Have you ever noticed how much time we spend reflecting on, and usually castigating ourselves for, things that have happened in the past? The odd thing is that upon detached reflection the amount of time we spend beating ourselves up over the past has absolutely no relationship to the seriousness of the supposed offense we committed! We might, for example, never think about the three banks we robbed in high school while being completely unable to forgive ourselves for some casual remark we made to an acquaintance. That’s completely counter intuitive – but it has been my experience that the counter intuitive often has a profound lesson to teach us.
So what sorts of things do we beat ourselves up over the most, and what do they mean?
I tend to beat myself up over decisions I made despite the fact that I knew better and saw it beforehand. In other words, those times in my life when I knew I wasn’t making the best decision but went ahead and made it anyway – usually to spare someone else’s feelings or for the sake of appearances. While I would like to think that I do that less and less often over time, I am not the most unbiased observer of my own choices. I do notice that I tend to make those decisions because of the presumed effect of making what I know the right decision to be on the other person. In other words, I will sacrifice my own personal integrity in favor of somebody else. Not surprisingly, I make those bad decisions most often in relationship. I have to come to the absolute conviction that each and every one of those instances has been a mistake, and from this comes a few rules:
1. Trust your gut. If you know something is wrong, if you know a choice you are contemplating making will most likely leave you unhappy, if you know continuing in the status quo will be self destructive, then don’t do it! It doesn’t matter what other people will think about your decision, what the other person involved in your decision will do in response, or where the “chips will fall” after your decision, if you sacrifice your sense of personal integrity in the service of someone else (no matter the context) then you (and only you) lose. The Universe speaks to us through out gut, and we fail to listen at our own peril.
As a corollary to this, we need to not judge others – and we need to not judge their choices and the consequences of those decisions because we have not lived inside their skin. It’s easy to look at someone with multiple marriages (about the only thing Elizabeth Taylor and I have in common) and be critical of that history. It’s also wrong. The person sitting next to you with a 40 year marriage filled with misery and heartache hasn’t learned life’s lessons about relationship any more than the man with 12 marriages – but at least he is still engaged in the process (although I recommend he consider the real possibility that his gifts may be more in the area of domestic partnerships).
In addition to trusting our gut about things that feel wrong, we need to trust our gut even more about things that feel right. Dive in, get naked, engage life, laugh, make a fool of yourself and love it, try something new, try something old again, lie down under the stars with someone you care about, walk with them through the woods even though you might get lost (either in the woods, or in them, or both), most of all abandon the fear and live!
2. Let go of your children (at an appropriate age, of course). Children are human beings, and you simply cannot control them – no matter how hard you try. Having two biological children who have serious mental illnesses and two non-biological children who do not have serious mental illness, I understand the profound truth that all you can do is the best you can – and then you have to let go of it. As children move to young adulthood they will make their own decisions – they need to make their own decisions – and even though some of those decisions will be bad ones, they need to make them for themselves. And, in the end, if you have done the best you could, even if they decide to have nothing to do with you that isn’t a failure on your part – it’s a road they must travel. As a wise man once said (ok, it was me), that ain’t your shit.
3. Stay out of prisons. I’m not talking about the traditional ones – although it is a good idea to stay out of those, too. I’m talking about the ones we create for ourselves. Almost anything can become a prison – relationships (first and foremost), but also jobs, social commitments, charity work, clubs…anything. They become prisons when they suffocate us and kill us bit by bit. Often times we find ourselves in prisons after we are already incarcerated – but unlike traditional prisons, we can escape from those of our own construction at any time. All we have to do is make the choice. There simply is no acceptable reason for remaining in prison. The kids know you are miserable, your performance at the job you hate sucks, and the charity work you do at the society for intolerable snobs is lifeless and meaningless. Get out!
4. When you connect with someone, on any level, follow the connection. There is something to be learned from that connection, and you won’t ever know what you were supposed to learn from it if you don’t follow every connection. You won’t really escape the situation, either, since the lessons we need to learn keep presenting themselves to us until we work through them. Those connections occur on several levels – personal, professional, intellectual, romantically, creatively – and the Universe is trying to teach you something that you need to learn in the context of that relationship. Choosing not to learn it only diminishes us. Most often, we choose not to engage the connection because we are afraid of where it might lead us. Do you really want to live a life motivated by fear? Is that really life? Do you really mean to suggest to me that if you meet and connect with someone who works in your field and might offer you the career opportunity of a lifetime that you will run away from it because you like the security of the misery of your current death row position?
Equally importantly, if someone in your life who purports to care about you tries to hold you back from following your connection opportunities you need to face the hard reality that they don’t care about you – they only care about their own fear and insecurity. The same is true if somebody tries to tell you how to dress, or act, or talk, who your friends can be, when you can see your family, or anything else. Somewhere along the line we started confusing caring about another person with controlling them – and those two things are diametrically opposed. Spouses or partners who constantly check up on their mates, or require itineraries from them, or retain a right of approval on their agenda, or seek to isolate them from friends and family are always, always, always abusive. Get out of those relationships at all costs. Equally abusive are those spouses or partners who, whether sincerely or not, take an attitude of non-caring. In actuality that behavior is just another attempt at control. Their partners tend to try to do something – anything – that will make the non-caring partner give a damn. After a while they give up, and then the subtle manipulation steps up a bit into the “I don’t care, but I won’t let you go” strategy. Both tactics are life denying, both will eventually kill the spirit (and possibly the body), and there is nothing that justifies staying around waiting for that to happen.
