Words for each other, where do we find them? How do we craft them? 

As a leader, and as a writer, and husband and father and friend, I’ve had no end of agony attempting to answer those questions in specific cases, especially involving conflict. It’s been hard to find the right words for the other person.

But it really matters, what we say and how we say it. 

Recently a fellow leader sent me an email expressing strong emotions and reactions concerning another leader. He asked if the content was okay and if the message should be sent. I  wrote back that the content was salient — it was actually right on the money —  but the emotion-laden conversation that needed to happen could not be handled by an email. It could only be well-handled face-to-face, with dialogue, with a back-and-forth. By the time the fellow leader got my response, however, he himself had decided not to send it.

Wise.

What we think, what is going on inside of us, what we want to communicate to others, it always needs time — like a finely prepared dessert —  to bake, cool, set, mingle flavors and receive the final drippings and toppings essential for good presentation and excellent consumption. Writing out our thoughts and feelings, not sending them, ruminating a while on content, living a little, editing, this produces the best product.  By taking our time we find words and feelings mingling wisely within; by waiting we find verbal toppings and relational dollops of tastiness to add to the our eventual expressions.

What are we saying?

When you feel strongly, pause wisely. What may not be heard with one set of words, may be heard with another. What polarizes in print may soften in dialogue. And what might be not heard at one time, by one person, may be heard at another time by another person. 

I just finished a novel. It’s a dysbiopian fantasy, but it unveils modern, relevant reality. We struggle to accept those different from ourselves.  I started wiring this novel for my children 35 years ago. Yesterday, as I added some final lines to the wrenching conflict at the end of the story, I was aware that the word I wrote would have been impossible for me to write years ago. I had not yet lived the  life experiences that extruded them out of me. My novel needed words, that needed time, to come into being. 

At the end of the novel one of the main characters — following a devastating conflict that uproots and destroys a whole community says, “Fear designed and built the first wall; love crafted the first door — and opened it.”

The antagonist to this point of view refutes this strongly saying, “No, different from each other crafted the first wall. It had to in order to survive! Love just made that fine wall higher — for protection. It’s the same as it has always been. Mind your own business, keep to your own kind, except when attacked, that’s the deal — period, exclamation point, done.”

The response? “No, that’s not right. There are no end stops here — not with this devastation in front of us — no simplistic formulae, no pithy morals for our paltry fable, no superheroes to protect us now, no perfect symbionts present, no borders that end all our disputes, no furious, final family fixes. Advocating that we open the door to each other is a simple gesture, a clumsy nod toward sane knowing, a small hopeful sun to shine over this disaster, something —  just perhaps something —  to help us blunder painfully forward to better times.”

If I had tried to write the closing dialogue between the main conflicting characters 35 years ago, I would not have come up with that. I think I would have come up with something much more more categorical, more judgmental, more arrogant, more moralistic than advocating opening a door to each other as a “clumsy nod toward knowing.” I was able to write that now because I know so much less now than I used to. 

Some words need to get knocked out of us, by life. Other words can only be knocked into us by experience. Time and patience, resulting in a bit of humility, craft our best speaches.

I just hope I can remember that the next time I get upset. 

I have stories — about animals. I have more than stories; I have realities shared with animals. I exist beside and within non-human entities. I have corporate, enmeshed-buddy realties and sensibilities with companion species.  

The animals and I are co-shaping each others lives because I choose this, and so do they. We, me, me and the animals are becoming something together. This is holy, Edenic, eucharistic.

My experience is not Derrida’s — the modern French philosopher and semiotician — with his famous cat, the mystery behind the cat looking back at him, the possibility of his own shame. It is my thought that the shame we humans feel, and the shame the animals may feel — is simply fear, turned inward. Shame is the fear of ones self, the fear of ones own fear, the fear of ones own perceived or real judgements of oneself, that have their roots in the postures and actions and stances of the other.   

But fear is demolished by respect.

Take Red for example. Red was a big, old, striped tomcat who I found when I was a young boy, I found him down by our barn, wandering around looking lost, and I carried him home. He hung off me, not afraid, not one bit. And at home, Red found me, and I hung off him, and he helped me make the kind of childhood I fondly remember: warm, soft, safe, befriended — and powered by a purr. Red and I lived with each other, fearless.  

