Sunday, September 25, 2011

No Easy Exit

I once read about a study on marital stability as predicted by facial expressions. Researchers examined videos of married couples second by second, frame by frame to identify facial expressions. It was claimed that the expressions allowed researchers to predict with 90% accuracy which couples would be divorced in the next four to six years and which ones would still be together. The study found that the biggest marital killer is contempt. If contempt was expressed, even minutely in the videos of conversations between married couples, the couple was almost certainly doomed. While it may make sense to separate yourself from a contemptuous marriage, I have been thinking that having to deal with contempt or unpleasantness in other areas of our lives might actually be good for personal growth.

While we don’t have to stand for contempt or unpleasantness from our friends and spouses, we often don’t have a choice in the rest of the world. We encounter contemptuous people in school, work, the neighborhood, and within families. In some of these scenarios where there is no easy exit, we may be forced to figure out how to live with it and even be authentic and happy in that situation.

I worked for a small telecom company for more than a decade and felt deep respect and affection for many of my co-workers. My boss felt we needed to expand the sales team to include a database administrator, taking that off of my plate so that I could get back exclusively to the sales role I had had before. He told me it was really important for me to get along well with this person in order for it to go well. The woman that was chosen for the job turned out to have a problem getting along with other women. I tried to bond with her right from the beginning but was rebuffed by her every time. She had no interest in getting along well with me or any other woman in the company. One day I passed her in the hallway and she smiled at me in fake, sacchrine-sweet, sarcastic smile that conveyed nothing but contempt. I uncharacteristically returned one of the same back at her and kept walking. Oddly, from that moment on our work relationship was much easier and more pleasant. From then on I decided to stop trying and just accept the fact that we would not be friendly but that we WOULD continue to work together. It could be acrimonious or not, depending on how I chose to make it. My goal was somewhere between pleasant and neutral. Although we were never friends, we seemed to be able to work together fine after that. I think she was surprised that I had that in me and had confused my friendly overtures with neediness or weakness. I am not sure what she thought, but I know that radical acceptance of the way things really were dramatically improved my work life.

I saw a movie called “Away From Her”, about a couple that deals with Alzheimer’s disease. The husband does not want to send his wife to an assisted living facility but she insists. After a short time in the facility, she no longer remembers who her husband is, despite his daily visits. She and another man in the facility become very affectionate and spend all of their time together. At first the husband is upset and resistant, trying to control things, but gradually he starts to accept what is and even reunites the two when they are separated and they both deteriorate in their grief. The husband, once accepting what is, begins to work out for himself a life that includes loyalty and commitment to his wife, as well as a personally fulfilling relationship with someone else. It was that radical acceptance that helped him maneuver through such a challenging time, with full presence and integrity.

In both of these cases, leaving was not the best option and facing up to the way things are with radical acceptance was critical to finding contentment in the midst of a difficult situation. When we choose not to leave (or can’t), HOW we show up makes all the difference. These two examples surfaced to remind me in a timely way that when faced with a difficult person that is here to stay, I will accept what IS and stop trying to make it be something different. Learning to show up with full and equanimous presence and integrity might just be the gift that an easy exit can't give.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What Do Camping and Christmas Have in Common?

This winter I diligently booked three summer camping trips after researching the best campsites within a few hours of where we live. I planned them about a month apart, figuring that if we wanted more camping we could always do the first-come, first-served visits without reservations. We were only able to do two as a family and that was more than enough. I am burned out on camping.

I did not grow up camping but when I met John he introduced me to the outdoors and I was smitten! It was a big part of our relationship right from the beginning. We once camped our way from Chicago to Seattle and back over a month during our first summer together. We have always preferred to camp in remote areas, carrying everything we need and eating oatmeal and dried soups along the way. We love hiking and John loves the goal of getting to the top of a mountain, while I am content staying below tree line with a book. When we meet back up we resume our hiking together and share the highlights of the summit and the book as we go. We never understood the point of camping in sites that are so close to each other, where everyone arrives and sits around drinking beer all day and blaring music late at night. Our kind of camping was more like church, I suppose - quiet, reverent, inspiring, and bonding.

And then came our children. We couldn't wait to share camping with them. We took Jude when he wasn't even able to walk yet. However, by necessity, camping with children has brought us back down from the top of the mountain and well into the tree line, in the tent-ready sites where you pull up your loaded vehicle, drag all of your stuff out and set up your home away from home. Our children have fundamentally changed what camping is for us.

Over the years I have noticed a phenomenon I have dubbed "equipment creep". We started out with a small tent, sleeping bags, and bare essential cooking equipment. Because we no longer have to carry everything on a long hike to a camping site, we have started to be more indulgent about what we take. Now we have added chairs, a stove, a shade canopy, a huge tent, a cooler and bags of groceries, among other amenities. It takes some time to shop, prepare and pack all of that (and remember to bring each thing). It takes even longer to clean up after a camping trip. We can't do the long hikes we like to do because our kids are not interested or willing to do it. We know from experience that it is not worth it to drag them out and fill the woods with whining. We can't leave them and go off on our own as they are still far too young for that. We do go exploring together and let them do so on their own. Last time we took them to a stream where we played for a few hours and climbed up (shhh, don't say "hike") to the top of rocky hill near our campsite. Our kids do enjoy those times. I encourage John to go on his long runs up the mountain and back while I stay with the kids, but I don't like to hike alone so I don't take my turn when he gets back.

So what do camping and Christmas have in common? A lot of people complain about the way Christmas so often gets reduced to being all about things: presents and food in this case. Whether Christian or not, many lament the holiday's missing sense of meaning, spiritual feeling, connection or community. The quiet reverence and gentle light of Christmas get buried under all that wrapping paper and honey baked ham. Kids (and many adults) get so caught up in the orgy of consumption that they miss the opportunity to appreciate that holiday's spiritual essence and its unique opportunity for equal parts of deep introspection and connection.

And so it is with camping for me. Gone are the days of testing our physical endurance limits accompanied by long philosophical talks or companionable silence. And, I confess, the days of being able to sleep comfortably on rocks have passed now too. For me, camping has been reduced to stuff and I don't enjoy it any more. To my children it is less about exploring, climbing and playing (thought they do that too) and more about eating and playing with fire and knives. They would gladly sit around a campfire all day and well into the night throwing stuff in the fire and whittling sticks and eating from our extensive Whole Foods Market stash. Even with this I still hear how bored they are and their seemingly rhetorical question, "what can we do?" never meets with an answer they like. Sitting around for two days eating and supervising fire and knife activity is really not fun for me. Like those that struggle with unearthing and preserving the meaning in Christmas, I am struggling with how to reinvent camping with children.

I want my kids to have these fun outdoor experiences and I want to be there to share it with them, but I also want it to be fun and worthwhile for me too. I have tried planning games and scavenger hunts with them but they are not all that interested. I have tried camping with other families or even organizing large groups, thinking everyone will have playmates and couples can take turns heading out for a hike alone, but we've found that the more people we add to the campsite, the more the focus is on food and beer and sitting. Don't get me wrong, I do like the community it fosters (and I do like that beer), but I can get that at home without having to do a mountain of laundry afterwards!

At this point in my posts I normally share the life lesson I learned and from this challenge and how it is even applicable to other areas of my life. But alas, this time I have not yet worked out the lesson or solution. I welcome suggestions.