Category Archives: personal growth

Breaking the Rules: Epilogue (One Year Later)

One year ago today it was Friday.  That night I ran into an ex I’d been in love with, for the first time since he’d suddenly dumped me over a year earlier.  He didn’t know I saw him, and it was a near-Perfect Running Into An Ex-Beloved Scenario (I looked hot, I was genuinely having fun, and he looked back at me when he left with his wilting date).

But even more importantly, it was the day that I resigned from my latest, and perhaps last, full-time job.  Remember?  The toxic one I told you all about last year starting with my first post, and continuing with the Breaking the Rules series?

A year later, the only thing I miss about leaving is the financial abundance and stability I left behind — temporarily (business is picking up!).  The main thing I regret is not having stuck to my guns when I said I was planning to leave — before I was offered a title change that was later rescinded, before I was disciplined for taking a courageous stand, before my Beloved Boss (and others) got to put me in a box that made them feel justified in mistreating me and finally escorting me off the property 3 days after I resigned.

Sometimes I think about writing them to explain and try to mend things, since I’m pretty sure they feel as betrayed as I do.  But then I realize I’m still angry and I have a right to be, and I’m done with always being the one to try to mend broken things and tie up loose ends.  It’s not like I attempted multiple times to explain, dialogue, and reach clarity or understanding, if not agreement.  It’s not like I gave ample opportunity for understanding to happen, even when it might have been in my best interest to selfishly fight instead.

But I’m learning life is messy, and even though I don’t like messes of any kind, sometimes the mess is perfect.

But if so, why were they honored for an achievement that was my doing, months after I left, based on data that is no longer accurate since I’ve been gone?  Why did I have to be right — that what I created is a skeleton of its former self, and the person they finally hired to replace me (10 months later) is an internal employee with zero expertise in the necessary fields, but is a reliable yes-woman and company drone who toes the party line, takes no risks, and assumes no real leadership?

I guess they finally got what they really wanted.

I hate injustice.  I hate unfairness.  And I hate most of all being right about crappy things happening.  I want to hold onto my faith in a happy ending.  I blame myself in part for making the mess that no one can seem to clean up.

But…maybe I got what I really wanted too…?

Ironic and perfect in its timing, I had lunch just yesterday with a former colleague that had had a similar role to mine in another institution, and had also been manipulated, disrespected, betrayed and abused (worse than me), culminating in her being escorted off the premises of her institution six months before I was.  She sued, won, and received a settlement…and yet over a year later, her eyes water when she tells the story.

I still wonder why we do the things we do, and why some of us stand and fight while others comply.  Last year I read a book called Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times by the talented journalist Eyal Press, which explores this very question.  He studies a Swiss police captain who refused to enforce a law barring Jewish refugees from entering his country.  He interviews a Serb who defied leaders to help Croats during the war in Yugoslavia, and profiles a member of an elite unit of the Israeli army who refuses to serve in the occupied territories during the Second Intifada.  He ends with the story of a corporate whistle blower — and a Latina immigrant — in the US securities industry of the early 2000s.

Not one of these people’s stories play out like a Hollywood movie — all of them suffer for their choices.  And yet the normalcy of their personalities, lives and choices defies Hollywood hero/ine narratives.  They weren’t rebels by nature, nor exceptional in their personality traits.  In fact, they uncynically believed in the ideals or institutions they were charged to uphold and acted accordingly, or learned something new that challenged their ideas and assumptions.  They were also in positions to experience the personal, tangible consequences of their choices firsthand.  They felt empathetic emotions for other people and almost instinctively acted to help them, but also possessed an ability to tolerate the pain of acting alone and against the group.

Such individuals defy the notion that given certain situations, following orders or rules is a natural and normal  defense for doing justice and violence, for not everyone chooses to do injustice or violence, or to stand silently by.  Some unexceptional people simply exercise the “moral imagination” we all possess, and choose differently.  Despite the morality and integrity of their actions, they are often punished for going against the group.  Part of this is because they become symbols of what others should have done.

So heroes and heroines are just like us, which means each of us can be a hero or heroine.  It’s our choices (not our superhero mutant genes) that define us and move justice.  I don’t mean to equate my experience with a toxic job to the gravity of what was faced by a Swiss general during Nazism, a Serb during the Croatian War of Independence, an IDF solider or a corporate whistleblower.  But I do identify with their almost naively believing in what could and should be and acting in alignment with those ideals, with their ability to tolerate going against the grain, and with the effect of being undetached from experiencing the consequences of my actions in a way my colleagues were not.

I just wish more could appreciate what I — and the colleague I was lunching with yesterday — have done, and follow suit.  Change and justice would be so much swifter!  But there I go again, thinking about fairness and how attainable alternate realities are.  I want to rewrite the story with a different ending, like a painful breakup.

And the separation from my job — I may have mentioned before — is like a breakup.  I still pass by the buildings, hear about the goings on (mostly bad and frustrating), and talk to people still there or who have also left.  It still gives me a little knot in my stomach.  I still feel resentment.  I want to be free.

Here’s a blurb I wrote six weeks before I left, but never published.  The first part is an email excerpt from a wise, older friend:

I, like you, believed that ‘letting go’ meant giving up.  Once I figured out that it really meant ‘joining the flow of energy’, it began to make sense and certainly became much easier than struggling against myself and the current. What has become so delightfully astonishing is that once I let go, doors just fly open, ones which either I would never have been able to open myself or even thought of approaching.  The sequencing of events just blows me away and I get so tickled at my self for doubting and being so slow to ‘wake up’. I gather you are making progress and letting the scales fall away and the sunlight come in.  What a refreshing friend you are.

I reflected:

I feel angry because I feel betrayed and let down.  My boundaries were violated, I was not treated, supported, or valued the way I wanted.  Those I trusted didn’t come through all the way.

I feel sad because things didn’t turn out the way I hoped — because I can still see how wonderful and beautiful they could be, even though they aren’t.  I feel sad to see how I am contributing to the problem now.  I feel sad to be saying goodbye to a few pleasantries and sweetnesses.

It feels like another breakup.

Indeed, the themes persist.  And yet, I now realize I can be free.  The truth is the resentment is less than it was.  The knot is looser.  They got what they wanted, but ultimately so did I.   I’m not ready or willing to give up my high hopes for the possibilities, my high expectations for humanity, or my belief in “true” love.  But like a jilted lover, I want to be wanted, even by someone I don’t want.  I want to be chased, yearned after, missed, spoken about in reverent whispers instead of tense silences.  I want to have parted as friends.

I still want to have a “Perfect Running Into An Ex-Beloved Scenario” like I did the night of June 1, 2012.  But I don’t think it’s coming.

Messy, yes.  Not what I wanted or would have chosen, yes.  Perfect…likely yes, in ways I may never even know.

I join the flow of energy…

In lak ech,

Jaxsine

“Do YOU have CHILDREN?!” …adventures in effective communication and childfree travel

I was on a beach in the Caribbean. It was a long-planned, greatly anticipated vacation at the end of a particularly grueling year. The plan was to sleep, read, write, enjoy nature, eat fabulous food prepared by someone else, and contemplate great questions about life, work, and purpose. So far so good. I wasn’t alone on that beach by any means; three cruise ships had docked that morning – one from Disney no less – and instead of reading my book, I was actually preferring to watch a super enthusiastic man growling and splashing about with his super jubilant son (I gathered) and two nephews, all under age five. I’d just returned from an epic snorkeling trip, and the water and salt were slowly evaporating off my contented body as I enjoyed the lingering moment in the sun.

Gradually, I became aware of the family occupying the beach chairs behind me. There seemed to be one woman and a gaggle of children (also under five) whose names I quickly learned because she was constantly admonishing them in a fifties-housewife-on-valium sort of extra-saccharine, extra-restrained voice. This voice was having little effect. Julia in particular seemed to be a handful. I got the sense she was going to do what she pleased, with a younger one, Estela, sometimes following suit. Julia would wander off to the water, or to the boats, just out of danger. Sometimes a boy her age, Leo, was a part of her shenaningans. I saw in their faces not the look of “I’m exploring this fascinating world, being curious and delightful” but rather “Screw you grownups, I’m gonna do whatever the hell I want and you can’t stop me.”

There was also whining and shrieking. Again, shrieks of delight are one thing, shrieks of manipulation and defiance are another.  And the whine of a human child is one of my least favorite sounds on earth.  Shrieks of manipulation and defiance administered in unpredictable bursts at full volume are even lower on the list.

And yet one more startling round of three children shrieking in whiny unison had just burst a few feet behind my head.

What happened next was out of the ordinary for me. Not only had I not given much thought to whether to say anything, what, or how, I somehow reached my limit with no warning, leaned around to look at the family behind my beach chair and communicated the following with an unaccustomed intensity:

“Oh. Come! ON!!”

In retrospect I’m proud of myself for accomplishing three things I’ve been working on: being in the moment, being honest about my feelings, and not thinking too much. But even if I’d thought about it, I wouldn’t have expected what happened next.

The woman – in an equally nasty tone – replied: “Why don’t you just move?!! There are children here!!”

I’m not entirely sure how I responded, but I think I said: “Oh, that’s your solution?!”

Pissed-off mama bear: “What would you like me to do, kill them?!”

Whoa. Even in that moment, I was aware that particular statement was so not about me.  Startled by this infanticidal suggestion, I got some of my sanity back and asked [tone still a bit nasty]: “How about something in the middle?!”

Her reply (so not a response to my statement-disguised-as-a-question): “Do you have children?!!!”

I turned my head back around to face the ocean and shook it in an exasperated “you’re worthless and I’m done having this stupid conversation with you” sort of way.  But it was because I knew she’d just played the mommy card on me and I couldn’t win.

After a few seconds, I thought of something to say: “Whether or not I have children is irrelevant to the fact that yours are being spoiled brats and disruptive to others!!” I also thought of “Yes, there are children here, do you see any of them acting the fool quite like yours?” and “Your children’s need to shriek and whine, and your need to do nothing about it are not more important than my need to have some reasonable peace and quiet on my hard-earned vacation!” I thought of calling her mommy card play and slightly lying: “Yes I do, she’s 34 years old and never acted like yours even on a bad day!” or outright lying and saying, “Yes, and I left them at home since this is not the place for young children, especially misbehaving mini a-holes like yours!”

I also thought of “Why don’t you leave?! You are the ones who are acting inappropriately for this setting!!” or “It’s your job as a grownup to teach your children to be appropriate to the environment and considerate of others!”  (Not too long before I’d lost it, Mama Bear had been pleading with the kids to be quiet since people were getting beachside massages nearby – no joke, and you should have seen the therapists’ faces at one point, watching the performance.) I could have played the classic female you’re-out-of-line-with-the-group-and-I-speak-for-the-mob card and said “Can’t you see you’re ruining the experience for everyone here?!”

But I didn’t say anything, and thankfully the aunt/sister/friend returned, who turned out to be the mother of Julia and Estela, and they calmed down. Mama Bear left to go “check on Baby Alexander” (good grief there were more?).

This episode brought up some things for me as a childfree (childless by choice) person.  First, my anger about the tremendous and unfair entitlement many parents feel, just because they are parents. I understand there may be some biological and hormonal issues at play in their feelings and reactions that I know nothing about, but if I were to have gotten drunk on piña coladas and traipsed up and down the beach shrieking, whining, bothering strangers, touching other people’s things and partially exposing myself too, I would have been asked to leave, and rightly so. As a group we tolerate behavior from children and young people that is inappropriate, and then wonder years later why they’ve grown up feeling so entitled and acting so helpless and selfish (Boomer parents of Gen Yers, are you listening?)

