Limits and Love

I’m not sure how much I’ve written about it here, but one of my serious quests over the last few years is about naming (and to a certain extent accepting) my limits.

There is a fine balance between what we can do, what we should do, and what we want or need to do.

Last month– the month of November– I didn’t write much.

That is, I didn’t process much via journal or blog writing.

I did write my 50,000 words of Sherlockian Daze, and fell in love with a whole new cast of characters.

I also had my limits tested, and my will challenged.

The day after Jay left for his month in Antarctica, I was already past the half-way mark on my 50,000-word goal.

I should say a few things here:

  • At some point this summer Jay made the connection that when I said “our work is not equal” I wasn’t talking about value. I was talking about him getting to spend hours and hours of his life (almost daily) on something he enjoys and is good at.
  • He made the connection that the crowd-control, housework, homeschooling and the myriad of details that fill my life (while he is doing work he loves) is nothing close to “enjoyable” for me, and with a couple notable exceptions, something I’m only marginally “good at.”
    • I’m speaking here of the list above: people are not on that list. Just the grunt-work of making life liveable for a group of people.
  • Jay’s trip was up in the air because of the gov’t freeze, so I found out about 10 days before he left about his departure date. [Cue Amy’s standard non-freak-out that involves a lot of focused breathing, book-buying, and vitamin-checking.]
  • In a spurt of insightful generosity, Jay pulled his details together in time to stay home and manage the house and kids on November 1, so I could write all day. November 1 I wrote 10,352 words.
    • The 10,000-word day is sort of my generic “professional writer” benchmark, mainly due to this book. (Which I recommend: along with quality content it only takes an hour or two to read– which is also why I recommend it.) So crossing the 10K mark on the first was a big-huge deal to me.
      • She writes “full time” with her kiddo in daycare, which is sort of how I define full-time: someone else watching your kids so you can focus on something else.
  • I tracked my words per hour in a spreadsheet, so I saw that my 10K day was built in hours of 1,000- 1,200 word hours. So when Jay left and my life became exponentially more complex, I maintained my sense of professionalism and good will by producing at the same rate, but in smaller chunks. Chunks more like half an hour to an hour than whole days of application.

On that day after Jay left, I still had a mathematically doable goal of finishing the entire first draft (not just the 50,000 words) by the end of the month. I was half an hour (and a respectable 556 words) into my 2-hour writing block when a got a phone call from a young mom who asked if I could keep her baby “for about a week.”

I used to be a foster parent (of elementary-age kids, before I had two babies of my own) so I knew a few questions to ask, and a week seemed overly optimistic for resolution, but I said I’d talk to Jay.

Jay way still somewhere between Fairbanks and New Zealand, completely unavailable.

Normally my gap MO in such cases is to talk to my mom or dad, but they had left town that morning, and were also unavailable. So I called my IRL Christian/writer/mama friend (do you know how hard it is to get all five of those elements in one person?!) Afiya to have *somebody* who knew my situation to help think things out.

I don’t usually call (phones are not my friend), so she started by asking what was up.

This is why I needed my own pet in the midst of a busy life.

“Do you remember the last time I called when Jay was traveling? I was asking your opinion about adopting a little dog without his go-ahead, because I wasn’t sure it would still be around by the time he got home.”

“Oh sure,” she said. “Did you ever find a dog you both like?”

“No, we ended up getting two cats instead, but that’s not why I’m calling. Today I’m calling about a baby.”

“Oh, Amy, Amy, Amy…”

It was Afiya who pointed out I should ask the kids, enlist their participation because there was no way I could add a baby to my life as it is.

So I spoke with them (“Are you in? Because I’m not doing this by myself: God didn’t design a baby to be raised by one person all alone.”), they jumped at the idea, and that night I was doing baby laundry, watching babywearing videos on YouTube, and introducing my kids to the Dunstan Baby Language DVDs.

Over the last month my kids have impressed me again and again with their attentiveness and problem-solving skills as we’ve integrated this baby into our family.

