Human beings are strange creatures, often waiting until we are forced to change rather than choosing to change before we "hit the wall." We see signs--irregular sleep, discord with others, regular illness, excessive drama, acting outside of our values--but we ignore them. We don’t act or we don't act consistently. Each time we ignore a sign we place a brick in the wall we eventually hit when all those signs add up to crisis. Sine qua non is Latin for indispensable element or condition. I call it "readiness." This blog seeks to connect those who are searching for or have found the sine qua non of change. What makes you or keeps you from taking off? What keeps you from flying or helps you soar? What do you know about change that can help others?

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Loyalty to the absent: how gossip keeps us from being the person we want to be

"Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people." 

I grew up in a family of gossips. The elders’ conversations were filled with trash talk about other sisters and brothers who were never there to defend themselves. Worse yet, they intermingled and gossiped about the ones they were gossiping with on a rotating basis. Sadly I developed distaste for one of my aunts to a large extent because my mom and another aunt spent their lives degrading her. Even sadder I grew ever dissatisfied with my own mom as a result of the ongoing gossip instigated by Mom’s closest sister.   

I married into a family where my mother-in-law went from household to household talking bad about the other siblings and their families. It didn't take me long to figure out when she wasn’t at my house she was talking about me. At a certain point in my life I realized this behavior didn’t fit for me. It made me feel awful and I took an unpopular stand with my family, affecting forever my relationship with both my mom and one aunt.

Over time I have worked on loyalty to the absent (that is, not speaking badly about others when they were absent). I raised my awareness to situations rife with gossip, refused to partake in gossiping conversations, distanced myself from those who practice such disloyalty, finding it a forever journey to stay on track. I work to keep the intimate details of my relationships and my judgments to myself, preferring to go direct when I’m ready. I’ve swallowed a lot of blood biting my tongue. It takes a lifetime to build clarity, and lessons rise and fall through the years.

To continue my quest, I found myself recently in a retreat where the leader who hired me spoke badly about two people who were absent (one was her boss). I cringed and made a note, then set a date to debrief our meeting. In our face-to-face I gently confronted her about the unintended consequences of her gossiping  with her team. She took it gracefully. We parted with a hug. And as we were leaving I opened my big mouth and said something inappropriate about a fellow colleague. Sigh. I felt awful and apologized.

I went to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in Enough Said and emerged a bit puzzled about the story and its affect on me. It’s pegged as an insightful comedy that humorously explores the mess that often comes with getting involved in romance. But I finally figured out it’s a movie about gossip. Julia is a massage therapist who simultaneously begins a romance and takes on a new client that turns out to be the ex-wife of her new love. The poisonous trash talk the ex-wife inserts into Julia’s relationship almost kills it as she grows to look at her new love through the eyes of the ex-wife. No wonder it was unsettling.

In my own divorced family there is ample opportunity to practice loyalty to the absent. There are relationships that are broken that must fix themselves, and I have chosen not to fuel their causes with gossip. There are misunderstandings and cruelties that erupt, and it's exhausting to keep up with everyone's version, so I don't.

The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I mourn for you

I cry because someone important once degraded you, carved a mark on your soul that colors your lens, distorts your thinking. I ache because your head has built a wall around your heart that protects you from people you long to know. I grieve because you serve others, settle for less than you want, sit with that lump in your throat and ache in your heart that leaks tears when you speak. I mourn for the signs you saw and ignored, parasites sucking you dry of money and emotions, of goodwill and compassion until you cannot put a sentence together any more than you can repair your life because you are clueless about where to start.

Awareness before change

Awareness November 2008

“I was hoping to come back and join you in bed,” my sweetie said clearly disappointed as he walked past me on his way to the bedroom after spending the night in the guest room where his back finds respite. “Too late,” I retorted, fully clothed, brewing a cup of coffee and unfolding my buttermilk pancake recipe. He continued to our bed, surely hoping I would change my mind. Standing my ground meant we missed out on the irreplaceable morning “spoon”—a defiance way beyond the occasion and very much out of character.

I had nothing to say on this Pancake Sunday--a ritual we started to bring the family back to the fold once a week, even after Mom arrived; even when my sweetie tried to get me to leave my post at the grill to come see the critters converged on the deck enjoying the morning’s banquet of seeds and suet. I ignored him. “I’ve got pancakes to turn,” I growled under my breath.

I could feel myself slipping over the edge as Mom poured syrup and detailed the lives of her neighbors and their little girl whom she cannot forgive for going without underpants, and the impending birth of twins, and the small house they live in, and the Mom’s favorite coffee and their latest conversation encased in a “Then I said,” and “Then she said,” recalling every word. “I don’t care,” I thought, through my blank stare.

That was the first time I realized my heart hurt. Not the “I’m-having-a-heart-attack” kind of hurt, but an ache in the anterior. I breathed deep into the pain and sighed.

Luckily only Mom had joined us on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Instead of the usual group of friends and optimistic chit-chat, we ate with an uncomfortable quiet. It didn’t take long for her to pack up and go home after breakfast, leaving me alone to dwell on the status of my relationship, the recent and untimely death of a friend, my floundering career. My heart hurt. I breathed deep and sighed and relieved it for a moment more.

Awareness October 2009

Darkness had not yet dissolved on the Saturday morning I awoke anxious and sad and inconsolable. The contrast was stark to the usual song in my head. The frenzy prevented me from turning and breathing and willing myself back to sleep. What? I wondered.

The channels flipped on my internal tube, exposing trailers of unfinished business, the chasm I feared growing between me and my daughter, the class the previous day that produced two negative evaluations, conversation with the neighbors at dinner the night before where we talked about elders and our turn, Thanksgiving plans upended again in a phone call.

I paused and hit replay. Decades of chaotic Thanksgiving scenes montaged through; my Dad’s death on the holiday when I was 5, yelling and swats with the hair brush over dresses and curls, a major riff in the family where half split off to celebrate elsewhere, Mom insisting on celebrating one place or another creating the necessity to “pick sides,” my daughter throwing up to avoid choosing, the ache in my heart the year before. Years of chaos and drama created by ancient sadness and suffering disguised itself as current reality and visited me there in my bed to me to remind me to move on.