I’ve been making a conscious effort to appear as though I’m maintaining my mental health during the past few weeks. But on Friday, I fell apart. I only got out of bed when my puppy Jasper jumped on top of me insisting I pay attention to him.
Paying attention to Jasper always requires getting out of bed.
The rest of the day, my emotions cycled between anger and despair. I was feeling powerless in almost every aspect of my life. And I hate feeling powerless. I’ve always been someone who believes in dealing with problems instead of ignoring them. But confronting the biggest problems in my life hasn’t been working for me lately.
The impact of the new reality of social distancing due to COVID-19 is only partially to blame. The truth is, I’m struggling with a lot of negativity. One particular situation is getting progressively worse, and I’ve been foiled at every attempt to address it.
I loathe the thought that anyone describes me as helpless, but that is exactly how I was feeling yesterday. And since self pity has always been one of biggest pet peeves, feeling that only made me feel even worse.
So I did everything I could to “snap out” of my funk.
I spoke with a couple of friends who encouraged me. I did my best to celebrate my husband’s birthday. I posted silly photos celebrating National Siblings Day on Facebook. I took a couple of long walks. I ate healthy food and took my vitamins. I sent silly text messages. I reviewed the daily devotion I’d committed to read every day for Lent. And I cried. I cried a lot. And then I got mad at myself for crying.
This morning, I woke up to the sun shining and to Jasper once again jumping on me.This time, he didn’t need to drag me out of bed. I was prepared to face the day even though my circumstances were exactly the same as they were yesterday.
I’d like to say that, through some amazing self talk, I’d been able to improve my attitude. But that would be a lie. Instead, I think I needed a day of self pity and crying before I could move on.
That probably goes against the sage advice of any self-help guru. (I don’t know for sure since I’m as resistant to reading self-help books as I am to giving up, giving in or being deferential to people who don’t earn my respect.)
But yesterday, I was absorbed in self pity. And while it felt horrible and went against the essence of whom I like to believe I am, I think my psyche needed to stop fighting. For at least one day, I needed to put down the boxing gloves and just feel the pain of every punch life has been throwing at me lately.
It’s humbling to admit that, but it’s also liberating. I realize that I wasn’t giving up or giving in. I was just giving myself a break.
Life sometimes sucks, and despite our best efforts, we can’t always fix it. Sometimes we can’t laugh our way out of a bad mood or find the silver lining in the grey clouds. Sometimes we just have to hold on tightly while we ride out the crap storm with the understanding that this too shall pass. And it will pass even though it won’t happen as quickly as we’d like.
In such cases, a little self pity might actually be acceptable.
I try to be a nice person. I really do.
But sometimes, the person I strive to be and the one in my head couldn’t be more different.
O.K. – not some of the time. Most of the time.
In fact, I’ve often wondered if the first verse of “Cell Block Tango” in the musical Chicago was written with me in mind. In it, a young woman explains how the habits of other people can “get you down.” She complains about Bernie, who popped his gum when she was having a bad day. Her bad day turned into his bad day when she shot and killed him.
I can’t say I’ve ever come close to killing another person, but my mind is often plotting revenge. I just don’t act on these thoughts.
But when I’m in a funk, like I was last week, people or situations that are normally just irritating suddenly proliferate as though purposefully torturing me.
The moms who have known each other for years and don’t make an effort to include me in their conversations, even when I try to insert myself, morph into that pack of mean girls from high school.
The people who talk about updating the living room paint to “this year’s color” make me feel completely incompetent and out of touch. (Up until this year, I never even knew that some shades of beige are “in” and some are “out.” I generally feel accomplished when the old, faded living room carpet at my house gets vacuumed a couple of times each month.)
The grocery store clerks who make comments about the food I’m buying completely annoy me. Even though I tend to be a chatty person with almost everyone, I don’t need complete strangers talking to me about my eating habits.
Parents who make sure that they drop a list of their children’s accomplishments into every conversation seem to taunt me for my less accomplished (in their eyes) kids.
And those are just the people who irritate me. I haven’t even mentioned the ones who make me really angry:
- Individuals who don’t take pride in their job. I just don’t get that. If you are being paid to do something, you should never, ever expect other people to compensate and clean up your messes.
- People who compensate and clean up the messes for individuals who don’t take pride in their job. When that happens, the lazy people never learn.
- People who post derogatory comments in social media about low-income people who receive government benefits. No one in this world goes without the help of others. Some people are just fortunate to have family, friends, intellectual gifts and opportunities that helped them overcome difficult situations.
