Two really interesting posts went up last week, on two very different sites. I think they relate to each other, in that they address issues of coping with the various personal demons that beset us. One post was another of Donna Freedman’s amazing reflections, quite a complex and sophisticated train of thought about accepting responsibility for, placing blame for, and coping with difficult circumstances in your life. The other, a peppery extravaganza at Penelope Trunk’s site, at first felt so off the wall (ah, she’ll know how old I am from that!) that I thought it was a put-on, but then on reading all the way through realized that it’s a deeply felt cri de coeur that comes at many of the matters Donna speaks of, but from a different direction.
Donna, contemplating the difficult passages in her life, suggests that a key part of dealing with one’s own mistakes and with the pain that we did not, after all, bring on ourselves is to recognize what parts of our actions and reactions are really our responsibility and which are not, and then move on from there. This is easier said than done, as anyone who’s lived more than about twenty years recognizes. She observes that many of those “I can’t believe this is happening” moments are consequences of choices we make. We need to acknowledge those choices, examine them closely enough to understand why we make them, and decide what to do about it.
Penelope, in an extended riff on the angst of aging, considers the art of self-acceptance. She passes, entertainingly, through several strategies and finally lands on the idea that one must accept one’s shortcomings, “one narrow arena at a time.”
We’re born, we live, we get old (if we’re lucky), we die, and along the way a helluva lot of stuff happens. Some of it is stuff the strongest person on earth would have a difficult time coping with…and none of us is the strongest person on earth. So how do we cope? As Donna puts it,
How do you accept responsibility or place blame for the less-than-optimal situations in your life? If the conditions are truly out of your control — illness, unpaid child support — then how have you coped and what advice can you offer others?
Well, first off, in the “acceptance” department, I do think you can save your hide by trying to come to a clear-eyed understanding of what is and is not someone else’s doing. My natural inclination is to blame everyone else for everything, and from there to conclude that they have somehow — directly or indirectly — “made” me do things that were not in my interest, that made me miserable, or that were out-and-out disastrous mistakes. Although it’s true there are some things we can’t help, it’s also true that most of the time no one can make us do anything.
Case in point: I stayed with SDXB for years after realizing that the relationship was toxic, that it had done irreparable harm to my life and my son’s, and that I needed to end it. Why? It’s hard to say. Probably the main reason was fear: I had noplace to jump and did not know whether I could get by alone. Nor did I believe I could. Secondarily, I was brought up to be compliant — oddly, considering what a bold bitch I am, I’m seriously submissive. If a person who appears to be in authority (for real or psychological reasons) says to do X, Y, or Z, as often as not I will do X, Y, or Z without talking back and without considering whether I really have to.
My son was in high school when we decided to take him and two of his buddies on a hike up Mt. Rainier. SDXB had said we would camp overnight at a site that overlooked a glacier, and so we started up the mountain assuming that’s what we would do.
It turned out the way was a lot longer than he remembered. We walked and walked and walked and walked and walked — uphill — and still did not come to the campground where he’d stayed on a previous visit. We passed people coming down who were clearly experienced hikers, who remarked on the difficulty of the hike.
Finally, late in the afternoon, we came to the campground. And that was when he told us he had failed to get us a permit at this place!
So nothing would do but we had to continue on to our next day’s destination, where we could camp. It was late in the day, we were all tired — the boys and I were very tired — and he now announced we would have to do a hike we had planned to do the following day.
We continued uphill. My son was having trouble, and he began to fall behind. When I slowed down to pace my son, SDXB, who had decided HE “had to get these people there,” as though he was totally in charge of what everyone was doing, demanded that I stay with him. Feeling browbeaten, I complied.
My son fell further and further back, and soon he was gone. As in completely out of our sight and hearing, alone on the side of Mt. Rainier as night was falling.
It was dark when we got to the lake. We pitched the tents, and then SDXB turned around and went back down the trail in search of my son. He had no idea where the boy was — the kid could have turned around and gone back down the mountain, he could have wandered off the trail and become lost, he could have fallen.
Eventually, they did show up. I was too tired to be furious then, but there was nothing I could do at the time, anyway.
During the night, it rained. A lot. As in a downpour. In the dark, we had set up the boys’ tent in a low spot. Water seeped through the bottom, and by morning, everything they had — all their clothes, all their gear — was soaking wet.
SDXB proposed to go fishing.
I announced that we were going back — he could stay there if he wanted, but the boys and I were going back down, and if I had to hire a cab to drive us back to Seattle, that is what we would do. Angrily, he conceded.
Now we march downhill at a breakneck pace, far faster than we should be going over some parts of the trail, which had loose scree over various stretches. I say we’re going too fast, but nothing will do but what we have to keep up with our fearless leader.
