Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Water Beats Rock

When I first began to work on the emotional issues affecting my life, my most common tactic was stoicism: the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint. To be fair, it probably wasn’t even true stoicism early on, as the mastery of not displaying feelings requires a considerable amount of effort, and I highly doubt there was ever any real absence of complaint. Postponement of complaint seems more likely. Middle-aged Me is not exactly devoid of complaint. Young Adult Me could be downright obnoxious about it at times.

That is part of growing up, of course. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out who we are, and there are usually plenty of bumps and bruises along the way. Complaints should probably be expected. I like to believe that people who are more inclined to really think about things are also the ones more likely to voice a complaint, but it is far more likely that this is just wishful thinking on my part. There is probably no correlation, and some of us are just more likely to complain, thought or no thought. Live and learn.

So I bumped my way into stoicism, and did eventually become fairly competent about it. As mentioned, I never did really master the art of not complaining, but I did develop a real knack for not complaining at the time, and became quite the expert at not displaying what I felt. That was both good and bad, but it was often what I needed at the time. I cannot recommend this as a long term solution to anything, but it can be a good stepping stone as you learn more and develop your tools. It worked well for me in that regard, and I will still pull it out on occasion, if I need a moment to get my bearings or collect my thoughts. It’s a great stop gap, as long as you remember that it is a stop gap, and not a true solution.

The reasons that stoicism cannot work as a true solution are inherent in the definition - “without a display of feelings and without complaint.”

It is a necessity of the human condition that sometimes you have to complain. While there can be nuance on top of nuance to the complete definition, boiled down to its most basic level, to complain is simply to voice disapproval. Unless you have the ability to fix every single thing that you believe is wrong all on your own, you are going to have to voice disapproval sometimes. You don’t have that ability. There are not many blanket statements that I will make of that sort concerning the abilities of other people, but I feel pretty comfortable with this one. You are going to need help fixing things sometimes, which means that you will need to complain sometimes. That’s one of the side effects of living.

The failure to display feelings, or to display them in a productive manner, is an issue that those of us with emotional instability issues already know all too well. Suppression, which is the usual path of stoicism, is not going to help that problem. What we need for long term benefit is to learn how to feel our feelings without being overcome by them. Locking them away in a box in the back of your mind will not make troublesome feelings go away. The more you stuff into that box, the more the pressure builds up, and, eventually, that pressure has to go somewhere. If the pressure builds for too long, you will inevitably get an explosion, and then things will only get worse.

So stoicism won’t work over the long haul, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be an excellent interim measure. If you are a person who deals with overwhelming emotional issues, it takes time to learn effective resolution techniques, and the universe will not stop and wait for you. Like it or not, sometimes you just don’t have the time for the best answer, and learning to not react may be a better option than continuing to react in a manner that is harmful to yourself or those around you. We walk before we run. We speak before we sing. We jump before we fly. Sometimes we have to stop before we can move on.

Just be careful that you don’t mistake a rest stop for a destination. It can be easy to fall into the trap of “This works, so I will stay here,” only to realize too late that it has stopped working. Stoicism requires a certain amount of wall building, and, if you’re not careful, you can easily build your walls too well. In an effort to keep people from hurting you, you might reach a point where you prevent people from loving you, and then you have lost more than you gained. Like most mammals, H. Sapien is a social creature, and solitary confinement, even when it is self imposed, does not lead to a healthy outcome.

The long term goal is to learn how to experience the moment without being overwhelmed by the moment. You want to let the moment happen, respond to the moment as you need to respond, and then let the moment go. To do this, you must be fully present in the moment, not hiding from it, but fully aware. See the moment for what it is, not what you’re afraid it might be and not what you hope it will be. See it for what it is. This may require you to step back into stoicism for a moment, to pause before you respond, and this is fine. You’re not retreating, and you won’t be staying here. You’re just using the tools you have learned in order to make better use of your more advanced tools. It’s your life. Take your time and do what you need to do to get it right.

Once you have seen the truth of the moment, you will be better equipped to answer that truth. You will have a better understanding of what, if any, reaction is necessary. Can you change it, change for it, or learn from it? Should you do any of these? (Hint: The answer to the third question should always be a resounding Yes! You can learn something from everyone and everything, though sometimes the lessons are less obvious than others.) Does it need a reaction at all? As you learn how to be truly honest and aware of the moment, you’ll find that the answer to that one is No far more often than you had realized before. Sometimes the best answer is silence, and some of the best moments in life only need to be lived. Breathe in the experience, make the memories and lessons learned part of who you are going forward, breathe out the experience, and go on to the next one.

The stoic is a stone, apparently solid and durable, unperturbed by the rest of the world, but eroded down by time and troubles, or destroyed utterly by a single moment of overwhelming stress. Better to be the river that flows around the stone or under the stone or even through the stone, as need and circumstance dictate. Water adjusts to the needs of the moment, while always maintaining its essential self. Water is one of the softest things on the planet but, given time, it wears down many of the hardest. It embraces and absorbs what is thrown at it, adjusts, and moves on. Water can be stopped, of course, but doing so is not trivial, and still water often finds a way.

The river yields, changes course, will even dry up in the worst case, but nothing is perfect, and water is, in the main, inexorable.

Much like the comparison of the flexible bamboo versus the rigid oak, water can adjust and flow as needed, while bouncing back and recovering better than a rock ever can. Both have their uses, and both are necessary for a good life, but one lives while the other endures. Endure while you must, while you are learning, but strive to live. Be like the water that always changes, but always remains the same.

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