I just have to share a dog park experience with you before I put the rocking chair on top of my car and drive to town. Yes, I will have the music blaring from speakers hung outside the windows playing “The Beverly Hillbillies.” I won’t disappoint you.
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ –Martin Luther King
Kids learn in grade school that the answer to this question lies in doing rather than telling. MLK’s question simply threads the gemstone of morality from which all decent human behavior springs. The brilliant heart of the gem Do unto others as you would have others do unto you says
- “Don’t lie.”
- “Don’t cheat”
- “Don’t steal”
- “Don’t bully”
- Share your stuff
It’s true–how we treat each other remains the hallmark of a life well lived. However, how may we treat others well, if we treat ourselves with disgust? We may not realize we slam ourselves with put downs:
- “I’m so stupid!”
- “I’m an idiot!”
- “I screwed up.”
- “I just can’t get anything right.”
- “I’m sorry.” (Essential if we have indeed broken the Golden Rule against another–but have we really committed an actual offense or are we in the habit of putting ourselves down?) “Sorry” gets a lot of air time.
Unwarranted self-denigration is not a moral virtue. Maybe as kids, self-denigration was passed on to us. Some of our adults refused us admission into our own lives. We weren’t allowed to enter the theater, much less look at the screen, to sit in the seat and get acquainted with possibility so that we might individuate, to become our own person, to grow up as our Maker intended. We were hardwired from years of hearing damaging phrases from our powerful adult bullies:
- “Quit your whining!” they said when you were thirsty,
- “You are worthless!” when you brought home a “B” from school,
- “You’re too sensitive!” when a nightmare frightened you,
- “You’re selfish!” when a sibling stole something of yours and kept it,
- “You’re stupid!” when you asked questions,
- “You’re arms are too fat!” when you knew they weren’t…. Or were they? You look at them again.
- “Shut up!”
Some of us learned early and well, that to merely exist was to be labelled rebellious, selfish, and inconsiderate of others. Physical, psychological neglect and abuse were OK because we deserved it. We were worthless anyway. We were barred from that critical growing up process. We were isolated from normal others, cut away from the cloth of peer interaction and rewoven into fabric of fear that failed to keep us warm in winter.
Here’s the morally twisted part: those with power over us–abusers, neglectors–were “right” and we were wrong. Always wrong. So…Abuse was always “right.” For us to question, to have an opinion, to be seen as real meant to suffer psychological or physical injury. Let’s face it: all abuse amounts to psychological injury. So we learned to hide from ourselves so that we could hide from injury. Woundedness became the GREAT AVOID. Our attentions were forced away, diverted to mere survival.
- “Will he find me under the bed?”
- “How can I get warm?”
- “I shouldn’t have asked for shoes that don’t hurt.”
- “It was my fault Mom beat me.”
Worse, in the hands of an abuser who uses morality as justification for abuse and neglect (i.e., religious and cult leaders or a partner who says, “This is for your own good” or, “This is what God commands” or “We all have to sacrifice.”), outward neglect morphs into “self-sacrifice” for the good of the “family.” Neglect of self, then, strangely enough wears a mask of “moralness.” In other words, we are no good unless we suffer. So we learn to put ourselves down.
Not only does “sacrificial morality” excuse the abuser, the sufferer often uses it (unwittingly) to avoid making a change.
So we grown up us, our wiring completed by others, have been set into a pattern for life. We have learned to neglect ourselves, to call ourselves names others got away with calling us:
- “I’m stupid.”
- “I’m sorry.”
- “I can’t get anything right.”
- “I’m sorry. Sorry. I’m sorry.”
Unwittingly, many look for a life partner who will support the tradition. Knowing predators hunt for someone exactly like us.
Until the grown up child decides they’ve had enough. After all the years of suppressing questions of their own, the abused gets to answer the question by asking the one that really matters, “Is my want of safety really selfish after all?” Or, “Might it not be morally wrong–a crime against me–to allow the abuse pattern to continue?”
Dig deep. To those grownup kids who’ve decided to get out of abuse and rewire their learned behavior patterns, change can be excruciating. And the kaleidoscope of change may surprise us, change the way we look at things. When we start with being kind to us, we may find we have perpetuated abusive talk and attitude onto others by which we are now embarrassed.
We are worth it. Others benefit from our change. Others are worth it. Let’s us treat others the way we would have them treat us. But let’s us treat ourselves kindly as grown up we, at last, may parent our precious child within. It starts with the way we refer to ourselves.
Kindness to self is not arrogance, but decency.
