This, right after “Keep breathing”, is one of my go-to pieces of mind management. It’s about so much more than consequences. Let’s take an example.
A non-obvious choice
At work, before I got sick, there were a lot of big, well-built guys in the software engineering department, who wrote the programming code that made the business happen. (It was a software firm with a great gym on campus; hence, lots of engineers & muscley ones at that.)
There were a lot of diligent people (almost all of them fit, though few as statuesque) in the QA department, who tested the programming code that the software engineers wrote, and had to make sure it was accurate and well-behaved (yes, code is supposed to be well-behaved!) before it was finalized.
Among the QA engineers was a woman about 4’9″, one of those sweetly scintillating geniuses who didn’t seem to have a temper to lose.
One day, in a meeting, one of the most magnificent of the software engineers learned that something he’d made was not behaving well. He argued the point; this QA engineer calmly reiterated her findings. To my astonishment, he actually stood up, walked over to her, and loomed. I mean, LOOMED.
The entire room (mostly men) held its collective breath. It was out of character for this engineer to be unpleasant, as a rule; and to pick on a woman? Unthinkable.
But his brainchild had been criticized, and he did not like it one bit.
Now, I grew up with two brothers. I also worked as an ER nurse in one of this nation’s hell-holes. I know how this is supposed to go. One person looms, the other bristles, and things get louder, with the (sometimes implicit) threat-level increasing until one backs down.
I learned that day that there is, in fact, more than one way that this absolutely primal interaction can go.
All 92 pounds of QA engineer peered straight up, neck totally relaxed and head dropped back, at the scowling 180-pound sculpture of irritation and physique, with a mild air of bland puzzlement. It was as if she was wondering if he really thought standing over her changed the facts, and what was the point, which it turned out was exactly what she _was_ thinking.
Not a patch on that moment. It was wonderful.
The engineer eventually breathed and went back to his seat. Like the super-smart guy he almost always was, he moved straight on to how to fix the problem.
Given the format of conflict most of us know, the QA engineer should have tensed up and snarled, and that should have turned into a shouting match and disrupted the rest of the day — possibly involving HR and resulting in reprimands for them and hours of “training” for all. That’d make for a difficult, expensive, exhausting, and largely fruitless afterwards. These two worked together a lot, and this could have started a long downhill slide in their work relationship, which would have affected a lot more than their moods.
Instead, the QA engineer stayed on task — she held the larger view of what was needed to bring the code “up to code”, so to speak. By doing so, she gave the software engineer (who, admittedly, shouldn’t have needed it, but we’re all human and make mistakes sometimes) enough mental space and time to calm down, refocus, and get on with the important thing. Which he did.
After that, he did his looming without moving from his seat, which was no more than anyone else did. Their relationship continued to be a little testy, since one necessarily had to criticize the other, but increasingly respectful because they were both so good at their jobs. (They loved each other, professionally, even when they didn’t like each other. Sound familiar?)
I finally got it
I found my own level of tension dropping after that. Even when the brainstem is receiving hard signals, it’s possible for the cortex to choose wisely, instead of reflexively. Who knew??
My own team of software engineers were more shouty and less loomy, but it sure calmed things down when I could simply wait, relaxed, as they ranted, and then ask — in a calm, natural manner — what to do about it.
It was great preparation for living with central (that is, driven by the brain and spine) pain.
Pain does things to the brain, and central pain does more, worse, longer, and harder. However, pain is not the only thing in my brain. I have all kinds of things there, not least of which is — my mind.
There was a period when I was almost dead (sorry, Mom.) Even getting to my knees was impossible until my body had turned up the volume on itself, which took almost an hour. I was living aboard a sailboat at the time, and the fresh air and gentle rocking did me a lot of good. Not enough, though.
As this period began, I thought about it long and hard, lying there in my berth, desperate to yield completely to the exhaustion but unable to give up on life until I’d figured out the plot. Seriously, that was all that kept me alive: narrative curiosity, and feeding my cat. (Hey, whatever it takes!)
But wait, this gets even funnier.
I mentally reviewed the many adventure movies I’d seen, where the protagonist gets through impossible situations and overcomes unbearable limits by pure willpower, because they choose — over and over — to take the next step or make the next move, however hard it might be.
It popped into my head that almost all of those movies were fiction. “Doesn’t matter,” I told myself. “It’s all right. Some of them were based on fact.” Sure, I’ll go with that!
And so, with Cleopatra (Queen of Denial) riding my back…
I pushed my pillows aside, planted a fist on the settee coming straight out from the head of my sleeping berth, and pulled forward. God, that was hard. I panted until I could breathe again, then muttered, “I choose to go forward, whatever it takes.” I planted the other fist, dragged myself forward another few inches. Panted, took a breath, “I choose to go forward.” Over and over. “I choose.”
After a few days, I didn’t have to say it aloud every time. After a few weeks, I didn’t verbalize it at all; it was a silent stream of intention. A couple months later, I got hooked up to an acupuncturist/naturopath/homeopath who figured out how to gently draw my shattered system back from the brink, without accidentally knocking me off the edge. (Dr. Daniel Donner in the Oakland/Berkeley area; very highly recommended.)