Then there was Peaches, another of my safe-soft, sane-boyhood companion species, sitting in the living room with my family, licking my head from the back of the coach, a kind of perpetual mother, bearing babies in the closet, cleaning them and us, a long-living licker, and mentor, a teacher of what good within the good within the perfectly effectual good looks like. It doesn’t look like human exceptionalism, us taking a privileged and dominant role.  It looks like us living with the companion species who we love and respect. 

And there was Patches, my guard dog, my confidant when I was sad, my good playmate, until the adults decided she guarded my brothers and I too closely, and then she was gone — fear ruined it. And then there was Angelina, and Nina and Megan. Each one of these cats helped me raise our two girls. They helped sooth our family pain and calm our anxieties. They made us laugh, and they taught us that work could be play. Nina as a kitten, loved to jump on and ride on the broom and vacuum cleaner when we were using it. That super-affectionate, fear-nothing, animated little fuzz ball taught us to make fun out of what was already there. 

Then there is Megan, my current feline friend. The other morning I snapped her soft, felt whip toy at her. It landed on her head, draped off her ear and then fell to the floor in a rumpled heap. She put a paw on it. I pulled. She held. Then seeing that this stalemate was going nowhere, she let up, and we played the cat and felt game again. We were taking turns, taking control. 

At lunch time I went out and sat by my pond, but left the sliding patio door ajar. Megan popped through the door, gingerly crossed the grass, hopped up on the retaining wall where I was sitting and sat down beside me. I fed her part of my lunch. She was my lunch buddy. We were what postmodernist, feminist, scientist Donna Haraway has called “messmates in mortal play.” Check out Donna’s book, When Species Meet. Along this line, Paul Shepherd had a good book too, The Others: How Animals Made us Human, but he isn’t high on pets. I love the wild ones too, the rabbit born in my hedge, feeding from my front lawn, the doves drinking from my back yard pond, the lizards that run magically along my walls and fences, the microbes living in my stomach, helping me digest my food. 

It goes like that. Animals, companion species, the wild animals who live with us, we are beginning to understand them better, how much a part of us they are, of our health and happiness and meaningfulness. They are in us and we in them. As Haraway says, we are entwined with them; we are their semiotic partners. We are over-lapping enmities.

Megan sits on my lap every morning. We hang out, I pet her ears, she purrs, so do I. This feels to me as it was meant to be. 

In the evening she sits by her bowl waiting for dinner. I bring her food. In doing so I feel kind, provisional, a servant, her buddy.

Later she brings her soft, stuffed whale to me, calling all the way, drops it on the floor at my feet and looks up into my face. Maybe she thinks I’m hungry; certainly she has decided that she wants more interaction. 

I reach down. She has initiated. I respond. I put my finger tips in her soft fur, stroke her back and sides, run over her ears, rub the top of her nose just the way she likes it. 

Megan and I have taught each other things, things about play, eating, hanging out, being close, the value of it, the health in it. Her purr is my purr.  I think that God gave us the creatures to help us recover from the other humans. Megan and I have set up a multi-species collective. I don’t dominate her; she doesn’t dominate me. 

This is what it means to live well. It is to honor each other, to be kind, to be symbiotically kind and to form for ourselves and the other species that live with us respectful, loving biomes.

A trifle consoles us, for a trifle distresses us.

— Blaise Pascal

We’re fragile.

Trifles mess with us  — things break, people make remarks, inconveniences throw us into a fit, expectations arise, and we easily get caught up in negative mental loops.

Trifles toy with us, they torture us — comments, accidents, unfulfilled expectations, petty comparisons — and we are often ashamed of them, ashamed of losing our calm, ashamed of getting upset. And, of course, we also suffer shame from the significances that bother us — health issues, broken relationships, debt, jealousies, all manner of losses.

But under duress, I think we are too quick to tell ourselves, “This is not normal,” or “I shouldn’t be so upset,” or “I can’t believe this happened,” or “I can’t believe this is effecting me so much!”

I’m changing my views on us, on our reactions, our emotions, and I am developing an acute tolerance for upset, in myself, and in others.

We are fragile, but that’s good. We were made that way, for a reason.

To be fragile is also to be sensitive, attuned, aware, sentient — and those are not bad human traits. The opposite is to be hard, insensitive, out of touch, unaware, numb. But that doesn’t work, not for human beings, not for good relationships, not for anybody.

