I think I’ve tried to write a blog post six or seven times in six or seven weeks and failed each time. If you knew my writing process, then you would know that is not me. I have never had a problem writing anything. The words have always flowed with ease. Since the beginning of January I have felt frozen inside not unlike my upper Midwest environs. An emotional Polar Vortex has settled within me, and I feel locked up and iced in.
So, what gives? I ask myself. It almost feels like mild depression. I don’t want to shower. I don’t want to leave the house. I don’t want to eat anything unless it involves chips and hummus. I only want to drink coffee. These are my two “vices”. And, I just want to sit on my couch under a blanket in comfy pants and watch crime procedurals. I don’t even want to vacuum anything. The climate of my mind has turned cold, damp, and grey. But, why?
I think I can pinpoint the reason. It’s my ex-husband, but I’ll name him The Straw. He is akin to the straw breaking the metaphorical camel’s back. When I take a breath and assess the situation, the word resiliency comes to mind. I think you and I, my readers and me, we ought to have a discussion about resiliency in real time. How it works and what it looks like because “resiliency” is all the rage these days. In the simplest terms, resiliency is defined as the capacity to recover from difficulties quickly. As I lay out my circumstances, think about your life in the context of resiliency. Maybe we can make some connections together.
I entered a graduate medical program in January 2017 after ending my 20-year marriage in 2015. My marriage wasn’t always abusive, but it was never fulfilling either. Due to alcoholism and domestic violence likely fueled by addiction and personality problems, I had to leave the marriage for my health and safety. Healing from domestic abuse is probably one of the hardest endeavors I’ve ever undertaken. It has, for me, been far more grueling a process than healing from human trafficking (which I experienced in 1991). Allow me to explain.
Generally speaking, one expects to be treated in a sub-human manner by a human trafficker. It isn’t like human traffickers are upheld as paragons of virtue. They’re criminals who commit heinous crimes. When you’re abducted for the purpose of sexual slavery, you figure out very quickly what’s ahead of you. The only surprise is the degree to which you will be degraded and abused. When you are trafficked, you are designated a slave. Slaves are no longer perceived to be people with rights or even identities. Slaves are chattel. For the most part, you know what to expect when you lose all humanity, and you know what to expect from your slave owner. Expect nothing and everything at the same time–it will all be far beyond the worst you could imagine anyway. But, you never expect your life partner to treat you as you were when you were trafficked.
And this is key–domestic violence and abuse are dehumanizing because it is another sort of objectification. The victim becomes an object of rage and violence In my experience, this is the parallel–the objectification. What made it harder to overcome was how it crept up on me. I never expected to feel so utterly un-human as I did at the end of my marriage. My mind could not accept what was happening to me in the midst of the violence, and I continued to believe that it wasn’t true in part because my abuser denied it and still denies it. It was and is functional denial.
Even though you are called Wife and Partner you are treated as Other. The descent into abuse feels like a surreality of your own making because the entire time he hurts you he tells you that it isn’t real. It isn’t happening, and he never did that. You feel as if you are going mad or perhaps you provoked him. Maybe you wanted it. Maybe you imagined it. Maybe you deserved that which he said never happened. Perhaps it was all your fault even though it never happened. You question everything and believe nothing. You begin to gaslight yourself in the context of his gaslighting.
Until you hear tendons snap. And see your blood. Until you have surgery. Twice.
Physical healing comes far sooner than any emotional, psychological, or spiritual healing does, but I don’t like to put my life on hold because some part of me is lagging behind. We must keep going. Catch a vision. Keep trying. There will never be a convenient time to try something new or even build something. Risk is never convenient. So, I forged ahead with graduate school never expecting to be sexually harassed within three months of beginning my program. The sexual harassment was consistent and prolonged, and I was eventually granted a restraining order by a county judge. The entire affair was escalated to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights who, after an investigation into my college, found them guilty of discrimination based on sex. All in all, the harassment and subsequent investigations lasted almost two years. So, I dealt with one circumstance of sexual violence in the context of another. Simultaneously.
One would think that I felt empowered, but I didn’t. I felt victimized all over again. Sure, I stood up for myself and other people. The perpetrator is no longer with the school, and the school was found guilty of discrimination. They are now going to experience two years of remediation and governmental oversight. As discreet as I was during the entire process, I was alienated by other students in my cohort who knew about the situation; and I was even shunned by people who had called me ‘friend’–simply because I advocated for myself and others. I became something of a pariah. It felt like blame. Should I have just taken it? Should I have said nothing even though the man who was harassing me had harassed other women, too? That would have been wrong. Alas, there are people who seem to think that we should just turn our heads and let people victimize others. Don’t make waves. Mind your own business. I can’t do that. To me, that’s immoral. I am, however, very familiar with victim blaming. Friends and family blamed me for the domestic abuse in my marriage, too. It’s a common phenomenon.
I was actually feeling somewhat relieved after everything with my former college came to a close, but that changed when my ex-husband asked to meet with me a few days into my winter break. He has been making unexpected demands that have violated prior agreements, and this has been my undoing. It isn’t the demands that are the most stressful or triggering. It is his undying belief that he is a victim of our divorce proceedings. He believes that he is a “good guy” and that nothing wrong ever happened. To him, he is the Do-Gooder. The Innocent. Consequently, when I meet with him, I interface with this persona who is utterly convinced of his personal awesomeness, and, all the while, I am sitting across from someone I once trusted implicitly who became my perpetrator.
So, what does all this have to do with my current lability and affect, and what does this have to do with you? I like to say that our resiliency falls on a spectrum. Bring to mind an emergency room nurse or doctor. How many times can a clinician declare someone dead after trying to save them and walk away unscathed? Ten times? Fifty times? At what point will it finally register on a deep level? When will it break you? When will an emergency responder finally see one too many horrific car accidents with fatalities? When will a social worker hear one too many horrible accounts of abuse? When will a guardian ad litem witness one too many child abuse cases? That moment of “one too many” is the moment that you’ve hit the end of your resiliency spectrum. You’re done. You’ve got nothing left. You can’t cope anymore. You can no longer resist the pull of the dark gravity of hopelessness and despair. You are desolate.