It is unknown how long he will be with us, and I am thrilled to be writing this the morning after his second night of a big sleep-through (8p.m. to 6a.m.). Writing has emerged once again as a necessity, not a luxury, so with his stay stretching out I’m learning how to reintegrate writing even when we don’t particularly have a schedule. Since I don’t do schedules. Because they require too much energy in ratio to the benefits they proport to offer.

And, no, we don’t plan to adopt him, we’re just giving him a safe place to live while his forever-home stabilizes. Please don’t ask how we’re going to deal with “being attached” or the kids’ “being attached” or what we think we’ll do when he goes.

Odds are we’ll be sad. Odds are we’ll have a very real mixture of grief and relief, but fact is, there’s no way to “prepare” emotionally for a loss other than an unhealthy disengagement, which would damage baby as well as us.

I like how C.S. Lewis wrote about it:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

When I was 17, I considered a 6-month after-graduation job in another country. I actively considered what it would mean to fall in love with people and a community that I didn’t expect I’d visit again (non-traveler that I am). I quickly reached the “wrap [your heart] up tight” conclusion when I heard two words, almost as if from the voice of God.

Love lavishly.

It was my job, I felt him saying about me, to pour out the love I’d been given, the love I was full of. It was his job to keep my heart whole enough to keep loving.

 

I’ve learned a lot about love since I was 17, and I have learned more about actively protecting my heart, and defending myself in a useful way, but none of those things is really about limiting love. They’re about choosing how I’ll live, and accepting that people won’t always understand my love, or the way I express it.

One of my lessons is that the outward expression of my love (be that gifts, or listening or service, etc.) isn’t just about what I can do. That is too great a burden. It is about what I can keep on doing.

A one-time gift, or a series of large gifts, adequately spread out to allow me to recharge, is not showing greater love than the small bits that happen every day.

By making choices based on a pattern of sustainable giving, I am allowed consistency (one of my high values) and I am spared the choice or angst of having to decide with each “opportunity” to be stretched, can I endure *this* right now?

It is tied to my recent study of self esteem. My favorite summary of good self esteem has two parts.

  • The ability to trust your own mind.
  • The assurance you are worthy (or capable) of happiness.

By practicing these two halves, I am more-able to set meaningful limits in the relationships I have, and build a sustainable life that isn’t about running from crisis to crisis (mine or anyone else’s), putting out fires.

I used to think that if I was living life right, I could “work ahead” enough to coast for a while. I could push, then rest, push than rest. I wanted that rest so badly I pushed really really hard. But there’s always more to do, and there is a point we need to take the rest.

More than just taking the rest, which I believe *is* critical, I think some of us also need to work the rest into our daily living.

There will always be people “worse off” than me, and for a long time, I was not able to feel peace in my plenty because of that. But there will also be people better off than me, some because of their hard work and some because of good luck.

I can only live the life I have, and I have proven over and over again that I have plenty to think about without adding to the complexity of my world.

Life is complicated. Love hurts. Limits mean we don’t have to deal with all of everything at once.

Limits are a gift.

It’s Almost Time!

NaNoWriMo 2013 is going to be a new experience for me, for a couple reasons.

1. I have made a serious effort over the course of the month to create an outline to work from.

Not just an outline, but a sense of character, place, drama, trauma and core identities.

You see, much of the bear that revising Lindorm has been might have been averted with a bit more planning. Not just an A-happens, B-happens, C-happens (I did have a set of (digital) cards that made me feel ready but I didn’t look at after day-3). I needed to understand the internal workings of these imaginary people if they were going to be understood in the real world.

Of course, some of that trouble was not knowing myself at the time, my own core hurts and needs, and since one’s first protagonist is usually one’s self, this resulted in a lot of blind writing.  I kept being told Linnea is interesting/engaging/unique, but I had to take other people’s word for it.

So now I try to have things like a moral premise, and a midpoint reversal.

And I can name my genre, which surprised me, but is beginning to make more sense (considering my personal spread on the F-T spectrum). This story is a Mystery-Romance (or a Romance-Mystery. They’re both main genres, so I’m not sure before I write it which element is going to come out “on top”).