The way to maturity, the path to good relationships, the way to a healthy sense of self in a  frustrating world is to begin to understand our frailties, our sensitivities, our upsets, and  to listen to them, to listen to our bodies, to listen to our emotions, and to learn from them.

Recently, one of my daughters was jealous of the other. It came to tears. It was heartbreaking. We had to talk it out.

My response?

I told my daughters, “Jealousy is normal. I’ve been jealous. It’s painful, I know, but jealousy is a normal human emotion, something we all experience, and hide, and suffer over, and have shame over.”  Jealousy — it is that one piece of clothing that we all have in the closet and just can’t bring ourselves to wear out in public — or to throw away.

But jealousy, admitted, confessed, attended to, can teach us so much about ourselves. It can teach us that we are hungry for approval, and that we all want to star, be noticed, be attractive, succeed, be loved.

I’m learning — and trying to help my family learn — that we can talk about such things, things we may tend to hide, our feelings, our “trifles,” and we can process them, we can admit our hidden shame, and we can help each other by normalizing this stuff.

In fact, I don’t think we can do a better thing for those we love than to normalize them being human, to normalize them being fragile, to normalize our universal need for love and care for our bodies, our emotions and our sense of self.

Openness, acknowledgment or our humanity, acknowledgment of weakness  — that is good for the soul. It’s truth!

Pascal was correct. It actually only takes small doses of openness and acceptance to calm us. Mere minutes of openness, of transparency, of empathy, mere moments of talking and connecting can calm the many various and sundry squalls of the human spirit.

Do this: take seriously your inner emotional tides and waves — and other people’s too — no matter how small they may seem, or how shameful, and hear them, honor them, learn from them, and by doing so, recover from them too.

She couldn’t get out. It’s her problem with balance, and coordination. She’s a bit topplely — so I did, got out.

“What do you want on it?” I asked her, but I pretty much knew. I mean she’s my daughter.

And sure enough, while I was out, wandering the huge, towering, concrete ballpark corridors  looking for hotdogs, they smacked a homer. They always do that. When you aren’t looking, that is when it usually goes down — or up.

But on the way back in — stepping over a whole row of people watching the game — I felt like a really good dad, handing her a bunned, mustardy, catsupy, oniony hotdog. She happily woofed it down.

You feed your babies, even after they grow up, because they are still a part of you, as you are a part of them and as we are all a part of all of us.

Identity is plural. It’s multiple. It’s freakin’ co-developed. My daughter and I are inextricably bonded together. Feed her? I even share my gut bacteria with her. Research now shows us that communities of microorganisms found in the intestines of genetically related people are more similar than those of people not related.

In Ed Yong’s fascinating new book, I Contain Multitudes, he writes, “Every one of us is a zoo in our own right – a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.” He is talking about microbes. Apparently, about half of me and you, isn’t even human. We are microbial! We are thoroughly symbiotic. Going on, Yong concludes, “Perhaps it is less that I contain multitudes and more that I am multitudes. Microbes subvert our notions of individuality.”

I’m down with this. I’m dependent. We all are. My experiences are shared. All life is shared. I am not simply an individual. It happened when I wasn’t looking.

When I travel to Nicaragua a few years ago, a friend led the trip. I would have been lost without her. She arranged for the multiple planes, the panga boats to take us up the river, arranged for our hosts to prepare our dinners, provided the money for them to do that and set up the work for the community center we built. And by the way, I did pick up some new microbes in Nicaragua — and brought them home. Life is shared.

In a week, I will be going up to see my 91 year old dad — in Los Angeles — to take him to the doctor, to check on the strength of his broken leg. I see in him myself, and in him I see my future. He is me; I am him; we are living parallel lives; I am aging — just one step behind him. He is another of my guides — my gut family — blazing the way into the future.

I like it. I am not alone. We are not alone. It is actually impossible to be alone. Our family is always with us, needing us, inside of us, going before us, following us. My dad leads, I follow, my daughters follow me.

Here is an often ignored reality. We contain, create, shelter, remember, carry and shelter a multitude! I exist in a biome. Individuality — be subverted!

Hallelujah!

