Over-Anxious

from

The Flying Boy Letters: Responses and Replies 30 Years Later

Letter # 31

June 29, 1990

White Bear Lake, Minnesota

Dear John:

I just finished reading I Don’t Want to Be Alone. As usual, I was so anxious for help that I only read the last half. I’m inspired. It was exactly what I needed. Now, the work begins. I want the end result so bad. I hate codependency. Yesterday when I heard my dad’s voice, I felt angry again even though I’ve forgiven him.

As my lover sleeps and I think of the emotional abuse of each and every day, my heart saddens for my child within me. She’s been hurting for 43 years. It’s time to care for her now. Your book will help me do that as I re-read and follow through.

I must tell you that as I once again walked directly to the self-help book section at the bookstore, your title jumped out at me. I picked it up, read the back cover, then I looked at your picture to surmise whether or not your face “looked” full of wisdom, or at least whether it “looked” like you had more info than I. It was the first time I ever threw the book back on the shelf as fast as I could. All of a sudden, it felt like a tornado inside my head. Why did I react so intensely with that book? This is where guilt took over. I “scarefully” picked it up again. “Hum,” I thought, “maybe it’s time to face reality.” 

I’m sure I’m ready, but I’m scared to follow through. I pray that I can learn quickly. I need to heal and I’m over-anxious now that I’ve read your book.

Thank you for getting me started.

Sincerely,

I’m Over-Anxious Joan

January, 2017

Dear I’m Over-Anxious:

I’m glad you found I Don’t Want to Be Alone (Flying Boy II), my second book with Health Communications, Inc. Like many of us who know anxiety all too well, you started in the middle just so you could hurry up and get to the end of the book to see how things turned out for Lucy and I.

You say in your letter that when you heard your dad’s voice, you felt angry again, even though you’ve forgiven him.

Well, by now you probably have, but you probably hadn’t when you wrote this letter nearly 30 years ago. Let me explain what I mean. As a counselor and rogue therapist, I have asked hundreds of clients and workshop participants: “Have you ever forgiven a parent or spouse?” The answer runs something like this: “Oh, thousands of time;” “Many times;” “I have to forgive them every day;” and so on.

See, most of us were taught we were supposed to forgive people without walking through the door into the anger room. We were also taught and told nice girls didn’t get angry, or that anger was a negative emotion, or that we’re not really feeling anger at all—that “anger” is just fear, sadness, and abandonment that has been covered up. So we become prematurely nice—not authentically nice—because we are holding on to so much anger. I realized that until I felt my feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment, I couldn’t fully forgive anyone.

I would say, and still say to the people I work with, “Why don’t you feel your anger, experience it, express it, and get to real forgiveness just once and finally?” Then, once your anger has been appropriately expressed, you are able to interact with that person in the present, even a parent or lover, and you are feeling a primary emotion (not a secondary one as most therapists have been taught) and you will not unload the ancient baggage of the past on to someone in the present.

Now here is one more thought about anger before I go to other parts of your letter. Many men and women don’t want to let go of their anger at someone because anger is the only fine thread or coarse rope that we use to stay connected. We are afraid if we let go of our anger, we will watch them or us just drift off into space.

The truth is that if we’re still using unfelt, unexpressed anger as connecting devices, we’re only creating an illusion of connection. Forgiveness, and perhaps love, build a much stronger bridge to people than the frayed rope of anger.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are such egregious abuses that some have experienced that may not ever be forgiven, and that is right in its own way.

Remember this: anger is for getting out of stuck places, i.e. jobs, marriages, families, etc., and grief is for having been in a stuck place for so long.

I love how you said: “…once again I walked directly to the self-help section at the bookstore”—I tried to put up a tent in that section years ago because I wanted to live in the self-help aisle for the rest of my life.  “…and your title jumped out at me. I picked it up, read the back cover… It was the first time I ever threw the book back on the shelf as fast as I could… I carefully picked it up again. ‘Hum,’ I thought, maybe it’s time to face reality.”

 

This reminds me of the time a woman who attended a workshop of mine years ago said she would like to show me a copy of The Flying Boy.

When she handed it to me, it was in 2 halves, torn right through the middle. She said, “This is the copy I gave to my husband five years ago. He immediately looked at and read the back cover, and then took it out to his workshop where he took a saw and cut it in half.” I understood immediately, and then she reached in her bag and pulled out another whole intact copy and said, “This is a copy he bought for himself and wants you to sign it.”

Thank you for writing,

JOHN

Announcement – I will be offering 2-Day Intensive Sessions in Austin, Texas beginning September 1, 2016

I’m pleased to announce that after a break from offering my 2-day Intensives in Austin, Texas, I am now making those available again starting September 1, 2016 at the Austin Men’s Center, thanks to Director Bill Bruzy.

As most of you know Austin is not only charming and beautiful, it is a convenient location for clients especially from the Midwest, Southwest, and West Coast.

