Response-Ability – How we make ourselves victims without realizing it

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You create your world. Why not own it?

RESPONSE-ABILITY

One of the trends I find alarming in our current culture is the reluctance of people to take responsibility or to respond with care to each other. I hear a lot of self-justification, mind-reading, defensiveness, blaming and complaining; which is why relationships, friendships, business connections and day-to-day living are not going well for a lot of people. Their lives are not about trying to understand their own role in the problem so they can deal with it effectively, but to push the responsibility off onto someone or something else, and avoid it. 

The problem with this kind of thinking is that each of us gets the results of what we do or don’t do, whether we try to blame someone else, ignore the problem or run away from it. No matter what, sooner or later, the problem lands right back in our laps, usually made worse by the avoidance. Often, in an attempt to avoid responsibility, we try to control someone else and make the problem theirs. 

Who’s in control; and whose problem is it?

Most of us feel more comfortable being in control of the situations we’re in, so much so, that we often pretend we’re in control when we’re really not, or try to control situations that we cannot reasonably handle. 

Remember, you are never in control of another person, even if it seems that you are and that they wish you to be. You can’t control who you’ll meet, when or where you’ll meet them, how anyone else will feel, or what they’ll do.

Self-control is the only real control you have. However, it is all the control you’ll need. By taking responsibility for your own actions, words, and reactions, you can greatly stack the odds in your own favor. I think of responsibility as response-ability: the ability to respond to life, people and events. While you may not be responsible for most of what happens, you are completely responsible for your reaction to what is happening. For example, if you are out with a new person and that person acts in some rude, uncaring or unacceptable manner, you have the ability to respond in many ways.

But if we don’t like something, the knee-jerk reflex in our society is to blame something or someone else. “My life is ruined because my parents weren’t attentive.” “I’m not doing well at work because my boss is a jerk.” Rather than taking responsibility, we position ourselves as victims, the effects of someone or something else. In so doing, we’ve set ourselves up as powerless.

Whenever you’re in a difficult situation, you can react irresponsibly, getting defensive, angry or running away. Many people do this without thinking, and it makes the situation worse. The response-able person will consider his or her options. Think about what your responsibility is in this situation, and take charge of your words and actions. If you respond thoughtfully and with integrity and honor, most other people will calm down and interact with you on that higher level. Being response-able means using all your self-control, skill and knowledge to take care of yourself, even when it’s difficult.

“Although you may not always be able to avoid difficult situations, you can modify the extent to which you can suffer by how you choose to respond to the situation.”
― Dalai Lama XIVThe Art of Happiness

The Rewards Of Not Taking Responsibility

We live in a society that actually rewards not being responsible in some contexts more than being responsible. When you are rewarded for being irresponsible, you perpetuate it. “Who do we blame? “How can we get some money from them?” And, “How do I make sure I maintain that state of being not-responsible?” “Because if I become responsible for my life, I will lose all the benefits of being at effect.”  A life lived in fulfillment and joy is a life lived by being at cause.

For example, someone may stay in an abusive relationship feeling victimized because she/he gets sympathy from friends because of it, or maybe even an invitation to be on Dr. Phil! This is what’s called secondary gain. Psychology talks about secondary gain a lot these days because people receive benefit from having a problem that outweighs getting rid of the problem. So they’re better off keeping their problems, and it’s easier to keep your problems if you don’t claim any responsibility for them. A life lived in fulfillment and joy is a life lived by being at cause.

The Benefits Of Response-Ability

If you’re over 21, you’re an adult—like it or not. That means you are responsible for everything you say and do, and you are in charge of yourself and your life. Love is one of the areas of life where many of us have trouble remembering that we are adults, with responsibility.

Realize that you are the creator of your experiences.  And if you want a different result, you are the one who can – and must – cause it to be different.

For many people, this is a radical way to see the world and their lives. On the one hand, it’s a great freedom to know that you really are in control, that you really are the cause – not the victim – of events in your life.  At the same time, it can feel like a lot of responsibility. For some people, overwhelming and confusing: “How could I have possibly caused that?!?”

Often, people react to the idea of responsibility as they would to the words “fault” or “blame”; as though saying “you’re responsible for your life” means “you should feel guilty about your life.” This sense of responsibility is childlike. It reacts and responds as though an angry parent were standing over you saying “Who’s responsible for this mess?”.

Adult responsibility is something else altogether. It is really response-ability; that is, the ability to respond to life. Rather than placing blame, this way of thinking acknowledges personal power. Response-ability is the capacity to choose. Out of many possible responses, I can always choose the one I make. Response-ability is remembering to be in charge and make careful, thought-out choices.

What seems hard at first for most people is understanding the need to take this kind of responsibility. The expression “taking responsibility” is ironically misleading, because actually, we have no choice. We are always responding to situations, even if our response is to do nothing. It does little good to worry about what other people are choosing because you really haven’t any say about it. Your responsibility is to take care of yourself; no one else can do that for you. 

When you respond with the best of your ability, and accept and handle whatever consequences you have helped to create, you not only benefit from your choices, but your life and relationships will improve immensely.

Generation B for Blame: Waiting on the World to Change

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A Millennial friend of mine whose empathetic perspective I admire and never tire of recently posted this:

“Hi, millennials! We don’t like being judged and having older generations throwing their crap at us. So idea: Let’s not do that to future younger generations. Break the cycle. Next idea: Stop blaming older generations for our current problems. Yeah, maybe they messed things up, but hey we’re gonna mess stuff up, too. And I know I certainly don’t want to be judged and blamed by future generations for the election of that monster we call Trump. Because you know that very well could be our legacy, right? RIGHT?”

