Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fixing to Do No Harm

As an adult child of an alcoholic (ACoA), I often find myself fixing situations, helping people, and also continuing relationships even when I know no good will come of it. Sometimes my attempts backfire, and I come away hurt and discouraged.  Other times I make a clean break and then suffer the guilt for it. It’s happened on more occasions than I wish to remember, and it happened again last week. My saving grace was that I acted with good intent, with a sense of doing no harm, even as I witnessed events unravel around me.
Many ACoAs go into the field of counseling and others become writers. My first master’s degree was to be a counseling degree, but I switched programs just before the last step: a full time internship. I was awarded a degree in Professional Education Studies with a concentration in multiculturalism, but I still completed all those counseling courses. Then I pursued and completed a master’s degree in writing.
I found a presentation on alcoholism I delivered for a marriage and family counseling class. Here’s the slide about the characteristics of an ACoA:

•Guess what normal behavior is
•Have difficulty completing things
•Lie when it is just as easy to tell the truth
•Are self-critical
•Have trouble having fun/are overly serious
•Are overly responsible or irresponsible
•Have difficulty with intimate relationships
•Over-react to changes they have no control over
•Seek approval/affirmation
•Are extremely loyal
•Are impulsive

I display many of the above characteristics. I’ve spent a lifetime wondering what normal is and dissecting how far off the grid I am. Sometimes I feel planets away.
I’ve lied to make people feel better or to make the story have a happy ending. After all, why do harm or make matters worse with the truth? And even though I am estranged from family, I’ve been known to keep people in my life that I never should have let enter in the first place, but I accept them because I often feel unacceptable. I don’t want others to feel that.
I’m also a hyper-responsible person, enough so that in many ways I raised myself as a child by creating limits and structure, at times adult-like, other times in childish ways. Collecting things and organizing them was one way I imposed structure in my chaotic childhood. That ability served me well in my career.
I learned some things in my counseling courses, perhaps not what the professors were hoping I’d learn, but what spoke to me about mental health and how we measure normal. For example, I fear abandonment, being left behind, being lost and never found, and the people I love not bothering to look for me. The fear haunted me as a child and galloped alongside me into adulthood. Some people might think, “You ought to get that fixed,” as if it is a broken bone or a cut. Doctors suggest the same thing. Feeling down? Feeling anxious? Take an anti-depressant.
But I disagree with that. The anxiety I feel about being abandoned is part of who I am. I am the sum of my heredity, ethnicity, culture, environment, education, temperament, and personality. My coping skills developed just as my resilience developed in specific ways in reaction to what was going on around me. I both survived and prevailed. What should I change? What should I fix? And why would I fix it? It’s who I am; it’s how I navigate my way through the world. It has not prevented me from doing anything I set out to do.
And I’ve found out something else really important, and it is that there is no normal. Normal is simply a point on a continuum that measures human behaviors. It is simply the average or middle of the range that stretches to extremes on either end. Each one of us falls on that line somewhere, and though there may be some individuals out there who fall exactly at the mid-point, who are exactly the average of all the possible human behavior combinations, I don’t think there are many, and, in all likelihood, it doesn’t seem like a great place to end up. If we all resided at point normal, life would be a very boring stretch indeed.
So the very things that sometimes backfire on me are the very things that assist me in succeeding in life, in finding love, in bearing and raising children, in creating a career, and in being creative. And my search for where I fall on the grid of humanity barely matters because my position on the grid will not shed any light on who I am. The process of changing behaviors and moving along the grid can sometimes help a person cope better with life and its complexities. Sometimes a person is paralyzed by certain behavioral aspects and really does need assistance and change. But, for most of us, those who are navigating through life and don’t feel paralysis or who don’t exercise undue impulsivity, changing certain attributes about oneself is not as rewarding as one might imagine, and change can actually backfire.
I think it is much more productive to be aware of who one is, and to acknowledge, accept, and work within that framework through life, knowing that it isn’t going to be perfect because no one is perfect, no one sits at the absolute center of humanity.
That’s why I have spoken in past posts about swimming in the muck of my emotions and relishing the process. It’s my way of knowing and experiencing all that I am. Understanding who I am, in all my imperfection, allows me to be open to other people and who they are and to not pass judgment about where on the grid they may fall and if that means they are good or bad people. We are so much more complex than that. In wondering about the difference between good people and bad people, I come up with one word: intent. Is the intent to hurt or exploit or shame another or gain at another’s expense or is the intent to live one’s life while doing no harm to others?
Creativity is like that, too, complex and layered like the minds in which it is born and nurtured and developed.  I had the pleasure of seeing Cara’s 2013 Faculty Concert at High Point University. Three works-in-progress were performed and then the three choreographers discussed their pieces and creative processes and took questions from one another and from audience members and also asked the audience questions.
One of the questions to the audience was did the audience need to “get the piece” in order to enjoy it. I didn’t raise my hand to answer the question, because I hate being “mom participating because she wants to show how much she supports her daughter.” Cara and I talked about it the next day, and I’ll answer the question in this post as well.
Each audience member will be affected in some way by a live performance but it doesn’t matter if the individual gets it or not. The choreographer’s intention matters only to the choreographer during the creative process of making a dance. How the audience interprets the movement during the performance is separate from that intention, and even though some may in fact interpret the intention and concepts of the choreographer, most times each individual is affected uniquely through the lenses and perceptions that individual brings to the performance.
I watch dance much like I read or listen to music: for pleasure and for the visceral, emotional, and intellectual experience. Sometimes learning the intention of a piece of dance or an essay or poem causes me to close off other possibilities and therefore diminishes my experience.
Writers, composers, and choreographers have a need to share their creative output, but it is asking too much when one expects acquiescence or consensus on the part of the audience. In many ways creative work is more complex and multidimensional than even the creator can realize.
Like performance, one can’t always know another’s intentions because we see those intentions through our own lenses and perceptions. This letter appeared on the reader’s page of my local paper yesterday.

