.
What does it mean to be smart? Why do I feel like a lying imposter when someone makes a casual comment about my IQ? Why is IQ even a thing? Why does so much of my experience consist of “sit down and shut up!”?
Intelligence is defined on an Internet search as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” Please note the absence of any kind of test score in that definition. Likewise, there’s no mention of economic status, educational status or social status. Also, this definition says nothing about intelligence as a prerequisite for being a decent human being.
The definition takes me back to the playing field in which I wrote last week’s post on work. Here again we have a simple definition for a word which is positively staggering under assumptions and connotations.
Fine, then. I’ve explored what work means to me. What does intelligence mean to me?
Intelligence means the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. Good learners do not sit down and shut up. We question, and we go on questioning until we’re satisfied with answers. We try things, make hideous mistakes, think about what went wrong and apply what we learned. We don’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. We exercise curiosity and imagination. We pay attention to what others say and do and how it all works out. We pay attention to how we feel and practice telling ourselves the truth about our experience. After a lot of years and scar tissue, we learn to doubt not only our own assertions, beliefs and stories, but everyone else’s as well. We practice being wrong. We become experts in flexible thinking. We adapt to new information.
Intelligence endures criticism, judgement, abuse, taunts, threats, denial and contempt. It’s often punished, invalidated and invisible. Intelligence takes courage.
Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash
Intelligence is power. It does not sit at the feet of any person, ideology, rule or authority and blindly worship. It retains the right to find out for itself, feel and express its own experience, define its own success, speak its truth in its own unique voice, and it remembers each of us is limited to one and only one viewpoint in a world of billions of other people.
Intelligence is discerning the difference between the smell of my own shit and someone else’s.
For me, intelligence is a daily practice. It’s messy and disordered and fraught with feeling. It means everything is an opportunity to learn something new. Everything is something to explore in my writing.
I have no idea what my IQ is, and I don’t much care. I’m sick and tired of all the family baggage I’ve carried around about who’s smart and who isn’t and how we all compare. Honestly. What am I, 10 years old? Enough, already.
I’m also fed up with being silenced, and in fact I’ve already refused to comply with that, as evidenced by this blog. I understand a lot of people don’t want to deal with uncomfortable questions. Too bad. Those folks are not going to be my readers. It’s not my job to produce sugar-coated bullshit that can’t possibly threaten or disturb anyone.
This is the second of I’m not sure how many posts about boundaries. See last week’s post for the beginning of the discussion!
Today the aspect of boundaries I want to explore is the one I have the most trouble with. This aspect concerns managing boundaries with people we love.
Continuing with our metaphor of food on a shelf, last week I was comfortable with my identity of strawberry jam. I know who I am, I’m in an intact container (most of the time) and I intend to be labeled accurately and effectively. That’s all INTRApersonal start-where-you-are work.
However, there’s other food on the shelf. The universe doesn’t revolve around strawberry jam, alas! In fact, next to me is a jar of dill pickles.
Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash
We’ve been together as long as I can remember, sitting side by side on the shelf. We’ve watched other food in other containers come and go. The eggs in particular have quite the turnover rate. We’re companions, friends, and in fact it’s not an exaggeration to say I love Pickles.
But one day I notice something has changed. The clear green juice in the jar with floating bits of herbs and spices is getting cloudy. And is that — could it possibly be — grey fur along one side of a pickle?
Disaster. Catastrophe. It can’t be true. My beloved Pickles is beginning to grow fur. Everybody on the shelf knows what this means. Sooner or later, the refrigerator/cupboard/shelf Gods will cull Pickles. Gone forever.
I can’t imagine my life without Pickles.
Naturally, I want to help. No kind of food could possibly want to wear grey fur. There must be something I can do.
If I love Pickles, I must be able to fix this.
If I really, truly love Pickles, and my love is real and unselfish and unconditional (and Pickles is worth that kind of love), there’s a way for my love to fix this.
If I fail to fix this, my love is at fault.
That, ladies and gentlemen, eggs and bacon, is where I lose my boundaries. It’s all very clear and self-evident when it’s laid out in black type on the page, or in this case, screen. Love can’t fix everything. Love isn’t always enough. Sometimes we can’t “help” other people. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Loss is part of love. Right?
My brain understands this. My brain functions pretty well. My brain is not the problem. It’s my heart, my emotions, my stories, my beliefs and my expectations that are unruly and stubborn.
Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash
Perhaps I haven’t explained it well, my connection with Pickles. I know him better than anyone. I understand him. He’s the most important person in my life. He’s part of who I am. If I lose him, I’ll lose part of myself. I thought nothing could ever part us, or damage our respect and trust in one another. In fact, we’re so close we don’t need boundaries.
(Naturally, he feels the same way about me. He doesn’t say so, but one doesn’t expect pickles to emote like strawberry jam.)
Loving fully and unconditionally means no boundaries, right? Isn’t that what we learn? If we love unselfishly, completely, without reservation, then boundaries are unnecessary and we can count on getting that same kind of love in return. Loving well equals being well loved. Isn’t that the way it works? Only a selfish bitch maintains boundaries, an unloving, cold woman, a ball breaker. Only an indifferent, unfit mother maintains boundaries between herself and her children. Only a judgmental, critical, power-hungry female protects herself with boundaries. Generous, attractive, truly loving people have no need of boundaries. They don’t count the cost. They always say yes. They give freely of their resources to whoever is in need without expectations or strings attached. They never keep score. They have no needs, these lucky, healthy, beautiful, abundant people. They feed and nurture the world.
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
Boy, does this world need people like that. That’s the kind of woman/friend/mate/mother/daughter/sister I want to be. If I want to save Pickles, that’s the kind of person I have to be.
Here’s the thing.
I can’t be that. I’m not sure anyone can be that.
I’m not talking about ideology here. I’m not qualified for or interested in religious debate. What I’m saying is I can’t be a bottomless, endless nurturer and giver with no needs, and I’m not convinced anyone else can, either. I know some who say they can, pretend they can and/or expect others to be, but I’ve never met anyone who really lives like that — at least not long term. Not successfully and not happily, anyway.
But aren’t we supposed to?
Did I learn this wrong? Did I misunderstand? I can’t point to any one person who taught me this, after all. Did I make it all up? Or, alternatively, am I not the woman I think I am and aspire to be? Am I small, mean, petty, hypocritical and selfish? Am I unable to love the right way? Am I a fraud? Am I self-deluded?
Why am I in such chronic painful confusion about something my intellect sees so clearly? Why does it seem that managing boundaries INTERpersonally carries such a negative connotation? Why can’t I reconcile loving someone with all my heart with effective, appropriate boundaries between that person and me? What is the source of this cognitive dissonance?
Which is more devastating — people who have no boundaries themselves and bitterly resent mine, or people who maintain boundaries between us when I have none?
In the first case I feel trapped, resentful and intruded upon, and in the second I feel hideously rejected, unappreciated and used. Neither feel like healthy connection, but I call both love.
So here I am, side by side with Pickles on the shelf. We look at each other through the glass sides of our boundaries. I want to climb inside his container and take him in my arms, love him back into clear green juicy health, but if I do that I’ll start growing gray fur myself, and I know I can’t fix him at the same time I believe I should be able to. I want to run away, turn away, not know what’s happening, but I can’t.
There’s nothing I can do. My love is not enough. Grey fur is creeping over Pickles and I can’t avoid it, flee it or stop it. I can only wait and watch and sit here in my container, while Pickles sits in his.