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The Public Eye and other Controllers

I recently came across a haunting question in my newsfeed:

Without a public eye, who are we?

Wow.

This single question encompasses much of my uneasiness around social media and identity politics.

I don’t believe the public eye is capable of defining who we are. It certainly can’t define who I am. The public eye does not make us real.

All the public eye can know about me is what I choose to show or tell about myself. The rest is a game of let’s pretend. Much of what the public eye sees, both on social media and in real life, is a carefully crafted pseudo self, a false façade behind which a real person hides.

I’ve just finished a book called Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You, by Patricia Evans. It’s taken me a long time to get through it; it was such an intense experience I could only read a little at a time.

I’ve learned, thought and written a great deal about power and control, as regular readers know. I would have said I didn’t have much more to learn.

I would have been wrong.

I’ve never come across such a cogent and compassionate explanation for why so many people try to control others. I’m no longer a victim of controlling people, because I recognize the pattern and refuse to engage with it, but understanding why we develop the often unconscious and always toxic compulsion to control those we care about most is useful. It reinforces the fact that the need others have to control me is not about me – it’s about them. Understanding also helps me engage others with compassion and dignity.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Controlling people are like the public eye. They pretend they can define us, that they know our thoughts and feelings and our motivations. They apply labels to us. They tell us who we must be and who we cannot be. If we are noncompliant with their expectations and fantasies, they bring us to heel through tribal shaming, scapegoating, deplatforming, silencing, and other abusive tactics. Sometimes they kill us.

The biggest threat for a controlling person is an authentic person. When we insist on being ourselves, with our own preferences, thoughts, needs, and feelings, the controller feels as though they are losing control, and thus losing themselves.

This is why saying ‘no’ can result in such violent reactions.

If our sense of self depends solely on the public eye, or a controller, or a pseudo self, or a label, or a role or job, we’re in trouble.

When my sons decided to go live with their dad in the big city in their mid-teens, I fell apart. My sense of self dissolved. If I was not their mother, who was I?

I had no idea. It was a horrible feeling. I’d been a single, struggling mom for so many years I had no other identity, nothing private, no connection to my own soul.

For weeks I got out of bed in the middle of the night, opened their bedroom doors and stood in the dark, silent house, looking into their empty rooms, grieving and utterly lost. For a time, I didn’t know how to go on living.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

It passed, of course, as times like that do. It was simply rebirth, or rather, birth. Before the kids I’d been a wife, and before that a daughter and sister, and those roles, too, absorbed me utterly. When the kids moved out, I finally began to make friends with the stranger who was me. Not a role. Not a job. Not a people-pleasing pseudo self. Not a label.

Just me.

I’ve never forgotten the pain of that time, the dislocation, the feeling of being erased. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of everything – dance, storytelling, writing, healing, and growing.

It was the beginning of breaking away from the control of others and the ‘public eye’.

The public eye is merciless. It makes snap judgements. It’s critical and abusive. It has expectations. It makes up a story about us and calls it truth. It punishes those of us who dare to be authentic, thoughtful, complex, unexpected, or independent.

We are not paper dolls. We are not entertainment. We are not mere reflections in any eye, public or otherwise. We pretend what others say, perceive, and think about us is the ultimate truth of our identity; we give that game of pretend enormous power. We pretend we can define others from their dating profile, Facebook activity, or outward appearance and presentation.

No. Our true identity does not depend on the public eye. Nobody was erased during lockdown or quarantine. Those of us not on social media are real people leading real lives. Introverts or extroverts, lounging in our sweats with bed head at home or sleek and groomed out on the town, we are an authentic person, even if we reject that person utterly, or have never known them.

True identity is built from the inside out, not the outside in.

With or without a public eye, we are ourselves.

My daily crime.

One Step at a Time

It’s not easy to focus these days.

I’m usually good at focusing. I can multitask, but I don’t like to, and as I get older I’m less and less convinced that multitasking is effective for more than simply staying afloat.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

These days, though … wow.

Last week I worked more hours than usual, my work schedule was all over the place, my laptop broke down, and I had a migraine and didn’t sleep well.

