I’ve got something stuck in my craw. And ironically, the song that has been going around and around in my head for the past two days is “Pompeii” by Bastille. Specifically, the following lyrics:

  • But if you close your eyes,
    Does it almost feel like
    Nothing changed at all?
    And if you close your eyes,
    Does it almost feel like
    You’ve been here before?
    How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
    How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

Yeah, I’ve been here before. And, yeah, I’m asking myself how I’m going to be positive and forward-thinking about all of it.  Bubba is on board, as are several other folks. We all agree the situation is untenable and something has to change, but the wheels are moving very slowly and if history is any indication, they will stop the vehicle well short of a solution.  Several times in the past week I have noticed my jaw set, my breathing shallow, my thoughts rotating in the same old pattern, wearing a path in my brain.  While we were making dinner together on Sunday night, I told Bubba, “I’m trying really hard not to get emotionally tied to a specific outcome.”

“Why not?” he stopped what he was doing and turned to me. “I think you SHOULD be.”

I was surprised. He is usually the guy who knows exactly what his boundaries are and how to engage with things he can control and disengage from things he can’t. He is always cautioning me that I’ll make myself crazy if I get too connected to one particular scenario in my mind.  His reaction this time only served as a reminder of how long this has gone on without any resolution, that he is just as frustrated as I am that we have acted in all the ways we know how with mindfulness and honesty and concern to no avail.

And yet, I am making myself crazy. His passion and the passion of other folks who have heretofore been quiet and complacent is only serving to reignite my commitment to sparking change. While it feels good to know that I’m not alone, that something is really wrong here, ultimately I have no say in whether things change, and I’m not willing to quit being part of the institution that so desperately needs to change. The person who has the power is a dear friend of mine and I can’t understand why he won’t do what needs to be done, but I can’t force him to do it. I have my suspicions that he is acting (or not acting) out of fear, and my intuition about these things is generally pretty clear. I know what a powerful motivator fear is and I truly understand why he would feel that way. I also have to acknowledge that, despite assurances that the wheels are turning, my faith is quickly eroding.

This lack of power to effect important change in someone else’s life is definitely a theme in my world right now. I had to laugh this morning as it occurred to me that perhaps this is a training ground for dealing with my girls and the life choices they will make without (or despite) input from me or Bubba. Right now, my boundaries are nearly nonexistent and I’m struggling to imagine what they might look like. I am certainly in need of some sort of buffer as I figure out how to be involved with the parts of this organization that are doing amazing work without feeding the part that is toxic and destructive. I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the realm of love and acceptance but the cloud of frustration that is hanging over my head is pretty vast right now.

“Use your words.”

“Can’t we discuss this?”
“How does that make you feel?”
If I had a nickel for every time I have used one of these phrases…
And of course, those phrases are pulled out of my bag when there is conflict in the house. When things are threatening to explode or have begun exploding already. But I am convinced that, as human beings, we are afraid of differing opinions and potential conflict so much that by the time we get to this point, discussion is like trying to cut a frozen cake with a plastic knife. Merely surface.
Color me guilty.
For a while now, something has been bugging me. Something about Bubba. I’ll talk to my girlfriends about it. I’ll mention it in some slight, round-the-bend, cloaked in humor or false nonchalance to him, hoping he gets the hint and suddenly decides to change his behavior. What I haven’t chosen to do is say it outright.
And all the while, I wonder. I create dialogue in my head, imagining what he would say if I said “X.” I feel like I know him pretty well after twenty-some years, so I can fill in the blanks, right? And the thing is, I am a native Idealist from the land of Idealism, which means that I want him to change because it is the Right Thing to Do, not to appease me. I want him to feel it in his heart. But I’m afraid. Afraid that he won’t care as much as I do or that he’ll somehow mock me or that he will think the entire conversation is a waste of his time, and so I keep the dialogue in my head. And the more I pretend I’m talking to him about it, the more scared I get to actually have the conversation. Because by now, I have done a lot of assuming.
So by the time I found an opportunity to have the conversation with him, I couldn’t look at him. We had gone to bed with our books, him lying on his stomach and me sitting up against the headboard, pillows propping my head and shoulders up. I looked straight forward and dove in. And I didn’t meet his eyes the entire time we talked. Even when he gave me a perfectly Bubba, absolutely authentic, thoughtful reason for behaving the way he had that caused every cell in my body to soften and round itself in recognition that this was the man I love. This compassionate, loving person who had been missing in my imaginary discussions was, in fact, here next to me, offering a scenario I couldn’t have predicted. And while he wouldn’t have prompted the conversation, he was more than willing to engage in it.
Nearly an hour later, I was left with the solid reminder that these discussions always go better in real life than they do in my head. In real life, Bubba doesn’t belittle me or mock me or refuse to deal with difficult situations. It is my fear and anticipation that creates those stumbling blocks for me.
I wonder if there is a simpler way to learn to talk about difficult issues. Talking it out is something I encourage my kids to do all the time, but I am not sure I have properly taught them how to do that. Perhaps that ought to be the next item on my to-do list.

