Saturday, March 01, 2014

Erring on the side of peace, day by day

I'm helping my wife Alice to raise our daughter, Emily. Emily is now 15 months old and even through the seemingly short period of 15 months, I watched myself as Emily reminded me of what tolerance is all about. I watched myself as I remembered that Emily is a fragile human being who has to negotiate for every need to be met. Just like the rest of us. The only difference is that she is not equipped with the same skills and experience adults have.

While watching Emily traverse the chasm from birth to consciousness, I was constantly reminded that Emily is acting mostly on instinct. I saw that she was doing absolutely the best that she could, for if she knew a better way, she would have done it. As her consciousness became more apparent, I began to see evidence of higher order thinking. Noticing, planning and communication. At 15 months, Emily has a lot to say, but she's not very articulate because her brain is still trying to figure out how to make her mouth sound out the words she wants to use. Oh, Emily knows words alright. She just can't say them yet.

Prior to Emily's birth, I had more than 20 years of time to read, experiment, indulge in myself and discover something about what I'm made of. I did a few things I'm not proud of. I used marijuana on and off until I was 25. I think I still had a drink here and there, but I've not had a drink since about 2002 or so - alcohol was not my drug of choice, so I could take it or leave it. I've never really understood tobacco so I never used it. I never got into coffee or soft drinks. The sugar and caffeine made me bounce off the walls and then I'd crash.

All of my studies of the brain brought me to the conclusion that my brain is a 2.5 million year old pharmacy that makes whatever I need to meet the demands of the environment. When I need to wake up, my brain introduces a small amount of adrenaline to start my day. When I need to sleep, my brain sets up the blood with a nice cocktail for sleep. Anger, jealousy, joy, boredom, they are all there. They are just muted at this age to the point where I can see the emotion coming, wait for it to pass, and then think about what to do next.

Emily can't do that yet. Emily has an endorphin factory that unloads undiluted emotions on cue as the need arises in her brain. She is at times supremely angry. Supremely sad. Supremely happy. With no way to dilute those feelings with thoughts, distractions or addictions, she is looking for direction from us, her parents. She has no mechanism by which she can ignore reality. It's all there, in her face, day to day, moment to moment.

So it is remarkable to me to witness that erring on the side of peace really pays off. I don't want to be the strict, overbearing, rule-setting parent early on for what would I get? Someone who will rise to every challenge I place before her. I know her grandfather and I know what he was like. He took and broke every challenge to his authority placed before him and then some. Believe me, I have a tiger by the tail with Emily.

If I find myself irritated by something that Emily does, I work on settling that irritation within me first, then I think about how to address Emily. Emily is not a threat to me or anyone else. She has to negotiate with everyone to get her needs met, but she has no language and absolutely no leverage to get her needs met. She could cry, sure. But without compassionate parents, there is no hope of getting her needs met. So I need to settle whatever is going on in me first in order to respond to Emily's needs. I do it quick so that I'm here, present for her for every moment I'm in the same room with her.

Let me tell you a side story, a story of when I was a young and confused man at the tender age of 20, maybe 21. Back then, I bought a cat from one of those pet mills in the mall. I thought, sure, I can take care of a cat. I fed her. I gave her shelter. I bathed her. I played with her and slept with her.

But I noticed a pattern emerging. She would climb the drapes when I was not home. I'd catch her and she'd run. When I bathed her, she struggled in the water as I picked for fleas. I won the struggle, but I could see that the struggles were becoming more and more severe.

Then one day while bathing the cat, I punched her several times to get her to settle down. She moaned in agony. I knew it was over. I could not care for the cat. I cried as I took the cat to the animal shelter knowing for sure I was not ready. I never forgot that day and I promised myself that I would prepare myself to take much better care of the next cat that came into my life.

My wife was born in the year of the cat. I could not marry her and stay married if I was not and still am an older, wiser, peaceful man today. From day one, Alice reminded me to be gentle to her and to myself, every day. I had to constantly check my thinking, my words, my actions. When I'm around Alice (and my daughter), I strive to be a gentleman in every sense of the word.

My experiences with conflict in the past have led me to a simple set of practices all in support of erring on the side of peace:
  1. Let the feelings pass before you speak.
  2. Think before you speak.
  3. Never raise your voice.
  4. Never slam doors or break possessions.
  5. Never make threats, even threats you can carry out.
I'm sure there is more, but this is the basic set with the prime directive to err always, on the side of peace. I know that if I fail, I am only encouraging strife, grudges and resentments on both sides. There is no such thing as winning an argument, especially in marriage and in family life. If my wife or daughter lose an argument, I lose. I want all of us to win, together.

I hope you have found this to be useful information. It has taken years for me to develop and today, I just felt like laying it out for all of you. I love everyone. Even the irritating people, for they remind me why I am a gentleman today.
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