We Are All Unreliable Narrators

canstockphoto10603891The last couple week of blogging hiatus were ostensibly for wrapping up edits on the novel. Life happened, as it usually does, which means my work-in-progress is still in progress. Still, good work is being done and I’m pleased with that.

Part of the challenge of writing fictional characters is understanding that what they see and experience might be entirely different from what actually happens or what another character experiences. It becomes about perception. I think about this a lot in my own life – the weird dichotomy of feeling one is right while knowing one can be completely wrong.

I grew up in a family where dysfunction was served for dinner. My siblings and I are not close, in part because we perceived our experiences quite differently and any discussion of the past ends in argument. My brother and I could be talking about the exact same moment in time and have completely opposite memories.

This is cute in movies and sitcoms, but in reality it’s not so adorable. We talk about a barbecue party where he remembers happily drinking sodas (that we didn’t get to have at home) and I remember being worried about where we’d sleep when the drunken revelry turned ugly and the police were called. We become belligerent about our perspectives and conversation turns combative.

canstockphoto6397204Unreliable narratives abound and it doesn’t end with the personal. We’re seeing our country become more dogmatic and polarized. As the rhetoric heats up, there are those among us who cross the line. And each time one of our “sides” does something reprehensible, we dig our heels in a little deeper, cling to our tribes and cement our perspectives.

Our country is not safe, if it ever was. The anger within has been running rampant, encouraged by public vitriol, unchecked by more moderate voices. The rhetoric has become as emotional and volatile as a soap opera. It’s a reality show that doesn’t stop after the filming. We carry it into our homes, our everyday lives, our perception of our own lives, and of others.

There is nothing to be gained by screaming at each other. It only escalates until someone who is already too close to the line crosses over it. Violence begets violence begets violence. And we tell ourselves, I would never do that. I’m a peace-loving liberal or a law-abiding conservative. But we groom our own thoughts. We have our small conversations at the proverbial water cooler. We nod in agreement, give each other some exclusive sign that we get it and “they” don’t.

canstockphoto6433663The old saying used to be that people shouldn’t talk about religion, politics, or money to keep conversations civil. We’re in a day and age when people are talking about everything, yet ethics have not caught up to the lightning speed of social media. Any form of it from news sites, to Facebook, to YouTube has promulgated this culture of “I am right and you are all so stupid.”

One of my favorite teachers is Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun. Sometimes I think she goes a meditation too far. She talks about the aggression in our thoughts and words. I have a pretty violent sense of humor. I’ll joke about dropping someone with a head kick or back fist to the face. Ha ha – right? Just typing it makes me realize that I might need to work on my sense of humor. She might have a point.

canstockphoto5516626Still, violence in words and thoughts goes beyond jokes. How we talk about one another can be very aggressive.  When we label or sort people into groups, this becomes the stepping stone to dehumanizing each other. Once we’ve done that, we’re only a hop and a skip from internment camps and in the case of some individuals, violence.

One of the things I’ve had to learn as a parent is that when in conflict, I have to be careful to confine the rhetoric to the behavior, not the person. When my child carelessly spills something, I might say “that was careless” not “you are careless”. If Hillary Clinton had characterized a set of beliefs or behavior as deplorable, it would not have changed the outcome, but it would have changed the conversation (and quite a few bumper stickers and t-shirts).

There’s another useful tool, often used in relationships. It’s avoiding the use of universal terms. You never take out the garbage. You are always so slow. Republicans are hate-filled. Democrats are freeloaders. Men are thick. Women talk too much. Having children is selfish. Not having children is a curse. We’re all morons. Okay, that last one might have some validity considering the state of things. But those broad brushes serve to isolate and entrench us into untenable positions.

The people who I trust least are the ones who know they are right and will insist on it regardless of any evidence to the contrary. When it comes to national politics and the invisible monetary machinery at work, most of us are ill-equipped to be right. That we argue and squabble about things of which we know little, would be amusing if it didn’t lead to people shooting other people.

canstockphoto12537336When I was a kid, I read a fable about two neighbors fighting. They were having a conversation about the neighbor who lived between them. The first neighbor insisted the middle neighbor’s hat was red and the second insisted it was green, until they came to blows over it. Spoiler alert: it was a two-sided hat. To update this, I’d make it MAGA on one side and The Sierra Club on the other. They could only see it one way from their perspective. Both were right and both were wrong.