5. If you are in a relationship, be in the relationship – or don’t be surprised to see your partner leave. Relationships are not traps that we set and spring, thereby capturing our prey and affording them no opportunity for escape. People are free, and they can and do leave when taken for granted. I can’t tell you how many relationships I am aware of – in my own life and others’ – where one of the parties has made the assumption that an emotionally malnourished person will stick around. We have all seen it. People who assume that once they get someone to sign a marriage license their work is done and the other is stuck. We have a habit in our culture of looking at relationships like some sort of trophy. Once we have the trophy, we act like all we have to do it put it on the mantle and occasionally dust it off. The problem is that relationships are living things, and they starve on the mantle.
Remember birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, the day of your first date – and never, ever, ever choose to do something other than spend time with your partner on those dates. If your partner makes special arrangements for a get away on an important date and lets you know in advance then be aware that blowing that off in favor of something else is an infidelity potentially more damaging than a physical indiscretion because it completely devalues the other. Actions speak louder than words.
6. Cultivate loyalty as an important character trait in yourself. In doing so, you will receive it from others as well.
We first need to define what loyalty isn’t. Loyalty isn’t blindly standing by someone while they kick the crap out of you – that is stupidity, and it is something else altogether. Loyalty is making an intentional choice to stand with another in their struggles and their joys, always with the intention to do no harm. Notice that is very different than rescuing or protecting the other – neither of those things are realistic goals. I can’t possibly protect someone from every potential harm or rescue them from every bad situation. I can, however, stand with them in their struggle. I can say that I will stand with you and not abandon you just because someone else doesn’t like something about you. When others attack you, I will stand by you and not leave you hanging out to dry.
Loyalty is not a self imposed prison, however, and the potential exists for someone to no longer deserve my loyalty. If I pledge someone my loyalty and they abandon our relationship either physically or emotionally, then I have no obligation to be loyal to the one who has been disloyal to me. If I agree to stand by you and you decide to try a new career as a bank robber, please know that I will not help you rob the bank. I will, however, visit you in prison.
7. Last, but certainly not least, develop a health sexual ethic. I write about this quite a bit. Western society is still trapped in the stranglehold of a perverse, sado-masochistic puritanical sexual ethic, and it is killing us. I want to begin by saying quite clearly and without qualification that to be healthy sexual activity must be by mutual consent and must not involve contact between a person who has reached the legal age of consent and a person who has not. It also must always be activity that is loving and life giving as opposed to life denying. That having been said, go for it!
Don’t pay attention to the Bible thumpers who would seek to convince you that God cares about who is on top, which body part contacts which other body part, whether there is intent to conceive a child, or any other such nonsense – just get to thumping! Don’t listen to the radical feminists who have sublimated their sexual energy into esoteric analyses about exchange of power in the sexual encounter, because that sort of nonsense is just an attempt to hide their own unhealthy attitudes toward their own sexuality. If you must, let your junior Gloria Steinem get on top and get over yourselves!
Worried that your husband is watching pornography? Get naked. Worried that your wife is sleeping with the neighbor? Get naked. Worried about your adequacy? Practice makes perfect, get naked. Worried that you don’t look like you did when you were twenty years old? Let me help you with that, you don’t – now get naked. Get naked, get naked, get naked, and then get naked again until it becomes a normal part of your life instead of some sort of a “special gift” you give to one another, or some sort of bone you throw your dog for crapping in the yard instead of in the living room. Only then will we begin to move beyond this ego maniacal notion that my genitals are so damn special that I need to dole them out to my partner only on special occasions like their birthday. If that’s the way you think, I would respectfully suggest you stick a candle in your genitals and light it – you will learn very quickly that you don’t have a cake there, Fred!
I believe we avoid physical intimacy because we avoid emotional intimacy and vulnerability like a plague. We know that if we get naked we become intensely vulnerable and so she had a bad day at the office and he has a headache. Avoidance of intimacy is walking through life as if it were a dress rehearsal for the real thing. Unfortunately, this is the real thing, so get naked. Anyone who has been there knows that to engage in a loving sexual encounter is to achieve a sense of transcendence, to touch the Holy. They also know that laying together after the big O (and I don’t mean Oprah Winfrey) is the most intensely vulnerable moment of our lives. I know that many of us struggle with that kind of intimacy, but if we are to engage in the fullness of life we need to get over that, so get naked.
That may sound a little harsh, or a little flip, and it is – but I mean every word of it. How in the world can you say that you want an intimate primary relationship and then refuse to engage in physical intimacy? You are deceiving yourself! What’s more, you are an intelligent individual – surely you don’t believe that your partner (who presumably wants an intimate fulfilling relationship on every level just as you say you do) is going to stick around indefinitely under those conditions, do you? When she goes, how much satisfaction will you get in hiding behind some absurd notion that you are the offended party?
Organized religion (which, by the way, I despise) is one of the greatest offenders in this arena. Organized religion tends to be in the behavior control business, and they try to exercise the most control in the private areas of our lives – especially in the bedroom. Never mind that they are the least qualified to be making those judgments because (assuming they follow their own nonsensical teachings) they are either celibate or limited to the missionary position. That’s about equivalent to hiring a plumber to do your cardiac bypass surgery. Am I the only one who finds it more than a little ironic that most of organized religion seems much more interested in talking about particular physical acts of a sexual nature than in talking about intimacy between human beings? Perhaps that is because they are even more crippled than most of us in this area. Stop listening to them! If you must listen to them, do so naked. It will help you get in touch with the absurdity of their statements.
Trust yourself, let go, be free, connect, be present, be loyal, and be intimate – not an exhaustive list, but the beginning of a program for full contact living. If you disagree with me, that’s fine. You reluctance to engage life fully will not stop me from doing so. Rather than argue with me about my program, why not get on with yours? What are you afraid of? What are you resisting? Don’t deceive yourself, the only thing you are resisting is life.