Everyone has a resiliency spectrum (RS), and I suspect that each RS is uniquely our own developed over time and tailored to our life experiences. What requires me to be resilient will be different from what requires you to be resilient simply because your experience of trauma will differ from mine. The point is that we can develop resiliency with practice, but there also comes a breaking point. Even the most flexible of trees eventually breaks or uproots when a hurricane blows through the forest.
What might be an appropriate thing to do when you feel like this?
I don’t know about you, but when I feel bent over, desolate, and overwhelmed, my mind is immediately overcome with thoughts that are shame-based. I feel accused and afraid. Suddenly, I feel inadequate and terribly alone, and my knee-jerk reaction to these feelings is to become excessively self-reliant and withdrawn. I have a strange fear of being “discovered”. All of this is rooted in my experiences with my family of origin. My mother declared with great pride that she needed no one and could do everything by herself even though everything she did was motivated by a profound fear of abandonment. Alas, to need anything or anyone–to her–was an abomination. It was a weakness that she would punish with great severity if she spotted it, even in me. It is ironic to me then that the first step to restoring your resiliency is to reach out and restore connection.
Connection through vulnerability eradicates shame. Shame cannot exist in the presence of true connection and vulnerability, and we are able to begin to restore ourselves when we connect to other people who support, validate, and believe us. For many of us who have experienced trauma, reaching out while feeling vulnerable inside ourselves feels like the hardest thing to do particularly if you experienced trauma within close relationships. I suspect the reason for this is because you’ve experienced violations of trust from people with whom you allowed yourself to be vulnerable, and your brain isn’t going to let your forget that. I can attest to this experience. After experiencing sexual violence in a marital context, I find it extraordinarily difficult to be vulnerable with anyone now. I still try, but it is much harder. There is a great confusion that wants to settle in. Feelings of trust can become confused with feelings of suspicion. After all, the people I once trusted are the people who hurt me the most. It’s interesting, isn’t it? That statement alone can fuel self-imposed isolation and fear of intimacy and vulnerability, but, in reality, your brain is trying really hard to keep you safe.
So, what is to be done then? I’ve got three suggestions.
Together, we will keep going even when it feels like we can’t.
I can usually write a blog post in an hour or two but not this time. For some reason I could not put this post together no matter how hard I tried. I sat down in December to write a post on personal inertia. We were on the cusp of 2019. I was taking stock of 2018. Did 2018 have a personal theme? What could be gleaned from the experiences of 2018 in order to make 2019 even better? You know, I was being contemplative.
And then I was in a car accident. My daughter and I were rear-ended quite hard so much so that the insurance company totaled out my car. The car of the driver who hit us was towed from the scene. I really started thinking about my own personal inertia at that point.
What is inertia?
There are two definitions for inertia: 1) indisposition to motion, exertion, or change (“I don’t like or fear change.”) and 2) a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force. Generally speaking, people tend to be inert. We develop habits, and we stick to them. It doesn’t matter if the habits are good or bad. We like predictability (“I like my car and would like to keep it.”). We don’t want to be confronted on how we do things, what we think, or how we interact with others. If it’s always been done a certain way, then most people will continue in this customary fashion from the smallest habit to the grandest cultural traditions. In terms of inertia, this is called uniform motion. For the most part, we like to remain in a state of uniform motion and/or rest, and this is not necessarily bad. Society needs structure and uniformity to function from the nuclear family all the way to level of government.
In terms of health, this is called homeostasis. The human body requires a certain amount of sleep. We require vital nutrients, daylight, human interaction, physical touch, exercise, and clean air and water in order to maintain homeostasis. All of this is part of uniform motion. When an outside force acts upon this homeostatic inertia, that usually means a stressor has occurred like a virus, toxin, physical injury, genetic mutation, car accident, or the like, and homeostasis has been disrupted. We are no longer inert.
The same comparison can be made to the emotional self–the mind. Emotional homeostasis in terms of wellness and looking after our mental health is a priority , and there are any number of factors that affect this from hormones, diet, and genetics to relationships, jobs, and family history–and, of course, trauma. How we structure our lives in order to maintain our emotional and mental homeostasis is where inertia becomes a factor in either propelling us forward or sabotaging us.
Why is a discussion of inertia worth having? Well, from what I’ve experienced in life personal inertia is often the primary reason we do not take action to make changes that will actually better our lives and set us up for success in the future. There is another name for personal inertia, and that name is fear. Let me define this particular sort of fear:
Somewhere between our internal experiences of our lives and our external perceptions lies the reality of the consequences of whatever action was actually taken–the choices we made. And, this is what I want to talk about because that nagging fear of living in that place–the land of consequences--is often what keeps us locked into our circumstances, thusly, preventing us from ever making the most necessary changes which ultimately gets us where we want to go.
Inertia and Fear of Negative Consequences
In my experience, there are two things that sabotage us when we are presented with the opportunity to take action. We become anxious because we don’t know what will happen (but we’re quite sure that it will be bad), and this anxiety/cognitive distortion exacerbates our personal inertia, thusly, thwarting our innate resiliency and ability to change; and we can’t overcome our own inertia long enough to implement the desired and likely necessary changes in ways that count.
What does this look like in real life terms?