And speaking of the group, the whole idea of the nuclear family is a recent development during just the last few decades of the thousands of years of the human experience, and one we aren’t really built for. The responsibility of raising a child (much less two or three or more) being born by one and maybe two adults alone, is not something we are equipped for, nor do well. We should all play a part in ensuring the safety and appropriate socialization of children and youth because their socialization is critical to us all. I may have decided not to become a parent myself, but I have a vested material interest in your children growing up to be respectful, considerate, mature, contributing individuals. I have stepped in more than once to ensure the physical safety of a child that’s not mine, but not to discipline or ensure emotional safety, because of my well-founded fear of the caretaker’s wrath. [By the way — never doubt that women are capable of aggression, especially when our children are threatened. We would do well to cultivate the same level and immediacy of anger and action when our own person – our bodies, our communities, our planet – are threatened as well.]

I think the way many parents treat their children like their private personal possessions is unhealthy for them and all of us and also unrealistic, since not only do I pay taxes that help support those kids (and vote for pro-kid initiatives by the way), I also pay – and handsomely – for those kids who end up needing public services, prison, or other types of support. I pay in less material ways as well when children and young people grow up being irresponsible, disrespectful, incompetent, poor critical thinkers and self-centered.

So just as “there are children here” doesn’t give permission to those children to behave however they want, it also doesn’t give you, as the adult in charge, permission to flail and beseech helplessly without taking charge, managing the situation, mentoring the younglings and demonstrating leadership.

Along those lines, the second thing this episode brought up for me is my disagreement with the belief that only parents have the right to say anything about how children are acting or being raised. The classic “Do you have children?!” phrase isn’t a question, it’s a challenge to the legitimacy of any concerns I might have about your children’s behavior or your choices as a parent. It’s a trap whose primary purpose is to get me to shut the hell up. If I say “no” I don’t have children, the response is that I therefore can’t possibly understand or know what I’m talking about, and should shut the hell up. But if I say “yes” there would be some other excuse for why I’m unqualified to have an opinion or a say, and should still shut the hell up: “I bet they’re terrors too” or “You probably don’t love them as much as I love mine” or “You probably beat yours to make them mind” or “You raised yours in a different time when it was easier” or “But I have to do this on my own and you have help” or “But I have more than you” or “But you don’t know what it’s like to raise these children.” Blah blah blah.

I get that as a non-parent I don’t understand what it’s like to have my own child. I really don’t know what it’s like to be a mom – all day every day for years on end. But I do have some sense of what it’s like to parent. I had a hand in raising my much-younger sister (the aforementioned 34-year-old), I’ve taken care of kids of various ages off and on for many years, and I’ve had many intimate glimpses into the lives of friends with children. One of the reasons I’m childfree is because I do have a sense of what parenting requires, and I’m not willing to sign up for everything that commitment requires, especially with so many uncertainties a part of the bargain. I believe everyone should give much serious thought to this choice — to taking on one of the most important jobs for humanity — and I feel many millions (billions?) more should bow out as I did instead of throwing their frustrations or shortcomings in meeting their job requirements in the faces of those who said “no thanks”. Empathy enhances connection and broadens perspective, but my complete understanding of what parents go through is not required to have observations, concerns, and requests. Understanding doesn’t equal agreement.

Which brings me to the third item this episode brought up for me. The mommy card play is designed as a trap not only to shut up someone like me, but also to shut down mommy’s insecurities and serve as a righteous “get out of jail free” pass. Mama Bear’s sudden rage and suggestion she kill the kids was coming from a deep place. I suspect her embarrassment and frustration were simmering just under the surface, and my nasty comment just boiled her over by expressing what she felt she couldn’t, in order to remain a good person, a good woman, and a good mommy. Maybe her extra-restrained-extra-saccharine-fifties-housewife-on-valium manner was meant to regulate her own nervous system more than her kids’ behavior. Maybe she was jealous of me — older than her, rocking my bikini, enjoying the sun and some adult beverages unencumbered by anyone else’s antics or whims or schedules. Maybe she dreams of killing her kids and being free, and feels guilty or represses these thoughts. Murder was really nowhere on my mind that day, just a desire for less shrieking. I could have asked for this in a way that was less nasty, more mature, more appropriate, more considerate and more understanding – all the things I wanted from her and her children.

Thankfully, the Universe gave me an opportunity to try again. The very next night, after travelling all day and arriving tired on an island in another part of the Caribbean, there was a bit of revelry going on in the hot tub just outside my bungalow. Normally that was the sort of thing I’d be interested in checking out, but I’d had enough of meeting new people for one day, and my body was weary. I read for a while, and went to bed just before 11, the hour of the B&B’s quiet hours. The party group had left for a while, but were back, and after several minutes trying to sleep despite the noise, I decided to act before I got really frustrated, and thought a little about how to approach this. I opened the sliding door to my bungalow and addressed the six folks in the hot tub in a calm, even voice with something like this:

“I don’t mean to break up anyone’s fun, but it’s past 11 and I’m having trouble sleeping because I can hear you guys even with my door closed. Do you think you might be able to continue your party in a way that can allow me to sleep?”

The group was mildly apologetic, and I heard one quiet “wow.” The group dispersed and I went to sleep easily, putting aside my mild feelings of guilt and false mental scripts about being a party pooper or selfish.

The next morning at breakfast, two women sat down at a table near mine and said hello to the folks at another table, addressing them affectionately as “troublemakers.” Based on this, I assumed they had been part of the hot tub group, since I hadn’t seen their faces last night in the dark. I braced myself for some passive aggressive public shunning. Instead, after I chuckled at something witty and sexy one of the women said regarding the previous night’s events, she addressed me, asking if I was the one who’d asked them to be quiet. I said yes, and that I hoped I hadn’t come across as bitchy, but clear, assertive, and non-violent. She said not at all, said my approach was indeed just that, and actually thanked me!

That night at happy hour, the same pair invited me to join them, and we had a delightful lengthy conversation which continued the next morning at breakfast. I left the B&B later that day having gained two new friends, enriched by their humor and intelligence, inspired by their happy relationship dynamic, and validated by their appreciation. In fact, they told me they had actually debriefed my response to their noise and found it very effective and aligned with their own values and goals.  Wow!!

Sometimes we’re not our best selves. Sometimes we learn from what happens when we’re not. And sometimes we get a do over, and find not only our paths again, but kindred souls on the same journey.

Happy New Year and Happy Blazing New Trails!

In lak ech,

Jaxsine

Wherever you go, there you are … and we’re still here!

So the Great Winter Solstice of 2012 came and went with little more than a sigh, and La Nueva Era (the new era) was celebrated with vigor in New Age circles around the globe (including in spots around Xichén Itzá, a truly fascinating people-watching experience), and much more modestly in the Mayan World.

Wearing my new white hipil, gorgeously embroided by a local Maya woman (and me wondering whether wearing it would even be appropriate) I kicked off the new baktun cycle at a midnight ceremony that was as much Catholic mass as ancient rite, at the ancient Zací cenote (huge sinkhole is the closest translation) in the heart of prehispanic Valladolid, Yucatán.  I and the 100 or so other attendees — Mexicans as well as some young European tourists — got to see flowers and Maya wine (balché) being blessed and offered to the cenote, say about 30 Hail Marys, enjoy Maya ceremonial music and dancing, watch three young men take the high dive into the dark cenote, have some Mayan communion (!) and be sprinkled with holy water and have blessed bougainvilleas thrown at my head and into my lap.

I must admit I’m not surprised there was no Big Huge Deal on Friday, but I must also admit I’m slightly disappointed.  Much in the way I felt hope and some antisocial excitement on the morning of 9/11/01 when I turned on the TV and saw a major US city in smoke and flames, the part of me that sits on Mount Olympus looking down on mortal humans in judgement, mocking their foibles, hoped some mindblowing disaster would strike to get people to wake up and smell some kind of evolutionary coffee — along the lines of “oh yeah?  Well this‘ll teach ya!”

But no such luck, and we are left to face something even more disturbing — ourselves, and the status quo.  So many people (myself included on bad days in the last few months) put a lot of stock in something big happening so “things” would start to change.  And yet here we are.  And I embarked on a long vacation to commune with my Authentic Self, relax, disconnect, and reconnect — things I struggle to do when I’m home.  And yet here I am.

Despite what we tell ourselves, and what clever advertising tells us, going away doesn’t change who we are.  Not by itself anyway.  Like with relationships, we exchange one set of problems for another.  For instance, here in southern Mexico I am no longer freezing like I would be at home, but now I’m dealing with sunburn and nasty mosquitoe bites.  I no longer have to cook for myself multiple times every day, but I do have to spend more money and find someplace to eat that’s tasty and meets my body’s needs — multiple times every day.  Ways that I tend to be anxious or rigid manifest differently when I travel, but they’re still there.

Of course, there is something to be said for a good fit.  Also like relationships, there are certain sets of costs and benefits that suit us better than others.  Being out of my normal comfort zone to some degree, without the normal list of distractions, I can take time to explore and notice things in a different way than I might back home.  I’ve realized for example — after 22 years of traveling! — that my first response to an unfamiliar place is to get oriented and get to know the place physically and geographically as thoroughly and quickly as possible.  I’ve realized that some things that used to delight or intrigue me many years ago now annoy or even anger me.  In some ways I’m only now getting to know the way I’ve always been, and in other ways I’m changing.

One of those changes is that at some point I became middle aged.  I’m now referred to as a señora (Mrs.) much more than I used to be, even though I wear no wedding band and I’m travelling unaccompanied.  I’ve only seen one solo female traveler and she was much younger than me.  The folks my age are in couples and have children in tow.  The adventurous-looking ones are young enough to be my children now and not only are they not interested in me, I’m no longer interested in them!

Not only that, I’ve actually thought more than once that I’m geting too old for this s**t!  Parts of traveling are just no longer recreational for me.  I’m sort of over the excitement of trying to flag down buses on long highways to get back into town, putting up with those long tedious busrides and dubbed B movies blaring in the dark, carrying my entire luggage on my back, washing my panties and t-shirts in the sink, getting blisters from all the walking, and trying to sleep decently in a new place every couple nights.  I’m even having some surprisingly negative thoughts about my Beloved Mexico and shockingly positive ones about USians and foreigners.  Places are even starting to look the same!

What the hell is happening to me? Am I bored?  Am I growing up?  I do seem to be a bit more myself than just my Wise Rugged Diane Fossey/Indiana Jones Lady persona or my Flirtacious Daring Cougar On Vacation persona. But when did I become some boring elitist who just wants to be promenaded around some tropical islands on some ostentatious ecologically disastrous cruise ship, or vegetate on a quiet beach under a crisp white canopy for hours having my drinks and exquisite meals brought to me … and my laundry done and folded, and my massage and whirlpool hottub waiting at the end of the day?

I don’t know, but whether or not it’s true that some kind of broader cosmic/economic/sociopolitical/spiritual Shift is afoot (which I still believe there is, particularly in the U.S.), I definitely feel myself shifting.  While I find myself feeling more more confident and secure than ever in strange places, I also feel the profound pain that my mistrust of people and fear costs me back home.  I notice the little guilt I feel about a few things I’ve done in my life that didn’t align with my word or intentions.  I notice the tremendous shame I feel about things I can’t control — past hurts, traumas, betrayals, and my lifelong challenges with a particular set of psychological health challenges.  I wonder why I am so hard on my body — a body that has given so much and generously supported me, like a horse I’ve run hard over mountains and plains for weeks, day and night, with barely enough food and water.  A body so many women would love to have, and great DNA to boot, and yet I direct nasty thoughts and shame at my thighs and belly, and tolerate excruciating exercises to try to shape and control them.

And I notice how my DNA affects me in other ways.  How I inherited the gift of words, the gift of music, sensitivity and romanticism of my father.  How I inherited the resourcefulness and ingenuity of my mother, as well as her sunny smile and ready laugh in public.  How I inherited brains, humor and great health from both. How I also inherited the bouts of depression of my father, as well as his narcissism and grandiosity, his isolation, his tendency to go up into his head under stress, and his naivete.  And I inherited my mother’s self-doubt, discomfort with her femaleness, resentment, constant doing, ambivalence about people, and sense of not-enoughness.

