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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

White upon the slippery reins

It was Thoreau who wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Pink Floyd took the quote a step further, picturing a woman seeing off the soldiers as they depart for the battles of World War Two:

She stands upon Southampton dock
With her handkerchief and her summer frock
Clings to her wet body in the rain
In quiet desperation, knuckles white upon the slippery reins
She bravely waves the boys goodbye again.
(Pink Floyd, "Southampton Dock / The Final Cut")

There is a sense in those quotes that we are up against something far more powerful than ourselves, something we cannot overcome and so we are quietly resigned to frustration. The pain and suffering of the day seems to overwhelm us and our dim efforts seem like the desperate flailings of those already defeated.

I don't know about you, but I've lived many, many days like this.

One of the things I've been pondering this winter (and by the way, happy first day of Spring! It's snowing beautifully as I write this in Minnesota ...) is some specific ways in which I have contributed to my own defeat and frustration over the years. In part I've been greatly helped in this pondering by some of the teachings of the Enneagram. If you're new to it, the Enneagram can be an intimidating and complicated thing to get your mind around. If you take the time, however, it can be incredibly helpful. The Enneagram says that there are nine basic types of people, each described with a number. Each has various strengths and weaknesses. One of the most helpful aspects of this system is that you can learn how your type functions at its worst, or least mature, and at its best.

Without going into too much depth, I am a "9". One of my basic characteristics is that I find it incredibly difficult to advocate for my own needs. Frankly, I don't deal well with conflict. Instead, I often retreat into quiet reflection -- brooding? -- instead of speaking up about what I want. Many days here is what it looks like: Something comes up that I want or need. I think about it at length -- "pondering" is sometimes a way to avoid action -- and eventually, I may even mention it to those closest to me. This can be something incredibly simple, like "I want to buy a pickup" or it might be something that makes me feel terribly vulnerable, like "I need you to touch me" or it might be something at the very core of me, so much so that it's hard for me even to get my own head around it: "I need a sense that I'm making a significant difference in the world." Each of us has all kinds of needs. That's not the point.

The point is that when I mention this need to anyone, especially to those closest to me, it feels like I'm screaming it, like I'm shouting from the rooftops. The more this particular need is near the core of my being, the less likely I am to repeat it. If it feels fairly trivial, I might bring it up in conversation once in a while. But the deeper it is, the harder it is for me to get vocal about it. I'll bring it up, but here's the reality: When it feels to me like I am screaming out my needs, I'm probably just mumbling in my coffee cup. The statements are so loud and so important inside my head that I feel like I'm selfishly shouting others down.

Reality is, all those people are preoccupied with their own needs, their own concerns, their own perspectives and responsibilities. While they may hear what I say, it's hard for them to value my needs. And really, it's my job to advocate for those things I need. It's my job to be vocal and persistent about my perspectives.

Some of you are reading this and saying, "Duh. Of course that's your job. Why are you writing this?"

Others are shaking your head and thinking (though not saying out loud), "No, no, no -- I can't do that. It's too frightening to get vocal about my needs. What if nobody hears me? What if I go to all that trouble and nobody cares? And what if all it is, is self-centeredness on my part?"

This winter, as I said above, has been a good time to be reflecting on these things. I've spent a lot of time reviewing things over the past few years I should have said much louder ... insisted on, even. There are many statements I should have parked on in relationships at home, at work -- everything from preferences about daily activities, to deeply held dreams I longed for but rarely shared, or only shared quietly, to deep needs to find healthy ways to cope with my own struggles and pain.

So I'm learning to get louder. I'm learning to intentionally voice my needs outside my own head. I'm learning to take responsibility for the things I want and the limits I need to set. I'm learning to walk away from people who don't respect my voice when I do speak. I'm learning to speak and act and choose rather than simply pondering.

It's challenging, to say the least, because this is one of my most debilitating weaknesses and one of my most deeply entrenched patterns. But if I own it, if I step up and advocate for myself, life no longer has to feel like quiet desperation. I do in fact hold the reins in some sense, and while I can't -- and don't really want to -- control others and their responses, I can make choices. That may well be what Thoreau's "mass of men" were missing.

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