Some Life Truth comes in an instant. But some of the hard stuff? It can take a long time to develop new ways of thinking and acting. It’s like cutting through a jungle with a machete or in more mundane terms, finally bending down to straighten the rug you’ve been tripping over all week.
Being born and raised as a third-generation conservative evangelical, ‘rules’ were a huge part of my landscape. My family, all my friends, and every family living around us went to the same church. Learning the rules of my tribe was vital to surviving in the plastic bubble town I called ‘home’. Kids are quick that way.
Not surprisingly, my particular church overflowed with written rules – printed and hardbound.
Thou shalt not go to movies; drink; smoke; swear; dance; gamble; play pinball, go bowling in an alley where they have a bar, show any kind of skin and if you’re not dead, you don’t skip church. If you are dead, you’ll be the one up front.
I remember wondering if we were somehow secretly Amish…at least the kind that got to watch an hour of television a day. Apparently, electricity was morally ambiguous. Point is, I was sinking beneath a religious version of Orwell’s ‘four legs good, two legs bad’. The version the church taught me was: ‘If it feels good, it’s a trap. If it feels bad, you’re probably safe’.
Home was the same drill, only with the added plus of even more micro-management [applause, applause]. It took a lot of work to keep so many ‘not’s’ in play. Not surprisingly, my family developed a conversational shorthand to lessen the load. Verbal cues like, “Honor thy father and thy mother” or “Children are meant to be seen and not heard”. And the ever-popular, “Clean your plate”. There were dozens more, but you get the idea.
The saddest rules were the unwritten ones (and their consequences). Early on, I learned it was best to ignore or deny anything that made my heart beat faster. That way, I didn’t have to lie, ’cause that would be a sin. I knew that going to church at least three times a week was not optional –and it wasn’t. Even though we, as a family, ate together every night; I knew in my gut if something real, awkward or remotely confrontational were to approach the conversation, it was best to not mention it.
Sweep it under the rug.
If it wasn’t talked about, it didn’t exist.
But it did exist, even if you didn’t see it. You knew it was there.
So what did I learn? Keep your opinions to yourself and we have no problems.
Why? Because mom said so and dad backed her up by not saying much about it at all. No further questions.
But there’s more…I never saw my mom and dad argue with each other…not once. So not surprisingly, that was the behavior I learned. I was so cloistered, I didn’t even know other families (ones outside the bubble) argued – on a regular basis! Keeping true to the tradition, I never had one argument with my folks until I was in college. Looking back, I think part of it was being so conditioned to not feel that the very idea of not needing permission to argue my position never crossed my mind. It wasn’t until much later before I began to decipher the other part. The vibe we kids were picking up on ran something like: ‘Angry words mean no love. And since we all love each other, there no angry words inside our house – ever’.
The unwritten post-script was, “If you do backslide and get angry or raise your voice, you’re obviously out-of-step with the Lord. Heaven is not assured and your place in this family can and will be revoked.”
I feared the promise was true.
With that heady combination of summary forces, it shouldn’t come as much of a news-flash that I created emotional armor. My armor read ‘good and eldest son’ on the outside, and wore hot and uncomfortable on the inside.
Every morning, I got up, put my kid armor on and made my bed.
And every night?
I took it off, figuratively leaning it up against the dresser when I thought the coast was clear and then, jumping under the covers as fast as I could.
Back then, my kid armor was a good thing. At the time, it was a gift. It’s how I survived. I’m grateful for the clever magnificence of a kid’s brain…it knew what needed to be done to protect my insides, and did so without consulting me. But alas, kid armor is no different than school clothes. Not only do you grow out of them, you’re supposed to. It’s the nature of growing up. Physically, I hit my growth spurt in 7th grade and quickly grew beyond 6-feet. But emotionally? I was a lot like Linus and his blanket. If I didn’t have my ‘kid armor’ on, I felt frantic and exposed. And everyone knows it’s not a good idea to show flesh to circling sharks. If you’ve got a blankie, you better know how to use it.
