How to stop shooting the messenger and engage creatively with what triggers us
Yesterday I had one of those conversations that fundamentally changes the way I view and experience the world. And the way I experience myself in the world. A couple of things I heard not only challenged deep beliefs I've held for a very long time, they totally side-swiped me, fragmenting the foundations on which my beliefs were built. I felt it physically, viscerally, a lurch in my stomach, my jaw setting. I could feel a voice inside me crying "what?!? no!", pushing away the assertions being made.
In that moment I had two paths to choose from: the first, the habitual and well-trodden by me and billions of fellow human beings, was the path of denial/resistance/rejection. We humans like certainty, we crave certainty, and our beliefs are crucial to our own sense of identity, certainty and sense of safety: "I know this to be true". We are hugely attached to what we believe to be true because it has us feel safe and secure. It's our world view or Weltanschauung, as the Germans call it; how we make meaning of the world in which we live and our place in it. We close our minds (and hearts) reactively in a protective gesture. So anyone who "threatens" that sense of safety and certainty by bringing up things that challenge or question our beliefs and assumptions and meaning making - well, that "messenger" tends to get taken down pretty swiftly (and often brutally). That taking down can happen in any number of ways, including these classics:
attacking/discrediting/blaming the messenger
ostrich syndrome/skimming over/ignoring
flat out denial/dismissing/defensiveness
any combination of the above plus a boat load of others
This first path does not tend to get us very far in relationship, and certainly isn't helpful from a perspective of wanting to live well, meaningfully, joyfully, vibrantly - far from being an opportunity for learning and grounding, it's grasping on tightly to what we (think) we know and that makes us feel safe and comfortable. And it gives us a handy scapegoat on which to pin any discomfort about our own knee-jerk shooting-the-messenger reaction, namely the messenger themselves - we refuse to engage with the topic and distract ourselves and others in any way we can, we shift our attention onto the messenger and pull the trigger. That path sooner or later ends in thorny briars that close us in and the world out.
The second path requires a radical act of courage and presence. Radical because it's a wrenching ourselves out of habitual patterns and away from our den of safety and comfort and certainty. It's embracing discomfort, uncertainty, groundlessness, confusion and identity crisis, and embracing it knowing that it's temporary and that we will recover ground - within ourselves, re-centring ourselves internally, integrating new information and realigning around new understanding. The second path brings initial thorniness but leads to open spaces, panoramic vistas and profound, resilient relationships. With time it also becomes our new habitual way of engaging with what challenges us - a self-transformational path.
The second path consists in pressing the pause button and observing what's happening within. It starts with taking ownership of what I'm feeling and not scapegoating the messenger. Yesterday that phrase "I want this to be true, not that! I want to believe this, not that!" echoed in my mind during the conversation. Even as I sat and listened to my conversation partner, a good part of my attention was present to what was happening within me, just observing, feeling into and listening. I had the sensation of time slowing, almost pausing, so I could see inside myself and observe this internal struggle - denial, resistance, not wanting it to be so. I so wanted to believe what I had always believed, I could feel a resentment towards my conversation partner (who was, to all intents and purposes, the proverbial "messenger" in this case) for having brought certain things to my attention and into my field of concern. Also because it happened not once, but twice in the space of an hour...!
I could feel myself battling the perspectives and information being presented to me, my mind pushing them away, finding ways to simply dismiss them. By staying present to what was going on, not fighting it but turning into, I was able to recover quickly and to step into what felt like an earthquake.
Where I usually instinctively shut down, I stay open, present and bring curiousity to know more about my own world view and meaning making; I take a moment to test my attachment to really wanting to believe one thing over another. Where I usually deny outright or stick my head in the sand, I close my eyes and sit tall, drop my shoulders and allow my spine to stretch and relax - I sink wholly into dignity and then step fully into the perspective that the messenger is bringing and explore it, doing research to get hard data and human stories. To intentionally and consciously sit with dignity is immediately grounding and opening. It is that most essential part of our humanity that everyone shares and it lies under everything else, ever present. Under opinions, beliefs, ideologies, politics, knowledge, assumptions, nationhood, under all forms of identity lies dignity - it is the ultimate connection between all living things and it is a connection that we must actively make, cultivate, honour. When we don't, we dishonour our own dignity, we trample it - when we dignify others by listening to them, inhabiting their perspectives, turning towards them, then we dignify ourselves. The more we are able to be dignified, walk and talk with dignity, the easier it is to dignify others and the less we feel we need to protect ourselves, the less fear we carry, the less combative and defensive we become. And the more responsive we become, opening up the space of possibilities and options.
Where I usually attack, because it's just too much of a threat to my deepest beliefs about myself, others and the world, I take some time to turn into and be present with the pain of loss, grief, disappointment and disillusionment. Loss and grief for an identity or a world I thought existed but doesn't; disappointment and disillusionment for a world I really wanted to be true, and reality hasn't quite lived up to those expectations - childhood hopes and naiveté that inevitably bump against the real world; or more painful still, and more difficult to face and recover from, adult ideals that we cling to and that have us live our lives shot through with "should".
The first path is a turning away while the second path is a turning towards. The first path is habitual and reactive while the second is radically creative, dignifying, taking ownership. The first path keeps us safe in the short-term while sacrificing or at least eroding relationship, dignity, respect, through the act of closing heart and mind.
By plugging into ownership, presence and courage we can take those first steps onto the second path. By plugging into dignity we walk tall and with outstretched hand towards each other down the path. "No man is an island" and we truly are our fullest expression of ourselves when in relationship with ourselves, others and the world. What is it to be human if not to live in full expression and vitality of ourselves every day?
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