If not for death and good conversation, I might have written a post yesterday that I surely would have regretted. My fourth little youngster had his fourth “blowout” in a week, even after we went up to the next diaper size. If you think I’m talking about a big sale, that might be because his blowout was a form of liquidation. If you think I’m talking about a hair treatment, that might be because pulling out your hair will leave it sticking straight out from your head like mine was. No, his blowout resulted from forces only nature can understand, and when nature calls, sometimes it leaves a calling card as big as your child.
My “I have had it with poop!” attitude shaped itself into a relevant, pithy, and at times painfully funny rundown (literally, at times) of all the moments I have had to deal with poop and how, if my diatribe were read to teens everywhere, no one would have to worry about how to deal with adolescents and sex education, access to birth control, unwanted pregnancy, or unwanted babies. Instead, they would all take vows of celibacy.
I let this surge of self-justification and hard-won expertise catapult me past the thought (which was politely jumping up and down in my head with its hand raised like a child who needs to go urgently to the restroom) that perhaps today, the day that the death was announced of my church’s president, might not coincide well with my “I love my kids but today I hate them” tirade.
“I can get around that,” I assured myself. “I will write the piece tonight and schedule it to be published later. I can’t let all this feeling and imagery and memory of my life as a parent locked in mortal combat with poop just go down the drain.” And that’s when my eyes happened upon the book a friend, who became Buddhist since last we saw each other in high school, sent to me. “The Lost Art of Good Conversation,” I mused. “I once had good conversation,” I thought wryly, “and then I had kids.”
With that optimistic thought, I opened the book to where I had left off. I had made it through exactly two paragraphs, ending with “[a diminishing of light] has come about because we are losing our power to determine what to accept and what to reject” (3-4). I had gone no further because those words had hit me with such force that I had to close the book and let myself think, which I don’t do very often. I live in a sort of “now” that is not the present. It’s a now that is about to end so I have to maximize the breadth of each second before it is lost. I must cram as much as I can into that moment because, odds are, in the next second something will hit the fan, and my intentions will never see the light of day. This approach to consuming time doesn’t really allow for time to have depth.
So when I read the third paragraph, it arrested any plans I had of posting about poop (now I’m posting about it more as an “accident”). The author, Sakyong Mipham, related social media to a hastening of sharing our thoughts and a concurrent affinity to negative language. “Because we take less time to think before we speak, we may project our anger around the globe via media before considering the outcome” (4). There went my smear campaign for parenting. If karma is as accurate as my children are, I would hate to get on the wrong end of that force of nature.
Mipham goes on to quote a warrior who posited, “Even though we want happiness, out of confusion, we destroy it as if it were our own mortal enemy” (4). And there we have it, because didn’t I just say I was locked in mortal combat with something? Now, before you conclude erroneously that poop is happiness, we need to back up (but not too much, as that is another fun time to be had with children and poop–the sluggish poopers).
Is it really the mess that I see as my mortal enemy? Or at least the regularity with which the following happens that I am left feeling a little…pooped? I am typically responding to adverting disasters, prodding sluggish ones, and trying to be prepared while my rarest of joyful exclamations might sound like, “Hey, it’s 9 am and everyone has pooped–we might actually leave the house today!” (I actually find the term pooped, meaning “worn out” to be in poor taste. I mean, who has ever been pooped? Gross. Who would even bring up poop unnecessarily?).
No. Here is how I am destroying my happiness. I keep trying to figure out what the mess means about its maker. Is this child ill? What would Freud say? Is this child malnourished or missing some nutrient? Is this other child inattentive to bodily cues? Is this child hyper-focused on other activities? Did no one teach this child about toilet paper? Is this process really so difficult? How did it land there? How could something so foul come from my child? How does this child know when he has just been bathed and placed in fresh clean clothing and that Mom feels wonderfully optimistic about the future?
The most important part of the mess is that it happened and that if all goes well, it will happen again. Perhaps it will more consistently make it to a place where it can be flushed so I don’t have to be involved, but poop happens, and that is a good thing. If you don’t know that, have a bout of constipation to catch my drift.