2. The novel I’m writing is not based on a folk or fairytale– modernized or not. A departure from all my other stories.

This story is an indulgence of all the popular-story elements I have collected over the years.  All the stuff that I gape at, and consider gutsy (and frankly, something like Twilight seems so self-indulgent it would take a lot of nerve for me to write something like that), or even outrageous, I continue to see authors who just GO for it and pull it off.

Shameless.

Like in Waking Rose where you have ninjas (NINJAS!) and you totally buy the ninja-fight at the end. That took guts (along with the unbelievably outrageous villain– I mean really? Black market organs?) and just unashamedly diving in and rolling with the story premise, it all. works.

This year’s story capitalizes on the current popularity of the BBC Sherlock, in a storyworld where Cumberbatch and Freeman lookalikes have been hired for a Teen-Sherlock spinoff.

Only, because they were hired for their appearances, none of the actors is particularly like the character he plays on the show.

Sherlock’s actor is more like Freeman’s Watson in temperament, and when he meets the girl who will eventually play Lestrade’s kid sister, he has no problem seeing her as the more “Sherlockian” of their pair.

So the novel is a layering of the story being told for television, trying to find a missing girl, and the “real world” mystery of exposing a group responsible for human trafficking, before those criminals decide to destroy the evidence. (And there’s your ticking clock.)

NaNoWriMo: 30 days to write 50,000 words on a new piece of fiction.

I’ve been writing a post each day through the month of October. All about getting Ready for NaNoWriMo.

It was a person at the Fairbanks NaNo Meet & Greet yesterday who noted:

“”NaNo itself is going to seem like a break to you after posting all through October: 30 days of work that doesn’t have to be cleaned up for public consumption.”

Yum. I’m looking forward to that. :)

Made to be Loved

Image courtesy of Andreas Krappweis via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Andreas Krappweis via stock.xchng

I had a very unsettling experience this weekend that I’m just gonna go out on a limb and call a spiritual attack.

Over the last month and a half, I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on a peer/lay-led women’s bible study group. No set curriculum, instead, each woman signs up to teach on something that is important to her. They meet 2nd and 4th Fridays of each month (in case any local folks want to join us) and have been a haven of openness and challenging ideas.

Rather my perfect storm. In a good way.

Friday night, as I left, everyone made sure to hug me before I was gone, and two of the women, along their polite “we’re glad you’re coming”s added, “You have so much to add. Your breadth of knowledge is really impressive. You really are very smart.”

I don’t know when the shift happened for me, but some point after becoming an adult (maybe it was even after the depression, but at some point) my desire for affirmation and validation shifted from “You’re beautiful” (which I used to need very much, and still now is nice) to “You’re smart,” or “I admire you.”

Deeply affected, I thanked them for their compliment/kindness and headed home with an unnameable something broiling in my body.

It only got worse through Saturday. I was busy most of the day, so it kept to a low level, almost unnoticeable. But in the evening, when I was able to sit with myself, I felt that I was experiencing something utterly new to me.

All the emotions that I recognize have been in circulation since before I can remember their beginning. This was new. It was uncomfortable.

I sat and wrote a stream-of-consciousness essay to get a grip.

Image courtesy of Nithya Ramanujam via stock.xchng

“To allow hope into the heart is to open oneself to bitter disappointment.” (Line that made me pause in my current read, Heart’s Blood, and shift to writing.)

I told Jay tonight that I felt a new emotion. The first time I can remember feeling something new and undefined. The roots of everything else are deeper than memory.

It feels like a head cold, but with an extra ball of wax in my throat, and a layer of pond muck in my lungs.

It feels like a numb terror, like I’d be afraid if I had any more energy. Like I want to run, but know it is exactly the wrong thing to do, as if I am facing a bear.

And maybe the right thing is to treat it like a bear presence. Back away slowly, keep my eyes on it, and find a secure tree to climb. Dropping to play dead would be a last resort, but not out of the question.

And what’s so traumatic (you may rightly ask)?

I’m making friends.

(And now the tears are running down my cheeks and I’m blocking out the list of other reasons I’m raw enough to notice this new feeling.)

