Got a Burr In Your Butt?
Maybe you’re thinking too big.
Yesterday, I realized that I was at the end of my rope. Of course, I only realized it from the wrong side of said rope end. The thing that pushed me over the edge was inconsequential. It was insignificant in the grand scheme of things; so small, in fact, that it doesn’t warrant mentioning here. Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty to talk about without it.
From the time I learned to walk and talk, I was conditioned to be prepared for catastrophic events. Among my first lessons in school were emergency preparedness drills. I knew how to react in the event of a fire, or an earthquake, or a tornado. These days, kids learn a procedure to follow in case a dangerous person enters the school with a gun, and another in case a dangerous person with a gun is spotted anywhere within the vicinity of the school. I was fortunate to grow up in a world where no one had needed to develop those sorts of drills; our children aren’t so fortunate.
The first thing I remember about life outside my own four walls was the eruption of Mount St. Helens, which killed 57 people. I was seven. I remember when Reagan was shot. I remember when the Challenger exploded and killed Christa McCauliffe. That memory is the most vivid. I was a little older by then, and Mom was a teacher. We’d been closely following the story leading up to launch, excited at the prospect of a teacher in space, and the outcome was devastating.
These are the things I remember. They are all horrible events, and they deserve to be remembered. But those events are pretty much all I have left after watching the 6 o’clock Nightly News every night for years. This is no coincidence: this is a media strategy. Bad news sells. And bad things happen, every day, to great people who don’t deserve them. And yes, any one of us could be next. So, we prepare, because we don’t want to be unprepared when disaster strikes. The shaking bed wakes us during an earthquake and the next day, all anyone is talking about is the inevitability of “the big one.” But the truth is, most of us here in the US will never be part of a huge disaster. Most of us will never have cause to use all of these well-honed preparedness skills. And if by chance, we are victims of some epic tragedy, I seriously doubt we’ll be in a position to use them, anyway.
I was given a million rules for how to handle circumstances beyond my control. Not a single one of them has ever made a difference when I was really in a jam.
Aside from my son’s big scare in 2006, I have never experienced a catastrophic event and yet, I have suffered two emotional breakdowns. I have succumbed to addiction and spent an extended period of time in rehab. And that is because for me, it is never the two-ton brick that tips the scales. It is the grain of sand. Every. Single. Time. The insignificant eats my lunch. I’m totally sweating the small stuff.
My son won’t stop whistling. EVERY SECOND OF THE DAY.
My daughter leaves her dirty pink basketball socks on the floor in front of the couch every, single night.
The landlord has an annoying habit of getting up at 2am, every night, and proceeding to engage in what I can only deduce to be a reenactment of Riverdance on my bedroom ceiling.
This is the stuff that’s going to drive me insane.
Why is that?
Why do these innocent little annoyances undo me? Well, I’m not exactly sure, but a couple of ideas have come to me this past week or two.
Information can be a solid ally, or a dreaded foe. My entire memory of childhood is molded around events ripped from the headlines. Those moments have become a part of my truth. My entire wealth of knowledge either arrived on my porch steps at 6am, or my television at 6pm. But now, Americans have access to the entire Internet 24/7. We are exposed to atrocities we can’t imagine having to endure. We bear witness to depraved horrors and we want to stop them. And that sounds like a noble goal. We think big, because that is all we know. We cut our teeth learning how to get through disasters while remaining intact; of course we want to reach a hand out to those we perceive to be less fortunate than ourselves.
But sometimes I think that it’s gotten so easy to see issues like racism, and poverty, and corruption on a global scale that we get distracted trying to be the drop of rain that changes the tide. We get caught up in outrage over child marriage in Nepal, and zealots committing grievous crimes in the name of religion, and reality-television billionaires playing politics in an arena large enough that they could do actual damage, and we forget that even global change starts with a change in our closest relationships.
I forget that the biggest influence I will likely have towards a brighter future is over the human beings I tuck into bed at night.
I forget that they’re watching everything I do, and everything I say, and comparing the two. And that the single most important thing I will ever do is show my children how people are supposed to be treated — All people.
