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Choice Again

I’ve dedicated the last decade of my life to reclaiming my personal power, each step on the path made visible on this blog in the hopes that others might also find their way into a healthier, happier, more effective life.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

It’s been an extraordinary journey, one I hope will never end as long as I’m breathing.

At the heart of personal power is our ability to choose.

I’ve always been aware of how uncomfortable I am choosing for anyone other than myself. For years I wasn’t able to choose effectively for myself; nothing in me wanted the power to choose for others. Hand-in-hand with this part of my experience is an automatic, knee-jerk stubbornness and opposition to those who try to choose for me or anyone else. It’s been a longstanding family joke: Don’t tell me what to do!

I’ve never been friendly toward this kind of authority.

As a parent I was unwilling to take on the role of a policewoman. I wanted my sons, as teenagers, to use their excellent brains and make their own choices, then deal with their own consequences. As I raised them, it slowly dawned on me the choices I made as a mom, though I always believed they were in the best interests of my sons, might have been wrong for them. I began to realize how much time we all spend in frustration over what those around us should and shouldn’t do, including our kids. I decided to stop discussing what others should choose. I still noticed the commentary in my head, but I got better at not letting it out of my mouth.

One day, I looked at my eldest son, who was going through a bad patch, and heard myself say, “I want the best for you, but I don’t know what that is.” I recognized that was the truth, and felt humbled. It broke my heart to see him struggling and unhappy. I would have done anything to have “helped.” But I didn’t trust my motives. Of course I knew what I thought he should do, but was I looking for him to feel better or for him to make me feel better? I couldn’t be sure. I just wanted things to be better. Wanted it desperately, but I also wanted him to figure out how to help himself.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

I’m very aware of the word ‘should.’ I cut it out of my writing. I cut it out of my thoughts and speech. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a toxic word. I don’t apply it to myself and I don’t apply it to others. It never fails to appear when I’m arguing with what is or have otherwise stepped out of my own rightful power and am trying to control a situation that’s not mine to manage. It also shows up when I’m being mean to myself.

Now, suddenly, I find myself in a position of needing to make choices for a loved one who at this moment is not able to choose for themselves.

This is not like choice-making for my children. Kids are pretty resilient. I knew I would made mistakes as a parent, and I did. But I could always choose again. With small children, there’s a long future in which to reconsider, make new rules, learn in real time. I wasn’t uncomfortable with it. As they grew up, I gave them more and more power to choose for themselves and stepped back while they experienced the consequences of their choices.

Now they’re adults, and it’s harder. Now I really have nothing to say about their choices as men in the world. It’s not my business. Some of their choices are, to my mind, tragic and self-destructive, and I’m afraid for possible consequences. I’m afraid for my own pain and grief if some of those consequences occur. But I accept the only power I have is to love them and make sure they know it.

And making choices for an aging loved one is different again. The fear I’ll do it wrong is terrible. I’m working in a lifetime context where I never did do anything right, so I’m fighting that old dynamic every minute while I calmly go about gathering tools, resources and information. I know I’ll do my best and I’m confident in my own abilities and the strength of my love and intention, but choice is dynamic. It takes time to choose, observe outcomes, consider what could be better, and choose again.

I don’t know how much time I have. I don’t know how much time I want.

Working with a frail, injured, confused senior feels brittle. I may not have time to manage choice and outcome. Not only that, but when I choose for myself if I’m unhappy with the consequences I only have myself to blame; I bear all the outcomes, which is as it should be. But if we must choose for someone else, they must experience the consequences of our choice. And that’s a heavy burden for me. I feel enormous pressure to choose well, to not make anything worse, while at the same time I can’t see choices that will make anything much better.