Those are all normal life challenges, but working more hours meant more exposure to news and the feelings and thoughts of people in our community. Maintaining boundaries between my own anxiety, incredulity, fear, and stress and the opinions, beliefs, and strong feelings of others while remaining respectful and professional is taking everything I have and makes normal small irritations seem overwhelming.

When the weekend came, I felt like I never wanted to talk to another human being again. Ever. About anything. I knew the feeling was temporary, but I also knew I needed to pay attention to it. I went on a news fast (helped by the absence of my laptop), slept, meditated, did some ritual, and took a day to do nothing and indulge my introversion.

Now, on Monday, I’m feeling better, but the coming week looms and I’m anxious about what it will bring. I’m also finding it difficult to concentrate on any of my usual small and pleasurable at-home tasks.

As I don’t often struggle in this way, I haven’t thought much about tools for getting motivated when we feel unable to move smoothly forward, but I’ve read quite a bit about how to do so, especially since I started practicing minimalism. This morning I had an article in my Inbox about using 15 minutes at a time to approach whatever the task(s) at hand is.

I sat down in front of my old clunky computer screen, put the keyboard in my lap and started writing this post. It’s been exactly 15 minutes since I started.

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

Clearly, I haven’t finished, but I made a good start, which is more than half the battle. Getting the flow going makes everything easier. The cats are tearing around playing. The laundry rack is folded on the floor (because the cats think it’s a climbing frame when I erect it), waiting for wet laundry, which is sitting in the washing machine. I haven’t worked on my book today, or cleaned the bathroom, or vacuumed, or swept. I haven’t exercised yet.

What I really want to do is take a nap. Or read, which ends up in taking a nap. I don’t want to think about working tomorrow, or getting gas, or the fact that I need to register the Subaru this month, or when I’ll get the laptop back and how much the repair will cost. I don’t want to think about this week’s bills or even this week’s blog post. I don’t want to think about the inauguration, politics, violence, or crazy conspiracy theories.

I don’t want to think at all. That would be good. No thinking.

I’ll never pull that one off.

In my old dance group we used to tell newcomers to dance small if they lost control of breath and balance. Dance small.

How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

How does one write a book? One word at a time.

I’m writing this post 15 minutes at a time. Hanging laundry will take less time than that, but first I have to evict the cats. That might take longer.

It’s still early afternoon. I have lots of 15-minute increments I can use.

I recently read (sorry, don’t remember where, no link!) about taking on an exercise program this way. One stretch. One set of ten repetitions. One Yoga pose. Heck, anyone can do that. The trick is to start, even if it’s the tiniest baby step imaginable, and build from that.

If I take the trouble to down tools and stretch, I’m going to want to do more than one. If I write one sentence, I’m going to want to write another.

Focusing on one step at a time. One dollar at a time. One breath at a time. One work shift at a time. One sentence at a time. One 15-minute interval at a time.

Are we there yet?

My daily crime.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

Strength From Discomfort

I recently came across an article in my newsfeed describing several ways in which parents can help kids develop mental strength.

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

I also recently developed a daily practice of sitting and focusing on my breath, which has been enormously helpful in my life. A few days ago, my partner and I had a conversation over breakfast that I found difficult, and I trudged up the stairs to my attic aerie for my Be Still Now time feeling upset and discouraged.

Usually when I’m upset I get busy with exercise, a project, online solitaire or a book in order to distract myself. I almost never sit still with my feelings immediately after an upset. However, I’m stubbornly committed to my Be Still Now time, so I got settled comfortably in my chair and began.

It was hard. It was hard to even find my breath in the midst of my discomfort. I remembered the article about helping kids become mentally strong. One of the ways to do that is to allow them to experience being uncomfortable. Remembering that, and struggling with my own discomfort, made me curious. What would happen if I made myself sit for my usual time in spite of my discomfort? What if I viewed the circumstances as an opportunity instead of a reason to give up? What if it didn’t matter if I had even a minute of peace and stillness as long as I sat patiently with my mental and emotional chaos for a few minutes, not distracting, not fixing, not thinking, not compulsively avoiding, not writing or processing, but just feeling?

Curiosity is a great gift. I wish we nurtured it in one another more effectively and consistently.

