April showers bring May flowers. This month was more stormy than I would’ve liked. It began with my legal fears. Worried that my plea deal wouldn’t be signed, I texted our lawyer. Then, using Stoicism’s negative visualization, I prepared for the worst.
Except it was the legal system taking its time. I had to develop the habit of taking the worries that pop up when my brain goes to bad places and using them as negative visualization. The worst fears would pop up, like finding my wife dead, and I made use of it to prepare me for the almost inevitable conclusion. It helps me not to take her for granted too.
After the court fears faded, the memory of my godson’s death followed it. Fortunately, it hurt less than usual.
One night, there was an actual storm. People were panicking, going negative, and fearing the worst, except for me. I had become a bit jaded and fatalistic. While the storm ferociously passed over, the lightning arcing and winds howling, I was thinking that death doesn’t discriminate. When it’s your time, then it’s over.
Which is why it is a good thing we had counseling at church not long after.
Reading material was part of the conversation, with our pastor asking if I read dark books. I wonder where she got that idea? I asked her to define it, which she switched around on me, saying, “You define it.”
I dodged the question, instead telling her about the type of books I read, summing it up as self-help and human behavior. She recommended that I read more Christian books. “I know the perfect one for you.”
She gave me a book titled The Secret Blend. It’s about cultivating relationships, a weak spot of mine since I practically live in my head. I have to think through the steps of social interaction. It’s a conscious act of will to empathize. However, I’ll read almost anything, pull out what works, and toss the rest. She gave Casey a book titled The Search for Significance that I also read.
I had been opening up a little bit about the day my godson died, sharing the story with two people over the week. During the same week, I began consolidating my journal entries and the weekly essays from this book’s first draft.
I noticed in the Week One essay I had portrayed myself as a bit of a hero. A voice in the back of my head reminded me that I wasn’t a hero after it happened. I was the reason it happened. Guilt, my usually quiet companion, decided to speak up.
I did tone down the ‘leading and watching over my family’ part. The reality was I had barely any control. My responses were based on fear and mitigating damage.
Tensions began to rise again, which leads to me talking to myself in my head. Little scenarios play that sends me into a spiral of anger that takes every bit of Stoicism to rein in. At one point during it, Casey stood up to someone who made her feel bad. I was proud of her. Then I was reminded how little I was liked by a crushing handshake, where before the gesture was a usual squeeze.
I had begun studying a book by a favorite author. A more cerebral version of his usual work, this book was a gold mine. Conflict Communications, or ConCom for short. Fun fact, if you type ConCom into Amazon’s search bar, it will take you to condoms.
It’s a book that breaks down the social conflict, its predictability, and how to work around it to address the real issue. I can sum it up like this: “Do you want to argue about how things are done or fix the problem?” With this new knowledge, I began testing it and watching myself and others when we interacted.
One example: you learn about a new diet and jump into the culture surrounding it, enthusiastically making it a part of your identity. Then everyone who doesn’t subscribe to it is just so wrong that you can’t be around them. Can you identify with that, even a little?
Now someone criticizes it, questioning its effectiveness, telling you that you sound a bit preachy. How does that make you feel? If you feel anything, that’s the limbic system at work in your brain. That’s where your emotions reside. The higher they rise, the less rational you are.
Have you ever been able to reason with someone in an intense argument? I used to get into political debates all the time. They usually revolve around how someone feels about how to do something.
It wasn’t a cold-blooded, logical, by-the-numbers calculation. It happens to me. It happens to you. I now know that when I get overly emotional, I can’t accomplish anything of substance until I have calmed down.
I found that the Stoic principles help with that, along with not taking things so seriously. Seriously, if I can’t put it in a bag and carry it, it’s not that serious of an issue. Reason and debate are more fun that way, and out-of-context analogies are kept at a minimum.
I find that not verbally attacking someone by telling them they are wrong goes a lot further when you want them to try your way. This principle works in all areas of life. Politics. Religion. Even in everyday communication.
I still need help in the relationship department, though. I was given a book on cultivating friendships, mostly because I’m an unsocialized introvert. I don’t really know what to say in social situations, except watch and creep people out until they say something to get a reaction from me. The book blends well with what I’m getting from ConCom and Stoic principles.
The first two lessons were inwardly and outwardly focused. The third lesson tied with ConCom on the ability to cross tribal/group boundaries by treating everyone with respect. That way, it’s easier to move between cultures and subcultures.
Active listening is a big part of it instead of waiting to reply. It also brought to mind Stoicism’s levels of control in forgiveness. You can control your reaction, and looking at the big picture, ask yourself, how significant is the transgression?
