Posts Tagged ‘illusions’

Overcoming the Obstacles to a Simpler Life

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

IMG_0241The multifaceted nature of existence itself, combined with our very human ways of trying to deal with all the variables, leads all of us, at one time or another, to wishing our lives were simpler. Tired and aggravated, we look around and point to what we think are the culprits – the out-of-control kids, unreasonable boss, lazy spouse, or too many spam emails and store coupons. Actually, though, the real cause usually has more to do with us than what’s happening in our world.

While it’s certainly true that technological advancements have led to an overabundance of information – affording us more possibilities, but also more choices and conflicts – it is doubtless that people from the beginning of time have wanted less stress and complexity in their lives. The reason is obvious…we humans are the ones who make our lives more problematical than they have to be! By our own attitudes and behavior, we create a lifestyle that frequently exceeds our ability to handle it. To make matters worse, when we inevitably lose control and fail in one or more areas, others blame us and we feel bad about ourselves.

The true keys to simplicity lie within us, regardless of the insane situations and people we feel forced to deal with. If we start focusing inward, on ourselves instead of “them,” we might spot certain attitudes and behaviors that contribute to a complicated life.

1.         Dishonesty – The admonitions against dishonesty are so universal, a phrase was coined describing the consequence…“getting caught in a web of lies.” If we are habitually dishonest, we absolutely invite complexity. This trait, however, may be the trickiest one to address, since if we’re dishonest with others, we’re usually not being honest with ourselves, either. This would apply to countless people who believe their own lies. Breaking free of our own illusions can be impossible unless we’re strongly motivated to do so. Frequently, however, the pain generated by an individual’s deceptiveness can push him or her to change.

It helps if we understand why we are duplicitous with certain people or in particular situations. The lies we tell are usually a form of protection, even though we may be unconscious of what we’re trying to protect. In many instances, we’re trying to spare ourselves embarrassment or shame at a perceived weakness. For some, the fear of exposing certain things is of the same intensity as fear of death or annihilation! Therefore, it’s best to be very patient and gentle as we strive to become more honest with ourselves about our feelings and motives. As we grow more accepting of the truth about ourselves, our need to lie and cover up lessens, along with the complexity of keeping up a false front. What a relief!

2.         Being Controlling – Trying to control or manipulate people and circumstances around us is another sure way to live in constant anxiety. The truth is, our ability to control things and people is an illusion, and when we base our life on an illusion, we’re certain to suffer. Sometimes it may seem as though we’re successfully managing all the players in our particular drama, and we feel satisfied. This lasts literally a few seconds, however, before something goes wrong.

To let other people handle their own problems, to let situations work themselves out instead of insisting on and forcing our own solutions, to keep our focus on our own life and responsibilities instead of becoming involved in others’…these are attitudes which lift the crippling burden of trying to manage things which are not ours to manage, and at the same time free others to feel good about solving their own problems.

3.         Over-Committing – Wanting acceptance and approval from others is basic to human nature, but when this approval-seeking becomes more important than our own feelings and needs, we get ourselves into trouble. Oftentimes unconsciously, we put others first, discounting our own wants and responsibilities. We drive someone here or there, take off work to help a friend move, offer to chair the monthly board meeting again…whatever. The relief we see in others’ faces when we take on extra tasks gives us the comforting feeling that they are happy with us. But our efforts backfire later in exhaustion and resentment, two unpleasant consequences of people-pleasing. When we offer favors without considering the effect on us, we fail to protect and care for ourselves, and both our schedule and feelings spiral into overwhelm.

To be of service to others is obviously a great thing, as strong individuals grow even stronger when they give of themselves. But to give in a healthy way means we are whole and able to do so, and not just reflecting a neediness to have others like us.

