Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Dark Nights of the Cooperative Soul

Over the course of my 37 years of community living (and 24 years as a process consultant) there have been about half a dozen times where I've been embroiled in difficult dynamics with another person that have persisted for years, where together we have been unable to turn a corner in how we interact. It just never gets better.

As someone devoted to thinking about and assisting others in understanding and navigating challenging dynamics, this is humbling stuff. When everything I try fails, then what? I'm haunted by the spectre of my blind spots laughing at me. What am I missing?

One of the most delicious ironies about this dynamic is that I can often see how I would reach out to the other person in the moment of maximal estrangement, or how I would reach out to the distressed person that is myself, yet I am neatly disqualified from engineering either bridge-building operation. My antagonist typically is in no position to see my attempts to reach out as well intended, and any effort to guide others about how to hold me when I'm feeling isolated just comes across as self-serving. There is a Cassandra-like quality about this, where my demonstrable skill at working conflict is uniquely inaccessible when I'm a player in it.

Still, there is work for me to do. How do I step back far enough from the dynamic to get an accurate glimpse of how I'm feeding the fires of dissent—all the while lamenting how badly I'm being treated? Usually, I need to go through a period of venting. This typically works best alone (perhaps through journaling; perhaps through a long walk where I conduct a stream-of-consciousness monologue that no one else needs be subjected to) or with my long-suffering wife (who at this point understands that there are times when I just need to unload and am not looking for a response), whose sole (soul?) task is to hold me through the night.

These tend to be dark nights of soul, where I sit in misery and despair until I exhaust the fuel of the latest outrage and in the cold pre-dawn must still find my way to a constructive response. How to find courage that is uncontaminated by revenge or the tainted desire to be right?

I try to see my protagonist as simply someone in pain, doing their best to cope. I try to open my heart to a possibility that I dread: that I am actively contributing to the dysfunction; that I can make different choices and perhaps get different results. I need to consult more than my head and my heart; I need to consult with the heads and hearts of others. I need allies to be constructive. How can I ask for support without asking people to take sides?

I need to steer clear of the cesspool of assigning bad motivation and stick with identifying the actions that don't work for me. Along the way—and especially if the journey is long and arduous—I have the option to exit, to walk away. While I yearn for relief from the struggle and the sense of being vilified, where can I be assured that this will not happen? I have learned over long years that it's important to make such decisions only after my anger has cooled and I can exit at peace (or can be at peace with asking the other person to exit—I have done both).

Many years ago (before I got together with Ma'ikwe) I faced an important relationship choice where I was sorely tempted to find out what was possible with a new partner. I sat with the possibility for weeks before making up my mind that it was right for me to go ahead. It meant ending the intimate relationship I was in and the break-up was messy (which was not hard to foretell). As it turned out, the new relationship didn't gel and before long I was partnerless, which was not at all what I had in mind. However, I was nonetheless at peace because I had done enough personal work before breaking up with my existing partner.

The main fruit of my laboring over whether or not to pursue the new relationship was my realizing that I was not exchanging my existing relationship for a new one; I was exchanging my existing relationship for a chance at a new one. While I was sad that the seed didn't sprout, I at least knew going in that all I had been promised was a seed. Thus, whenever I contemplate exiting as a response to persistent challenging dynamics, I've learned that it is important to do so freely, and without placing any burden of expectations on others to justify my "sacrifice."

In short, I need to be truly at peace with moving on, or else it's a sure sign that my work is not yet done. I'm telling you, this personal growth stuff can be an absolute bitch.

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