Several probable reasons
I would like to offer several probable reasons why some Christian churches have severed their connection with the Boy Scouts and why many other Christian churches should also do so.
First, practicing homosexuality is condemned not only in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament (see Romans 1:18-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; and Jude 7).
Second, the Bible doesn’t mention whether or not Jesus Christ ever encountered a practicing homosexual, so we don’t know for certain how he would have dealt with such a situation. However, since other passages in the New Testament condemn homosexual practices, there is no valid reason to believe Jesus would have condoned such practices. I believe that if Jesus had encountered a homosexual who had been engaging in such practices, he would have shown that person love, but told them to “sin no more,” as he told the adulterous woman in John 8:11.
Third, I believe it is highly probable that some – perhaps, many – Scouts who are practicing homosexuality will attempt to get other Scouts to do likewise.
Fourth, if there were such an incident in a church-sponsored Scout troop, there would be considerable negative publicity, which could seriously hinder the future ministry of that church and, perhaps, others.
Nevertheless, I think homosexuals would be welcome to attend even churches that have severed their connection with the Scouts, provided that the homosexuals are truly seeking to worship God and don’t flaunt their lifestyle or attempt to get other attendees to engage in homosexual practices.
What is the intent of the writer? How does one practice homosexuality and convince others to engage in the practice? What does he mean by that? How does qualified acceptance work in our society, and is it fair and just?
My perception of this writer’s intent reminded me of Jim Crow, the intention of which was based in fear, hatred, power, privilege, violence, and control.  Do no harm played no part in that chapter of our history.
I gasped when I read this letter. The writer questions the intention of others, and I question his intention in doing so. Is he a good man or a bad man? Is his intention to do no harm? Do I get it? Does it matter if I perceive his intention as different from what he believes his intention to be?
What was George Zimmerman’s intention the night he had a fight with his wife, pursued Trayvon Martin through his neighborhood, and then shot and killed him? Through whose eyes do we view his intention? His? Trayvon’s? Is he a good man or a bad man? As we learn more about George Zimmerman, including the latest domestic violence 911 call, do we understand his intentions? What motivated him? Did do no harm play any part in his intentions and actions?
My intentions may be for the right reasons and in the quest to do no harm, but I’ve learned there are some things I can’t fix and some things I have no business trying to fix. I accept my need to try. That’s who I am.