Family politics

My brother Jim is a smart guy and like everyone else in my family a news junkie with very strong opinions that he likes to share. Adjectives that describe this sharing might include adamant, insistent, emphatic, and loud. His style of sharing didn’t bother me until our political views started to diverge. A lot.

Initially, I was so surprised by that I either avoided the subject like the plague or said, “Uh huh, uh huh” until he ran out of gas. But inside, I felt awful for stifling myself and creating a feeling of distance between us. Then during a summer visit we were alone in his car when he started talking about politics and I found myself using the listening strategies I used to teach. Specifically, I listened to understand rather than to refute.

This was pretty helpful because it allowed me to respond in a way that affirmed him as a person without agreeing with what he was saying. I don’t agree with his point of view, but after listening to him I could honestly say I understood how he’d arrived at it. This was so much better than saying, “Uh huh, uh huh,” while thinking he was full of crap.

Another time, we were on the phone when he got going and a voice inside me said, “Go for it.” I matched him point for point. The conversation grew heated at times because political views emerge from our lived experience, our sense of how the social world impinges on and limits our lives. I heard us both identify core beliefs that have become core differences between us. In that sense there was nothing lighthearted about our exchange. I was tired at the end of it but also exhilarated. I don’t have a lot of conversations about politics with people who disagree with me and I enjoyed the mental workout. I suspect he’s in the same boat. Very few people in his life engage with him in these conversations probably because his passion often sounds like fury and overwhelms them.

Last week he sent me a youtube video, describing it as a “good history lesson.” Reasonably confident that I would not see it the same way my first impulse was to ignore it. Then I reconsidered because he matters to me. I watched it and sure enough I found the speaker’s point of view utterly ridiculous. Now what? I wrote him a message telling him my thoughts about the speaker’s argument but I’m not going to send it. What I realize is that I’m willing to engage him, my flesh and blood brother, but I’m not willing to create an exchange where we use other people’s words in an effort to educate and persuade each other. I know that if I do that, I will spend an enormous amount of mental energy arguing with him and his surrogates and that’s not acceptable to me. I’m comfortable with this boundary.

When I can do no more than listen, I listen to understand. When I have the energy to debate, I go for it. Above all, I keep my desire for an authentic relationship with him in the foreground and view him with non-judging awareness so that whatever form my engagement takes, it does not include trying to change him.

My life as a weight bearing activity

A few mornings a week I get up, drink a cup of coffee, and watch a PBS program that claims to help us age backwards. The host who may be 90 but looks 50 takes viewers through a full-body workout in 22 minutes. She often tells us, as we lunge and squat, that we don’t need to use weights because the body itself is a weight. Sister, have you given me an apt metaphor! Although I’m not thin, the heaviest weights I carry are not physical but are the stories of the past that I bring to bear on the present.

The other day my partner came home from the gym at about 7 a.m. and said, “I can’t dawdle, I’ve got to get to work.” Immediately I felt tense, rattled, and rushed as I engaged in a very heated interior monologue about how her failure to prepare did not constitute an emergency for me. As I continued making breakfast I also thought about how much I didn’t want to feel mad at her. That gave me enough of a pause to put some distance between myself and my thoughts and feelings. When my partner came into the kitchen I was calmer and said, “Are you mad at me?” She looked deeply confused and said no. I said, “So when you said that you couldn’t dawdle, you were really talking to yourself not me.” She nodded.

My alternate title for this post was, “If only you would . . .” as in, “If only you would change seven or maybe twelve things about your interactions with me, then I could be happy and I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.” In this situation, “If only you would be more careful in your speech.” Why? Because I don’t just hear her say she’s rushing, I hear her say, “I’m rushing and you’re being too slow and if I’m late it will be your fault.” My impulse then is to blame her for my unhappiness. After I am the person to whom she appeared to be speaking. But I’m no longer satisfied with that conclusion.

As I reflected on the tension, anxiety, and anger I’d felt I had a little flashback. When I was a kid, my mom was often rushed in the mornings and her behavior looked and felt like anger toward me. It scared me. I tried to be perfect and faultless so that I wouldn’t make her angrier. As an adult, I know she wasn’t angry. She was stressed and overwhelmed.

My partner is not perfect (even she would admit that!). But neither is she the cause of either my happiness or unhappiness. She could change all of the things I think stand between me and a stress-free existence and it won’t make any difference if I continue to weigh our present down with my past.

Who am I without my reactivity?

My friend Suzanne was at the very beginning of her recovery process when we met. She had a great sponsor and worked the program diligently. We didn’t talk about it much but I’ll never forget something she shared with me. She said, “I’m a funny, creative, outgoing person. But I’ve been drinking since I was a kid, who am I without alcohol?”

I’ve been thinking about Suzanne’s fear of the loss of self a lot lately as I’ve worked on self-acceptance. On the one hand, it’s a very positive, affirming process, one that allows me to see and cultivate my essential self. But just as Suzanne feared that giving up alcohol and drugs might leave her without a personality, I’ve wondered who I am, who I am becoming as I let go of reactivity.

Reactivity is our ego at work, when I identify with my ego and react against what is, against the present moment. Eckhart Tolle writes that when we do this, we treat the present moment, “as a means, an obstacle, or an enemy” and strengthen the ego. For me, this often takes the form of spotting another’s hypocrisy in the midst of interpersonal conflict; it’s also about using my quick, sharp tongue. When I’m playing defense, caught off guard by someone’s criticism (or my assumption that I’m being criticized), in other words, when my ego feels threatened, I’m a formidable verbal opponent.

“What,” Tolle asks, “is reactivity? Becoming addicted to reaction.” And addictions are addictions because they can produce the illusion of pleasure. Beyond my gift for snarkiness, when I think of situations where I’m reactive I picture times when I’ve been able to make quick decisions, address challenges, head off problems. I can be a good person to have around in a stressful situation. And besides, a lot of people laugh at my smart-ass remarks. Of course, if I draw the complete picture, I have to admit that I’ve jumped to a few inaccurate conclusions, stepped in when others were perfectly capable of managing a situation, and added to a general state of negativity. I’ve also hurt others with my clever words. Turns out, I can make a stressful situation more stressful.

Today’s photo is of my friend, FFF. That stands for Fight, Flight, Freeze. I put a holiday bow on FFF because in this season, FFF’s on really high alert. Like many of you, I will spend more time than usual with family and friends, coworkers and neighbors, in crowded stores and on busy streets. Each encounter, each present moment will provide my ego with an opportunity to react—to fight, to flee, or to freeze. I’ll keep FFF in my pocket, a present to myself that reminds me to stay in the present. I don’t know who I am without my reactivity, but in the spirit of my brave friend Suzanne, I’m willing to take the risk finding out.