As an (older) dad of a Gen Z eleven-year-old girl, having essentially skipped a generation, (god, I hope that “Z” classification doesn’t mean she’ll be the last generation on the planet!) I feel generational blame rather keenly.  And so I offer my perspective to that of my friend, and for her friends.

Every generation
Blames the one before,
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door.
-Mike & the Mechanics

Those that came of age in the 60’s and 70’s are the worst critics of those who came of age in the 00’s and 10’s, but their reasons may surprise you.

The ’60/’70 Gen, the children of the post-WWII generation were the “hippies and radicals” that would ruin society.  Judged more by the length of their hair and their music than their race or economic background, they were not just criticized by their elder generation, they were reviled and even hated–blamed for the destruction of all that they and their parents worked for.  It was far more than disapproval, it was war.  And it was ugly.  And think of the WWII Generation, they literally just saved the world and now these damn kids are going to ruin it!

Trump is most compared now to Nixon and for good reason.  For Gen ’60/’70, they killed Kennedy (their Obama) and gave them Nixon.  The parallels from then to now are truly astounding, and it looks for all the world that we haven’t gone anywhere.

Gen ’60/’70 fought, rebelled, and even died for their convictions for a free society and for open loving.  They accomplished quite a lot (more than they give themselves credit for), but not all.

They imagined a future for their children; a bright, caring, peaceful, (hairy) and loving future.  Those children are Gen ’00/’10, our Millennials.  I want you to know that you, my millennial friends, are their golden children.  The special ones who would live the beautiful lives that they dreamed for you.  (Unfortunately, they told you that a little too often.)

When they blame you, it’s not because they see you as failures, it’s because they saw you as their hope, one they blithely embraced and never stopped to doubt.  They look at you and say, “Why aren’t you living that life we wanted for you, what’s wrong with you?!”

You can’t be blamed for the life you have any more than they can be blamed for reaching too high for you.  The world is a tough place.

When your elders criticize you, [minus the perennial assholes of every generation] it is not the criticism of hate and derision that they once endured. No, and you must realize this; it is the criticism reserved for those we love and cherish and want the best for.  It isn’t right, but it’s human.

At the bottom of their anger and disappointment, is the fear that THEY have failed YOU.

Maybe the world still has Trumps and Nixons, maybe we still hate and kill each other.  But, what I wish I could tell your critical elders is that they did NOT fail their golden children.  Boomers, though they didn’t inherit the perfect world you promised to bring them, you did bring to the earth and rear a generation who believe in equality, who value peace, and who trust in love, just the way you hoped they would.  You persevered, and so will they.  Ease up.

I also harbor a hope that you, millennials, can reconsider your pre-contempt and distrust of your elders, who like you, took a naive shot at utopia and missed.  You are SO MUCH more alike than not.  I wish you could see yourselves from my eyes.  Anyone who is really paying attention knows, you already have what is most important.

And when the time comes, take my friend’s advice and cut the Gen Z a break.