So over and over again, I’d watch my mom sweep whatever the latest bit of uncomfortability was under the proverbial rug and we knew not to say a word. Not surprisingly, when I was similarly confronted, what did I do? That’s right. Under the rug it went (Under the Rug = UTR). Rumors at church? (UTR). Problems at work or school? (UTR). Money? (UTR). Problems with a difficult relative? (UTR) and Puberty? (OMG, UTR!!!).
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist long to ask, “But where does it all go?”
It goes ‘inside’. Deep inside.
Yes, make no mistake, I had learned from some of the very best at the UTR Graduate School of Guilt. And no matter how crowded mom’s rugs were underneath, there always seemed to be more room for more junk. If doctors could have taken an X-Ray of my heart, the side view of my ‘rug’ would have looked like the profile of the Rocky Mountains.
Having a ‘bumpy rug’ worked out in a variety of ways. Someone would ask my opinion and I would respond with an answer that had everything to do with what I thought they wanted to hear. Someone would commit a random act of kindness and I would wonder what they were really after. I would make up cover stories to mask my real interest in tennis or music…carpentry or being a really gifted lawn kid. Neighbors would complement me on the way I kept our front yard looking so nice. My response was, “I have to…it’s one of my chores”. And on, and on, and on…for years. Even now, when I look back on all of that, even my molecules hurt.
By the time I had reached adulthood, I was miserable. It didn’t make sense. Though somehow, someway I had managed to untangle spirituality and the idea of God from the ‘sweeping’ frenzy I saw at church, I kept thinking I was the problem. After all, I knew my pastor was a bright guy. Even he routinely mentioned how we had all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So there I was; clean and shiny on the outside, dying on the insides.
So for those of you who can identify with at least some of what I’ve described, let’s run the kind of quiz you see in magazines. Answer for yourself and be honest. No one else will know.
[ ] Often bored.
[ ] Guilt-ridden.
[ ] Hypocritical/Lying.
[ ] Problems concentrating.
[ ] Emotionally Unavailable.
[ ] Times of unexplained sadness.
[ ] Unable to make my own decisions.
[ ] Most comfortable when I was alone.
[ ] Passive-Aggressive (I took the art form to new levels!).
[ ] Suicidal.
How’d you do?
For me, I’ve checked all of them at one time or another – and sometimes, all of them at once. But it does get better. And it did for me…one baby step at a time.
One of my earliest steps was to claim the courage to quit sweeping junk under my rug. Or, when I realized I had, going back, pulling up the rug and sweeping the bumpy debris into a dustpan.
Flat rugs. Happy rugs.
Like I said in the beginning, learning the hard stuff can take a long time. Building new neuro pathways in your brain is not accidental. For me, I explored every conceivable option. But eventually, painfully, I knew there was no way out and still be able to stay in. The only choice left was to leave the ‘bubble’ or I was going to disappear. The choice to leave came with a horrific price tag, but I paid it. To this day, I still struggle with some of the costs that came with my freedom. But I owed it to my Creator (and myself) to be me – as created – flaws and all. Good choice.
On the upside, the decision to leave also opened the door to later finding love-at-first-sight. For that I am grateful these many years later. With real love on my side, I was finally able to commit to being healthy. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to matter. I wanted to be whole. I needed to learn to walk again. I needed coaching. And here I might add, I didn’t know enough to know it was going to take awhile before I found the right pro with the background I needed to help me and my particular house of pain. It’s not like they’re all sitting on the shelf at Mental Health Professionals-R-US. But eventually, I did locate the right Life Coach who in turn, ironically, proved to be part monk, psychologist, counselor and full-time bull-s*#t detector. We began and together, all of us did the work. I learned the tools and now, I am all of those things. I Am.
Coming from where I did, my recovery took years of fits and starts to get me to this point today. No trumpet fanfare in any of that, it just is what it is. And for all that, I’m still learning and will be till the day I die. Even now, when I take my eye off ‘Old Dan’, some of his most stubborn behaviors come roaring back through the smallest of keyholes.
