Don and I recently attended Deepening in Love, an amazing couple’s retreat with Judith Ansara & Robert Gass. Don and I have worked with them before, in both couple’s work and leadership work. They have a transformational set of tools and practices, and share deeply of themselves and their life experience in 40 + years of marriage.
On the plane home from the retreat, I was too tired to “work,” and thought about blogging, but no topic jumped to mind. It felt too hard to write about politics, especially after a week-long, much-needed “news fast.” So, I turned to my developmental editor Jess’ questions for a beginning prompt, and found that this one called to me:
….It would be hard for me to say what Becca’s artifices and shields are (this had seemed like a strong theme in the early part of the blog). Perhaps that is precisely because, to the extent that she has artifices and shields, they are still in place as she’s writing the blog, even though she seems extremely open. If you think that might be the case, I would encourage you to dig in to the question of what the artifices and shields are and how to share them with readers. Or is it possible that Becca doesn’t actually have much in the way of artifices or shields and is unnecessarily concerned that she does?
I think this prompt calls to me because it relates to an issue I was working on during the couple’s retreat. I realized that when Don sounds critical, skeptical or judgmental, I tend to have both a kind of collapsing or “flight” response, and a puffing up/ “fight” one, basically at the same time. I’m coming to understand this as what Robert and Judith call my “inner child” and my “inner teenager” or “adaptive child” – the slightly older child or teen who learns to cope by adopting certain behaviors to protect the inner child.
Perhaps I learned to use bravado to cover up my own fears, and my feelings of unworthiness in the face of criticism. As I write this, it feels true. Or, rather, I feel a feeling of relaxation in my jaw, and settling downward in my torso. Maybe that’s the adult – the host of the guesthouse in the Rumi poem. The one who feels it’s okay for me to have both the collapsing small child and the puffed up self-righteous braggadocio.
Then I think about sharing what I just wrote in a blog, and wonder, is that another means of artifice? Putting on a show for others, self-introspection that requires an audience? Or am I somehow able to use the blogosphere as a voltage gap that induces a spark of authenticity to bridge it?
What is authenticity, anyway? Sociologists and social psychologists have written volumes on the social construction of authenticity, pointing out the many definitions and uses of the concept of authenticity, and how it is both seen as a moral value and also commodified. As cultural sociologist Karlijin Boersma says in her blog post, “One may not only be authentic, one must be authentic.” And in their introduction to a recent collection on the subject of authenticity, editors Vannini and Williams speak of the irony that “contemporary culture industries invest their lifeblood in producing the very authenticity they tell us cannot be manufactured.”
Both Buddhist and contemporary psychological perspectives on “self” suggests that the notion of a unitary, consistent, and separate self is illusory. A few years ago I read a sci-fi story about the “queen” – the part of the personality that thinks it’s in charge, that issues the commands after the other parts of the self (subconscious, etc.) have already begun to execute them. It’s no wonder that finding and expressing our “authentic” selves is so difficult!
So, what does it even mean to ask whether my apparent bravery is real or artifice? Maybe it’s more helpful to ask whether it is a shield; an unconscious habit of reactivity to the fearfulness of my mother and the judgment of my father? I notice that part of me doesn’t want to find out if my so-called bravery is really a reactive pattern. I think I’m afraid it could be a bubble that will burst, and leave me fearful all the time. If it’s a shield, I’m not sure I want to drop it!
Fearfulness and bravado did seem to be the only two options when I was growing up, modeled by my fearful mother and my fearless father. But those of course are only stories about my parents. Judith and Robert’s workshop delved deeply into how the stories we develop about our partners and loved ones are partial, and often problematic, becoming constraining boxes and self-fulfilling prophecies. Part of the practice they teach is to ask, is this really true? Where are there counterexamples? What might be a more empowering story?
Though it seemed to me that my mother’s fears completely circumscribed her life, in fact I can think of significant counter-examples. I picture a scene from my grad school days: My mom at my friend’s graduation party, lying on the floor of an upstairs deck with a borrowed infant in her arms, holding it up above her and cooing at it as it drooled down on her. In this case, her love of babies completely eclipsed her chronic fear of germs and dirt! And I think of how her first job as a social worker after going back to school was in Livonia, MI, a 30 minute commute from our home in Ann Arbor, despite her fear of driving. And how she faced her terror of highway driving, even getting desensitization therapy, in order to be able to drive to Atlanta Georgia to realize her dream of moving to a warmer climate.
I also think of how she admonished me to become economically independent so that I wouldn’t be beholden to a man, despite her distaste for much of what feminism stood for. And there’s this decidedly un-mousy memory of her: One time, when a couple of us kids where visiting her on a break from college, her then-boyfriend got upset about something and threatened to hit her. Without hesitation, she declared that if he ever even threatened such a thing again she would end the relationship. Then she immediately bustled us out of his house. I’m not sure how she did it exactly, but she made sure he knew she was serious about this; I think he may have gone into therapy, and it never happened again. They married and had many happy years together.
My father, the seemingly “fearless” parent, the one I turned to for reassurance when I was afraid, occasionally confesses to a more complex and human picture. He now freely admits that he, too, was scared of some of the things that our mother feared, like the danger of us bicycling to school. He once told me, if I have the story right, that he had a practice he developed in childhood that lasted until he was at least 40 of sleeping only on his right side because it prevented the nightmares he had if he slept on his back or left side. And years after the fact, he confessed to having surreptitiously followed my brother to make sure he was okay in Washington Square Park while the young Ari thought he was being allowed to roam freely when he went there to play chess with the geezers, hucksters, and prodigies.
So a more empowering story about my parents, and about the parts of myself that are modeled after them, might be:
Fear is a basic emotion, a contraction away from danger, a survival instinct. (As Mingyur Rinpoche teaches, it is actually a form of love – of love for this wonderful life we are given). My mother was diligently self-protective, and fiercely protective of her children; although she suffered from a tendency towards obsessive, hyper-vigilence, she was deeply kind and caring, and when it came to the big things in life, she valiantly marched well-outside her comfort zone towards greater freedom.
Though I didn’t imagine my father’s impatience with my mother’s fearfulness, he wasn’t intending to polarize with my mother, but to balance her. He was also acting from love; seeing our mother lean to one side of the ever-present human dilemma of whether to err on the side of caution or the side of exuberance, he chose to convey the other side to his children. He shared his adventuresome, nature-loving, multi-talented Eagle-scout facets, while downplaying his own fears, partly to try to protect us from fear itself. He also shared his habit of critical thinking, teaching us to dismiss fears that were statistically unlikely to occur (e.g. plane crashes).
These alternative stories might or might not be more true – that’s not the point of the exercise. Even if we could go back in time, we probably couldn’t find an absolute truth, and certainly as the past becomes shrouded, as memory fades and rearranges things, that isn’t a useful goal. But are the new stories more empowering? It feels like this retelling could help me feel both my own fear and my tendency to fight that fear with bravado, more fully. If an “artifice” or story, a “shield” or a behavior pattern, is an unconscious habit, it makes sense to bring it to consciousness and ask, is it one that still serves me? With greater awareness comes greater freedom and choice.