The Drowning Woman: A Rescuer’s Story

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THE RESCUER
There are times, few and shining when life’s struggles are overcome, and all at once happiness has no alternative but to grow.
Once, a long time ago, but not so far off as you would think, there was a young lad and a fine Spring day.  His bright outlook and innate wisdom, gifts more of nature than of experience, had brought him to just such a time.
In the earliest part of the afternoon, he followed a woodland path through the bristling August countryside, under a great blue sky, that led to a pretty little glade on the far side of a brook.  It was a bright place, peaceful, safe and alive, and he knew he belonged there.
He walked along thinking about his foregone troubles, and how he had dodged them or tricked them into disappearing. He was a happy lad, perhaps happiest when he was alone with nature as he was on this day.
Just as he began to think how little of his joy he shared with others, he came upon the brook that was deep and wide like a pond at one point and so clear that it returned a beautiful blue to the open sky. Spanning the width, and very low to the slow-moving water, was an old wooden bridge, the kind they used to carry livestock and farm folk to and from the town. As the young man approached the pond he heard a dreadful moaning and thrashing of water. It sounded as if some animal had been trapped in the mud and was desperately trying to free itself.
He stepped onto the bridge and could see that it wasn’t an animal at all but a girl; she was quite beautiful by the look of it, although it was hard to tell for she appeared to be drowning.  Her face was set, cold and hard. Her brow was furrowed almost to the point of being grotesque, but her features were fair and childlike.  Her slender arms and shoulders were visible only now and then as her clenched fists pounded and thrashed the water in a desperate attempt to keep her head above it. Her garments dragged her down in a spot where cut flowers lay strewn; she was like a vision of Ophelia waked from her deadly reverie.  The ferocity of her flailing was truly frightening.  It was a mortal battle, an ugly dance of death.
The young man leaned his elbows on the railing of the bridge and lazily crossed his feet. He called out to her, “I’ve seen people drowned before, you know.” He saw himself in his mind leaping headfirst into the water at first sight of the troubled young maiden to rescue her the way any gallant would. He shifted his weight and crossed the other foot. You see, he had indeed seen people drown before, and by experience learned the danger in attempting a rescue.
The beautiful girl gasped and choked and made pitiful gurgling noises in her throat as she twisted and splashed under the warm summer sky. He spoke to her again, “If you were going to jump in you might at least have learned to swim first,” no reply. It was a terribly cruel thing to say to someone in mortal peril. “It takes a dreadfully long time to drown you know, it’s a very messy business,” he added.  He could afford to be flippant, he didn’t plan on rescuing her. He intended only to walk on by and tend to his own business, no doubt the same way everyone else had that day.
Besides, he held the belief that anyone in trouble wanted it that way, for why else with they have it in the first place. He knew for himself that all the trouble in his life he brought upon himself, and all his problems solved were solved alone. Still, he didn’t really want to see her drown. He almost regretted not trying to save her, as he turned to go. She was so beautiful and so helpless, like a monarch butterfly caught in a web. He loved Monarch butterflies.
Just then, she caught his eye. Her eyes were a cold gray-blue, but her glance was warm like sunset, highlights touched the black of her pupils and made two stars in the night sky, distant and clear. He remembered her then; having never seen her before, even so, he remembered.  Two children sitting by the still waters dreaming each their own dreams, yet dreaming together.  His gaze softened and warmed her a little. Everything was still as they watched each other, everything but the rhythmic sound of her thrashing.
The young lad inhaled sharply and looked skyward. He let out a long sigh then said aloud to himself, “How silly of me to think I was done with trouble.”  He turned and raised his voice so that she would hear him over the thrashing. “Don’t get the idea that this is as easy as it seems. Rescuing is dangerous, and it just might kill us both.”  He spoke again to himself, “I must be a fool for trying this again. She’ll only drown, I know it.”  But inside he had already decided that this one wasn’t going to drown.
He dove in and glided effortlessly across the pond to where the girl was. As he reached her, a cold fist smashed across his face, a rake of nails tore across his cheek as he was pulled by the hair down beneath the foaming water. He tried to grab her waist from the back and force his way to the surface but a knee planted itself firmly in his chest and the wind was driven from his lungs. He tried again to surface but was scratched and bruised until he was finally kicked to the bottom of the pond. Feeling dizzy and out of breath, he tried to swim away from the frenzied legs that pummeled him into the stream bed pinning him to the muddy bottom.
The young lad knew just what to do to save himself, he pulled his legs in tight to his chest, planted two feet firmly on the bottom of the pond, and pushed as hard as he could. He came up with a great gasp into the sunlight. As he fell back into the water, he realized that he was standing in water that barely reached his chest. The water level where the girl was thrashing was well below her shoulders!
The young man walked over to the girl and stopped just outside her reach. “What are you doing?!” he said, “Stand up, the water isn’t even deep enough to drown you!”
“I can’t!” she said.
“Why not!” he said, annoyed, rinsing the muck from his face and clothes.
“I’m… afraid!  she said between gulps of water.
“You see me standing, don’t you?”
“Yes.”
“Well then, stand up. The water isn’t deep enough to drown you. It’s not over your head, it never was.  JUST STAND UP!  All you have to do is plant your feet and stand.  Come out of this cold water, and we’ll find a nice grassy hill and dry out in the sun.”
“I can’t.” said the girl.
“Try it.” he said.
“I can’t, I’m too afraid!
The young man struck his palm against his forehead. He shook his head and slowly trudged back to shore.
“Please help me!” she said, and as he walked he thought he wasn’t quite sure what she meant by help.
The poor confused fellow consoled himself while drawing himself out of the water by pointing out the fact that drowning people are not the most rational kind of person one might meet. Besides, it was clear to him now that this was not the proper technique for rescuing, despite the popular traditions. He shook off some of the water, wiped the blood from his cheek and limped back along the bridge. There was no question of giving up. What he started, he had to finish.
He sat himself down, dangling his feet over the edge of the little wooden bridge, watching her struggle. He watched silently for a long time, trying to remember her, watching her every expression. After a long while, he said, “What made you decide to drown?”
“Because my mother drowned,” she replied.
He wasn’t really expecting an answer to the question. He leaned toward her, and his voice grew very soft and warm.
“That’s really very sad, but it doesn’t mean that you have to as well.” he said.
He thought of how good it feels to speak from the heart, to speak from the house of kindness and not out of defense. He truly cared for this girl, for her own sake, and it made the best in him show.
“Don’t be so smug, and stop patronizing me; shut up and help me, please!”
The young man’s face turned sullen, the wound on his cheek began to bleed again. There was a long pause. Finally, she spoke,
“You don’t understand, she was my mother; I loved her.  They came, they did terrible things to her, unspeakable things, and she drowned!  Now I drown.”
Her head submerged completely for a moment before she resurfaced and resumed her pounding.
“You don’t know what it’s like to carry this!  My fear is SO heavy!  I am so sorry!
“It isn’t your fault; it was your choice.” he said.
“You will walk by like everyone else!”
“I am not everyone else.” He was beginning to take this exchange quite personally.
“Do you know how it feels to drown?” she said.
His look was midway between love and contempt as he spoke, “Do you know how it feels to hold out the key to someone’s prison and watch them turn away?”
She…drowned.”  She said it slowly and looked right at him so that he could see deep inside her. He didn’t need to ask if she had once tried to rescue her, it was understood. Both of them knew how hard rescues were, and how they never seem to work.
The sun was high in the sky now. The young man laid across the hot planks of the bridge and began to dry in the sun. The light, he thought to himself, from that great fountain filters down to touch every living thing. He was staring at the light pouring through the tops of the great Oaks and Maples that lined either side of the brook. The sky was a deep blue. Tufts of clouds rolled by. Across the bridge to the west was his meadow. The path sloped upward through stands of bramble and flowers, and beyond it, grassy drumlins rose that shimmered with a hint of silver. Clover, he thought.  A place bettered only in the sharing of it, he mused.
He drew a deep breath as if to drink in the sunlight. He smelled the moist earth and moss that surrounded the pond. The scent was pleasant but cool and thick. He took another breath as a warm breeze blew from the meadow, setting the leaves in motion. Its scent was of sunbaked grasses and wildflowers, the smell of summer memories; friends on the porch, sandals and swings. His mind drifted and wandered through Augusts of long ago.
A drop of cold water touched his lips and brought him back. He turned his head to watch the beautiful drowning maid. Her face was red as she snorted and spit. Her head was sinking lower in the water now, her leaden arms rhythmically pounding the surface, vaulting long splashes into the air. He turned his face back into the sun, took another breath and let out a sigh, then shot up fast,
“Damn you!” he said as he rose to his feet. “Inhale and lean back or by God, I’ll drown you myself!” This she did, and gradually the pounding subsided for the most part. She was now able to keep her nose and mouth consistently above water.