I have a habit of pressure testing a lot of the nonfiction I read. Lately, it’s been about human behavior, so I observe how I interact with others and sometimes even unsavory characters. Generally, it’s those that like to hustle. Sometimes I catch on, sometimes not. Like the following examples from a month ago, doing things I didn’t catch until later.
In ConCom, between the three levels of the brain, only the human level (neocortex) deals with words and symbols. I’m thinking the monkey (emotional/status/limbic) and lizard (survival/animal) levels speak through body language.
Having said that, one day, I walked by a supervisor, realizing afterward that I when I had passed, I puffed myself up to look bigger. It didn’t cross my mind until after I moved that my inner monkey was insecure at that moment.
In another situation, I tried to politely move out of the way so someone could get to the trash. Instead, he glared at me, saying, “I’m trying to throw this.”
In my mind, I felt, “How dare he speak to me like that!” My anger was coming from my “status” being “challenged.” When you start to notice it, with practice, you will catch it in time, since actually we both probably thought the other was being rude. It wasn’t personal; we didn’t even know each other.
Then you have higher-end social conflict. It was a potential “fight for dominance” to get “respect,” also known as a monkey dance. I was walking out of the store, texting a friend while crossing the parking lot and tracking a particularly loud person in my peripheral vision.
He was talking to a girl, and when I passed by, he asked, “Hey man, can I use your phone?”
“No,” I replied. The alpha and omega of boundary setting. There is no room for debate. He didn’t like it.
“I ain’t gonna take yo shit. I got three smartphones at home. You better walk away before I beat yo cracka ass!”
I never stopped walking, and he wasn’t following. I’m not sure if he was a resource predator or a guy looking for a fight. The lessons: while I was fully aware of him, I did not look aware. You only need one word to set a boundary and efficiently enforce it. Finally, do not let that little voice in your head get you into trouble that you can avoid. It can land you in jail, or in the hospital. Ego is a stupid reason to bleed. Who does it impress?
The last example was during an active threat assessment while waiting for my wife to come out of a gas station. I watched a big truck pull in, facing me at the pumps. It triggered the part of me I hadn’t seen since November in the River Market. I suspect it’s what Rory calls the human/lizard in ConCom.
This isn’t in the book. However, I think it’s when someone can function adrenalized (waking the lizard) with the problem-solving human entirely focused on survival. Summed up, it’s a social resource protector, facing someone who potentially wants to take from you, who sees the predator as a problem to be solved. No emotional hang-ups, just cold math.
The guy got out of his truck apologizing (to put me in my social mind, instead he got the other’s attention), asking if I could buy five dollars of gas for his truck so he can get home. I scanned him, noting the nice vehicle, nice clothes…may be legitimate, and it was something I could do at the pump.
Maybe he really did need help, so I agreed. When he got to the agreed-upon amount (not smart of me to not be the one pumping), he asked for five dollars more.
I didn’t figure him for a gas hustler. The concept of a gas hustle was new to me, but three weeks later, he approached me for the same thing. Then he realized he had pulled it on me once, stopped, and went back the way he came.
Thing is, I don’t regret helping him the first time. It could’ve been a legitimate need that I may find myself in one day. The second time, yeah, fool me once…you know the rest.
Tensions at home reached a boiling point. We have been trying to live there after our godson had died in the house, but we just couldn’t stand it. We began making plans to move, and in the meantime figure out a new normal for our marriage.
Most marriages, when you consider it, are small tribes of two, with common issues about loyalty, hierarchy, where they fit, and how to do things. The thing is most don’t take the time to define what they want out of it. When that is done, you both set a common cause to work towards, which may help turn vicious arguments into calm discussions by bringing the focus back to that.
When you have a goal decided, it helps to bring you together. However, you still come from two different families. Each with its own hierarchies, routines, and rules. How this melds together is second to the first issue—to whom are you loyal?
Mostly it’s an issue in a marriage, as you’ve created a new tribe that is separate. It requires negotiations from equal partners. No one from the respective families come in to set the rules, traditions, etc. That can be viewed as disrespectful to the other, causing insecurity, which is a monkey brain issue.
Instead, approach it logically, remember to tell them how you feel without triggering their limbic system. When you react by speaking before you think, that’s the monkey brain triggering. Through a force of will, you can change your role from “angry spouse” to “disappointed spouse.” I did that to short circuit my usual angry spiral. It helps to avoid another fruitless argument.
Tell them how you feel, then step back from the contentious topic for a little bit. We retraced some of the steps of our first date so we could remember how and why we were together.
When you’re both calmer, you can discuss it like rational adults. Not trying to prove who’s “right” but fixing the issue by explaining how you see things (without being accusatory) and asking how to fix it. Now you have a dialogue, preferably at a quiet spot away from it all, and from that, you can start to repair the relationship.
It takes patience and commitment, and all relationships have difficulties. It is when someone isn’t committed to it that the death spiral begins. It’s something I hate to see from my family’s history of broken homes and dysfunctional relationships.
