I noticed a social pattern last week I’ve never seen clearly before.
I was involved in a situation at the pool facility where I work in which a distressed person (person #1) needed support. The situation did not arise in a private place, and there were onlookers. It continued for about 30 minutes, which is a long time when someone is visibly and audibly struggling with pain and grief.
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The situation resolved, of course. We cannot fix the challenges and difficulties others face, but we can be with them while they feel their feelings and lend our strength, compassion, and energy until they can move forward. My team and I provided the needed support.
A few minutes later, a witness to the interaction (person #2) attempted to monopolize my attention and monologed about their pain, medical history, and personal difficulties.
I had completely different reactions to these two circumstances.
I have never known the first person to engage in attention-seeking behavior. On the contrary, in spite of significant disability person #1 is generally upbeat and determined, working very hard to gain strength and independence and supporting those around them who also face physical limitations and challenges. When things fell apart it was an anomaly, my empathy arose immediately, and I stepped in without hesitation or thought. I entered into their experience as fully as I could with nothing held back, completely focused on support.
In the second case, person #2 was no better or worse than usual, and is much more able than person #1 at baseline. While other witnesses had expressed compassion for person #1 (“that could be any one of us”), person #2 did not, but launched into a harrowing personal account that felt both competitive and demanding. I was wet (I’d gone into the pool in my clothes), cold, and emotionally worn out, as well as sad about the difficult experiences some people go through. I felt I was expected to supply more emotional energy, not as a temporary support on a bad day, but as a continuing source.
I silently declined, putting my empathy behind a boundary to rest and recover, and employed my usual level of compassionate listening. After a few minutes, I politely excused myself and moved away.
We’re all familiar with the adage about the squeaky wheel getting the grease. These interactions made me consider the failing wheels that do not squeak. Years ago, when I did fire and rescue work, I learned the loudest victim of an accident is probably not the most seriously injured. The person in hysterics clearly has an airway and a pulse. It’s the quiet victims one needs to assess first. This is true of drowning victims, as well. If a drowning victim is yelling for help, they’re in less immediate danger than the one sliding silently below the surface.
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I’m one of the quiet ones. Stoic, mistrustful, often blaming myself for my own distress, I conceal it as best I can for as long as I can. I’m much better about asking for what I need than I used to be, thanks to my extraordinary group of friends, but I can relate to the one who is in deep emotional trouble and needing the most support and never asking for it. Pain and grief build up in the silence of our own heads and hearts. Our wordless anguish swells until it finds some kind of an outlet, and that outlet can be messy and humiliating.
I vividly remember being a school kid in a classroom. I was frequently bored. Some teachers allowed me to read or gave me extra credit or advanced assignments when I’d finished the assigned work, but some did not. I watched the clock while students who struggled with reading read aloud. I gritted my teeth. I daydreamed. I did my homework. I refrained from raising my hand, even though I generally knew the correct answer. I ignored the whispers about being a “goody-two-shoes” and a “teacher’s pet.” I continually defended against my neighbors trying to copy my work. I watched in resignation as the “squeaky wheels” acted out, floundered academically, and otherwise consumed all the teachers’ energy and attention. If allowed, I read a book. If not allowed, I read ahead in my textbooks. Anything to make the time go by. Of course, if I read ahead I only invited more boredom in the weeks ahead. My teachers said I was a “good kid,” I was a “pleasure to have in the classroom.”
I was not and am not a squeaky wheel. I was invisible. I could have learned so much more. I wanted to learn so much more. But there was no leftover grease. The squeakers and squealers got it all. Every day.
I know people who are comfortably well-off financially (comparatively) and are always talking about money, trying to make more money, dreaming what they would do with lots of money, blatantly pinching pennies to save money, gloating over the money they have, using their money to manipulate others. I know other people who are quite financially distressed and never complain. All their energy goes into working to earn more and doing without to spend less, but they don’t talk about it. If I didn’t know, I’d never know.
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It’s an interesting social paradox that those among us who are most in need are sometimes the quietest about it, while attention seekers fight to remain center stage under the brightest spotlight. Yet the attention seekers frequently are the least able to utilize support and validation in such a way as to build self-reliance and independence. They crave the attention, but it doesn’t satisfy. They can’t use it effectively. It only feeds their hunger.