—————-

I wrote this story when I was twenty-three years old.

I never wrote the ending.  (I didn’t know how.)

I found it recently in an old journal.  Notes scribbled in the margins suggested several endings.  Neither involved the maid being “rescued” by the young lad, owing to the author believing, then as now, that it isn’t possible.  The main theme of this little tale is that we are the progenitors of our own misery, and our own sole source of rescue.  Help from others comes only in the form of support and illumination—the key for the lock, the latch for the window.  We ourselves crawl through the chinks and cross the thresholds. Do we really choose to create all the terrible things that we experience, even the ones that other people do to us?  Yes.  Not with our conscious mind certainly, that would be ridiculous.  But in the great ocean of our unconscious, that sea granted us by some unknown hand, we are the writers of the story that when told will lead us to preserve the learnings we seek.  This is the great and perilous Truth that once embraced, frees us utterly.  The boy never asked the maid how she got there or why she was drowning, he asked, “When did you decide to drown?”

ophelia-3.jpgIn one ending, she finally gives up her struggle, goes completely still and sinks to the very bottom, then she just stands up and walks out of the water.

The other takes place after several more bruising attempts at rescue and sees the battered lad walking away alone across the bridge to his beautiful sun-lit meadow, the sound of fists thumping the water slowly receding behind him.

It’s worth noting that the characters in this allegory can be seen as separate individuals (pick the one that applies to you), but also can be regarded as two warring aspects of our own psyche.

How would you end it, my friends?  My experience in life has been much like the latter ending.  What have I learned in the thirty-five years since my “young lad self” wrote it?  This:

“If you choose to help others, choose only the ones who are swimming toward you.”   

If not, you’ll find yourself buried in someone else’s darkness, and this serves no one.  In love, there are takers and there are givers.  If you are one who has built your house among takers, know that you deserve a giver.

It isn’t your fault; it was your choice.

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ADDENDUM TO: “The Drowning Woman: A Rescuer’s Story”

The more I re-read this piece the more fascinating it is to me.  It is so weird looking into my head 35 years ago, and the stunning thing is that so much of what I thought was a growth in awareness over the years was already there, it was just unproven.  (I have stood on that bridge since, more times than I would like to admit, and have also spent some time in the water.)

There is actually more to the unfinished story buried in the notes.  The two may have actually known each other, through letters only, and betrothed having never met.  And it offers some very timely insights into how we know each other through words conveying how we want to be perceived as opposed to the visceral connection of being present with each other.

The notion that we must take responsibility (response-ability) for our lives and embrace the belief that we choose or are “at cause” with all the events of our lives (somehow), is the very thing that gives us our personal POWER and allows us to create the outcomes we desire and frees us from a self-imposed and unjust victimhood (drowning).  Cool stuff!  Smart lad!

If you are curious, and you can read my ancient chicken scratch, have at!  The first and last pages containing notations are pictured here.

So I further the question, “How would you end it?”

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The Trouble With Texting

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SMS (short message service) began in 1992 and was initially a way of sending brief informational messages like “I’ll be late” or “there’s an emergency” or when you need a quick “yes” or “no” answer.  It has evolved now into… well, I don’t have to tell you what.  There’s no question it’s useful, I use it all the time now, but it is SO easy we let it rob from us the quality of our human communication.  SUCH an easy crutch to use NOT to face each other, NOT to be spontaneous, immediate, genuine–REAL.

Professor Albert Mehrabian has pioneered the understanding of communications since the 1960s.  Mehrabian’s research provided the basis for the widely quoted statistic for the effectiveness of spoken communications.

Here is a representation of Mehrabian’s findings on the communications of feelings and attitudes:

  • 7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken. (or, presumably, written in a text?)
  • 38% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said; tone, inflection, etc.).
  • 55% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression. (This includes body language and physiological ‘presence’)

Think about this the next time you try to explain your feelings and attitudes by texting.  Think about how you can pop that paltry 7% all the way up to 45% just by pressing a button on your phone.  With this bonus, do you really have to fake not seeing a text just to give yourself time to think about what you want to say?  Your voice is beautiful, and the way you search for the right words says as much as the words you find.  Any premeditated communication bears an inherent falseness to it.  Do you really want that burden?

The written word can certainly be powerful in expression if used in poetry or full-blown, quality prose, but how many excellent writers are out there?  I’m the guy whose texts are very long and complete, with fully spelled words and correct punctuation when I try to express my feelings and attitudes.  It often makes me feel self-conscious, wordy, and verbose, but I don’t care.  Having my meaning heard as I meant to convey it is important to me.

Truncated, abbreviated and “emoticated” messages mock the beauty of language do they not?   How many times have you said less or left out a thought because it was too long to text?  How do others perceive you when your average response is under five words?  What kind of value will they grant you if you present yourself as the equivalent of a coloring book outline?  And, what treacherous depths of misunderstanding will you never even be aware of?