It is as God intended — that we all be one! We are in Him, and in each other, always guided, co-developing, always following, always leading, ever symbionts, ever dependents, the divine zoo, always caring for someone, always being cared for —  never alone!

I pushed back the overgrown hedge, chopped at the tangle of old growth, peered in and, “What’s that?”

It’s interesting isn’t it, how the past lurks and shuffles, and twines into the present?

Underneath the overgrown lantana and rampant morning glory hedge was a forgotten thing, planted years earlier, suppressed and neglected but still alive — a gorgeous purple-and-dark-green-leafed Japanese honeysuckle. Lovely! 

It was still there, underneath all those covering plants, its white and purple blooms hanging out of the back of the hedge like a girl’s slip. I’m glad I found it. Next week, I’ll dig it up and replant it below one of the new redwood trellis in the backyard. It will thrive in beauty there.

It’s so interesting. The past just keeps showing up, sometimes pretty and charming — like a lost vine — sometimes ugly, like a past, ruined relationship. 

I woke this morning slightly tormented by something someone hadn’t done for me recently, something I had expected would be done, something that would have been loving, appropriate, pro forma and also classy. 

I couldn’t shake it. 

It’s interesting how the past hangs on, like an old vine, planted in previous seasons. 

This morning i pulled up an old irrigation system in my yard, cut the soft black tubing into pieces and put it in the garbage bin. Previously, I had tired to patched it. That didn’t work — too many breaks and holes and old repairs. So I replaced the entire line. Much better. 

Sometimes it’s best to chop up the past, and toss it out, and start all over. 

I find this kind of sorting of the past to be a constant issue for me, to shed it, to toss it,  and build a new present, or to bring it with me, to bring my past with me and replant it  in a new place in the present. 

But the relationships of the past are not like the things of the past. They won’t be tossed,  like an old irrigation system. Our people remain with us. They won’t be tossed; they persistently remain.  

I have one particular past relationship that was ruined by jealousy and competition. I find that it won’t be fixed, and it won’t be tossed and I can’t forget it, the harm of it, the devastation.

I find that we are who we have known, and we are to some extent, what we have done with other people, and this can’t be undone, and so we bring them along with us wherever we go. Old water tubing can be dug out, and forgotten. Old relationships can’t.

But here is the thing. Every person we have ever known has mostly likely both added to and subtract from our our relational acumen, our relational knowledge. Some have harmed, some done good. But if we so choose, we can learn from each past relationship, learn what to do, or learn what not to do, ever again. 

We are our people, the people we have known, our enemies, our friends, our family, our acquaintances, our ghosts. We can  gain from the gains they brought to us, and we can gain from the losses they brought to us too. We can take even from what they took from us. 

And here is what I know. All things work together for good for those who take the past in their hands, who hold it gently to themselves and who love. For those who cover everything in love and in the forgiveness love brings us, for those who replant every thing in love, for those who in some way tend to and care for all their  Japanese honeysuckles, then there is redemption and love and God.

I could see around the next corner — there was a continuous line of cars and trucks and buses moving very slowly — rush hour traffic.

I logged in on my laptop; the numbers were still greyed out. The account hadn’t yet funded — money, the ever stressful issue of money.

I sat at the long, heavy, dark board room table and looked down the line of board members on both sides as we sat bemused by the the tension between paying our employees well and providing affordable services to the underserved — decisions, decisions and more decisions.

I sat in my chair looked him in square in the eyes; he was looking me square in the eyes, and I said, “When you are with people be present, put your phone away, listen, focus on them. This is going to be something you will want to work on.” It was an evaluation, an  employee evaluation, and with it went the stress of balancing affirmation and correction.

I am stressed. I have been for a long time. All of are. Being responsible is stressful. Not being responsible is stressful. Life is stressful.

What to do?

Recover. Take time to recover.

We all need to recognize that we all need to recover, to heal, to repair, emotionally, physically, spiritually from the labor and anxiety and stress of life.

To do this park. To heal we must park ourselves; we must park ourselves in safe, beautiful, quiet spaces and we must sit with ourselves, and honor our need for rest, our old donkey’s need for rumination, for chewing, for reflection, for aloneness, for recovery.

Yesterday, I did just that. I went to the park, and parked, and sat by the lily pond, and took in some the music from the cool, longhaired musician playing an electric guitar for tips, and walked over to the art museum and ogled the Bruegel they have there, “The Parable of the Sower.”  And I sat some more.