I will continue to offer the Intensives at my Mentone Cottage in the mountains of Northeast Alabama.

I hope you will pass the word along to clients or friends who would like to engage in my nontraditional approach to coaching, counseling, and teaching.

Boundaries

WE HAVE TO WATCH OUT WHERE WE’RE GOING: Boundary Errors and Boundary Violations

First, a boundary is “This is how close you can come to me:” physically, spiritually, in conversations about love or money, etc.

A “boundary error” is when someone, whether friend or foe, has crossed over into my space, my yard, my soul, or my pasture because they didn’t notice the “No Trespassing” sign or signal. As the poet William Stafford says, “The signals we give should be clear. The darkness around us is deep.” Or, as Robert Frost less dramatically put it, “Good fences make good neighbors.” A boundary error is simply a mistake, made, more or less, innocently. When informed, the perpetrators can see or hear their errors and can apologize and vow to be respectful in the future.

On the other hand is the “boundary violation.” This is committed when a person has been informed and warned, often numerous times, what your particular boundaries are in a certain situation, but keeps pushing and pressing in on the boundaries you have communicated. This is when the person will not respect those boundaries and, to some lesser or greater degree, knows that it irritates you, frustrates you, or makes you angry. This person might justify and rationalize their unwanted behavior and say that they are just “teasing,” “playing,” or “kidding” while telling you to “lighten up.” In truth, the above behaviors are just passive-aggressive pebbles in your shoe as you walk through the relationship. Or, worse violations feel like boulders on your head or stabs to the heart.

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What to do and what to say depends on who it is and in what context you feel those errors or violations are committed. Generally, boundary errors get committed once and are willingly corrected. Boundary violators get two warnings, and on the third time you may have to start rethinking your relationship to the violator, whether a boss, friend, family, lover, or spouse.

The really sad thing is that many people don’t know what boundaries are, don’t have very good boundaries themselves, and often confuse boundaries with walls. Where good boundaries exist, walls are not necessary. Boundaries—done appropriately—increase intimacy and communication, and reduce conflict and confrontations.

Here are a few common examples. People think that it is okay to talk about other peoples’ bodies. I have a beautiful friend who gets told by complete strangers, “You’re too thin!” or, “Are you eating enough?” Pregnant women get their bellies touched by complete strangers. Babies get pinched on the cheek. One friend had to stop a woman he’d never even seen before from putting a sock back on his very young son.

The real remedy? Ask before touching. Get information. Don’t assume—you know what that does. Tell folks your boundaries and tell them when they’ve committed errors so they won’t turn into violations, and get really acquainted with your own boundaries.

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Unbecoming: From Despair to Love-Part 5

Read Part 1-4 first

“I keep pursuing Faith, if for no other reason than because it is the place in our life that keeps reminding us of the necessity of Love—Not the romantic love of the poets, but the practical love.”

Krista Tippet—Speaking of Faith

I can’t tell you all that I have hoped for here on this mountain this year. Somewhere along the way, perhaps walking my three animal companions through the woods on a winter afternoon I began filling the hole in my soul with Faith. I’ve learned a few important things perhaps six but still remember this one and that is by letting go of hoping and holding the hands of faith and resting in the palm of process it will cure some of the sores of Despair.

Now here is my personal dilemma—more often than not I reside restlessly between hope and faith. I’m caught between a spiritual rock and a psychological hard place. For me, many days it feels like I’m asking myself to turn loose of a lifeline (oh we think this will be a best-seller, Oh surely you and your former wife will get back together, etc. ect.) tied to the back of the ship I just fell overboard. I want to reach out to hope and let it  drag me back on deck. I hope the lifeline will be a woman who might turn and give my gray beard a second look or that God might throw one glance my way.

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Faith whispers in my all but deaf ear, “you’ll get a best-seller once your ego doesn’t need one for artificial adulation that you still crave. You’re  less vain self won’t care because you have faith and just keep writing like you tell all your students for the pure joy in it. As for hoping for more money which you spend an inordinate amount of time fantasizing about you’ll finally understand the mysterious words of your friend’s poem, “animals give up all their money each year,” and you’ll remember the sparrows and the lilies of the fields. As for a woman coming into your life, perhaps not a lover, but one of the best friends you’ve ever had came your way without one ounce of effort on your part.”

Faith is something I am incapable acquiring like stocks or bonds or books from Amazon. Faith is accessed and generated from the inside out. Faith is an act of Grace where I let the wind blow, the sea be still or turbulent all the while accepting people, things, situations, comings and yes goings and even myself just as I am and allows me to “Know” not believe that I don’t have:

“to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting…” says Mary Oliver

But my fear’s screaming voice is so loud a deaf man could hear it say, “Don’t listen to this shallow, sensitive voice of Faith’s she is a deranged bear wandering in the woods of philosophy and theology and does not serve your best interests like I do. Listen to your “Happiness” psychologist, mindful of your New Age body worker/guru. They will shed light on this whole matter and get you the gifts your body and soul craves.