Others can transform with a little bit of care and attention. They use every kindness and expression of support to move forward and grow. They don’t want to be dependent on external attention.
We all need support sometimes. Any wheel can develop a squeak. Some people want support all the time and some wheels squeak continually no matter how much grease they get. As we make choices about investing our time and energy in our relationships, it’s important to know the difference.
Fear. It’s so mundane. It’s so extremely powerful. It’s such an extraordinary tool for manipulation.
Rhone asserts faith is frequently more powerful than facts. I might have doubted this once, but after the last four and a half years I agree. We continue to play out the conflict between those who are fact- and science-based and those who are not, especially in social media, steadily becoming more divided and disconnected as each side polarizes further.
We are evolved to experience feelings, and fear in particular is an important evolutionary advantage.
I think of faith as a spiritual connection, and we’re evolved, as social, conscious beings, to connect. Connection is a primary human need.
It seems to me a balance of faith, fear, and facts is optimal for navigating through life.
Where does the balance go wrong?
It goes wrong when we deify a misinformed or dishonest person. When we misplace our faith, in other words. We accept someone’s version of reality, their ideology, their beliefs, without question. Sometimes we do it because we believe they have power we need. Sometimes we do it out of fear. Sometimes we do it because we have no self-confidence; we feel powerless to think and learn for ourselves.
The balance goes wrong if we fear our fear and are unable to manage it. Fear becomes so consuming we’ll do anything for relief, including refuse to deal with facts that scare us.
So we develop faith in something – anything – that makes us feel better and relieves our fear.
Perhaps our problem is not literacy, or education, or access to resource, or discerning fact from fantasy, but simply our inability to cope with fear.
During my lifetime, I’ve watched our culture become increasingly inauthentic as we consumers demand more and better ways to live in a fantasy world. Role playing games, superhero movies, digital image manipulation, porn, virtual reality tech and special effects allow us to sink into illusion.
Over Memorial Day weekend I did an experiment. I installed a free hidden objects game on my laptop to see what it was like.
It was a big file and took several minutes to download. When I opened it, it covered my whole screen, corner to corner. I couldn’t see my task bar or clock. There was no obvious way to exit; I used the Escape button. The graphics were colorful, animated, attractive, and interesting. A pop-up suggested I use headphones to fully experience the sound. Constant pop-ups urged me to join social media communities playing the game. Constant pop-ups advertised other games (paid) I could play, or pressured me to purchase tools and tokens that would make me a better, faster, more successful player in the “free” game I downloaded.
Free, yes. Want to compete successfully? Want to win? Now you have to buy things!
By the way, if you play every day you get extra points!
The game was cluttered. It provided constant validation and reinforcement. The characters were good-looking, well-dressed and Caucasian. Beautiful food and drink, jewels, and true love were heavily emphasized. One collects points and objects and advances in levels. You don’t have to search for what you need, though, if you’re feeling fatigued. You can simply buy what you need.
The puzzles were timed, of course, which made them a lot less fun for me. Although one plays alone, the competitive aspects were continually reinforced.
The reviews of the game say things like “Beautiful!” and “Addictive!”
Because, you know, addiction is a good thing.
I played for a couple of hours. During those hours I didn’t invest in health, happiness, resource , resilience, or my own power. I wasn’t present in the real world.
I also didn’t think about climate change, politics, my job, or getting the car into the shop for brake work.
My feelings were numbed. I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t anything else, either.
When I exited the software, I felt as though I’d eaten a bag of jelly beans. I uninstalled the game Tuesday morning.
Have we become a culture that favors illusion over real life? Do we prefer fantasy, as long as it makes us feel “good,” entertains us, or distracts us? Do we prefer being led and manipulated to thinking for ourselves and forging our own paths?
I feel sad and scared after this experiment. If we don’t choose to live in the real world and deal with facts, we have no hope of solving the challenges and problems facing us, from maintaining our cars to managing climate change.
Fear helps us survive. The feeling tells us we must take action. If we refuse to feel fear, or respond to it, we will be deselected.
Facts can be inconvenient and unpleasant, but refusing to deal with them is like refusing to deal with fear. They don’t disappear if we deny them. Nothing can be solved or learned if we refuse to acknowledge facts.
