Facing Our Demons

Song excerpts from Demons by Imagine Dragons 

When the days are cold / And the cards all fold

And the saints we see / Are all made of gold

When your dreams all fail / And the ones we hail

Are the worst of all / And the blood’s run stale

I wanna hide the truth / I wanna shelter you 

But with the beast inside / There’s nowhere we can hide

Picture this: One typical afternoon a husband and wife have a fight.  On the first day, post-fight, the husband resumes his chores, but in a way that infuriates his wife.  He carefully stacks the dishes, leaving the top plate off-kilter, and strategically sprinkles crumbs across the counter.  Meanwhile, the wife is equally angry and does the laundry but crumples up his socks so they stay dirty, coming out of the dryer damp, smelly and wrinkled. From an observer’s perspective, day one is rather humorous.

The next day they both dig in their heels as they recognize the other’s silent protest, convincing themselves that they’re matching pace with their partner.  Fast forward to day 20 of the strike and the level of tension has significantly ramped up.  At this point, the husband is only sporadically helping with the kids, and the wife is only occasionally agreeing to be intimate.  Now, fast forward ten years and you have a finely-tuned Cold War.  It’s a beautiful, intricately-choreographed, cruel dance.

No matter what we breed / We still are made of greed

This is my kingdom come 

When you feel my heat / Look into my eyes

It’s where my demons hide 

Don’t get too close / It’s dark inside

It’s where my demons hide 

 

You’re worse than you think–and so am I.  I’ve journeyed with hundreds of clients and heard stories of cruelty that, even if I weren’t bound by confidentiality, I would never share because they’re too traumatizing.

I’ve had vicarious flashbacks: which means that I’ve experienced sights, sounds, or smells that triggered an intense reaction, evoking the memory of another’s trauma as if it were my own. This is the residue of what I do.  It’s a black film that clings to my being. It’s what I signed up for.  What I didn’t sign up for was the black residue of my own, one that defiantly clings to me.

Every fiber of that same being rages against the counseling theories that avoid darkness–those theories that preach safety and security.  To ignore the darkness inside us causes more trauma to those who know real cruelty then facing the truth ever could. I can’t, in good conscience, do counseling that way, and I’ll tell you why.

I attended a workshop on marriage counseling recently, and this is the post I’m writing after crawling out of the trenches.  Those of you who are or have been married will see the humor in this. At first, it may appear discordant, but isn’t marriage the place where we’re capable of inflicting the most pain?

I can only describe this conference as a 3-day, 20-hour beating.  I’m bruised and battered on this side, mainly by my own conscience.  And I signed up for it.  And I want to share it with you.  I want to share it because it’s honest and because it’s respectful of human suffering.

Curtain’s call / Is the last of all

When the light fades out / All the sinners crawl

So they dug your grave / And the masquerade

Will come calling out / At the mess you’ve made

The conference expert, Dr. David Schnarch, took our profession to task making an impassioned plea for the ambassadors of our craft to act with greater integrity, and rightfully so.  He called us to an integrity that names things as they really are. He called for an integrity that requires us to face our own demons before we face them in others.


Don’t wanna let you down / But I am hell bound

Though this is all for you / Don’t wanna hide the truth

 

We hide our demons from one another and from ourselves.  I’m no different.  I’ve hurt loved ones.  To deny that I’m capable of such hurt wouldn’t protect others.  When we deny that reality, we suppress the truth, and in suppressing the truth, we silence the voices of all who have experienced human affliction.  “Why?” You might ask.  Because when we diminish the reality of cruelty, we strip away the true narrative that gives others the ability to make sense of their worlds.

Just look at the example of marital Cold War.  By clinging to their personal justifications, each member of that couple suppressed the truth, denying their own culpability and diminishing the other’s experience of hurt to gain a strategic advantage.  In order to do this, each one had to reconstruct the narrative to fit their personal justifications.

No matter what we breed / We still are made of greed

This is my kingdom come 

When you feel my heat / Look into my eyes

It’s where my demons hide 

Don’t get too close / It’s dark inside

It’s where my demons hide 

 For those of you who know me, you might be wondering how this fits with the other edges of me that I hope you’ve seen: playfulness, care, joy, etc.  I really love people.  I love them poorly, oftentimes, but I really love people.  It’s my belief that in order to love them well, I have to face my own demons, and I have to own a view of darkness that’s respectful of both the pain they’ve experienced and the pain they’re capable of inflicting.  This is a respect that’s given without judgment or condemnation, as I know what it means to have demons of my own.

Hiding from our darkness hurts ourselves and others.  But what can emerge when we face the worst in us?  Our. Genuine.  Best.  If you want to see humanity at its genuine best, look at my post on The Stouthearted Man or Tribute to a Storyteller or Lunchbox Wisdom, and you’ll see the beauty of what can be.  Is it worth the beating?  I would say, resoundingly, yes.  But you have to make that decision for yourself.

 

–Your fellow, bruised, traveler

Shadow Words

“Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great, inaudible, feelings and purposes.”