Becoming super-human, or maybe more fully human
It was around this time — with social media toddling out of the BBS/chat era with its first firm steps, and blogs becoming normalized — that I developed the theory that humans under unbearable circumstances have to become superhuman, and that this is why we have myths — to show us the way past our learned limits. To quote the sainted Sir Terry Pratchett,
It’s amazing how peope define roles for themselves and put handcuffs on their experience and are constantly surprised by the things a roulette universe spins at them.
We are so much more than we think we are, than we have let ourselves believe, than this tiny moment in history and culture allows us even to notice!
As an amateur historian and someone who bounced all around the world growing up, I’ve always had a pretty solid sense that what one time/place thinks is normal, is actually pretty darn weird in the eyes of the rest of reality. (“Eggs for breakfast? But that’s dinner food!” And the moment I realized it was breakfast in London but dinner for me, and so it didn’t matter what I had.)
What I learned a little later is that I don’t always have to blend in. In fact, there are times when it’s best to ignore “normal” and get on with what needs doing.
These days, “normal” is scarcely ever a relevant concept, except as a matter of how to tune my disguise.
I’ve noticed I get better results and am treated better by others when I fall within certain parameters of appearance and behavior — ones that are “normal” either for a nice White soccer mom with arty sensibilities (on the street), or a pleasantly intelligent professional (when seeing physicians & administrators) — so I track myself accordingly. Your mileage may vary — we’re all different — so, try different things and see what works for you.
Back to reality
The point is, even at the hardest moments, and despite intense cultural programming and bitter central pain, it IS possible to choose how to be.
We don’t hear that much, especially from movies, eh? Follow your feelings! Be impulsive — it’s cool! Violence works! 3 days is enough to know someone’s soul! Good people will love you no matter what! If it/they are not perfect, it’s broken! If others disagree, you have the right to hurt them back! Sigh.
In fact, these are symptoms of a traumatized brain. I know — I live in one that’s constantly being re-traumatized. Black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, blaming, panicking — being totally overwhelmed by huge emotions, forgetting that there is a complex human being in the midst of them, one who HAS feelings but IS NOT the feelings.
This is the un-managed internal reality of central pain: full-on red-alert, a fire drill for an inferno that never stops burning.
Feelings, impulses, drives — they’re information, not commands.
Consciously or not, we choose what to be guided by.
This is why self-management is imperative for us — and why we can be a bit fragile when the pain is high, or we have to think about being sick (like at the doctor’s office.)
We have to work to manage this impossible mess without looking like we’re falling apart. If we don’t succeed, if we simply react the way “normal” people would “normally” react under that kind of stress, we can easily lose everything — doctors, jobs, family, friends, allies, resources, the lot. We have to be abnormally strong to handle abnormally large, abnormally relentless assaults on our peace and poise, not to mention our lives and minds.
This is why being “super-human” is not a bad concept — imagine being a better survivor than X-Men’s Magneto, a cannier manager than James Bonds’ M, as resourceful as Coyote, as implacable as Kronos, as benevolent as Kuan Yin. These mythological models, not “normal human behavior”, may be the only standards that are even applicable to people in extraordinary circumstances.
For people like me (and there are a lot of us, not only from central pain), with a brain constantly under siege from noxious primal signals and in a socio-historical moment aiming to squash the disabled/poor/female/peculiar like bugs, this understanding is transformative, and very freeing: I can’t aspire to be normal, let alone change the world… but I can learn to choose my responses, and if I have to aim higher than normal to do so, there are still models to follow — even if I have to go inch by inch, fist over fist, to follow them.
It takes practice, but it’s possible. As with muscles, our habits of mind get stronger with practice. Of course it takes time, but the time will pass anyway, right?
Catching the wave
The first habit to develop is learning to notice when the wave of emotion rises. That is the sweet spot, right before emotional/physical pain (in all their strangling glory) take over.
That’s the moment when it’s easiest to catch on and remember our larger job of doing well despite everything, the moment when it’s easiest to pick a good “afterwards” to aim for and follow the inner prompts that can lead to it.
I find that the temporary relief of discharging my anguish or rage is absolutely nothing compared to the lasting relief of making things better, one choice at a time. At times, I have to remind myself of this, pause, breathe, and take the time to choose a better response than the first or strongest one that occurs to me.
It’s a constant discipline, rather than a destination; life always has more surprises in store. But I’ve had practice, and those “choosing my afterwards” mind-muscles are in decent shape. If I can get clear of mind-muddling mold, they might get even better.
Hard to do that without being able to catch the moment. It took time to learn to identify it, and when I’m particularly disrupted by pain or shock or toxic exposures — especially toxic exposures — catching that moment can be temporarily impossible.
Given good nutrition and no toxins, though: reaching for a better way to be, comes soon after we learn to identify that difficult moment. It’s a wonderful skill; makes a person very powerful in the wider world, as well as in the interior world of “living anyway.”
I think it also improves my writing 🙂
Beyond the moment
I said earlier that “always an afterwards” was about more than consequences. It was an important part of my getting through what I call The Hell Years. It reminded me that, if I survived this — whatever it was — I’d get to find out what would happen next.
And boy, was that a journey worth making!