I am learning something. After years of hard driving and achieving and succeeding, I am learning to listen to my body, to respect my body, to let my body tell me —  the amped up, productive, hard-driving, anxious, image conscious me — to settle down, and rest. 

Here is the deal. In each of us, our mind, body, spirit, and emotions are all connected and for for us to heal one is to help to heal all. Current somatic therapy emphasizes listening to our selves better, paying attention to what our bodies need, paging attention to what our bodies are speaking, what our bones and muscles and nerves and skin is telling us is needed for life, for a truly good life.  

I need to do just that.

My body is talking, all the time. Often I have failed to listen. I tell others to be present and yet often I am not present to myself. I am hungry; I deny it. I am anxious; I ignore it. I am tired. I push on.

For years my body has been saying, “Rest. Please, rest me. Please, just sit with me. Please sit with me and listen to me. Please cloister yourself away, please hide away for a time from traffic, money, decisions, evaluations and stress, and sit in gratitude for what has been done, for what is, for who you are, for the gorgeous, spectacular simplicity of being.”

I have listened; I am learning to listen better now. I am sowing. I am living within the parable of the sower. I am sowing more tranquilly —  a more robust tranquility — within my own lovely, sacred, intimate, garden borders.

I am sitting more, doing nothing more, doing nothing but recovering — which is a big something — healing from life more in a large, safe, friendly, soft, warm pile of quiet self-awareness and gratitude.

 

This week I fell — for a few days — into a negative mental loop. 

Around and around I go; where I stop — I don’t know!  It was an up-and-down and circle back around — my crazy mind. It was a rocking and rolling emotional session based on what someone else either had or had not done.  It was about expectations. 

Great!

Wheeee! 

Fun! 

Not.

What to do?

I didn’t know what to do — even with all my personal experience with my own brand of mental chaos, even with all my seasoned and supposed wisdoms and emotional acumens — I couldn’t figure it out. 

I have always found that I am — to myself — the most difficult puzzle that exists. So it is for all of us.

I did some research. 

University of Oxford Professor, Mark Williams, teaches that we can move away from negative mental loops by paying attention to our direct sensory experiences. When we focus on what we see, hear and smell — in the everyday salient and the “Oh, so very” beautiful right-now! — we leave little room for obsessive, negative intrusions.

The “Coming To Our Senses” approach has the ability to calm-water our roiling minds. It can ground us in immediate, beautiful and grateful realities.

This morning I put one of my current favorite songs on YouTube and watched and listen to a worship band worship. The simple gorgeous piano chords, those lovely lead voices, that backgrounded rhythm guitar — so orderly, so positively patterned, so soothing, so pointed toward God.  In the moment, using my eyes and ears to experience beauty, I forgot the week’s negativity and trauma.

Better.

I am better — coming-to-my senses better.

This morning, I also called my daughter. She was on a walk with her Australian Shepherd. She texted me a picture of the dog resting for a moment in some of the first spring flowers of the season. We went together on a fun, quick internet search of the name of the wild flower. It was the Scilla siberica, a beautiful ground flower with bright blue petals and lovely green, spear-shaped leaves. As we searched — and trade texted pictures — I was lost in the moment, lost in the little flower, lost in the mental curiosity for life I share with my daughter, and I was at peace with the world. 

I came to my senses! 

One more thing. 

In my morning’s research I also ran across the work of Dr. Daniel Siegel.

Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, offers what he calls, the “Name It To Tame It” remedy for negativity. The idea is that when unhelpful thought patterns and emotions overcome us, we can respond by naming the narratives we are creating and thus rob them of their power. 

Cool! 

So this morning, I named my current mental zoo. I called it my “The Expectation Loop.”  Sometime, I overly expect people to care for me. And sometimes I expect a competence from others that simply isn’t there. And sometimes I fall into fear and anxiety about what others expect back from me. Wow! The Unrealistic Expectation Loop — that’s my beautiful mess. 

And so to apply Dr. Siegel’s work, this morning I name my kind of crazy. This week I have been suffering from the “Crazy-Making Expectation Loop.”  To tame it, I name it, and I work to free myself of it. I think it through. 