Wherever I go, there I am. Quitting my toxic job didn’t remove stress or constant work from my life. I am the one not managing my time, maintaining boundaries, saying no, or deciding not to check my iPhone at red lights.  Being single and childfree has not isolated me from loss.  It does free me from certain kinds of loneliness, but even though I’m better friends with Me Myself and I than I’ve ever been, after a week I’m definitely over the novelty of traveling alone.

It can be an advantage to grow up in a family where you’ve been taught you’re different.  I’ve been much more apt to take certain kinds of risks and take certain kinds of stands, especially as a female, than I would had I been taught to fit in and be “normal” (not that I didn’t desperately want to, but just couldn’t seem to).  But it also has its price.  42-year-old women don’t typically travel alone, nor have tattoos on their forearms or a nostril piercing.  As I try to connect and fit in, while constantly discovering and manifesting Me, I sometimes make choices that marginalize me.

And yet the ability to do such things — much less have the time to ponder and reflect on them — is a result of my tremendous privilege.  I have a life — partially by design, partially by circumstance — that affords me more freedom of thought, time, experience and movement than women have ever had.  My days are not taken up by the frenetic tasks of routine or necessity — the spouse, the children, the shopping, the cooking, the washing, the cleaning, the organizing or chauffeuring.  Or such services provided to other families.  Or the ordered, quiet life of a nun/priestess or duty-bound tedium of a royal.  I get to think about things most of us don’t think about.

Whether or not I should is perhaps another question.  It’s not fun to stare your life in its face, especially as it ages.  I’m also aware of a sort of pressure of expectations I tell myself is coming from others.  I get to go off on these adventures that others get excited about and experience vicariously through my photos and stories.  I therefore feel obliged to have a screamingly fabulous time, or experience some life changing realization.  Maybe this would make the trip worth it.  Maybe this would make it worth it for others at least, and justify the fact that they can neither go away nor have these realizations.  Imagine if Columbus or Marco Polo or Lewis & Clark came back from their epic journeys with a mere shrug and “meh!” to show for their adventures.  Not acceptable!

But as I become less of an extremist, I hope to allow some osmosis to occur among the various facets of my life.  Instead of mad long bouts of frenzied working punctuated with sparse periods of complete catatonic sloth, perhaps I can enjoy a dose of each every day?  Perhaps I can become more realistic about the miracles and joys and struggles and annoyances — of every day no matter where I am and what I’m doing?  Maybe I can learn to let my shame go, feel less fear, more vulnerability, more trust, and more joy?  Maybe I can learn to love my body and my life, regardless of what it’s doing, facing the reality that the losses will continue to increase and the control will continue to decrease if I allow myself to go gently and gracefully?

Because ultimately al fin de cuentas — in the end — wherever you go, and whenever you go, there you are.

[Epilogue: The above was written on December 22nd, and on December 23rd I spent most of the day with a twenty-year-old discovering an amazing ancient site together, and talking about a variety of subjects.  Not only was he delightful, he seemed to be enjoying himself with me as well!  More lovely people and animals have been crossing my path in the last two days.  There’s nothing like connection — however fleeting — to inject perspective, meaning, hope and contentment into my ongoing dialogue with myself. What’s your experience with this? Do people take us out of our heads in a good way, or are they mere distractions from necessary personal work? 🙂 ]

In lak ech,

Jaxsine

Sense and Sensibility: The Newtown Massacre

It’s happened again.  For the second time in a year, I’m blogging about a mass shooting.  For the fourth time in his presidency, Obama travelled today to a city to grieve with families after another bout of senseless violence.

And I am weary of hearing these incidents referred to as “senseless”.  From the principal of Columbine High School to the prime minister of Australia to news anchors and my Facebook friends, one of the most common words I hear is “senseless.”  But to me, it makes perfect sense.

In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.  When you take a society that values money and material things over people and relationships, add social isolation and lack of true community (like Adam Lanza’s upscale neighborhood where he occupied two bedrooms in his mother’s spacious home and some neighbors didn’t even know them), leave out critical education about mental and emotional health (as well as resources to identify and treat those with these challenges), leave out education about healthy communciation and anger/conflict management, and add a healthy dose of easy access to guns, you have situations like Newtown waiting to happen all over this country — a country where there are as many guns as people (300 million) and, compared to most other industrialized countries, a very high percentage of people experiencing mental and emotional illness, excess stress levels, and a lack of healthy coping skills or social support.

This is not meant as an indictment of the Lanza family or of Newtown, but a plea for us to look at the bigger picture,  We are all connected.  We can’t tolerate institutions that oppress and dehumanize us; an industrialized food system that not only does not nourish us but addicts our minds and weakens our bodies; a prison-industrial complex larger than any in the world; forms of entertainment that dehumanize us; a lifestyle that disconnects us from the earth, other lifeforms and spirit; a general disregard for the needs of women and children; a general lack of purpose, meaning, and love … and expect there to be no consequences.

Newtown is one of many consequences.

I’m grateful that this time around, there seems to be less usage of the word “evil” to describe these murders, as I decried in my post about the Aurora shooting, despite the fact that most of the Newtown dead were six-year-olds.  I can’t even imagine the horror of such a thing for a parent.

And yet we still need a responsibility check.  It’s not useful to decry such violence as senseless or incomprehensible, because it is neither.  Doing so absolves us of any responsibility, and makes us believe we are powerless.  We are not powerless.  The “society” we rail against is not an entity outside of us — it is something we each create each day with the jobs we choose to work in, the decisions we make, where we spend our money, what we eat, how we speak and think, and how we treat each other and ourselves.

And calling Adam Lanza — or James Holmes or any of the other recent perpetrators — “crazed” is also inaccurate and feeds into this kind of helpless thinking.  The folks who perpetrate these murders — who are typically young males, usually White — are methodical and deliberate, and take months to plan their attacks.  According to Jack Levin, a well-known professor of sociology and criminology, they don’t “go off” or “snap.”  What they do have is a sense of their problems being caused by other people — they blame everyone but themselves.  They too see themselves as powerless and unresponsible.

Levin also challenges the notion that these events are increasing.  On NPR the other day, he said that there are about 20 such mass murders per decade, with about 150 total victims.  In the meantime, he points out that there are about 15,000 individual homicides — per year.   However, Connecticut Senator John Larson said today that of the 12 worst mass shootings in our history, half have occurred in the last 5 years.

Regardless of who’s right, it seems most people feel things are coming to a head.  And solutions are already being proposed.  Paul Bennett, author of Glock: Rise of America’s Gun, said today that two short term solutions are (a) greater security in public places, and (b) better support and resources for people with mental and emotional illness.  Others are using Newtown to bolster the argument for gun control — I’ve already seen a couple online petitions to this effect.

And while gun control would certainly be a sane approach to the insane ease with which people can access deadly firearms in the U.S., it’s not the solution.  Guns are still tools used by people, and while limiting access can minimize the damage (there was an incident at a school in China on the same day as Newtown, and while the perpetrator, a man in his 30s, stabbed 22 children, none of them died), it doesn’t solve the problem of hurt people hurting people, and the epidemic of walking wounded in the U.S. and the world at large.

Much like I argued in my “Aurora, Anger, and Evil” post, the drama of the latest episode of mass violence in all its technicolor drama often obscures larger, more sinister problems and a bigger context.  It’s a symptom, not the problem per se.

Perhaps it’s helpful to think and talk about what is working.  Be humble and reflect on how there but for the grace of God go we.  How many of us, when we are being fully honest and self-aware, can’t think of a time we wouldn’t have liked to take out a bunch of fellow humans with an uzi?  Or take our own hopeless, miserable lives in some dramatic way?  Or feel like everything is someone else’s fault and someone has got to pay?

My hand goes up on all three of those.  It’s profound to think about the little things that stood in the way of me actually doing damage to others or myself in those moments.  Perhaps we can learn from this and not stop at celebrating the heroes of incidents like Newtown, like Dawn Hochsprung and Victoria Soto, but also try empathizing with and mourning the broken souls of young men like Adam Lanza.

We should grieve.  We should rage.  But we should NOT hide behind “hugging our children tighter” or stop our examination of the situation as “senseless” as if it were random and outside of our power.  The bigger context is that we need to see and own our power, and therefore our responsibility.

Lately I keep coming back to the Marianne Williamson quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.”  I think owning our own power, and all that entails, is one of the invitations and challenges of humanity as we move farther into the shift.

I’m heartened that President Obama, and others, are talking about “meaningful action”.  I’m glad he said tonight in Newtown that we will have to change.   I’m grateful that he said,

“Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days … If we’re honest without ourselves, the answer is no. And we will have to change.”

He continued:

 “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”

And this, to me, is the key.  We are not powerless.   This violence isn’t senseless.  It isn’t incomprehensible.  In fact, it is in the comprehending, and in the activation of  our sensibilities — emotional capacity, responsiveness, and consciousness —  that we can make sense of this heartwrenching tragedy and take meaningful action in such a way that we take powerful responsibility for ourselves, those around us, our communities, and the “society” and country we all co-create, every day.

Que en paz descansen los muertos de Newtown y que duermen con los angelitos los sobrevivientes.

In lak ech.

Jaxsine

 

On Wisdom and Uncertainty

A week ago I spoke at a conference where I anticipated running into some employees of my former organization — employees who used to report to me.  I was nervous about this, because I hadn’t been allowed to say goodbye to them properly before I left, and I didn’t know what they might have been told.  I figured some of them might be angry with me — some perhaps justified, others not.  I fear people being angry with me.

I went prepared to be professional and stay in the moment for whatever showed up.  I was pleasantly surprised that two of them ran up to me during the informal breakfast meeting to say hello.  One of these was no surprise, but the other…?  I had no reason to believe she lacked affection or respect for me, but she certainly wasn’t one I imagined would run up to me during a breakfast meeting to say hi!  I accompanied them to the large, round table where the rest of my former staff sat.  I was relaxed and met their kind, energetic gazes with the same.  I felt genuinely happy to see their bright faces, and hear them doing well.  I spent a moment with each one, reconnecting, complimenting and catching up.  I’d almost gotten to the end of the table when the last two got up and excused themselves.

Frankly, that wasn’t entirely a surprise, not from those two.  They were both excellent at their work, but had had some conflicts with others and with me.  Employee A had been aggressive with her coworkers, conniving, occasionally inappropriate, and an outright liar.  I had worked hard on our relationship, exerted effort to constantly question my interpretations of her behavior, and strove to openly dialogue with her, actively problem solve with her, and get her to consider other points of view.  I thought we’d made headway.  Employee C had been very cool and inaccessible at first, but after a few months seemed to warm up and trust me.  She was even friendly at times, and once brought a situation to my attention that painted her in an unflattering light.  She owned a mistake and allowed herself to be vulnerable with me when she could have easily chosen not to.

Seeing the way these two literally walked away from any contact with me hurt my feelings to an extent that it bothered me.  This caused me to wonder — Why did it bother me so?  Why was I angry?  What was I holding onto, or feeling insecure about?

I realized I felt like a fool.  I had given these ladies the benefit of the doubt, listened to them, shown willingness to question myself and consider other possibilities, engage with them, meet with them where they were, and treat them with respect and dignity.  They had not done the same.  I felt like a fool for trusting them, and for believing they could be different.

I felt like I’d known the truth from the get-go and didn’t listen.  Instinctually I’d suspected Employee A was bad news — dishonest, inauthentic, and backstabbing.  I suspected Employee C was possibly manipulative and a holder of grudges.  I was angry — with myself — for doubting my intuition and initial impressions.  Even though I will never know for sure how these two women really “are”, what they really think or feel about me, or whether their behavior has anything to do with me at all — I was angry at myself for being proven “right” about them in the end, and wasting all that time and energy trying to engage them.  My virtuous self-doubt had not been rewarded!

