In the last 24 hours I’ve had an Aha! moment representing one of the biggest breakthroughs of my life.
I’ve always defined myself as a failure. This morning, before 7:00 a.m., I became a success. Just like that, in one blinding moment of epiphany. I lay there giggling to myself like an idiot. I’ve been doing that all day, in fact.
Standing in the shower, I had another staggering revelation. I suddenly realized when and why I created the identity of being a failure in the first place. It happened when I was very young, before I had the language or ability to understand or explain what I was up to. All I had at that age was my heart, intuition and empathy.
We had a troubled family system. Bad and scary things happened that I could not understand. My childish reasoning was failing to please was Bad. Pleasing was Good. If I chose failing to please, if I flaunted it, if I accepted it, I would be Bad and others could be Good, and therefore loved and safe.
Of course, I didn’t think of it in any kind of logical or adult sense. What I did have, however, was a great ability to love that even then was unconditional, deep and tender. I loved, do you understand? Only that. Just love and the willingness to do whatever it took to protect my loved ones.
In those dim years of childhood I embraced being a failure and forged the bars that were to keep me in that prison for 50 years. Failing to please was Bad and terribly painful, but I was comforted by the abilities of others to please and therefore be loved. I believed becoming a lightning rod for displeasure shielded them.
As an adult, I had two children of my own and made exactly the same choice. I endeavored to shield and protect them from physical and psychological harm, no matter what it took. They could not understand, and I could not explain my choices to onlookers because I was protecting so many different people on different levels. I could not tell the truth. There was too much at risk and the truth was too damaging to all of us. I was afraid of the repercussions on those I was trying to shield.
My sense of failure was reinforced at every turn. I was told in words how disappointing and inadequate I was, but far more powerfully, I understood it from nonverbal communication and from the choices of those around me. Once again, I comforted myself with the knowledge I was doing the best thing for those I loved with my whole heart. I didn’t much care what happened to me if my loved ones could only be protected and happy. One day they would understand not only my choices, but the depth of my love.
The years rolled by. The children grew up and suddenly were adults. They expressed confusion and a sense of loss because of some of my parenting choices. I explained, confident of their understanding.
I realize now my explanations sounded ridiculous, but not because I failed.
I had a lifelong reputation for being dramatic and hypersensitive, which effectively erased my credibility within the family. I had no intention of burdening my sons with old family dynamics and problems existing long before they were born. I didn’t want to hurt or betray anyone. I didn’t want the boys to have torn loyalties or make them feel they had to choose sides.
Anything I could say, calmly, neutrally and without emotion, wasn’t even loud enough to get their attention. Trying to convey the real truth of my experience would have sounded (I imagined) hysterical and unhinged or, even worse, made them feel they had to take care of me. Come what may, I was never going to ask my children to parent me.
They could intellectually understand my explanation about the choices I made as a parent, but they couldn’t emotionally understand, exactly the outcome I worked for all those years! To them, it just sounded like Mom, talking too much, being embarrassingly emotional and making a big deal about nothing. (She does that.)
Do you see the exquisite irony? My explanations sounded ridiculous because I had succeeded in shielding them so well they had no idea what I was talking about. That was the flip. I didn’t fail at all. I succeeded.
Can you hear the Gods laughing? I can.
When I realized the unintended consequences of my maternal protection, it certainly caught my attention, along with changing my relationship with my kids in deeply painful (for all of us), and, I fear, permanent ways. I have never known such grief, but privately I chalked it all up to another failure of mine and a grief I deserved.
My failure label stayed firmly in place, as solid a part of my identity as my blue eyes or wild hair. It never occurred to me I could take it off.
Until yesterday. Yesterday, another loved one I have protected made it clear to me how successful I’ve been in protecting him as well. My stoicism, my unrelenting commitment to healing and understanding, my fierce independence, and most of all my love and unwillingness to be disloyal or reveal unwelcome truths that might upset others have been so successful the truth of my experience sounds like hysterical, made-up, unkind, exaggerated nonsense.
It was the kids all over again.