Jane is a talented, intelligent woman with two college degrees who has traveled extensively and lived abroad. She runs a non-profit. She is multi-lingual and has a large social and professional network, She is kind, generous, and strives to make everyone around her feel comfortable and welcome in her presence. She volunteers at her kids’ school and teaches Sunday school classes. She is well-liked by her neighbors and her community at large, and she is beloved by her many friends. She met Tom, her husband, in college. Tom is a charismatic, extraverted man who aims to be the center of attention wherever he is. He thrives on admiration. He gave up his successful law practice to become a political consultant, and he excels at this occupation. He is highly paid and enjoys advertising his wealth and status by driving expensive cars, wearing expensive brand name clothing, and paying for everything in cash. He is loud, boisterous, and obsequious, but people seem to be drawn to him–particularly women. He has strongly narcissistic tendencies and a mercurial temperament behind closed doors to the point of being verbally and emotionally abusive to Jane and their three children. Male colleagues like him because he mirrors back to them their own positive perceptions of masculinity, and female colleagues like him because he is flirtatious but not excessively so giving them a sense of importance. Tom had one extramarital affair within the first three years of their marriage. They have been married for 18 years. Both Jane and Tom are from conservative Christian families who do not support divorce believing that “God hates divorce”. While Jane doesn’t believe that women should stay in abusive relationships, she will not label her relationship as abusive even though she is verbally/emotionally abused as well as pressured to stay married by both her family of origin and her in-laws in order to keep up appearances and “be obedient” to what the Bible teaches. During the last two years, Jane is experiencing symptoms of an undiagnosed autoimmune disease and chronic fatigue symptoms. She is also experiencing depression symptoms. She argues with Tom daily. Jane and Tom have verbally violent fights at least once a week in front of their children, and their oldest son is beginning to model some of Tom’s negative personality traits.
Where is the inertia in Jane’s situation?
How do we begin to overcome our own personal inertia and take action?
Put simply, we can begin to take meaningful and effective action in our lives when our desire for change is greater than our fear of change and the potential consequences that our actions could bring. In terms of inertia, our desire becomes the outside force acting upon our uniform motion which changes our direction or propulsion.
Desire can be an unwanted emotional experience for some particularly if it’s strong because it seems that fear and desire go together in a sometimes awkward and toxic dance. The stronger the desire the more powerful the fear, and it often depends on how desire manifests. Desire can feel like ambition or intense focus on a goal. It can feel like a consistent attraction to specific daydreams or fantasizing. It can also feel like longing or yearning unearthing a profound sense that you are not living a life meant for you. You may feel like something is missing drawing you into a sort of quest or search. In its more helpful form, desire can be an ontological state that motivates an awakening which drives the self to deeper self-actualization–desire freed from fear. Desire mingling with fear often manifests as envy, jealousy, toxic competitiveness, judgmentalism, and comparisons with others. Desire can be highly disruptive to the self.
What is very interesting to note is that there is a neurochemical connection between desire and fear, and it is found in dopamine:
“The chemical dopamine induces both desire and dread, according to new animal research in the July 9 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. Although dopamine is well known to motivate animals and people to seek positive rewards, the study indicates that it also can promote negative feelings like fear. The finding may help explain why dopamine dysfunction is implicated not only in drug addiction, which involves excessive desire, but in schizophrenia and some phobias, which involve excessive fear.” (Society for Neuroscience. “Brain Chemical Shown To Induce Both Desire And Dread.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 July 2008. )
How do we take this information and make it work for us? The things that we often fear are quite valid–the loss of community, fear of retaliation and violence, social injury and rejection, fear of God, loss of occupation, inability to survive, and loss of social standing. This is about survival. Staying “stuck” and in predictable circumstances–even if we hate them or they’re hurting us–may often seem like the best choice when faced with potential outcomes that we fear should we allow desire to influence us. Our own neurochemistry can bolster this mindset. Desire or dread. What should influence us?
The question of influence, to me, is one of the most important issues we can consider. When we are influenced more by a fear of potential negative outcomes our natural response will be an inertial one which is to maintain. Stay put. Stay the course. Refuse change. Do what you know even if what you know is making you miserable and sick or even making your loved ones miserable and sick. It is an internal battle that must be fought. Where there is desire, there will be fear particularly when the potential for change is present. In theory, this might sound all well and good, but what comes after desire?
I like this list:
Why endeavor to engage in this? I’ll let Dr. Jim Taylor answer this:
“When we change our life inertia, we liberate ourselves from those forces that have, until now, propelled us in a direction we would not have chosen. With control of the spaceship that is our lives, we will have freedom from debilitating fear, doubt, anger, shame, and despair. It also means we will have the freedom to hope, feel, accept, engage, and strive. When you are in command of your spaceship you are on track to live a life that will bring you meaning, fulfillment, and well-being. And you can be sure that you will not have to experience the most frustrating of all emotions – regret. Once you have gained command of your life you will not have to ask, “I wonder what could have been?” (Four Forces of Life Inertia, Jim Taylor PhD)
May 2019 be a year of daring to desire and taking action.
The Iceman hath indeed cometh to my neighborhood. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of snowplows clearing snow and scraping concrete. I had grand plans to “get shit done” yesterday until my car got stuck in the alley in a mound of snow. Well, three inches of snow that had somehow become a mound that my totally hip minivan couldn’t overcome. I see now why all the locals drive SUVs. Nothing seems to stop them. Not snow, ice, flash floods. Pedestrians.
Hanukkah begins tonight, and I have a To Do list that needs attention before that first candle is lit. This weekend, however, feels a million times less stressful than last weekend. You know, Thanksgiving weekend–the first Thanksgiving weekend my mother and stepfather have come to my house in years.
About 11 years ago I had an epiphany. Our family holiday get-togethers had become so emotionally tumultuous and stressful that I wondered why we even bothered to celebrate them. What was the point? I tried taking Xanax once just to get through Thanksgiving, and that was a mistake! I took one Xanax in the morning and fell asleep standing up while cooking. Suddenly, I woke up on the kitchen floor an hour and half later with no memory of how I got there.