Now, I wasn’t going to write a blog about poop, so here I am ready to launch into a different sort of mess. Family messes. Messes that seem so big and so smelly and so likely to taint anyone who touches them that no one wants to go in without full protective gear. I learned recently that when I encounter this sort of mess, my latest avoidance tactic is to wave my white flag, which looks something like this.
It’s like I’m saying, “No need to throw any messes my way. We are already full of that over here!” when, in fact, most of my life is actually spent enjoying my gifts instead of trying to rub someone’s nose in the day’s messes. These messes, which are actually just evidence that we are eating regularly and staying active, have to be smelly because of what it takes to extract all the nutrients and satisfy the little workers in our guts called microbiota. Family messes are so odious because there is so much at stake, because there are so many needs to satisfy, challenges to meet, and joys to relish. If the mess isn’t sent on its way, it will destroy the satisfaction, triumphs, and joys of which it is evidence. (I can supply horror stories from when I was a nurse, but I will spare you for now.)
How do we destroy our happiness in the confusion caused by messes?
First, we forget that messes are a normal thing, especially among those still learning how to manage their lives and families. What likely resulted from unspoken expectations, misunderstandings, internal issues, and external stressors gets treated as a confirmation of doubts, fears, and suspicions that we have entertained for far too long in the relative safety of our minds and other echo chambers. If it is unsafe to directly address concerns or worries about another’s conduct in regards to family responsibilities, the resulting mess seems worse than what other families deal with, and it is easy to conclude that such a family is mucked up (not an impolite phrase, I promise!). And even those who take a direct approach to learning about a mess-maker might blind the alleged mess-maker with a frontal approach, armed with assumptions and indignation. This approach captures the truth of how they respond to a perceived attack and nothing else.
Second, we try to use the mess as a means of learning the truth about a person who has seemed inaccessible to us for one reason or another. In my family, I have known a lot of members who scared me, who intimidated me, who overwhelmed me, or who remained aloof from me. But I have tried–with a great deal of short-term success–to break out from my usual interactions and include or seek a relationship with even those who feel less safe (with discretion) because I believe all the circulating mess actually says very little about them. I am trying to increase the validity of the light I shine on them by eliminating as many confounding variables as I can, which often yields more robust results than even Facebook.
With all that clouds our perceptions of reality, our ability to search out the truth about another person using only the messes they’re involved in is about as useful as shining a keychain flashlight from the audience when the spotlight from above burns out. A light much more reliable and illuminating is needed for seeing another family member as he or she really is. Many of us believe that all our family members were born with the light of Christ, an ability to discern between right and wrong (see Moroni 7:15-19), and that as we use that light to see the good and evil around us, the good and evil in us will be just as discernible.
The best way to know a person and their true intentions is to compare their words and professed beliefs to their actions, which means casting the light of noon day on them. But such a test cannot occur from the cover of night. It takes a willingness as the one seeking to know someone to step out into the most discerning of visible light. For that truth finder reaches even those odd spots you didn’t know the sun could find until you forget your sunblock.
Third, attending to a family mess ought to be an action lauded by all family members. But opinions vary drastically when it comes to dealing with a mess. Just ask me about the time my husband used our kitchen sink to wash dog poop off a shoe. Uh-uh.
In a very large family like my mother’s, where importance is a scarce commodity, it is easy to learn of a mess and say, “There’s not much I can do” and feel annoyed that someone else is in a position to do more as it may elevate their standing in the family. As these relatively few step forward more often, it might become easy to say about a mess, “So-and-So will help, as is customary.”
That is how So-and-So just might be placed on that unwieldy burden called a pedestal. The loftier it is, the farther the shadow of disappointments stretches out when a flimsy flashlight reaches it and decides that not only does a mess shed light on the one who created it but also on the one trying to remedy it. And the farther the spectator is from the person addressing the mess, the easier it is to turn that shadow of doubt or suspicion into a fully animated specter, something that haunts us and keeps us from finding peace. We can at least discern from a distance and with our human senses that someone addressing a mess took what they had and sought for a way they could help. It is difficult to judge much more than that accurately.
