I’m about a week into Camp NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’m writing my novel (ack, that sounds weird and looks weirder) and I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process of creating a whole new person, so to speak, with feelings, thoughts, attitude and reactions that are at times similar to my own and other times, completely different. I am creating memories and experiences. I have to admit, it’s pretty cool: it’s like a person’s story is being knit and I hold the needles but the yarn is the imagination.
My protagonist is going through a rough patch in her life. She’s starting psychotherapy because she’s locked down emotionally and spiritually: she functions quite well in the American Ideal: kids to school, dog on walks, dinner on the table, hair in a bun, gas in the tank … but she’s fractured inside.
Writing about her has jogged my own memories about my own experiences and the 80-lb bullet-proof Samsonite suitcase full of guilt and second-guesses and regrets I’ve been carrying with me for decades. Remember the vintage American Tourister ads for their suitcases? They took one and put it in a cage with a fearsome gorilla who picked it up and threw it around and stomped on it and did everything it could to destroy the luggage? I have lived as the opposite of that gorilla: not trying to open my baggage. But I know it must open. I needn’t beat the crap out of though to have that happen.
The good news is that despite that gorilla,I still have the key to unlock the suitcase. The key? It’s an action actually. It’s called: letting go, and I can’t wait until my character and I can do it together.
When I was younger, I was implicitly responsible for performing things that really didn’t belong in my wheelhouse. I often was responsible for finding things because I had 20/10 vision (age took care of that, now I can barely see anything within 18 inches with my contacts in and more than 2 feet without them). I am beginning to realize that a lot of what I was asked to look for was asked of me because sometimes the people seeking it didn’t want to do the work themselves to create action and change.
Thus, when I couldn’t find or couldn’t perform, I became like a search and rescue dog: depressed or bummed out that I couldn’t achieve what others had requested of me. That made me perform in a lackluster way at times: “Why bother? Meh.”
The thing is (I see this now at 44.7 years of age): it’s not mine; it never was. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t turn up the heat or drive people crazy because of it. (Check out that post if you know what I’m talking about: chaos – it resonated with a lot of people.)
As I grew older, with that suitcase, that sense of responsibility carried itself to all manner of circumstances: if the tickets to an event sold out before I could get them, it was my fault. If the weather turned bad when we were on a picnic, it was my fault. If someone failed to do what we hoped that they would, that was my fault and I would do all I could to change the balance (notice I didn’t say “fix the balance” – that’s from doing The Work). If a traffic jam presented itself en route to an event, it was my fault. If I couldn’t get someone to learn something, it was my fault. If I couldn’t get someone to change their behavior, it was my fault.
Sometimes I’d voice my overwhelming sense of responsibility and guilt over what I perceived as “failures,” thinking, nay PRAYING that someone would pat me on the back and say, “It’s OK Mol, we know you tried to get Bruce Springsteen to come to Chik-Fil-A for your grade-school teacher’s granddaughter Patsy’s son’s 3rd birthday party…”
I remember talking to my own therapist about five years ago. He laughed, with love, but laughed nonetheless at my pronouncement and said something along the lines of, “What an EGO you have! Good God, Molly! You think you can summon the weather or conjure clear roads or somehow open a section of seats in a stadium?! WHO taught you this? Where did you learn that you were so responsible for other people, events and well, hell: the universe?”
I ground my teeth and sneered at him.
He continued, because he was thorough and awesome: “Well, if someone’s napping and you scream at the top of your lungs, ‘SPIDER! SPIDER! AAACK!’ then yeah, it’s your fault that person woke up. But if you have a loved one who has screwed up behaviors or a person in your life who constantly does the wrong thing; and I mean clearly wrong like shoplifting or abusive behavior, and they don’t stop despite your protestations and advice and consults and I can only imagine, what… your stalking them, whose responsibility is it?” he said.
“I don’t know. I mean, I am nothing if I am not their friend. I am nothing if I don’t try to help them.” I said.
“No. You are human. That is all. You are … here’s the thing: you are not responsible for anyone’s wellness or health or successes or failures but YOUR OWN. Do you get that? It’s hard because I know you come from a codependent place, but do you get that? I mean, on an intellectual level — not even cellular yet, which could take years. Do you get that?”
“So you’re saying,” I said, “that if I’m with someone who’s say, shoplifting and she doesn’t stop despite my telling her, that if she does it anyway and it doesn’t matter if she gets caught, that it’s not my responsibility?”
“Is it your hands on the item? Did you stuff it into her purse or under her jacket or in her pocket? Would you rather gesticulate and point at her from behind and mouth to the clerk, ‘SHE HAS A BLOW DRYER UNDER HER HOODIE!’ repeatedly? Do you make people drink ’til they pass out? Do you? would you think it would make sense to put a sign on the person that says, ‘PLEASE ARREST ME I AM DRUNK IN PUBLIC’? What, you gonna follow people around with a breathalyzer?” he challenged.
Doing my best Vinnie Barbarino impression, I said, “No. Of course not. I mean c’mon. So … ohhhhh. I’m getting it on an intellectual level, I am,” I said. then all of a sudden I switched to Arnold Horshack, “But what about my anger and disappointment? What about the guilt I feel for either being angry with those people for their continual actions or guilt for not having success with them?”
“Let it go. It was never yours to begin with; it is not yours to end with. The guilt – that’s Catholic. You all feel apologetic for everything and it’s a very bad habit. But it is a habit and habits can be changed,” he said.
. . .
I’m looking at this dialog and remembering it happening and feeling no small embarrassment because of how I thought about things then. I still feel some semblance of responsibility for things, but not so much. The guilt: that’s another thing altogether and I know that shedding it will be best. It’s hard. Is it a penchant for masochism? Is it still ego? “LOOK AT ME! I’M THE BEST AT FEELING RESPONSIBLE!” It must be still ego, right? And look how DANGEROUSLY close it is to (I just barfed in my mouth a little): Martyrdom. Ugh.
No, it’s ego. I’m gonna stick with ego for the moment. I am not a martyr because that’s yet another dangerously close cousin to (upchuck): victimhood. No.
There’s no other thing it could be. I mean, if I didn’t have guilt then I wouldn’t feel responsible and if I didn’t feel responsible then I’dve shed my ego, my “place” in the circumstance. Breaking this all down, as I type, has been very helpful.
Sometimes, no, all the time actually: things just ARE. People just ARE. They have their own ways of doing things. What works for them might not work for you — I mean, if you don’t wanna get stoned to “become creative” then, don’t. By all means: DON’T. But arguing with them or the fates for The Way Things Are, that’s not ours. And to be completely honest with you and myself: it’s a nice distraction isn’t it? It’s a nice distraction to concentrate on someone else’s flaws or predilections or how the weather turned or a tractor trailer jack-knifed on our way to the beach instead of turning the mirror on ourselves and a) letting it go, b) getting our ego out of the picture, no matter how painful and c) moving on.
I’ve been saying this for a long time: the best way to stay exactly how you are is to concentrate on someone else’s shit.
What we feel responsible and guilty about are very nice enablers to keep us from improving ourselves.
Thank you. Find more of me at www.mollyfield.com