Eve is a stubborn girl. Has been from the moment she was conceived, I’m certain. And yet, she is loathsome of conflict and confrontation. As a toddler, she didn’t like to be touched or hugged by those other two-year-olds who long for physical contact. You know – the ones who hug every other kid they see? Eve hated that and would often see them coming a mile away and make her way to me as fast as her chubby, drunken little legs could carry her to hide behind my legs in fear. She had one friend in particular – her dearest, most cherished friend – who was very physical. And from time to time, as kids of that age are prone to, they would both covet the same toy. Miss Flower would see Eve playing with something she wanted and head on over. Eve, anticipating the conflict, would close her eyes, stretch her arm out in Miss Flower’s direction and turn her head away in mute acceptance. You want what I’ve got and it’s just not worth it to me to fight for it. Here, take it.

Now, that’s not to say that Eve can’t put up a fight if there’s something she wants. But if something isn’t going her way in a social situation, it is pretty rare for her to speak up. I’m trying to change that.
A few weeks ago I had coffee with a friend who was talking about her distaste for confrontation of any kind. She described a housemate who never does her own dishes and, while it was clear that it makes her crazy, she doesn’t feel that it is worth it to have the difficult conversation it would take to change the situation. So she goes on doing this person’s dishes and fuming about it, looking forward to the day when her housemate moves out. Since then, I’ve been noticing so many other instances like this in the lives of people around me.
Why are we all so afraid of conflict?
There are times when we all just lose our ability to contain our frustration and an argument or nasty fight ensues. But how often could those major issues have been avoided if we had spoken up sooner?
As a child of the 70s, I was taught not to make waves. Be polite. Accept what you’re given. If you don’t have anything nice to say, keep your trap shut. Don’t hurt anyone else’s feelings. I took it all to heart. It got me into a lot of trouble. I found myself in places I ought not to be, in relationships with people I didn’t want to be with, all because I was too shy or fearful to speak up. And I wonder, looking at both sides of the equation, if I didn’t do more harm than good.
A few weeks ago, Eve was having trouble sleeping. She had been working hard on her final project for school and was stressed that she wouldn’t be able to finish in time. She tiptoed downstairs when she should have been fast asleep to snuggle in my lap and tell me that she felt like she was doing more than her share of the work on this project. That some of the others in her group were letting her take all the responsibility and it was weighing heavily on her shoulders. She agreed to talk to her teacher about it if I came with her. And, to her credit, she did. In front of the other members of her group. Not in a mean, spiteful way that accused others. Not with tears or whining. She simply said that she felt overwhelmed with the amount of work she was doing and wanted the others to pitch in some more. A few of the other girls acknowledged that they were letting Eve do most of the work and the teacher agreed to sit down with them and outline equal responsibilities for the remainder of the work.
Last week, after the girls presented their final project to their peers and family members, I pulled the teacher aside and thanked her. Since that discussion, Eve had not said a word about the issue, and had clearly been able to relax and complete the project without further anxiety. I was thrilled that the girls had been able to have this conversation without anger or hurt feelings.
“I think Eve learned a little something about herself, too,” her teacher confided. “One of the girls spoke up to say that the reason they let her take over was because she seems to want to be in control. She is vocal, has good ideas, and volunteers to take on a lot of responsibility. When confronted with that, Eve responded that she feels panicky if she isn’t in control and we were able to talk about how she can deal with that without it becoming a problem.”
Hmmm. That apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Maybe with examples of frank, honest discourse like this under her belt, Eve will begin to get more comfortable with confronting difficult issues. My suspicion is that, had she let this simmer a bit, she would have ended up feeling resentful and angry with her group members instead of relieved that the problem had a good resolution. In the end, the girls did some amazing work and Eve was able to articulate out loud her need to be in control.
I know that it was hard for her to talk to her teacher and her group members. I imagine her heart was racing and her palms were sweaty. But, for all of them, this was the best possible outcome, and I hope that the lesson here is that sometimes you’ve gotta make a few waves to rinse some of the junk off.

