Piece by piece

I begin to let go of the belief that martyrdom is essential to my self-esteem.

The community dinner I work with offers a vegetarian option at each meal and I’ve taken responsibility for choosing it, shopping for it, and preparing it. However, after taking on new responsibilities with the organization, I wanted to unload this obligation. Each year the local college assigns a student to work with us, and our current student loves to cook so I asked her if she would take over. She agreed to do it and I was SO pleased with myself for letting this responsibility go. Then life intervened. Sherry’s class schedule changed limiting her hours at the kitchen, another volunteer told me our kitchen manager wouldn’t buy some of the ingredients Sherry requested, and then she got sick before one meal and couldn’t be there at all. I nearly careened over the edge this week when the she sent me a quiche recipe, one she didn’t think she would be available to prepare, and the ingredient list seemed poor to me (pro-tip: plain yogurt is much better in quiche than heavy cream). Feeling aggravated and fed-up, I was on the verge of sending a text to the kitchen manager telling her I would go back to making the vegetarian option from now one when a tiny voice inside me said, “Stay out of it.”

I put my phone down but I struggled to quiet my mind. My impulse was to frame this situation as beyond my control and as the fault of those around me. After stewing about it I moved on to the question, “How did I end up right back in the middle of the vegetarian option?” and I see that I did it piece by piece. For instance, I’m the primary liaison between the kitchen and the college program that sends us a student. Sherry, appropriately, assumes I’m the person she should talk to about scheduling problems. I didn’t take myself out of that loop. Also, I assume, despite some counter-evidence, that the other dinner prep volunteers don’t want to take responsibility for the vegetarian option. I also assume that if they do take it on they won’t do it the way I think it should be done.

Piece by piece I give myself away. “It’s okay, I’ll do it this time.” “Yes, I’ll listen to your concerns rather than urge you to talk to the person who is the source of those concerns.” “No, I appreciate your offer but I’ll take care of it.” One decision at a time I hand pieces of myself over until I feel as if there’s nothing left of me. I tell myself as it’s happening that I’m patient and accommodating, that I put others’ or the organization’s needs before my own. I use that reasoning as evidence that I’m a good person. And when I feel as if there are no pieces of me left I am angry and blame others and I feel justified because, after all, I’ve been accommodating and patient and selfless.

As I learn to watch myself, to see my habits of thought as an object of curiosity, I gain freedom. And I learn to identify the actions that will keep me free—being direct about my limits, trusting others when they say they’ll take care of something, accepting that they won’t do things the way I would. Above all, I begin to let go of the belief that martyrdom is essential to my self-esteem.

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.