Be Strong, Be Friended

Spiraling, Darkening.

Spiraling, Darkening.

I think there is strength in admitting our weaknesses, in telling the truth instead of lies. But if we rely only on ourselves–“I’m just fine on my own thank you very much”–we might never notice those weaknesses.  Without others in our lives, we may become, who knows what, because we can’t see ourselves fully by ourselves only.

Some things are simply beyond human powers. Some things we shouldn’t have to do alone, like raising children. Even single parents should have a support system.  Quitting an addiction is another area where the sheer willpower of one just isn’t enough. That’s why people who join twelve-step programs have sponsors and accountability partners.

A Handful. Armful. Backful.

A Handful. Armful. Backful. My sister-in-law with her two boys and my girl.

I recently read an article about blame. It didn’t sting me at all, not anymore, but it did make me consider my alternative route. When I was growing up, I wasn’t really blaming my mom, instead I was questioning her. Her faults, her control issues made me wonder: what was it that made her so unwaveringly herself?  What is it that makes a mind feel so correct within itself, so blind to potential faults?  Instead of blaming her, perhaps I should thank my mom for unknowingly spurring me towards an interest in human psychology. I never thought of my mom as a bad person, just a mistaken one. There are lots of people, making bigger mistakes, and it’s kind of scary. Could I be mistaken, too, in different ways?

The Questioning Look. Me at Garden of the Gods, Colorado.

The confident questioner. Me at Garden of the Gods, Colorado.

Would you agree that being human is a little scary? The need to change is invisible from our self-absolving eyes. Or, even if faults are visible, once you’ve learned to live with them, you might callously expect others to live with them as well. We don’t see from the eyes of those who might be crushed by our mistakes. Running with the force of a a crowd, like a stampede reinforcing our motions, we might not even notice anything important underfoot. Parents think they should come down hard on children, that children should be taught adults are right, no questions asked. Just listen, you. Don’t mind your self-esteem, individual thought or opinions. But authority without question isn’t the healthiest seed to sow. Nor is it the healthiest way to be–to be impenetrable. Parents need to punish, but parents should also level. We should try to understand our children or our friends even if we don’t agree. Without those qualities, who knows what we’ll become.

Without empathy, without trying to see from the eye of another, we may never really know ourselves. Nobody notices the lies that they tell themselves, the lies that maybe have been there since youth. We expect our minds to have changed and improved, when it turns out they are unyieldingly stuck in the same patterns as always, only now, we don’t realize it. We aren’t weak for wanting others to help us be better people, we are strong. Weakness is our natural state–0r, perhaps I should say that in many cases, blindness to our own weakness is our natural state.  If we don’t have insight in our lives, we may go on thinking that we are strong and that we can heal ourselves. As our bodies need nourishment from a variety of foods if we are to be healthy, we need light cast from different angles if we are to truly see.

Cousins and best friends.

Cousins embrace

We need good people in our lives, been-through-it-before people, forgiving and hold-you-to-it people.  We need people who see the good in us that we might not see.  We need people who aren’t afraid to tell us when we’ve done something we shouldn’t. People who will help us improve, help us to become the best individuals we can be.  People, who hopefully understand, we’re not meant to be exactly like everyone else. People who know that there is value in our uniqueness. Do you have friends like these?


Be Yourself

"This is my style, this is who I am." - Duck in Enid Oklahoma

Spunky duck in Enid, Oklahoma

Have you ever been told that something was wrong with you because you were somehow different?  You are just being, I don’t know, yourself, when someone interjects that you’ve done something out of the ordinary, something wrong.  You might be reading a book aloud so you can hear it.  You might be practicing a yoga move in the courtyard to get your blood flowing. You might close your eyes when you listen.  You might sketch or write songs compulsively.  “Nobody is like that,” they say. “But I’m like that,” you say.  “You should change to be more like everyone else,” they say.  “But why?” you ask.  “You’re the only one,” they say, and, “Trust me, you need to change. You don’t fit in.”

But is being different a valid critique?  In many ways, you must be different, because you must be you.  Virginia Satir, a therapist and appreciator of originality, wrote the perhaps obvious truth: to be anything other than you, “is to thwart nature.”  But why is that so hard to for some see?

Sticking together. Ducklings in Mildenhall, England.

Sticking together. Ducklings in Mildenhall, England.