This time, though, I finally got it. I finally understood I have succeeded, not failed, in everything I wanted to do out of love for others. Every single thing! I have failed to please, yes. I’ve failed the expectations of others. I’ve failed to be perfect. I’ve failed to keep the family glued together. I’ve failed in trying to force others to be happy and healthy. I’ve failed, most miserably of all, at protecting others from themselves. But none of those failures are real. None of those things were my job or within my power in the first place. They were impossibilities, not failures.
On the other hand, I have succeeded at failing! I did manage to attract negative attention so others were at less risk. I did carry and sometimes express the emotional burdens of those around me who couldn’t deal with their emotions. The role I chose as a scapegoat did, in a fucked-up kind of way, help keep the family functional enough that we all survived. My “failures” made others look more successful by contrast. My willingness to be the problem child, the dramatic one, helped keep my loved ones out of the line of fire, at least a little bit.
As a parent, I succeeded. I raised two sons. They are not perfect. I made mistakes. They have baggage to unpack like all the rest of us. Their wounds, however, are different than mine. They were not hurt in the same ways I was. I successfully shielded them from the bombs and grenades that shattered me. I believe they know they are loved and worthy, and that I am proud of them.
What I’m most proud of is my success at loving. Just that. Loving myself and loving others. Nowhere along the way have I lost my ability and willingness to love, absolutely, completely and unconditionally. I love my family of origin. I love my children. I see now we don’t always get it back, the unconditional love, respect and loyalty we lavish on others. That’s okay. Invisible love, refused love, unrecognized love and unreciprocated love is still love. It’s The Right Thing To Do. It’s the only thing to do. It’s the best I have to give.
As for myself, I feel reborn. I am not a failure. I have never been a failure. I have succeeded in loving and doing my best against all odds. I accept others may not understand my actions and choices or believe in my love, but that’s their failure, not mine.
This day has revealed to me every ten minutes or so I call myself a failure, no matter what I’m doing. For the first time in my life, I’ve paused to examine all those so-called failures and discovered . . . nothing. My identity as a failure is nothing more than a mindless habit. It’s my automatic apologetic response when I cook the bacon too long, don’t properly anticipate my partner’s wishes, want to go to bed early, am standing in the way (nobody ever stands in my way — it’s always me in the wrong place!) or blow off doing an hour of exercise.
I have successfully mastered the art of failure. Bored now. I’m going to go be successful.
The seed for this post was a piece of writing by Dr. Sharon Blackie about the protective nature of thorny plants. This is a subject I’ve researched, not just as a gardener but also because of my fascination with folklore and tradition. I’ve written previously about brambles being a deterrent to vampires.
Reading Blackie’s musings on thorns reminded me of a honey locust tree I lived with in my old place in Colorado. It was covered with long, sharp thorns that punctured tires and easily passed through soft-soled shoes and sandals. It stood just off my porch, giving generous shade in the summer. I hung bird feeders in it, touched it, talked to it and moved respectfully and mindfully under and around it. The thorns contained some kind of irritant, and a scratch or stab from one of them resulted in several days of painful swelling.
The tree commanded attention, not only because of the fabulous covering of thorns and its harsh beauty, but also because it was the neighborhood tenement for birds. During the summer I often expected to see the whole tree rise into the air and fly away, powered by what seemed like hundreds of birds mating, nesting, hatching, quarreling, singing and living their lives among its thorny branches.
I loved that tree. It was one of the hardest things to leave when I came to Maine. Several people, including the people from whom I bought the house, advised me to cut it down. The thorns were destructive and dangerous. It was ugly, a nuisance.
I was fiercely protective of the tree, seeing in it what I wanted for myself, the ability to self-protect and still be beautiful and nurturing to others. Since I’ve left that place I’ve often thought of the locust and wondered if the new owners have cut it down. I hope not. If so, I don’t want to know.
I came to Maine and learned about needs. Then, in the course of writing my books, I researched thorny plants and learned thorns are in fact modified leaves, roots, stems or buds, and plants evolved them in order to protect themselves from being eaten.
Some plants evolved with thorns in order to protect themselves from being eaten. In order to survive. No plant evolved thorns in order to scratch, sting or pierce you or me specifically. The adaptation of thorns is about the needs of the living being we call a honey locust, a bramble, a hawthorn or a rose. Self-protection is about the life form employing it, not anyone else.
