I subscribe to Seth Godin, who provides me with a few sentences of daily food for thought in my Inbox. This week, I read this link about the difference between accuracy and precision.
Godin’s distinction between the two is one I never thought about before, but I have been thinking about roots.
Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla on Unsplash
Deep roots. Strong roots.
Roots grow toward sustenance. They don’t grow toward, or in, barren soil. Cell by cell, rootlet by rootlet, inch by inch, they spread, seeking water, seeking the soil and mineral resource they need. Cell by cell, stem by stem, twig by twig, inch by inch, trees and plants grow aboveground in search of sunlight.
Trees and plants want to live. They seek the resources necessary to do so. Survival is their simple, accurate agenda. A seed germinates and grows toward successful reproduction, wherever it happens to be.
Exactly how the roots and crown need to grow, exactly where the best sustenance and water will be found, exactly what the quality and quantity of sunlight will be, all these precise determinations have no meaning unless the imperative to survive exists, and can’t be planned ahead. It all depends on context.
The accuracy comes first. Then the precise details.
I’m thinking about this because we are relocating, not from Maine, but from this old farmhouse.
A year ago, I wrote a series of posts about holistic management, and I’ve been reviewing my holistic plan regularly ever since. My intention, my accurate intention, in Godin’s language, is to create a simpler, more sustainable life.
The precise details? Well, that’s a hairball of monstrous proportions that’s currently keeping me up nights.
Maybe it doesn’t need to. I started with an accurate intention and have taken all kinds of steps toward that, not only with my physical living situation, but also with my writing and life in general. The precise details of each of those steps were not visible to me a year ago when I created my plan and started acting. I moved forward, and identified and dealt with specifics as I came to them.
When I was younger, I had an easier time with big changes, because there was always time to adjust, to go back, to change my mind, to make another choice in the future. But now, as my partner and I age, it feels more urgent to get it exactly right and position myself perfectly for any eventuality.
This is silly, of course. The things we agonize over usually never happen, and if they do, they don’t happen in the way we predicted. The challenges we do encounter are often complete surprises we could never have foreseen or imagined.
Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash
Godin’s thought for the day reminded me, again, that life is a journey. It’s a process. It unfolds. Much as I’d like to know exactly where and when, who and how, those precise details are hidden in the future. It’s not time to know them yet. Right now, today, I need to live those questions and steer with my intention: a simpler, more sustainable life.
That’s the tree I planted last year. Now it’s beginning to grow. The roots are seeking nourishment. The plant aboveground is seeking sunlight. When I look back over the last twelve months, I can see how much growth there’s been, but as I lived the last year I didn’t think about growth or progress. I dealt with specifics arising out of my accurate, intentional seed and put one foot in front of the other.
Now we approach the still, dark, heart of winter, and as I take stock, look over my shoulder and raise my gaze to the horizon ahead, I realize afresh movement in the right direction is what counts. The specifics reveal themselves in their own time. Whatever my feelings of anxiety, fear, and overwhelm, I’m also flowing in the current of my accurate intention.
I’m forced to admit I have a choice. I can rest in faith in myself, in my intentions, and in life generally. I can cultivate my curiosity and sense of exploration, discovery, and fun.
It’s really not a choice I want to make. I don’t feel I have the energy to fight my compulsion to speed like a maniac through my life right now, obsessing about money, cleaning, and showings, collecting and packing boxes, and checking online every 10 minutes for new MLS listings. In Central Maine. In December. In our modest price range.
But even as I think that thought, I know it’s a lie. Whatever will be, will be. There’s only so much power I have in this picture. What’s really at stake is whether I enjoy the ride as much as I can or exhaust myself, risking illness and injury, just when I most need to be healthy and whole. One way or another, we are leaving this place and necessarily going somewhere else. Part of me wants to throw up my hands and spin out of control, but the wiser, saner part of me sees the choices clearly and knows which ones to make.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seligman suggests a continuum of optimistic to pessimistic patterns of thought and belief that influence our happiness. He discusses the practices of hope or despair.
I struggled with this piece of his work. I don’t like the choice of hope (a feeling of desire or expectation for a specific thing to happen) or despair (absence of hope). I want a choice in between, but it took me some time to figure out what else wasn’t working for me. After talking it over with my partner, I finally got it—power!
Both hope and despair take me out of my power. Hope is passive. I’d prefer to ditch hope and be proactive about what I have the power to prepare for or influence in terms of the future. Despair is even worse. Despair is no hope at all. What’s in between hope and despair? I couldn’t find anything. The best I can come up with is curiosity. Curiosity is free of hope or despair.
I want to think about the future without hope or despair. I’d love to say I’m curious, but mostly I’m just resigned and tired!
I finally decided that this particular frame of hope or despair doesn’t work for me, no offense to Dr. Seligman. I went back to the beginning and considered my frame for the future.
