Water Fills The Space It Finds Itself In


Water fills the space it finds itself in.

 

When I recently found myself in an uncomfortable situation where I felt attacked, I was, at first, drawn into anger, in many of the dimensions of that old and familiar emotion. Anger seems the first place I go, when a situation spins out of order and sense. My “buttons” get pushed and I am dragged off in the direction of my reptilian, crisis oriented brain.

The dark clouds of raw, untamed, uncivilized emotions and untempered responses obscure my usual cheery, gentile approach to the daily challenges of life. It is a quick journey to the Dark Side.

I want to just throw my thunderbolts, and shoot endless rounds of arrows into my foe, throwing my weight around and relentlessly wage my own private war.

Old fears show up, ghosts of anxieties past, spurred on by familiar inadequacies, the voices of old and powerful critics, and the scars of self doubts.

My rational, more civilized mind, just sits there, paralyzed by all the sabre rattling, until I can take some deep breaths. I’ll need to allow myself to listen to my frontal lobes, home of reason, logic, and good memories of my prior successes in peace making and problem solving.

Slowly, thoughts of how I am a good problem solver come to mind. I can entertain the idea that challenges in my life don’t need me inputting launch codes into my own arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

I am capable, I remind myself. And, my many talents at peace making and problem solving can be applied to the problem at hand.

I realize I haven’t faced this particular problem in the past, but I have worked through things and lived to tell the tale.

I just need to apply those hard-earned skills into this new challenge.

Filling the challenge with my own unique abilities is what is needed. I need to be adaptable, flexible, and, yes, methodical. The reptilian reaction of anger, rage, and war-making won’t work, and will only lay waste to relationships and problem solving.

Change and crisis, and that initial response of anger, spiced with overpowering feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy, failure, rejection, jealousy, and revenge, all stirred up, makes for a toxic cocktail.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’m addicted to that gut-wrenching response, and those stress chemicals are my own kind of heroin. Or, am I just a human being, hardwired to be the cranky alligator awakened from his nap.

Yet, when I can pull myself away from all that, and let my gut unclench, I can see the forest for the trees, and I can adapt my problem solving skills, and get to work.

I pour myself into the shape of the problem, like water in an ice filled glass, and fill in the spaces with my skills. Once I take this approach, and take off my armor and lay down my sword, and pick up my peacemaker tools, the solutions show up, and I can move ahead.

“Let it go,” I tell myself, pushing away the hot coals of rage and anger. “Give it time and this will play itself out.”

When I slow down the war talk, and take my time in walking through the battleground, I do better, and I start even liking myself. I begin to believe that this too shall pass, and I don’t need to start World War III. Later, that seems a simple truth. But, in my first response, I just don’t see it. I’m only the ‘gator in the swamp.

Life does that, giving us opportunities to revisit a lesson, and dust off some old tools. Again, I relearn the lesson and realize that not every affront and perceived insult calls for my reptilian warrior mode.

“It’s just life,” I remind myself. “I’ll get through it, and move on.”

I can deal with this, and do that work well.

I come to that, eventually, after I remind myself that I am like water, able to fill the space I find myself in.

 

–Neal Lemery, August 8, 2017

 

Spare the Rod, Save the Child


Someone recently commented on how they felt children should be disciplined and raised, saying that a good swat on the butt was a good thing, and that “discipline” helped their child learn right from wrong.

“If you spare the rod, you spoil the child.” That’s old thinking, and I’ve seen the harm and the failures in that view of parenting.

I spoke up, disagreeing, expressing my opinion that violence teaches violence, that physical punishment demeans a child and fuels their anger. Instead of building up a child, violence in any form sends a message that they are worth less than others, and that the answer to a situation is pain, tears, and degrading another person. Words are weapons and you are successful when you conquer your enemy on the battlefield.

Parenting is tough work, and requires a wide range of skills and approaches, especially when the child learns more from what you do than what you say. And, yet, the method we fall back on, the one that comes first to mind, is how I was raised, and how I was treated.

As a parent, I have always tried to be a good example, to be, as Gandhi said, the change you want to see in the world.

“How do I change behavior, how do I teach this child that there is another approach to how they are dealing with life?” I ask myself, when conflict arises, when a lesson needs to be taught, when change in behavior and thinking needs to occur.

If I spank, if I slap, if I use loud and demeaning words, then I only teach by bad example, and, later on, I will reap the harvest of shame, anger, and even rage. The family will suffer, and, so will the community. We will have another angry person, whose approach to problems and difficulties in life will be the path of violence, and being able to communicate only through a fist, or a string of mean, vicious words loaded with sarcasm and degradation.