The other night, I was in such a rush to get home I had forgotten to call once I was on my way. I did not remember I had forgotten until I came walking through the door and was greeted with a look of frustration and disappointment from my spousal unit. Honest mistake? Sure. But in the moment? BOOM!
Faster than a lightning strike, I was instantly transported back to an earlier life where I would have felt the need to beat myself up, to apologize, grovel, etc., etc. It made me mad (even now). Old hot buttons were getting pushed and I was the one pushing them which, interestingly enough is one of the ways I know I still have a ways to go.
Warning lights. For having them burned out of me at a very early age, first my coach and I had to find them. Then once found, test them and evaluate whether they were authentic and to be trusted. If they were, then rewire and restore back into service.
But that was only the beginning. Now that the lights on my emotional dashboard were beginning to work, the next challenge was learning how to pay attention to them whenever they started blinking. What to do? Easy to say…many moons in the doing. And let’s not forget about the people who knew me from ‘before’. These were the few people who knew where my buttons were as well or better than I did. But the difference being, as a general rule, these were also people who loved me and/or wanted the best for me. And with them, I finally had the option of responding differently than I used to. So you see, I wasn’t the only one getting used to all of this. It’s a powerful thing to reclaim yourself and tell someone you love, ‘You may not know it, but you just pushed my Button X and I’m the one who will be deciding how I’m going to handle the situation, not you’. And even now, it’s not a perfect science by any means.
So anyway, back to me coming home…within moments of walking in the front door, I knew I had to pull up, brake hard and put my mouth in neutral. With my RPM now back in normal ranges, I explained – simply and truthfully. He listened. We both apologized and made up — all of which was very cool. In the old days, I would have punished myself for days. Now the temptation only lasts for a few minutes. But again, these are the kinds of realizations that confirm I am a work-in-progress and will be for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I’m still learning to not sweep things under my rug. But it’s my rug. I now decide if there is anything underneath it besides floor. If there is, it’s up to me to pull out the broom AND the dustpan. I’m not only OK with it, but after all these years, I’m genuinely excited to be able to do it. It’s my journey.
Flat rug, happy rug.
Some of the coolest places we ever go aren’t the ones we set out to visit. It’s the journey. Life wants to take you along. So the next time your self-imposed guilt for being human gets in the way of climbing on board, get over it. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll need to keep ‘getting over it’ for quite awhile. But that’s OK. It’s how Life is designed to work. We grow, we adapt and once we know better, we can do better…it can take months for the new habits to even take root and become part of your DNA, but it does happen. It continues to happen for me right now.
We humans don’t come with instruction manuals or labels. But if we did, I think mine would read, “Repeat and sweep as needed.”
The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, repeat after me, ‘Flat rugs good, bumpy rugs bad’. Have some fun out there this week. And if you feel like it, go running in the house. At least now, when it comes to rugs, you won’t trip. You see, flattery does get you somewhere.
Love. Peace. Out.
With last week’s focus on Robin Williams and his untimely departure, I was drawn back to ‘Flat Rugs’ [Sep 2, 2011]. In retooling the piece, the thought came to me: If I could sing you a song encapsulating everything you’ve just read, this might be what I’d pick. “Sweet Reunion”, a majestic piece of art of Loggins during his concert Live At The Grand Canyon in 1991. I can’t stop grinning whenever musicians who love what they do, just let it out and run with it, letting the improvisations happen. Sheer joy. Enjoy.
Banner Coastal Redwood Forest by Eric E Photography is used with permission.
Rug Table by Alessandro Isola: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2717803/Pull-rug-OVER-feet-Italian-designer-creates-carpet-folds-table-solution-cramped-city-living.html; Swept Under, by Claire Marsh, 2012: http://claire-marsh.com/sculpture/; Linus and his blanket: http://peanuts.wikia.com/wiki/Linus’_security_blanket; Swept Under by Ilie Rosli found on: http://www.rudyrucker.com/blog/2009/12/17/australia-5-oz-slang-more-art-oz-sf/ Blog text and images copyright (C) Rudy Rucker 2014; Sweeping Brick: http://www.mediaemerging.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Sweeping-Under-the-Rug2.jpg
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