It hit me like a huge wet towel that I now have something to lose. And the awareness is everything I described above.

I’m having to engage all of my mind not to run away and hide.

I want to be hopeful, and I fear having a named hope that can be lost.

We talk about vulnerability, and “taking off the mask,” but what if the underneath is just more of the same? The other 90% of what people handle okay at the 10% level?

That’s what leaves me breathless.

This morning during prayer-time I thought about how Satan’s big lies include not just “You are unloved,” but also “You are unlovable.”

Image courtesy of Pontus Edenberg via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Pontus Edenberg via stock.xchng

I am enough of an empiricist that I can reject that first lie as literally untrue, but because “loveable” holds more connotations than simply able-to-be-loved, (holding an implication of sweet, adorable, inherent attractiveness) hearing “unlovable” was not so plainly a lie.

Having experienced rejection a bunch, I knew there was a lot of stuff about me that just turned people off (notice there I said people, not some people. That was a flag). And so, knowing this “honest” stuff about myself, I moderated most of the “you’re amazing” comments from random people who don’t know me well, straining them through the hyperbole filter.

I know real love, though, and genuine acceptance. Each time it enters my world I’m gobsmacked. I like it, sure, but I hold loosely, treating it like a timid, wild thing, feeling honored that it has paused to trust me, to share it’s presence.

Having these individuals in my life didn’t disprove the lie (“I am unlovable.”), the lie (feeling true) only made their love and acceptance seem that much more amazing. It proved their awesomeness: they were exceptions to some fundamental law of nature.

The change Friday night was that this wasn’t just an individual I’d “clicked” with, that I carefully read, or opened to, or exchanged with. This was a whole group. This was “making friends.” Not just “finding a friend.”

Like I said, it created all. sorts. of emotional turmoil in me. But I think it also shattered a paradigm– exposing sharp edges that cut, and made me bleed– and birthed a new paradigm. Because (here comes the question):

What is the tipping point?

These people who love me are extraordinary. Their love is real, I’ve trusted that a long time, but I also saw it as a fluke.

I wrote out those two lies and stared at them a while. Taken naked, they are so easily seen.

Image courtesy of Sarah Lewis via stock.xchng

When do I quit calling those who love me the exception to the rule, and agree, yes, I am loveable?

And what I believe God impressed on me this morning is that, while their love is a gift: precious, wild, even rare in its uniqueness, it is not a fluke. It is God’s plan in action.

Because.

I. was. made. to. be. loved.

Combatting Depression (guest post at Devotional Diva)

For me, combating depression has been about my relationships as much as my biology. Especially my relationship with myself.

I know there are people who make it look like you have to pull away from your real life in order to “find yourself,” and those single-minded individuals can make folks like me suspect. But I honestly believe I’m as healthy as I am right now because of the digging and asking and finding and O-Kay-ing I’ve done about myself.

Read the rest at Devotional Diva.

Life & Fiction: Grieving Through Fiction

I love how this column I wrote a month ago teams so nicely with the poems I posted last week. I was thankful to have a friend staying with me while Jay traveled, because there is heaviness in writing hard things. She was a loving presence that kept me company as I read my words about losing friends to distance.

She listened with respect and intensity, letting me try the words aloud, never commenting on the meaning-obscuring fog in my voice. Then said the last thing I would have guessed.

“That sounds so sad [a word that I later realized I never actually used in the original article]. I’ve never known anything like that.”

I might have laughed (cheeks still tear-damp from reading). I hope I said, “I’m glad for you.” What I remember is being glad for the shift in me, to speak openly and let the tears fall without apology.

Tears really are a gift.  And so are good, good friends.

In grade school, I read the book Bridge to Terabithia, a story that has been called a modern-day-classic by some, which basically means enough people were surprised by a book they discovered themselves that they insisted other people read it as well.

It is a story about loss. It was written by Katherine Paterson, in response to her son’s grief when he lost his best friend at a young age. I cried when I read that book.

I cried like I didn’t know I was allowed to. My mom did the right thing. She redirected my siblings, held them off. She let me cry.

