The view we hold of ourselves and the outside world form in the womb of our developmental environment. The same way the relative proximity of rocks, dust and gasses can form an accretion disk that eventually translates into a planet like our earth, bits of experience and ideas we are composed of and exposed to coalesce into what we come to know as our identity.
If we were to probe the depths, we would see the echoes of these influences that shape who we are now stretch all the way to the dawn of the cosmos. We are representative of the nature of nature; more specifically, the particular climate of nature we are composed of and exposed to. The nearer the successive echoes of influence are to what we know of as the present, the more powerful the role they play in shaping what we experience as “us”. Experience has a sort of radioactive half life. Over time the power of the event to influence us decays and fades. Again like nuclear power, some of our experiences can, like a star, coalesce to become hot enough to ignite a furnace that sustains itself for a long time.
The ideas we use as a lens to understand the depths of our nature are grossly inadequate to render a clear image of ourselves. For many of us, the reality of ourselves is driven by influences that lurk beyond the horizon of our cognitive faculties to see much less steer. Our words serve as a pale shadow of the vast sea of influences that conspire to render our true self. The various elements that motivate our behaviors masquerade behind a wall of verbal language. In reality we speak an emotional language through our behaviors that hides outside the range of our cognitive capacities to see, much less alter in any significant way.
Some of us never examine, much less cultivate and refine our understanding of this hidden emotional language through a lens of sound reason. In the darkness of self unawareness, we sleepwalk through a repetitive pattern of relational poverty and chaos – pounding at the chords of our identity until the destructive waves of relationship swallow us whole and drown the last morsels of hope that cling to the surface of once energetic and youthful dreams.
This small story is meant to illuminate how this can happen and the rare calamity of circumstances that can snap us out of it:
Marcus didn’t seem to be able to please his father when it came to getting things done. No matter how hard he tried, it seemed there was always something missing. His father John worked twelve hours a day six days a week and sometimes joked that he only worked “half days”. Marcus and his older brother Andy were about a year and a half apart. When he came home from work John would tend to chores around the house and communicate his disappointment at the inadequate way his sons had done their chores. He would make them “complete the task right” then he would read the newspaper while he ate dinner, shower and go to bed.
Neither Marcus nor his brother Andy was favored by their father. John seemed to have an endless supply of disappointment to go around. He once went to a parent teacher conference where the teacher praised Marcus for his attitude and excellent work. Marcus was in the hallway, but could still overhear the conversation. He was beaming with pride because he felt that he was finally being recognized for his efforts. When his father came out he cocked one eyebrow up and coyly asked; “How’d it go dad?” His father replied flatly; “There’s always room for improvement”.
John hoarded both money and items. His garage was stacked with almost every mechanical tool so he could work on his own vehicles. He also had an array of woodworking and welding tools for whatever might need building or fixing. He would typically buy these items at auctions for pennies on the dollar so he could save more money. He was neat and methodical about the order in which his tools were to be kept. If his boys had a bike to work on and did not clean and put the tools away correctly the incident would be followed by weeks peppered with lectures and berating.
John’s wife Betty was no exception to John’s continual negative assessment of performance. He complained both to and about her on a regular basis for her failure to accomplish various things. Betty resented what she saw as constant criticism. She would not argue with him directly, but she would do things like overspending on frivolous items knowing how much this irritated John. In response to this John began taking more control of their finances and stored away money for what he called “a rainy day”. It confounded John that she could be so shortsighted. He believed he was protecting the family by putting her on a strict allowance. He also carefully examined all receipts from the grocery store and so on to make sure their dollars were being stretched as far as possible.
The more control John exerted on Betty the more creative she would be at finding ways to express her irritation at him. She would let the laundry pile up so that he would have to hunt for clean clothes, fail to be on time for appointments because she “got tied up” as a means of expressing her hostility. John felt she was being lazy and irresponsible and he told her so directly. While she did not reply verbally to his criticisms, she would bitterly complain about his cruelty to her friends and children when he was not present.
By the time Andy was eight years old Betty had overeaten to the point of being morbidly obese. Her sex life suffered to the point of extinction which was a disappointment to her as did other areas of her marriage relationship but this did not seem to bother John very much. He responded by working even more.
Over time Betty began to lavish more attention on Andy while ignoring and rejecting Marcus. She resented what she saw as Marcus attempting to constantly please his father. She felt he was mentally weak for not standing up to him. This division between her sons was not a sentiment she actually thought through, it both emerged and was expressed without either thought or direct communication.
The hostile undertones that flowed through the relationships within the family were viewed as completely normal. “If only mom would just do as dad said, things would be a lot better around here.” Marcus thought. Andy would say to his brother; “Why bother trying to please dad? He’s just going to find something else to bitch about.” This was one of his mother’s favorite phrases that he adopted fully as his own. He knew to never say it in front of his father. Like his mother, he felt a blend of empowerment and guilt when he voiced his rebellion to his brother in secret.