Fun for the whole family! Tune in to KSQM Community Radio to hear LITTLE RED RIDING PANTS’ NARROW ESCAPE, written and narrated by Eva Stanfield. Two airings: 9AM and 5PM. For bonus laughs at the end of the story, the 5 PM airing will include Little Red’s Handy Vocab List! Total running time 40 minutes with two breaks for station identification.
Go, Little Red, go!
A BIRD (circa fifth grade)
A bird outside my window
Sings a song for me
The length of it is not for me to measure
But I know it’s indeed quite long
Enough to give my soul all pleasure.
(First thing I ever wrote, circa fifth grade.)
Green her stem
Green her leaves
Red her garment but then–
I was there on that day in fall
She had lost her leaves, her garment, her all.
But wait! There’s still a hope–part of her garment is still there,
Torn from her heart, her heart so fair.
Then I discovered a very sad thing,
She wouldn’t be back ’till the coming of spring.
Every morning a one-legged junco shows up for his job at Starbucks. He stands alone, one foot away from the closed glass door. Coffee vapors seep through the edges, lace a frosty morning. Roasty goodness smiles, beckons you inside with its brown finger. You step closer. Mr. One-Leg refuses to move. You reach for the door. Forget about it. Not moving. You feel like you can’t get at the coffee, though in truth you could. Does the bird understand you’re on a tight schedule? Mr. One-Leg has moxy.
Only when you give this well-fed junco your crumb pledge does he hop aside and let you pass. Now, he has you trained. Then, something else happens: his confidence and courage earn your attention and respect.
Sometimes you may feel like a one-legged junco. You may have come into this world intact but birth family had its way with you and now you find you’re “missing a leg.”
- You may hunger to be seen.
- You may long for mutuality.
- You may also experience crushing loneliness. This may come as a result of choices you make, which may not be bad choices at all–I’m talking about the hard and best choices a person makes to protect one’s self from others who would harm.
Sometimes good choices can feel incredibly bad when it comes to choosing not to stay around people who make you feel bad. You may feel like you lost a family or mate that wasn’t really family at all. A double whammy. This can be crippling. That’s one possible outcome.
Yet, you, like Mr. One Leg, continue to show up for life because you’re made of good stuff. You may have received some awful programming. You may have been bound for years by unhealthy family ties. You may have lost some feathers, picked up some dents and dings along the way. You may have lent your heart to someone who vandalized it for a while. They may have even burgled your voice. You may have lost sight in one eye. A broken wing may have mended badly, a beautiful dream may have ended sadly and maybe, just maybe you can’t fly like you thought you somehow would. Life took little child you and did its thang. You got a bum rap. And yet you survived.
It’s good to establish the facts. That way you can look into the mirror and view your strengths, your remaining options. We are all damaged. Don’t be afraid. You have new choices to make so you’d best get busy. Think about this: as you look into the mirror, let’s suppose your world of I CAN’T shifts to a world of WHAT IF?
- What if your remaining leg has gotten so strong that it’s given you REAL STRENGTH?
- What if the other birds respect your COMMITMENT to the door?
- What if your woundedness gives you REAL COURAGE–the kind that brings you to a better way of doing life every morning? What about that, my friend?
- What if your tactics for survival in the past may now help you to STRATEGIZE for your future?
- What if you dig deep and ACT on your hard-won knowledge?
- What if there’s more to you than you realized?
I give Mr. One-Leg a lotta credit. Once he figures out a basic strategy he takes it one hop further! He gimps alongside you to the patio table (making sure you follow through on your commitment). Then, he looks up and says, “More, please!”
If we have a family member who suffers from mental illness, then we suffer alongside them. Or beneath them. We are their witness, yes. We understand too well the tumult, the moment by moment, the wrinkled implication of their affliction, especially as it pertains directly to us. We are forced to come to the realization that they may never be our witness. We suffer out of our own want for them to please get better or out of our desire to be seen by them. We suffer out of our basic unmet needs to be clothed and warmed, the very indicators that they care for us. We want them to witness us. But they cannot see beyond the thing that binds them. They cannot see us.
Who will be our witness, then?
Well, heck, we reason, haven’t we been lovingly placed in this physical time/space thing right now? Doesn’t all of nature see? There is so much out there that is real that we haven’t seen yet. We cannot see the true largess of life (or its smallness)–we only see glimpses. With great relief and wonder we stand and gape at the portal.
Then we break down the biggest most beautiful things into the smallest, even into quarks (But are they really the smallest?) You may want to check this out: Tiny Grandeur: Stunning Photos Of the Very Small.