4.         Addiction to Drama – Usually a characteristic that operates on an unconscious level, drama addiction greatly perpetuates complexity in our lives. In this addiction, we actually crave the intense emotional highs and lows brought about by conflict. Perhaps we’ve never known anything different, or maybe we fear what would be left without constant upset. After all, in those mundane moments or when things are going well, we feel a scary emptiness. We’re left with only ourselves, and if we’re not comfortable with who we are, we subconsciously seek out a new distraction, even if it’s the negative kind.

Drama addiction robs us of peace and simplicity as we find ways to sabotage relationships with others, make choices destined to bring chaos, and often feel sorry for ourselves and like a victim. All the “excitement” is a grand escape from reality, which usually is less thrilling but far more fulfilling if given the chance!

5.         Disorganization – On both the material and emotional levels, being disorganized can lead to all sorts of complications in our lives. We have so many pots on the stove, so to speak, that it’s impossible to adequately tend to them all. We’re surrounded by loose-ended projects, goals, and relationship issues. The disorder in our houses and minds keeps us stuck dealing with emergency after emergency, with little resolution to anything. By being disorganized, we maintain the adrenaline of negative excitement in a crises-based lifestyle. Like drama addiction, being disorganized pays off in that it’s an avoidance behavior, in this case a self-generated diversion from the work involved in confronting and resolving problems.

If we’re driven by ongoing overwhelm, we’ve lost sight of the fact that we need only attend to one issue, goal, or chore at a time. By slowly – and again, gently – trying to become more organized in all areas of our lives, we find we can get rid of the ideas and belongings no longer useful to us, clearing the way for simplicity and sanity.

6.         Perfectionism and Procrastination – Both these characteristics have the same end result: we don’t get to enjoy the simple satisfaction of completing a project, knowing we’ve given our best effort. Procrastination relates directly to disorganization, already discussed as a source of needless complexity. Perfectionism can actually contribute to procrastination, since our mind can be so overwhelmed by thinking we have to finish something according to our idyllic standards, that we unconsciously (or consciously) avoid even starting on it. The same applies to projects we have started, but never wind up finishing because the outcome might be less than flawless.

Perfectionism, although a positive quality on some level, can thus lead us to a house cluttered with projects not started or not completed, and a mind cluttered with self-recrimination at all the things we haven’t accomplished. A helpful slogan to use when we start feeling those pangs of dissatisfaction or anxiety arising from perfectionism goes like this: A mistake a day keeps perfectionism at bay.

It is up to us to decide if we’re ready for a less complicated life. Certainly, trying to live simply requires awareness of the ideas and behaviors that contribute to our living problems. In this respect, striving for simplicity certainly does not imply that there’s no work involved in avoiding the pitfalls that get us in too deep.

As we continue to be conscious of how we ourselves are basically responsible for our attitudes and ways of living, we may experience a sense of being humbled. This can be uncomfortable…after all, it’s far easier to blame other people, places, and things for the craziness of our lives! But if our goal is simplicity and serenity, it’s worth journeying inward to the place where peace can truly dwell and thrive, regardless of anything or anyone outside our skin.

Big Sister, Little Mother

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

What the world would have us believe about childhood is usually at complete odds with the real experience of our early years within the family unit. Unfortunately, we have no perspective on this until we’re older and most likely struggling to resolve problematic personal issues by looking back on those days.

Like all infants, my universe was the people in my immediate family. They were everyone and everything. Their faces, smiling or angry; their words, gentle or shrill – what does a child have except instinct to guide him or her to sources of comfort and security in those preverbal years? So it must have been instinct that drew me like a magnet to my big sister. I was completely taken with her, probably way before the time my mind was even capable of storing memories.

With a delightfully round face and enormous brown eyes, my big sister was gentle and harmless. But best of all, she had endless time for me! Time to talk to me, play secret hiding games with me, giggle about mean grown-ups and strange kids with me, watch TV with me, and fight with me.  She was inseparable from my world as I knew it, and from me.