Perhaps it’s because the model of conformity is easy to follow, natural, even.  We’re told to go with the mainstream, middle ground, where we’re sure to get by. Go with places most know and trust, not the places where we may fail. But sometimes, the crowd can lead you astray. Sometimes it’s best to look at our own unique hopes and dreams, because at the end of the day, and at the end of a lifetime, you will want to know if you ever followed that dream that’s deep within your heart, and did you give it your best or did you give up?

It seems that today, extroversion is a bit more appreciated than introversion.  My mom, in her extroversion, was annoyed by my extreme introversion.  She would question, “How are you going to survive in the world, being so quiet and anti-noise?”  As it turns out, I am quiet and I am sensitive, but I’m glad I am.  It allows me to feel and observe the world more closely.  I survive, I thrive, by writing and by making time to read (just a couple examples).  What sort of things feed your soul? Spending time in nature, or in museums, or fashion design?  What inklings do you choose to pursue?

Any of us can be told we should fall in line with the world as they see it. But can’t we see the flaw in this reasoning?  We are the world. By telling each other that we should all be the same, we are projecting some sort of unquestioning assimilating world on each other. But shouldn’t we be the world as it is meant to be, not the world as we fear it?

The Swan. Mildenhall, England.

The Swan. Mildenhall, England.

We forget that the world is us.  We can tell each other that we are valuable, that our perspectives have meaning. We can see that we were born different and variety is normalcy.  If you like this line of thought, which has been influenced by my recent reading, I would highly recommend the book, The New Peoplemaking by Virginia Satir.  She shows how to appreciate each other, peacefully co-exist, and how to create a nurturing environment within a family. We’re all different, and we should learn how to respect and appreciate that!

What Were You Thinking!?

“What were you thinking?!” It’s not a question, really. It’s more like a steep cliff, a chasm between two minds expressed, with exasperation at the bottom.  The perplexed inquisitor doesn’t want to hear your reasons. The reasons aren’t, in their mind, substantial enough to contribute to your behavior–even if those reasons were substantial enough to you in that moment.  At least, that was my experience.

My mom had been supportive of my decision at 17 to enlist in the Air Force.  While submitting to a medical examination, there was a snag on the questionnaire. The doctor asked, “How much milk can you eat without a negative reaction?”  I thought in terms of scoops of ice-cream.  “No more than a teaspoon?”  Yes, I said, thinking of my mom, what she would want me to say.  She’s always telling me I’m allergic and those puking incidents are due to milk. But my attempt to please her didn’t.

That night, my mom stood outside the MEPS office, yelling, “What on earth were you thinking, telling them that you cannot eat a teaspoon of milk?!” I told her I was only thinking of her with my answer.  But she didn’t hear it.  “You want to ruin your chances!” she raved. “I know you. You sabotage yourself.  You always do. Keep this up, Tiffany, you will never…”

It isn’t pretty when someone angrily re-interprets you in the worst possible light.  Mistakes, the things you want to forget or hide are fashioned into a whip, flying with the quick force of fear. Each verbal slash may be an attempt to scare you out of failure, but it honestly doesn’t help. The next day, the seemingly colossal problem blew over. My milk allergy (which is actually an intolerance) was straightened out and I got a departure date for basic training.  I wanted to leave home more than ever.

Not only do people help create our experiences in life, they also try to tell us how to interpret them. You got a medal, but you failed because it’s only a bronze. Or you did a great job, you got the bronze medal!  Someone can put you into a box, coming to see you as something you’re not, but still demanding that you live up to their expectations. When that happens, you will wish to hide from their attention, because it’s so hard to please them.

We want friends to see us in a good light.  We want to be able to break away from our mistakes, not be chained to them, under an absolute of “this is who you are forever.” (Virginia Satir makes a point like this in her book, The New People Making.)  If someone wants to see you this way, there’s no stopping them.  But it’s unfair to have to listen to that all the time.  Humans are dynamic creatures, capable of change should we seek it.  And sometimes we have to seek change by choosing a new environment; we have to escape the shapes someone else has drawn for us, because we can’t be happy if we stay there.  We have to find friends who will view our mistakes, yes, but who may help you understand them, get past them, and put them into perspective.  Reiterating worries and fears will only amplify your problems.

When I left home, I did so not only in hopes of a new life, but for people in my life.  An environment.  I believed that I could get over my problems, and build on my strengths. And I would be someone reinterpreted in light of brave attempts and successes, not just failures.