Are we, ourselves, any less awe inspiring? Our bodies, our spirits? Our sheer will to struggle? To overcome? To really live?
If we were somehow able to pause on our path and pull back the curtain all the way–if we glimpsed all of it right now, the big and small stuff behind all we see and experience here, I wonder if our eyes wouldn’t go blind from brilliance and our physical bodies unable to manage the weight of its abundance.
Meantime, we pass through this very real space one step at a time (sometimes two steps forward one step backward!) doing what we were meant to do. All of nature–great and small–is our witness. Our body is our witness. Our spirit is our witness. What happened and will happen to us was and will be real. Our struggle to live in this time/space continuum is real. We know it because we see growth here, in spite of or because of the difficulties of a family member’s mental illness. As we continue to move forward we forge a path by clearing the brush of uncertainty out of the way.
As a result of our work we see dynamic change spring up not only in us but all around us in nature. Nature is reciprocal. Nature reflects back to us our struggle, rewards us with glimpses of what lies just beyond the scrim. Then, we see that we are our own witness. Witness is all around us. It’s inside our very spirit too.
And it is enough.
My legs are tall. My tail is short.
I watch my mistress. Watch watch watch.
It is time to go stalk lions now. I stalk lions in tall grass at the beach. I never find them but I always look for them. I will catch one soon.
I wait. Wait wait wait. She cleans the kitchen after supper.
After dishes mistress calls me, “Mia Flower, Come.”
I always listen. Sometimes I play a game. Sometimes I do not come when she calls me.
I love her. She feeds me.
She walks with me at the beach. I love the beach. I love–
“Mia.” She calls again and I run to her. I love her.
It is walk time.
She scratches my ear. Right. There. Ahh.
She holds something in her hand for me to sniff. A tiny stick.
Sniff sniff sniff.
Too small for fetch. Each end of the stick has a fuzzy ball. I like balls.
Too small for catch.
Time for beach. Time for the huntress.
“QTip, Mia,” she says.
She cleans my ear. Not too deep. Gentle mistress never hurts ears. OOH, ball on stick in ear feels good.
I love her with my eyes.
It is time for walk now. I stare at my leash on a chair.
“See?” Mistress lets me sniff a shiny tube. She holds it tight. Brown goo comes from the tube. I sniff. Mmm. Peanut butter toothpaste.
“Toothbrush,” she says. She holds up a different stick. It is longer than a QTip. A brush at one end. I do not like the toothbrush.
Up and down and all around.
I do not like the brush thing. I love goo.
Mistress finishes brushing my teeth. I love the tube of goo with my eyes all the way to the drawer.
It is time for walk now. I go to the leash on the chair.
I point to the leash with my eyes. See? See? See?
She reaches. She holds a big bottle. I know the big bottle.
I do not love the big bottle with my eyes. It is squirty.
I run away.
To the window. Lions live out there. I must watch.
Mistress calls me. I do not look at her with my eyes.
Not time for walk. Four wrinkle day.
She comes to me. No.
“We must wash your ears,” she says.
I don’t think so. In my head I hunt lions in tall grass right now.
I do not like the bottle.
Mistress holds me close. I squirm. I cannot get away.
She will not hurt me. I hold still for her.
Mistress squeezes a squirt into my ear.
I do not like it. I shake my head.
Mistress rubs my ear with a towel. I love towels. OOH towels feel good. Ooh. Ooh. Ooh. Yes towels feel good.
She does not hurt me.
My ears are clean.
My teeth are clean. I like the goo.
Mistress holds my face in her hands. She loves me with her eyes.
“Good girl,” she says.
Mistress lets me go now.
I stay. Stay stay stay.
I stare at her. I sit tall.Tall tall tall.
She says, “Go for a walk?”
My tail is too short. It tries to shout.
“YES YES YES!”
My eyes ask, “Now?”
My eyes tell her I hunt lions.
Mistress laughs. “I will take you to hunt lions now.”
I stalk a lion at the beach. I never find one but I always look for him. I will catch him soon.
I will catch one soon.
A tough topic, but let’s run with it. Rather, let’s fly. Let’s hold forgiveness tight against our thumping hearts and fly away from fearful grudges hiding like mice in the field. Let’s let the falcon of un-forgiveness do its own hunting. Let’s us fly like the eagle to a high tree and rest on another branch. That grudging field isn’t the only game in town.
