I was born with a slightly defective hip. Then I developed mild scoliosis during my formative years. Finally, a madman in an SUV rear-ended me when I was just beginning my career as a nurse. The impact of a vehicle traveling 90+ mph in a 30 mph zone all shot through my right leg and hip as I reacted in the only logical way that such a sudden acceleration would cause: I slammed my foot on the brake.
I was not visibly injured other than some facial bruising and a small scar. But the impact of that injury still lingers. This three-horned monster of “born that way,” “developed that way,” and “wrongfully injured” has left me with an ongoing battle against pain.
In my most recent round of physical therapy, I have finally experienced a breakthrough. The physical therapist (PT) asked me what I had noticed over the last few sessions that made a difference in my pain and my ability to perform daily tasks. I guess the answer had been stewing around in there, but until someone asked, I had not yet articulated it.
“Well, I used to think the things that had happened to me were unfair, and so I was angry, but I was willing to do the work to make them better. I just thought that if I went through and did my stretches and exercises every day, I would be fine. It had never occurred to me that every moment of every day I was making decisions that were making my pain worse. I’m finally starting to realize that I am oftentimes causing my own pain.”
Those words hung in the air for a moment, and then this huge smile spread on my PT’s face. She looked like she wanted to write those words in the sky. Apparently, I had said what she wished all her patients would say (or at least her patients in a boat like mine).
I felt like I had released myself from a self-made prison with that realization. It is no longer me, the innocent doer of tasks, being attacked by the faceless monster from the infernal pit. The monster evaporated the moment I stopped blaming my brand of pain on things I can’t (or could not) control. Just the sensation of anger is enough to put my whole body into a painful knot from my Achilles’ to my neck. So not staying angry is beneficial in a lot of ways.
Now I am free to make choices and accept the consequences. Knowing that pain might be the outcome does not make me afraid of making a poor decision; it just lets me know my body is trying to teach me how to do better next time. Instead of being angry that I “can’t get away with cuddling the kids for five minutes without paying for it for days,” I notice what my pain is telling me, respond accordingly, and enjoy the time with my kids. My pain is no longer the thief of these precious moments because when I own what causes the pain, I let myself participate in the joy my body brings me as well.
The groundwork for this epiphany began several months ago. I have been re-reading Bonds that Make Us Free by C. Terry Warner. It isn’t just a self-help book to help you gloss through life’s challenges. It challenges you to change (if needed) using a simple philosophy and many startlingly familiar stories from real people who have overcome their self-betraying ways using the perspective offered by Warner.
We create a false reality when we try to excuse ourselves from treating others as we know we should. This is self-betrayal. Or we create that false reality when we relinquish our responsibility for ourselves by accusing others of causing our troubles. This is playing the victim’s role. Here are a couple points to consider:
…self-betrayers do not accuse others and make themselves miserable maliciously. A real fear motivates them–a real fear of something that is not real. They struggle anxiously with what they falsely believe to be threats needing to be dealt with. In the world as they construe it, they act purely in self-defense (79).
He goes on to add that if
we understand how threatening the world seems to them [self-betrayers playing the victim role], we will set ourselves free of our accusing, judgmental attitude. We will become, as onlookers, more open, truthful, and considerate in our way of being, more responsive to them as they really are [instead of responding to the idealistic façade they’ve created out of the fear that their true selves are inadequate]. (79)
A woman he called Virginia shared her story. She had created a façade, casting herself as the “Good Wife Who Puts up With It All” and her husband as “the Bully:”
…as long as I could identify my husband as the monster–the one who prevented accomplishment, happiness, peace, creativity, etc.–then I never had to face the part of myself that actually prevented those things. As long as I could assign blame, I never had to face the monster in me and take responsibility for my own life and fate.
When I first saw this I became desperately depressed. I assumed that if I couldn’t blame that which was outside myself, then I must be to blame.
And then the final piece of the puzzle appeared: Blame itself was the monster–a monster with which self-responsibility could not co-exist.
So at last I faced that monster. And once faced, as monsters always do, it shrank and shrank until it was a tiny, squeaking little thing. (206)
Not even a month ago, on June 12, another unspeakably horrific shooting took place in this country. Somewhere between tears, vigils, and words of condolence to the victims’ loved ones, the blaming started. Another maddening game of Red Rover Red Rover Send Your Best Attack Over began running an ever deepening rut between the two loudest schools of thought, the Pro-Second Amendment and the Pro-Gun Control groups.
And like that game (before it was banned on our playground in the 1980s), the general result is weakened bonds between anyone once willing to hold hands with his or her neighbor; and some players getting the wind knocked out of them when basically punched in the gut by unrelenting defenses, which I’m sure happens in its own way now on the social media playground of the 2010s. (I have to tell myself I am just an aloof onlooker before entering the fray of any conversations on Facebook relating to rights versus regulation. Otherwise, it just turns into an ugly boxing match.)