Honestly, one of the things I liked most about my sister was her size. Despite being two years older, she was still shorter and smaller-boned than me. We would spread our hands and fingers apart, then bring them together – hers against mine. Always my fingers were longer, and my hand entirely eclipsed hers. I felt bigger and stronger than she, able to dominate if it came down to fisticuffs. And with my wild and tempestuous nature, it did indeed come down to that often enough. Being physically superior to my sister gave me a sense of having some power. (It seems to me that survival within a family is sometimes no different than in the jungle, where the brawnier animals secure their position over those more frail.)

Big sister – I needed her gentleness even while sometimes taking advantage of it, a dependency that helped and hurt. But allow me to endure, she did… We gave each other comfort on those nights when we lay only a few feet apart on our twin beds, listening with fear and anguish to our parents’ yelling voices. Mercifully and reliably, she was by my side when we found out that our beloved kitten had been killed by a fan-belt blade while trying to keep warm on the engine of a neighbor’s car. And hers the first face offering consolation and the possibility of redemption when my butt was sore from a spanking and my spirit bruised from shame.

Mostly, though, we played and teased and made endless entertainment from nothing at all. Boring car rides were perfect for tickling and poking and uncontrollable laughter. In our bedroom, a cast of stuffed animals had names and lives of their own as they talked to each other in the voices we gave them. At the beach, adrift a few feet offshore in our “floatie,” I was “Cap-i-tan” and she was “Mate-y” as we adventured on the high seas. And how can I forget our “foot wars” as we watched television on our parents’ big bed – lying flat with the bottoms of our feet joined in the air, each of us pushing against the other with our backs arching up off the mattress?

In the later years, we would lay side-by-side on her double bed listening to “Mystery Theater” on the radio; in the darkness we talked and giggled about boys we liked, grievances with petty girlfriends, and the elusiveness of belonging to the “in” crowd at school. It was a routine I grew familiar with, until it was over forever.

Inevitable it was that my sister – my closest confidante, partner in fun and crime – would grow past me and dive fully into fascination with her peer group. To compete was impossible, and slowly, painfully, I became aware that I was nothing more than an inconvenience to her. She drifted away and was absent from my life in what seemed like seconds. Probably this was normal and natural, of course; she was older than me. But its suddenness was acute, magnified by a tragic absence of anyone else in my life to fill the gap. Outside the family I was shy, introverted, and unable to make friends easily. How I wished for just a small portion of my big sister’s poise and social skills! Feeling abandoned, alone, and inferior, I was paralyzed with fear and choked by grief that I could not even identify.

With no wisdom or experience to draw on, I began a decades-long detour of trying to imitate what I believed to be my big sister’s superior qualities and ideals. Looking back, I suppose this made sense at the time. After all, she had done a better job of winning my parents’ and others’ approval than I ever had. My sister, therefore, became the model of whom I should be; her life the template of what my own life should look like. With my faulty illusions in complete control, I strove to fit myself into someone else’s formula for living.

The next 30 years – though rich and fulfilling in many areas – were marked by my harsh and unrelenting self-judgment, countless disappointments and unmet expectations, and an abundance of negative drama. Inside me was an enduring undercurrent of unhappiness. It all finally culminated in the deterioration of my marriage, after 17 years together and having three children with the person I had chosen for a husband.

The wonderful thing about crises, however, is that they can result in positive, fundamental changes in a person, depending on how the individual responds to them. In my case, I finally became humble enough to be teachable. And did I ever have a lot to learn about loving myself! The lessons continue today, and I keep paying attention because they are directly related to my peace and happiness, not to mention my continued survival. Thank God.

My big sister – I love her still and more than ever! But the way I love her today doesn’t compel her to be my mother or my perfect-life model anymore. Bless her for being that when I needed it. In a very real way, I owe her my existence. Our childhood bond gave me joy that I could remember in later, sorrowful times.  It was my sister who taught me that love could be simple, could be full of freedom and laughter.

I’m grateful to God and my big sister for these early lessons in love, which I suspect are most easily grasped by a child anyway.