Two of the most transformative things I’ve learned from emotional intelligence is the toxicity of expectations and the power of releasing outcomes. I used to spend a lot of time and energy fantasizing, catastrophizing, hoping, and longing for better things in the future and missing much of the present entirely. I don’t do that anymore. The past is gone and we never catch up to the future. My life is right now, and right now is the only place in which I have power. Even if I had the ability to shape the future, I don’t know what’s best for me or anyone else. We all know what we want, sure, but what we want in the moment is not always best in the long term.
When I consider the future, two things define my thinking. Whatever it needs to be, it’s okay with me, and whatever the future brings, I know I can count on myself to cope with it.
That’s it. No hope, despair, or expectations, and I stay solidly rooted in my own personal power.
Seligman doesn’t discuss power at all, but the ability to manage my own power is what makes me happy. If hope and despair are practices, I can’t see them as empowering ones. The practice of managing one’s own power, though, builds strength, courage, resilience, and confidence.
So, happily ever after. What does it even mean? Since when was anyone happy ever after?
Whatever the future brings, it’s okay with me. I’ll learn. I’ll adapt. I’ll be just fine.
Seligman suggests that enduring or baseline happiness (as opposed to momentary) has much to do with our thoughts and feelings about our past, present, and future. He spends some time going over research about what comes first, our thoughts or feelings, but I won’t go into that here. What I know is that thoughts are not feelings and feelings are not thoughts, and my understanding of the science is that they’re so intimately connected neurologically and chemically we’re not yet sure which comes first or exactly how they influence each other.
As I age, I understand my past better and better. I like to think part of this is my own increasing wisdom and compassion. When we’re young, it’s easy to be judgmental, rigid, and unforgiving. It takes time and experience to gain perspective and accumulate our own history of injustices committed; not-so-great choices; and unthinking, unintended cruelties. If we are aging with grace and learning as we go, we also learn about patterns of behavior in ourselves and others. We figure out it was never all about us and the adults in our childish lives were not gods, but ordinary people.
The past is past, but our memories endure, and we’re all shaped in significant and sometimes painful ways by our childhoods. Some of us live in the past, repeating dysfunctional patterns and unable to move on. We believe our past experience determines our future experience. We know nothing will ever work out for us because we believe it never has. We’re hopelessly cursed, or doomed, or oppressed.
However, research clearly indicates that our past does not determine our future, and Seligman proposes that changing the way we think about our past can increase our present enduring state of happiness in powerful ways.
This is not easy work. In my own experience it’s a practice rather than a destination. It requires courage, strength, and determination to excavate our past, along with a good dose of honesty. It stretches our compassion. We must put aside our tendency to play the victim and take on some responsibility. I did not embark on this sort of work in order to be happy. I did it out of a desire to understand myself, others, and my experience; I wanted to heal. I also wanted peace, which is a defined component of happiness.
Shaking off the belief that our past necessarily determines our future, along with developing gratitude and forgiveness, are key in changing the way we think about our past. Seligman doesn’t write about acceptance, but for me it’s an additional important piece.
Gratitude. Forgiveness. Acceptance.
Looking back through these lenses is challenging, to say the least. Some of us look back on long years of pain and some at a few significant events, but if we are unhappy about our past it feels impossible to approach it with gratitude, forgiveness or acceptance, let alone all three. And we don’t have to, if we don’t care about being happy or healing or moving on.
I do care about those things, and I can attest to the relief of thinking about the past with gratitude for teachers and lessons learned rather than bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, though challenging, softens my tendency to curl up into a hard shell and never come out again. At the end of the day, others don’t victimize us and life is not against us. Life happens to us, and to other people, and we all churn around together, bumping into one another, sometimes with a kiss and sometimes with a knife. Life is chaotic and messy.
For me, acceptance is closely linked with forgiveness. Things happen. We all make choices. Most of us are doing the best we can most of the time. To be human is to be imperfect. If we cannot accept ourselves and others for the complex, inconsistent, occasional hot messes that we are, we are choosing to be chronically unhappy and dissatisfied, not only with life in general, but with ourselves.
The hardest work of all, for me, has been applying gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance to myself. I suspect a lot of people can relate to this. Underneath my hurt and anger with others about parts of my history are rage and abuse towards myself. As I heal that, my grievances with others have fallen away.
When I think about my past and learn how it influences my level of enduring happiness, I feel satisfied with how much work I’ve done and how far I’ve come. My goal at the time wasn’t happiness, exactly, but healing is healing, and I’m happier walking around with scars than I was with open wounds. I’m certainly much happier now than I’ve ever been before, which means I’m more peaceful, and peace was one of my goals.
The best part about working with our past is that we have all the power. We know where we’ve been and what our experience was. We can make choices about how we think about our history. We can refocus and reframe. We can consider our memories from the viewpoint of others who influenced us instead of just our own. We can forgive ourselves for what we did, what we said and who we were, and in doing so we can forgive others.
The past is over, but its influence is not gone. We can choose what that influence will be on our present and future. Will we let it drag us down and hold us back or make it part of the wind beneath our wings?