Fear will talk your ear off and the little faith we have right out of us especially if something doesn’t work out the way it should—a marriage, a promotion, an inheritance. I have listened to this voice so much during my life. I was afraid to leave my family, afraid to leave my hometown, afraid to leave the steady job in a retail clothing store in a windowless mall, afraid I won’t make enough money to pay my bills if I follow my passions, my purpose and yes even my pain. I was afraid then to go to college, afraid I couldn’t get my doctorate, afraid I could and end up a sterile professor longing after the youth of new students each year to round out my dull routine of a life. I was afraid that my wife would leave, afraid I’d never be with another woman again, afraid I couldn’t get it up again if I—afraid I’d get sick and become a burden to someone, afraid I’d actually die before I knew real faith and afraid that I’ll keep forgetting that “perfect love casts out fear.”

Unbecoming: From Despair to Love-Part 1

“Despair takes us in when we have nowhere else to go; when we feel the heart cannot break anymore, when our world or our loved ones disappear, when we feel we cannot be loved or do not deserve to be loved, when our God disappoints, or when our body is carrying profound pain in a way that does not seem to go away.

Despair is a haven with its own temporary form of beauty…Despair is a last protection. To disappear through despair, is to seek a temporary but necessary illusion; a place where we hope nothing can ever find us in the same way again. Despair is a necessary and seasonal state of repair…”

David Whyte from Consolations

This is the house of my adult despair, not my childhood, adolescence or young adult depression. This is where I lived as a late mid-life man for a year in semi-seclusion. This is where I separated from my former wife and life as I had known it. This is where I separated decades of depression from an adult despair. It is in this house where I stared out windows and into some distant pastures, past ponds and pine trees and saw the distinction between happiness and joy.

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It was here in these small, simple rooms I signed a contract with myself to sit with, stand up to and sleep with the gaps in my life and the chasm between fear and anxiety. I have searched for a secret self that has played underneath the debris of years of false selves and explored the hidden paths that produced a way into and out of this forest that finally brought me to a clearing, a way of thinking differently about depression as opposed to despair, anxiety and fear, hope and faith and finally some realizations and direct experiences regarding adult love that I have never been able to show or feel.

Here are, then, the fruits of this process that words will barely do justice to, if they will do it justice at all. Here in this house I will write what I know deep in the marrow of my bones what I believe today after a lifetime of searching, teaching, learning and more searching.

I’ve come here to this sweet, Alabama home. It is here that my heart hurts every day. It is here that my heart heals every day. It is on this mountain of tears and longing that has been a sanctuary made of silence, pine trees, crickets, cicadas, and pastures. It is here I sit and look at and feel the gifts of grief and the balm of solitude. It is here that I have time to think in ways I’ve never had the courage or desire to think and feel feelings that have been foreign, frozen or simply forgotten in all the rush to become and it is here that I have entered a stage of existence I am calling, “Unbecoming.”

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The poet Rumi says:

I said, “What about my eyes?”

God said, “Keep them on the road.”

I said, “What about my passion?”

God said, “Keep it burning.”

I said, “What about my heart?”

God said, “Tell me what you hold inside it.”

I said, “Pain and sorrow.”

He said, “Stay with it. The wound is the place where the light comes in.”

Here is a spark of light about the differences between depression and despair. First depression is a situational, circumstantial, or biochemical imbalance or a combination of all three. Change the situation, the circumstances for the better the depression should diminish, dissipate or disappear. If it is due to biochemical difficulties then change the biochemistry and the depression should lessen. What we know is that only two out of ten people who are diagnosed with depression get little or no relief from pharmacology or psychotherapy or both. What is the other eight or millions really suffering from? Could it be despair that pills, nor PhDs or psychiatrists cannot cure?

The philosopher Sartre says, “Life begins on the other side of despair.” It is in this house of aloneness that I can sit and listen to you, “tell me about your despair, and I’ll tell you about mine,” says the poet Mary Oliver and this is where I have come and “I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned, if you can know despair or see it in others,” to quote David Whyte again.

Despair is rooted in an existential loneliness that almost everyone is afraid to admit for fear they have done something wrong. Despair is a house we eventually have to sit in until we are ready to reassess our deepest self and our interior world. It is in this house where we must unabashedly and without embarrassment or shame strip away all our false selves. Despair is the first stage of freedom and an entrance into a more genuine and real existence. Despair is the bridge that takes us from “here to there.” Despair is that lonesome valley that we all fear but must be walked through. It is the dissonance or the distance between what we thought we would do with this life and what we have actually done, who we thought we’d be and who we became.

Despair is caused by self-betrayal and giving up on our deepest desires; it is the result of the risks not taken, the love not received or spoken. As John Burnside said, “Nothing I know matters more than what never happened.” Despair is the continual frustration and even anger over the feeling that some unspoken or spoken contract or agreement with our self, each other or the divine has been broken or dishonored. It is very different and from depression and must be treated differently.