The thought occurred to me to just tell my mother, “No, you cannot come over on Thanksgiving. Celebrate with your husband’s family,” but my mother has borderline personality disorder. The last time I told her ‘no’ I was a small child. She slapped me so hard across the face that I nearly sustained a whiplash injury. Over the years, I’d seen people tell my mother ‘no’. It never went well for them. Violence always ensued in one way or another, but eleven years ago I was willing to take that risk. Either give up celebrating altogether or tell my mother ‘no’.
So, I found some courage, and I told her that we wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving by ourselves in a way that was meaningful to us. She had in-laws. Celebrate with them (I wasn’t that blunt). That was probably one of the reasons my mother stopped speaking to me. For five years.
So, last weekend, my mother and stepfather drove in from out-of-state to join us for Thanksgiving, and I had a feeling that it would be a less than pleasurable evening. Over the years, we’ve crafted a certain kind of holiday. We eat in the evening. We stay at the table. We enjoy drinks and desserts. And then the games come out. Sometimes we’ve played until early into the next morning, but my mother doesn’t know how to have fun. She doesn’t have great social skills, and part of that is due to how she was raised. My mother has also spent far too much time alone as she has aged, and her ability to socialize has slipped. As her daughter, I observed this, and, as a host, I kept this in mind.
By six o’clock in the evening on Thanksgiving, I knew it was just going to be about getting through the night. It wasn’t fun. It felt like playing a social game of Tetris. People around the table were, at times, acting inappropriately, and I, as the host, had to somehow make the remarks and behaviors fit together to keep the evening flowing smoothly. I was glad when it ended. As I cleaned up, I distinctly remembered why I disliked holiday celebrations.
Why do we do it? I ask it honestly. Why do we put ourselves through the meat grinder that is Holiday Celebrations with Friends and Family if we feel so drained afterwards?
Ah yes, tradition. How many awful things have been tolerated in the name of Tradition? Sure, sure, we get to eat some great traditional food like Great Aunt Vera’s dessert bars and Auntie Esther’s bread, but then three of your cousins show up two hours late completely shit-faced and high, your sister-in-law starts talking politics during dinner and refuses to change the subject, your brother starts discussing religion and offends a co-worker you invited, your father is passive-aggressive and upsets your mother-in-law, and then a family argument ensues in the middle of dinner about that thing that happened that one time. Just like last year. And the year before that! It’s like a holiday template that must be followed every year, or it isn’t the holidays.
I’m not suggesting that my idea to un-invite my mother to Thanksgiving was the “right” thing to do, but it was a different thing to do. I wondered what life during the holiday season might feel like if I said, “No one can come over until they stop acting badly. You want to come over? Then deal with your issues. I’m not having bad holidays anymore. Can we please start a new tradition?” You know that you have a real problem on your hands when you start dreading December in June, and that was me. I wanted to know what an honestly pleasant celebration free of drama, enabling codependency, crippling anxiety, and pandering to pathologically self-centered people felt like.
What does it feel like? It feels wonderful. There are no more obligatory visits with family members who actually don’t approve of us and actively look down on us for not thinking like they do. I can spend the month of December making positive plans rather than making plans to decompress from excessive stress. I don’t have to come up with strategies to avoid my cousin’s husband who likes to secretly grope me when he hugs me, and I don’t have to think of ways to sidestep political and religious discussions that always end in fiery judgment and unkindness.
One key thing I learned from this Thanksgiving is that I don’t have the distress tolerance for “misbehaviors” when the circumstances are already stressful, and this I would suggest is likely true for many people.
This is the most important takeaway. Somatic complaints are very common during the holidays for this very reason. Our bodies cannot adequately process the overload of stress which comes in the form of a cortisol assault on your body. Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands. When you are stressed, your body produces it. One of the key things that cortisol does is suppress your immune system’s response. Have you ever had a very stressful week at work or school like completing a big presentation or studying for exams? You’re doing fine and then once the project or exams are over, you suddenly get sick. Or, if you get migraines, you are migraine-free during the stressful work week, but come Saturday, you’re down with a terrible migraine event. Why is this?
The symptoms of illness like a runny nose, sore throat, body aches, or nausea are not caused by a virus. Those are signs of inflammation which are caused by your immune system engaging in a response to fight off a pathogen. In other words, that’s how you know that you caught a bug. In the stressful days prior to your symptoms when you were neck-deep in exam prep (or Holiday Apocalypse Family Fun Time), you were already infected with a virus. Your body’s stress-induced production of cortisol, however, was suppressing your immune system’s response to that pathogen. So, you had no symptoms of the infection, but you had an infection. You merely experienced the symptoms of the infection after your stress decreased along with your cortisol production. The stress causes the spike in cortisol production, but it is likely the lifestyle changes that puts you at risk for viral infection like poor dietary habits and sleep deprivation. We all eat more poorly and get less sleep during “crunch time”, and that is what invites viral infection. We simply stop taking care of ourselves particularly when we feel like something is on the line like our jobs, grades, or our sense of self. And the holidays certainly have a way of doing that to us.
Not managing our stress contributes to cortisol dysregulation which can result in a number of health problems and negatively impact your immune system. Bottom line: take care of yourself and invest in your own level of happiness and well-being even if it proves to be very difficult. Why? Because you’re worth it and you deserve a meaningful holiday experience–even if you have a family who disagrees with you.
With that, I bid you a meaningful and healthy December.
Have you ever been in the middle of a particularly major life transition and wondered if you were doing the right thing? Or, perhaps you were quite certain that you were headed in the right direction; you, however, weren’t sure that some of the lesser but still impactful decisions you had to make were correctly decided.
