I found a brief offering in my Inbox from Seth Godin recently about bitterness being a wall we can lean against. The image caught my imagination. Since then, I’ve been thinking about walls … boundaries … supports … prisons … and the desperate, destructive choices we make to survive.
By Marc Pell on Unsplash
Walls. On the one hand, I like walls. I invariably position myself with my back against a wall when I’m in crowds or unfamiliar places. Nothing malignant can sneak up on me from behind. All my hypervigilance can go into watching my sides and front. I feel safe(er).
A corner is even better. Now two sides are covered.
A third wall, as in a blind alley or cul-de-sac, begins to feel more like a trap than a place of protection. What if I want to run away? I’m blocked on three sides.
A fourth wall? Now I’m in prison.
The thing about walls is they may keep danger out, but they keep everything else out, too. The good stuff. Love. Sunshine. Wandering children and butterflies. Inviting paths and trails. Possibility. Exploration. Views. Perspective. Wonderful surprises.
Walls, like everything else in life, can be taken too far. Built too wide and thick. Impenetrable. Too high to climb.
Shelter or dungeon?
What about metaphorical walls? What do we lean against because it’s familiar and we believe it keeps us safe from failure, from disappointment, from heartbreak?
Bitterness, certainly. We’ve risked. We’ve been vulnerable. It ended badly. We feel angry, disappointed, resentful. Never again, we tell ourselves. Things don’t work out for us. The world is against us. People suck. Life sucks. It’s our story, and we’re sticking to it. We’ve found a wall to lean on, a wall protecting us from trying again, risking again, feeling unpleasant feelings again.
By Hector J Rivas on Unsplash
But the wall is made of unpleasant feelings, isn’t it? Bitterness is the result of unresolved unpleasant feelings. So it’s really not protection. It’s reinforcement. It’s the thing closest to us pulling our focus from happier thoughts and feelings. It’s a constant negative reminder. It locks us in place with it, and it blocks any kind of relief.
As I’ve lived my life the last couple of weeks, interacting with and observing others, listening to the inside of my own head, I’ve made a list of walls we lean against:
Victimhood (closely allied with bitterness.)
Blame (oooh, this is a juicy one. “It’s not my fault. I have no responsibility, and therefore no power.”)
Denial (leaning on the wall, eyes squinched shut: “No, I won’t believe that! No, it’s not true! No, it’s not happening! It’s too scary! I’ll only accept what makes me feel good and in control!”)
Chronic health problems (“I would _________, but I can’t because I’m sick.” Sigh. Moan. Groan. Someone once said to me, “I don’t know what I’d do without my pain!” as though pain was her lover.)
Lack of money (“I can’t be happy. I can’t have/do what I want. I can’t experience abundance. I have no power.”)
Perfectionism (a personal favorite. “I would, but I’m afraid to because I won’t do it perfectly! So, no point in trying. I’m imperfect and therefore can contribute nothing of value, not even myself. Expect nothing from me. ‘Cause I’m so imperfect.”)
I don’t suggest we’re never victims, never have health problems, never experience financial scarcity. I don’t minimize the challenges of perfectionism or fear or the seduction of blame. However, constructing a wall out of such experiences and feelings and deciding to spend the rest of our lives leaning against it seems like a dubious choice. It may feel like it props us up and allows us to survive, but is survival the best we can hope for? Is leaning against a wall to stay on our feet the best we can do?
By Christina Botelho on Unsplash
Can a wall made of bitterness stand by itself? If we choose to step away from it, support ourselves, will the wall crumble? I wonder. What if the wall needs our support more than we need its support? It takes a lot of energy to maintain a wall.
What would happen if we just fell down instead of constructing walls to lean against? Better yet, what if we choose to lie down now and then, take a break, look at the sky, feel the world on our skin and beneath us? What if, when we feel hurt or despairing or sick or broken, we lay still and whispered, “Help!” and rested and waited for something or someone to come along and give us a hand back to our feet? If we’re not leaning (cowering) against walls, we’re in full view. Life can find us. Friends can find us. Help can find us. Hope, inspiration, and comfort can find us.