At this point, I had read so many books trying to figure me out that it was time to apply what I learned. One of the questions from Unchained asks about two of your favorite movie scenes. One that had always been my answer was from Batman Begins, and the newest scene was from Captain America: The First Avenger.
What does that have to do with it? The scenes I picked are pivotal to me. In Batman Begins, it’s the frozen pond fight scene with a lesson on the will to act. What I love about Batman is he’s proactive, cerebral, reads people and understands their motives. The ideal is human perfection.
The other was more about Steve Rogers, other than his post-Super-Soldier Serum form when he was a scrawny runt that was bullied. I identified with that. In the scene, before he gets the serum, he asks Dr. Erskine, “Why me?”
Erskine replies, “Because a strong man, who has known power all his life, will lose respect for that power. But a weak man knows the value of strength and knows compassion. Above all, be a good man.”
He respects the power he was given and stays a good man because he remembers when he was weak. The ideal here is being humble.
The correlation is I had come a long way from the bullied, insecure kid. I also still had a long way to go. The Forging Ronin series showed me what I had become, the same type of egotistical bully that picked on me.
The past nine-month trial by fire had matured me. This was to be my starting point: be a good man, remembering that rudeness is a weak imitation of strength, and that my chosen family would be first and no one gets left behind.
It got put into practice really quickly the night our marital tensions came to a head, sending us to church for help of any kind. After we got home, we got the bad news. I saw on Facebook about a medical emergency at the church Casey grew up in. I called her dad to see if he knew anything, to learn that her grandpa had a heart attack.
They were in the hospital, so the conversation was short. Casey tearfully asked me to call back when no one answered her texts. When all my calls went to voicemail, I knew that he was gone.
After making arrangements for funeral leave, we took off for Oklahoma. On the way, Casey was on FaceTime with her friend who was visiting another friend of theirs who had cancer. The doctor had given her two weeks to live.
After the call, Casey fell asleep. Her phone vibrated. I picked it up and read the text. Her friend had died, and I wasn’t ready to tell her while driving. I woke her at our regular rest stop and broke it to her then. She took it well, and it does help to see it coming; then grieving starts earlier.
We arrived at Grandma’s to an expectedly subdued atmosphere. Even Grandpa’s little dog looked depressed. There, we got the rest of the story, kept the little kids occupied, and decided we would stay and keep Grandma company. Casey’s dad hadn’t left since that night.
It reminded me that, in marriage, if both honor the commitment, one day this will inevitably happen.
The next day, we were looking through pictures, knocking out the funeral’s details, and listening to stories about him. He had been the first of Casey’s extended family that I had met years ago. She went to Oklahoma to visit her dad’s side of the family. By the third week, I missed her so bad I struck out for the unknown area of Oklahoma with just a map. Lost, he and Casey met me at a store in their little town that reminded me of the one I grew up in.
As they finished the plans, I spent some time away from everyone. I had begun reading a book our pastor recommended for Casey on self-worth, The Search For Significance. At least until the kids found me and wanted to play.
Taking a break, we walked into everyone telling more stories. In the midst of it, I felt closer to Casey’s family. Then I got a text telling me my sister had just had her baby.
The funeral arrived. It was hard on everyone, especially Casey’s very pregnant cousin. While the pastor spoke, I interpreted for Casey, who looked at me intently through a veil of tears. The girl’s husbands and I were pretty much helpless in the onslaught of tears. What we could do, and did, was be their shoulders to cry on.
April was rough, the hits steadily coming, leaving us to deal with them the best we could. In two days, we lost two people. In less than a year, 5 people were lost from the ages of 3 to 70. It drove the lessons I started to learn after my godson’s death home.
Right before this happened, I started looking deeper into being a better person. I brought a couple of books with me to Oklahoma to help. When the family had left for the day, or I needed time to myself, I sat back in thought.
I thought through concepts, principles, and doubts. I had my moral exemplars chosen, Batman and Captain America, seeing as comics are like modern day mythology. Also Jesus and some everyday heroes in Vilonia who responded to a tornado that tore the town apart while we were in Oklahoma.
I wanted to know what made them tick so I could train myself to not just act like them but be like them.
In the quiet after the funeral, I stood outside the house in Oklahoma, listening to the sounds of life. The peace, the lack of stress, and not being in a toxic environment cleared my head so I could think back to the mistakes and misjudgments.
When you have people that pick at every flaw and remind you of the past seemingly always, it’s hard to focus on pressing on. All I was hearing was how I screwed up. More than one journal entry was but a single line…
“I want to be a good man.”
Times like that, you have a hard time growing into someone better. Focus on what’s ahead, muting the voices of the past, and just improve.