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

So I sat, and it was messy. My mind was all over the place, as were my feelings. I cried a few tears. I stayed with my breath as much as I could, but I couldn’t achieve the restful, peaceful place just a few days of consistent practice has given me the ability to reach. The urge to get up and do something was fierce. The urge to be mean to myself was equally compelling. I breathed and tried to let those thoughts go. I didn’t try to get rid of the feelings, but stayed with them. It reminded me of swimming in the ocean and dealing with the surge of waves.

Gradually, I settled down. Both my pulse and breathing slowed and I stopped crying. I consciously relaxed and breathed from my belly rather than my shoulders. I stopped thinking about the time and relaxed in my chair rather than nailing myself to it.

On an intellectual level, I recognized immediately upon reading that article the value of letting our kids be uncomfortable. As a mom, I refrained from saving my sons from the consequences of their choices or trying to fix everything they struggled with. In my own private life I’m stoic and don’t dramatize my emotional pain to others. Part of that comes from being an introvert, part from my difficulty in trusting others, and part from the harsh feeling that I probably deserve whatever distress I’m experiencing and thus don’t get to whine about it.

On an emotional level, though, I realized during that Be Still Now time that none of my usual coping mechanisms when faced with emotional distress are as powerful as simply being with it. I can’t even remember what it was all about now. I remember coming downstairs after I finished sitting and apologizing to my partner for being unnecessarily bitchy with him, but after that bit of cleanup the whole thing was over. I went on into the day feeling just fine.

Power and strength from discomfort. Well, not from the discomfort itself but from what I chose to do with it. Interesting.

It’s notable that I don’t convert sitting and breathing into compulsivity or hurting myself. I immediately noticed any mean thoughts and let them go. After all, we’re made to have feelings. There’s no shame in them, no unnatural deformity, no weakness. We can choose to be self-destructive, but our feelings won’t stop. I wonder to what degree my previous choices in dealing with upsets have made everything worse rather than better. Perhaps the key all along has been to sit still and let the waves crash over me until the storm passes.

Storms do pass.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

If discomfort is an opportunity to build strength, both kids and adults can benefit from it. Life guarantees discomfort of various kinds, after all. I’m in no way condoning rape, bullying, racism, abuse, or a depressingly long list of other deliberate cruelties, by the way. I’m talking about the everyday discomforts of frustration, confusion, guilt and embarrassment; the discomfort we experience physically with various aches, pains and bodily functions; and the discomfort and inconvenience of our feelings—the kind of experiences we all share.

Never has our entitlement been clearer to me than during these months of the pandemic. The simple action of wearing a mask has become a politicized gauntlet. Some people find waiting in line to enter a business in order to maintain social distancing or waiting in their cars for a chair to get their hair cut intolerable. I can hardly call it discomfort. It’s not really even that inconvenient. We can do everything but cook dinner in our cars these days, for pity’s sake.

Some folks are loud about their contempt and scorn for recommendations designed to keep us all safe, and for those who follow them. They bluster, honk their car horns, glare, and go into tirades while waiting in line for a cashier. Their attitude is one of being cleverer, better informed, stronger and braver than the rest of us.

It’s a lie. All I can see in this behavior is ignorance, fear, and weakness. Interestingly, many who refuse to mask say they do it because they refuse to live in fear. I wonder if those folks eat potato salad with mayonnaise that’s been on the picnic table all day, decline to stop at red lights, ignore a rattlesnake’s warning and don’t hydrate when they’re working hard in high heat and humidity. They’re obviously much more concerned about what people will think of their courage (a sure sign that they have doubts about it) than they are of protecting themselves or others. You know, the other people in the world to whom they might pass on the virus? Such folks have the emotional development of a toddler. Sadly, they get plenty of modeling, validation and enabling for their behavior. They’d rather die than adapt—and they are dying. Unfortunately, they’re killing others, too.

It’s not just kids who need to learn to deal with discomfort, or inconvenience, or change, or new rules. We all do. If controlling coronavirus means a certain amount of inconvenience and discomfort, it’s worth it. If ending racism means the unfairly privileged become less privileged in order that others may share more equally in resources and opportunities, and corrupt systems and institutions get an overhaul, count me in.

Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

Life is hard enough without being forced to play a rigged game.

