Attachment to outcomes is never a good idea, yet in our culture we receive messages from all sides telling us we are absolutely, personally responsible for the success of every movement that we support. The messages quite often are formatted in an “if, then” way. “If our effort doesn’t succeed, then disaster looms and so each of you are responsible!” Nonsense. If a movement or a cause requires a group of people working to achieve it in order to succeed, then no one person can be responsible for the outcome – good or bad. Moreover, believing that we are personally responsible for the outcome increases our stress level, making us more prone to all manner of illness and disease, and decreasing our levels of happiness satisfaction, and well being.
What we can control is our effort. We can do our best, but then to remain well we must learn to let go of how everything works out. When we consider all of the factors that must fall into place we can see that no one person is the fulcrum on which the success of the project rests. Believing that we are is a bit narcissistic, to be honest. Ask yourself, “am I really that powerful?” If you examine the situation closely, you will see that you aren’t (none of us are) and that blaming ourselves is factually inaccurate. When we hear someone say, “only I can fix this,” what we are hearing is the overreach of the narcissist. What is around the corner is that same person blaming everyone else for their failure to deliver on their messianic promises.
In these days of pandemic and isolation, what we can control are the choices each of us make on a daily basis to wear a mask, practice social distancing, avoid large gatherings, and to recognize that our actions do impact others. What none of us, even the best scientists, can do is cure this virus by ourselves or hasten the arrival of the end of the pandemic. All natural phenomena must run their course. In the middle of January we may wish we could hasten the arrival of summer, but winter must run its course. No one accuses another of personal failure for their inability to cause the seasons to change more quickly. Don’t let anyone succeed in making you feel responsible for what you cannot control.
I suspect there are more of us out there than we might expect who grew up with parents who had one level or another of preoccupation with what the neighbors might think. There are any number of reasons that happens. None of them are legitimate. Whatever the real reason for neighborly preoccupation was – narcissism, competitiveness, or a convenient way to control the kids – I can assure you that the neighbors really had no healthy reason to be concerned with what you and your family were up to. You didn’t know that, however, and despite the fact that you know that now you still probably have lingering corners of your mind where that message hides.
The key to the freedom we all deserve as adults is to stop caring what other people think. Part of getting to that point may be realizing that nobody is watching, anyway. As kids it was reasonable to think that others were watching us, even if it was only the crabby old guy down the street waiting for us to step on his lawn so he could jump out and start yelling at us. We are adults now, and the old guy is long dead. Nobody is going to scream at us about stepping on their lawn, and even if they do we can handle it. Unless we are sacrificing virgins in the backyard or sword fighting naked with the boys from the golf club, nobody cares.
If you catch yourself with that old feeling of disapproval, I have found the best practice is to refuse to yield to it. If you want to practice your tuba in the front yard but hesitate because you worry about what people think, blow anyway. If you want to go jogging with your shirt off but worry that your belly looks like claymation animation singing the alphabet song, jog anyway. If you want to tell your beads on the front porch but worry someone might think you are a member of the religious secret police, pray anyway. Each time you do it anyway, it will get easier. I promise.
Did you ever wonder why some religious folks just can’t seem to take a step away from some of the most repugnant beliefs of their otherwise quite lovely and compassionate faith? Mind you, I don’t have an answer to my own question, I was hoping you might.
Recently I was listening to an audio book by a lovely man of great charity and compassion who has done incredible good for disadvantaged people. Everything about the program to which I was listening was beautiful and moving – and then he said it. My personal deal breaker is when someone writes or says some version of “thank goodness God tortured God’s only son because God was surprised and pissed off that the very people God created aren’t perfect, and because God isn’t very creative or very bright couldn’t see any way out of this massive angry outburst (like, maybe, forgiveness) and so tortured that same son to death to slake his rage-filled fit and to show us what love is.” Sure enough, in the audio program I had been enjoying the deal breaker eventually arose and I had to shut it off.
Ideas like this one don’t even make any sense, and the fact that I could explain to you how such ideas arise, why they become popular, and why people are afraid to let them go doesn’t change the fact that I am mystified how any reasonably intelligent person would insist on hanging on to them. Much like hitting your own knee with a hammer and then deciding to stop, letting these beliefs go brings tremendous relief. It would seem that people get more pleasure out of hanging on to a misguided notion of “how things have always been” than they do from having their beliefs make sense – which makes no sense at all!
Are there similar things that leave you mystified?
I have resumed the practice of spiritual reading each morning and mixed things up a bit by resisting my nature and waking up early to do it. Over the past several weeks, I have noticed the sunrise moving later in my practice. I now wake in complete darkness rather than with the first glow struggling to break over the horizon, the beak of a chick struggling to break through its shell and greet its first day. By the time I finish, the sun is risen, but before long I will begin and finish before dawn even ponders peeking out at me.
You might think I would find that thought depressing, but quite the opposite. Having spent my life in colder climates, the onset of autumn and the winter that follows is a reassuring reminder that rest follows exertion and renewal follow rest. Everything in nature works that way, yet humans want to believe we are special, not subject to the laws of life.
How foolish we can be! How much worry, hand wringing, and poor behavior at deaths and funerals that brings about! How can we imagine that we are any different than leaves preparing to let go, their tree resting confidently in faith that new buds wait around the corner?
As a people, we love looking back, but looking back is a mixed bag. The elderly love to reminisce, as I learned when I worked in long-term care. You cannot turn around in a long-term care facility without seeing a copy of a magazine dedicated to reminiscing! I have wondered if there is a hidden, archetypal truth in that folks with dementia tend to forget in reverse – the newer things first and the oldest things last.
As a trauma survivor, I have a problem in that trauma impacts memory. In layman’s terms, trauma is a terrible file clerk. Our trauma impacted brain essentially misfiles memories to make room for coping with the crisis at hand. Unless and until we address the impact of our trauma, it will seem to us that we don’t remember much about our past because our memories are hidden in the wrong file cabinet. As we go through the work of therapy, our memories gradually return because we have hired a new file clerk to sort through the tangled mess left by the trauma clerk. I know this to be true because I have experienced it.
For some of us, however, our memories and the past they represent become a prison. The door to our cell is unlocked and we are free to walk out, but we keep pulling it closed. I believe this happens because it is much easier to see ourselves as the enraged, offended party whose life circumstances are outside our control. The problem is that perspective, while perhaps necessary for a time as we come to understand how we got in the situation in which we find ourselves, becomes a self-imposed prison that limits and eventually destroys us. Many of us have seen the angry, red-faced protester screaming for peace, unable to move past their anger at past injustices to effectively work for the peace they deeply desire.
If we are going to be the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhi suggested, we are going to have to surrender our obsession with the past. To do that, we have to give up all hope of the past ever being different than it was. We can, and should, clearly state what was wrong about the past so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past in the future, but we cannot continue to dwell in the past if we are going to have a future. To do so is to leave that ineffective file clerk in charge of the office and continue to repeat the same mistakes, all the while mystified as to why nothing changes! There is a word for that letting go of the past, that choosing not to spend all of our time seeking to change what cannot be changed and demanding reparations that will never be paid. That word is forgiveness.