I’m as guilty as you, nearly.  I use it.  I do my disciplined best to preserve language, craft my words, use metaphor, allusion, (and try not to use) etc.  But, if you take the time to write well when you text, you will more often find yourself saying, “Aw hell, I’ll just call and talk.”

I don’t know about you, but I like hearing peoples’ voices.

 

Mortal Decisions: How life can turn in an instant

 

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The warm and sunny February day was not to be denied.  I left my computer and my phone and went for a walk today.  I usually choose the rural direction from my house, quiet roads with no one to see me, but today I decided to walk toward the human race.  I’ve driven Searsburg Road up from town a thousand times, heading to and from home, but realized I had never actually walked it.

One particular spot stopped me cold, I had stood there before.  I was next to a low flat trailer home on the edge of a rise, I turned to take a picture of it.  I didn’t notice a man standing on the porch until he spoke in that slightly defensive tone you reserve for strangers staring at your house.

“Can I help you?”

“I had an accident here a few years ago.”

I had always meant to knock on their door and explain the tire tracks in the snow that went right up to his front wall, so this was a small but welcome closure.  I briefly recounted the accident, one where no one was seriously hurt and how it nearly ended with my Prius in his living room.

“Oh, yeah, I remember, geez we only left the house for a little while and when we came back we were like, what happened here?”

We laughed and shook hands.  His name was Nick.  “Now if you ever do find a car in your living room, you’ll know what happened.”

What happened was that as I was driving home on a very cold fifteen-degree day in January five years ago, black ice on the clear pavement and a wheel grabbing mealy slush on the shoulder, I saw the car in front of me, about a hundred yards away, suddenly swerve to miss an oncoming vehicle that had crossed into his lane.  This Subaru station wagon now headed for me and began to fish-tail as the driver woke up and over-corrected.

As the car got closer, I could see that the driver was a woman, and alone.  I watched her swerve back and forth across the road and my options dwindled quickly.  A Prius is little more than a glorified golf cart, they don’t GO when they need to go and they do not STOP worth a god damn.  There was no way I could slow down enough to lessen injury, if I braked too hard I’d spin myself.  Our closing speed was about 80 mph.  I tried to time my passage by her, between the swerves, but she fish-tailed with her driver’s side broadside right across my lane.  Nowhere to go.

There were trees and a telephone pole off a four-foot embankment to my right—no escape there it seemed.  To pull into the snowbank would clearly pull both wheels into the ditch and I would end up sideways headed straight into a large tree that would take the top of my car off, and my head along with it.

The only reasonable option was to hit the car.  Cars crumple, airbags go off, this would easily be survivable and I might even walk away unhurt.  I resolved to hit right behind her driver’s door square on her passenger door—the soft spot, don’t hit the wheels, don’t hit the driver.  I had just totaled another Prius the year before, because, guess what, the brakes failed.

“Goddammit, I don’t want to total another God damn Prius!  This idea makes sense, but it just feels wrong.  I WILL NOT DO THIS.”

I glanced to my right and saw the last fleeting chance at a trajectory that MIGHT take me between the trees and the pole.  It’s not an easy sell when your brain tries to tell your body, one that spent a lifetime learning to keep the car ON the road, to suddenly fly your car off an embankment and into the midst of big scary trees.  In the fraction of a second left of my fleeting window of opportunity, my thoughts returned to hitting the Subaru’s passenger door.

( “GARY. DO. NOT. HIT. THAT. CAR!” )

“Fuck it.”

Still going 45 mph, I yanked the wheel just past the passing bark of the last tree and aimed for the right side of the distant telephone pole, then felt the wheels leave the ground.  There was a lot of snow, and I honestly thought it would cushion the fall.  It did not.  I lost both bumpers on my little sleigh ride and missed the pole by less than six inches.  Next, I realized that there was no way my Prius was going to stop before going into the house.  In the spirit of “I really don’t give a fuck anymore,” I turn the car sideways intending to stop like a downhill skier after the finish line.  It actually worked.  A Prius will stop…sideways.

The car still ran, and I walked away although my back was pretty messed up.  The young woman, barely past twenty, was in a ditch by now on the other side of the road.  I approached and asked if she was okay as she got out.

“Yeah, I’m fine… I was working late last night and I… I was so tired I…”

“Don’t worry about it (YOUR insurance will pay for everything) as long as you are okay, you need to sit down?”

“I’m okay, I just don’t know what’s supposed to happen now… my dad will be…”

“Don’t sweat it, I’ll call 911, they’ll send a police car, they’ll write up an accident report, you call your dad, he’ll call the insurance company, it will all be okay.  They’ll fix your car, everything will be fine, okay?”

“Okay.”

I peered through her dirty windows into her station wagon.  I could see that one half of her back seat was down and could make out that there was junk all over.

“Hey, it could be worse, ” I said.  “You could have a kid in the back there.”

“Oh, I think he’s alright.  Just got jostled around a bit.”

“…you what?”

She opened the rear driver’s side door, the one I was about to hit, and there was a seven-month-old little boy in a car seat right behind the driver’s seat.  Right in the “sweet spot.”

“…umm… Let’s get him out of there and out of this cold.”

It was cold, but only then did I go numb.  Neighbors came out to let her stay in their house to wait.  I stayed out and directed traffic around her car which was partly in the road and just over a blind rise.

I can tell you, as sure as I am writing this, that I would have killed that baby, had I decided to hit the car rather than taking the harder choice.