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

As I struggle with all this, mid-term elections have occurred and the final votes are being counted. The news is full of debate, discussion, and violence revolving around limiting choice and forcing “choice.” As always, I cannot get my head around people who think it’s okay to impose their ideology on others. I support freedom of personal choice (as long as it doesn’t harm others) in most circumstances. I wouldn’t impose my beliefs or choices on others. The idea is appalling. But I also don’t accept anyone has the right to restrict my access to vote or what I do with my reproductive ability. I refuse to comply with such imposition, even if it becomes law. You might as well arrest me right now.

A conversation recently took place at the pool facility where I work between a woman of child-bearing age and a male senior. She asked him why he thought it was okay for him to decide she couldn’t get an abortion when the choice was personal and had absolutely nothing to do with him. He said such a choice would hurt his feelings.

This drops my jaw. I don’t know whether to let rage catch my hair on fire or laugh. It hurts his feelings when people make choices incongruent with his belief system and ideology? Or it hurts his feelings when women are empowered? Or it hurts his feelings when he can’t control what others choose? Or he feels entitled to never have his feelings hurt?

Wow. Just wow.

Choice. It’s so easy to say to others, or to think, they should do this, or this, or the other. So easy. But I never wanted to run the world. I only wanted to be in charge of myself. Now a loved one needs me to be there for them, and I will be there every step of the way, giving it my best, just as I always have. But it’s not fun. I don’t want the power. I accept I’m the right one to have the power, but I never wanted it. How can I possibly know what’s best for another human being? How can any of us have the arrogance to think we know what’s best for everyone in every circumstance, let alone anyone in any circumstance? At times I can barely choose wisely for myself, let alone anyone else.

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.

Boundaries and Secrets

I’m sitting at my desk this morning, the sun shining on the wet grass scattered with wrinkled leaves outside my window. I’ve just been running errands. My desk, unusually, is piled high with scraps of paper, notebooks, my calendar, receipts, to-do lists, and a new binder and paper I just bought to help me organize. My big grey tabby, Oz, is busily knocking everything off the desk and chewing on a new plastic package of AAA batteries because I won’t let him lie on the keyboard.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

I was sick most of October. I’m finally on antibiotics; I can breathe, and consequently think, more clearly. A week ago an aged family member living halfway across the country with whom I have a lifelong troubled history became openly unable to manage their life and then fell and broke their hip in quick succession.

Sometimes life requires us to muster every bit of learning, wisdom, strength, courage, insight and experience we have in a catastrophic practical test, like a nightmarish pop quiz. This is one of those times. It helps to look at it that way, because I know I have (somewhere) everything I need to manage this situation with all my considerable compassion and clear-sightedness.

This last week I let go of everything. My living space needs to be cleaned. I desperately want to change my sheets after so many nights crying, coughing, and trying to breathe adequately enough to snatch some sleep. I’m longing to escape my phone and laptop, sit in the sun, read, relax, do some gentle gardening (still like late summer here in Maine). I haven’t even started on this post yet, a thing I usually do during the week.

I made it to work. I made it to the doctor for antibiotics. I stayed hydrated. Aside from reactive crisis intervention and coming to terms with what’s happening long-distance, that’s about all I can say for myself. But now, at last, I’m beginning to stir feebly into some kind of normal experience again.

It’s a relief.

I opened this document and started typing without any plan whatsoever. I don’t have to post today on this blog. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t. I suppose I’ve grown used to the opportunity to organize my life into words every week.

For nearly a decade I’ve worked intensively on boundaries. Ten years ago I knew nothing about personal boundaries. My life was accordingly dysfunctional. It was hardly my life at all, in fact. It was everyone else’s life. I’ve written extensively about boundaries on the blog, and the concept of the difference between your experience and mine is woven heavily into my fiction. I’ve practiced building and maintaining healthy boundaries in the last years, though I’m still far from perfect in working with them.

But I’m getting better all the time.

When we are prevented from building appropriate psychological boundaries as children, we never create an internal world in which we can rest, center, and ground. We become an image in someone else’s mirror, a paper doll, a nonperson.

Nonpeople have no needs, no credibility, and no permission to express themselves as individuals. It’s worse than no permission, though. Nonpeople are severely punished for any independent feeling, need, or expression. Nonpeople have no private life. They’re not allowed to say no.