In my work, I believe — and teach others — that “instinct” and “intuition” are often constructed from falsehoods and impressions that say more about us than anything else.  However, as I get older, I think I’m learning what wisdom means, and I think instinct and intuition play a role.  Wisdom is a knowing that comes from experience.  It’s also a knowing that lives in the body and heart, not the mind.  The insights and sensations I experienced when my mother died suddenly, and when my beloved “baby” sister got married, went beyond any prior intellectual understanding of those events.

Throught the experience of events like death and rites of passage, wisdom can connect us in a new way with the broader experience of humanity — or a large segment of humanity like other women, in my case.  But I believe wisdom can also bestow us with a form of precognition.  We see the beginning of a story and already know how it’s going to end.

A dear friend once described it to me this way:

There is a hole in the sidewalk.  First, you don’t see the hole, you fall in, react with fear and bewilderment and frustration, you finally climb out.  Second, you’re walking down the same street, you don’t see the hole, you fall in, react with fear, etc., but get out faster.  Third, you go down same street, you don’t see the hole, you fall in, then say, hey, I’ve been here before, there’s no fear, bewilderment, or frustration, you just quickly get out.  Fourth, going down same street, you see the hole, you fall in anyway, but you get out right away.  Fifth, you see the hole and go around it.  Sixth, you completely avoid the hole by crossing to the other side of the street.  Seventh, you go down a different street.

This wisdom can be very useful. For me it’s most honed in my ability to determine whether or not a man is a good match for me.  This story has started and ended so many times in my life over the last 30 years that my clarity itself can be intimidating to menfolk! 🙂  But this wisdom allows me to be more efficient, more effective, more authentic, more fulfilled, saner, and safer when it comes to dating and romantic relationships.  Wisdom helps me eliminate doubts that used to drive me crazy or lead to injury.  Now I simply avoid the hole or go down an entirely different street.

At the same time, there is an important body of knowledge, including in my own professional work, suggesting that doubt is an important ingredient in boosting self-confidence, opening minds, experiencing intimacy, enriching spirituality, and even having breakthroughs in business.  Jonathan Fields talks at length in his book Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance about how uncertainty is not only normal, it’s necessary for creativity and following your passion (and Lord knows we need more of both!).  He offers concrete ways to face and harness the Terror of the Unknown (my words and emphasis) to transport us to completely new realms of possibility and success.

In the July/August edition of the very cool Ode Magazine, Diana Rico authored an excellent piece called “Sure Enough”, which examines doubt — including its dark side and some of the brain science behind it.   She cites research demonstrating that when we hear statements that contradict our ethical beliefs, we react (to any doubts) within .25 seconds, and almost instantly stop listening.  She describes a study by Gal & Rucker (2010) which found that individuals who were injected with doubt became even fiercer advocates for their beliefs “as if they now had to try to convince themselves as well as others.”

To me this is an excellent reminder that much of the intense and polarized political rhetoric going on in our media, our various governing bodies, and our homes is a good sign.  It’s a mere backlash against the inexorable movement of history forward into greater equality, freedom, justice and higher evolution.  It’s the violent death throes of the ancient paradigms of “me first” and “you are not me” and “power over.”  If r/evolutionaries were not experiencing vehement opposition, it would mean real change was not taking place.  The loud, angry voices are just roadblocks erected by the fearful, trying to resist the tidal movement of a shift in consciousness.

Rico also talks about the light side of doubt — its benefits.  She cites the number of incarecerated people — disproportionately people of color and the young  — who have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted, due to new DNA testing methods (and yet police and prosecutors insist they were right anyway!).  She examines the role that doubting what we think we can or cannot do or endure can lead us to tremendous breakthroughs and bursts of self-confidence.

Undoubtedly then 🙂 , injecting doubt into our lives and thoughts can lead to positive breakthroughs, realizations and achievements.  It can lead to truth and justice.  But it also triggers deep fears and defenses.  I think I understand better now why this is.

I’ve spent most of my life doubting.  I’ve made it a practice to constantly question.  “But how does the communion wafer turn into Jesus’s body in my mouth?” “How is rape only about power if it involves sex and penises?” “Do these pro-Affirmative Action people have an idea I should take seriously that is also fair?”  I’ve made it a practice to also give people the benefit of the — er — doubt: “Maybe he didn’t mean to hurt me, and is just damaged and doesn’t know better.”  “Maybe this time it will be different and she’ll do what she says.” “Maybe if I hang in there at this job people will change and things will get better.”

But doubt is exhausting.  It’s mentally and emotionally draining, especially for someone whose personality needs some degree or order, clarity, and an eventual decision.  Living in the ambiguity of a question is a limbo few of us can tolerate for long.  Besides, doubting and questions can lead to answers that can rock our entire worlds — the very foundation of our identities and lives!  Here are some of the ones I’m dealing with right now: “What do I do for exercise and meditation if I can no longer run (like I have for the last 30 years)?” “Who am I if my real purpose is not to be a world problem-solver and people-fixer?” “What can I do for work that doesn’t spring from the need to heal my own wounding?”

You know, little questions like those! 🙂

I feel empowered by my new wisdom — by the fact that often times I can see clearly into the future, a situation, or a person without spending hours mulling or months gathering data.  I think after 42 years of experience I have earned the right.  And yet I must hold this “wisdom” lightly.  As with most things, balance is the key.  For if I retreat into complete “knowingness” about everything, not only do I choke off invisible possibilities and opportunities for miracles, I constrict my life — and that of those around me.

So my recipe for today is:

  1. doubt in manageable doses, and
  2. wisdom with a grain of salt

What’s yours?

In lak ech,

~Jaxsine~

Land of the Free … ?

Yesterday was July 4th and I celebrated big.  As in BIG.  I had a party at my house that was very well-attended by a large, diverse group of interesting, bright, caring, talented people who enjoyed themselves and each other, and stayed later than they planned.  The occasion?  My freedom!  But not freedom in the “patriotic” sense;  rather, my liberation from traditional full-time employment last month, and the tenth anniversary of my arrival in my adopted home state — which also reprented liberation from my miserable, toxic, abusive marriage.

So what is freedom anyway?  Yesterday morning I went to work out, and as we left the small studio after class, one of the owners made a point to say numerous times in a loud voice things like “Yay for freedom!” and “be grateful to live in America where we are free!” and “Yay for democracy!”  This sentiment was generally met positively, with one lady pontificating in return about how grateful she is to live here and enjoy freedom instead in other parts of the world where “all they have is a bowl of rice.”

This really bothered me, and it seemed to also bother my companion, who was born and raised in a “third world” country.  When the co-owner said her “yay America” piece after us, all I could muster was a “we’re not the only ones [who are free].”  This left me feeling yucky.  I didn’t want to pretend I agreed with what she was saying and let her perspective go unchallenged, especially coming from a person in an authority position, but my response felt incomplete and flippant.

Now that I’ve thought about it, this is what I might have said instead:

I appreciate that you love the United States and are grateful for your life here.  I am curious though, what do you mean by “free”?

I think this is the key question.   What does it really mean when U.S. Americans say they are free?  It seems folks don’t always know — perhaps it just sounds good and they accept it as a truth since they’ve heard it since childhood.  Sometimes they say something like “I can do whatever I want” or “I can say whatever I want” or “I can worship whoever I want.”

But is this true?

To the folks who say they are proud to be an American because they can do whatever they want, I ask — do you have the freedom to live wherever you want?  How about the freedom to go wherever you want, including Cuba?  Do you have the freedom to go to school wherever you want, for as long as you want?  To not go to school at all?  To see a doctor when you need one?  To drive a car or fly a plane at age 14?  To drink alcohol at the same age you can vote and get married?  To only go to work when you want to?  To be able to survive by doing work you don’t hate — or even enjoy?  To follow your dreams with no fear of starving to death?  To obtain a loan or mortgage?  To eat food that has not been poisoned by pesticides or environmental toxins, nor genetically modified?  To have sex with whomever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want?  To terminate your pregnancy?  To dress however you please — or not at all?  To lay down in the park or on a meridian and take a nap anytime?  To not pay taxes if you don’t approve of the government?  To kill yourself by jumping off a bridge or building without the police trying to stop you?  To spend less and still live in a thriving economy?

The answer would likely be confusion or a no, followed by protests that you can’t do any of those things anywhere, that we need to earn certain things, that we need money, that there are rules based in human nature, that this is a stupid question, that it’s still better here than anywhere else.

Really?  Often folks with this mindset haven’t been outside the United States, nor had significant relationships with people outside of the United States.  If they did, or if they just did some critical reading and research, they would learn that on some of those questions, several countries (particularly in Europe) fare better than we do — particularly with regards to health care, social and geographic mobility, education, work, healthy food, and even equitable pay.

I remember the first time my sister visited me when I was living in Mexico for the second time.  I think she was 19 or 20, and we were driving through the streets of my beloved city one morning in a friend’s car, passing a city bus packed to the gills with a staggering number of people inside, and plastered by even more clinging to the outside.  She casually remarked: “Wow, people are really free here — free to hang off a bus clinging on for dear life with their butts hanging into traffic and no one will tell them not to.  They get to face their own consequences.  Back in the U.S. you can’t even step beyond the white line on the bus.”

So what is freedom?  Ok so what about the freedom to say whatever we want?  Do you have the freedom to speak your mind to your boss?  To your spouse or partner?  How would you be treated if you expressed an unpopular opinion (like a belief in UFOs, a talent for telekinesis, or support for a single payer healthcare system?) or lifestyle choice? How do you see folks that express unpopular opinions, ideas, and lifestyles get treated?  How diverse and balanced are the viewpoints you read in newsmedia, or on TV?  Are you free to talk about terrorism or participate in left-oriented political movements without being labeled or surveilled?

The answer is usually no, followed by a protest that it’s better here than elsewhere.  Are you certain?  Have you spent any significant amount of time in other countries to gauge this?

Granted, freedom to do or say doesn’t necessarily mean freedom to do or say without consequences.  And granted, in many ways we have more freedom of speech than in countries struggling with repressive governments.  But are the consequences for people’s choices of that to do and say the same everywhere?  Is it truly the freest in the United States?

And how about freedom to worship whoever we want?  Ask a Muslim about freedom of worship in the United States.  Ask a fundamentalist Christian, Mormon, pagan, Wiccan, or Scientologist.  Or an atheist.

This is the point at which I might be called “unpatriotic” or “anti-American” for raising these issues.  So I ask another key question — does being “pro-American” or “patriotic” mean I have to believe in the superiority of the United States over all other countries?  Does “loving” American mean I have to believe it’s the best country on earth?

Personally, I don’t think so.  As a progressive, I tire of being told my love of, and loyalty to, this country is measured by my level of unquestioning belief in the USA as the best, strongest, most righteous country on earth.  It’s not.  Look at the data.  Our educational system is one of the lower-performing of comparable nations.  Our healthcare system is more expensive and in many ways less effective than in many other nations.  Our political system increasingly lacks credibility and effectiveness.  Our financial institutions are increasingly unstable and corrupt.  The health of our population (including life expectancy and infant mortality rates), particularly in communities of color like urban African Americans and rural Native Americans, is worse than that of many “third world” nations.  We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.  We have a wide (and widening) gap between rich and poor and a very high percentage of folks in poverty.  We have some of the highest rates of drug use and antidepressant use in the world.  A majority of us are unhappy with our work, and a lot of us are unhappy in general compared to other (even third world) countries.  Most of us are slaves to our jobs and to a material lifestyle we rarely question (just notice the tone, flavor, stress and obligations tied to the Holiday season).  And we are enslaved and controlled by corporate interests who limit our choices and prime us constantly to buy their products and consume to a level that is destroying our planet, and us.

In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t think the United States sucks.  I think we are good at innovation.  We are good at business and making money.  We are good at creating new technologies.  In some ways we are good at nurturing and supporting new ideas.  This is a good place to be a woman – especially a single, childfree woman over 40 like me.