But I couldn’t figure out why I was so sad. I thought this kind of emotional reaction was wrong. The story wasn’t real. The people I mourned with never existed. I didn’t understand this empathetic sadness, and it scared me.

From then on, I spent most of my conscious reading and movie-watching avoiding anything that might invoke a similarly intense response.

I forgot that I’d ever cried at a story. I prided myself at having a firm grasp on reality and separating myself from the sentimentality of those lumpy, leaky women who cried at weddings. Who cried even at movies with weddings in them.

Then, in 2006, fewer than three months after my youngest child was born, my dear-friend grandmother died.

Later that year I read The Thirteenth Tale, and I cried. I didn’t even identify that closely with much in the story, but I cried hard.

I began to consider that tears might not always be about exactly what started us crying.

Penelope Trunk, a career coach and blogger, once said something that I’ve co-opted in the paraphrase: “PMS is your body telling you to cry about the stuff you’ve been ignoring all month.”

This is beautiful and freeing because it starts by assigning value to the tears: the stressors that break us open, showing what’s inside, did not create the emotion in some mysterious alchemy. The reality has always been there.

 

Read the rest at wynmag.com

 

 

T vs. F: Logic and Emotion in Decision Making (Wyn Magazine)

One of the main dichotomies I run across is the war between Feeling and Thinking (shorted in many discussions to F & T).

The difficulty with these labels is that they can encourage a binary way of looking at the world, and people who are highly aware of their preferred way of deciding can become proud or ashamed of their preference, based on the message they get from the world around them.

With T and F we see two very different ways of doing things, and they are frequently set in a hierarchy rather than seen as two tools in a toolbox, neither of greater value, both necessary in different contexts.

A woman I know came from an entire family (both parents and sibling) who lived in the F-preference. The people they knew and met from the T-preference were perceived as harsh, unyielding, and definitely unloving.

In contrast, all my life I have been surrounded by T-preference people who are very driven, immutable, and organized, in both their behavior and their thoughts. This became my standard or assumption for maturity. Thinking was the way “real grown-ups” made decisions.

Showing emotions (especially “violent” emotions, like anger or loud tears) was evidence of a lack of control, which inevitably held echoes of those childish, impotent outbursts we used to call tantrums.

I understood the value of Thinking and did everything I could to ignore or repress Feeling, seeing it as only a distraction that strong people can get over.

Read more at wynmag.com

Specializing

Logic is not motivating.

–Dave Ramsey

Image courtesy of Antonio Jiménez Alonso via stock.xchng

I found so much comfort in that phrase when I read it at the end of 2010. I was in my first months of depression and trying very hard to figure out my balance between logic (that I’d always relied on and trusted most) and the value of emotion.

My trust was a pendulum, an either-or. The two mechanisms were opposed to one another, and I wasn’t sure how they were supposed to integrate…until I read that line.

For the first time I started to connect the division-of-labor process in my marriage to other processes.

In my marriage I have the tremendous blessing of being ignorant. And so does my husband.

We each have things that we’re naturally good at– or at least better at than the other person.

For example, Jay, in his conscientious, detail-oriented personality, is in charge of managing the money. With that same conscientiousness and significantly greater physical strength, he’s primary care on the dailiness of the animals (also: shoveling out the barn after winter was all. him.)

In contrast, I’m in charge of the food. Eating “real” is important to us as our way to eat healthy. We don’t do a lot of “organic” but most of our food is from scratch-scratch. And that’s what I manage. I was forced into it, first by my stint in Weight Watchers where learning and inventing new recipes turned out to be training wheels for later, when I recognized and adapted to food sensitivities.

I never had to learn to efficiently kill and clean a rabbit, Jay never had to learn how to butcher or cook one.

And this works very well for two perfectionist personalities, because we can put our limited time and energy into getting better at fewer things.

As in our marriage, I am learning that it is inefficient and very frustrating (and perhaps chauvinist) when we expect one “better” party to be able to do it all, no matter what it is. Instead, I let the bickering siblings specialize in different, but ultimately useful, areas.

Logic isn’t (usually) motivating, but emotion most-definitely is. Emotion is powerful, but (usually) needs trajectory.

