I wrote about this topic in 2010, I have become my mother, proving once again that life lessons are slow in coming and easy to forget. Sometimes they must shout to get our attention.
There's nothing like going away and being quiet at a silent retreat for the weekend to help point out life lessons. Silence has a way of revealing things you can't see or hear while you're busy talking. When you are quiet you are observing and feeling instead. The moment I got to the 154-acre retreat center snow fell like minute feathers on the uncovered pathways. Crabby followed me out of the car as I realized how far it would be to walk from cabin to bathroom to dining room to hot pools. The cold air penetrated my blue jeans as we marched through the thin layer of snow dust to get to the Office to check in. Here I was in a place so rustic it had no web service and no hair dryers and I was silently fussing because I was cold and my hair was going to be a mess. The lesson was whispering but I was too pissed off to listen.
Luckily at this retreat, the teacher believed in music and moving as much as silence. So he played an eclectic array of tunes and gave us the option to move or not. If not we were to observe that choice and how we felt about it. While the first piano piece didn't evoke emotion, the second piece of Middle Eastern vocals and percussion cocked my head to the left and swayed my hips and shoulders in its rhythm. That is until I realized someone could be watching. I wondered how I looked, whether I was moving correctly and if people might see me as, God-forbid, geeky. I stopped and peeked to see what others were doing. The lesson raised its voice, demanding to be learned.
I noted some observations in my journal during free time. Mom was always dressed up, would never go to the beach for fear of losing her hairdo to the wind, or being cold. She was mortified when I told the neighbors about how she voted in the Kennedy-Nixon election and threw a blanket at me when her friend witnessed me breast-feeding in her living room. "Cover up," she hissed. Appearances were everything. The lesson shouted a breakthrough. The etchings of her modeling are so deep I have adopted her way as my way even when the behavior makes no sense.
I can't help but think of two women I've been coaching, one whose boss wants her to be nicer to co-workers and the other who struggles to set boundaries with the person she reports to. I wonder what kind of modeling they had from their parents. Since I'm not a therapist I'm on safer ground if I help them focus on how what they are modeling will affect those around them. In the former case, can she expect her direct reports to treat others respectfully if she doesn't? For the latter, what kind of behavior is she inadvertently teaching her 4-year-old if she doesn't have her own boundaries? Isn't the child more likely to do what she does rather than what she says? I think I'll ask her to fast forward to the teen years and speculate on how well she will deal with a 16-year-old daughter with no boundaries.
I even used the lesson the other day when a student asked me if I knew any books or tricks to use to help his fourteen-year-old find what he wants to do. I always recommend "Finding Your Own North Star" by Martha Beck, but wondered out loud if fourteen isn't a bit young for such teachings. I said to the guy, "The best thing you can do is model what it is you want him do. Are you doing what you want to in your life?" His slumping shoulders communicated his comprehension and regret.
So what to do with such life lessons? Most learning can be used for good or evil. I cannot blame my mother for my behavior all these years later. That would be evil. I cannot blame myself for modeling I inadvertently showed my own children. That too would be evil and self-destructive. What I can do is continue to learn. I can be more intentional about how I behave; that is slow down and decide how I want to act instead of acting out some pre-determined pattern. I can talk and write about what I learn with the hope that some day it will make a difference to someone.