When the girls were little, I signed them up for a program at the local park where they could learn to ride ponies. They sat in a barn and learned about safety, donned bike helmets and boots, and climbed atop plastic step-stools to hoist themselves up into the saddle. Over a period of weeks, they learned to groom, feed, saddle, and ride these gentle creatures while I stood and snapped pictures on the other side of the fence. After each lesson, they were excited to tell me about the ponies’ names and temperaments and the things they had learned about how to interact with them. When brushing the ponies, they knew to pat their way around the hind end so that the animals always knew where they were, and if they were walking near the ponies but in a blindspot, they were taught to do an “elephant circle” so as to be out of reach of a well-placed kick should the pony get spooked.
One thing you should know about me is that I prefer patting my way around to making elephant circles. If there is an elephant in the vicinity, I am the person who will point it out. I will tell you about it, indicate exactly where it is, tug on your sleeve to alert you, and describe it in great detail. Even if you indicate that you are not interested in anything having to do with this great beast in your midst, it is unlikely that I will stop trying to talk about it. In fact, if I am particularly affected by the sight of this elephant and you actively try to turn my attention elsewhere, I am likely to take you by the hand and lead you to it, make you stroke its leathery flesh, lean in for a sniff and ask you to look it in the eye.
It is not a characteristic of mine that all people appreciate.
The other thing you should know about me is that this characteristic is necessary for my survival.
Most of my childhood was spent hearing that crying was an unnecessary activity. That sadness and fear were altogether useless. That the preferred emotions were happiness or anger and anything else was “wallowing” or “self-pity.” From time to time there were entire herds of elephants living in my house that went unacknowledged. The adults perfected elephant circles as they went through their days, picking their way carefully through and around and underneath so as not to discuss any subject that might be uncomfortable. Living like this makes a person feel a little crazy. As a kid, I tried in vain to point out the elephants and was either ignored or reprimanded. I began to believe that I was the only one who saw them, that there was something wrong with me. Or that my ability to see them – my “sensitivity” (spoken with a sneer of derision) – was a fatal character flaw. I alternated between jumping up and down and pointing and cowering in my room wondering whether there was something seriously wrong with me. Eventually, I learned to avoid the rooms where they lived altogether and take cues from other people regarding which things were ok to speak of and which ones were not.
My tactics as an adult are quite the opposite. I have come to realize that, for me, ignoring the elephants is an exercise in self-destruction. To deny my feelings about any particular situation is to pretend that they don’t matter. So while I won’t ask you to see the elephant in the room the same way I do, or to experience the same emotions in response to it, don’t be surprised if I lead you to it and describe it in great detail so that you are forced to acknowledge that it exists. So that you might begin to understand why it is something that is important to me. So that at least we can agree on one thing – that I am not crazy. I apologize if this makes you uncomfortable, but I’ve learned that leaning into discomfort is the best way to define its edges and begin to loosen its hold on me.