Is that what kind of world we want for our kids, an atmosphere of put downs, power struggles, and pent up fury? Is that what we want to be remembered for as parents, the one who instilled fear, a sense of powerlessness and frustration, the one who struck the match to the bonfire of self loathing and blind rage?

Or, do we want to teach compassion, unconditional love, and a pathway of exploring one’s emotions, and celebrating our humanity? Do we want to teach effective problem solving, self love, and peace making in this world?

That dialogue stirred up some strong feelings, and several voices talked about their own violent and frustrating childhoods, and how they’ve struggled with forging a new direction, a new approach to how they raise kids, and how they deal with their own angers and frustrations.

In my parenting, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my own childhood, and the parenting methods of my family. And, I’ve hopefully learned a lot, and I’ve changed and grown. I’ve learned that real parenting is teaching by example, by modeling, and by a great deal of listening and empathy. I’ve learned to talk things through, to name the emotions that are flying around the room, and in the hearts of my kids. I’ve tried to value emotions and the struggles we all have in dealing with difficult situations and conflicted hearts.

I’ve also learned to throw away the paddle, and to not inflict pain. I’ve learned to curb my tongue, and not use the hurtful, warlike vocabulary that leads so quickly to tears, rage, and frustration, as well as a lifetime of self doubt, low self esteem, and a sense of being a failure as a human being.

I’ve learned to say I’m sorry, that I’m not perfect, and that I’m looking for a better way myself. I’ve learned to get my emotions out on the table, so that I can take a good look at them, and see myself in all my glory and all of my foibles and deficits. And then, when I’ve named all of that mess on the table, I can sort through it, and find my path towards the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of person I want my kids to be.

I want to change the world, and I know that happens one person at a time, beginning with me.

The Power of Listening


The Power of Listening

“Concern for others is the best form of self interest.”

—Desmond Tutu

I talk a lot. I’m pretty opinionated, and I usually have something to say.

Yet, this week, I learned, once again, the magic of being quiet, of listening to others, and just being there, so that they could say what was on their mind. In doing that, I learned a lot, about them, and also about myself.

I had lunch with a man I’ve known for quite a while. I don’t think we were friends, but now we are. He needed some help in his life, some advice, some direction. He needed a bit of my time.

We talked, or rather, he talked, and I asked a few questions along the way. He had quite the story to tell, and needed some direction. Not many people had been listening to him lately, and life had gotten out of hand. He was living in chaos and things that needed attention weren’t getting his focus. He was overwhelmed.

The more I listened, the more I realized he really needed some medical care. That wasn’t on his pretty long list of the crises and dilemmas in his life, but, the more I heard him talk, the more I realized that the solutions were to be found in him getting some medical help.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), he’d just been accepted into the Oregon Health Plan. For the first time in about fifteen years, he had health insurance, and didn’t need to rely on the emergency room as his only source of health care.

Up until this year, he hadn’t been able to afford to go to the emergency room, and so, when his thumb got cut pretty deep, he sewed it up himself. He showed me his thumb, and the decent job he did. I winced at the thought of his pain, and his determination, to take care of himself, no matter what he suffered.

He wanted me to wave my magic legal wand and solve his legal problems. Yet, the real issues were rooted in his health. If he could become healthy, and address his medical issues, then he could manage and resolve the things he said were troubling him. Soon, he’ll need a lawyer, but today, he needed a doctor.

I drove him to the health clinic and made an appointment. A few days later, we met there, again, and we filled out the long questionnaire about his medical history, and a survey on depression. Bingo, he self scored a 100% on the depression survey. I admired his honesty in answering all the questions with an open heart. It’s tough for anyone to be brutally honest with themselves when it comes to your health, and that challenge is doubled or tripled when it comes to looking in the mirror and saying the word “depression”.

We met with two amazing, compassionate staff members of the clinic. In a few minutes, they were doing tests, asking more questions, and engaging my friend in a frank and respectful conversation about his health. He could see the entire picture, and the collision in his life of genetics, diet, exercise, addictions, and the stress of his life.

We talked about remedies, and new choices to be made. More tests were scheduled, and a follow up visit was set, to check on how he’s doing on his depression medication, and to begin work on some of his other long term problems. They offered him hope and professional competence. More importantly, they offered him respect.

It was a hard day for him, hard to show up for the appointment, hard to have a real conversation about the realities of his life, and hard for him to accept the help he’s needed. Everyone in the room was concerned about him, him as a person, as a human being. There wasn’t a word of judgment, a word of criticism of his choices and the way he’s chosen to self medicate.