Going through discomfort in order to arrive at a stronger, more just and power-with global community is a path of strength and resilience. Denialism, arguing with what is, willful ignorance and support of power-over dynamics is a path of weakness and, ultimately, deselection. If you don’t believe me, observe a child who has been allowed to experience a reasonable amount of discomfort with loving support, and compare that child with one who is continually rescued from the consequences of his or her choices and the full experience of life. It’s not hard to see the difference.

It’s not hard to see the difference in adults, either.

Social change begins at an individual level. This is another chocolate-or-vanilla choice. Are we willing to embrace, or at least tolerate, discomfort, or are we too weak and fearful to consider the truth that we’re no more entitled, immune or privileged than anyone else? Racism is a human construct rooted in greed, hatred and fear. We constructed and supported it, and we can deconstruct and refuse to tolerate it. We must, for everyone’s sake. Make no mistake, if it can happen to whichever currently disenfranchised group you care to name, it can happen to any of us.

Discomfort. My daily crime.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Second Storm and Quarantine

After a heavy storm on Thursday and an eventful Easter weekend, Monday dawned grey and raw. Our Internet was still down, but I luxuriated in a shower and our usual breakfast, courtesy of electricity, and lost no time in doing the daily bleach wipe down. My sick friend was still sick, but everyone else felt well.

We were under wind and flood warnings from the National Weather Service.

Rain started midday with some wind, but nothing out of the ordinary. The snow, already sodden, lay heavy and sullen and ugly under the intensifying downpour. Our Internet was suddenly restored at some point when we weren’t paying attention. We’d done all we could do to prepare for another power outage, but I washed every dish as we used it and didn’t delay doing anything that required power.

April 14, 2020

The wind gradually rose and the snow on the ground ebbed. The street and our driveway ran with water. Several leaning branches and trees subsided as they were further saturated and the already wet ground lost its grip on root balls. It looked like February, the landscape grey and brown, muddy and soaking in cold rain. The wind gusted and strengthened throughout the day.

During the evening, we had a phone call from my sick friend saying her test for COVID-19 was negative. Good news!

When I went to bed, the power was still on, rain pounding down, wind gusting intermittently.

The next morning, I reached for my bedside reading light. It came on.

The wind had backed down to a breeze and the storm was over, after unleashing about four inches of rain. The snow was gone.

During breakfast, we regrouped. The next several days were predicted to be clear and sunny. We had power and Internet. We needed to assess for spoiled food, and my partner needed to make a town trip. We both had various people to e-mail and call, letting everyone know we were back up and running and healthy. Now that I was in quarantine, I intended to be more vigilant than ever about cleaning and began wearing a mask in the house unless shut away in my private space.

We felt ready to go out and take a closer look at our downed trees and check on the river.

Pond, April 14, 2020

After breakfast, we squelched around our acres, taking pictures and assessing the damage. The river that borders our property was flooded, but it’s well below our house and barn, so we weren’t worried about that. The pond was overflowing and water ran everywhere in streams and rivulets, draining down to the river. The water in the toilet turned the color of tea, stained by tannins leaching into the well.

Wesserunsett in spate, April 14, 2020

I spent three hours transferring all my handwritten work of the last days into my word processor and putting together posts for Our Daily Crime.

After the chaos and barrage of events during the last few days, I was finally able to pause and assimilate coronavirus news, the fact of my own quarantine, and the loss of work. Now I shape a new routine, for a time, at least. The news is full of predictions about how things will change in the weeks, months and years ahead, economically, socially and culturally, but I don’t explore them, because nobody really knows how all this will unfold. I feel better when I stay in the now and let the future take care of itself.

As always, I turn my attention to the most important things: connection with loved ones, being in service or making contributions to others, and taking care of myself, which includes managing my physical health and anxiety.

As an introvert, having to stay home for a 14-day quarantine is a positive pleasure. I am lucky in this, I know. For once, I’m not at a social disadvantage! On the other hand, I very much miss my community and spend time every day staying in touch with friends and family. We’ve now heard that the original four positive COVID-19 people from our building at work have become eight. It’s hard to know what to do with that. Every day we watch and wait, checking on one another, passing on news, sharing our concern and anxiety.