That’s descriptive of me right now. I’m in the middle of a huge life transition–I’m planning a move to the West Coast next summer. Were it just me it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but I’ve got my daughters’ quality of life to consider. We are all in the mix. I’ve got to sell my house, put the finishing touches on moving to a different post-graduate program, find housing in the Bay Area (yeah, that’ll keep you up at night), minimize all my possessions, and…and…and…
It’s a colossal effort, and yet I know it will come together. But…
There are those moments of quiet when I take in the magnitude of it all, and I ask, “Am I doing the right thing for everyone?” It’s not often, but it’s not an unimportant question. When there are children depending upon us to care for them and build a foundation under them, we need to ask such a question. As a Jew, I pose that question to God as I and my ancestors have come to understand him both personally and corporately. And, I sincerely expect an answer although answers don’t always come on my preferred timeline.
The late Brennan Manning once told a story of a Jewish Bubbe out with her grandson at the shore. She was delighting in watching him play with his new shovel and bucket until a large wave unexpectedly washed ashore and swept his toys out to sea soaking her young grandchild in salty water. Running to her grandson as he sat crying on the sand, Bubbe called out, “Bring back my grandson’s shovel and bucket! It makes him so happy to play with them, and, if it makes him happy, then I am happy!” A few moments passed, and suddenly a wave spit out her grandson’s bucket and shovel right at their feet. Smiling and clapping, her grandson resumed playing as if nothing had ever happened. Bubbe, however, frowned and said, “He had a hat!”
Some would say that Bubbe is ungrateful. Look at the miraculous quality of what just happened! The sea returned the shovel and bucket! So what that his hat wasn’t returned to him. I say that Bubbe is expectant, and this boldness and sense of anticipation in believing God, as she understands him, is what informs how she interacts with him.
So, what does this have to do with my moving out West? Well, I think that regardless of one’s understanding of who God might be–even in terms of agnosticism, interacting with God (or if you want to call the Divine “the Universe”) can be a highly rewarding and reassuring process. It can remove a sense of ontological loneliness that plagues so many of us and guide us through incredibly difficult circumstances. In my case, on the day I decided that we were going to move West, I asked for a reassurance that it was the right decision–something I rarely do, but it was such a big, life-altering decision. I wanted the strongest sense that it was right. So, I drove my car along a stretch of highway pondering what a “good reassurance” might be. Something that I could look back on when circumstances got rough and remind myself, “Oh, you’re on the right track. Remember? You saw that sign.”
Suddenly, I had it! I love bald eagles, and we have a few of them in my neck of the woods. I decided that I wanted to see a bald eagle in a tree right by the road as I was driving–something I never see. It didn’t have to be that day. Just…soon. I’ll confess that I felt silly. Asking for a sign. P’shaw! as my grandfather would say. As soon as I asked God to give me a sign, I almost took it back. I don’t do things like that. But then, in the middle of my embarrassed rumination, I saw it. I slowed down my car to take it in. A beautiful bald eagle perched majestically on a branch overhanging the highway’s shoulder at 7 AM. I was shocked. “Did that just happen?” I thought. It did indeed.
My mind has returned to that moment during times of high stress and anxiety, and it has caused to me to wonder what signs really are. What is a sign?
When we drive, we see signs all the time, or at least we should see them if we are paying attention. We’ve probably all encountered people who don’t pay attention to the road signs. Those are the people driving the opposite direction on a one-way street or doing a U-ey when they should not. How about those folks who run stop signs for lack of paying attention, thusly, causing an accident? Signs serve a very good purpose. They let you know where you are, what you should do, how fast you should drive, where to go, and where not to go. The most important thing to note about signs is that one has to see them in order for them to be effective.
Well, if Tom Cochrane’s song is correct and life is a highway, then it stands to reason that we need signs, too. We need to know when we are on the right road. We need to know where the next rest area is. We need to know where we should not turn and where we should. What does a Do Not Enter sign look like in terms of our own lives? What does a Be Alert For Bears sign or an Avalanche Warning sign look like metaphorically speaking? More important, what does a Dead End sign look like? How do you know when you can’t go any further?
For me, this is why I asked for a sign. I needed to know that the road I had just turned onto was the right one since the journey was going to be so long and, frankly, fraught with hurdles.
So, how does one recognize a sign?
But risk we must if we’re to live a full life (like our cat). People who take risks are happier because they live their lives more fully, without fear at the helm of their ship charting the course (which means they venture out to open seas). They not only jump out of airplanes and off mountaintops – as my son is itching to do – but they dive into the murky waters of the greatest emotional risk of all: relationships of all kinds. They risk their hearts (which do not heal as easily as a broken bone). And they do so from a platform of self-trust, which is the launching pad for all of life’s decisions, big and small.” (Risk Aversion and Anxiety)
I am seldom on Facebook, but, as I was up bright and early this morning, I indulged my urge and took a peek. This is what I found:
My knee-jerk reaction was, “What the fu…” Was I more shocked by the original “prayer” or with my Facebook friend’s additional commentary? And, why did these words strike a nerve in me?
I must turn back the clock to 2014, when I wrote my most highly viewed blog post “Affective Deprivation Disorder and Alexithymia in Marriage”. In that post, I described the emotional experiences of my former marriage:
“If I could remove all emotional desire from myself, then I would be able to do this (stay married). I actually asked God to make me like Spock. That has to be one of the weirder prayers to ascend. Like some warped psalm:
“Oh God, make me like Spock. Purge me of emotion. Oh my soul, shut the hell up so that only my brain will speak and my heart will sleep a thousand years.”
Oddly these two entreaties, if you will, have a similar tone. I longed to be purged while Byron Katie desires to be absolved as elucidated by the use of the word “spare” which means “to be released, acquitted, exculpated, or pardoned”. The end result would be the same–a kind of subjective idealism that could take a person all the way to solipsism. What does that mean? Allow me to explain.
Firstly, it should be stated that nothing that Byron Katie teaches is new or ground-breaking. She is combining the Narrative Approach in psychology with certain Buddhist principles to craft a teaching that has been used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), EMDR, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for years. Her Four Questions are well-stated. She has made solid therapeutic guidance highly accessible to many people. With Oprah’s stamp of approval, people who have perhaps disregarded therapy as ineffective or stigmatizing will now have a chance to experience what solid therapy is all about. That being said, her Four Questions are straight out of CBT and Narrative Psychology.