I heard someone say once that the reason we get defensive when someone insults us is because there is a part of us that believes in the veracity of the insult. Think about it. Don’t we usually come back with, “No, I’m not!” or some such defense or proof that we are not, indeed, guilty of whatever our accuser has said we are guilty of? I know I do that. Once someone says something about me (unless it’s my kids – I long ago figured out how to let go the slings and arrows of being told I’m the meanest mother there is), I am immediately driven to prove them wrong. I see my girls doing it with each other, too.

“She called me a butthead!” Lola shrieks.

“Well, are you one?” I ask.

She is offended. Until she realizes that her bottom is most definitely not on her head and giggles. I remind her that just because Eve is older than her and flung the insult with a great deal of passion, does not mean that Lola is, indeed, a butthead. And if she were one, is that something under her control or not? If not, then it isn’t much of an insult, is it? That’s like calling the dog a dog. No matter how loudly or indignantly you say it, it’s just the truth and not derogatory. It isn’t his fault he’s a dog. He just is.

Like most of my parenting tactics, however, it seems that I must repeat this speech for both girls somewhere between half a million and two billion times before they actually either recall it on their own or think long enough to apply its actual meaning to this particular situation.

Why is name-calling so effective? Who first discovered that it had the power to stop another human in their tracks? Name-calling is like the sound bite of relationships – rarely accurate but effective at grabbing attention. I know that when my girls descend into “jerk” and “idiot” they have simply stopped attempting to solve whatever misunderstanding they are having and are simply trying to get the point across that they are MAD. I’m pretty sure the names are designed to hurt feelings, too, although neither of my girls would admit that they purposely wanted to hurt her sister. When we all sit down later to discuss the issue, sometimes I ask them for a character sketch of a jerk or an idiot or a butthead and, once we have all of the traits down on paper, it turns out that neither of them fits the description. So why is it so much easier to label other people with mean names than it is to say we are simply angry or frustrated or hurt?

I wonder if it is because calling someone else a name puts all of the blame outside ourselves. If we admit that we are upset, not only does that make us seem vulnerable, it somehow invites personal responsibility into the mix. If you are a jerk, however, it must be all your fault and I am teflon-girl. Certainly when I am accused of being a jerk or an idiot I have a moment, however fleeting, of panic. Is it all my fault? Did I make a huge mistake? What have I done?

I suppose that if I remember to think about the fact that I am probably not really an idiot (or the worst mother who ever walked the face of the planet), I might see that I have hurt or confused this other person inadvertently and, by not becoming defensive, maybe I can find a way to solve the problem without hurling some insult back first.
Easier said than done, but this is one of the opportunities having Eve and Lola has afforded me to look at my own behavior. Hopefully, it won’t take me more than half a million reminders to do things a little differently.