Anger has its place and we should not deny our anger. Anger let’s us know of injustice against us, against others. Anger tells us something must be done to protect ourselves and others. Anger helps us pinpoint unsafe people. Anger is powerful and helps keep us safe. So, let’s hold forgiveness even tighter than our anger so anger may serve its purpose then release its grip. Otherwise, anger will give way to fear.
Fear, the little thing that looks up big-eyed and helpless, little thing that leaves the little creature so exposed, armour-less, and begrudging it lets itself be snatched up by a falcon, the swiftest of the raptors, the one who dives and precisely snags the fearful mouse in the field and tears it apart before it knows it has died. That mouse was too busy being big-eyed and fearful. Non-forgiveness, the bird of prey that lives on fear, digests it and expels its shell on the floor of its nest.
Let’s fish the river of forgiveness, a glittery stream that flows, dances, advances toward somewhere big. Let’s fish from forgiveness and feed on something that fights for life. Unforgiveness is not us. It can go a-hunting in its own little boxy field that doesn’t flow anywhere.
With a mentally ill parent love may very well come hard or not at all. When a child comes into a family you can bet your life that little kid is very interested in getting the parent to notice her, because that kid believes her daddy is equally interested in his offspring. My dad’s interest in me started out as genuine, then slipped away as his mental illness took him over until his meager efforts appeared phony. Confused the heck out of me, why, at every turn he had abandoned me. I kept trying to get him to see me.
As I grew older I mistakenly believed that, since my dad was still present bodily, then he must still be there for me. I really didn’t understand how ill he had gotten. His downward slide paralleled my growth incrementally. As my material, emotional, and spiritual needs grew greater his provisions for me quickly dwindled to nothing. For example, living conditions got so bad we had to haul water from town for months on end because the well pump stopped working. He seemed unable to make things better for those who depended on him. I did not have adequate clothing or heat. Mom happened to be a resourceful hunter/gatherer so she made sure we were OK in the food department. In the midst of Dad’s wealth, and in spite of Mom’s efforts, desperation ruled our days.
His body was still there, living at the house, fed by Mom. He talked, yes. He had gumption to feed the monkey. He worked some, too. However, the thing I couldn’t quite wrap my head around was this: he was not really at “home.” Though I could see, touch and speak to (at) him, his mind, the thing that made him him, had gone away.
A kid loves a parent, right? So, the parent loves the kid, right? If not, maybe the kid thinks she hasn’t tried hard enough. Some adults think this, too. If the kid tries harder he or she can get Daddy to love him or her back, right? Wrong. Not a little kid’s responsibility to present the love model to the parent. The onus is on the parent to model love for the child. Imroperly modeled “love” by a parent is something a lot of kids don’t receive, an awful gift that keeps on giving. A lot of time passed from early childhood to adulthood before I was ready to swallow that pill–my truth–about my mentally ill father who could not love me. No matter how much I looked to Dad to even see me, his window had closed long ago, and would not be opened by him again.
However, I vowed at a fairly young age not to let Dad’s depression rule my life. While I still lived at home I did everything my gifts allowed in order to offset the overwhelming influence his illness tried to exert on my life. Later, when I had the freedom, in my early twenties I sought counseling. Counseling invoked the power of witness. Witness is powerful. Witness sees and understands. Witness validates things that cannot be seen. Witness helps us parent ourselves.
- Witness can be a professional counselor. You can trust yourself to find a good one because you are caring for yourself.
- Or, witness doesn’t have to be in the form of a counselor. Witness can be a five minute phone call to a friend. Sometimes simply hearing someone say, “I have your back” is enough for that day.
- You can experience the power of witness by reading the story of Hagar in the Bible, or inspiring stories like Jeannette Walls’ book, the GLASS CASTLE.
- Witness can be writing a letter to yourself and keeping it in a safe place.
- Witness can be a book or story you write, a song you compose or even someone else’s song you sing.
- Witness can be a poem you write about a little tree that grows in spite of lack of rain, a tree whose roots learn go deep to find an underground pool.
- Witness can be painted, drawn or doodled on paper, then hung on a bathroom mirror to remind you you are caring for your heart.
- Witness a powerful tool and helper, a good one you can trust yourself to find.
When I was old enough, free enough to parent myself I followed my instincts to care for me. I wrote, created music and drew. I walked a lot, got into nature. Still do. Not afraid to say it, I still get counsel from time to time. And what a difference counseling, writing, walking and creating has made in my life.
These are smart things we do for ourselves so we can break the chain of neglect. Neglect has to stop somewhere. Why not with us? Why not explore the power of witness?