–Theodore Dreiser

I could write every post for the rest of my life on the topic of words–and love every minute of it. Well-chosen words strung together in well-crafted phrases elevated in well-delivered sentences, all of which are well-timed, are the pinnacle of the spoken experience.

Isn’t it true that in order to accomplish this remarkable task, we must be well-oriented to our internal “feelings and purposes”? In order to make the inaudible audible, we must be well aware of what’s echoing in the inner chambers of our inaudible life.

It stands to reason, then, that our words reflect the extent to which we know ourselves. When we talk too much, it says something. When we talk too little, it reveals something else. When we talk just the right amount with calculated precision, carefully obfuscating our true thoughts and feelings, it speaks volumes.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago on curious listening. Curious speech arises out of curious listening. To have a posture of openness when we talk allows a gateway for others to connect with the inaudible in us by way of the audible.

Most of us, myself included, don’t think enough about what we say or have said and the inaudible bits of our souls that those words connect to. What impact would it make on our relationships if we gave that more thought?

Conversely, most of us, including myself, over-think our words in order to conceal the inaudible bits of our souls that we are painfully aware of and don’t want to reveal. At those times, what would it mean to live with more transparency? What would it mean for our words to reflect that painful awareness while surrounded by others who can challenge us with both honesty and compassion?

When words represent truth they become a refining fire and a healing balm to those willing to listen. How carefully are you listening today? What can emerge from curious listening is transparent speaking.

For those you care about, your words represent the front line of your connection with them. If they only knew you by your words, would they know you at all?

Lunchbox Wisdom

My grandfather turns 91, today. I love that picture of him because his expression captures the whimsical combination of surprise and joy that is rarely, simultaneously found in anyone else I know. That same face so capable of spontaneously brightening has been weathered by many storms. He’s witnessed the Great Depression, World War II (firsthand), the death of a child, and the loss of his love, Ruth, his fiery counterpart.

Grandpa is a contemplative man and if you ask for a story, he’ll often lean back in his chair, stretch out his legs and fold his arms, letting out a deep sigh. You can almost hear a tangible acquiescence. He’ll deliberate over a careful response–one that honors every detail of the story. He’ll share a line or two, pause to recalibrate, and then slowly continue. The stop-start cadence of his stories develops a lulling rhythm, supported by his even, robust tone.

There is one type of story, though, that interrupts the usual rhythm with a grand departure into mischief: a story about Ruth. In the rare event that he shares one of those stories you’ll see his face brighten to the tune of that same surprise and joy, enlivening the experience. Add to that a hearty laugh that could make a curmudgeon smile, and you’ve got a winning combination.

The stories he shares about Grandma Ruthie will always play in color in my mind. Her fiery persona, quick wit, and hearty character meant she was a force to be reckoned with. Add to that a propensity for mischief, and you have quite a woman.

One of the legendary stories about the two of them came on the heels of my grandfather’s company moving to a new building. For years he ate in a cafeteria, a creature of habit, routinely taking lunch at the same time every day. The new building didn’t have a cafeteria, so he decided the most sensible option was for Grandma to make him lunch every day. Now, after packing lunches for her kids year after year, she was determined not to acquiesce. They bantered back and forth until she put her foot down and said “I’m not gonna’ make any cotton pickin sandwich!” By the next day, however, she had given in and he triumphantly took his lunchbox to work. When it came to lunchtime he took out his sandwich and bit into a mouthful of cotton balls, nicely seasoned, of course, with a slab of mayo, and delicately sprinkled with salt and pepper.

So, to say she was a worthy opponent is an understatement, but there was a wiser goal behind her decision. Grandpa could get lost in his work. He went 17 years without a sick day–a testament to his commitment and ethic. Grandma secretly knew that if she made him lunch every day, he would take all of 5 minutes to eat it, interact with no one, and hurry back to work. But if she didn’t, he would be forced to walk down to the deli for a much needed, mid-day break.

I was always fascinated by the interplay of my grandparents’ personalities, and how they were so different but strangely well-suited to challenge one another. There’s much I’ve learned from watching and listening to that dynamic, including the wisdom of choosing to surround myself with people, of all ages and personalities, who sharpen my character.

I recently asked Grandpa to resume his storytelling with me by writing letters chronicling different aspects of his life. He has an earned wisdom. He’s earned it in many ways, including through the development of his character in hard times, and the active choice of a mate who was as much a worthy opponent as she was a doting partner.

Do you pursue opportunities to learn from the wise? Our own blind spots can be better identified by those who have developed a broader picture of life through age, or experience, or an uncanny, intuitive sense for the tangible and intangible things.

We can’t expect to develop character without making the humble decision to listen, and listen well, to those who have earned wisdom. We can’t expect to grow without issuing invitations to worthy opponents to challenge us.

I regret that I didn’t ask for those letters sooner. When and if they come they’ll be a tribute to wisdom. When and if they come, I’ll be humbled, surprised, delighted by the weathered storyteller in him that’s still relevant to my world today.