- Individuals who don’t take time to listen to others who may be less educated, less beautiful, less wealthy, less accomplished or less socially connected. We are all on this planet together, and I’m fairly confident that God doesn’t care more about some than others.
- Those same people who flaunt all they have by dropping snide comments or making off-hand remarks that are actually intended to put down others.
- Anyone who makes decisions that hurt my children and cause them to question their abilities or their dreams.
Generally, my antidote for this anger is to make up and play out entire scenes in my head. In them, I say just the right words or take just the right actions to cut down the offenders and put them in their place.
And then I pray to be a kind person and pretend to be the nice person I wish I were.
Usually, that’s enough, and the anger and irritation subside.
But when the irritation and anger continue to linger and the notes from “Cell Block Tango” become an ear worm, I have to do something a littler more dramatic and employ a stronger antidote.
That’s when I write about the people I annoy me. And sometimes, I even make those written words public.
I was mad that cancer had taken the life of a good friend. I was mad at a self-serving state legislature that is pandering to special, extreme interests rather than improving the lives of Mountain State residents. I was mad that years of previous hard work had been torn apart by people who care more about touting their own importance than about doing the right thing. I was even mad that I had spent the day fighting with my work computer, which was eventually diagnosed with having either a bad virus or a bad hard drive.
Most of all, I was mad that not one of those situations was within my control.
And so, I lay awake thinking that, since I couldn’t change the random nature of life or the priorities of other people, I could at expose the selfish nature and behavior of others.
But no matter what scenario I imagined, I was never satisfied.
My friend would still be dead. Constituents would still vote against their own self interest and politicians would still prey upon emotional rather than rational voters. All of my hard work would still lie in ruins at the hands of people who never really tried to understand my efforts, and my computer would still be on a shelf waiting for repair.
And I would still be angry.
My mood hadn’t improved by the time I arrived at work the next morning.
Knowing that I had to put my anger aside, I spent the first few minutes in my office repeating one of my favorite quotes, “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
Saying those words to myself wasn’t sufficient, so I started sharing them with others.
Then something miraculous happened.
The people with whom I shared that quote not only empathized with me, they also shared their own anger.
In doing so, we talked about our values and about not feeling valued. We talked about how difficult people are often doing their best and just don’t know or have the skills to do better. We talked about our own successes and all that we hope to achieve in the future.
And when we spoke, we didn’t use flowery language that made us sound noble. We spoke from the heart with words that are best left behind closed doors (they were) but are sometimes the best way to describe our feelings.
I hadn’t had a complete attitude adjustment by the end of the day, but I did gain something important: perspective.
No one goes through life untouched by anger, and pretending we are above it is ridiculous. Instead, if we share it in the right way with the right people, we can learn more from anger than we ever could from happiness.
With that said, I’m hoping to be much less studious in the next few weeks.
They embraced danger.
After hiking almost to the top, I told my kids not to walk along the ridge or the narrow trails others were carefully navigating. I imagined how a mere slip could result in disaster, and the signs warning about the number of people who had died on Seneca Rocks didn’t help. They simply fed my fear.
Later, as we were driving home, I thought about my fear.
And I realize that one word “my” said it all.
To me, fear is all about the risk of physical or emotional harm to me or someone I love. I identify that risk and then I do everything I can to avoid it.
That’s how I operate.
Apparently, others operate differently.
My friends tell me that some people don’t analyze their behavior as much as I do.They say most people don’t even know when they are afraid. Instead, they just think they are angry.
Lately, I’ve been debating whether I agree. I never used to think my anger stemmed from fear.
I get angry at injustice when people aren’t treated fairly. Am I afraid that I too can be a victim of injustice?
I get angry when incompetent people are allowed to continue in their jobs despite their ineffectiveness. Am I afraid that my hard work is pointless?
I get angry when people blame me for their inability to be effective. Am I afraid that others will believe them?
My answers to all these questions is”maybe.” But I’ve begun to realize the question shouldn’t be if my anger is rooted in fear. The real question is: “If I am afraid, how do I deal with that fear?”
I can either face it, like the rock climbers do.
I can avoid it, like I did when sitting on the cliffs.
Or I can learn to turn it into something meaningful.
And that choice is the real fear factor.
As a write this, I’m a little angry.
Actually, I’m really angry.
And even though my neighbor is laughing at my outrage and my husband is telling me not to embarrass him, I feel the need to share my anger.
Every day, I take my dog for a walk through the park by my house. The PUBLIC (as in partly paid for by taxpayer dollars) park by my house. Sometimes, we even go there twice a day and enjoy a leisurely stroll.