Virginia Satir wrote, “In troubled families, people’s bodies and faces tell of their plight.  Bodies are either stiff and tight, or slouchy.  Faces look sullen, or sad, or blank like masks.  Eyes look down and past people.  Ears obviously don’t hear.  Voices are either harsh and strident or barely audible.” (p11)

She goes on, “How different it is to be in a nurturing family!…”  …  “I feel that if I lived in a nurturing family, I would be listened to and would be interested in listening to others; I should be considered and would wish to consider others.  I could openly show my affection as well as my pain and disapproval. I wouldn’t be afraid to take risks because everyone in my family would realize that some mistakes are bound to come with my risk-taking.  I would feel like a person in my own right—noticed, valued, loved, and clearly asked to notice, value, and love others.”

Also check out this song with lyrics:

I, Myself, Individually: Part One (with quotes from J.S. Mill)

Individualism.  Is that something we can feel?  How do we know if we’ve arrived?

I’ve known when it wasn’t there.  The sound of your our own voice waivers and cracks makes you nervous.  At impulse is pleasing others; within reach is the desired posture and facade; and far away, on some distant planet, are your own opinions and dreams.

J.S. Mill, who knew something of a strict upbringing himself, wrote, “…whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.” On a very small scale, my mother was a despot. The binding of my personality may have happened unintentionally, but it happened still.

I was one of four children–two older, one younger brother–homeschooled, under my mother’s instruction. Public schools were full of evils to be avoided: the bullying, the assessments, the potential for daily failure, the godless textbooks, the culture of peer-pressure and rebellion. At home, everything–what we ate, what we learned, what we watched, who we knew–could be controlled.

That wasn’t so bad.  Anyone could see that we were kind, obedient children.  Talking back was squelched. Disagreements didn’t last long.  We didn’t complain much, spoke when spoken to, and were polite.

But in all our meekness, we were missing something.  In all her guidance, my mom missed something.  She had missed the importance of friendships with kids our age, mentorship from other adults, opportunities to become. And in unanticipated ways, we began to fail her.  We were not what she had pictured.  Our limited experience with the world simply wasn’t enough to prepare us to interact with it.  Being exposed to her singularity (the supernova that was and is my mother), didn’t prepare us for our plurality; us each being different as individuals; each to form instead of meld.  Opposite to that, we weren’t ourselves, we were hers.

As a teen, I started getting more involved in groups (tennis, teen court), but the interactions only made my faults apparent. Talking with people (other than my brothers) was painful.  Incomplete sentences would tumble out of my mouth.  A party once make me nervous to tears, so I sat in the car.  When I tried to please my mother, it felt impossible.  I wrongly anticipated her desires, or I felt no confidence in following her.  Why was I so weak?

I wasn’t myself. I didn’t know how to be myself.  In that area, I was weakened instead of strengthened.  Again, from J.S. Mill, “The faculties are called into no exercise by doing a thing because others do it, no more than by believing a thing only because others believe it. If the grounds of an opinion are not conclusive to the person’s own reason, his reason cannot be strengthened, but is likely to be weakened by his adopting it…rendering his feelings and character inert and torpid, instead of active and energetic.”

That’s pretty much how I felt, “inert and torpid,” dreamy, and in need of total silence to to think; in need of the qualities that were not nurtured under the regime of unquestioning obedience.  Instead of understanding, my mom yelled louder: “Don’t tell me to be quiet!” “stand up straight,” and “to take some pride in yourself,” or “don’t look so sullen,” or “don’t you cry; you’re embarrassing me!”

Thankfully, my own thoughts, feelings, impressions–if not words to express them–were in there, even if muted.  “Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as Individuality exists under it…” wrote Mill. Dreams—of riding a horse, running away, to a new town, to college, or joining the Air Force, anything—formed in my mind, telling me that I had the will to find myself.  I could find a thoughtful, intelligent voice and a personality.  If only I could live somewhere else, somewhere with different rules, breaking down the rules I’d once known.  Then I could begin to feel how temporary her dominance, and begin to live based my own beliefs, my own strengths.  I felt that I could become my own person–and there was nothing that I wanted more.

“Nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth, as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of human experience. But it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way. It is for him to find out what part of recorded experience is properly applicable to his own circumstances and character. … The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice.” -John Stuart Mill (all quotes from “On Liberty,” chapters II and III)