If I don’t express my expectations, then I can’t expect others to meet them. If I don’t let others express their expectations of me, then I can’t fulfill them. If I have unrealistic expectations — perhaps based on my own past unmet needs — I must recognize those, and not let the past trigger my present when what is happening right now is not the same as what happened before. 

Thanks, psychiatrists, professors, you mind-experts. You help me, get sane, or more sane. 

I’m still a puzzle to myself, but with help, I am gradually beginning to understand myself,  better, and I am — just perhaps — coming to my senses. 

The morning after, yup.

The party was awesome, the coolio-gentlio were present, and some really good food, and beverages, and fun conversations encased in the buzz and soft hum of people who really like each other.

The final service — pretty awesome too, the big crowd, friends young and old, the fun speech, the roars of laughter, the wiping of tears, the loving goodbyes.

It’s the morning after I retired now, and “How do you feel?”  they want to know. So do I.

Well, “Stunned” might be the most accurate descriptive. Even for socialites like me, there is a point of systems overload.

Also, “Grateful!”

Who gets a good ending? Not everybody, an ending you get to script, one where you leave at the top of your game, one in which you leave with a legacy — and loved, that the thing, loved!

It was a rescue and a rout, on both sides, with the divine writing the story and filling in the blanks, and ranks and bankity-bank-banks — also the transformio-ations far and wide.

The morning after?

I’m tired, that will pass quickly; stunned, that will go in a day or two; grateful — that will last the rest of my life.

“You have to have a label, to get services,” I said, looking my friend in the eyes and repeating a truism I had heard years ago.

But it is true.

My daughter got services when she got labeled —  seizure disorder, brain damage, disabled, slow.

Ouch!

Deep ouch!

But this is what we tend toward when things deviate from the norm. We tend toward simplistic labels — mental illness, addiction, autism, brain damage  — and we like the labels very much, because we can pin simplistic solutions on these simplistic labels and feel like we have done something.

But simple labels don’t always well represent complex realities, and labels may lead us to apply wrong, overly simplistic solutions.

“She’s autistic.”

“He’s an addict.”

“Cancer patients tend to …”

“The low functioning  … ”

“The sexually abused  …”

“Males  … ”

“Latinos  …”

Really?

It’s that simple?

Really?

Broad labels, one-word simplifications of reality have resulted in some of the worst human behaviors on earth — racism, genderism, overly heroic and invasive medical treatment, neglect, fear, violence   — which ironically are themselves overly simplistic labels.

Take the autistic thing. It’s not simple. We refer to a person being on the autistic spectrum, thus admitting that there is a range, that there are differences within the label, within the diagnosis. But reality is much more complicated than even the ranging, reaching, inclusive idea of a spectrum.

I know a person who has been diagnosed as autistic but was also sexually abused as a child. Plus she is in a family that lacks resources, plus her siblings are disabled, plus her single mom has to work full-time. Is there a label for this?

The best we might say to even get started is, “It’s complicated!”

Yes, it is complicated. It’s complicated and a team of  helpers and specialists are needed and a complex treatment plan is needed. To help this person and their family recover and thrive, we must help them grieve, and help them understand all they are dealing with. We must team up, pray, find and learn compensating behaviors, discover social solutions, discover medical helps — really uncover all the relevant solutions in all the relevant arts and sciences.

Yes categories and labels help us to understand similarities, understand experiences we have in common,  understand kinds of realties, but too often labels short change understanding and keep us from needed, nuanced thinking.

The family with a complicated reality is in need of more than one label and more than one solution. A concerted, integrated multi-solutional effort is needed.

What are we saying?

The sciences need to cooperate with each other better. The helping professionals in various fields need to team up more.

And, as we work with people and families to try to help them — perhaps because of our own areas of specialization — we must not overly simplify their problems, or the solutions.

If we want to help, if we want to be a helping person or helping team for someone’s spiritual problems, social problems, physical problems, resource challenges and mental problems then we must open up our minds to the full and complicated contexts of their situations.

And we could do with fewer labels.

A person or family in difficulty may well need a multi-solutional response — yes to prayer or other spiritual helps, yes to recovery groups, yes to doctors, yes to therapists, yes behavioral specialists, yes to medications, yes to financial support and yes to a supportive family and community.

Complicated — it’s the solution to complicated.