Anger, delight, surprise, joy, fear, all these are fuel cells adding a jolt (or rocket boosters) to a course of action (ideally) mapped out by that highly valued logic.

The third spectrum of the Myers-Briggs personality theory sets Thinking on one end and Feeling on the other, and some people treat that as if you can think without feeling, or feel without thinking. Neither of these extremes are a healthy way to approach life.

We each have a bit of “type patriotism,” an attraction or affinity to the pole we sit closest to, that makes us quicker to pull that tool out and assume it’s applicable, but we will be our most effective when we consider more than one tool for the job in front of us.

Image courtesy of Enrico Nunziati via stock.xchng

This choosing takes practice and discipline, but I believe it is part of growing up; part of maturity is being able to hesitate long enough to confirm you’ve got the right tool for the job.

Specialization has always made me uneasy, because it creates a dependency.

When you can’t count on someone being there to fill in your gaps, every weakness is a liability.

I used to modulate excitement at any victory by quoting a line from Lord of the Rings. Gandalf was curbing the excitement over the victory at Helm’s Deep, reminding them they had won only a battle, not the war.

“And this with help we cannot rely on again.”

(Or something like that. My book’s out of reach just now.)

The point is that I was always in flux. Insecurity. Grateful, yes, for every success, but still as anxious about tomorrow as I was yesterday.

Until God gave me the image of manna: the way he fed the Children of Israel in the wilderness. It was a miracle, but a guaranteed miracle.

I have a good head.

I have a strong heart.

They have different jobs, but they are designed to work together.

And just like I can trust my husband, and completely remove some life-essentials from my learning-pile, I can trust that the logic/emotion dichotomy doesn’t need to be one.

When they own their niche(s), there’s less squabbling and more effective living.

Self-discovery as a path to holiness

Sanctification starts not with rules but with the forsaking of pride.

Purity begins with our determined refusal to hide from the condition of our hearts. Out of self-discovery, honestly done, humility may grow, and in humility, meekness; a quiet, unswerving, gentle strength.

Because once you honestly know yourself, and recognize the coexistence of self-acceptance and grief over your own sin, you have a model for graciously treating the sinners that continually surround us.

I’ve run across people who object to “self-discovery” as a waste of time.

They are the type that may dismissively refer to inner work as “navel gazing,” and self-absorption. Something “good Christians” (in particular) know better than to waste time on.

In contrast, I think of pursuing self-discovery as understanding all the inner whys. Perhaps because I’m a novelist and I’m always looking at motivation, I feel as though understanding the root will give me more tools.

Who we are now is a summation of everything that has come before.

A lot of good Christian folks I know (including me) stumble and stutter with the concept of Testimony. Testimony being that thing that describes the difference Christ has made in one’s life; testimony being the glowing After that one now lives in, in contrast to the dark Before.

Our recent attendance at Fairbanks Recovery Church has provided lots of examples of these, but the blessed openness of these testifiers also provides insight to those without the dramatic before.

We need a better set of words. There is a dangerously binary slant the the pair, Before & After.

The best I have to offer is Before & Now.

What these brave testifiers testify to is that they are not After. The struggle is ongoing; that they must continue to “die daily,” to surrender to light and truth for strength in their lives.

They know how bad “the dark side” is, having lived it, but they still feel it’s pull.

“The cravings never go away,” one man said Sunday. “What’s up with that?!”

And I start to get a corner of other types of testimony.

Continue reading »

To the Pure all Things are Pure

Or, to be less poetic, Who you are will direct what you see.

Some years ago I was in a storytelling workshop where we analyzed and discussed a Native American tale.

In it a girl sleeps beside a lake no one is supposed to visit alone.  A snake comes out of the lake and impregnates her.  When her pregnancy begins to show, the other villagers drive her into the wilderness. It is there that Lightning, the shining daughter of the old man of the mountain, finds her and brings her home.

The girl ends up marrying Lightning’s brother, Thunder, and after the young woman has his baby she wishes to take the child back to her village to show him off.

When she returns she tells the villagers who had been so unkind about her new family. They are fearful of her powerful new relations, but she tells them not to be afraid, because they are all family now.

