Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Unresolved Issues

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a fan of horror fiction, specifically horror fiction that involves ghosts, monsters, and other denizens of the supernatural. Nothing against other entries in the genre, some of them can also be quite interesting, but I have a weakness for the things that go bump in the night. I always have had. It probably goes along with my deep interest in mythologies, legends, and the other dark, shadowy corners of cultural studies. Understanding a society’s monsters can tell you quite a bit about that society.

One of the staples of classic horror is the ghost story. It’s the Go To story idea for horror literature and movies, and no campfire would be complete without ghost stories. Angry, vengeful, or just plain confused spirit hanging around where it doesn’t belong and causing various sorts of mayhem, almost always as a result of unresolved issues. You can take those pieces and form a nearly infinite number of stories from them, and writers beyond count have been working on finding the limits of that “nearly infinite” number for as long as stories have been told. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the original ghost story was among the first stories ever told. It’s that classic in the human psyche.

The recurring theme in that story, down through the nearly infinite variations, is almost always the idea of unresolved issues. From Shakespeare to Scooby Doo to the Winchester Brothers, whenever someone starts trying to unravel the mystery of a haunting the first thing they inevitably look for is what unresolved issue might have the local ghost all stirred up. What business did the departed leave undone, or what regret has kept the deceased chained to this world? Answering that question is usually the key that lets our protagonists end the haunting and allows everyone else to get on with living a non-spook-filled life.

I suspect that there is a reason why this is such a common theme, and I further suspect that you already see where I am going here. Being haunted by unresolved issues is not confined to fiction. It’s a pretty common theme in plain old human life as well, though often somewhat less dramatic in that version. Or maybe not so much less, if you really stop and think about it. Less showy, perhaps, but how many relationships have been lost, dreams abandoned, and even lives destroyed in real life because of unresolved issues? Real life drama is usually far messier than fictional drama, which makes it less plot driven and harder to follow on screen, but it’s still pretty dramatic. It’s just the kind of drama we tend to want to avoid rather than pay to enjoy.

Avoidance, though, is not really the same thing as getting away from or overcoming. Avoidance has a nasty tendency toward being temporary. Things we avoid almost always come back around for another go. That’s why counselors and other such people in the know usually put such an emphasis on confronting issues rather than avoiding them. You won’t always win with confrontation, but you can win, which is not possible with avoidance.

The trouble is, it’s not always easy to determine the best way to confront your unresolved issues. To be perfectly honest, it’s not always easy to determine your unresolved issues. There’s a reason those ghost stories are usually part mystery story, and it’s not just dramatic license. It can take more than a little bit of soul searching and self-honesty to figure out what unresolved issues you might have in need of redress, and then it takes even more searching, usually both internal and external, to figure out what to do about them. It’s difficult, but such is life. We don’t get better by things being easy.

Sometimes just acknowledging the issue may be enough to put it in its place. The way we run around trying to do too many things at once, it’s not at all uncommon that what is unresolved about some issue is just the fact that we haven’t acknowledged it. We haven’t named it and let it be what it is. We try to ignore it, or stuff it into a box where it doesn’t fit, which just results in that haunted past trying all the more to get its proper attention. The more mindfully we live, the less chance we have of encountering this particular problem. See it, name it, and let it be. Like a rowdy child, sometimes a little positive attention is all your personal ghosts need in order to settle down and be alleviated.

Sometimes they need more, though. There is no way around that. If your rowdy child is setting fire to the house, you’re going to need a bit more than “I see you” to properly deal with the situation. Unlike my rather extreme example, though, our unresolved issues can often be rather slippery and difficult to define or properly nail down to just one thing. Sometimes you will have an immediate need that is as obvious as grabbing the fire extinguisher, but you still have the deeper question of why the fire was set in the first place. Mindful awareness, alone, cannot solve these problems, but you also cannot solve them without it. You have to see an issue for what it is in order to have a real chance of properly addressing that issue. Even then, you may have to take multiple cracks at it before you find the right or best solution.

Just so you know, I am talking to myself here every bit as much as I am talking to you. I have always tried to live my life without regrets, but I don’t know anyone who has ever perfectly succeeded in that goal. Usually the regrets that I have had have been the kind I can address with mindful awareness alone. I see what happened, I acknowledge that it happened, and I let it be in the past where it belongs, learning the lessons it had to teach me so that I don’t make the same mistake, but not letting it haunt me in the present. These are the kinds of issues that can be described as, “I might do that differently if I had it to do over again, but I have learned a valuable lesson so I don’t actually regret what has happened.”

Some things, though, some things require repeated effort. The wheel turns round and round, and we continue around with it until we learn what it is trying to teach. The ghosts continue to haunt us until we figure out how to resolve what is holding them here. There is one other idea that is almost universal in ghost stories, though: ghosts are not physical, and so cannot cause physical harm. They can get you to harm yourself, sure enough, but that’s the trick of it. They’re not doing the harm, you are. If you can keep that in mind, you’ll usually find the repeated effort to at least be safer, if not necessarily easier.

Unresolved issues need to be resolved so that they don’t continue to haunt you and interfere with you life. Sometimes these can be resolved simply through mindful awareness but, even when that will not resolve the issue, mindful awareness can always help you to find the resolution. It may not be easy, and it will often be frightening, but you can take steps to confront issues safely and not let them harm you. Learn from the past so that you can have a better future, and just keep chipping away. Keep trying until you get it. You will be learning even from the failures. The wheel keeps turning, and we keep learning.

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