This seems to me an important distinction, and a metaphor for human choice and behavior. When I came to Maine I believed it was my job to protect everyone around me. Self-protection, however, was absolutely taboo. Any attempt to have boundaries, say no, speak my truth or move from the place the blow was going to land was severely punished. As I learned emotional intelligence and my priorities began to move from caring for and pleasing others to caring for and pleasing myself, I felt threatened and disliked from every side. I allowed myself to be made to feel destructive, dangerous and ugly.
Just like my beloved locust tree.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand why people make the choices they make. This is particularly difficult in the case of close relationships. In fact, it can be difficult to understand our own behavior and motivation. We humans are quick to make what others do about ourselves, to exercise our outrage, be critical and judgmental and disempower those who we feel threaten our beliefs, our position, our power to choose. Most of the time, though, the people around us are doing exactly what we’re doing ourselves. They’re simply trying to meet their own needs.
It always comes back to some kind of a need. When I became aware of my own needs, I quickly understood nearly every choice I’ve ever made had been motivated by trying to stay safe. For a long time I was trying to get loved in order to stay safe, but it didn’t work and I’ve shifted now to the true bottom line.
I need to protect myself.
That’s pretty clear and simple. I am not confused or ashamed about it. The difficulty arises as I interact (or choose not to) with others. That simple, clear bottom line gets buried under emotion; my stories and assumptions about myself and others; my eagerness to be understood; my hope to be validated and supported; and my justification, explanation, shame and guilt as others react to my choices for self-protection.
I don’t think most of us have trouble understanding and recognizing the core drivers for human beings. We want to be loved, accepted and seen as we really are. We want healthy relationships. Some people want money and power. Some seek control. We want to protect ourselves and others, as well as maintain autonomy and freedom of choice. We may not agree with the priorities of those around us, but they’re not foreign to us.
The methods we use to meet our needs are where the trouble begins. I know from personal experience pleasing people and having no boundaries leads to neither love nor safety, but it took me decades to discover that, decades during which I strove desperately to earn love and achieve security using those methods without success. To an outside view, I can understand why now I seem like a different person, hard, uncaring, unloving, selfish and disloyal.
This is terribly ironic, as no one knows of our private anguish and suffering as we strive to grow, heal and change, unless we reveal it, and I work hard to never reveal mine, not necessarily because I want to shut people out or hide things, but because I am trying to stay safe, and bitter past experience has taught me revealing my soft underbelly is dangerous.
Because I realize my own methods for meeting my needs are frequently problematic and inefficient as well as inscrutable to others, I’m able to have more space for others and the choices they make. Life protects itself. Life wants to go on living. Sometimes the strategies we use to achieve those goals hurt others, and sometimes they hurt ourselves, but in a world so full of people it’s bound to be a confusing mess. This is a perfect frame for the current debate around vaccines. Both sides are trying to protect against perceived threats to self, others and freedom of choice. There isn’t going to be an easy answer.
I wish I could be like the locust tree that graced my old life. It hid nothing, apologized for nothing, stood tall and shapely and branching, and protected itself as well as sheltered all kinds of life. To my eyes it was beautiful beyond words, a powerful teacher, a being I reverenced. I accidentally trod and knelt on its thorns more than once, but I did not blame the tree. I would not have allowed it to be cut down.
Locust, bramble, rose, hawthorn, holly and blackthorn. Thorns and prickles and spines. Fruit, flower and healing herb. Haven and shelter for insects, birds, small rodents and reptiles.
Life that cannot protect itself will not survive. Yet sometimes the price of self-protection is so high I wonder if it’s worth survival. It’s not so very hard to cut down a tree, if its thorns offend us. It’s not so very hard to destroy a human being, either, if their efforts to meet their own needs offend us.
I never would have guessed at the pain involved in committing to protect myself. It never occurred to me I would feel forced to choose between my love and care for others and my own needs. I still don’t understand why that should be so, but it feels as though it is.
I hold in my heart the memory of my locust tree, and how the inability of some to appreciate its beauty made it seem even more precious and powerful. Fierce, unapologetic self-protection and abundant life. The memory comforts and inspires me. I want to grow up to be like that.