Reality endures. Truth and clarity are powerful. Illusion lies. It might be seductive for a time. Illusion might pretend to be power. In the end, however, it’s empty. It only takes and weakens. It enslaves us, confuses us, and steals our power. It increases our fear while pretending to relieve it.
Faith is a choice about where we put our trust and confidence.
Four years ago someone said to me “women and children should be behind the shield.” The impact of that statement was like a kick in the gut. I was shocked by the way the words made me feel; a tidal wave of fury, grief and despair. It was so overwhelming I didn’t poke at it right away, but ever since then I’ve been playing around with the idea of shields, my version of circling around a potentially dangerous object with twitching tail and ears pricked, curious but wary.
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A shield is a piece of personal armor used to actively intercept specific attacks. Traditionally, shields varied in size, shape and thickness and were made of wood, animal hide, woven reeds or wicker. Shields have probably been around as long as we have.
A shield implies protection.
I think my initial reaction to the phrase “behind the shield” was painful because of my fierce, primitive longing for the kind of protection and safety that image implies to me. I’ve always been hypervigilant and concerned with identifying safe places. I know where the exits are, physical and emotional. I maintain bolt holes, if-the-sky-falls plans and a high degree of independence and self-sufficiency.
Because my own anxiety and fear have been such sources of private and mostly hidden anguish, I’m extremely sensitive to others who suffer in the same ways, either specifically or generally. In the days when I was doing volunteer fire and rescue work, I frequently took the role of lying on the highway in the glass, spilled gas and ruins of a vehicle calming and reassuring a trapped victim, monitoring a pulse if I could get to a pulse point, explaining what was happening as we tried to extricate, establishing responsiveness and orientation and taking a history while the fire department deconstructed the car around us and the EMTs and paramedics passed me pressure bandages, a blanket or anything else that was needed and we had room to use.
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In short, I give others, animals and human, the kind of calm reassurance and protection I’ve always craved myself.
It might be this longing is buried within all of us, a kind of deep and primitive desire to return to the ultimate safety of the womb or a longing for the in-arms experience every baby needs and has a right to receive. Except that the womb is not always safe, and many of us do not get sufficient in-arms experience as babies. It might be that I’m uniquely broken in this, but I doubt it. I suspect much of our irrational and destructive behavior has to do with trying to feel safe, sheltered and loved, including sexual and behavioral acting out and addiction.
In any event, my desperation to be shielded motivated me to become a willing shield for others. This adaptation was greatly assisted by being female and then further strengthened when I became a mother.
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I never thought of myself as a shield. It never occurred to me such a role was a choice. I defined myself as a protector, a nurterer, a figure of maternal and female strength, a life-giver and a peace maker. I thought of myself as a good woman. I automatically placed myself between the harsh edges of the world and those I loved. I protected my husbands and partners from the necessity to deal with anyone else’s needs (including my own) and threats to their egos (including me). I protected my sons from the immaturity and selfishness of my husbands and partners. I tried to protect people from their mental and physical pain, from the consequences of their choices, from their own feelings and from any other irritation, hurt or harm.
Shields were originally made to protect from specific kinds of attack, but I tried to shield others from all kinds of danger: blade, arrow, blunt weapon, words, pain, consequences, inconvenience, feelings and worry. I was determined to be a perfect shield for all my loved ones.
Predictably, I failed, and nobody likes a shield that fails. I regularly heard about my inadequacy.
No one ever suggested to me that I protect myself, and no one invited me behind their shield, even for a rest. I approached every relationship with a craving to be taken care of, to be held, to be loved. I believed in romance and part of romance certainly included being taken behind the shield of some kind, competent man. If you’re thinking this was needy and dangerous behavior, you’re right. Somehow, I always ended up with one more person in my life I needed to shield, instead of the other way around.
The inability to trust and the craving to be protected and cared for can tear a woman apart. I’m certain there have been people in my life over the years who wanted to give me safety and security, but I refused to let anyone get that close. I don’t want to rely on anyone. I’ll go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. At the same time, I’ve spent much of my life working happily with children, animals, in hospice and as a first responder.