I forget that there is no more important contribution I can make in this world than to improve the way we three show up in it. Because if I don’t do that, what else even matters?
I’m not suggesting anyone stop trying to make a difference for larger issues such as gender equality, or turn a blind eye to the outrage that is childhood hunger, or pretend that the horrendously unfair treatment of anyone with brown skin in America is a problem that has been solved. Please don’t misunderstand me. Just hear me out.
Most lessons in the US public school system are based on the principles of convergent learning, whereby students are given a number of variables, and the object is to whittle, by varying methods, the important information down to a single correct answer. We are GOOD at this. Give us a bunch of keys and tell us to figure out how to unlock the door and we will process of elimination the shit out of that, and feel very satisfied and fulfilled by our success. We love to solve problems. We take stuff from out there, and we make it fit in here.
But I think there’s a better way.
What if we took the stuff IN HERE, and adjusted it in such a way that everything OUT THERE started to look different?
A counselor once described my son as a divergent thinker. I laughed, because the movie Divergent had just come out, and I thought he was joking. But it’s a real thing, and he’d never heard of the movie. Or the book. The things he said next I don’t remember well, other than his claim that Alex is intrinsically motivated. If no one challenges him at school, rather than stare out the window, bored, Alex will find a way to challenge himself. He doesn’t waste time trying to convince someone else to find a way to challenge him. He takes control over what he can control.
I’m asking you to re-examine your locus of control. Honestly assess whether you are operating from an internal locus of control, or relying on an external one. See, I realized that each circumstance that’s been driving me out of my mind lately was something not within my immediate control. I can remind my son to stop whistling, but I cannot do a goddamned thing when he starts back up three seconds later. So, I have the option of repeating that cycle a trillion times a day —
And believe me, I exercised the shit out of that option.
All it accomplished was feelings of failure in both of us. I know that it is an unconscious act on his part; a nervous tic, and that it will probably disappear as soon as I stop focusing on it. But that wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to MAKE him stop.
Which is laughable. Because I cannot make anyone do anything. I control my attitude and my behavior: How I act, and how I react, and that is all. I change the world when I change my behavior. Or by adjusting my attitude. And that has a ripple effect. If I change my behavior in regards to my son’s whistling, I give him the opportunity (and the time) to notice his own behavior. I don’t step all over his chance to recognize his own actions and figure out a strategy that will help him tone them down. And his changed behavior will ripple out as well. Ad infinitum.
That ripple effect? That’s sort of what they mean by divergent.
I hear people quote Ghandi all the time.
“Be the change”, they say.
But talk is cheap.
There are people in this world who feed off of our negative emotions and actions. They are parasites, and I’ve come across a few lately who have managed to lure me into impossible debates they had no intention of bringing to a compromise. Their entire purpose was to stir me up so much that I would feel compelled to convince them they were wrong and should adjust their entire belief system to fit with mine. The problem is, I don’t even know what they believe. My views would not have mattered. I was arguing an issue, but for them, it was not about the issue.
For them, it’s not a Democrat/Republican distinction. It’s not about liberals or conservatives. It’s not the left, and it’s not the right. It’s not men, or women; gay or straight; trans or cis; black or white; old or young; Christian or Muslim or Atheist.
It’s hatred based on fear of the unknown, and it exists in every group above and all the others I don’t have time to list.
I’ve seen similar conversations take place every day between some of my sisters and these soul-sucking impostors and I have an idea. Those who agree that we can’t win a game when only the opposing team knows the rules, I ask you to try something else. Just for today.
If someone creates, or says, or does something you find offensive, or ridiculous, or hateful, and it infuriates you so much that you find yourself wanting to tell them why their actions are wrong and why they need to change their minds, please stop.
Refocus your locus.
Turn your need to control inward and use it on your own behavior.
Ignore them. Let them discover the error of their ways another day, from another person. Take an action in opposition to the one you’re dying to take. Look at pictures of baby goats. Whatever it takes. Change the only thing you really have any power to change.
Remember, it’s the wolf you feed that wins. If something or someone is out there spreading corruption, send out the opposite. Post something pure. Something independent of the thing that put a burr in your butt.
And, start small.
Don’t worry, you will grow.