As Marcus grew older he worked hard, saved his money and bought a house by age twenty-three. While this was considerably ahead of his peers, his personal relationships were not as successful. Marcus had a series of troubled relationships with females. The relationships would begin rapidly and with promise, but they unfailingly turned hostile and ended chaotically.
He found himself attracted to women in dire need and circumstances. At first his presence in their lives was a welcome relief from the plight they were in, but the relationship would soon progress into an unpleasant and overbearing experience for both of them. Neither would address the way they felt directly. Most of the relationship chaos happened over immediate circumstances and never addressed the destructive undertones and hostility that drove these cycles.
Marcus felt resentment because of the “fact” that the females in his life didn’t appreciate the opportunity he offered them to improve their lot in life. He communicated his dissatisfaction through cold emotional distance, criticism and a frequently bitter face. His female companions would interpret his behaviors as a rejection of them. If any confronted him, rather than deal directly with these emotions, he simply went out to the garage to “work”.
In his late twenties Marcus met Laura. She, like the others, was in a desperate situation when they met. She had lost her job and was about to lose her apartment. He offered to let her stay with him and a romance soon followed. She became pregnant within two months. Although the relationship tracked like the rest with signs of distress the two got married. The distractions of the wedding plans and preparing for the arrival of their child helped to mask the underlying hostilities that were building between them.
One day when his son was a year old he came home from work early and found his wife in bed with a man. In the aftermath, and based on a suggestion from the only friend he told of the incident, he and his wife tried to get counseling, but it was ineffective. The counselor was quite adept at probing for the underlying causes of the relational disharmony they experienced, but both Marcus and Laura were equally adept at not dealing directly with their own contributions to that disharmony. Neither of them was willing to identify, nor admit their own roles in shaping the relationships they cultivated. When it was suggested that their son was learning to relate based on the role models he was exposed to they both responded with defensive self-praise. Among their claims was that they never fought in front of him so it would never be a problem.
Laura expressed that she felt that Marcus hated her and never spent any time with her. Marcus felt that Laura was weak and had given her self over to indulging her laziness and passions at the expense of the family. The counselor ended the sessions before any resolution. He said he could not help them if they were unwilling to deal with their roles in the stress in their marriage. They were surprised that the counselor ended their relationship. He told them if they ever decided to be serious, to look him up. They both thought they needed a counselor that understood them better, but neither pursued any further action.
They did not talk about the infidelity for a time after counseling ended. It was an unspoken rule. Except for the one person Marcus confided in, neither of them discussed the issue with their friends or extended family. Over time, Marcus added the betrayal of their marriage to the list of things he would bring up to express his dissatisfaction with Laura, but only when the tension reached a fever pitch. Externally she sheepishly endured his “endless lectures” and wildly cursed his insensitivity and meanness in her mind.
When their son was just over two Marcus came home to find the house unusually empty. He called around to find his wife and child. When he called his parents’ house they told him Laura had dropped off his son with them because she needed to run some errands, but she was now late picking him up. They didn’t know exactly where she was, but Betty assured him she was probably just “tied up somewhere” and not to worry about it.
Later that same evening the police called him and asked if he owned a red Toyota. When he answered yes, they proceeded to tell him his wife had been killed in an auto accident. She and her male companion had slammed into a tree. Both were killed instantly. Neither was wearing a seat belt. It was later found that her blood alcohol level was 2.5, nearly three times the legal limit.
Laura’s funeral was very awkward. Marcus’s mother Betty held the baby as the receiving line slowly moved past John and Marcus. Sad looks, silent handshakes and hugs were the majority of reaction. No one outside the family had known of their marital difficulties and Laura’s infidelity until now. The accident report published in the paper revealed the names. The male was not even an acquaintance of Marcus. The “real” story was whispered in hushed tones in quiet corners, but no one was brave or uncouth enough to bring it up to Marcus in his time of loss, that is… except his father.
After the funeral those that attended had the traditional get-together for nervous eating and the painful exchange of hollow and glib statements aimed at reassuring each other that it will be alright. Marcus was in a daze. “What am I going to do? What could I have done? Would counseling have worked if I hadn’t been so damned stubborn?” he wondered. He was staring blankly at the floor when John came over and sat down beside him.