But there are many countries that are as good as us in some things, and better than us in others.  There are countries where it’s easier to be a woman — economically and politically — than the U.S. (several countries are way ahead of us in terms of women in positions of political power, for instance, even in the “third world”).   There are countries that are much more supportive, financially and socially, of children, mothers and parents in general.  There are nations whose populations enjoy better health, better healthcare, better education, and more equity.  There are countries where it’s less devastating to fall ill, lose a job, or face major hardships — not just because of those nations’ social and economic programs, but because of cultural norms and more collective ways of being in community and supporting one another.

The danger of beating the “America rules!” drum is that beating that drum drowns out other voices and realities.  This narrowness and ignorance is dangerous.  We really aren’t the underdog of the American Revolution anymore, and we haven’t been since World War II.  The freedom the revolutionaries fought for in the 1770s is not the freedom we enjoy today.  In fact, movements similar to that of the revolutionaries are suppressed by our government — both here at home and abroad.  We are The Empire now.

The other danger of the drum is that it drowns out the truth of our history.  There has been plenty of ruthlessness, cruelty and dishonesty on our road to power and “freedom”.  We have invaded occupied lands, exterminated entire populations, enslaved people, raped and mutilated women, stolen land, stolen ideas, dishonored treaties and agreements, excluded whole populations from politial and economic participation, and manipulated political processes here and in other countries.

To me, love is not about blind admiration or pedestals.  It’s not about justifying ourselves by insisting on the perfection of our creation or object of our affection.  Love is about commitment. Love is about acceptance.  It’s about honesty and truth.  It’s about vulnerability.  It’s about growth and support.  It’s also about self-awareness, accountability, integrity, and healthy boundaries.  I don’t believe “loving” American means I have to believe it’s the best, strongest, most righteous country on earth any more than I have to believe a child (or person) is only lovable if s/he is perfect, without fault, and the best.  To truly love the USA is to look at it, see it for what it is, tell the truth about it, and help it be better.

This is what progressives try to do, at least the way I see it.  This may come across as “unpatriotic” only because it may feel threatening, or because I offer this additional perspective in an occasionally strident way as a counterbalance to the constant rhetoric about how great we are.  This is only part of the story, and America deserves for us to look at all of who she is, love her for who she really is, and help her be her best self.

And she is not being her best self right now, and neither are we.  In the USA when we talk about being “free”, I think we really mean “rich”.  This why we instantly refer to material situations like having more than a bowl of rice to eat, or allowing women to go to school or work as evidence of our freedom.  It’s not really freedom we are proud of, it’s our “American way of life” which is about our material wealth and ability to endlessly consume.   We consume, unaware, unbelieving, or uncaring that the lone daily “bowl of rice” some folks eat in other parts of the world (or other parts of the USA) is a direct consequence of our “way of life”.  I once heard a figure that if every person on earth lived like the average American we would need six additional Earths to provide the necessary resources.  This level of consumption is selfish, narrow-minded, short-sighted, abusive, and destructive.  This is not us being our best selves.

While gratitude in general is a positive way to approach life, the admonition to be grateful for what we have in the USA, and to appreciate how “fortunate” we are, absolves us of guilt or responsibility.   We don’t have what we do by magic or by accident.  We enjoy more than others because we take from others.  Those of us who experience more “freedom” (more wealth, more available life choices) often do because we are in the majority, or enjoy some form of privilege, or both.  We choose to be ignorant of the big picture, to not take responsibility for our contribution to this big picture, or to justify why we deserve more.

So what then is freedom, really, if not wealth or an abundant “way of life”?  My very fat dictionary says “state of being at liberty rather in confinement … exemption from external control, interference, regulation … power of determining one’s or its own actions …the power to make one’s own choices or decisions without constraint from within or without; autonomy; self-determination.”

So how free are you after all?  How do we experience more freedom?  Is it true that “freedom isn’t free”?

Freedom is a state of mind, a commitment, and a choice which manifests in action.  It is mindful, it is powerful and it is scary.  Choices have consequences, some more difficult to face than others.  Leaving my husband was one of the best, most difficult decisions I ever made.  Leaving traditional full-time employment was one of the messiest, most complicated decisions I’ve ever made – and after only a month I can already tell this was one of the most important, life-affirming choices I’ve ever made … and one of the most courageous.

But saying that “freedom isn’t free” — usually to justify military action — obscures the fact that the majority of our military action around the globe in the last few decades has nothing to do with liberating us from some oppressor (even though it’s framed that way so we’ll play along).  It has to do with securing our economic interests in other countries so we can continue to take more than our share of the world’s resources.  It has to do with ensuring the reign of our Empire — maybe because we are too terrified to imagine our lives liberated from the enslavement of material addiction.  The terrorist threats we face today are real, but they are not from a powerful oppressor.  They are from the rebel force, the freedom fighters, and the underdogs we still admire and identify with in stories and films.  But we have more in common now with the 18th century British Empire than the American Revolutionaries.  We have more in common with The Empire in Star Wars than the Rebel Alliance.

Since yesterday’s encounter at the gym, the line from that country song keeps running through my head: “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”  Maybe that’s the heart of it all — many of us are unhappy, or frustrated, or struggling, but we calm ourselves and justify our choices by choosing to believe here is better anywhere else, and that this is as good as it gets.

Perhaps it’s time to declare our independence from unhappiness, ignorance, material addiction and low expectations!  Time to show up as our best selves … and help this country we love do the same!

What do you think? What does “freedom” mean to you and how can we experience more true freedom?

¡Paz, justicia y libertad!

~Jaxsine~

Breaking the “r”ules: The Final Chapter

The moment finally arrived when I knew it was time to go.  I finally left an abusive marriage.  I finally exited the burning building, unable to see, let alone breathe.  I finally jumped out of the boiling water  That is to say — on Friday, June 1, 2012, I presented my New Boss with my resignation.  And on Tuesday, June 5th, the day of the Transition of Venus and following a new moon, she escorted me from the building with my personal effects at 11:30 a.m.

A lot happened in 12 weeks.  Let me catch you up.

We left off in the story where Beloved Boss presented me with a title change to make me stay (which by the way, I later learned came without a salary increase), then a three-day suspension for a nostril piercing after I removed the jewelry, then the withdrawal of the title change due to the discipline, then a change in reporting structure.  New Boss had been my peer and mentor, and the person ultimately in charge of the disastrous department I inherited a year ago.  I was starting to notice shortcomings in Beloved Boss and New Boss I had failed to see before, yet my faith in them — if not in the organization — remained intact.  At last writing, I believed Beloved Boss had my back and was fighting for me.

I was wrong.

So I was suspended without pay for three days the first week of April, just after being handed over to New Boss on April 1st in a hasty handoff that took even New Boss by surprise.  There was no joint meeting, no formal announcement, no clarification of expectations, no division of duties or planning.  I spent my unpaid days off cleaning, reflecting, and building my new business.  I decided not to accept the discipline unchallenged, and filed a three-page grievance letter on the last day I could file.  I laid out the timeline of events and cited the reasons I believed the suspension to be excessive and unfair: I took responsibility for my actions, others have not been disciplined at all for more serious violations (including of the same policies I had violated), I had indeed followed direct instructions, communication was unclear and inconsistent, and the additional circumstances surrounding the discipline (title change and withdrawal and change in reporting structure) were concerning.  I stated I had shared the events with select medical school and community leaders who were also concerned, and I asked to be paid for two of the three days and given the new title.

I emailed Beloved Boss to let her know I had submitted the grievance, expressing regret at any pain or disruption this would cause her, but stating I needed to do what was right for me and the future of my Office.  On the same day, I chaired a community meeting in which I let the group know of my new reporting structure.  The attendees expressed concerns about what this meant in terms of the future of the Office, my position, and the importance of our work.  I did my best to paint an optimistic picture without denying I also had questions.

Beloved Boss did not respond to my email, nor did I see her since she was no longer my boss, until two weeks later.  I thought our scheduled meeting was to provide me with a response to my grievance, and I was prepared.  I didn’t realize it was a hearing, and HR was there.

For this I was not prepared.  Thrown off guard, I collected my thoughts for a few seconds, and began by telling Beloved Boss what she meant to me.  How she had been my mentor, role model, big sister and friend.  How I didn’t want to report to anyone else in the organization  How this was painful for both of us.  I talked about how the HR process is antagonistic and dehumanizing — for everyone involved — and that although I was upset and the grievance was written as if it were directed towards her, I didn’t really know who I was upset with, or who I was grieving (the CEO? HR administration?).  She owned that it had all been her decisions.

This suprised and saddened me, given her sheepish, apologetic “they’re making me do this” demeanor in our previous conversations but I figured maybe she had to say this in front of HR.  I continued, laying out the basics of what I remembered from my grievance letter, since I hadn’t brought anything or anyone with me.  I still thought I was having a dialogue, and tried clarifying and asking questions.  The meeting turned into her grievance.  She was angry with me for calling the change in reporting a “demotion” and said going to the community was “a mistake”.  I told her I needed to get support and perspective and pointed out that at least I didn’t go within the organization — she said I had (the medical school folks).  She was angry about me making it look like she didn’t care or wasn’t committed.  I tried to explain the difference between intent and impact and that I wasn’t questioning intent, but that this decision can and will have negative impact. She was angry with me for suggesting she could have invited dialogue about my piercing instead of ignoring it or disciplining me, and she told me I should have had a dialogue with her before doing it — that there is a process.  I talked about processes not always working, and that sometimes people breaking rules is what causes change (I didn’t say this, but the Lovings just went and got married instead of spending years petitioning the courts to make interracial marriage legal, and Rosa Parks just “sat her Black ass down” [not my words] instead of heading for downtown Montgomery to lobby for equal seating on buses!).  I talked about leadership versus management and that I felt I demonstrated the former.  I didn’t tell her one of the reasons I didn’t tell her or consult with her beforehand was because I didn’t want to implicate her in a decision that was my own to make.

I could feel her, the situation, and our relationship passing through my fingers like sand that I tried to grasp as it followed gravity.  I talked about this sitation having a broader context that needed to be considered, like the context of inconsistent accountability in the organization.  She disagreed.  She said “no, this is about YOU.”  I talked about us having co-created the situation together.  She disagreed.  She said “this is on YOU.”

This was not the Beloved Boss I knew.  I don’t know why I said “thank you” when it was over and I left her office — for the last time I’d later learn.  The one thing that felt positive was her admitting that indeed the combination of the discipline, title change withdrawal and demotion “looked bad.”  But it will take me years to forget her face during that meeting — angry and wanting to yell at me, sad and close to tears, eyes full of disappointment and betrayal.  These were eyes that used to light up,  smile, laugh and bathe me in warmth.  I felt like my lover and I had just split after an ugly, avoidable quarrel.  I felt sad, disappointed, and shocked.  I hurt.  I doubted myself.  Had I done wrong after all? Was she right?

They (she) had two weeks to respond in writing to my grievance.  In the meantime, I was realizing that New Boss was not a good fit for me.  Her style was more controlling, mothering, and directive than I felt comfortable with.  I could see I was not going to be treated like a professional, and that we were going to end up having it out at some point.

I had set a goal to be out by July.  I felt that gave me enough time to be sufficiently prepared — psychologically and financially — to be out on by own.  Originally I’d been eyeing May when I told Beloved Boss in February I was planning to leave, but things had changed.  And now my goal each day was to avoid quitting.  Things had truly disintegrated.  The smoke was getting thicker and the water even hotter.

After hours on the day of the deadline, a Tuesday, I received an email from Beloved Boss requesting an extension to respond.  I said no problem and thank you.  I was heartened.  Maybe they needed extra time to do the necessary paperwork in HR to grant my request!

