Recently, two young friends, a man and a woman, asked two elders they knew to mediate a long-running conflict between them, and I was one of the elders. We “witnesses” set some basic rules about respect and careful listening for all four of us, and agreed to intervene only when we had significant questions for either of them. We reminded each other of the higher purpose of this discussion, lit a candle, asked for guidance and then set them to it.
Each one stated the problem from his or her own point of view and then they went back and forth heatedly but peaceably, trying to be heard, trying not to blame, trying to come to clarity. It was not easy, and it went on long, but in the end there was respect, some understanding, and love.
For me it was an impressive, command performance and I was deeply moved. The evening ended not with complete resolution but with everyone in a new place of respect and mutual self-recognition, and the promise to continue working at it until they both felt seen and heard enough by the other to continue their friendship, a difficult but important one to each of them. I was heartened by what, to me, was a new way of handling the inevitable conflicts in our lives. If only I could practice this with a family member with whom I had ongoing misunderstandings and mutual resentments. So I took the opportunity of a birthday to write a letter suggesting we try and talk again, apologizing, forgiving and asking for forgiveness. This had been going on too long and needed clearing.
Well, silly me. Out came all the old anger and accusations, with me as the perpetual enemy and s/he the perpetual victim of my “insults,” every single one non-negotiable and recalled from years back in out-of-context and selective detail. There I was, again, hit square in the face with full blown paranoia and no recourse but to back off and go silent, heartbroken and stuck in the same old pattern. Sigh…
So here I am again, wondering about conflict and how our culture seems to foster blaming and victimizing; fighting enemies and needing to “win.” I am thinking about personal vendettas and gangs and wars and about the sickness of paranoia. Mostly, I wonder if it all comes from our shared need to be seen, heard and loved, and our fear that perhaps we are unlovable.
Taking the bull by the horns, I decided to spend the next four days quiet and alone, remembering everything I could about this decades-long problem and paying attention to what feelings each memory brought up. I wanted to follow my body, as well as my mind, feeling the feelings no matter how painful, listening to my heart and letting memories stream back to where the feelings led. It would be a “roots” journey back into family madness, I knew, and deep childhood pain I normally tried to avoid. But the time was now, and the incident had opened the door. I felt I had little choice but to walk through.
On the first day I was confronted with specific memories of outrageous accusations, insults that cut to the bone, discourtesies I experienced as punishment. I remembered finding a handmade gift from me crumpled on the Salvation Army pile; a doorbell unanswered when I arrived; a letter corrected and sent back. The imagined slights that, were this not a family member, I would have just walked away from. Remembering what it felt like to be accused unconscionably, and then not told, sometimes for years, what I had done wrong, I re-experienced the hurt and bewilderment, and just allowed the feelings to be there – noticing my own desires for vengeance, and my certainty of having been wronged. For a full day and night I felt the grief, the anger, the righteousness. I muttered about well-deserved retribution and kicked the walls.
But by the second day I had shriveled into a ball of self-doubt. S/he had my number. S/he was right and I was of course unconscious of all my self-perpetuated myths about myself. I was a phony, a pretend lovely person. Actually I was as self-absorbed and mean-spirited as they were, jealous and selfish. And I watched myself shamed, exposed and feeling like the lowly worm I knew I actually was. That was a hard day – but it only lasted a day.
By the end of an agonizing sleepless night a sense of balance prevailed again, and I saw my blind spots, immaturities and sometimes foolish exuberance in the larger context of the decent person I mostly am. Mistakes, sure, even big ones. Insensitivities, no doubt. Deliberate meanness and intent to harm – NO. But…never? NO! I do not think so. It’s just not in me. Like most of us, I am human and imperfect, but basically long to be seen and heard and loved like everyone else. No, I am not basically mean, and will not be told that I am. Period!
Enter the third day and night, and I begin to see my life in terms of my childhood, and the fact that I come from poor refugees from Eastern Europe who arrived crazed and desperate, many, like my mother, who never found her way back to sanity. A father who died before the age of 50, terrified and controlling and inept; a 300 pound aunt who ate to appease her hunger for affection; a grandmother paralyzed from the neck down stuck in an Institution for Incurables… The list goes on. I was raised surrounded by madness - of course I fear it and turn to jelly when it shows up as paranoid behavior in the next generations. Maybe that is why it is showing up again – so that I can look it square in the eye and feel all those old feelings in order to dispel them. That is today’s work. Finally.
All day and night I stay with the hard lump weighing my abdomen down, the nausea when I eat, the dark knot at the back of my neck, a heart heavy with grief. I let myself feel what I feel; I sob with frustration and pathos, just feeling, until sometime the next morning the feelings fade and I have more breath. I feel lighter. When I recall the one who has blamed me for badness, I feel no fire. Just simple sorrow. Clean sorrow. The pain s/he feels is a pain we share. We are in this boat together, and I even sense some gratitude for having been forced into the “snakepit” where I might work through some pretty gnarly emotions. I’m not sure I want to rush over and declare love, but the charge is gone. S/he is simply trying to find a way through, as I am, but with a different history, a different character and a different set of quirks. Knowing s/he is fearful, I will send healing wishes from a distance. No, I won’t. That is presumptuous, and would be resented. So, nothing, just watch my breath and feelings. I am making some progress here.
On the fourth day of my vigil, I wait in the morning for an image, and impulse. For a long time there is nothing, and then I feel the whole horror of genocide – insanity of whole populations. Fear and violence and poverty and environmental wreckage wrought by humans to the earth and other humans. Madness compounded and unstoppable. What can I do? How do I fix it, change it? Even in my own life, my own family, I am helpless.
And then it comes, and my body unbidden bows to the madness. In quiet and sorrow, I bow for a long time, and then I turn away from it. I have my life to live and my work to do. I am committed to bringing beauty to the world in every way I can, and that is what deserves my energy, my attention and my time. I bow to the insanity and the harmfulness and the paranoia, and I send it my blessings for comfort and care. I wish it well and wish all beings well.
I give my blessings, but not my life.
I give my love, but not my sacrifice.
May it be so. By midnight tonight, my four-day vigil is over. May all beings find peace.