Walls can be useful. But they can also imprison us. They can be strong and organic and lovely, as in healthy boundaries. They can be poorly built and inadequate, too. Or just old and tired. Crumbling. Falling down. Gnawed away by Time’s tooth.
I ask myself, with all the world before me, why do I choose to lean against walls that separate me from it? Is that what I mean by safety?
What walls do you lean against?
Do you think of a wall as protection or prison?
How have your walls let you down?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
Violence, self-destruction, despair and human rights violations are rampant in our world. We can choose our favorite flavor: Climate change, racial and ethnic problems, gender ideology, immigration issues, terrorism, food production and diet, religion, capitalism and the economy, and a multitude of other issues clamor for our attention.
Who is to blame?
Everyone? No one?
Our global social problems overwhelm me. They’re too big for one person to deal with.
As I explore blame, I’ll zoom in to an example from my own life.
A long time ago I married an abusive man, and he abused me. (Big surprise, right?) My experience of abuse was quite real. I realized his behavior was not okay. I realized domestic violence is a huge problem, and I realized it can happen to anyone.
I found a way out, and I could have stopped there and just carried the identity of a victim of domestic violence and an abusive man. It’s a big club. I could find validation, support groups, therapy and other assistance. I could compare stories with other victims, seek revenge, stalk his Facebook page, bad mouth him, have bad dreams and feel ashamed every time I flinch away from a sudden movement a man makes in my vicinity.
I could have turned my experience as an abused woman into a demon, a chronically bleeding wound, a source of darkness, fear and impaired trust. I could run from it, avoid it, try to forget it and stay stuck in power loss. I was victimized. It was unfair. That’s how the world works.
But what’s underneath that reality of being an abused woman? Why was I an abused woman?
Because men prey on women, men are entitled, it’s a man’s world and women are not granted equal power, recognition or rights.
It wasn’t my fault. I was a victim. End of story.
A victim is a person harmed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action. Notice that powerlessness is not part of that definition, which is paraphrased from Oxford Online Dictionary.
I was an abused woman because I thought that’s what I was worth. That’s my truth. I don’t shame myself over it, but I own it. All men do not prey on women. All men do not feel entitled. Men do not define the world unless women allow them to, and the only person who can give away my power and ignore my rights is me.
And, at various times in my life, I have.
Blaming is easy, and we all do it. Managing personal power is a lot of work, a daily practice if we want our lives to work well. Blaming is quick and socially acceptable, especially in this age of hyperreaction to any hint of victim shaming.
The problem is that blame is a dead end. It keeps us firmly fastened in what has befallen us rather than what we’re going to do now. We can blame all we like, but it doesn’t bring us justice, resolution or healing. It doesn’t help us understand the complexities of our situation. We can’t learn from blame. It’s not useful or productive in any way. Blaming is an abdication of responsibility, power and resilience.
This is even more true when we blame ourselves. Blaming myself is what put me in an abusive relationship in the first place. I am not responsible for the behavior and choices of the man I was with, but I chose to be with him – for a time. I believed it was what I deserved because of my guilt and shame over previous choices.
If we are victimized by a crime, accident, or other event or action, and all we can do is blame, we’re effectively embracing a victim mentality, and that kind of thinking goes nowhere.
Sooner or later, we’re all victims of something. Sometimes our own choices lead to our victimization, sometimes we get hurt through no fault of our own, and often the situation is a complex mixture of choices, actions, and events impossible to disentangle.
It’s what we do with our experience that counts. Are we going to blame someone or something and stay stuck, or take appropriate responsibility for ourselves and problem-solve?
We’re not responsible for what other people do or random events we’re caught up in, but we’re always responsible for what we do in response. Healthy boundaries help us discern the difference between the places we have power and the places we have none.