So, what of this philosophy of subjective idealism? Simply stating it, subjective idealism states that your reality and how you perceive it is contingent upon how you experience it; Reality is contingent upon The Knower–to be is to be perceived. The extreme form of subjective idealism is solipsism which states that “I alone exist”. British Idealist F.H. Bradley explained solipsism as such:
Bradley’s explanation almost defines 21st century human interaction. You stay in your experiential bubble. I’ll stay in mine. Nothing beyond my experience exists. Nothing beyond your experience–if that is valid–exists or is germane to mine. We are but ships passing in the ether in anonymous, quick interactions either on social media, in consumeristic interactions online or at retail outlets be they malls, indy stores, or cafés big and small. Disconnection.
This brings me to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
Directly above our two most basic needs in terms of our humanity–Physiological and Safety–lies Love and Belonging. Putting it as simply as possible, one of the reasons why people require therapeutic interventions and outside help for prolonged periods of their lives is because they have to figure out how to acquire and develop Esteem and Self-Actualization without Love and Belonging. Or worse, if a person experienced hardships and traumas in which their Physiological and Safety needs were threatened or unmet, then certainly their needs for Love and Belonging would go unmet as well. In that case then, how would one go about developing Esteem and Self-Actualization in a coherent way? How do we build bridges over deficiencies in order to continue maturing until we can increase our capacities for those needs to be met? Is it possible for everyone?
What Katie and my friend are suggesting is that we simply obliterate the need and desire. We resort to emotional subjective idealism–particularly my friend. If God is meeting my desire for love, approval, and appreciation, then I no longer need it from humans. Well, that contradicts the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament, and I only say this because my friend is a Christian. So much of the New Testament and the Gospel are concerned with relationships and community and how people are to treat one another. Why then post something that essentially advocates extricating oneself from reciprocal relational experiences and responsibilities, thusly, retreating into a self-created pseudo-solipsistic model?
This I know all about. To counteract pain and grief.
Human beings are social creatures. We are mammals after all. There is a scene in the film “The Horse Whisperer” in which Robert Redford’s character, Tom, stands in a field for hours near a traumatized stallion, Pilgrim. Pilgrim, appearing fatigued from standing in the same spot for such a long stretch, finally approaches Tom reluctantly. Tom gently leads him back to the stables. When asked why the skittish horse allowed Tom to touch him, he answered that horses were social creatures and would eventually have a need to join their herd; or, a herd of some kind.
Humans are no different, but we have very clever ways to convince ourselves otherwise. We build bridges inside ourselves over the empty and dark crevasses of unmet needs that have morphed into unnamed pain and call it Stoicism, Enlightenment, or Individualism. We will say that we are absolving ourselves of our needs or desires for love, approval, and appreciation, and it sure does sound like something…worthy. In my mind, however, it is a form of bargaining in order to avoid grieving that which has been lost or never experienced, and I say this because I used to believe these things, too.
The problem herein is that absolving yourself of your desires to be loved, approved of, and appreciated also pardons you from giving these things, and this is, in a more profound sense, what is causing people to pray for this sort of absolution to begin with. The world we have today is in no way more evil, chaotic, corrupt, or violent than it was 100 years ago–or 1,000 years ago. History seems to always repeat itself, and humans still struggle to learn from the past. What the world continues to lack is goodness in the forms of love, approval, appreciation, generosity, courtesy, and neighborly concern.
What might our cultures look like if more people were appreciated, loved, and approved of? How would you feel day-to-day if you felt truly appreciated by your friends, children, co-workers, and partner? If you felt approved of–truly liked–by the people in your life? Well-developed and self-actualized people do not require other people’s permission to make their life choices or hard decisions, but it is much easier to achieve self-actualization if you have a foundation of Love and Belonging beneath you rather than a foundation of grief for never having had it.
The healthy and ultimately most healing “prayer” that I think one could offer up instead of the aforementioned is:
God, help me grieve the times and experiences in my life wherein I did not receive the love, approval, and appreciation that were meant to develop me for Esteem and Self-Actualization. Introduce me to healthy people who know how to love, approve of, and appreciate me and others properly so that I may become a fully-developed, healthy person who can not only fully internalize and experience the spectrum of loving experiences but also go on to love, approve of, and appreciate others in order to become an agent of Goodness in the world. Amen.
I have made a point to keep my blog free of all political discussion purposefully because I don’t run a political blog. 21st c. political discourse tends to be characterized by fear mongering, polarizing and pedantic language, a lack of civility, ad hominem attacks and other logical fallacies, and a ferocious but presently normalized invective that was not culturally familiar or acceptable twenty or even ten years ago. I am most likely the millionth person to observe that something has shifted in the last five years in the United States in terms of what Americans accept as ‘normal’ behavior from our local, state, and national leaders. Where we were once scandalized by a sitting president engaging in oral sex with an intern in the Oval Office, we now condone (in the form of electing him to office) a father’s brazen admissions of sexual attraction towards his daughter as well as permit a known sexual harasser and batterer to occupy the highest office of power in our country. This is where the culture wars, political partisanship, ideology substituting itself for good politics, and excessive corporate campaign contributions led us.
They led us to the great disaster of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Friday, September 28. The nation was on pins and needles because this was not just another hearing. Something about this hearing felt nauseatingly familiar to many men and women tuned into C-Span, and I’m not talking about politics. Something else was afoot.
Judge Kavanaugh was nominated by Mr. Trump in July 2018 to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. While I’m very interested in the political reasons for Mr. Trump’s choice not the least of which is Kavanaugh’s view that a sitting president cannot be indicted, I am far more inclined to examine Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) outburst during the hearing in which he explodes in anger towards the Democrats questioning Kavanaugh:
“What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020.”