Then came the news that one of the pool staff is ill. His wife works in Rehab also, and they’ve both been tested. This particular pool staff member hasn’t been working for more than two weeks, but he’s one of ours, and we anxiously await the results of testing and further news about him and his wife.

In spite of early Spring’s tantrums of snow, rain and wind, the season is changing in our northern latitudes. We’re all taking great comfort in being outside, aware of how fortunate we are not to be locked down in a city. We are hiking, walking, bicycling, working in our gardens and yards and woodlots. It’s chilly and muddy, and the wind more of a slap than a caress, but the wood frogs are chuckling in our pond, woodpeckers are at work among the trees, squirrels are busy frisking around, and chickadees, finches, sparrows, doves, juncos, flickers and others flutter among the bird feeders. The phoebes dart back and forth along the south side of the house in the mornings, catching bugs sunning themselves. Our daffodils are just beginning to open, and yellow coltsfoot, the first spring wildflower, blooms along the ditches and dirt roads.

Downed maple April 14, 2020

I’m wearing my most disreputable clothes, an old pair of men’s Carhartt canvas jeans with the knee blown out, a holey tee-shirt that both my boys wore before they outgrew it, and a navy blue hooded sweatshirt I used to wear camping, liberally dotted with holes from campfire sparks, the sleeves streaked with pink (who knew navy blue turns pink with the application of bleach?) from wiping down with bleach every day. It’s tick season as well as mud season, and as I rake, prune and walk I intermittently spray my shoes and legs with tick spray.

I’m not wearing a watch or rings because I’m washing my hands so thoroughly and often. I cut and file my nails short every weekend. Earrings are a pain in the patoozie because I’m using a mask, so they’re sitting in a china dish on the bathroom counter.

No glamour here, but then, I was never a fan of glamour to begin with. Right now my comfort is in the cold, heavy mud; the tough, sharp-thorned rose canes; the chilly breeze and periods of thin sunshine; the texture of wood, old leaves, leather work gloves, and our dilapidated porch furniture; and the smell of bug spray. A barred owl flew over our heads as we walked this week. It perched in a tree and regarded us with great dignity and condescension. I was honored.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

We lost five pounds of beef that was waiting in the refrigerator to be turned into beef stew before the power went out. My partner cut it up and threw it on the sloping meadow on the north side of the house, where we throw the dead mice we trap in the kitchen. We have local ravens that check that slope at least once a day, and in a few minutes they came to retrieve and cache the meat. Two, probably a nesting pair, spent half an hour in their muscular aerial ballet, circling, swooping down to the ground and snatching the chunks. I watched them outside my attic window with wonder and delight.

These are the things that sustain my courage and hope.

Life is simple. Words spill onto the empty screen of my word processor. We wake, eat, play outside, walk, read, sleep, and do it all again. I mark off my quarantine days on the calendar. As I write this, it’s day 7. Tomorrow is my brother’s birthday, and I will call him, because we both have time to talk right now.

Watching it all unfold from quarantine. My daily crime.

Jenny, April 14, 2020

Speeding

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

I’ve known for a long time that I don’t manage my empathy very satisfactorily. Several years ago, I found a couple of books by Rose Rosetree (here’s my first wince, because my own last name is Rose; too many roses!), Empowered by Empathy and Become the Most Important Person in the Room. (Here’s my second wince: from empathy to narcissism—becoming the most important person in the room! I’ve never wanted to be the most important person in the room. My lifelong ambition has been to become the invisible person in the room!)

I’m embarrassed to admit that these two books, which sound entirely woo from the author’s name to the titles, have been remarkably important tools for me.

Life is strange.

Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (Oxford Online Dictionary). Whew. The definition, at any rate, is not woo! I’ve heard people use the terms empathy and sensitivity as though they mean the same thing, but they don’t. Highly sensitive personality types and empathy are strongly correlated, but sensitivity and empathy are not identical.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Furthermore, being a highly sensitive personality is not the same as being histrionic. Histrionic personality disorder describes a person with a pattern of uncontrolled attention-seeking emotions. Highly sensitive people are generally not attention-seeking; rather the reverse! If you are interacting with a histrionic personality, you’re walking on eggshells, never knowing when outrage, offense or other extreme (and loudly expressed) emotions are going to be triggered. You’re also being drained and exhausted by the constant demand for attention and validation the histrionic personality requires. Think: Intense, unrelenting drama and trauma.