Taking responsibility is not the same as blaming. Responsibility is a powerful tool for problem solving. It’s forward-focused. Blame is backwards-focused and solves nothing.
Being or feeling victimized is no fun, and it’s not a place I want to pitch a tent and call home. I refuse to identify as a victim, and I don’t victimize myself or others. When I catch myself blaming, I know I’ve stepped out of my own power.
Being victimized is a teacher for me. It’s not about blame and shame. It’s about using the feelings and discomfort of the experience to learn, to grow, to find new resources and to reach out to other victims in a supportive, constructive way. Making a healthy contribution out of our experience of victimization heals our wounds and helps other victims find their way to healing. It helps us reclaim our dignity and power.
It’s a lot more work than blaming, which any toddler can do.
Blaming signals disempowerment, and I refuse to go back down that road. In a perfect world, we’d all be held accountable for our victimization of others, but it’s far from a perfect world, and the only choices I’m in charge of are my own.
I may be, at times, a victim, but I’m always in charge of my own power.
I’ve just read a book titled Dignity by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.
Dignity is defined as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect; self-respect” (Oxford Online Dictionary); “the right of a person to be valued and respected for their own sake” (Wikipedia).
Dignity isn’t a word I hear much these days. Respect is a hot topic, but dignity sounds old-fashioned.
The book was an eye-opener in several ways. Hicks sees dignity as a key component in peaceful negotiations, a refreshing topic in this time of divisiveness, hatred, and violence. Because of her work, the author has participated in and supported peace talks all over the world as leaders of opposing sides work to heal the trauma of conflict. Her observations, experience, and stories of people working together to connect as human beings, even in the context of terrible violence, are poignant and a testament to our shared humanity.
Hicks defines ten essential components of dignity, and ten violations. I wrote both lists down and I’ve been rereading and thinking about them ever since.
Here are Hicks’s ten essential elements of dignity:
As I work with these lists, I come at them from three different directions. One is recognizing the ways in which my own dignity has been violated by others. The second is the way in which I’ve violated my own dignity. The third is the way in which I’ve violated the dignity of others.
This book was published in 2011, before acceptance of identity and inclusion were such politically loaded topics. As I think about these lists through the filter of current social ideology, it’s quite clear to me that working with the concept of dignity necessitates connecting with others through our shared humanity rather than our habits and beliefs. If we insist on hiding behind our labels and pseudo selves, as well as refusing to see the complexity of those we interact with behind their labels and ideology, we will not successfully connect and nobody can experience dignity. Conflict will escalate and divisions deepen.
We each have a right to our own beliefs, feelings, and sense of self. However, we do not have the right to insist others agree with our beliefs, feelings and sense of self. Respect, as I have pointed out before, is not agreement. Tolerance is not agreement. Likewise, dignity is not dependent on agreement, but rather the willingness to understand and accept the experience of another.
The tricky part is if we wish to build and maintain dignity, we must help others build and maintain it as well. Demanding our own dignity be recognized while ignoring that of others demonstrates a desire for power-over and control.
Dignity is an equal opportunity concept. It’s based in our humanity, the ultimate in-group. No one is excluded, and no one is without the power to build their own dignity.
We can’t force others to treat us with dignity, but we have absolute control in how we handle our own, and Donna Hicks has experienced, over and over again, the power of our individual dignity and the way it influences those around us. The forward to this book was written by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, whose wisdom, compassion and dignity have inspired millions. He and Hicks have worked together for peace in Northern Ireland.
One way to destroy our dignity is to violate that of another, which is exactly what I want to do in a reactive moment when I’ve been hurt or witnessed someone else being hurt. However, that kind of reaction only escalates conflict. Hicks’s list allows me to identify other options that do not result in further violation, but begin to heal the original harm. Even if whoever I’m interacting with is determined to undermine both their dignity and mine, I have the power to stop the damage and conflict and protect my own self-respect.