Or maybe they needed time for their lawyers to look things over first.  The following Monday May 14th, also after hours, I received the two-page written response.  Reading it made my abdomen tense up, my chest and arms turn icy hot, and my brain go numb.  Not only was my request denied, Beloved Boss asked me to “sincerely consider [my] ability to resume in a management capacity” given that my commitment to the organization had been affected.  She cited the fact I had communicated with people in the community about my discipline which “casted [sic] doubt on the [organization’s] commitment” to diversity, and the minutes from the aforementioned community meeting, which could be considered retaliation and grounds for future discipline.

How the hell did she get those minutes, which I had not sent out yet?

Bu that wasn’t all — the summary of the hearing, based on the notes she and the HR representative took — misconstrued my words and left out key points.  It stated I had taken no responsibility for my actions, and “continue to blame a ‘bad policy'”, which wasn’t true.

This was definitely a breakup letter.  It was definitely over.  I hurt all over again, and had a hard time grasping what was happening.  The emails and text messages flew.  I got support and indignation from my allies (“WHAT?!” and “they don’t have enough to fire you, get them to give you a nice severance package to shut you up”), but nothing soothed my heart.

On Wednesday I tried one more time.  I’d considered one colleague’s suggestion on how I could try negotiating a severance.  I didn’t believe that would fly, and the idea of me just carrying on with work if they refused me made my guts turn.  I clung to the idea that Beloved Boss had been unable to be real with me with the HR rep in our meeting — maybe she could be more of her old self if we didn’t have an audience!  Perhaps I could try a more “power with” tactic since going along with the “power over/against” process was not working nor feeling good for anyone.  I’m a mediator for Chrissake!  So I researched, then proposed we go to mediation.  I wrote her: “I feel like I’m not being heard or understood, and it seems you feel the same way.  Perhaps in a confidential, safe environment we can really talk to each other and come to some agreement on the best way to move forward.  Are you open to a mediation with me?”

She forwarded my email (to the lawyers? HR? CEO?) then responded she was “not interested in going through mediation” and said if I didn’t agree with the grievance, I could proceed to Step II.  Step II was to appeal to the CEO or HR Administrator.  I knew either would be as open and supportive as a brick wall on fire on the other side of a moat filled with demon alligators.  No thank you.

And so I pressed on, biding my time.  I contemplated getting a lawyer and realized this would take more out of me than the organization, even if I won, and I was not going to get what I really wanted — understanding and fairness.  In the meantime, Toxic Employee had filed another lengthy, detailed, crazy grievance against me for retaliation (I was still expecting her to work her full hours and follow rules).  Also, my performance evaluation date came and went.  New Boss said Beloved Boss (BB) was going to do it, and she was out that week.  New Boss said she had no doubt I would pass.  I doubted that was true.  I began to think maybe something who knew The Bigger Picture was loudly trying to tell me to leave, and maybe I should just listen.

I talked with my administrative assistant and New Boss about how ex-Beloved Boss (BB) had gotten a hold of those minutes.  My administrative assistant said New Boss (who she also supported) had asked her for them.  I explained why I was asking — that they had gotten to BB and were being used in an unhelpful way — and problem solved about how to handle the communication going forward.  When I talked to New Boss about it, it turned out she’d also wanted to discuss them with me, since she’d been listening to the tape (!?) and also had concerns.  I told her I hadn’t wanted to involved her in the situation between me and BB, but that my words were being misconstued and taken out of context.  I shared a little about my piercing and if I’m forced to choose between the organization and the community, and the organization and my integrity or reputation, I know where I stand.  I talked about BB not wanting to own her part, and that she’s angry because I’m not ashamed or afraid and I set boundaries.   I felt yucky being this honest, but it was good for me.  New Boss seemed to listen, and asked about my commitment and whether I could get on board.  I was flabbergasted that she was actually asking this question and thought I could be.  I said no, and that I would be leaving soon.  I told her that since I told her in December I’d started looking, I’d only stopped looking briefly when the title change emerged.  She thanked me for being honest.

It was Friday of the following week that I resigned and gave three weeks’ notice.  I still had not received my performance appraisal, and the retaliation grievance filed by Toxic Employee was still not resolved.  It felt like we had all been under water holding our breath in some twisted contest to see who would give, and I bobbed to the surface first.  That lungful of air felt so good to my lungs.

New Boss read the two-page letter and cried — she had seen me in my element and called me a “rockstar” just the day before.  She was most concerned about New Employee.  She was also concerned about how the community would react.  She wanted time to build a relationship with them, and to craft a message.  I asked who “community” was (I think she said local external contacts).  I agreed to her request to hold off on communicating my departure to them until she and I could meet again Tuesday morning.  I reminded her that some community folks already knew, since I’d been talking to them.  Yet again she thanked me for my honesty.

On Monday I sent an email to multiple national colleagues informing them of my imminent departure.  I included a line about having “revived my former company and will be pursuing client and projects that are a better fit for my talents.”  The email recipients included a listserv which BB was on — I knew this but didn’t think I was dong anything inappropriate.

On Tuesday I rolled into the office late after informing a crowd of 10-12 students in gray scrubs smoking not 15 feet from the entrance that they were too close to the building. I suggested that maybe no one had told them, pointed out the smoking area on yonder side of the parking lot, and quietly fumed over yet one more example of the insanity of the place.

I went into my meeting with New Boss at 9:30 with a one-and a half-page list of single spaced bullet points describing all the most crucial items to be discussed and handed off in my transition.  We talked a little about this and that for a few minutes.  I asked about how we should communicate my leaving to my staff.  She suggested I send an email that day.  I was surprised — shouldn’t we do a meeting?  No, she said, actually today would be my last day.

W … T … F???   Why wasn’t this the first thing we talked about?  Was she trying to get all the important transition information from me before telling me?

Apparently the email I’d sent the day before was “concerning” and “cast doubt on the commitment” of the organization.   Two people at the medical school were included on the listserv I’d copied.  Oh yeah.  I’d truly forgotten about that.  (But wait, aren’t medical school people considered part of the organization and not the community? That’s what BB said in my hearing.)

I did what I tend to do in these situations — freeze and caretake.  My mind started blanking out.  We decided to cancel a meeting I was supposed to chair that afternoon.  New Boss stuck her head out of her door to ask our administrative assistant to send out an email.  I thought that was odd, since I was going to do that as soon as I went to my office.  I talked about having to complete two employee performance appraisals.  She said she didn’t know what time my computer access would be shut down, so if I didn’t get to it, she’d pick up.

OMG!  I finally got it, this was happening! Now.

I asked her to put her offer to pay me through the period of my resignation in writing.  She said “you don’t trust me?”  (Really!?)  About halfway through my list she said her heart was racing (from the overwhelm) — not a good thing for a morbidly obese person.  I touched her and gently  said something I’d wanted to say to her for a long time: “You also deserve to be happy and healthy.”  Wiping away a tear, and without pausing, she said “I have two kids in college.”

Wow.

We’d agreed to meet again 1:00 to go over and visit the staff together.  As soon as I got to my office I executed Emergency Escape Plan.  I sent two emails I’d composed and been holding in “drafts” for weeks.  One to internal folks, one to external folks, saying goodbye and providing my contact information and website address (just activated the day before in fact).  On the external email I included the line about “better fit for my talents” and on the internal one I added “values” after “talents” and a line about “I find myself unable to effect meaningful change, or lead with integrity, given the organization’s current culture and priorities.”  I felt people had a right to get a personal goodbye and hear at least a tiny part of the truth. I didn’t want to leave people in the lurch or feeling abandoned.  I also composed an email to my staff, letting them know I was leaving and that the abruptness was not my preference.  I thanked them for this and that, wished them well, reminded them of the crucialness of their work and asked them to keep asking the tough questions and holding their leaders accountable.

New Boss appeared in my doorway.  I don’t remember what she said, but she was upset about the emails I’d sent (?!) — something about making her look bad.  I genuinely asked “why?” and she said “because I’m your boss!”  I threw up my hands and made a gesture like “what did you expect!?”.  She had me shut down my computer and pack up my things.  I was prepared — as part of Emergency Escape Plan I had been preparing to leave for weeks, just like I prepared to leave my ex-husband almost exactly ten years before.  Important files, my books, other effects, were already at home.  I had cleaned up my computer drives too, after those meeting minutes got to BB.  Now I just had one more bag to fill with my desk toys, and my artwork and lamps to take down.

I drove my car up; got in a few hugs to a couple bewildered staff; loaded up, handed over my badge, keys, pager, and parking permits; single-arm hugged New Boss — whose face was like a silent scream — and said “until we meet again.” I drove away, free.  By that time my computer and email access had already been revoked, and the emails I had sent had been retracted from those who hadn’t opened them yet (I have since sent a pile of messages from my personal email).  They tried to take away not only my leaving, but how I left and who I told.  But I was free.

***

I am going to be processing this story for a long time.  Even just writing it now has been difficult, and a rollercoaster of emotion.  It still doesn’t feel entirely real, and my fired-up brainstem hasn’t completely relaxed yet.  It’s almost like a dream.  I am relieved to be free of Toxic Employee and the majority of my job.  But I do miss some things.  I miss New Employee.  I miss structure.  I miss reliable money and power and my ego being stroked.  But these are things I can live without, and things that were twisting me anyway.  And New Employee and I will still be friends.

What is interesting and disturbing to me is how few people have been outraged by my story.  People who know my organization — or even work there — are sometimes slightly disappointed, but not surprised.  Others who don’t know my organization, but know the corporate world, often have their own, similar stories.  The normalcy of this is disturbing — the banality of evil rears its head once again (see post on The White Ribon 12/19/11).  I have been reading a couple wonderful books lately on power that I will be writing about soon and one of them — Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times — suggests that one thing that causes certain people to stand alone and do the “right” or “moral” thing (e.g., breaking the law and risking one’s life to save Jews during Nazism) is actually believing in the stated ideals of a nation or organization.  Perhaps it’s not naïveté or blind idealism that make me tend to believe that people and organizations and nations actually mean to be who they say they are, and hold them to that.  Maybe it’s just about integrity, and a good trait.  Perhaps belief is subversive when apathy is the norm, and numbness the new evil.  Perhaps we need more believers, and more outrage, and more feeling.

Still, I have learned a lot.  If I had it to do over again, I like to think I would have left earlier before it got ugly, or turned down the offer of the title change and stayed on a path out.  I like to think I could have done something to preserve the relationship with BB and leave on good terms.

And maybe things happened exactly the way they had to for me, and for her as well.  Who knows what repercussions this story will have on how things play out moving forward.  I hope me taking a stand pushes the organization and change forward, raises important questions, or inspires others to be better, happier, healthier, and more alive.

I learned that me taking a stand pushed some people away, and others towards me.  I learned I was not alone. I learned I was loved, respected, admired and appreciated even more than I knew.  I learned that when the warning signs start to appear, I should listen instead of bargaining and doubting myself.  I learned that when I’m not listening to the Universe, she starts to speak louder, then shouts and hits me with a 2×4 until I get it.   I learned that I really can’t avoid messes if I’m going to be true to myself more.  I learned I still have some control issues and self love issues to work on.  I learned I need to get in better touch with my anger, sooner.

I learned that in a hierarchical organization, the culture really is driven, and the tone set, by those above.  Despite my insistence on the power of individual agency, ultimately this is the truth.  In an organization headed by a numbers man who is devoutly Catholic, lacking in emotional intelligence, fearful and intolerant of anything perceived as criticism, this orientation trickles down.  New Boss was protecting BB who was protecting him.  Both were afraid and trying to protect their jobs.   BB was copying his pattern of maintaining a small, close inner circle of trusted and protected people who could do no wrong until their “loyalty” came into question — when their toes started pulling back from the party line.  Because I was in BB’s inner circle (of which I was not aware), I was seen as even more of a traitor and punished even more harshly than someone not as close or trusted — like White allies during Civil Rights and light skinned “half breeds” in Indian boarding schools.

