I’m back at my keyboard after a long month of conventions, book delivery, and a birthday. Having conventions for two consecutive weekends for a grand total of seven days would normally give me a lot of fuel for new topics, but this time around, it was a basic social issue which cropped up in one of the hotels that brought me to type this. The simple version starts with the fact that a lot of people tend to get drunk at the second of those two conventions every year—it is more of a party than anything else. Some young adults (just above drinking age) were in a room adjoined to some friends of mine who are my age, and at one point an acquaintance of one of these drunken tweens ended up in the adjoining room puking her guts out, apologizing, and passing out. Those who brought her there were rather less than responsible about dealing with it, leaving it to the adults. One of these adults, who has a habit of mothering everyone, struggled with being overly helpful and lenient about this situation, even though the end result would be bad for pretty much everyone else concerned. In the middle of this debate, words to the effect of “I can’t help it, I just feel like I should take care of them—it’s just how I am” were uttered.
Others of us convinced her to take a harder line and delegate responsibility to the hotel staff and convention volunteers (and the drunken individuals themselves) because it was exactly the sort of thing they were there to handle. However, it reminded me of how often I see situations in which people who know full well that their own approaches are lacking in some highly significant way nevertheless decide that spraying themselves all over the situation is the way to go. It’s not that “being yourself” is a bad idea, but as I said in a prior article, there is a difference between your identity and your behavior. Many times in my life, people have paid me compliments like, “You’re so insightful and attentive, and you always seem to see the best ways to handle situations,” yet they rarely seem to imagine they are capable of these things, preferring to believe that I’m just special that way, and they must continue to “be themselves.” People assume there is something amazing behind the curtain, but no one actually asks what it is or how it works. There is little or no curiosity about how I come up with ideas, how I draw boundaries or use my emotions as information rather than being swept along by them. “How does one learn to do that?” is a question I almost never hear, even when the people who could ask it are shouting to the world about how desperately they need to learn it—because these behaviors are not seen as skills, not seen as changeable. It is always just part of “who you are.”
So if I ask for your help, what I can expect is that you will help in exactly the way you always do, because that’s just “who you are.” I know some people who have been through critical illnesses and medical conditions, and they reach out for help from friends and loved ones. They need help getting to appointments, cleaning the house, cooking meals and whatnot, but the people they reach out to feel compelled to broadcast all kinds of personal details to anyone who will listen, do everything their own way, and generally make the whole experience a trial on a whole new level. When the inevitable confrontation arises, they state, “If you don’t want my help, don’t ask for it. I won’t help you anymore.” But the idea is to help, not to just liberally spray your habits and preferences all over the place. If you think part of the payment for you helping your grandma with her colostomy bag is to tell every gory detail to all your friends and her friends because you think gossip is who you are rather than what you choose to do, you’re not really doing the good deed you think you are.
For example, I dated someone once who felt entitled both to dislike talking much and to voice knee-jerk reactions to things before settling down and thinking out kinder responses more appropriate to the context of whatever was actually going on. I told her, “It’s interesting for someone who is so averse to communicating to demand the right to give voice to snap judgments.” But again, when we don’t view behavior as being about choice and skill, there is no hope of us ever being consistent or appropriate. If a problem calls for us to do something, we usually think the best thing is to solve the problem. But solving the problem cannot be the primary target; cannot be achieved by any sort of situational surgical strike, if the only way we know to address the situation is to carpet bomb it with our habits, for good or ill, and hope that the problem gets obliterated in the process.