When I arrived at the park, there was caution tape haphazardly strewn up around a large section of the park. It had obviously been put there by amateurs, and I stepped over it.
I continued up a hill as a shrill voice called after me.
“Ma’am, you can’t walk here.”
I ignored the voice, partly because I just don’t like being called ma’am.
The voice got closer.
“Ma’am, you can’t walk here.”
I turned around.
A security risk? Really? I gave her a look that said as much, but my words were “This is a public park. I walk here every day.”
“We rented it.” she said.
“I have a hard time believing that,” I said. “You can rent a shelter, but you can’t rent a section of the park.”
The woman, who wasn’t in the best of shape and had obviously exerted herself chasing after me, tried to puff out her chest and exude her importance in her orange day-glow vest, “We did. ” she said. “And you can’t be here.”
I didn’t want to get in a fight. I just wanted to walk up the hill, but I turned around muttering under my breath.
Apparently, I’m loud even when I mutter under my breath.
Three young people, who had also been chased off, smiled at me and pumped their fists. “Power to the people,” one of the young men said. We walked together along the outside the park fence, and when we approached the “open” section of the park, we said goodbye.
But I wasn’t done.
As I watched more “security guards” (i.e. parents in orange vests) walking the perimeter of the taped-off section of the park, three more young people, one of whom was carrying a basketball, walked down the hill from the PUBLIC basketball court.
“Were you chased out too?” I asked.
“Yes ma’am,” said one of the young men said, and I didn’t mind that he called me ma’am because he said it with respect.
“Don’t worry.” I said. “I’m going to complain on behalf of all of us.”
They nodded and walked off with their shoulders slumped while the Cub Scouts (all 15 or so of them) cheered behind them.
I walked the perimeter taking pictures with my phone.
One of the parents in an orange vest, this time a man, asked if he could help me.
“I’m just taking pictures,” I said. Then I clarified, “but not of the few boys you are protecting. I’m not a security risk. I’m just taking pictures of how you aren’t letting me use a public park.”
There was no answer.
Maybe I AM blowing this out of proportion, and I DO understand the need to protect young children.
But I have issues with how this whole situation was handled.
Every day, there are dozens of children playing on the playground that was blocked off, and no one has ever before prevented me from walking my dog there. If the parents were that concerned about security, there are plenty of other more private and secure locations where they could have held their event. Even if the group had rented the park, and not just a shelter, they could have actually put up polite signs rather than tape that signaled anyone who crossed it was a criminal.
Most of all, there just weren’t enough boys attending the event to outweigh the members of the public who were prevented from using the PUBLIC facilities.
And all of that means I’m angry. I am angry not only about the arrogance with which I was confronted but also about the self-righteousness with which I was told I was a security threat.
And because of that, this is one battle I am willing to pick.
Today, I am stepping out of my comfort zone and attempting a different type of blog.
Since I recently saw Maya Angelou, I’m writing poetry for the first time since adolescence (for the record, that’s about 30 years ago).
This challenge requires taking a deep breath and jumping in.
Here… I… go…
There Is No Fear in My Anger
The workshop leader told us
That anger is always rooted in fear.
That helping people address their anger
Always requires helping them confront their fears.
I, the student, told myself
That my anger is never rooted in fear.
That dealing with my anger
Always requires confronting the source.
There is no fear in my anger.
My anger is rooted in a sense of fairness.
When people are treated differently because of the way they look or because of their perceived social status
Then I am red, hot angry.
But I am not fearful.
My anger is rooted in a desire for benevolence.
When a person with money or connections is regarded more highly than a knowledgeable person
Then I am rebelliously angry.
But I am not fearful.
My anger is rooted in a hard-earned sense of self-worth.
When I am ignored because someone wants to build his own ego on a false sense of self-importance
Then I am howling with anger.
But I am not fearful.
My anger is rooted in a cry for compassion.
When I hear people ridicule those who have less
Then I am sadly angry.
But I am not fearful.
My anger is rooted in respect.
When people spend years building a strong foundation and it is destroyed by those who want to build an empire
Then I am frustrated with anger.
But I am not fearful.
And when I am told that I am fearful rather than angry
I am full of fighting words and the need to persevere and speak the truth.
But I am not fearful.
For there is simply no fear in my anger.
(Wow.. that WAS like jumping into a cold pool and enjoying a great swim… invigorating. I had forgotten why I wrote poetry as a teen. I may now write more!)