Now more than ever in this country, we are divided. Some of us support dignity for all and some of us don’t. It’s not always obvious which team we’re on, either. Some people wave the banner of equality and justice and identify themselves as victims, but a closer look makes it obvious their agenda victimizes someone else. What they truly want is their conception of equality and justice for themselves and their in-group, exclusively.
Others of us are working for humanity as a whole, supporting such concepts as dignity for everyone, not just those wearing a certain label or set of labels.
Last month I posted about our power and ability to say both yes and no to others. This morning I’m thinking about another level of yes and no; that is the yes and no we say to life. At this level, the term ‘consent’ is useful. Consent means to “give permission for something to happen,” according to a 2-second search on Google.
Consent is a huge and complex topic and there’s a great deal of discussion about different aspects of it. For the purposes of this post, I’m using consent in the widest sense; the way in which we approach life.
Several interactions this week have made me think about the mysterious difference between people who consent to learn and grow and those who don’t. When I think about my observations, and people I’ve known, it’s clear to me the difference between these two kinds of people has nothing to do with age, sex, money, education, employment, intellect or family. It has nothing to do with the color of our skin or the god(s) we worship, or where on the planet we live, or what kind of horrors we might have endured.
I’m acquainted with a writer who sent me a piece in praise of stubbornness, a quality she admires (as do I) in herself and others because to her it means a determination to survive and do well, regardless of limitations, real and perceived. (Thank you, A!) We might mean the same thing by consent and stubbornness, or close to it. I see the ability to consent to learning and growth, over and over, no matter how many times we’re knocked down and cut off, as a kind of stubbornness — a refusal to give up, to close down, to conform to something that doesn’t work for us.
Without even trying I can identify seven people in my life, past and present, who don’t consent to the experience of life, the flow, the dance, the mystery and uncertainty, the synchronicity and the billions of invitations that arise for exploration, connection, understanding, growing and being.
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
These folks are easy to spot. They resist. They argue with what is. They deny, distract, fall into various addictions. They don’t communicate effectively. They care about winning, being right and power-over. They have rigid stories and expectations. Everything that happens to them is a personal insult or a crisis. They’re victims. A good, deep question is a grave threat. To my eyes, they look miserably unhappy. They repeat the same patterns, over and over, dying a little more with each fruitless repetition. They do not consent. They refuse.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
Every single one of the seven people I’m thinking of has had opportunities to learn, to grow, to change, to make different choices. They all had people in their lives who loved them and had information, tools and skills that might have enriched them. They all had people in their lives who valued them and wanted their contribution. They each had at least one person in their life who would have done anything to support them in learning and growing, and that person was me.
Most of those relationships are behind me now, because I have this unforgiveable quality of consent. My life now is based on the why, the what if, the whose rule is that, the help me understand. My life is about teachme, show me, share with me and what do you think? My life is about doing more of what works and letting the rest go. People who refuse and people who consent invariably have friction, because their needs are opposite. There’s just nowhere meaningful to go.
People who consent are not perfect or perfectly happy people. On the contrary, their lives have been filled with mess and miscalculations, abuse, addictions and other painful experiences, but they’ve learned from everything and everyone. People who consent don’t look at their lives with bitterness or frame things as mistakes. They see teachers, opportunities and fascinating things learned and yet to learn. People who consent are endlessly curious. They think about what they don’t know and question what they think they do know. They seek the hidden thing. They’re more likely to ask questions than proselytize or lay down the law. They’re not interested in power games or being right or winning. They seek to understand, to explore, to exercise choice, to manage their own power. They can laugh at themselves. They can and do say no, but they say it to protect their integrity and needs, not to shut out or control life.
