compulsive fixing

Saving Laury

7:50 AM

A wise friend of mine once asked me, "You know you aren't Jesus, right?" It is, of course, telling that he even felt he had to ask the question.

There's nothing dysfunctional about comforting a friend, grieving with another human being over a terrible loss, or checking in with a loved one who is encountering challenges or stressors. That's what love looks like.

But compulsion and love aren't the same thing, and when there is an unreasonable amount of anxiety attached to the need to help, I might need to recognize a familiar pattern, and the potential fallout.

I'm pretty empathetic by nature, but I also I tend to get tangled up in compulsive "fixing," a dysfunctional, misplaced sense of responsibility to over-manage the lives of people I care about. It isn't that helpful.

Why do I throw words at situations I have no idea how to repair? And why on earth would I entertain the illusion that I have the power to save people from their personal struggles? It's hard to explain.

My compulsion can come from the general direction of compassion, but it can also be an unconscious attempt to alleviate my own anxiety by grabbing the wheel of someone else's car: save Laury by saving others. It's codependent and unintentionally insulting; this harmless little idea that I have the power to help presumes that the person engaged in the struggle is, in some way, helpless. It also negates the presence of a power greater than ourselves, God in us, enabled by our awareness, acceptance and surrender.

Being compulsive about trying to "help" or "fix" has been difficult for this girl to surrender. Lately, I have been reflecting on "Baby Jessica" McClure, a miracle story, and a cautionary tale for "fixers," like me.


In 1987, in Midland, Texas, an 18 month-old girl named Jessica McClure, later known as "Baby Jessica," fell down an 8-inch wide, 22-foot deep well in her aunt's backyard. While reporters and the local rescue community along with friends and family camped in the area, the entire nation sat glued to the story on CNN for 58 hours as rescue professionals did what they had to do to access the injured toddler. I remember being initially elated when Baby Jessica was heard from deep inside the hole, even if it tormented me to hear her rescuers describe her moaning and intermittently singing Winnie the Pooh.

The depth of the well, the rocky soil surrounding the well, and the width of the hole created a challenge for the rescuers. As observers, we couldn't bear to imagine what might become of this helpless little girl while the team of brave and intelligent men and women problem-solved, risking potential failure.

"Because she had fallen so deep into the earth -- beneath layers of rock harder than granite -- and because the diameter of the well was so narrow, the rescue mission was extraordinarily difficult. Using a large rat-hole rig, a machine normally used to plant telephone poles in the ground, rescue teams drilled a 30-inch wide, 29-foot deep hole parallel to the well. They then began the difficult process of drilling a horizontal tunnel between the two wells about two feet below where Baby Jessica was trapped." Biography, Baby Jessica

And America wept when Baby Jessica's exhausted and heroic team emerged with her, swaddled in white with her teeny arms caked in dirt.

Why am I telling this story?

For me, this is the dramatic and true image that serves me best when I have an impulse to "rescue."

No matter how empathetic I can be, and no matter how much I want to help someone who is struggling, there is always a possibility that my rescue attempts or suggestions might do more harm than good. I am not in that person's shoes, and I am not God; there's too much I don't know. I can make the mistake of projecting my experience onto someone else, guesstimating a diagnosis and prescription that entirely misses the location of the well into which that person has fallen. Or, worse than that, in my attempts to help, I could put undue pressure on the situation, compromising the existing structure of his or her "well."

Of course, I don't believe I should just walk away, any more than anyone would have suggested that those paramedics should have walked away from a crying toddler. So, what to do?

Clearly, there isn't an action plan that covers every situation, and I'm not an expert on trauma and suffering, but using the Baby Jessica story as a model, there are a couple of ideas I'm working with at the moment.

  • The whole nation was watching and praying for that little girl, and that's not a bad idea. I pray I can be a carrier of comfort, peace and healing, and that I won't trip over too many assumptions. I am also trying to remember that I want to be a vessel through which love can flow, not the captain of someone else's ship. 
  • McClure's family didn't try to pull the baby out on their own. They called for help. They built a team, and although family and friends remained present and alert, and they offered support, they didn't drive the rescue. 
  • Later, when an action plan was in place, and potential dangers to Jessica were considered and accounted for, the team dug a parallel hole; it enabled them to get as close as possible without causing more harm in order to observe her, to communicate with her, and to comfort her. 
I have neurotically reached for the wheel from the passenger seat, many times, nurturing the illusion that I can help, mostly because I can't stand it when someone I love is hurting. So I keep giving advise, benign comfort, and mostly, words.