This kind of relationship, sadly, is often invisible to onlookers. From the outside, such connections look bonded and mutually adoring. The public view never sees the anguish involved in a relationship without boundaries.

Anguish on both sides. Those who seek to prevent others from having boundaries are deeply damaged, insecure people whose own boundaries were likely brutally violated and torn down. They are terrified of being alone, and a boundary makes them feel utterly outcast and rejected.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

But for me, boundaries are sanity. They’re safety. They allow the power to choose and respect to flow both ways. They say, “My self is worthy. Your self is worthy. We can choose to love one another as well as ourselves.”

Reshaping a primary relationship with no boundaries into one with healthy ones is excruciating. It may not be possible. I haven’t decided it is impossible, but I wonder. One of the hardest things about it is how it looks to outsiders, who don’t understand why all the harsh edges and corners are suddenly showing in such a perfect, loving relationship, the kind we all want, the kind we should feel lucky to have.

Another feeling I’m present with just now is the nauseating swing between relief and guilt. All secrets, painful family secrets included, have an uncomfortable way of being revealed. Even if everyone involved conspires to keep the secret, eventually, often in a you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up kind of way, someone or something like a terrible series of events exposes it.

I’ve posted about such ideas as loyalty, responsibility, duty, gaslighting and projection. The bars of prisons built by family systems are forged out of concepts and strategies like these. But when a secret escapes the bars melt away and we’re suddenly free. We’re not alone in solitary anymore.

Some stranger says to us, “Oh, yes. I’m familiar with that dynamic. I’ve observed that behavior. I understand,” and we realize we are not crazy. We are not mean and ugly. We are not hateful.

We are not alone.

The relief of validation is indescribable. So is the guilt accompanying the relief. When we guard secrets, literally with our lives, for the sake of protecting the dignity of a loved one and the secrets are revealed through no fault of our own, we also feel exposed. The mere fact that we were the designated secret keeper means we failed.

Our love and the cost of bearing the secret’s burden for so long doesn’t matter. The least we can do, the least we can do, is remove all the boundaries we’ve erected so carefully and painstakingly and once again give up our lives, our freedom, our selves. Our loved one’s anguish should become our anguish, their pain our pain, their limitations our limitations. If necessary, their death should be our death. Because we betrayed, we let them down, we failed.

The secret got out.

I can’t see very far ahead. It’s not useful to gaze at the road behind. I’ve already walked it and everything is different now, the people involved and the situation. Right now I know where I am. I can see the next steps. This is a new path, one I’ve never taken before. It’s a new script, a new experience. I’m working on releasing my assumptions. I don’t know what will happen next. I can predict, but predictions make me tired. What I have is right now, today. I know what I will do today, both in my personal life and to manage my loved one’s situation.

This time I will find a way to inhabit my boundaries and support my loved one without sacrificing one for the other. I will make phone calls, send emails, get myself organized to do whatever I can long distance and prepare to travel in case of need. I will grieve.

I will also write, get outside, do some laundry, maybe take a nap, and work on recovering my health, because mine is the only life I can live.

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.

 

The Art of Disagreement

What happens when we disagree?

Not if we disagree, but when. Because we will always disagree eventually. Always.

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

Is that bad?

It depends who you ask!

Disagreement, or lack of consensus, is going to happen whenever two or more of us are interacting. Why, then, has it become so risky, this perfectly normal opportunity to show our work or learn another point of view? Why are we so insecure we can’t tolerate the slightest disagreement? Are our egos so fragile we can’t stand to be wrong or rethink a position? Does our fear of moral condemnation outweigh our ability to consider ideas and information (facts) clearly and critically and speak honestly about our conclusions?

When did differing opinions become a matter of hate and violence, and speaking our truth start leading to such brutal consequences?

Do we no longer understand how to agree to disagree?