For a long time I thought if I could get a good enough job and earn or save enough money I’d be safe, but I was wrong about that. We live well below the poverty line, but I feel safer now than during any other time in my life. I’m also less concerned about money than I’ve ever been before. Money is not safety. I also thought if I could just find the right home I’d be safe. I found the right home and discovered that wasn’t the solution, either. Wrong again.
Since I came to Maine, everything has changed. Now I live in a situation that does not require constant emotional labor. I live with an adult who does not need or expect me to protect him. I have found reciprocal relationships.
This morning, as I went about my daily breakfast routine, it occurred to me that I’m no longer looking for a shield to crawl behind. The need for safety doesn’t drive me now. I’m not even sure I know what I mean by safety. What is the threat I’m trying to protect myself from? Aging? Poverty? Being unloved? Abuse? Getting my feelings hurt? A blow to my pride? Abandonment? Betrayal? Internet trolls? Loneliness? Crazy people with guns? Illness? Death?
Yes. All these and more. And most of these have already happened, some more than once, or are happening right now.
In spite of that, I’m okay. I’m better than okay. I’m great. I’m resilient. I believe in my ability to survive and thrive. I don’t mind aging and I’m not afraid of death. I’m emotionally intelligent and I understand power dynamics. I’m as safe as anyone, and a lot safer than millions.
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I have my own shield now. I made it (without knowing what I was doing) out of dragonfly wings, cobwebs, stardust and the sound of bats flitting around my head in the dusky barn on their way out to hunt. I made it out of integrity, passion, dance, laughter, creativity, ritual and spirit. There’s room behind my shield for others to rest, breathe and make shields for themselves, but I’m not spending my days searching for those in need of such a shelter. I can’t make a shield for you or even my most beloved to carry. I can’t keep everyone or anyone safe. I can’t shelter the world.
The only person in charge of my safety is me. The only person I have a responsibility to keep safe is me.
I am not a shield. I don’t have to take the blows or go to war. I don’t have to buffer, neutralize or ameliorate the experience of life for others. I don’t have to prostitute and beg in order to be dragged behind someone else’s shield. I made exactly what I need for myself, and no one can take it away from me.
Knowing I have what I need, I’m no longer approaching interactions with others from such desperation to be cared for. I still don’t like to ask for help, but I’m practicing doing it anyway. I’m much better at taking care of myself and no longer put the needs of others before my own. I’ve developed useful coping mechanisms that help me feel safe.
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We all construct shields emotionally, intellectually, behaviorally and with our choices. None of them really protect us from our fears or the experience of life. There is no way to shield against generalized fear and anxiety. It’s counterintuitive, but the best path I’ve found to feeling safer and more secure is to drop my armor and open my arms to my fears. I don’t know why that works, but it does. Monsters are ten times larger when I’m running away from them. When I run toward them they shrink before my eyes, and sometimes they even run away from me. That’s why I build my shield from things like iridescent hummingbird feathers and milkweed fluff. It won’t stop a harsh word or a bullet, but I carry with me joy, wonder, awe, mystery and beauty. My shield is a story of love and a story about what makes life worth living. It reminds me to stand tall and unafraid, looking life in the eye, confident in my ability to endure, heal, laugh and learn.
A few weeks ago I wrote about romance and in that post I confessed that at this point in my life I’m not sure what love actually is. A strange admission from a reasonably intelligent, well-educated, middle-aged broad with two marriages and two children in her history.
Writing that post enabled me to clearly separate romance from love; though I suppose love might include a little romance from time to time. I’m convinced romance is not synonymous with love, however. I began to make a mental list of what love is not, as I often approach things from the back door first. Love is not a synonym for:
All right. So what is love? My Randall House Collegiate Dictionary says it’s “a profoundly tender, passionate affection for a person” or “a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection.” This definition doesn’t satisfy me at all. My rewrite is that love is a feeling of warm, tender connection and deep affection. I don’t think love is always passionate and I don’t like the word attachment. If anything, love implies to me an attitude of nonattachment.
But what about unrequited love? What about failed love or withdrawn love or love as a weapon or a tool? What about the inability to accept love, or feeling unloved though being told we are? What about those who make us feel our love is ugly, twisted, shameful or inadequate?