Do you know how people who experience tragedies sometimes spend a lifetime asking themselves “Why did I do this”, “Why didn’t I do that?”  They torture themselves with “what ifs” because they know that one tiny decision could have changed the course of their life or that of someone else.  I know that this outcome was a happy one, but those what ifs still make my blood run cold, even five years later.

I never told the girl just how close she came to losing her child, or spending the rest of her life hating and questioning herself (or how close I came to it).  I spared her that.

It makes me think, though, how easily we forget how incredibly powerful we are; how with every passing instant we can change the course of our destinies.  I think about this most in relationships, especially these days, of how if our choices are not genuine and right, or if they are made out of panic and fear instead of love and compassion, how they can injure the lives of those around us, and perhaps rob us of our own best destiny.

Have you ever noticed that the decisions that are hardest, so often turn out to be the right ones?

Do we speak up or hide our feelings?  Do we answer or remain silent?  Do we stay or do we walk away?  One quick turn of the wheel and our lives diverge forever.  Or is there a way to circle around again?  I’d like to think there is, but I am also a dreamer.

I’m glad I met Nick today, I’m glad I chose to walk toward people instead of away, I’m glad I solved his mystery, and I’m glad for my small closure.  I’m glad I turned the wheel on that very cold day.

I can’t explain how connected I feel to that little boy, I think about him a lot.  He would be as old now as my daughter is in this photo.

I would like to meet him someday.

Just to see how he’s doing.

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Cutting Cords: The Right Way to Say Goodbye

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Saying “goodbye” and “letting go” are not the same thing.  Knowing the difference can mean everything to you.

Cutting ourselves loose from friends and intimates is something that we all must learn to do at some point in our lives, and it’s one of those things that there are no lessons for.  We inevitably make mistakes.

Saying goodbye is difficult, but being said goodbye to is much harder, and that is what makes saying goodbye so hard to do.  Deserved or not, we are all reluctant to hurt another.  We tell ourselves it is for fear of reprisal and discomfort, but that’s not really true is it?  We’re really afraid of being wrong, of hurting a good soul wrongly.

I hardly need to say that there are sound reasons for us to say goodbye to another, of removing him or her from our lives.  People who hurt us, physically, mentally, emotionally, or those who are a danger to our growth and happiness must be removed—that‘s the no-brainer of goodbye.

Other times, we must accept the fact that we will grow apart from people we’ve had significant relationships with, and understand when someone no longer positively affects our lives.  We owe it to ourselves not to let them hinder our growth.

As you move forward in life, you may need to change your circle of friends.  Everyone around you isn’t interested in seeing you improve.

Still others may be positive forces in your life that you do not yet understand.  Those that challenge you, lead you to face your demons, love you deeper than platitudes, or offer you things you are not ready for.  These can be family, friends, or lovers.  Saying goodbye to these important people can be more dangerous for you than any of the others.  But how do you know?

The worst goodbyes are the ones that neither of you choose; circumstance does the choosing.

My childhood friend Pete was taller than I, a grade up from me, and went to a different elementary school.  He was raw, guileless, and wildly creative; we were thick as thieves.

With Pete nothing was as it was, it was always something greater.  I grew up in a rural suburb adjacent to a dairy farm and endless pastures.  Pete lived just up the road.  We were cornstalk fighting ninjas; jungle explorers searching for a lost Goddess; spear throwing aboriginals who flung thoughts with our spears; we braved bat nests and climbed mythic trees; we spent our idle times wondering what the world would be like if we lived it upside down, what colors smelled like and how sound tasted.  Pete and I ruled our hundred-acre wood.  We would return at dusk for dinner, drenched in glories.

There were only two summers before Pete’s family moved to Massachusetts. It may as well have been Asia.  Our parents weren’t close friends and in those days, the only choice for a kid was pen pals.  We both knew it wouldn’t due and agreed not too.  I stood at the end of his driveway as he jumped into the rear of their packed station wagon.  As the window closed I heard him say, “Aw.. goodbye Gar.”  I never heard anything so final.  He put his hands on the glass as they drove away—and the cord snapped.  I kicked the roadside gravel all the way home in the late August dust.  I never saw him again.

To this day, that is the image my mind carries as “goodbye”.

Even as an adult, I look to my friendship with Pete for teaching me where I thrive…imaginative, playful souls who cannot forget the child inside.  My profession in the arts allows me to collect them, which is a privilege, but true connections are still rare.

When I grew up, goodbye was as final as a gunshot, if you didn’t have a number or address that was it.  Today our vast virtual connections soften goodbye and makes it too easy a choice.  We no longer need to decide, we just fade.

The saddest goodbyes are the ones never spoken.  The ones where you never get to hear your crime; what you said, what you did, why you weren’t enough.  There is a great difference between hurt and damage.  This goodbye does damage.  It is a cruelty that exposes what you are left to conclude was a lie; that you were ever truly close, that you ever truly mattered enough to warrant their discomfort.  A goodbye needs to be spoken; there is no other way.

s goodbye.jpgA woman I once loved beyond measure told me this before she left my life, “I have decided that you will be alright, that you will find someone just like me and that you will be fine, I know it.”  As hard as it was to hear, it was one of the kindest, most loving things anyone has ever said to me.  She knew the right way to say goodbye and cared enough to do it.  It was her words that allowed me to move on.

Unspoken goodbyes land in me as betrayal.  I’ve had my share.

I remember my first marriage counseling session, where after an initial forty-five minutes of me brightly bringing him up to speed on my life, my work, friendships and relationships (who doesn’t like to talk about themselves, right?), I looked up and saw him staring at me, then he said,

“Wow.  So.  You’ve dealt with a lot of betrayal in your life…”

“Say What?”  It was an eye opener for me.