At last, he could get the medical care he needed, and to gain the tools he needs to move on with his life, and regain his health.

Our country is having a big discussion about medical insurance and health care. A lot of folks grump about the costs of medical care, and the pros and cons of subsidized health insurance for people in poverty, and the working poor. I’m overwhelmed with all the statistics, plans, and arguments on all sides of the discussion.

All that quickly gets intellectually confusing, with lots of rhetoric and politics, and, I suspect, a lot of propaganda. There’s money to be made, and lots of self interest, and self serving posturing going on.

Yet, for all that talk, I sat with my friend, seeing him get first class health care, seeing him get the services he’s needed, and to be able to work on restoring his health. Soon, he’ll be able to work, he’ll be able to get out of bed and feel good about himself, and to be the kind of father he needs to be to his kids, and be an active, healthy member of the community. If there’s a price for that, I think we’d all think that would be a pretty good investment, especially if you could see the tears of relief and validation that flowed down his cheek, as we sat in that exam room, and he realized he’s on the road to getting well, and he had hope for his life.

The next day, I visited a young man in prison. He’s asked that I come visit him, to mentor him a bit, and have some conversation. I’ve admired his art work, and some of my other buddies out at the prison thought it would be a good idea if I came to see him.

I brought some coffee and doughnuts, not sure what he would like to enjoy, as we got to know each other.

“You could have brought anything,” he said. “I haven’t had a visit in a year and a half, so, …anything’s fine with me.”

He gets out next year, and is working hard on the work crew, earning a bit of money so he’ll be able to find a place to live, and get settled into adult life. After seven years, it will be a big change, and he’s ready to make a fresh start in life.

He had a lot to say, once I asked him a few questions. I shut my mouth, and gave him the space to talk. His family only came once a year to visit, and now that they’ve got some serious health problems, they haven’t been able to see him for a year and a half.

He sees his younger brother going down the wrong path, and wants to be there for him, to help him turn the corner, and live a decent life. My buddy knows the drug and alcohol road, and the road of anger and not having a healthy father as a role model in his life. He’s done his work behind those walls, and is walking on the straight and narrow path now. And, he’s not afraid to share his wisdom.

I heard him tell the sad tales of his life, the struggles of his mom, raising kids on not much money but a whole lot of love. I heard him speak about his anger about his stepdad, and the hunger he’s had for some good role models, and some direction in his life. I heard him speak about the fights he’s started, and how being a gang member addressed his hunger in his life, until he realized that punching someone out and being angry at the world wasn’t doing much for himself. He wasn’t being the person he wanted to be, and he needed to change.

He showed me the violin his grandfather sent, and he grinned as he told me how he’s learning to play it, and how it gives him a voice for all that he feels in his heart, about who he was and who he is now, and where he wants to go.

He wanted to hear a little bit about me, who I am, what my life is like. And, sometime soon, we’ll have that conversation. But, yesterday was his turn, his opportunity to speak his mind, and tell his story. He needed someone to just listen, to take the time for him, to let him be the focus of a conversation for once.

His story is a sad story, but also a story about courage, and determination, and the power of a person to reach down deep inside of themselves, and realize that they need to make a change. It was a story of reaching out, of finding some resources, of seeing hope when you are at the very bottom of your life, and of deciding to climb out of that hole, and to move on, to seek the destiny of your precious, wonderful life.

These two men, these two encounters this week, are teaching me a lot about courage, and determination. They are teaching me that there is hope in this country for men deciding to summon their courage from deep inside of themselves, to face what they need to face, and then to step out, to move on, and change their lives.

—Neal Lemery, March 9, 2014

Soul Killing and Redemption


Soul Killing and Redemption

When you see your mom yelled at and beaten up by the man she loves, when you’re four years old, what do you do?

When you realize that your dad was never, ever around for you, and isn’t in your life, what do you do? Now, at 22, you hear he wants to see you, but in your heart, you figure he hasn’t been around for your whole life, so why start now? The care and the love just hasn’t been there, not when you’ve needed it. Why make the effort?

When you are standing in the yard when you’re five, and you see a guy with a knife, chased by a cop, and you watch them fight, and you see the knife, and then the gun, and then the blood, what do you do?

When your sister dies when you are four, and no one can tell you why, what do you do?

When your mom’s boyfriend yells at you and beats you up, and throws you out of the house when you’re’ seven, and then you start setting fires around town, what do you do?