The Republican from South Carolina then turned his attention back to Kavanaugh and asked: “Are you a gang rapist?” Kavanaugh replied: “No.”The Republican senator also asked Kavanaugh, “Would you say you’ve been through hell?” Kavanaugh responded, “I’ve been through hell and then some.”Graham expressed sympathy for the Supreme Court nominee and his family, saying, “I cannot imagine what you and your family have gone through.” He added, “I hope the American people can see through this sham…”Earlier in the day, Graham compared the judge’s treatment to Ford’s experience, the woman who came forward to accuse him of sexual assault.“I’m not going to reward people for playing a political game, I think, with her life,” Graham said. “She is just as much a victim of this as I think Brett Kavanaugh (is). Because somebody betrayed her trust, and we know who she gave the letter to.” (CNN)
Certainly, this outburst has a political context, but there is a wide stream of that something else flowing through this dialogue; and it should not to be missed. I want to break it down, but before I do I want to note that Sen. Graham spoke with Chris Wallace on “FOX News Sunday” prior to the hearing. Here’s what he said:
“What am I supposed to do, go ahead and ruin this guy’s life based on an accusation? I’m just being honest. Unless there’s something more, no, I’m not going to ruin Judge Kavanaugh’s life over this. But she should come forward. She should have her say. She will be respectfully treated…I will listen, but I’m not going to play a game here and tell you this will wipe out his entire life,” Graham noted. “‘Cause if nothing changes, it won’t with me.” (CNN)
There it is again–that idea that Kavanaugh’s life will be ruined somehow were Dr. Blasey Ford’s allegations found to be credible, and Graham is…what? The harbinger of Kavanaugh’s downfall should he hold him to account with rigorous questioning or further investigation? As CNN’s Editor-at-Large says, “If the very people who hold in their hands — and votes — the power to make or break Kavanaugh’s nomination are admitting publicly that almost nothing Ford says will change their mind(s), isn’t that the sort of rank partisanship that has gotten us into this morass in the first place?” Logically speaking, if Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a young woman in high school, then isn’t he the cause of his own ruin? Of course, a young man can hardly conceive that one day he might be a Supreme Court Justice nominee, but that is neither here nor there. Young men shouldn’t be drunkenly sexually assaulting young women and expecting to win a gold medal in ‘Character and Ethics’ a few decades later when past bad acts come to light. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s job is to sniff this sort of thing out and make certain that Supreme Court Justice nominees are fit for the role: beyond reproach. Sen. Graham and the entire committee lost sight of that role in the midst of their pursuit of power:
“A judge must be a person with strong character. A judge who has strong character has the ability to apply broad, general law to a narrow, specific set of facts without abusing the court’s authority, letting his or her personal views get in the way, or overlooking important facts and law…a judge should be a visionary. The judiciary is responsible for making sure our laws serve justice and uphold the Constitution. When our laws fail to do so, a judge should search for a way, within the confines of the law, to right a wrong and see that justice is done, even in the face of a disapproving majority. Finally, a judge should be a patriotic American. By this, I mean that a judge must be concerned for the country and the people the law serves more than his or her personal agenda or self-interest. Justices must have intellectual integrity. Supreme Court justices ordinarily are accountable only to their own consciences. Justices must be able to build consensus. The court’s opinions only have force when a majority agrees; fractured decisions leave people struggling to understand what the law means.” (What Makes a Great Supreme Court Justice?)
Alas, Sen. Graham indicates that holding Kavanaugh to account is akin to ruining his life, but this is not something that jibes with Graham’s past actions or his ambitions.
“Graham, who was first elected to Congress in 1994, came to national attention in 1998. He was a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton. Graham then served as a “manager” of Clinton’s Senate impeachment trial.
The irony of his demonstration is that Graham, who wants to chair the Judiciary Committee someday, sought to use a sex scandal to take out a president at that time. Now, two decades later, Graham is defending a Republican Supreme Court nominee from accusations of sexual misconduct.” (Politico)
Moving on, the first question that Graham asks of Kavanaugh is whether he is a gang rapist. That would be a legitimate question if Judge Kavanaugh were accused of gang rape, but Dr. Blasey Ford never alleged that Brett Kavanaugh gang raped her. She never declared, “Brett Kavanaugh is a gang rapist.” So, why ask such an absurd question? Well, this question is a logical fallacy called argumentum ad absurdum in which someone appeals to the extremes in an attempt to disprove something. Notice that Sen. Graham did not ask Kavanaugh whether he had engaged in forced sexual touching with Dr. Blasey Ford. That would have been a legitimate question. No, Graham comes up with some absurd caricature that offends the imagination, triggers victims of rape, and strikes skeptics as ridiculous: “Judge Kavanaugh as high school gang rapist?” P’shaw! No, he’s not a gang rapist! Well, if that’s not right, then the whole allegation must be false; and therein lies the deception and utter brilliance of argumentum ad absurdum. Brett Kavanaugh, however, can be innocent of gang rape and still be guilty of sexually assaulting Dr. Blasey Ford. It was, well, an absurd question.
Sen. Graham’s next question makes Brett Kavanaugh look pitiable, and it is a brilliant juxtaposition considering the public just watched a prosecutor take Christine Blasey Ford apart for four hours under high pressure questioning in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Who looks like a victim now? The victim of sexual assault or the alleged perpetrator? It was a clever redirect.
Sen. Graham then goes on to offer sympathy for Kavanaugh’s “suffering” going so far as to call the hearing “a sham”. He then takes it further by comparing Kavanaugh’s present circumstances–being heavily scrutinized, questioned, and potentially investigated–to Dr. Blasey’s high school sexual assault at Kavanaugh’s own hands. Yet this is the purpose of a hearing! A Supreme Court Justice nominee is supposed to be heavily scrutinized and questioned. If I, as a citizen, am supposed to abide by the laws this man interprets, then I want to know that he isn’t guilty of breaking any himself particularly in the realm of sexual violence.