I’m not going to draw false equivalencies here. I’m not that fair-minded. But it is a reminder that we only see things from one perspective. Because of this solipsistic fact, we are not the best arbiters of truth. We have to be willing to acknowledge that our opinions, attitudes, and beliefs are hindered by the unreliable narrator within –  that’s the first step out of the antagonistic mess we’re making of our country.

Resources I Return to on a Regular Basis:

Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication by Sharon Strand Ellison – I randomly flip this book open and instantly find some piece of wisdom that I can practice throughout the day.

Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrichs – This book always reminds me that I’m not as smart as I think I am. And I like that.

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön

Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. GinottThe communication skills in this book are invaluable and not just for parenting.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish – Another parenting book that teaches universal communication skills.

All in a Morning’s Meditation

canstockphoto1432692This morning, as I sat in a meditative pose, I could feel the throbbing pain of my knee. I let my thoughts tumble one over another – how I’d failed to do the daily exercises to deal with the injury, forgot to take ibuprofen, took the stairs too frequently. They continued to tumble down on me – I hadn’t met my writing goals for the week. I ate too much. I didn’t spend enough time with my family. I wasn’t patient with the cats. Tumble, tumble, tumble.

When I find my meditation the center of a campaign of me-shaming, I can only practice acknowledging the thought and letting it float by. I try to loosen its grip on my psyche, imagining stepping on its fingers as it clings to the side of a cliff. My meditation is not a peaceful one. A thought steps out of the shadows. No more suffering.

There is pain and then there is suffering. I began to think about the pain I was feeling and how every action I took or didn’t take, prolonged the pain to the point of suffering. Why would I make myself suffer? Intellectually, it makes no sense, but emotionally, it’s apparently my jam.

I come from a long line of martyrs/survivors. It’s a mindset I both admire for its tenaciousness and despise for the very same reason. The problem is when the abusive parents are dead or reformed, when you can stop turning in pop cans for a meal, when you finally stand on your own two feet, find stability and have the potential for happiness less than fleeting, your brain is still in crisis mode, still waiting for the next shoe to drop. And when it doesn’t happen, the brain gets creative.

canstockphoto5504066Even as I write this, I’m chastising myself for writing about first world problems – that all I have to do is watch the news and I’d see real suffering. But suffering, regardless of the source or how minor, does not make someone a better person. Pain is different – pain tells us something is wrong. Pain tells us we are in need of a solution, a palliative, a different direction. Suffering is like guilt or anxiety – only good for the lesson, a reminder to change course. Beyond that, it’s cruel and exhausting and pointless.

I finished reading a book about overcoming perfectionism. I gave it a B- in my notes and that made me laugh. The author’s target audience would not be generous in their reviews. She did a good job of building and explaining scenarios from whence perfectionists emerge. And it wasn’t about people with high standards for their own work. It was about people like me, who nearly choke on the phrases “This is good enough. I am good enough.” When good enough seems like an insult.

Sometimes when I write things, I think how often they’ve been written about, how often I’ve heard “get out of your own way” or “say positive affirmations”. I can hear that advice a thousand times over and I never absorb it. It sits in a mental waiting room. It waits for a connection, like a call on hold. Waiting for me to figure it out.

I rarely read newly published books or go to movie theaters. One day, I’ll be in a bookstore and pick up a book on the clearance shelf. It was published ten years ago. I’ll read that book and it will feel like this new, wonderful discovery that no one has any interest in discussing. It’s mine – an organic discovery. Like most lessons, they don’t take hold until we discover it ourselves.

canstockphoto5927403Meditation can be one of those westernized new-agey things that can come couched in a lot of fuzzy terminology and equipment (you can buy meditation pillows, stools, incense, books, CDs etc.). For me, these are things that give meditation all the appeal of a new exercise class using bowling balls and colanders (I’m sure it’s coming).

There are enough books that tell you how to meditate. There are testimonials that make it seem like you are shortly to be transported to nirvana if you can just touch your fingers and thumbs while sitting cross-legged. But you’ll need the special magic carpet. Or you can read accounts of people who sit and do this for hours on end.