When the people at school think you are a bad boy and don’t fit in and therefore stupid, you must need to be in a special needs program. Just because you already know all the answers in class and are bored to death, and you don’t like to sit still and you yell when you get angry, because that is how your family does it, and you don’t think anyone cares about you, because of everything you are inside, what do you do?

When you are fourteen, and the best thing to do is to hitchhike a thousand miles and come back in a few weeks, and people decide you need to go to detention and sit in a cell for a month, what do you do? Is “runaway” such a bad thing to be, after all that?

When the only man in the family is a drunk and has been in prison, and there’s no other guy around who even talks to you, what do you do?

When childhood and adolescence is a long list of institutions and court appearances and a long road of counselors and programs and treatments, and that is just what life is, now, what do you do?

When you’re nineteen, and you beat up a prison guard, and you find yourself in a ten foot cell in the penitentiary for six months, what do you do?

When the rage and the anger burn deep inside of you, and then someone calls you a dumb Indian, AGAIN, what do you do?

When all the “bad” labels someone can try to pin on you have all been slapped on you, your whole life, and you’ve had about all you can take, what do you do? And, then, you also know that you’ve been treated like all your family and your people have been treated for the last two hundred and fifty years, and not much has gotten any better, what do you do?

And, when you read a book by Sherman Alexie and the story of the boy on the Rez is also your story, and the rage and anger and love and beauty of that boy is also your story and your life, and that you are not alone in all of this, what do you do?

When you can take a few scraps of leather, and make it into a beautiful work of art, or when you write and then sing a beautiful song, deep from within your own precious, sweet soul, and you know you really are a wondrous child of God, what do you do, inside these walls?

When all this churns and simmers inside of you, and so many voices keep telling you that you’re stupid, and poor, and a criminal and won’t ever amount to anything, that no one comes right out and says that they love you, and the world keeps locking you up, in so many ways, and all you want to do is run through the woods, and feel the sun on your face, and be one with God, what do you do?

When you are close to getting paroled and you get accepted into a halfway house that you actually think is a good place, and then the date you get out keeps getting moved around, and now you don’t know for sure if you get out this week, or next month, or maybe in a few months, or ???, and no one seems to care enough to answer your questions about that, what do you do?

And, we wonder why some guys don’t do very well once they get out of prison, why they can’t seem to adjust very well to life “on the outside”, and follow all the rules, and don’t use drugs and alcohol and don’t get into fights. And, then, when they become husbands and fathers, we wonder why there might be some “issues” at home about life and relationships and parenting and being good citizens.

But, we should be “tough on crime” and “put away the bad guys”, and then we will have a peaceful and safe society, just because we put a higher percentage of our population in prison than any other country in the world. Is that what defines this country?

As Dr. Phil might ask, “How’s that working for you?”

And we spend all this money, and time, and people’s care and concern for young people in prison, and give lip service to “rehabilitation” and “crime prevention”, when maybe we should look back a bit in time, to when kids first come into this world. And we know they are looking to have a mom and a dad, and live in a quiet and safe and “normal” home, and love to go to school, have good friends, and do wonderful, loving things in their lives.

And, when none of this happens, and instead life is filled with rage and the distractions of a crazy and lonely society, self medication and self deprecation, and not having a place in this world to grow and put down your roots and feel cherished, and then, if you don’t fit in, we lock you up and institutionalize you, and reinforce criminal thinking, we wonder why you don’t do better?

We know what works. We know, now, how the brain grows and learns about relationships and how love, the right kind of love, waters and nourishes young souls, and how the wrong kind of relationship is a poison, not just for the community, but for every precious soul in this life.

We know that all this good work takes time, it takes love, and it takes compassion.

And, not that our schools and prisons aren’t staffed with kind and committed people, who toil in these fields day after day, dealing with the toughest and most challenging situations and personalities. And, not everyone can be “saved”. Yet, they don’t give up.

We can’t give up. We can take the time, and we can make the commitment, maybe just with one person. Have that conversation, make that connection, get a bit involved in their life. Listen, and then listen again. Listen with your heart, with your humanity, and not with the expectations, and biases, and the vantage point of someone who hasn’t lived how they have lived.

Transform a life. You may think that young person you listen to will learn from you, and, by listening and caring about them, their lives will change. And, perhaps that is true. What will really change, though, is your life. You will see things differently, and you will understand who you are, and what you are all about, and how to change the world.

Put an end to the soul killing. It kills all of us, slowly and surely.

–Neal Lemery April 29, 2013