Two days later I had the rare opportunity to see and actually read a newspaper. While the car’s oil got changed and my son filled up on free hot chocolate (made from cold tap water), I read the following:
For Ryan Reyes, whose boyfriend was killed in San Bernardino [a separate mass shooting last December], the shootings have less to do with gun control and more to do with highly charged political rhetoric and how people treat each other.
“The issue is American society,” he said. “We are to blame, and the fact that we refuse to accept the fact that we are to blame just makes it worse. It’s what we do to each other that causes these people to get to the point where they feel this is the only option” (Sadie Gurman, Associated Press).
I wanted to write his words in the sky: It’s what we do to each other that causes people to…feel this is the only option.
I would bet that perpetrators of mass shootings more often than not see themselves in some perverse way as the victims. Their parents, or the bullies at school, or a system that failed them are the cause of their final attempt to show the world how they have suffered.
Re-read what Warner tells us:
…self-betrayers do not accuse others and make themselves miserable maliciously. A real fear motivates them–a real fear of something that is not real. They struggle anxiously with what they falsely believe to be threats needing to be dealt with. In the world as they construe it, they act purely in self-defense. (79)
When my pain flares up, it is so loud in my mind that I begin wondering why no one else can hear it. Anyone daring to ask anything of me is met with what I feel is justified anger. When I lose sight of my responsibility to care for my imperfect back, I easily accuse others of contributing to my pain and thereby excuse my mistreatment of, for example, the poor kid who asked me for yet another cup of water and was shocked to have calm-looking Mom yell angrily back at him.
When we see the news and ask that too-oft repeated question, “What kind of a monster would do such a thing?” all we really need to ask ourselves, is “what would lead me to be in so much pain that I would feel justified in taking the lives of people around me?” Simple. The belief that they are the cause of my pain. Or that by harming them, I will injure whomever I do blame for my pain.
By extension, when we point across the aisle at a friend or relative or political opponent and say, “You are the cause of my pain! You are the reason this ideal country is falling apart,” we have just taken the first step on the journey that the “monster” took.
What is the “self-responsibility” referred to by Warner that we can apply to those fighting between citizens’ rights and government regulation? What ideal are we each trying so hard to project as Americans that we will put ourselves through hell to keep the mask from being ripped off? What reality makes us feel so inadequate that we would rather cling to our blaming and accusing ways? And I’m speaking to both sides of the argument. Both sides are behaving in ways that I see as eroding our confidence in our nation and in our ability to make positive change in the world.
I once drafted an email in response to a claim that patriotism was dying among the younger generations of Americans. I didn’t send it, and later it was lost in an email glitch. So I’ve been wanting to explain my generation for a while now.
Patriotism once felt like something I was born with. It’s as if the blood spilled by my ancestors cried out to their children and to their children’s children like a beacon. When I was a child, this beacon gathered us together in hope, pride, gratitude, willingness to sacrifice our selfish ways to bring about a better tomorrow. Freedom flowed through my veins, and every bit of me was grateful to see the flag wave.
Like the imperfect hip socket I was born with, this country came with some imperfect elements. Just to make the country happen, compromises were made that led to very difficult growing pains, such as the Civil War and the ongoing battle for racial harmony. My extended family was in an orthopedic study that proved my hip dysplasia was inherited, and it feels as if I inherited my patriotism as well. Just as my hip hardly bothered me as a child, I could not have imagined that my patriotism would ever bother me either.
But then something took place during my formative years. Like scoliosis, the path of my patriotism took a tiny turn. I learned in my history classes of not only the storybook version of our nation’s history, but also of the uglier times of slavery, imperialism, greed, suppression of others’ right to self-determination, institutionalized bigotry, and other deplorable aspects of my beloved nation’s history. I didn’t know how to reconcile the idealized America I had come to adore and the bitter pill I had to swallow by gaining knowledge.
Though I remained willing to adore my country, and though I remained involved in defending the principles I held dear, that curve in the backbone of my patriotism strained the pride I’d once felt. And like any chronic pain, it eventually twisted my stance slightly into one of defense, or in other words, I was always ready to be offended. I remember lashing out at an old high school friend on Facebook in 2010 [originally posted as 2009] because he celebrated the passing of some legislation that I considered detrimental to the nation’s ability to sustain itself. And in that moment I basically told him he was ignorant if he thought the law was a good one. His calm but bold response reminded me that in defending what I saw as “right,” I had betrayed something even more important, the call to love my neighbor as myself.