I came across a poem by Ursula K. LeGuin (see below) and found it beautiful and timely. The wheel of cycles and seasons has swung around to the resurrection of light once more, and we wish one another a happy new year, each of us with our own hopes and fears for the months ahead.
For much of my life, I equated love with protection. When I became a parent, the vulnerability of my sons added exponentially to my own. In common with many parents, I struggled fiercely to protect them through infancy, childhood and beyond. Naturally, we protect others from what we ourselves most fear. In my case these fears include pain, loss, addiction, abuse and abandonment. I tried to shield my children from those people and experiences that hurt me, lest they be hurt in the same ways.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
Certainly, in the case of small children, animals and others who have no voice or are unable to use it, protection can be an act of love, but I’ve thought for some time now that we carry it too far, especially when we seek to “protect” our perfectly capable adult children, partners and friends. At some point our impulse to protect others becomes selfish. We do not want to bear witness to a loved one’s pain, let alone our own. We do not welcome the responsibility of telling the truth. Protection becomes a pathological means of disempowering others and binding them to us because we don’t want to be alone or the independence of our loved ones threatens us.
To be over-protected is to be without the freedom to develop confidence in our own good sense, strength and courage. We’re never allowed to stumble and fall and we don’t have to figure out how to comfort ourselves, clean our scraped knees and move forward. We over-protect out of fear or control, not love, and our constant vigilance of our loved one or loved ones teaches them fear as well. Fear makes our lives smaller, not bigger.
This new year, I don’t wish you photoshopped health, prosperity and happiness, and I don’t have a list of resolutions I hope will lead me to those things, either.
This year, I wish us each the ability to stand in our own power.
May we learn to love our bodies as they are. May we live joyfully in our skin. Let us teach our bodies new things and work with them to become as strong and healthy as we can. May we allow our bodies to be and to change.
This year, may we make mistakes. May we become lost and confused, and then find our way again. May we find out we’re wrong, and tell everyone. May we be vulnerable, get hurt and heal ourselves.
May we wander far from home without a map and walk a thousand miles, exploring new places and ideas. May we listen to a different kind of music and read a different kind of book. May we do something we’re afraid of.
Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash
Let the new year bring us laughter that makes our bellies ache and tears that fall like warm rain on our anguish. Let us fall head over heels in love with something or someone as though it’s the first time we’ve ever done it and we just know it will all be perfect. Let us make friends with our rage and give it something productive to do. Let us tell someone about our deepest shame.
May we know loneliness, boredom, disappointment and humiliation, and balance them with companionship, engagement, satisfaction and validation.
Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash
May we risk, dare and dream. May we learn to believe in ourselves. Let us burn our candle at both ends. Let us wear ourselves out with living. May we hear our lives whisper and speak our own truths. Let us learn and grow. Let us allow ourselves to be seen and rejected.
May we long for a home, find one, make one and lose it. May we make another and choose to walk away from it. May we learn how to come home to ourselves no matter where we are or who we’re with.
May we let go of our protection. Let us tear ourselves away from it. Let us outgrow it. May we feel what we feel with every cell of our body. May we make our thoughts, emotions, curiosity and creativity big and hold nothing back.
Go out into the sun flood of your life, my friends, my sons, my family, and know that I hold you in my heart. Know that I believe in you. Know that I neither ask for your protection nor seek to protect you, for none of us need it and love is bigger than that.
Go out from me into the new year, dear ones, and if you choose to return, please bring strange things.
Please bring strange things. Please come bringing new things. Let very old things come into your hands. Let what you do not know come into your eyes. Let desert sand harden your feet. Let the arch of your feet be the mountains. Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps and the ways you go be the lines on your palms. Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing and your outbreath be the shining of ice. May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words. May you smell food cooking you have not eaten. May the spring of a foreign river be your navel. May your soul be at home where there are no houses. Walk carefully, well loved one, walk mindfully, well loved one, walk fearlessly, well loved one. Return with us, return to us, be always coming home.
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.
Photo by Bogdan Kupriets on Unsplash
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.
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
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.
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash
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.
Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash
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.
Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash
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.