Also, I’ve realized that in a hierarchical “power over” institution, those above are always under someone else, with Almighty God being the Ultimate Boss.  Fear, compliance and control are the drivers.  And in a “power over” paradigm all manifestations of power are interpreted through that lense.  So those who exercise other forms of power — like “power with”” or power within”– are not recognized as such, but as players in a “power over” game trying to win and dominate others.  In making decisions true to myself, being honest, and raising questions, I was perceived as trying to assert “power over” and therefore neutralized as a threat instead of being recognized and engaged.

But more on power later.

While this is the end of this particular saga, I don’t know that I’m quite a Jedi knight.  🙂   But I am happily “single” and safe.  I swim in healthy, comfortable water.  And I can breathe again.  Hallelujah.

What came up for you as you read this post?  Insights or feedback?

Ometéotl!

~Jaxsine~

Pain as an Unexpected Teacher

This past week, I finished a 12-week fitness challenge I entered into with a collection of other people at one of the places I work out.  At the celebration on Thursday, we partied and learned who won (the two who won “most pounds lost” and “most inches lost” were truly deserving and inspiring) and cheered each other on one last time.  It was nice to see everyone all fresh, clean, and dressed up!

I was pleased with how I did — I am definitely making progress towards my goals around muscle strength and definition — but finishing the challenge isn’t what I’m writing about today.  It’s about something I learned towards the beginning.

I started going to this new gym/studio in January after running into my former boss from my days teaching cardio kickboxing.  She looked great and was really happy with her new gig teaching fitness at this other place, so I decided to check it out.

I took her “barrefusion” class.  Barrefusion is a combination of ballet barre work, Pilates, callanetics, and the best torture methods invented by the CIA to make people talk.  I’m kidding only a little here. Using just our own body weight (or 1-2 pound weights for arms) we pushed every major muscle group to the point of burning, shaking fatigue … over and over … for an hour.  I thought I was in great shape before I took this class, taking smug satisfaction from regularly beating out people 20 years younger than me — of both sexes — in various athletic endeavors.  Now I was the one quivering, sweating, and grunting to hold a half pushup — after holding a plank for at least a minute, then going into pushups, then pulsing at another half pushup for ten reps.  I had discovered the unknown territory of “can’t”, my triceps on fire.  Meanwhile, the well-toned, well-off women around me  — some much older — were holding their own.

I have never been in so much pain voluntarily as I have in barrefusion class.  Not when running races, not when boxing, not when lifting weights, not when doing yoga, not when dancing (even when I injured myself) and not even when doing “no pain no gain” high-impact aerobics in the 80s.  Even some of my experiences with involuntary pain –a severely spasmed colon in high school comes to mind — pale in comparison to barrefusion.  Especially when it comes to working the quad muscles of the thighs in barrefusion, I have never felt such searing fire in my body.

And this is how pain came to teach me.  One day in class — yes, I kept going to barrefusion and even paid good money to do so! — we were working on our quads.  I was trying to manage going from a position where I hung from the barre in front of me, my legs at right angles with thighs perpendicular to the floor, then taking my seat all the way to the floor, then back to a right angle multiple times, then repeatedly pushing my pelvis and thighs up and forward to the barre while also raising my heels off the floor. I became fascinated by my pain.  I began to wonder why it was so awful.  Was my body giving me a message I needed to heed about my tissues getting ready to burst or tear?  Was my body in danger?  Was any part of me?

I suddenly realized I was not in danger.  I realized that the pain was so awful not only because of the physical sensation, but because I was afraid of it.  I was afraid (at an instinctual level) that my body was in danger.  I was also afraid of the damage I was doing to myself — that I would be so sore the next day I’d be unable to walk.  And I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make it through the pain.  I was afraid I couldn’t do it.

Suddenly the pain shifted.  I realized the physical pain was being fueled by fear — including fear about a future that didn’t exist!  I found myself able to endure more than I thought I would, just by this realization.  And the next day I wasn’t even that sore.  My fears had been in vain.

I read about another woman’s similar experience with pain in a profound book by psychologist Kathleen Noble called The Sound of a Silver Horn: Reclaiming the Heroism in Contemporary Womens’ Lives.  One of the women profiled in the book, Melia, talks about the transformative power of pain she experienced during childbirth:

My first child was born without anesthesia…and there is a stage called transition in which you just think you’re going to lose it or die or something…The pain is so tremendous.  I remember feeling like I would snap or just start breaking things, or if I had a gun I would start shooting people because the pain was so intense.  I’d never felt that way before. But just when I thought I was snapping from the tremendous pain I switched to floating; I detached from the pain, I dissociated. It was a decision. It’s hard to remember when you’re in tremendous pain the power you have in just making the decision ‘I cannot take this anymore; I have to do something now to survive.’ … This didn’t involve the intellect … It involved the ability to make a decision…I was able to do this, to change an extremely negative experience into something very spiritual and empowering.  I really felt heroic afterward.  All my inferiority because I’m a woman left.  I could do this, I did this, I gave birth…Really, for the first time ever I felt equal  with [my husband].  Before, he was the doctor and I was his little nurse.  He was the man.  Now I was his equal.  It was really powerful. I always use that as my model now.  I know that everything I’m doing now is difficult, but not like childbirth.  Nothing. Everything else is minor to me.

I can relate.  I remember vividly how one of our challenge coaches, Lea — who has her own super-inspiring story about how she changed her health and life for the better — shouted at us one night during a grueling spinning (stationary biking) routine: “This is about being OK with suffering! It makes you stronger AND it gives you confidence from knowing that you CAN!”

Amen.  And yet we are usually given an opposite message, to the tune of: “This hurts! Make it stop! RIGHT! NOW!”  We are encouraged to end pain as quickly as possible — others’ as well as our own.  There’s a reason why; our reptilian brains are wired to pay acute attention to pain and resolve the problem as quickly as possible, which is a good, and evolutionarily advantageous response when it comes to physiological distress.  But perhaps not so advantageous when the situation goes beyond physiology.  Culturally we are encouraged to be comfortable and happy all the time.  While visiting the Labor and Delivery unit in the hospital where I work, I once remarked to the nursing manager about how suprisingly quiet it was, even though every bed was full.  Her response: “We do a very good job of pain management here.”

Removing all pain from our lives removes opportunities to grow, to triumph, to learn of what we are capable, and to find our inner s/hero.  In fact, pain is a feature of what author Dan Pink calls the drive to mastery.  In his eye-opening book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink identifies mastery —  the desire to get better and better at something that matters — as one of the three key elements of intrinsic motivation.  And, as he puts it, “mastery is a pain.”  He writes. “Mastery — of sports, music, business — requires effort (difficult, painful, excruciating, all-consuming effort) over a long time (not a week or a month, but a decade).”  And, he continues, effort gives meaning to life.

Once again I realize I have been lazy and didn’t know it.  One of the weaknesses of being better than average (smarter, stronger, healthier, richer etc.) is that we don’t often learn how to learn.  We don’t learn about the payoff involved in sustained effort because so many things come easy.  I realized I have been singing the same tune I sometimes criticize others for singing — “I can’t because of my DNA”, or “it just doesn’t work for me”, or “I’m different”.  I was wrong.  I have been humbled by people like my friend “M” whose fierce commitment and tremendous discipline, even in the face of negative family pressure and financial limitations, have enabled her to completely transform her diet and her body in the last eight months to the point of being ready to run a 5K race with me in two weeks.  And now I, too, am seeing the results of my pain  — muscles I believed were just genetically weak or getting old are now much stronger, and visibly larger.  And all because I worked at it — really hard.

I was telling a work colleague some weeks ago about participating in the challenge and about how excruciatingly painful some of my workouts were.  Over her salad and stuffed halibut she leaned towards me and asked, “Well, why the heck do you do it, then?” I paused in my reply then, but now can say with more confidence that it helps me grow, it gets results, and it teaches me important lessons about life and about myself.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that not all pain is equal and that pain can also teach the power of discernment.  The pain of bone cancer is not the same as the pain of childbirth.  The pain of someone sawing off my leg to torture me is not the same as someone sawing off my leg to remove life-threatening infection and gangrene.  Perhaps one might approach them similarly from a spiritual perspective, but the different contexts might call for different responses.

Spiritual teacher Thomas Hübl talks about the difference between “creative friction”, which pushes us to our limits and allows us to take a step and grow, and “destructive friction” which is stuck, heavy, and limiting, like a swamp:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCsBeVVshFU

I believe friction is a form of pain, and gaining the ability to discern whether a certain discomfort (friction, pain, etc.) has creative, generative power or destructive power is essential to growth and happiness.  Some of us shun all pain entirely while some of us seem to be addicted to it.  I have shunned most physical pain until now, but in the past I was addicted to emotional pain.  I equated emotional pain of any kind as normal, necessary, or adding value to a relationship.  I no longer believe this to be true, as I now recognize the difference between the not-OK pain of hearing abusive belittling and the OK discomfort involved in receiving loving feedback, for example.

Discerning between generative pain and destructive pain is as important to living a rich life and fulfilling one’s potential, as learning to endure generative pain.   As the saying “your current safe boundaries were once unknown frontiers” implies, growth requires courage — and pain.  But knowing one’s limits and being self-compassionate is vital as well.  I am a much tougher cookie now than when I started the fitness challenge in January, but there are days when my quads just need me to back off a little.  I listen.  After all, I’m in this for the long haul and I need to nurture my relationship with my one constant companion – me!

Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain. ~Joseph Campbell~

What has pain taught you?  Please share a comment below!

In lak ech!

~Jaxsine!

Knowing when to leave

It’s all right, honey. Let her go. Let her go. You know, Miss Ruth was a lady. And a lady  always knows when to leave.

This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite movies, Fried Green Tomatoes.  Sipsey utters these lines at the moment the saintly kind-hearted Ruth dies, leaving Idgie alone again.  It usually makes me bawl.

But it has also made me wonder, for years, how to know when to leave.  How do I not possess Ruth’s grace and wisdom?  The truth is, it’s a tough call to make, especially if one of your virtues/flaws is to focus on the good instead of the bad, despite greater quantity or proportion of the latter.  The truth is also that I usually stay too long.

I have already shared the story of when I knew my bad marriage wasn’t going to get better (12/14/11 post).  The months that followed were a terrifying gift of staying in a dangerous, destructive relationship while quietly planning my escape.  It was excruciating not being fully able to speak the truth or leave, but the blessing was getting almost daily validation of why I had to get out.  It made my final exit less conflicted.

I feel like that now, but unlike with my marriage, I don’t have a specific deadline to rely on.  Towards the end of my marriage, I had graduate school in another state to plan for and provide an escape.  This time, with my job, it’s not so concrete.

But there are lots of parallels between the two.  How is my current bad job situation like my previous bad marriage situation?

  • I got what I said I wanted — but I wasn’t thinking carefully through  the long term requirements or commitment.
  • I didn’t want to tell myself, or anyone else, the truth about my feelings.
  • Once I finally started talking, however, I got understanding and empathy from others.
  • All it takes is one really bad day to make me want to leave — my loyalty and overall satisfaction are that fragile.
  • All it takes is one decent day to make me think it’s not so bad or it’s finally getting better … until the awfulness starts again and I realize the good day was just a respite.
  • There’s very little joy.  Good days are about the absence of significant conflict or drama, and satisfaction from having completed a certain number of tasks.
  • I give more than the other.  The other can’t, or isn’t ready or able, to change or give more.

I have been aware of these ironic parallels for some time, but recently I have had two additional realizations (which are also like what happened in my marriage).  One — those I loved are either changing or I am seeing them more clearly.  Two — I am changing too, and I don’t like what I am becoming.

My first inkling of changes or shattered illusions began when my colleagues didn’t say anything about my nose piercing.  Then my Beloved Boss didn’t say anything.  Then she came down hard on me, and later expressed feeling awkward about bringing it up — a management 101 skill in my book.  Then she suddenly offered me the one thing I always wanted, when I was already halfway out the door.  Then she got on one of my colleagues (my soon-to-be New Boss) about something I was working on instead of asking me about it, which was a new experience for me with her.