Not surprisingly, my son slips on the rocks and falls, hard, on his back. He was using a frame backpack, and, to give you an idea of what happened, the metal frame broke from the impact.
Fortunately, he didn’t break any bones. But it was a scary moment.
Things went downhill from there, literally and figuratively. I won’t go into the ensuing fiascos, except to say that during the trip I made up my mind that the relationship was over. At one specific point, I decided that as soon as we got back to Phoenix, I was going to throw SDXB out of my house and have nothing more to do with him.
And here’s where things get even more bizarre: I didn’t.
Some time later, I told this story to a friend of mine, a tough little broad who made her way through life by main force and steely guile, and in describing the events I said, “SDXB made me leave my son behind.”
“No, he didn’t,” she said. “No one can make you do anything. You choose to do things.”
Yeah. Well, it was several more years before I chose to eject SDXB from my home and my life. Even then, he’s still in the offing — not as an item, at least.
It took that long for me to come to terms with the fact that to take anything resembling control of our lives, we have to recognize what we can do, what we will do, what we can’t do, and what we won’t do, and to take responsibility for each of those four things.
Of course, in reality we have no control over our lives. Life is a series of random events, some of which we put into motion and some of which we have nothing to do with. But we can create an illusion of control, if temporarily, by recognizing and, as Donna says, by taking responsibility for what we can do and can’t do, what we will do and won’t do.
Once you become conscious of those parameters — what will you do, what will you refuse to do, what can you do, what is beyond your control — it becomes possible to devise strategies to cope with the problems that arise in life, whether those problems result from your own decisions or whether they’re inflicted on you from without. Over time, I’ve developed a rough outline that I apply when things are headed south:
1. Define the problem. Figure out what really is going on and try to understand it fully.
2. If it’s an extremely stressful or emotional situation, sit down in a quiet place and think through what parts of the problem really matter and what parts don’t matter or are minor enough to be deferred. Most problems have several aspects. Figure out what parts of the predicament you can do something about, and what parts you can’t or won’t do anything about. Then, let go of the things that don’t much matter or that you can’t affect, and address only those matters that you can change.
3. Make a plan.
If something is bearing down on you — the upcoming cancer surgery, for example — prepare, to the extent that you can, so as to minimize grief and extraneous hassles. When I learned the Great Desert University was going to close our office and lay off me and all five of my staff, I took on a side job to pay off all debt, began applying for new full-time work, figured out how to maintain my health coverage, and came to the (difficult!) decision that I would start drawing Social Security early.
If you’re blindsided by unexpected events, as soon as you stop rolling think through what to do first, and then plan out the steps you’ll take right away and in the near future to recoup.
4. Set a goal (or goals) and make your plan part of a strategy to deal with the problem’s repercussions. Write these things down in the form of a to-do list or a broad strategic plan.
5. Follow through.
These steps apply to many of life’s most troubling problems: money and debt, unruly kids, abusive relationships, unhappy jobs, dieting, bad habits and addictions, all but the most crippling illnesses…you name it.
There’s another aspect to this coping business, one that comes to mind as I reflect on Penelope’s essay. I suppose it has to do with what we choose to do and choose not to do:
We can choose not to buy into the miasma of senseless behavior and thinking our culture lays on us. There’s a lot of that, in any society.
In the West, for example — particularly in the United States — we obsess about youth to the extent that we fear and loathe the simple, unavoidable fact of maturing. We fear aging so much that we loathe the elderly, and we loathe ourselves as we progress through life toward age. Hence those expensive, painful, and time-wasting Botox injections.
As my mother used to say, just because the rest of the sheep jumped off the cliff doesn’t mean you have to.
Humans are given to much stupid stuff. And being social animals, we all want to keep up with the herd, no matter what inanity the herd engages. Sometimes when we do that, we make ourselves unhappy. Indeed, we harm ourselves. It takes us back to the questions of what we can and will do or not do. No one can make us buy into stupid stuff. We can choose to buy into it or not to buy into it.
When it comes to the age phobia, for example, I refuse to buy into it.
I do not dye my hair. I do not have toxins injected under my skin. I do not deny my age. I do not shrink from saying “now that I’m old…” It’s not a crime to reach old age. Au contraire: it’s an accomplishment. I embrace age and all the amazing insights and benefits that come with it. Because I can and I will.
You can refuse to buy into any number of stupid things: abuse, smoking, drinking, drugs, dead-end jobs, dead-end marriages, violent “entertainment,” hate, political correctness, fear, wacky dieting, lies promulgated by political parties, marketing campaigns, suburban living, whatever.
It’s your choice. Take responsibility for it.