Will authoritarianism ever lead to true agreement, or is the best we can hope for a sullen silence and mandated obedience?

(Don’t forget the French revolution.)

Certainly, it appears more and more people value power over truth, rigidity over resilience, and mindless agreement over genuine collaboration and teamwork.

If we must be in agreement all the time, there’s no hope of true cooperation and we each remain locked in our own narrow impoverished bubble, interacting only with those whose bubbles look exactly like ours. Except I don’t know of anyone who has exactly the same bubble as another. But then we’re experts at constructing believable facades.

Insisting on 100% agreement all the time guarantees cultural collapse. We can’t do it. We’re not made that way. It’s a social dead end for humanity. We cannot thrive or even survive without a healthy complex social system among our own kind as well as with countless other forms of life.

The friction of disagreement, of difference, is essential. It keeps us flexible and demands we exercise our learning and listening skills as well as use our imagination and empathy. Disagreement is a sign of respect and caring, both for ourselves and our point of view and experience, and for others. If we care enough to disagree openly and peacefully, we’re signaling our willingness to make an authentic commitment and contribution. We’re not sitting back accepting brainwashing passively, but actively participating and engaged, examining, exploring, and asking questions about whatever is in our attention.

At least some of us are.

Others demand an environment of complete agreement with no questions asked. Heavy social penalties occur if someone steps out of line. There is no negotiation, no cooperation, no discussion, no new information or showing of work. You will agree and obey. Or else.

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

Fortunately, we humans have a wide rebellious streak, some more than others. Certain people are never going to sit down and shut up. Certain people do not worship the status quo, especially if it doesn’t serve the majority. These folks disagree, and they say so. They provide information (facts) to back up their point of view. They ask inconvenient and uncomfortable questions. They shine the clear light of critical thinking on issues and ideology.

They don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

Disagreement does not need to be a call to arms. It’s not hate. It’s not disrespect or intolerance. It’s not prejudice or bigotry. It doesn’t mean we have to cut perfectly healthy relationships out of our lives. Disagreement is a chance for connection and an expanded empathy. It’s an opportunity to learn. Disagreement is a sign of diversity, and a diverse system is a healthy one.

A system in which disagreement is forbidden cannot thrive, adapt, and grow. It’s brittle and stunted, just like the scared, shriveled human beings controlling it.

Want peace? Want tolerance, justice, and respect? Learn, demonstrate, teach, and support the kind and gentle art of disagreement.

Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

Window of Opportunity

It’s in the moment we take our eyes off the road and the car in front of us to reach for our water bottle that it happens.

It’s in the moment we’re preoccupied with our distress over a fight we had with a loved one before we came to work that we miss something key in the meeting.

It’s the moment of emotional reaction, the moment of distraction, the moment in which we’re trying to manage our feelings that provides an opening for accident, miscommunication, injury, even violence.

Windows are openings in boundaries, in walls and barriers and closed, airless cells. They allow egress and entry, movement. Sometimes air, sunshine, and birdsong come in and our best selves go out. Sometimes monsters and demons crawl in and our worst selves go out.

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

Predators of all kinds look for windows, openings in our defenses, in our boundaries. Windows that can be cracked, wedged, broken, pried. Their tools are ideology, lies, personal attacks, misdirection, denial, silencing, and threats.

If our emotions can be controlled, if distrust and drama can be manufactured, if we can be put on the defensive, our windows become open holes. We are no longer able to open and close them at will, control what comes in and what goes out.

When our ability to think critically and be proactive is overwhelmed by our reactions and defenses, we cannot make thoughtful choices. We no longer have the energy and presence to look, listen, feel, and think about what we’re hearing or seeing. Our emotions hold us captive, and whoever controls our emotions has our power.

Emotional manipulation is seductive. We become attached to exercising our outrage. Our fear is addictive, so addictive we employ denial and cling frantically to what we want to believe, what we want to hear.

Predators need not show their work, cite their sources, or back up their assertions. They need not tell the truth or undergo the tension of collaboration and cooperation. They don’t need to waste their time with civil discourse, learning new information, or considering other points of view.