I’m always playing with words in my head. This week it’s “What is love?” and “What is a crone? and “What are the differences between compassion, empathy and sympathy?” I lie down with those inquiries and wake up with them. I turn them over while I shower, cook bacon, wash dishes, take my morning walk, practice Tai Chi and drive to town. I’m constantly scribbling notes.
I gave a neighbor a lift this morning and asked him to talk to me about compassion, sympathy and empathy. Poor man. He didn’t know what to make of me.
Yesterday, during my frosty morning walk, I dove into a stand of staghorn sumac below the barn and went to visit the spring. This is a daylight spring seeping out of the hill on which the barn and house stand. A long time ago, someone dug a well there, and at one time a pump and tank were installed, along with a system of black plastic outdoor lines to carry water to and from the barn, the garden, and down through the woods to, presumably, crops in the fields below. All the equipment is many decades old now, fallen over and covered with leaves and moss. The well is protected by a round cement cap, much too heavy for me to lift alone (drat!).
This spot is hidden in a thick tangle of vine, briar and trees. We rarely go in there, though it’s in close proximity to the barn.
It’s fall and it’s been dry, but the drainage where the spring emerges is clearly marked by rocks and moss. The ground underfoot felt soft, and when I brushed away the leaves I found moist earth. A yard or two below that is mud, and then a trickle of water and then, at the bottom of the hill, a quiet film of water, barely moving, reflecting the tree-laced sky. Right now It’s full of apples dropped from an apple tree that grows alongside it.
As I slipped and slid, tripping over vines and getting scratched by hawthorn and raspberry bushes, feeling the velvety moss coating the rocks and stepping cautiously on rotting wood, it occurred to me that love is like this spring.
I’ve always thought of love as an action verb, something I do to another in exchange for receiving the same. I thought I knew what I meant when I used the word, though I was never challenged to define it exactly. For me it’s been a catch-all term, synonymous with dozens of other, more specific actions: Want, need, desire, honor, trust, respect, care about, listen to, defend, make excuses for, enable, protect, support, believe in, etc., etc.
But what if love is just being? What if it has no object, but just is?
This little spring is absolutely true to itself. Water drains off the hillside above us and carves a path through the earth and rock until it emerges and runs down the surface at the foot of the hill. We pay no attention to it whatsoever. It’s reliable, predictable and faithful, but not because anyone is looking. Its unobtrusive, quiet presence has created a lush pocket of life, a complex system of plants, fungi, animals and insects, but ten yards away on the open hillside it’s invisible.
What if I make a choice to allow my feeling of love to run through my life in the same way the spring runs through and over the ground? What if I carry within me a wellspring, a hidden cleft, moist, fertile, filled with life, rich in sensuality, simply because it’s an expression of self? If others find their way to it, sit a while, bathe, drink, and allow it to nourish and refresh them, they’re welcome. If others can’t see it, or don’t value it, or dislike the perfume of rotting wood and leaves or the feel of plush moss under their bare foot, it’s nothing to do with me. Not everyone chooses to make their way through raspberry and hawthorn bushes, after all.
What if I don’t need anything in return because I’m giving nothing away? Perhaps the act of love can be a simple state of being, not a totality, not a hurricane of passion and lust, not a romantic fairytale, not a prison and torture chamber, but a spring, a waterway, a shining thread I can share without depletion. Can I allow it to seep quietly up through the roots of my experience, even if no one else ever finds it, wants it, returns it or deems it acceptable?
Our spring is part of a landscape of field and forest, river, pond and stream, rocky hillside and bog. The landscape contains many forms and embraces many systems of life. Birth and death happen on this land. Disease, erosion and flood happen on this land. Prey and predators carry out their sacred dance of balance here. Blood, bone, fur, feather, antler, musk, urine and feces are all here.
I, too, am a complex system of history, memory, belief, thought and feeling. I do not feel love for everyone and everything. My experience of love is that it’s a wild thing; it seeps up where it will and trickles away without warning, taking no account of rules and expectations. I can’t command it and I don’t choose to hold it back. My love doesn’t need anyone’s reception, appreciation, validation or praise.
Love is. I reserve the right to love as I will. I am the keeper of my own wellspring.