Lots of words.

Our family members and dear friends who have found themselves in the throes of suffering won't always tell you the truth here, but listening to all of the words thrown at them in an attempt to make the visitor more comfortable in the presence of pain is exhausting and most of the time, it isn't the words that help. It's the listening. It's connection. It's love.

Author and teacher Parker J. Palmer, who has shared generously about suffering from debilitating depression more than once, offers this image of compassion in the presence of suffering.

"In the midst of my depression, I had a friend who took a different tack. Every afternoon at around four o'clock, he came to me, sat me in a chair, removed my shoes, and massaged my feet. He hardly said a word, but he was there, he was with me. He was a lifeline for me, a link to the human community and thus to my own humanity. He had no need to fix me. He knew the meaning of compassion."

Maintaining compassion and being present when someone is hurting may be the best medicine for our friends and loved ones who have to walk through tragedy, reconcile painful losses or bear the burden of looking for solutions to seemingly unsolvable situations. I'm hoping that I can make this transition, and that I will find the grace I need to help me to disengage from the compulsive need to fix. 


Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring, 1990, HarperCollins
Image: Baby Jessica, Newseum


awareness

Rudder Down

8:23 AM



These days, I’ll get my first cup of coffee (yes, there will be more), and cruise my phone while I drink it…then prayer and meditation. Often, unfortunately, I still manage to boomerang right back into mental stressing, massaging all of the potential possibilities for concern. I could teach a master class on worrying.

With that kind of stuff going on in your head, best to create a diversion.

My diversions of choice?

Putzing around the house doing mild cleaning; eating food I’m not hungry for, especially unhelpful sugary snacks; mostly, looking at my phone getting distracted by sound bites on Twitter or Instagram, or choosing an ocean of possibilities available on the TV through streaming.

I’m afraid to chart my day and see where my time goes. I have also been afraid that I can’t break the pattern. I’m streaming and viewing more than I’m living. That sounds dramatic. And it’s true.

I could blame it on the pandemic, but that’s an oversimplification; still, the pandemic has given me passive permission to fall full bore into this posture of, “whatever,” but I’ve been here before. It’s almost as if how I spend my time doesn’t matter. What to do?

First, as they say, admit there’s a problem.

Then, ask for help, and dream a little. What kind of life do I wish I could have?

I believe I can design a path, beginning with practicing regular awareness check-ins to assess how much time I’ve spent scrolling or staring. I can notice what gets in the way. (Avoidance, procrastination, doubt.) I can capture words of affirmation to recalibrate my expectations. And I can choose how I want to live my life and how I prefer to spend my time.

So, choose.

Although I know this isn’t an original idea I’m working with, it’s still helpful, so here’s a sort of template to shake myself out of the trance.

1. Awareness and acceptance.

“It looks like I’ve been sacrificing my day-so-far to the internet gods. Okay, I can’t get back what I’ve already given away, but I can accept where I’m at, and move forward.”

2. Consider small commitments with follow through.

“It’s fine that I’d like to decompress by watching an episode of Schitt’s Creek now, but I’m going to stop after one, and then get right back to investing in my values by working, cooking, exercising, organizing or writing.”

3: Make long-term, self directed changes.

“In order to be conscious about how I direct my time, my last activity of the day will be to assess where my time went throughout the day, and to make a constructive plan for the next one. No guilt, just take inventory.”

Finally, have a little faith!

Maybe, I got caught in the current again, but do I believe I can change what I’m doing with my life? Especially, if I am willing, and ask for help?

Yes, I do.

acceptance and radical self-love

When Asked How I Was Inspired by my Mother

8:37 PM

 



My mother raised me, well, all four of her girls, to make our beds, to be prompt for dinner, and to do our homework before we watched TV. She ran a tight ship.

While this probably doesn’t sound very remarkable, please consider the setting. My precious (late) mother was the wife of entertainer Pat Boone, and upon hearing or speaking that singular aspect of her resume, she has always been swift to add that she never expected, or even wanted, to be the wife of an entertainer. She had married a 19-year-old Tennessean who aspired to be an English teacher (ironically, the job that I have come to embrace). My mother worked passionately to nurture an environment for her daughters that would at least feel somewhat normal, and that’s what makes the household routine that she envisioned and acted out unique.

Bedtimes, bath times, trips to church and holiday traditions were by design predictable and comforting, and although I will never understand Mama’s need to clean the plastic placemat 10 minutes before I have finished my Teriyaki Chicken, her signature sense of order and discipline are present and appreciated in my home in Colorado, and in the Middle School classroom where these traits were not only valuable; they were essential.