When behaviors are seen as inherent, unchangeable qualities, or when the act of changing them feels like trying to change our nature and thus “be untrue to ourselves,” we struggle with the thought of changing identity rather than behavior. That adds a whole new level of fear. If I am not me, who will I be? If my identity vanishes, what will replace it? How will I be in control of myself if there is no more “me” to do the controlling? If my behavior is me, how can I change my behavior and yet retain that sense of “I am?” The confusion between behavior and identity turns every effort towards betterment into a struggle for survival of the ego. If we don’t see the continuity of the sidewalk, every step feels like it may lead to a steep fall into oblivion. But identity is always there if we know what to look for. We all have moments in our lives when we sense a potential change that we may choose. Too often we choose not to make it, because we don’t know who we will be at the end of it. To the person who sees the sidewalk, the next step will bring change, but the change is not scary. He may learn a new skill, she may experience a new place, but the change is just a step and the sidewalk is a gradual path towards a new outlook.
To those who sense only a broader, unfathomable awareness, trusting in the old, tried and tested habits is the only safe choice, and too many value safety above all else. New awareness and new wholeness reveals itself sometimes slowly, sometimes all at once (as with intuitive leaps), but the mind knows only chronology and plodding logic. It must process new things over time, however fast or slow that may be, and we invariably privilege the processing beyond all else. When people experience trauma and tragedy, developmental data shows that they tend to regress to the last stage they felt confident (and competent) at managing, which is why after the September 11th attacks (which damaged the fragile fledgling sense of international identity we were exploring), the United States took a generally more imperialistic, oppositional attitude to the entire rest of the world. We are far more likely to remain aboard the sinking ship we know than to plunge into the unknown depths below, and we meet the demands and needs of new problems with the comfortable solutions of yesterday, knowing full well they won’t work.
It is not that we fear progress. The problem is that we don’t know progress, and it is the unknown that we fear. That is the very reason why there was always a “sci-fi/horror” section back in the video rental days–they were always lumped together, as though the natural result of discovery was fear, danger, and worst of all, mistakes. When progress happens, it seems to come as if by revelation, outside force, dumb luck, or some agency beyond our understanding or control. I know I used to feel that way making friends—I could never tell you how to make friends, and it always seemed to just happen, but the agency that orchestrated it always seemed to lie outside myself until I learned how to trust my own guidance toward new skills. Even when we know that agency is within us, we don’t trust it, because it too is unknown (in terms of the mind). This pull forward, this voice, it does not argue with us, try to talk us into doing what we should, and it does not “show its work” like we were all taught to do in math class. We can trust it or not trust it, and when we learn to trust it, we find we still have work to do in adjusting to the new landscape it reveals. We may not know who we will be after each step forward, but we know that person will have a continuity that includes who we used to be and carries us toward who we need to be, and we know it will be a stronger identity, no matter what new potentials are opened up for making mistakes.
When we don’t trust this inner voice, we end up with, well, “sci-fi/horror” in our own psyche. We end up constantly fearing we will have to play out some version of “fighting against the sentient artificial intelligence” or some other monsters we created or allowed to roam free with a will of their own in the dystopia of our lost little minds, isolated from our own intuition. How much easier to just stay the same and continue to do what we’ve always done, stay in our seat in the well-lit room and avoid the unexplored shadows?
Perhaps our mothering friend at the convention simply feared potential guilt at letting people take responsibility for themselves and failing. Perhaps she feared that she would dislike being a person who delegated tasks to others. But even knowing that she should do it anyway, she definitely feared dealing with those unknown realities and feelings more than she feared taking on responsibilities that were not hers to take.
If there is one thing we can say about growth, however, it is that we know it will always take us in the direction of the unknown—and render it known. So when we think about whether to grow (and thus change), we have to answer the question, “Would I rather be better or be as safe as I am now?” And when we champion “being ourselves” and handling everything the same way we always have, are we really championing ourselves, or are we simply fleeing the dread of being someone else? The true change is not from one step to the next; it is the change from avoiding the unknown to seeking it, which is already present at every willing step.
When I teach meditation, I state that it is a practice of letting go, but that the reason to let go is that our mental existence is like being under water and our buoyancy carries us upward toward the surface. We can only let that pull do its work when we begin to understand our rigid identifications as anchors rather than the lifejackets we thought they were, and to let them go.