There was no sense or use in wearing that as an identity, but I have become smarter about recognizing it and learned that it is the denial of it that is dangerous.  I know its effect now too, for me, it makes me numb and drains all the color from a person.  (This feeling is ungood and unfair.  Sometimes those who are heartless once cared too much.)

I will always choose to be hurt rather than betrayed.  I think anyone would.

No matter if goodbye is your choice or another’s, you still both share it.  It creates an absence only; it is then up to you to resolve it.  Saying goodbye is different than letting go.  You’re never done until you have cut the cords that connected you and bound you to each other.

Unresolved goodbyes eat your cells.  They create a “dis-ease” and a host of stresses and mind-body trauma that many believe creates disease.  In any case, it is decidedly unhealthy and must be dealt with.  Literally dealt with, not mused over, denied and forgotten—that will put you in a cancer ward.

cords.jpgThere is an ancient Hawaiian ritual called “Ho’oponopono” that I have used.  It is considered a forgiveness ceremony.  It is somewhat complicated and counter-intuitive so I won’t attempt to explain it here, but suffice it to say that these cords cannot be cut with anger, fear, or resentment.  They can only be cut with love, compassion, and forgiveness.  This is the way to let go.  (Nothing is easy is it? Yeah, tell me about it.)

There is an advantage here, however, so cut those cords, cut all of them and don’t worry about whether you are wrong about goodbye or not, because an extraordinary thing will happen if you are.  The cords you truly need will grow back.  You may or may not have that person in your life again, as you or they choose, but those cords that represent truth will always reach and find their way back.  Love is not diminished, like Shakespeare said, “It is an ever-fixed mark, that looks upon tempests and is not shaken.”

Don’t mistake this for an addiction to self-damage by way of repeated attraction to dangerous or abusive people.  You must learn to discern this for yourself, and if you are one who does it—you must stop that.

I do a lot of reassessing after New Years so I’ve been thinking about all of my goodbyes, the ones I would be glad to have back and the ones I am glad I don’t.  All of them, all together are easy now to picture.  We are all within social media’s easy reach (though I have yet to find Pete).  There are a number of them I have reclaimed, and still others I know I will yet. Even those that have passed on; I can still feel their presence.  They’re all still here.  So what is real, what is permanent?

If we could be honest with ourselves and face down the real lie, we would know this:

There is no such thing as goodbye.

There is only hello.

Where, and when, and whether you say it is always up to you.

 

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As I have been thinking of my “disconnections” recently, a Beatles song keeps playing in my head—not “Let it Be”—it’s called “Hello, Goodbye”.

 

 

Helping Hands: 9 Ways Helping Others is Not Good.

helping hands4 (1)In Catholic school first grade, they taught us about sin.

Sister Mary Somethingorother drew a picture of a soul on the chalkboard that looked just like the outline of a t-shirt. Then she made little specks, like stains on a shirt, and called them Venial Sins; these were little sins like lying or picking on your little brother. These, she said, God would forgive if we did our penance for it. Then she turned the chalk on its side and made a big blob and told us this was a Mortal Sin, like killing someone (or spilling a bowl of soup on your shirt–presumably); these, she said, God would never forgive and he (always “he”) would send us to Hell where we would burn in fire and agony for all of eternity with no hope of ever getting out.

Not meaning to be cheeky, but nonetheless compelled, I asked her, “Why is it that God asks us to forgive others no matter what, but he never forgives people who do mortal sins?” She looked at me crossly and said, “Because you are not God, Master Izzo.” I think that was the moment that Catholicism fell apart for me. (I’m not a dogma kind of guy, though I respect those who are.)  I did, however, become more careful when eating soup.

With five other siblings, my mother gave us baths in groups of three until we were too old for that sort of thing. Being a middle kid, I always got the shallow end; it was a big deal for me when I finally got to take a bath alone. I loved baths. The tub became an entire universe all my own, a place to think and imagine. I would keep adding hot water as it got tepid, keeping it as hot as I could stand it. Sometimes I’d overdo it, get dizzy, and experience an excruciating thirst. I would run the cold water in a tiny stream and put my mouth under the faucet, letting the cold-water trickle down my throat—it was true bliss! Really, there’s nothing like it. If you’ve ever stayed too long in a hot tub and reached for an ice-cold beer, you know what I mean!

As I did this, I would think about the souls in Hell, of what it must be like to be burning alive and to have that agony for all of eternity. Trying to imagine what eternity would be like, and burning for that long would blow my little catholic boy mind. I mean, would you get used to burning after a few centuries? Would they make it so that you couldn’t ever get used to it? How could anyone ever do something bad enough to deserve that? I thought that they must be very, very thirsty.

So as the cold water trickled down, I would ask God to send my cold drink to one of the souls in Hell. I would say, “I know that I am enjoying this—and oh man is it good—but I’m asking you please to send this feeling to just one (or maybe two?) of those burning people in Hell.” I did this at every bath for some time.

My saintly reverie would eventually be interrupted when my mother walked down the hall and banged on the door, realizing I was still in the tub.

(Bang-bang-bang!) “Gary! Are you still in there!? Come out of there before you turn into a prune! What are you doing in there so long?? “

(Defying your God and sending a cold drink to those poor bastards he locked away in Hell.) “Nothin’.”

I never asked anything from those anonymous souls, or from God or anyone else for my help–I just wanted to do it. I thought that God wouldn’t be too happy about my request seeing as how he sent them there in the first place, and that I would probably have to pay for it somewhere down the line, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to help.