Highly sensitive people think, feel and process deeply; are insightful; are often introverted; are frequently highly creative; and often struggle with overstimulation and overwhelm. We’re more likely to deal with our trauma privately and silently from under the bed or within a closet.

But I digress … I was writing about managing empathy. Rosetree’s books are filled with various exercises designed to help people figure out how to use their empathy effectively and appropriately, which is to say control it.

Photo by Travis Bozeman on Unsplash

It may seem strange to a non-empath, but uncontrolled empathy is a recipe for mental, emotional and physical breakdowns. Unskilled empaths unconsciously push their own feelings, needs, and experience aside in order to absorb the unacknowledged or unwanted feelings of others. Hence, the need to learn how to become the most important person in the room, at least to ourselves, or even as important as everyone else.

Much of learning how to manage empathy boils down to managing our attention and presence. The exercises are ridiculously simple, and at first glance seem like a waste of time.

For example, one of the first exercises is to sit quietly and comfortably and do an eyes open and eyes shut two-minute counting exercise. The assignment is to create a habit of doing this a couple of times a day, just to remind yourself that you are you, having your own internal thoughts, feelings and experience, you are not someone else.

What could be simpler? It takes almost no time, it’s unobtrusive, and it seemed an easy thing to try.

It was easy. I sat in my comfortable chair, in my quiet workspace, the clock on the wall helpfully ticking off the seconds. No sweat.

Right. But the whole point of my space is that it’s mine. I don’t have to share it. Nobody is here to interrupt or distract me. I control the temperature, the clutter, the noise level, and everything else. Neither my empathy nor my sensitivity are challenged in my own space, which I have designed to be exactly the haven and refuge I need.

So I took the exercise to work. I obviously didn’t do it while I was lifeguarding or teaching. Somehow, I felt uncomfortable doing it during a break or while on desk duty, although technically there was time for it. There’s one place, though, where we’re all guaranteed a modicum of brief privacy.

Photo by Amy Reed on Unsplash

I waited until I needed to visit the bathroom, locked the stall door, shut my eyes and started my count.

There were other women in the locker room, chatting, changing, showering. They seemed a lot more important than me. I should be out there. I should exit the stall in case someone else wanted to be there. I should say hello, greet patrons and patients by name, run a paper towel over the sink to pick up stray hairs and other ick, make sure there’s no trash on the floor. I should make sure that middle shower that drips is firmly turned off. A young mother is looking for a baby changing station. She must be new to the facility and doesn’t know there’s one next door, in the handicapped toilet stall. What’s going on out at the desk? Do they need me? Is the phone ringing? Is someone having to cover for the ten years I’m in the bathroom?

My chest felt tight. I couldn’t breath easily. Anxiety overwhelmed me. I concentrated and got through the first 30 seconds of the exercise. At that point, I felt as though I’d been sitting there for at least an hour, and I was so stressed I felt sick. The compulsion to hurry, hurry, hurry and get back to work was overwhelming. I was either going to cry, vomit, or wind up huddled on the floor next to the toilet.

I was amazed. I felt ridiculous, but there was no denying my physiological panic response to pausing for two minutes to do the exercise, even when combined with a legitimately needed bathroom break. I exited the stall, humbled, horrified and fascinated, washed my hands, said hello to everyone, introduced the young mother to the baby changing station, and went back to work.

I haven’t tried to do the exercise again at work. I don’t want to feel that way again. I had no idea the degree to which I’m compulsively and unconsciously speeding through parts of my life. I know I hate to be pressured or rushed, so I take great pains to give myself lots of time as I navigate through my days. I thought I never rushed anymore.

This experience stirred up one of my earliest memories.

I was trying to help my mom. She had some problems with pain, and I got it into my head that it was my job to do as much physical work as I could for her so she would have less pain. Empathy in action. What this meant to me was learning to do things like sort the laundry, make the beds, care for the animals and my younger brother, etc. I vividly remember how important it was to me to learn to tie my shoes, not only so I could tie my own, but so I could tie my brother’s, thus helping Mom avoid stooping, bending or squatting.