And if we’re following patriotism as a parallel to my back condition, then came the injury, the attack that galvanized my patriotism. I remember rejecting the initial claims that the airplanes hijacked on the morning of September 11, 2001 were the work of terrorists associated with Islam. I wanted to get beyond the ethnocentric view that terrorists only looked, dressed, and prayed a certain way. Just like the moment of impact in my car accident when I thought, “What did I do wrong?” I thought, “This attack is from within. It is from something one of us has done wrong.”
My car accident happened while on my way to buy shoes and a vacuum cleaner. I was just changing radio stations as the impact occurred. I had done nothing wrong. Instead, all the evidence pointed to the madman: he was intoxicated and driving erratically and with excessive speed when he hit four separate vehicles on a two-lane road, killed himself and a driver he hit head-on, and injured three other people besides me. I suffered from slamming my right foot on the brake, but it was a natural reaction. Though the action made sense at the time, it further damaged the right side of my back, the same side where hip dysplasia affects me.
Similarly, when 2,996 Americans going about their usual business were tragically lost, they had done nothing wrong. Instead, the evidence in the attack on America all pointed to Islamic radicals. The jolt that we felt in our sense of security easily led to a logical decision to fight back. The debatable knee-jerk reaction by our leaders to declare war on terrorism gave me a way to take the entire impact of that day on just one side of my thinking: the enemy was someone else, someone who looked and believed differently from me, some group I had nothing in common with. I was freed from the responsibility of making America better by loving my neighbor because my neighbor wasn’t the threat.
I have often reflected on the immediate post-9/11 days as some of the most unifying for our nation because we were finally one. After being born the night of a presidential debate, lobbying on the playground for the candidate of my choice in second grade, attending a rally for my latest candidate at age 16, and watching the country count “hanging chads” in Florida at age 20, I finally felt like we were going to toss aside party politics in favor of fighting our enemies. But the worst was yet to come. We were now poised to see threats everywhere.
When we live in suspicion, we treat others suspiciously. And when others are treated suspiciously, they tend to meet our expectations of them.
In short order after 9/11, the threats from within multiplied and began to tear us apart again (at least in my limited view). The monster from the infernal pit was destroying us, and we are still so busy dodging its three horns named “America was born this way,” “America developed this way,” and “America has been wrongfully injured” that we have forgotten what the monster is.
It is the act of blaming one another.
Every time I point my finger at what I reject and cast it as the sole cause of my pain, I have lost an opportunity to change for the better. Because it is actually my stance, my moment-to-moment posture and movement that determine whether I experience pain and fear or joy and peace as the outcome of my patriotism. Blaming can turn patriotism into vicious attacks on each other as quickly as it can turn my lousy posture into agonizing, punishing pain. Taking responsibility for the part I play changes pain into warning and warning into helpful actions. Soon joy and peace prevail again.
Just the ire that inspires such slogans as “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention” is enough to make our views of the world inaccurate. If we are truly paying attention, we will notice how our attitude affects interactions with others (particularly those with opposing views) and ask ourselves why that feeling is steering our words and actions. Why should anger be in charge of our destinies? I regret probably every decision I have ever made in anger. But I have built a joyful life on the decisions I made when using trust, calm consideration, and faith to steer me.
And was it a NY Times writer who tweeted his conclusions that gun owners were trying to make up for small genitalia? Or this article, which in my understanding, assumes those who fight for their 2nd amendment right do so with about as much concern for their fellow creatures, leveled by gun-packing assailants, as does the nonchalant zebra who goes on eating after the herd is thinned by a marauding pack of lions? Reducing one another’s humanity to a straw man makes it all the easier to blame and accuse one another. (And I may have done just that in my attempt to summarize these views that I considered unhelpful.)
Just as my stretches and exercises for my back will never be enough, voting isn’t enough. Patriotism motivates and inspires. It is not enough to love my country. It is not enough to be willing to die for my country. But if I stand ready to take responsibility for my attitudes and actions, I can treat others with the kind of trust that says, “I accept them as they are–with their fears, their failures, and their hopes. With Warner, I can say:
we understand how threatening the world seems to them, [thus] we will set ourselves free of our accusing, judgmental attitude. We will become, as onlookers, more open, truthful, and considerate in our way of being, more responsive to them as they really are. (79)
Abraham Lincoln closed his Gettysburg address with the following:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
It was with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives me to see the right, that I put my hand over my heart on Monday and declared:
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
And my tears were not from pain or loss, but for the gratitude and hope I still feel whenever I see our flag raised. I stand by that flag and call to anyone who will listen to link hands again, learn from each other, and re-forge those indivisible bonds. If we are all to have liberty and justice, we must bind up one another’s wounds by seeing each other once again as brothers and sisters.