One of the problems with wanting to feel important is that we might get involved even when messes may not be ours to attend. It might not be respectful of another’s wishes to take action if those involved in the mess would like to address it their way, with the understanding that outside help will only be appreciated as much as it was wanted. Adults want to feel distinctly capable of facing their challenges. Scratch that. Tiny children want to say, “I do it myself.” The blessing of family is that when you are buckling under the burden you tried to carry alone (or as a specific family branch), those who have respectfully stayed on the perimeter are ready to act if they have been learning about you and how you signal your needs.
But most of us cannot keep a close eye on another’s struggles as we are caught up in our own plans, worries, and goals. Those few stepping forward to take on a mess need to communicate with the family at large. To get a mess cleaned up often requires delegation and dialogue. Trusting others to take on part of the burden usually takes getting to know those family members and where they will serve best. A dialogue that confirms what is needed and what actions have been completed keeps the clean-up from just becoming another mess (try having flour thrown on your car as a wedding night prank when rain is threatening and then thinking how lucky you were that the light rain would wash off the flour…until you find what looks like cement all over the body of your car the next morning).
Pedestals also become problematic in this family if they are a preferred vantage point. Those on pedestals are looked to for help, and if you didn’t want to help just because you looked important, resentment will likely accompany the service you give. But there is no need to judge such a family member. If we are unwilling to make ourselves vulnerable to the truth, we will live in the darkness of our own false perceptions, even if the person on the pedestal wishes to make the truth accessible to others. Judging those who seem important is a trap that keeps brothers and sisters from ever feeling equal. Likewise, judging those without a pedestal to be worth less only ensures that a pedestal becomes a lonely hermitage.
So how do we move forward?
I watched a Pixar movie today about a family mess. It was set in Mexico and called Coco (no, not pronounced with the “short ‘O’ sound). The story had to do with music and death and solving a mystery, but mostly it was about how one family lost their connection to each other over the generations because of anger, hurt, and truth that was lost along the way. It took a child who couldn’t take the pressure of playing by insane rules anymore to help the living and their ancestors to find reconciliation and joy again.
I don’t know if I am that child. I have been shaped so much by some of the insane rules passed onto me that I might think I’m helping clean up the mess when all I’m doing is spreading it around (if you’ve never dealt with that one, write it in your gratitude journal). All I know is that I am tired of learning that having emotions, having feelings, having normal reactions to situations, and desiring a less messy outcome is somehow wrong; that I am supposed to bottle up all of this living that has been passed onto me and act like I can’t use it to help heal the past, right the wrongs in my family, and bridge the hurt that is robbing us of our future. What I have to give is not a mess. I want to be heard by those I love. Because if I have to keep bottling up what I have to offer, it will turn into a mess.
Family and messes go hand-in-hand, but so does cleaning up. Why do we go into these messes like we are poised for mortal combat, clad in the protective armor of blame, accusation, hypocrisy, and suspicion? Are we literally going to be up to our elbows in it? Is the mask really necessary? (OK, with my kids and their waste, maybe.) Learning to be vulnerable and to recognize where one person ends and the next one begins can end so much of this unnecessary emotional battle.
Cleaning up a family mess isn’t battle. It’s work. Work that takes self-reflection. Work that will break us if we won’t humble ourselves. Work that our Savior and our ancestors will help us to do. (This is one of the reasons we do temple work for our dead.) Work that our family members will not want to do if we waft the scent around like it’s front page news. We all have messes. But if any of us have been passing the buck instead of facing the mess, it’s time to get our act together and put our work gloves on. Because this is family, and family is worth cleaning up for.
[The song whose lyrics I derived this post’s title from is Dido’s White Flag. I couldn’t help myself since the line “I will go down with this ship” is often misheard as something less nautical.]