So, what is all this then? What is the “something else” that we are witnessing aside from obvious partisan politics and sniping? This is gaslighting. Perceptual manipulation and minimizing in the public forum.
Why is it gaslighting? This is where I have to speak politically for a moment. This hearing was indeed a sham largely because the GOP is trying very hard to confirm Kavanaugh before the midterm elections. I understand their zeal and impatience. They have an agenda, and they want to see it through. This hearing was a formality for the conservatives. Sen. Graham’s irate posturing and belligerent bloviating accusing the DFL of a sham was manipulative. The entire hearing was a sham from the beginning. The GOP did not seem interested in the true quality of the contents of Judge Kavanaugh’s character or past actions that might reveal his deeper nature. If they were, then Sen. Graham would have been open-minded and quietly considered every word Dr. Blasey Ford spoke last Thursday during her four hours before him and his colleagues. The Senate Judiciary Committee would have called for an FBI Investigation right away and postponed all proceedings. Some things just matter more than a political agenda.
Had this been the DFL pushing through a favored nominee with little opposition due to lack of votes, then it would have likely played the same way. Their hearing would have been a formality, too. Each party has its own idea of who should occupy this most coveted seat on The Bench. That being said, what is more important? The next two to six years of the GOP political agenda, or the next forty to fifty years of judiciary competence, ethics, and rigor? I know that POTUS has openly boasted about: grabbing women by the p*ssy (2015 “Access Hollywood” Interview), treating women like sh*t (New York Magazine), calling women who breastfeed disgusting, and going so far as to find 12 year-old girls attractive among so many other offensive and misogynistic misdeeds (Telegraph), but Mr. Trump’s anomalous, abnormal, and likely personality-driven behavior should never be normalized because it is not, in fact, normal or something to be modeled. In fact, America’s elected officials should raise the bar–or, sadly, return the bar to its previous height–and demand excellence from each other in conduct, behavior, speech, personal and professional ethics, and character regardless of their party affiliation.
The issue at hand should not be: “There wasn’t a problem with Kavanaugh until you pointed it out; therefore, you must be the problem, ____________.” (insert Dr. Blasey Ford, another accuser, or DFL) . In my mind, the most pressing issue is the possibility that a Supreme Court Justice nominee may very well have sexually assaulted at least one woman, and the majority of the GOP does not seem to care about that. This reeks of cronyism, elitism, and that old institution that must crumble: The Boys’ Club (well, you know, generally for privileged white boys and men).
For many people, this “something else” feels so familiar because it is familiar. For survivors of sexual violence, we’ve seen our perpetrators defended while being blamed ourselves because we “looked” like we wanted it. Our perpetrator didn’t understand; we should feel sorry for him/her. S/he sure is going through hell now being held accountable. Besides, they have such a bright future. Why make a big deal out of a misunderstanding? (That’s minimizing or trivializing, and that’s a form of gaslighting)
Perhaps we were told that we didn’t remember it like it happened (This is called countering, and this is a form of gaslighting). The following ever-popular accusation is often made and was made by Trump himself: “If it really happened, then why didn’t you come forward?” You need only look at the four-hour ordeal Dr. Blasey Ford has been subjected to not to mention everything else she is currently enduring to understand why men and women don’t come forward after sexual violence. I was raped when I was 22 years-old on a date, and I never told anyone. My refusal to disclose doesn’t mean a rape never happened. It only means that I didn’t talk about it. Period.
Gaslighting is pervasive, and one can encounter it in myriad environments both professional and personal–and political it seems. Be savvy. Pay attention. When you begin to feel crazy, like you’re the only sane one around, start really listening to what is being said to you or around you. Educate yourself on perceptual manipulation aka gaslighting. Learn about logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are commonly used in political arguments and rhetoric. The culture of our political system can change. It changes when we vote and get involved.
So, get out and vote in the people who line up with your values and ethics, and vote out the people who do not. Also, pay attention to how your current political favorites behave when they are politicking. Do they rely on gaslighting and logical fallacies to push their points and agendas? Do they often align themselves with those who do? Carefully consider that. It matters. A lot.
I used to write a lot about trauma and the nature of it largely because I was in the middle of dealing with it. For me, I would try to get outside of my own traumas and inspect them as if I were looking at a car I might buy.
That works for a while–the distancing. It restores to you a sense of control, and for people who have been traumatized feeling in control is meaningful. It brings a sense of empowerment, and that makes a huge difference when you’re doing “trauma work”. But, what about those things called “triggers”? What happens then? Honestly, it feels a bit like this:
Eventually, however, we have to take a meaningful look at what traumatized us. That is what many of my trauma-related posts are about–trying to live a meaningful life while also stuck in the “glass box of emotion”.
But, what about life after the trauma work? What do I mean by that? Well, I can tell you what I did during the trauma work. I shut my life down because I had no energy to power it. Metaphorically, I had a small generator, and that only kept necessary systems online. I withdrew from almost everything that involved socializing because I did not have the emotional energy to interface with other people. I was too sensitive at that time to deal with the normal flaws and foibles that characterize the human race. I could barely reach out to my friends. I was just trying to stay afloat. We are talking about surviving here. Getting out of a serious domestic abuse situation is not easy. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I lost friends in the process. There are people who will not understand, not believe you, or who who will shame you for taking the actions you did. It all contributes to a very rocky healing process and extenuates the grieving. Alas, after the initial shock, the therapy, the fallow period in which you feel utterly broken, and the slow ascent out of the pit of despair and pain, you can and do emerge. You will be “remodeled”. You aren’t the same, but you are still you. So, what now? Three years after my ex-husband moved out, what have I learned?
At this point on the road, this is where I’m at. I’m sure in a year I’ll be somewhere else, but it is reassuring to know that we don’t have to stay where we are now. We can get up and move. As always, I wish you all great peace and…