The gift that Mama had for imagining any and all crises before they happened so that she would have every opportunity to prepare for any scenario is not really the quality that comes to my mind when I am asked about how I have been inspired in her presence. When I was asked how Shirley Boone has been an inspiration to me, the memory that invaded my mind took me back to my years as a freshman in college.

After decades of being parented with precision, having decisions made, for the most part, on my behalf, I was floundering at school, torn between the disciplines of my childhood, and the vast array of options available to an inexperienced 19-year-old girl, suddenly on her own in Malibu. I focused as well as I could on my studies, but the anxiety that came with school, along with the newly acquired pressure to self-realize, was formidable; I felt I was deconstructing before I had an idea of who I was, or wanted to be…feeling invisible, afraid and confused, my college experience made me question my previous, family-centered identity, offering no real alternative, at least, not fast enough for me to acclimate.

In this context, and for some reason I don’t exactly remember, I took up smoking.

Devastated that my college days were more frightening and uncomfortable than relaxed and festive, as I had anticipated, I remember calling Mama in tears, and she swiftly met me for lunch somewhere in Santa Monica. Waiting for lunch to arrive, I vividly remember thinking this might be hard on her, but I wanted to be authentic and have a real conversation, so I pulled out my Marlboro Lights, and in one swoop, I put one authoritatively in my mouth, and lit a match. My traditional Christian mother sighed, asked for God’s grace under her breath, smiled at me, and the conversation continued.

What makes this memory special enough to be the image of her presence in my life?

I guess it’s the fact that she didn’t lecture me…she didn’t remind me about how God might feel about it …she didn‘t even appeal to me as a mom who was, and is, very concerned about my well-being. (I was already very focused on my own stinging awareness of these salient points). In an intuitive moment, she recognized that our relationship had evolved, and she evolved with it. She loved me the way that I came to her: cocky and self-justified, vulnerable and yet, terribly, painfully afraid.

She sensed that I needed her to listen and care, without a lecture, and she morphed into a different kind of mother right before my eyes. She melted my resistance to being open with her, cementing a foundation for many, many similar talks that would follow over the years.

Decades later, when my 16-year-old son Michael left home suddenly and unannounced, cocky and self-justified, yet vulnerable and terribly afraid, and I had already exhausted myself, unsuccessfully attempting to dictate what he should do, and who he should be, I knew that it was my turn to adapt…to morph…and mercifully, our conversation continued.

When I picture my mother’s response upon reading this anecdote, I imagine the inner Shirley saying, “of ALL the moments we’ve shared in our lives together, couldn’t you have remembered anything else?”

Nevertheless, I am assured that my mother has come to know me not only as her daughter, but as a person.

She’ll understand.






the gifts are on the way

Radical Gratitude

9:00 AM

 


The practice of gratitude is radical.

I've been a bit stuck in a perception of gratitude as listing, literally writing things down in a list that might be in alignment with my preferences: I'm grateful for apples and the bounty of the harvest...I'm grateful for beauty, and the way it makes me feel. I'm grateful for whipped cream on pumpkin pie, and piles of fall leaves that children throw their bodies into giggling.

And I am grateful for all of these things. But is that all gratitude really is?

This image of fall leaves, sought-after by my husband and I as we drove to Estes Park and beyond for the express purpose of seeing fall colors, fills our hearts with awe and wonder. We could look at it and say, how lovely, this makes our hearts happy because it's beautiful. Taken one step further, though...I've allowed little feelings of apprehension to creep in when I look at fall colors. Winter's coming. The beauty of fall colors can only exist in the alchemy that's inevitable for deciduous trees: the shedding of leaves that are no longer able to do their job.

Letting go of things that no longer serve.
Yay....? Can I be grateful for that?

Can I only be grateful for the beauty of the colors without taking into account the source of the beauty? Maybe gratitude practiced, gratitude matured, involves the surrendering of these kinds of preferences.

Maybe gratitude, deepened and mature gratitude, comes from a process like this because, ultimately, what are preferences if not attachments?

In my contemplative prayer practice, at the moment I'm enamored with the word ALLOW. Something about that word reminds me that I'm not in control so many of the things going on around me. Like the coming of winter.

Mature gratitude doesn't prescribe its conditions. Contentment, true contentment, isn't dependent on preference.

Can I be as grateful for barren trees in the darkness of winter as I am for the burnt orange, deep burgundy, and melon-pink shades of fall? I want to be. I'm practicing.

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