It was a fabulous example of how much story can be crammed into few words (the original was less than half a page), and we spent a fair amount of time with it, discussing images, motifs and how one might learn to tell the story.

My favorite part of it all was the ending, I felt it was a wonderful picture of forgiveness and reconciliation.  I thought it was beautiful how the girl was able to forgive her home village and be happy after her tragedies.

I said so, and another woman present looked at me as if I had three heads.

That’s not the way she saw it at all.

“I thought it was about getting revenge.  You know, ‘Don’t be afraid of the storm’ so they’ll be careless and get zapped by it.”

And I’m sure I gaped.

Default Matters (Reading Notes)

I am in the early chapters of a book called Shadow Syndromes, and currently am fascinated by the concept the authors put forward that they label Noise.

In the same way, they say, as all sick people are going to have a baseline of feeling cruddy (tired, confused, unmotivated, general yuck) all brain issues also have a baseline of some general, indeterminate but distinctly distracting busy-ness that gets in the way of our brains doing exactly what we want them to do.

Just as literal noise (the neighbor’s music, nearby traffic, baby crying can be alternately ignorable and maddening, so can this brain-noise. It’s something extra to process, and so an additional draw on our physical/intellectual resources.

~

There’s this (thank God, happily married) researcher named Gottman who’s been studying relationships and marriage for decades. This book describes Gottman’s observation of the direct correlation between heart rate and the capacity to argue like adults.

Before Gottman puts his study-subjects “under glass,” and tells them to pick a subject of conflict, he hooks up monitors to measure a variety of physical markers– including “general somatic activity” (how active is the nervous system).

The correlation is consistent with what we’ve all experienced: the more active all these markers get, the less functional the communication becomes. Gottman calls it “diffuse physiological arousal,” and it’s a reasonable summary of what Shadow Syndrome‘s authors call noise.

“Gottman actually advises troubled couples to take their pulses in the midst of battle. In his experience, when a man’s pulse reaches eighty beats per minute, on average, and a woman’s pulse ninety, there is little point in going on.”

Why?

“To put it bluntly, once in a noisy state, people are simply not as smart as they are when calm.”

The heart rate is just the at-home check anybody can do: the fact is the entire body of a combative individual is getting worked up.

Intensifying the noise.

It is a collection of extra demands on the brain, diverting energy from the “higher processes” of reasoning, empathy, the reading of body language, and subtext.

What warring partners are left with is the dubiously termed, overlearned behaviors.

These are the patterns we have repeated so many times we have burned their processes into our neural pathways. They were learned and practiced in childhood, and so have had the most time to entrench themselves as the default position.

You don’t have to think about them and that is the point.

When you are too tired (or busy) to think, these are your go-to behaviors.

Which, really, explains a lot for me. In real-life and in writing.

I’m an over-thinker already, so when I’m mapping out a scene, I really have a hard time, in good conscience, making a character do something stupid.

I mean, I know people do stupid things all the time and in a story that’s often how you get interesting things to happen. Character-A does something stupid, and we get to spend a chapter (or half the book) getting him out of it.

Other than writing by the seat of my pants (and not seeing the trouble myself, so I’ll believe the character wouldn’t) the best advice I ever got about getting characters to act stupid was Have them make decisions in a hurry.

Another option, according to this research, is to have them act in anger, or some other intense emotion, or while there’s enough other stuff going on that the decision-maker is not functioning at full capacity.

The point is– well, two points.

a) We really do deteriorate as an argument stresses us. So if progress (or relationship improvement) is our goal, taking breaks really is the best policy.

This might even be why discussing the issue in front of someone you both respect (even if s/he offers no direct input) can have value: it might be easier to maintain self-control with an audience, and you could get farther before hitting critical mass.

Maybe this is even the point of talk-therapy: the counselee is “forced” to move linearly and may be less-likely to perseverate or deteriorate to “overlearned processes” like anxiety.

b) What you were like as a kid still affects who you are now.

The subset of this being: teach your kids processing/communication skills NOW. And take every opportunity to practice with them.