I just wanted to make space in my life to stop everything. I can be very self-assured when I talk about running and gardening and how it’s meditation in motion. And then my body smacks me upside my ego and kneecaps me until I’m shuffling about and wincing at every move. So what are you going to do now, you smug bastard?

Am I done yet?

My meditation is messy and imperfect. I remind myself to adhere to the advice of Pema Chödrön. Approach it with curiosity and see what arises. So I get up in the morning, grab a pillow and timer and I make myself sit, breathing in and out until the timer beeps. I started at five minutes and now I’m up to a grand total of seven. Seven minutes in which I implore my brain to let the thoughts float by. Seven minutes that I fidget or, as happened last week, begin to snore softly.

Sometimes I imagine it’s like having to watch an entire campaign speech just to get the sound bite for a news story. I have to sit every day, rolling my eyes at my attention-seeking brain, just to find that sliver of light, that second of wisdom or insight. But I’ve made the space and I am curious to see what’s next.

Being a Gentle Warrior

We seek happiness by believing that whole parts of what it is to be human are unacceptable. We feel that something has to change in ourselves. However, unconditional joy comes about through some kind of intelligence in which we allow ourselves to see clearly what we do with great honesty, combined with a tremendous kindness and gentleness.

Pema Chödrön, American Buddhist Nun

It’s been a long and challenging week, hence no posts the last few days. The flu plague that came to dinner has been reluctant to leave our house. Accumulating bodily injuries have left me limping and shuffling about like Quasimodo on his slow trek to the bell tower. No broken bones, just a foot injury, forced rehab and a break from high impact activities. Cumulatively, it has sent me into a mild depression.

I badly need that runner’s high and the adrenalin I get from sparring at taekwondo. I am so overwhelmed with “to do” lists that I do nothing. My desk pile has spread like some sort of mildewy growth. My writing is excruciating. My brain operates sluggishly, completely uncooperative, rife with doubt and dullness. This is where the bottom is for me.

When I hit mental bottom, it is in my nature to assume I must get up and duke it out with the saboteurs in my brain that make me unproductive and resistant to taking proper care of myself. I mean, haven’t we all been taught that it’s all about willpower and discipline? The problem with this reaction is that it usually doesn’t work and only ends up making me feel worse. I am learning to make friends with my dark, obstreperous side. And to gently coax myself into affirming behaviors, while riding out the malaise.

I turn to the very basics: Sleep, water, good nutrition and gentle exercise. I’ve made it through the first two steps, which explains why I was up once an hour last night. It’s like Rock, Paper, Scissors – small, aging bladder always beats restful sleep. Today, I’ve got to work on the last two steps. I’ve dutifully thawed out salmon, taken my vitamins and plan on doing some juicing today (the icky vegetable kind) and yoga is on the agenda after leaf-raking and pumpkin carving.

My sole work goal today: clear my desk, so that I start off the week with no hidden worries that I’ve forgotten something underneath that pile. My desk is wonderfully representative of my brain. I am concise and clear and organized when I have a pen and a notebook and little else on the desk. When not a clear spot can be seen on the desk, I’m overwhelmed and struggling. By cleaning it off, I’m taking a stand against paralyzing stress and shaking my mental cobwebs loose.

The approach of gentleness, compassion and curiosity about the destructive side of my nature is a relatively new idea for me. With my family history of mental illness and substance abuse, I have operated constantly on the defensive against any suggestion or possibility that I might have my own issues. I would force march myself out of bouts of depression and make too many commitments during periods of mild mania. It was demoralizing and I was always at odds with myself, constantly battling my demons.

Now, when the depression comes, I let it roll like a gentle wave over me. I know it will pass and I remind myself to focus on one step at a time. I try to be kind, not self-flagellating. When the mania comes, I have learned to say “no” even when my impulse is to say “yes”. I enjoy the energy and the level of productivity, and take advantage of the creativity. I am lucky to be able to manage things this way. Low environmental stressors and regular exercise keep the ups and downs as hills, not mountains.

I often write of battles and fights and struggles. I am learning that being strong does not mean showing physical toughness or saying hard words. Being a true warrior means that you have the courage to face who you are and to learn to work with your weaknesses, as well as your strengths. Sometimes that just means cleaning off your desk and giving your mind space to imagine life on the other side.