I have a strong resonance with “lost souls”, always have; not sure why. I’m not saying that their damned, but I think maybe that’s the connection, literally—like a cord. I found that if you put enough lost souls in one place, they’re not lost anymore. You get a kind of Neverland.

I’ve also found that having a helpful nature isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, at least not for the unwary.

I get to help a lot of people in my work in the theatre, I guess that’s one of the reasons I chose it. I’m no Mother Teresa, but I’ve done well; I’ve saved careers, relationships, probably even lives. I’ve also lost a great many precious things for myself by helping in the wrong way.

Nobody likes needing help; nobody likes asking for help. I definitely include myself in this.  We all like to imagine that where we have come, and who we have become, is the sole result of our own work and effort. We work hard, that should be enough, right? True, everything we are is the result of our work—no one can do that work for us. But who grants us the opportunity to do the work, the tools to work, how to work those tools, guidance on which direction to work to meet our own self-appointed outcomes? The reality is that none of us gets anywhere without allies, those around us that for some reason unknown to us, or perhaps even to themselves, are compelled to help us out.

Accepting help can be dangerous. Manipulation often disguises itself as aid and support from those who seek to take advantage of us. And worse, this isn’t always done with malicious intent. Some people engage in helping others in order to prove their worth to themselves without ever realizing it, and this can also be unhealthy.

I’ve been a White Knight, a Rescuer, and a Fixer; the hell they have wrought in my life cured me of these things long ago. I have nothing to prove anymore, and I am well convinced of my worth.

Why did helping certain people cost me so dearly?

I remember many times determining to help someone, knowing that they needed help; knowing I had the ability and power to help them, knowing that their particular outcome didn’t matter to me, that it was their outcome, their choice not mine; knowing I would have to challenge them harshly; knowing it would be difficult for them, knowing that I would never really matter to them, even knowing I would be resented for it, and realizing that I would forfeit any connection I would have to what I saw as a beautiful human being. I would hear the voice in my head asking me:

“Are you really willing to give this person up, just to help them?”

I would answer in what I thought was a pure expression of love, “Yes. Yes I am. Let’s go.”

Thus, I would throw myself on a bed of swords for someone I hardly knew, but valued highly, then wonder how doing good for another should leave me feeling so empty. I would do this over and over again, realizing each time that it earned me only their resentment, and a subtle, uncomfortable sense of their feeling indebted to me, neither of which I sought. How could I even be sure that they wouldn’t have gotten there without my help? Was it even worth it? Who am I to assume I can make a difference? I’m not God; I’m just a kid in a bathtub.

The vessel I used to hold these awful things, things I once believed to be the necessary residue of selfless, unconditional kindness, is finally full. I’ve had enough. I’ve lost too much that is precious to me. This isn’t noble; it isn’t kind; it is a fruitless act of compassion–like catching tears in the rain. I’m not sure what to do with this giant cup of resentment guck now that it’s full–though it might make a nice fertilizer for the garden.

It had to be full, of course, before I could hear the answer to my question. Why does helping cost me so much? It came not long ago, at great cost, in six simple, honest words: “I never asked for your help.”

helping-handThe realization was swift and painful. I had never heard that before, and I never stopped to consider how demeaning it is to help someone in need without his or her permission. Our quests, our struggles, and our challenges are not just obstacles, they are also gifts. Although we may never navigate them all without allies, and the love and support of others, there are some that we need to overcome ourselves. They are for us alone to rise to, and help unasked for only takes from us the lessons they carry.

I want to ask forgiveness from everyone I ever helped without their permission, and in so doing disrespected them, and made them feel inadequate by robbing them of their right to struggle and suffer. I am sorry. I never meant any harm.

I am creating some new paths for myself as a result of this great insight that I no doubt should have realized years ago. I have a new set of rules for helping others. They’re not standard fare, but please consider them carefully, before you dismiss any of them.

  1. Never help a person who does not truly want help. (If they don’t want to obtain a new outcome, then no matter how much you help, it won’t make any difference anyway.)
  2. Never help a person unless they ask for help (If they can’t ask for help, it means they have a lesson they need to learn, don’t take that from them.)
  3. Never offer help without their offering something in return. (Their offer needn’t be much at all. It is the offering that is important. I’m not speaking of charity here so don’t misunderstand. Their offer is not for you the helper’s sake, but for theirs. )
  4. Stop helping if another does not at least offer you gratitude. (Gratitude should not be the reason you help, but not showing gratitude is your clue that they are not asking for your help.)
  5. Never help a person who only wants help and not a new outcome. (Some people are addicted to Need, they are black holes that will consume your soul, stay away from them!)
  6. Never help too much. (Always putting others first teaches them that you come second.)
  7. Remember that a person’s potential is not who they are now. (See the best in a person, but don’t assume they can give that to you.)
  8. Never help without permission.
  9. Stop catching tears in the rain.

My daughter loves baths too. We used to have many long, crazy bath-time adventures together. It’s sad to think she is getting too old for that. I would have to add hot water several times on the longer ones. Her idea of hot is nothing like mine, but she would occasionally get overheated and very thirsty. She had a plastic measuring cup that somehow became a bath toy, and would thrust it at me and ask,

“Daddy, could you get me some cold, cold, cold, cold water in this, I am dying of thirst!”

I would rinse it in the sink and let the cold water run a while to fill it. Her eyes would roll back in her head as she drank it down.

“”Aaahaaaa… Oh my gosh that feels good!”

“I know… isn’t that great?”

“You know what daddy? If someone was dying of thirst in the desert, I would give them this.”

“I know you would sweat pea.” Then she would ask,

“Daddy, can I have some more?”

And I knew exactly what she was thinking.

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