How we react to certain events, situations and people can be a source of great difficulty for us all and at the same time our reactions can be our greatest teachers. The postings this week are an exploration of some hidden factors that lie at the heart of our reactions. I hope you find them useful and if you do please pass them along.
Reactions – The Underlying Dynamics
Tue 19th Sept – The Regression Factor
Joan is a medical doctor who often works in Accident and Emergency. She is strong and assertive and takes no prisoners when working with obstreperous, and often intoxicated, patients. Every day she works at the coalface of human suffering, facing life and death situations. Yet the one thing that throws her into an emotional tailspin is when her daughter, who is at university, fails to answer or return her phone calls. This is when she loses her composure and begins to feel quite inadequate and even doubts her competence. ‘Unavailability’ is her trigger and causes her to regress to her childhood where her father travelled a lot and her mother was emotionally unavailable. Basically, she, more or less, raised herself and learned to be quite self-reliant. In reaction mode there is always a regression factor where I am not my present age and I am re-enacting an old scenario, with all of its difficult emotions, but on the stage of my present reality.
Wed 20th Sept – The Lens Factor
In reaction mode, as mentioned yesterday, we regress to an earlier emotional age, like a default position, and so we are now looking at the world of adult reality through an entirely different lens. This has the effect of distorting everything we see, and we may find ourselves speaking and acting, out of how we feel at that time. From another’s perspective what we are saying won’t make sense and may seem to be quite irrational. Our speech may even have a childish quality. Any attempt to persuade that person to be reasonable is doomed to failure. The way we might behave will appear ‘over the top’ and even disrespectful and cruel. This is because we are not in our ‘right’ or normal mind and the intensity of our emotions belong to another time. Unfortunately, living in reactive mode is almost the norm for some, and learning to spot the difference between when I am ‘normal’ and when I am not, can take time and diligence.
Thurs 21st Sept – The Cruelty Factor
Pat and Mildred were a couple who loved each other but it was a mystery to everyone how they had remained together through the years. Even in public they could tear strips off each other and say things that were cruel and disrespectful. Both had come into their marriage carrying lots of baggage from childhood. Mildred had big issues in relation to her Dad, having walked out when she was seven, and her husband had lived with a mother who was very controlling. Needless to say, very early into the marriage, both suitcases were opened and they became first class reactors. He was now Dad and she was Mum and so the sparks began to fly. All the pent up, unexpressed emotions from two troubled childhoods came to the fore, but this time in an environment where the love they shared provided a relatively safe containment. The cruelty and verbal abuse were often shocking and only made sense when it was pointed out to them that in effect, when it was happening, they had not yet even met, emotionally they were still children, trying to resolve issues with their parents.
Fri 22nd Sept – The Blame Factor
In the two examples outlined earlier all parties were involved in the blame game. It’s always so much easier to fix the blame rather than the problem. Blame is where we see the other person as the problem and hold them responsible. Joan, whose trigger was unavailability, tended to blame her husband for not being there for her, while in fact she was less available, and worked far longer hours than she did. Pat blamed Mildred for being controlling and she equally blamed him for her childhood misery. Why is blame so often our default position? Blame is a distraction from ourselves and places the problem out there. So, it is a form of numbing out and evading our painful feelings. We blame in order to make ourselves feel better or more correctly to feel less. It doesn’t make the problem go away, but it offers a way of diverting it away from ourselves, at least for a while.
Sat 23rd Sept – The Blindness Factor
When we find ourselves reacting to a particular situation or event there is always a blindness factor where we are looking at the situation not as it is but as we are. Yet we foolishly believe, usually with emotional intensity, that the way we see what’s happening is the only way there is to see it and fail to recognise that someone else may see it entirely different. I walk into a bar and see a friend talking to a colleague and looking in my direction. I wave but there is no response and I immediately react by feeling ignored and convinced of him not wanting to see me. If I can get over my huff and discuss the incident with someone else, a host of other possibilities emerge that had nothing to do with me. Next time I meet and bring up seeing him at the bar he looks at me vacantly and then remembers being in shock having just being told of a friend’s separation.
Sun 24th Sept – Using Our Talents
Reflecting on the message in the Parable of the Talents, I think that it is really about being prepared to take risks with the game of life and accepting that we are going to make mistakes and not always get it right along the way.
It’s the story of a man who entrusts his property to his servants while he is abroad. He is an enterprising employer who hopes that his own flair and daring in business matters will be reflected in his servant’s attitude to this new challenge. He doesn’t tell them what to do with the talents; he trusts them to use their own initiative and imagination. As with most stories and jokes where there are three characters, our attention is focused on number three. He is the one who refuses to involve himself in the spirit of the enterprise. He believes that the safest way to handle his talent is to bury it and return it intact to his master. In reality, he is allowing fear to rule his life rather than faith. He ends up wasting his God-given potential which is one of the greatest sadnesses there can be in life.
Very few of us would see ourselves in the five talent category or even the two but very likely we would class ourselves with just one, something to offer that is quite unique. It is to us that the parable is addressed. When we look around and see someone with something that we have but perhaps even more we feel threatened and insecure. So, the temptation is always to dig a hole in the ground and bury the one gift that we have. We then fill in the hole with layers, not of clay, but with shovelfuls of resentment and a good pile of anger at what we perceive to be an injustice. Then we find a few barrowfuls of envy where we compare ourselves with the ones who seem better off than we are. Finally, we cover in the hole with a few loads of self-justification for how we feel well mixed with self-pity.
Listening to people who are dying, usually their greatest regret in not the things they have done wrong and the risks they have taken but the life they haven’t lived. It’s the unlived life that comes back to haunt us. It’s the hole he or she has dug out of fear and the opportunities that have been wasted that become a problem when the light begins to fade. I knew of a lady a few years back who would fight with her toenails. Even with her closest friends she had serious rows and rarely made any attempt to make up. It took a serious cancer diagnosis to wake her up to the holes she had dug and the life she was wasting. Unfortunately for her it was too late. Death was deaf to her cries to have a few more years and a chance to make up for so many lost years and she died within months.
When a child has learned to walk do we ever think of all the stumbles that they once made in the process. The person who always plays it safe is like the child who has never learned to walk out of fear of the falls they will inevitably make in the process. Playing it safe is not what the game of life is all about.
The deeper message of the parable is that if five can become ten and two can become four then also one can become two and two can become four and four can become eight and so on. And so, there’s the truth that to the one who has will be given more while from the one who has little even what they have will be taken away. Initially it sounds like a divine injustice but viewed in the light of using what we have been given to the best of our ability it makes perfect sense. If we don’t use it, we lose it. The important thing is that we don’t dig holes but that we make the most of what we have, be it little or large. Life may be a risk but not playing the game is a much greater risk.
Mon 25th Sept – The Breakdown/Breakthrough Factor
Our reactions are always invitations in disguise to come to a new level of awareness and integration. Our default position in a reaction is always a pocket of unlived life; a well of unexpressed emotion and a part of my psyche that is, as yet, not integrated into the whole. In my reactive mode this part assumes a life of its own and acts like a child who, in not feeling loved, seeks attention by being unruly and disruptive. Reactions are always painful re-enactments of those parts of us that do not yet have a sense of belonging. Learning to recognise and love those neglected, rejected and dejected parts of ourselves is the secret of turning what may feel like a breakdown into a breakthrough and coming to a new sense of wholeness.
Parochial House Our Lady’s Island