One of the more interesting aspects of the life situation I’m in right now is figuring out why. After years of making a healthy salary in Information Technology off and on, I’m far happier coaching a few clients, writing a blog that doesn’t bring in a dime, and working part-time in a hardware store. I’ve divested myself of many of my possessions and cut my expenses to the bone because it felt better than going back to a profession that didn’t fit anymore.
And the whole time, I’ve wondered why I’m on this path. I spent a lot of time trying to work through feelings I later found didn’t exist. Did I really think I didn’t deserve prosperity, or wasn’t worth it, or shouldn’t earn more than my father did? I plumbed my past with money, diagrammed the values I was raised with, tried a couple of ways to manage my checking account. And none of it clicked. I know when change is possible for me: when something right snaps into place and I correct my thinking, bad habits just fall away.
Finally, I realized that my situation held much deeper lessons than what was on the surface. It really wasn’t about micro-managing my checkbook, or un-excavated history leading to low self-worth, or thoughts of lack. Any number of new age books will tell you those are the only reasons. And there’s some truth in all of them. There has to be — there are too many books for those precepts not to be true for a lot of people. But they aren’t the only answer.
Sometimes God tries you to teach the toughest lessons. It has nothing to do with your thoughts about the condition — be it lack or excess, loss or gain, trust or distrust, pain or love. You can’t do anything simple to correct it and get yourself back to where you were. It has nothing to do with what’s presented to you on the surface. You have to think deeply about what the situation is doing to you and what the lesson could be — and there may be layers to dig through, each with their own lessons — before you fully understand and can begin to change your life.
What I realized is that, for me, this last 18 months has been about changing an attitude — my fierce independence. I have been extremely independent my entire life, adamant about not being controlled. This is an aftereffect of the abuse I experienced so young, when I learned I could not count on the adults around me to protect me. Not their fault, for a number of reasons (and no, I don’t excuse them from responsibility — rather, I understand what living in that atmosphere can do to you), but it taught me I was on my own.
I started earning my own money when I was eight, took my first paying job at 12, worked several part-time jobs plus baby-sat all through high school while maintaining my grades. I bought my own clothes and extras I wanted, saved for college, helped pay for a better clarinet, and when I decided to drop out of college for a while, supported myself at 18. My father was extremely angry with me for dropping out and kicked me out of the house, so when I went back to college about a year later, I paid for it myself with multiple jobs, loans, and later by working for the university and receiving tuition reimbursement.
All of this fostered an attitude of independence that probably did a lot to torpedo my romantic relationships, but was, I see, necessary to build my character. It was this attitude that kept me safe from abusive men. I remember one guy who tried to set me up for that before I sent him packing… I found out about him thanks to some courageous women friends who made me see what he was doing when I wasn’t looking. He was busy alienating all my friends on the sly by propositioning them and talking trash, not to mention demanding all my time and working on breaking me down emotionally. He even went by his middle name so I wouldn’t know he was the same guy who had beat up his last girlfriend, who I knew slightly. When he was gone, I realized I had literally dodged a bullet and became much more picky. My next boyfriend was a genuinely nice, caring man who was good for me in many, many ways. (See Lucky in love)
Over a decade later, when I opted to give birth to my son and raise him alone, I needed that fierce independence. Let’s just say that it was a decision that wasn’t exactly understood by my friends and family, even though I was 31 and there was no permanent relationship on the horizon. In fact, I had just left a serious love behind because he couldn’t commit. (See Wrecking ball) Folks I loved expressed their concern that raising a child alone would be too much for me… but in the end, they all admitted that I had made the right decision and had grown beyond anything they had been able to see for me. I have an incredible son, thanks to that fierce independence, as well the village who helped me raise him — and you all know who you are (see how independent I really was?). I raise my tea cup to you… so grateful for your caring and love.
But sooner or later, all of our deeply-held beliefs and attitudes have to change for us to grow, else they begin to constrict our souls and our relationships. One of the things I have come to realize is that my fierce independence has its drawbacks, most notably in romance. I observed long ago that men in this society are really in a quandary with women — because of old history and old attitudes, they are being blamed for centuries of oppression they didn’t necessarily cause. Half the time they don’t know if we’re going to kiss them or smack them, and I can see why. I’ve certainly known my share of angry women who took it out on those closest to them.
While I’ve never been a woman who specializes in running down men for sport, I’ve also had an earned reputation as a ball-breaker at work. There are a lot of reasons for that — it’s absolutely true that women, especially smart women, are often ignored by men in the workplace or may have ideas stolen or worse. Men can behave badly when their power is threatened, and a lot of men, especially those my age, have not been raised to respect much that isn’t acquired through power. But women like me who learn new behaviors through observation also pick up that having their power threatened is frightening and its loss is to be avoided at all costs. Sorry, but that’s a recipe for struggle… and I’ve certainly participated.
About eight years ago, I worked for a company where that was proved to me over and over again. I was literally caught between the rocks of the situation and the hard place of my own attitude. It was a very masculine private company, run by three “old school” men who were all very dominant and learned software development by the seat of their pants, without any training from larger, more established corporations. Pretty much a Wild West Show, really. They didn’t know what they didn’t know. I was way overqualified for my job as a technical writer, having run $1M+ software projects for large banks and government.
It didn’t take long before I was trying to “help” by inserting myself where I didn’t belong, because it drove me crazy to watch this three-ring circus, and I knew I could get the project off the ground. But I wasn’t hired for those credentials, and my supervisor who was counting on me to save his bacon wasn’t talking me up. It seemed like every time I pointed out something else that was failing, along with a solution, I was smacked for making someone else look bad. I worked all over the company for several people, making myself valuable and helping out wherever I could to save my job, but in the end I was considered a problem employee and I got out days, maybe hours, before the owner walked in and canned me.
It gave me a lot to think about in terms of professional relationships. I understand that this particular company was a problem waiting to blow up — I was certainly not the only one who saw it — but in processing my full experience, I learned how my fierce independence was a liability. Sometimes it really doesn’t serve you to blaze your own trail. And sometimes you have to let an objective go south when it’s obvious you’re not the one to rescue it, even if you know how. It can be better to keep your mouth shut and let others learn at their own pace… regardless of how much money it costs the company. It doesn’t ever all rest on you.
This last 18 months have brought loads of realizations to me. Through having to accept a lot of help from others as I struggle to make this new way of life work and give back in the ways I can, I’m learning the realities of interdependence. There have been many situations which have taught me all over again that it takes a village to raise us all throughout our lives, not just as children. If I tried to exercise my fierce independence, I’d just fall again. I need others to help hold me up as I work into this new definition of self.
I’ve also learned that divinely speaking, we are taught through everything that is put in front of us and it may not be there just to teach us. We are a village, and we interact for a reason. Everything that happens, no matter how small, has a ripple effect even if we don’t see it. And we are also affected by what happens primarily to others. “Each is a piece of the continent/A part of the main” as John Donne wrote in No Man is an Island. We are all interdependent in every aspect of our lives, even if we don’t admit it.
So the fierce independence I learned as a child doesn’t serve me anymore. I am taking my rightful place as a human in community, participating as an equal to all who show up, and receiving as well as giving. I’ve learned, finally, that receiving is as blessed as giving and that our lives cannot work if all we are is independent givers.