I had a little rhyme I’d made up that I’d say to myself as I “helped” (probably I was in the way more than anything else—sorry, Mom!). I never said it aloud, of course, but to myself I would say, “Hurry, hurry, biff and burry,” over and over as I tried to make perfect hospital corners, tuck in the sheets, pick up toys, or measure out dog food. Even then, I was playing with words. I was about three years old at the time.

That rhyme brought back a flood of memories and feelings, all feelings of what I would now call panic or anxiety. Feelings of intense pressure to be good enough, big enough, fast enough, competent enough, perfect enough, strong enough to help those I loved, to really make a difference, to communicate the depth of my caring.

Speed. I don’t know how or why speed became so important, but clearly it did, as my body reacts so violently to even a two-minute pause.

Although I’ve largely extricated myself from rushing through my personal life, when I’m working or interacting with others that unconscious pattern obviously still rules, completely invisible until I tried this simple little exercise at work and uncovered it.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

As an intermediate step between doing the exercise in my own space (easy) and at work (impossible, at least for now), I decided to try doing it in my workplace parking lot. As I’m always early everywhere I go (that’s what books are for), I’m usually at work early. Now I park, turn off the car, and start counting. As I close my eyes and begin, I feel compelled to check the time again, though I just checked it seconds before as I turned off the car. What if I’m late? I can’t sit here in the parking lot. They’re counting on me at work! I can sit through the compulsion to exit the car immediately, but it’s uncomfortable.

I feel better with my eyes open, but it’s hard not to be distracted. People are coming and going, some staff, some patients, some patrons. They all seem more important than me. I feel obliged to smile and wave, exchange a friendly word, offer to assist those with mobility problems or poor balance. I can’t just sit here and ignore all those important people. I’m at work! Sort of. Almost. What will they think?

Closing my eyes gets progressively harder. My anxiety kicks in and I feel unsafe. I have to open my eyes to be sure I’ve locked the car. I hear people leaving, arriving, slamming car doors. I need to watch what’s going on around me. I need to see if there’s some kind of a threat. This is hypervigilance, and I’m familiar with the feeling. I need to get out of the car, leave the parking lot, get into the building and go to work. Why am I sitting here sweating, trying to get through this stupid exercise? I’m supposed to be at work!

All this on a sunny winter afternoon, in a small, safe hospital complex parking lot, where I’m heading for a job I love working with wonderful people, and I’m not due to clock in for another fifteen or twenty minutes. Nobody notices me sitting in my car. Nobody is paying me the slightest attention, and if they are, they probably assume I’m looking at or listening to my cell phone! For a whole two minutes!

Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.

I realize I can’t develop the skill to manage my empathy more effectively until I’ve figured out how to stop speeding when I’m around other people. I’m not sure how I’m going to pull that off, but I’m determined to find a way. The habit of speeding is a deeply rooted coping mechanism that spares me from the intense anxiety and panic that occurs when I try to take my energy and attention from those around me and focus on myself. As I weaken the habit of speeding, I’ll reclaim part of my life, including control of my empathy.

Photo by Jonas Tebbe on Unsplash

Often, as I write and post these essays, I do so with a mixture of amusement and chagrin. Amusement because being human is amusing. We’re all so convoluted, so illogical and complex and flawed and beautiful and ridiculous. Chagrin because many people think it’s not quite nice to tell the truth, to reveal our flaws and weaknesses, to talk about sitting in a toilet stall or the mess inside our heads, to reveal our dirty laundry. My rebellious streak is showing. Again. Maybe it’s not nice. I don’t much care, having no particular ambition to live up to “nice,” whatever that means!

I do care about honest connection, and to participate in that it’s necessary to tell the truth and risk being seen. I know I’m not the only person with dirty laundry, or the only person who sits in toilet stalls or flees there for a moment of privacy! I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person speeding in some way, either. Perhaps many or even most of us have a treadmill in some shadowed attic of our psyches to which we’re chained, be it an addiction, a compulsion, a to-do list that’s never satisfied, or any other behavior that steals our time, attention, energy and power.

I don’t want to live like that. Do you?

Speeding. Fumbling for the brake pedal. Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.

My daily crime.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash