Can We Fix It? No We Can’t!: 5 Good Questions for the “Fixer” to Ask.

I have a confession to make: I’m a Fixer.

On the surface, this sounds good.

It’s great to want to fix things, right? It’s good to want to help people!

Look at Bob the Builder. He’s always fixing stuff. He seems cool, right?

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Well, there’s an important difference between me and Bob here. He can fix whatever comes his way. I can’t. Because a) I am not a construction worker, and b) this is reality.

The truth is, the things I usually try to fix are precisely the same things I don’t have any control over, or any business trying to fix, solve or change, mainly:

  • Others’ Emotions: Instead of just feeling things with people and entering into someone’s challenge, hurt or discomfort, my knee-jerk reaction is to make those negative feelings stop by “making them feel better”. This inhibits my ability to empathize appropriately and may keep them from exploring and learning from what they are feeling at their own pace.
  • Others’ Circumstances or Situations: Again, this comes from what is probably a very normal feeling: not wanting others to experience pain or difficulty, wanting to protect people I care about, etc. But I too often get it twisted and jump in with unsolicited advice or plans that may not be what that person wants or needs.

Both of these can- and usually do- create an unhealthy dynamic of codependency.

I have been a “Recovering Fixer” for years, and it is a tendency I still have to do battle with daily. When it is at its worst, this compulsion to “help and fix and make better” leaves me feeling confused, and under an immense amount of pressure.

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Thankfully, my former therapist gave me some great advice, which I try to use anytime  someone I care about comes to me with a problem, a difficult emotion, or a need for input. She said, instead of giving advice right away, ask questions. This will help the other person take the lead without you making their choices for them, but it still puts you in a position to help in an appropriate way.

The questions she suggested are written on an index card, which I carry in my wallet to use as a reference. This way I don’t have to rely on my memory in the heat of the moment.

They are:

  1. What are your options?
  2. Which option seems best to you?
  3. Can I help you?
  4. What Do you need from me?
  5. How can we get through this together?

I have found these questions- and similar ones that flow naturally from the answers to these questions- to be an immense help. They put my loved one in the driver’s seat, keep the friendship healthy and not too one-sided, and still allow me to help in almost every case.

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I have by no means “arrived” when it comes to this struggle. I still find my well-intentioned yet bumbling, knee-jerk responses to the difficulties of others trying to take over almost daily. But I am committed to practicing ask first, advise later (if needed), and so far it has made a big difference.

I would love to hear from you.

Are you a Fixer, too? If so, what strategies help you?

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One More Thing (on Social and Political Change)

charles-darwin-sssshh-ofset-to-right-of-frameBecause of its tendency to polarize and alienate people, and how easy it is for online “discussions” to lose control to third/fourth/fifth parties, I have resolved to no longer engage in emotionally charged social and political discourse on Facebook (or social media in general).

This doesn’t mean I don’t have strong beliefs and opinions, or that I don’t care about voting or community activism. It doesn’t mean I don’t think speaking one’s mind is important. I think there are many people who are gifted at political discourse, activism, organizing and social theory, and they continue to share those gifts.

I have simply come to the conclusion that it is more beneficial and fruitful for me to have these discussions in an environment that is controlled, peaceful, and personal. It is way too easy for me to dehumanize  another when we use machines to communicate.

If I share something, I want it to be in the spirit of sharing what I learned, how something helped, edified, or challenged me, not as a means to shame my detractors.

(I have not “arrived” or perfected any of this. I’m writing this- all of this- for the same reason I write anything down- to hold myself accountable; to preserve my commitment for posterity.)

Beyond that, I don’t feel it’s my prerogative to make sure an online acquaintance changes his mind, or that a friend changes her opinion and votes for the same person I do. I am not obligated to answer for their choices.

The best I can do is set a watchman for my conscience, my feelings toward others, and my own behavior. I think the best way for me to change the world is to change it around me, through interacting with people and with my community at large.

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Some will disagree with me and take the big picture approach. Some will see things more the way I do. Both have their benefits. Both can and do have positive outcomes. One is just a better choice for my own peace of mind and relationships than the other.

With some professional guidance, I realized that If I focused the same energy I expend trying to convince others to see my way, if I channeled that into action, big or small,  my relationships and my community would transform. [Wow, I thought. What if all people had this approach.]

With all that said, it would be hypocritical for me to tell you who to vote for, how to voice your opinion, what to protest, how to act. When it comes to choosing your candidate, your cause, or your way to take action, there’s only one thing I can ask people I care about to do.

And it’s the same thing I’m asking of myself:

When you make your choice, do it with intention. Doing one small thing that you know will have an effect changes more than sitting idle for hours, stewing in anger and contempt. If your conscience tells you that something (or someone) is morally repugnant, align yourself elsewhere.  If you want to change a social or political reality, take an action that answers the call of your conscience. Whatever you choose to do, do it to strengthen your community, not to tear down someone else. While it’s always nice when others join you, sometimes they won’t. Don’t lose heart. Act in a way that leaves you at peace and doesn’t betray yourself. You can act big, or small. The important thing is to act from kindness, in earnest, and with empathy.

Here’s hoping.

What’s My Motivation? Changing What I Share Online

The Internet: Part information superhighway, part Eternal Troll Cave of Fathomless Depths. I used to love it. As someone whose driving motivation was understanding and solving social problems, I saw Facebook as my personal megaphone. It was a towering soapbox  from which I could denounce the social/political/moral evils surrounding me.

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My Resting Scroll Face

I would type out a fiery diatribe and gleefully hit send, shocked when my condescending drivel wasn’t readily embraced by the masses. Yes, I would think, I’m making a stand. I’m speaking up for what’s right: me. 

Wait. Aren’t you a Christian? You guys are all about denouncing some moral evils, right?

Yes. I am called to put a stop to thoughts and behaviors that are contrary to loving God and  neighbor. But I’m supposed to do that in my own life before I even think of “helping” someone else “see the error of their ways”.  Reminds me of a quote I saw today by St. Maximos the Confessor:

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Focusing on changing everyone on my News Feed for the better renders my own change null and void? Dag. Is it just me, or do the Saints straight-up roast people sometimes?

Beyond that, I’m starting to believe it’s impossible to have meaningful discussion [read: debate] on social media. Why?

  • I could be wrong. There, I said it. Hey, anything’s possible.
  • I can be right and still be mean or condescending about it. And that’s wrong.
  • I could assume someone I don’t agree with is bad or evil, without knowing all the facts (which I never will anyway). And that’s judging.
  • I will probably get angry more quickly (and for longer) online than I would in person. The vitriol/intensity of the Internet and the way opinions are written there makes it a breeding ground for angry, spiteful and otherwise violent communication.
  • It’s public. Eliminating the privacy of a face-to-face conversation almost guarantees that someone else will weigh in, take something out of context, gang up on one of us, and so on.

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When I disagree with, denounce, or vilify someone else’s perspective/political party/difference of opinion online, they can see it. [Even if I passive-aggressively Vaguebook about how wrong “some people” are on my own timeline.] And everyone else we’re friends with can see it, too. Not to mention our little tête à tête  is saved for posterity. Plus there’s never really been a time when I’ve thought: Wow. That gloves-are-off Facebook debate really brought us closer.

So, if I’m going to post something online, I start with asking myself something simple: why am I sharing this?

Is it:

  • Because I’m angry?
  • To declare how right I am?
  • To declare how wrong you are?
  • To make “the other side” [or people who identify with them] look bad, or foolish?

If the answer is yes, I need to re-think. As cheesy as this little mnemonic is, it’s really helpful for us social media mavens:

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The first time I saw this, I thought something alone the lines of: well, guess I have to delete Facebook and stop blogging. I didn’t blog or stir the pot on Facebook for months. I tried my hand at holding my tongue (my success varied widely from day to day). And while I try to be much more careful about the tone of what I post now than I used to, I still believe social media and blogging are powerful ways of sharing new ideas, and building connections rooted in empathy rather than same-ness of opinion.

Filtering what I share doesn’t mean I can’t post about tricky issues or things I care about, or that I’m suggesting Shrinking Violet is the New Black. My desire for a peaceful newsfeed does not cancel out my strong convictions. The key is changing the focus of the material I post from “what they’re doing wrong”  to “what’s helping me do better”.

What did this teach me?

How is this helping me be a better human?

What about this situation worries or troubles me?  

I know this is a problem. What is a solution I can realize in my day to day interactions and/or in my community?

 If my main goal really is to change myself for the better, I can share  things in terms of what I learned, or how something helped me change my perspective. If something is important to me, I can simply say that before sharing, without bringing what “some people” think into it. If someone misspeaks online and the error could hurt them or others, I can do my best to gently present my point of view.

All in all, I’m learning it’s best for my peace of mind (and my relationships) not to get too deep into a Facebook face-off. In general, I think the tricky things are best discussed with a friend, over cold beer and Hot Chicken.

Small Things/ Great Love

A couple of months ago, while talking to my priest. I was doing my usual: unpacking my laundry list of worries about life and the cosmos. And I don’t just talk about my worries, y’all. I pile them up. I stack them carefully, one on top of another, like scary, toxic Fear Pancakes:

Well, what about racism and police brutality?

What about global warming?

What about natural disasters and the end times and the future and GMOs and- and- and. . . 

You get the idea. We’ve all been there: that point where we are literally Can’t Even-ing because the Whole Entire Flip-Flappin’ World is just so Out-Of-Its Mind-Crazy. But I had stayed there in that state of mind and pitched a tent. I scrolled through (and wallowed in) the misery of the world and drank up all the injustice I saw in a medium where [more often than not- I know there are exceptions] no direct action can be taken by me to fix the problem.

For an aspiring social activist, I was pretty immobilized But that’s what happens when exposure is equated to involvement. The choir and I took turns preaching, we all shouted AMEN. I wrote the perfectly researched comments that silenced my opponents. I had become callous in the name of caring. I had replaced engaged with enraged. And I was beginning to drown. In fact, I noticed that the discourse on Social Media was simultaneously doing the following [and on a 24-hour, ever refreshing loop]:

Demanding I care passionately, constantly

Demanding I demonstrate I care in a specific way

Heavily implying [or outright stating] that to the degree I didn’t post, discuss, or engage in a public forum, I didn’t care.

Is it just me, or does the News Feed turn social causes and opinions into that horrible snob in every 80s coming of age movie? You know, the one who pressured their boyfriend or girlfriend with the words “You would if you really loved me”.  So much of the rhetoric on The Book turns everyone into That Guy [or Girl, anyone can be a jerk]. I see it happen all the time.

And if I’m being honest, I’ve been That Person often, and I’ve done so in the name of being correct, open-minded or [worst of all] theologically sound. I’ve done it for the recognition, for the praise, and to prove my own moral amazingness. And that both humbles me and grosses me out.

While it’s a great tool for fast communication and spread of good ideas and causes, Social Media and the Internet can also increase feelings of alienation, polarization [us vs. them], and snap judgement.

What- in a normal conversation- would amount to “We don’t see eye to eye on this, but I know from our other conversations and interactions that you are not, in fact, a soulless monster, but my friend” becomes “OMG U FASCIST I HATE YOUR STUPID FACE AND I HOPE YOU FALL DOWN A WELL!!!!!!!!”

So what’s changed? Am I off Facebook? [Girl, please- it’s open in the next tab.] I did- however- find a more realistic way of looking at it, and at the whole idea of social engagement.

My priest-remember him? the patient guy at the beginning of the story?- told me about something he read about that helped him not to become overwhelmed, hate everyone, and spend the rest of his life crying [paraphrasing there]. He told me about the Circle of Influence: areas we can actually change and influence vs. the Circle of Concern: the big, ever-present problems of the world.

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According to the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the most effective [and/or proactive] people focus the majority of their time on their Circle of Influence, and far less on their Circle of Concern. This not only made total sense to me and struck me as a really healthy way to be,  it helped me realize that social media, and media in general, distorts things such that our Circle of Concern is either presented as identical to our Circle of Influence or vastly more important when it comes to changing our circumstances, when it’s really the other way around.

“Imagine,” Father said, “what it would be like if you took that energy for those causes you cared about and put them into action in your community and in your day to day life.” I  could write a letter to the editor, have a conversation that promotes empathy and understanding of someone different than me, treat a friend who is struggling financially to a meal, recycle, look someone in the eye and tell them they matter. The wonderful paradox is: I can do almost nothing to solve the big problems of the world, but the “small” things I can do that would truly make a difference are in fact vast, endless, and ever-evolving.

What if I- what if we all- took that approach first and foremost? Would all social problems be eliminated? Probably not. Would action be taken consistently, and would things change? Definitely. And that seems like what all us are truly after.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta changed the way the world views poverty, service, and love. She transformed the lives of countless people with her work, and continues to do so with her teachings. Yet she did not use a computer, and rarely traveled outside of the area where she lived. Would we dare say she didn’t care?

Even contemplating shifting my focus from “great things” to “small things with great love” has been immensely freeing. To do so helps me see more clearly how much I am loved. I realize more clearly what I can do for others.

I believe that thinking and acting in our sphere of influence- doing small things for our friends, enemies, neighbors, communities, opponents and compatriots- deliberately and consistently with great love will shift our connection to humankind from virtual to reality.

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What do you feel connects us to one another? What harms that connection? What helps it?

What small things have been done for you with great love?

What small thing can you commit to doing this week for someone that you love? For someone that you don’t always agree with?

Love, Needs, Giving: A Partner’s Perspective on Disability [Guest Post by John Thielman]

Happy spring! Today the blog breaks its unintentional (but by no means surprising by now) silence with a special treat. Yesterday marks 3 years since one online exchange began a friendship, which grew into a relationship, and is on its way to becoming a marriage. Since May is the month John and I met, I am honored and proud to share his guest blog with you, which offers his perspective as the partner of someone with a disability. I am sure his kindness and honesty will encourage all of you, as it does me every day.  Enjoy!

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K Summers Photography, 2014

Beth often shares stories with me of her odd encounters with well-meaning, but socially awkward, strangers. One of the questions she gets most often is: “So is your fiancé in a wheelchair, too?”

It’s tempting to try to laugh that question off, but the more I think about its implications, the less I like it.  Nobody asks me if my fiancé needs glasses too, or if she is also Caucasian, or is also going grey at the temples.  Everyone seems to recognize that a woman wouldn’t have to share my bad eyesight (or any other arbitrary, superficial characteristic) to be interested in marrying me, but for some reason it’s very common to assume that only a man who also has a disability would be interested in a woman with one. It’s as if people believe “typical” cannot love “different”. And this assertion that is not only false, but painful.

So, how does a relationship work when one of the participants has a disability?  Truth to tell, I don’t know how a relationship works when neither does (I was in a relationship once before, with someone without a disability, but I can’t say the relationship actually worked).  Ours is like any other relationship: we talk to one another, we listen, we try to help.

As far as I can tell, everybody needs help with something in life.  Some people are bad at doing their taxes, some are late everywhere they go, many have insecurities and some have legs that don’t work properly.  So just as Beth doesn’t think anything of helping me with my insecurities and the challenges I face as a student in a foreign country, I think absolutely nothing of helping her get up and down stairs, preparing a meal for us to share, or helping her around the house.

In fact, it is this act of helping that brings us closer together.  In order to allow her to help me, I have to make myself vulnerable to her emotionally, which is never easy (well, by now it’s easier because we’ve been doing it for so long), and in order to allow me to help her, she has to be very vulnerable to me physically.  It all requires a lot of trust, but our trust in one another is always rewarded.

Honestly though, it is the distance between us (not her disability) that has always been the biggest problem to overcome.  We have never lived in the same city, and never less than 800 miles apart.  Now it’s more like 4,600.  But we talk every day on skype, often for hours, sometimes more than once. [Since starting our relationship in September 2012, we have only gone 2 days without Skyping!]  We’ve been told that we talk more to one another than do some couples who live together.  This is no surprise, since we can’t do much more than exchange words, so we exchange lots and lots of them, and we weigh them carefully.

So, distance has become our teacher, helping us learn to communicate honestly and lovingly with one another.  And because being apart forces us to find a silver lining, each of us strives to discern the best and most loving interpretation of the other’s words.  When we can’t find that right away, we push through any negative feelings, and ask for clarification.  We do our best to understand each other’s needs and to help fulfill those needs.   And it turns out not to matter so much what [or even whose] those specific needs are; the remedy is still the same. We speak, we listen, we understand, we give and take, we help each other. We love each other. That’s really all there is to it.

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Originally from Menomonie, Wisconsin, John is earning his Master’s Degree in Historical Linguistics from the Humboldt University in Berlin, and holds a B.A. in Classics from Gustavus Adolphus College. He enjoys tailoring, cooking, and all things Tolkien. His favorite pastimes are reading, sipping fine whiskey, and shooting the breeze with his Intended. 

Go Sox: In Defense of the Playoff Beard

Earlier this afternoon, I read this blog, in which Amanda Hess of Slate takes a turn berating each Boston Red Sox player for his Playoff Beard. Calling them “dumb”, “gross”, “lazy”,”without self-control”, she compares one man to a Troglodyte, and saying that the beard of another resembled pubic hair. She also spent a whole paragraph implying that the wives and girlfriends of the players probably are [or should be] disgusted with the beards of their men. She agreed with another author who implied that waking up to a man with a formidable beard would be like waking up next to a dog.

Whoa, now.

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While I fully comprehend her piece is meant to be comical, something about it bothered me all day. And I figured out what. So, I decided to write her a note here:

Amanda,

I read your post today after a friend shared it on Facebook. Of course, I get that your goal is humor. However, I was bothered by the tone of your piece. It came across as shaming, emasculating, and belittling to the men you wrote about, and to other men who look like them. By now, you’ve guessed it. I love someone with a beard. And never have I confused him with a Pomeranian, a sheepdog, or a caveman, even when his attitude toward his facial hair was more fancy free. I felt awkward even talking about your blog with him, imagining how he would feel reading it, knowing that he and many of his friends have worn looks like you are describing.  Contrary to the studies you’ve read, I find his facial hair manly and attractive no matter what its style, and I’m fairly certain it has magic powers. It is a built in pillow during snuggle time, and allows him to resemble a mid-to-late-Beatles George Harrison. Point is, we live in a society with far too much shaming: and it hurts me to see more, even when it is supposed to be in jest. There is already too much humor on the Internet and elsewhere aimed at making someone else feel small. As women, I’m sure you and I both can remember times when we’ve felt ugly or unattractive because of someone else’s words about how we should or shouldn’t look, no matter how funny they intended to be. It is no different for men.  One more thing: I’m not a baseball fan, but I love the Red Sox beards: yes, they’re wild and crazy, but so is WINNING the World Series.   And you and I both know why they won: there are a million tiny reasons, growing all over their chins right now. Enjoy your weekend, and your No Shave November.

[for JPT]

Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down

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A few weeks ago, I found out that myself and 11 other coworkers will be losing our jobs after December 31 [Happy New Year!] The agency that we subcontract with is backing out of the contract 3 months early for their “convenience” and as a direct result of our constant advocacy for systems change in a program hampered by bureaucracy and disconnect. The way our organization has been treated makes it harder and harder to get up to go to work as the end of the year draws near. It was, and is, an infuriating example of callousness. 

Around the same time, there were people very dear to me [including my Someone] whose friends weren’t acting like friends. Multiple stories of unkindness, judgmental attitudes, and impatience were in the air. With all that, a busy schedule of work and teaching, and the constant ache of Transatlantic lovesickness, morale on Team Beth has been at an all-time low lately.

But through it all, I have found solace in some advice my stepdad gave me several years ago, during my 3-year-long struggle to find a job, after yet another rejection letter had left me angry and in tears at the kitchen table.

Illegitimi non carborundum,” he said cryptically.

“Huh?”

“Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

People can, in fact, be mean just for the sake of it. People hurt each other, even when given the benefit of the doubt. People are unkind, even when they have been shown kindness. It is normal to let it frustrate me. But I can’t let it get me down. Because when I stop at anger and begin to carry only anger around, no one wins. When I let it get me down and believe the things their words or actions are saying about who I am, they win. 

When I choose to be kind: I win.

Before you call me a Pollyanna: I can tell you right now that I am not always kind as I should be [or kind at all] in the moment of offense, and it is not always possible to go back and be kind to the same person who was unkind to me.  I also can’t [and shouldn’t] pretend like nothing is wrong when I’ve been hurt or mistreated.

So, when confronted with outright meanness, what’s a girl to do? Here are three things I will try my hardest to do going forward to help get myself through the end of the year [or at least through tomorrow]:

 

  • Shut my mouth. It is entirely possible I won’t have anything nice to say, and shouldn’t say it at all.
  • Pray for that person [or more accurately my lava-hot anger towards that person], and for something or someone else to focus my attention and energy on. After all the Good Book tells me that “Love Your Neighbor” does, in fact, include my enemy.
  • Be kind to someone else, the next chance I get. 

The truth is, no matter how mean someone is to me, no matter how small that the behavior of a Jerky-Jerkface makes me feel, being mean back does nothing but mirror their behavior and make me angrier.

And as soon as I let unkindness keep me from being kind, the Bad Guys win.

So don’t let them win.

Be kind, as best you can.

Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Let them make you kind of person the world needs: a better one.