People who consent choose happiness. That’s the most important one for me. I’m still reaching for that. I’ve always been a person who consents, but I’ve also chosen to stay limited in many important ways. As I’ve learned to discern between refusal and consent, I see that living life from a state of consent results in joy. Again, it’s got nothing to do with age, beauty, money, status or any of the things that the culture says we’re defined by. Joy, at the end of the day, is a simple thing, arising out of being at peace with this wild ride we call life. Joy is consenting to surrender, consenting to feel and experience, consenting to feeling fear and doing it anyway, consenting to give up trying to control the things we can’t control. Joy is composed of tears, blood, loss and disappointment, pain and growth. We already have it. It’s here, sitting on your shoulder as you read this and mine as I write.
A year and a half ago I left everything I knew and traveled halfway across the continent in a U-Haul to start a new life in Maine. I’d never even bought a plane ticket for myself before. I’d never taken a road trip. I’d never lived anywhere but Colorado. I’d never been to Maine. I rented my little house, which I’d never intended to leave, and I’d never been a landlady before. I had very little money, and in fact had to borrow money to accomplish the transition (which I’ve since paid back).
I was 51 years old.
As you can probably imagine, this decision was not met with enthusiastic support from all sides.
How this impacted my relationships will be a subject for future posts. Today I want to answer the question no one quite asked, but everyone wanted to:
Photo by SHTTEFAN on Unsplash
It’s complicated, of course. It always is. The short version is that I slowly realized I was living a life that didn’t feel like my own. Nothing fit right. It was as though I’d been wearing clothes and shoes from someone else’s closet. My life was a tiny room that got a centimeter smaller every day. I lost a relationship, the neighborhood diner and my dearest companion. I woke every morning knowing I would fail, no matter how hard I worked at…everything. I felt like a character in a play someone else had written and I began to drop my lines.
The most remarkable thing about that time wasn’t that I was having an unusual experience. I’m certain many of you reading this can relate to my experience. No, what’s remarkable is that few people knew how it really was with me, which was exactly how I wanted it.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
I had a beautiful little house that everyone loved. I had friends. I had a garden. I lived in a lovely place that had been home for nearly twenty years. I was financially independent — as long as nothing unexpected happened. I had my music, my movies, my books, my early morning walks, my comfortable bed, my dance group, my small luxuries. I had a good life, and I wasn’t happy. I was deeply ashamed. I was also unbelievably, unbearably, terminally lonely.
I began to write more, not with any plan or hope, but because I had to. Because it was the only thing I really enjoyed. It was the only time I felt real. For various reasons I felt unable to seek support for my writing locally, so I went online and connected with other writers. One of the writers I connected with was a life coach who teaches emotional intelligence.
I decided to work with him, and that’s when it all began to change.
I’m not going to try to sell you on life coaching. You’re online right now — research for yourself. There are lots of articles and sites to look at. I’ll let the coaches sell themselves. What I want to do is give you reasons not to do it, because if you hire a well-trained, certified, experienced coach and you’re serious about the work your life is going to transform, and an exhausting, bloody, terrifying experience it is. Creating new life is damned hard work. Ask any mother.
So here we go. Don’t do life coaching if:
You don’t want things to change, both internally and externally (good luck with not wanting things to change, by the way!).
You’re not really willing to invest time and money in yourself.
You’re looking for a therapist or prescription medications, or you’re struggling with serious mental illness.
You’re perfectly happy with your current role of victim, martyr, addict, people pleaser, passive aggressive, etc. (But in that case you might recommend life coaching to someone you’re in relationship with. Perhaps they could use it!)
You don’t want your creative life to blossom.
You don’t want to be honest.
You don’t want to learn new language, strategies, coping mechanisms and communication skills.
You don’t want your relationships at work, in your family and with your friends to become healthier, more honest and more effective.
You don’t want to become a more effective and loving parent.
You don’t want to cut out of your life the habits, relationships, behaviors and beliefs that are holding you back.
And so how, you ask, has it worked out so far? The coaching, the move, the new life?
Guess what? It’s not perfect. I miss parts of my old life. But I live with meaning, learning, creativity, humor, curiosity, joy, love and companionship. I recognize myself. I like myself. I feel useful and successful. I’m learning to be more honest.