Meanwhile, my soon-to-be New Boss scheduled a meeting with me which I discovered (in the meeting) was about clearing the air about a few things before she became my boss (as if we could be completely honest and ignore the impending power shift).  I was completely unaware of her concerns, one of which was thinking I needed something from her when my Beloved Boss was getting on her about the aforementioned project I was working on.  (I still don’t entirely get that one.)

Another of her concerns was that something I told Toxic Employee got back to her (why did I trust Toxic Employee with that?).  I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have told Toxic Employee what I did, because I still believe soon-to-be New Boss made a bad decision and set me (or whoever would come after her) up for failure by not being honest with Toxic Employee about her poor performance.  I didn’t tell Toxic Employee the truth, even though I wanted to very badly, but I did imply her previous bosses hadn’t been entirely honest with her.  I was trying to give her a bigger picture that painted me as less the lone bad guy out to get her, and more the person trying to deal with a tough situation and do the right thing.  I was trying to show fairness and empathy with her shock and indignation, since she had been led to believe she had been a stellar employee for ten years until I came around.  The illusion she had been sold was hurting both of us — and the entire department — and I was trying yet another way to give perspective and make things better.  I guess it didn’t work, and she told soon-to-be New Boss what I’d said, with her own spin.

I received a message almost two years ago that “leadership is more than what most of the leaders around you, even the good ones, are doing.”  I couldn’t fathom this at the time because I adored Beloved Boss and soon-to-be New Boss (one of my mentors), but now I get it.  The two people I have most loved, trusted, and respected at work are not entirely the great leaders I thought they were.

I suddenly see The Matrix before me.  Beloved Boss contributes to The Problem.  She hasn’t always been direct with me about what she has needed from me, or in asking me to change or do something differently.  She didn’t go to bat for me when it mattered until it was too late.  She said yes to being given more and more responsibility for projects and functions outside her purview — with no title change or extra compensation, and to an extent that will hurt her other areas.  She allows her competence and skill to be exploited to make up for others’ (mostly men’s) incompetence and lack of planning.  She exploits soon-to-be New Boss’s competence and responsiveness instead of holding her colleagues accountable.  She sometimes says yes when she should say no — or sometimes she says nothing, which is the same as yes.

Soon-to-be New Boss also contributes to The Problem.  She allowed gross neglect and incompetence to go on for years in the area I inherited because she never had reason for concern (and I guess never had reason to even check).  She also allows her competence and skill to be exploited to make up for others’ under-functioning.  She enables her reports’ incompetence and irresponsibility by taking on their decisions for them and keeping their failures from showing (which keeps her from looking bad, but does not lead to growth or efficiency).  She doesn’t understand why our sister organizations say they don’t want to be like us.  She also says yes sometimes, when she should say no.

Both of these women have been in the organization for about 25 years.  They are outstanding people — and part of The Solution — but I now see they have not been immune to their environment.  They have grown up in a dysfunctional culture and have a tolerance for things they wouldn’t otherwise.  They don’t know any different.  Both allow their priorities to be manipulated by the latest regulatory freakout or demand from a superior without questioning or taking a stand (it seems).   Both appear to make pleasing their bosses top priority always, despite what suffers as a result.  Both allow themselves to be handed an impossible amount of work, which keeps them in a perpetual state of overwhelm, attending primarily to ugliness and urgent problems instead of mindfully building and nuturing people and programs.  Reaction over prevention isn’t their personal preference, but it is the reality of how they operate.

And both have told me my standards are (too) high.  My standards are not too high, I believe they are reasonable and good.  I don’t think keeping employee files locked up, doing decent performance evaluations, keeping accurate records, answering emails within a couple days, confronting problems head on and keeping one’s word are unreasonable standards, they are part of The Solution.   Perhaps I am like the frog put into boiling water — I jump right out when I sense right away it’s too hot and dangerous.  They are like the frogs put in water that has slowly been heated (over 25 years), and now they are (un)happily boiling to death.

Illusions are deadly — deciding someone or something is bad keeps us from seeing goodness, and deciding someone or something is good keeps us from seeing faults and failings.  Neither is fair or accurate.   Seeing through illusions can be painful and costly; now that I am seeing the Matrix, I feel more vulnerable and alone, without allies.  I see again my own failing to be entirely balanced in my assessment of people, tending instead to either blindly trust or entirely write off — like I did with my ex-husband (first the former tendency, then the latter).  It’s almost amusing how I fall prey to the same dichotomous either-or thinking I often rail against.

And hope can be dangerous.  Hope enables human beings to survive horrible circumstances and overcome tremendous odds.  But it can also keep us stuck in an illusion.  Holding on to the flickering possibility of change or good can keep us trapped in something mostly bad. This is tempting, since nothing is ever all good or all bad.  Holding on can lead to genius or breakthrough or triumph, but it can also lead to disaster and ruin and tragic waste.

Perhaps my doubts about knowing when to leave are really about my fear of being wrong.  I can stay and see things stay bad or get worse, and then I will be wrong about staying.  Or I can leave and see things improve, and then I will be wrong about leaving.  I just can’t know what will happen.

What I do know is I should not make choices counting on certain outcomes.  Besides, me making the choice and taking action changes the outcome — my decision shapes the future.  What I also know is that I do not like how I am changing, and what I have become.  I’ve noticed I’m not really a frog jumping out of the boiling water — I’m trying to swim in it, and my delicate skin is burning.

The fact that I would consider lying to get a coveted job title is not a good sign.  The fact I would violate confidence and tell Toxic Employee that soon-to-be New Boss wasn’t honest with her is not a good sign.  The chronic bags under my eyes that defy all beauty remedies are not a good sign.  My exhaustion even after only working eight hours is not a good sign.  It’s not a good sign that I have actually uttered the words “I hate my job” more than once.  The other things I hear coming out of my mouth to one of my new employees is not a good sign.  The subtle negativity, the undertone of anger, the ultra-political sensitivities and cautious maneuvering — these are not good signs.

In two months, New Employee has been showered with the appreciation, curious inquiries, and positive responses I have yet to receive in 18 months in my new role.  I recently read over the many wonderful comments I used to get all the time when I was doing what I love and am truly gifted in doing.  I remembered what it was like, and saw even more clearly when I compared myself to New Employee, that my unhappiness and lack of fit isn’t just hurting me — it’s hurting my effectiveness, and my ability to create positive change.

If everything we do is truly infused with the consciousness with which we do it, then me staying and forcing myself to make potentially positive changes in the organization is likely being cancelled out by my attitude and how I go about things.  Maybe I have taken von Goethe’s advice — “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being” — too much to heart.  Maybe I really am going too much against the grain, pushing too hard, or expecting too much.

In this way I still wonder, is it me, or the organization?  Can I still do good?  Is there sufficient hope?  I was curious to find some rational data — some objective evidence to provide some clarity or insight.  So I looked up “dysfunction” in the dictionary to see if my organization qualified.  The dictionary said “malfunctioning”, so I looked up “functional.”  The second definition was “having or serving a utilitarian purpose; capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed.”  This seemed like a good definition, but it struck me that folks in my organization would disagree about the proper definitions of “utilitarian”, “capable” and especially “purpose.”  Personally, I see multiple examples every day of how the organization is not serving its purpose, and lack of clarity around what (whose!) purpose it was/is really designed for.

Maybe the key word is “capable”?  Maybe my standards are too high and my expectations unrealistic in this environment.  And maybe I just don’t agree that the status quo is the best we can do.  Maybe I can still see that things don’t have to be the way they are — that there is A Solution (probably more than one).  Maybe I believe we can actually change things — that A Solution is doable.

And maybe my beliefs are moot.  Just like I believed my now ex-husband was capable of change, he just wasn’t willing or able.  And I got to a point where I realized I wasn’t willing or able to function inside that reality anymore — regardless of how that reality might be viewed or labeled by others, and regardless of how hard I tried.   And while that point is coming again, it doesn’t feel like it’s fully arrived.

So when should I leave?  Perhaps like Ruth, I will know when it’s time.

In lak ech,

~Jaxsine~

The Meaning of Life

Who would you be today if you had not been wounded?

This is one of the questions posted on my bedroom wall by the door on one of many pieces of paper taped around my house in strategic locations to help me with my ongoing visioning.  This question came to me when I realized a few weeks ago with a start that my entire professional life is founded on my wounding.  I have dedicated well over 20 years to helping others deal more effectively and kindly with diversity, difference, oppression, and marginalization — the various “isms”.  I have spent countless hours learning how to communicate more effectively — and not only in English — and teaching others to do the same.

All of this is rooted in my own early childhood — and ongoing — wounding.  I now have a word for this wounding, thanks to a new therapist gifted in the somatic healing arts and brain science.  The word is “relational trauma.”  I made the connection that my gifts of communication, empathy, relating across differences and sensitivity to oppression stem from my experiences as an unloved, misunderstood child trying to navigate extremely challenging situations on her own.  And they stem from continuing to attract people and situations that reinforce this trauma, and my false beliefs around being unlovable in a dangerous world of unreliable or incompetent people.  These gifts are beautiful scars — talents and abilities I developed to survive my wounding.  I relate to the oppressed and disenfranchised because I know the pain and injustice of marginalization personally.  And my passion for inclusion, justice, and diversity come from a commitment to preventing others from being traumatized like I was.

So now I wonder — who would I be today if I had not been wounded?  Which parts of me are not beautiful scars?  Without my wounding, I would still be smart.  I would still be musically gifted.  I would still be funny.  I would still be talented with words.

But perhaps I would also be be more self-centered and less empathetic?  Maybe my wounding has helped me be more human, more sensitive, more connected?  In truth, I shudder to think of the chronically narcissistic, impatient, narrow person I might be if my life had been easier.  Perhaps I would be a highly successful yet destructive musician, or a cutthroat executive in some powerful, well-monied industry.

Or maybe I would be a better version of the Self I know today, but happier, less conflicted, less fearful, and more satisfied with her relationships.

The question about my wounding may seem moot, since it is what it is and I am who I am.  Perhaps the best response is to notice, be grateful, and contemplate the awe of it all.  But I think becoming aware of our essence, combined with our wounding, might be a key step in fully realizing who we truly are.  My wounding has allowed me to suffer, to be more aware, to heal myself and others, and to midwife others’ journeys of (re)discovery.  But becoming aware of the impact of this wounding on my life at this point on my path might be an important step towards freedom and a more fully integrated, authentic self.  In becoming more aware, I can make new and different choices, and I can choose to be grateful to my wounds, but no longer defined by them.

In fact, my wounds are now interfering with the next stage of my development.  My history of relational trauma makes me mistrustful and fearful of other people, while also harboring a deep need to connect, be vulnerable and have greater intimacy in my life.  This affects the health and quality of my relationships.  My history of relational trauma also makes me want to cling to a professional commitment to diversity and healing the “isms” that may actually be weighing me down as I grow.  A part of me doesn’t want to heal or stop until everyone is healed — but this is a futile and counterproductive orientation.  Healing myself heals others, and healing myself might just be my most important work.

I believe the meaning of human life is to continue our long history of evolution.  We are here to learn, to grow, to improve, to stretch, and to experience all that life has to offer.  We are the embodiment of the Universe coming to know itself.  Therefore, we have a responsibility to grow our consciousness.

The truth is that I’m not entirely sure who or what I would be today without my wounding.   Another truth is that I don’t know for sure what the meaning of life is (or even if such a thing exists!).  However, asking and pondering such questions allows me to evolve, and to grow my consciousness.  It therefore has meaning to my life and my happiness, and, hopefully, to yours too.

So, who would you be today if you had not been wounded? And who are you today because of it?

In lak ech!

~Jaxsine