John uncharacteristically put his hand on his son’s shoulder and said; “You know son, don’t you worry about this, she was just a slut anyway.” Marcus began to feel rage well up inside before John completed his sentence. His lip began to quiver violently and he leaned away from his father’s grasp on his shoulder. He stood up and methodically faced his father. John was uncertain how to react. “It’s OK son.” He said sheepishly. “Fuck you!” Marcus shouted. The quiet murmurs that were going on throughout the house stopped immediately. All eyes were fixed on Marcus and his father. “Fuck you!” he repeated even louder. “If you hadn’t been such a judgmental prick my whole life I wouldn’t have learned to be so goddamned stubborn and judgmental!” Betty’s jaw dropped open. Some of the cheese dip she had been nervously chewing dribbled out of the corner of her mouth. “You know why she cheated on me dad? Do you?” he blurted out. “She thought I hated her. She couldn’t stand to have me put her down day after day after day. She felt like nothing she ever did was good enough. You know what else? This wasn’t the first time. We went to counseling last year and he tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen. I just kept it up, needling her till she died from a thousand cuts and you know what? I have you to thank. I should have known…” He paused; “Look at mom!” He pointed to her as she sat on the couch, mouth still open. “She’s eating herself to death trying to get the fuck out of your life, and you know why? She can’t stand you! Where’s Andy? As far away as he could get from you! You and your “save for a rainy day” and “nobody measures up”… Marcus began waving his arms up and down and continued; “…well what’s your rainy day fund doing for you now dad ‘cause it’s fucking raining? What’s it all gonna do for you when you’re all alone? You gonna count your fucking tools and coins. Why don’t you work on that for a while dad!”
When Marcus finished the room was still silent. No one knew how to respond or what to say. He silently collected his son from beside his mother who was now leaking cheese dip onto her blouse and left the house. For the next several moments everyone was too stunned to say or do anything anything besides a nervous shuffle or two. Marcus didn’t return that day. After what seemed like a very long time the guests began passing a few timid statements back and forth about how Marcus was “not himself”; that he was just “overwhelmed with grief”, and “not to worry, he’ll come around”. They left as fast as they could from the gathering with the empty “Let me know if there’s anything I can do…” platitude. The whisper campaigns in the community about the incident smoldered silently in the background for weeks and months.
John was confounded by the event. He tried to call Marcus several times later that day and even as the weeks progressed. Marcus simply did not respond. Andy was unable to come to the funeral as he had just landed a job clear across the country at the time of the accident. He sent a sympathy card and was largely unaware of the events that transpired. He and Marcus had drifted apart over the years. Betty just ate more.
Marcus had resolved from that moment forward that he would change his life. Within the first week, he reconnected with the counselor that had tried to save his marriage the year before. After many tears and bouts of self-loathing he began to understand the underpinnings of the values that shaped his life and relationships. The counselor helped him to begin to connect his behaviors with their impact on his relationships with himself and others. He helped him move from blaming his father and himself to understanding the emotional starvation that defined his father’s world. He didn’t want the same disaster to fall on to the next generation so he began developing both the choice and the discipline make real changes in his life.
Although brief and spotty, his relationship with his extended family slowly returned, but it was by no means restored to its former self. He learned to keep his emotional distance from his wounded family and slowly tried to pick up the rest of the pieces of his life. After a year and a half he met a widow with two small children. Their relationship slowly blossomed into a family over time. Marcus began the process of renewal. Echoes of the past would still haunt him from time to time. He would find himself slip into harshly critical remarks especially when he was under stress, but he knew the disastrous effects of this behavior. He would quickly catch himself, apologize and move on to a more constructive and appropriate expression of his emotions.
Eventually Marcus learned to separate disappointment and anger for genuine events from harsh and controlling judgments. At first he learned to control the way he responded to the existing emotions that cycled through his life. As he continued to grow his emotional responses themselves began to reform. Marcus began to see the world in a different light and this new light was built on how well it served to nourish the people in his care, which included himself. These and other efforts to redefine who he was, and the deepening character that resulted, helped to develop even more strength in the relationship between him and his new family. A new beginning had finally arrived. He began to appreciate and feel empowered about the person he was becoming.
Those of us that experience cycles of chaos that result from long practiced destructive behaviors may not recognize the connection between these behaviors and our experience of life. As a result of our blindness we are ill equipped to use our experience as a tool to grow. Instead of overcoming adversity to realize triumph, we wallow in self-made chaos and look for someone or thing irrelevant to blame and punish. If we can find no person or thing to blame we simply vent our hostility on our environment in every direction further perpetuating the chaos.
The relationships that are present in our developmental environment shape what we come to understand and expect as reality. This expectation has a powerful influence on the way we experience life. If we expect to be unloved, we will project that onto a reality that may or may not be communicating that actuality. Our shared experience of reality is often overshadowed by the emotional realities that are present in our identity. We see the world as we are, not as it is. Socrates called it the cave. For a rare few of us the circumstances in our life can conspire to give us a powerful enough moment of clarity to see a choice and motivate a sustained change. If, in that moment, we seize the opportunity and make the most of it, there’s a chance we can awaken to steer our life on a different course – to emerge from the darkness of the cave.
For many the opportunity goes unnoticed because we don’t sufficiently understand the connections between causes and effects that shape our experience. Typically there is no great tragedy or triumph that acts as an inward focused lens enabling us to capture a clear vision of not only who we are, but who we want to be.