All they need is a lust for power and an open window. Like the screen you’re reading this on.

Oppositional energy and inflammatory language are short cuts, toxic mimics for true discourse and contribution. They provide a hiding place for those hunting for power and control, those unable to think critically or master information.

If we’re busy arguing, defending, and being distracted by our emotional hijack, we can’t evaluate situations and people clearly. If we can’t get a grip on a situation, perhaps somewhere in the background a predator has jimmied a window or two and successfully invaded our house.

Toss them out.

And then let’s repair our windows.

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

Doing Things We Don’t Want to Do

Probably every child is told we all have to do things we don’t want to do.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Children are concrete, and I was no exception. When I heard we all have to do things we don’t want to do, I thought it meant that’s what life was supposed to be about, a kind of slavery to all those things we don’t want to do. No one talked to me about balance, or doing the things we do want to do.

It made life seem like an unhappy business, years and years of unending duty, responsibility, and doing what I didn’t want to do. No recess. Or maybe what I really wanted to do was bad and wrong? Maybe I should want to do what I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t sure. A part of me went underground. I didn’t want anyone to know how bad I was, how flawed. I worked hard at the things I didn’t want to do and hid the things I did want to do, in case they were wrong.

But I couldn’t conceal the feeling of wanting and not wanting from myself. I used to make hidey holes in whatever house we were living in at the time and go to ground with a book, but I always felt guilty. I wanted to read. Doing what I wanted to do was bad. I should have been helping my mom do all the things she didn’t want to do.

The pronouncement that we all have to do things we don’t want to do is stated as a Cosmic Truth, especially as an adult tells it to a child. It’s loaded with feelings and experience a child can’t possibly understand, but the subtext was clear to me:

Life is not much fun.

I can’t resist picking apart Cosmic Truths as an adult, and as I think about this one it occurs to me it really has to do with personal power more than wanting or not wanting. It’s not framed in terms of personal power because our emotional intelligence is so low. Making choices based on whether we want to do something or not is childish. Power resides in the act of choice, not in the wanting or not wanting.

Steering our lives solely by our desires is hedonism, a belief that satisfaction of desires is the purpose of life. Desire, though, is so shallow, so fleeting. And it’s never permanently satisfied. No matter how well and pleasurably we’ve eaten, we’ll be hungry again. Desire is a treadmill we can never get off.

This is not to say we shouldn’t ever choose something we want or say no to something we don’t want, but our desire is easily manipulated. That’s why advertising works. If we can be easily manipulated, we’re not standing in our power. Addiction is based, at least in the beginning, on wanting and not wanting.

A more useful question than What do I want to do? is What would be the most powerful thing to do? We might want to eat a carton of ice cream, but a walk feeds our health, well-being, and thus personal power much better. After all, one carton of ice cream leads nowhere but to another. Personal power can lead us to joy and experience a carton of ice cream never dreamed of.

  • If we don’t choose to do difficult, frightening, or new things, we’ll never grow.
  • If we don’t choose to take care of our bodies, they won’t function well.
  • If we don’t choose to be self-sufficient and resilient, we’ll be dependent.
  • If we don’t choose to learn anything, we’ll remain ignorant.
  • If we don’t choose to plan ahead, prepare, or manage consequences, we diminish our choices, waste resource, and weaken the contribution we’re capable of making.
  • If we don’t choose the responsibility of commitment and making choices, someone else will make our choices for us.

And so on.

I’m changing the frame. I’m less interested in what I want and what I don’t want and more interested in how my choices affect my power, and the power of those around me. I’m willing to do what I don’t want to do if it’s a step on a road leading to integrity, power, healthy relationship, or anything else important to me. At the same time, I can exercise my right to say no to things that won’t take me where I want to go.

It’s about power, not desire. Any three-year-old can want and not want. It takes an adult to manage a healthy balance of personal power.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash