Oh hell

I once had a job in a small space with a small staff—director, newly hired associate director (me), program coordinator, and administrative assistant. Renee, the administrative assistant was a friendly woman with a complicated personal life involving teenagers, in-laws, and health problems. She was comfortable speaking freely about her challenges. My challenge was getting past her to get to my office. I saw my options as blowing by without speaking or pausing to say, “Hi, how are you?” only to find myself rooted to the spot 20 minutes later. Most days I chose the second option but grew increasingly frustrated because she seemed oblivious to my desire to get to on with my day.

I’ve been known to mutter the line, “Hell is other people” in situations like this. While many of us use that line from Sartre’s play, No Exit, to mean that other people can be a pain in the ass, Sartre’s meaning is more fundamental to human experience and worth exploring in a quest for mindfulness in our relationships.

In the play, Sartre’s three main characters find themselves locked in a room that they understand is hell. They were expecting fire and brimstone and torture but instead find three couches and each other. Through their dialogue we come to understand that they are each other’s perfect torturer. One woman seeks confirmation of her desirability from the sole man. But he can’t provide it because, like her, he’s obsessed with his own identity needs—in his case the need to be seen as brave and manly. She tries to give him what he wants but as the third member of the group points out, her words are insincere. This third character is a woman who longs to provide the first woman the attention she craves. Unfortunately, only the masculine gaze can meet the other woman’s need. For Sartre’s characters, for all of us, we cannot exit from the experience of seeing other people seeing us or from having their view of us shape our view of ourselves. Sartre said this about the meaning of the play:

“When we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, we use the knowledge of us, which other people already have. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.”

Many of us raised in societies that worship individuality forget that no matter how much we want to see ourselves as products of our own creation, how others react to us and interact with us tells us who we are. While there is no exit from seeing others seeing us, mindful presence and non-judging awareness may allow us to bring to conscious awareness our habit of creating stories about how we think we need to be seen by others.

My story with Renee was based on the many personal and professional differences I saw between us. I stood at her desk instead of going to my office because I needed to see myself, through her eyes, as a person who cares about other people, a person who doesn’t think she’s better than other people. Even though I listened to Renee, my growing resentment overshadowed the experience. I don’t know how she saw me but I certainly didn’t see myself as a caring person.

Wanting to be authentic in my relationship to Renee, I tried a new strategy. I greeted her each day with a big smile and a friendly “Good morning” but didn’t ask, “How are you?” and walked past her desk and into my office. Then, several times a week I invited her to join me on breaks or at lunch and I asked her, “How are you?” She told me about the daily struggles she faced, she asked for my perspective, she often told me about quoting me to her husband or children.

No longer trapped in my story about how I needed to see myself being seen, I was free to care about this person on my path.

When are you aware of needing to be seen in a particular way by others?

When does that need to be seen in a particular way trap you in place?

Close encounters

I was humming along on a writing project when I heard the knock at the front door. I suddenly remembered I’d meant to warn my partner about the enormous wasp on the back porch. I was going to tell her to use the front door but she doesn’t have a key for it. I hurried downstairs fearing she’d found the wasp the hard way. But I opened the door to a stranger. Filled with relief that I wasn’t looking at my wasp-stung partner and just barely surfacing from the writing zone, I happily opened the screen door and accepted the flyer he was holding out to me.

Like the phone that I don’t answer unless I recognize the caller’s name or number, I rarely open the front door without knowing who is on the other side. I don’t fear crime because I’m fortunate to live in a place with very little stranger-to-stranger crime. Instead, I fear someone trying to sell me something because I’m a pushover.

The man in front of me was selling his candidacy to our county board. I didn’t know if we held similar views so I tried to engage him while glancing at his flyer. With little prompting he said he supports everyone having the same access to the rights enumerated in the constitution. I found that a bit vague so I asked him about a specific political issue. I disagreed with his answer and was about to tell him that when he suggested that local issues were more relevant. I thought that was fair so I asked him what he thought the most pressing issue was for the county board.

The issue he picked is one I knew little about but it gave him a chance to explain his larger philosophy. I don’t find his general political view wholly abhorrent—it is simply not the case that I disagree with every aspect of it. Recognizing this gave me the mental space to listen to him, listen to myself, ask genuine questions, and express disagreement. He said it was unusual for someone to really engage him on the issues. I’m not surprised because it was hard work to keep going and stay focused while listening, thinking, and often disagreeing. Our exchange was not heated but we both seemed a bit stressed turning a little pink and sweating. I know I felt very wound up inside and my breathing was shallow. This is what my body does when I feel anxious but I remained aware that standing on my front step he was not a threat to me, in that moment I was safe. Staying present to the moment I could be open to the possibility of an authentic encounter with another even in the face of our differences.

I checked on the issue he thinks is central to the county board and as with much that he said I think he’s offering a simple solution to a complex problem. I won’t vote for him but I appreciate our conversation and I gained some empathy for the work of being a political candidate. Whether we’re knocking on doors or opening doors, the truth is we cannot know with certainty what we’ll find on the other side.

 

What doors do you avoid opening?

How do you remain in your integrity when someone’s trying to sell you something you don’t want?

What can you do to feel safe even in the presence of conflict?

Stewing, part 1

It doesn’t take much to get me started. Set the date for a family visit, schedule a meeting with co-workers, agree to speak on behalf of my favorite non-profit and my mind becomes a bubbling cauldron of anxious imaginings—who will be there, what will I say, how will I say it, what will they say, how will I respond?

In anticipation of meetings or classes or conversations with colleagues and loved ones, I prepare relentlessly. It’s become such a familiar habit that I thought everyone did it and when people compliment me on what they believe are spontaneous comments, I feel a bit like a fraud because I know how much energy I spend turning my thoughts into intelligent remarks.

I believe the world would be a better place if everyone thought about what they were going to say before saying it. The philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote, “The word is a two-sided act.” Speech is both from someone but also, always for another and it’s worthwhile to consider the other before speaking. I’ve had a lot of successful interactions with a wide variety of people because I am thoughtful about what I say and how I say it.

But in recent years, as I’ve explored mindfulness, I’ve come to question this practice. I don’t want to be less careful and thoughtful in my speech but there’s a difference I want to embrace between a thoughtful practice and a mindless, energy depleting, anxiety producing habit.

I’ve observed not only my habit of rehearsing but also my habit of replaying scenes that have already occurred and revising them for a better or at least different outcome. This latter habit reminds me of the French expression esprit de l’escalier. It means staircase wit—the clever remarks we think of too late. Who among us hasn’t reviewed our encounters with others and thought of the perfect rejoinder we failed to come up with in the moment? But I don’t just imagine a smart retort here and there. Some interactions seem to play on an endless loop in my brain. Like my rehearsal habit, there’s some value in examining past actions as a pathway to living more authentically, to being willing to see the impact of our behavior on others. But when I stop myself several times a day to notice what my mind is doing and the answer is almost always rehearsing for the future or rehashing the past, then I know that the one thing I am absolutely not doing is living in the present moment.