From Caroline’s 2013 Salon
There’s accommodating and then there’s adapting to the world we live in. We all have to accommodate people around us and they do the same for us. It’s a give-and-take world we live in. But adapting to negativity within us or in our environment means deciding we can live with something negative rather than take action to initiate a positive change. Each time we adapt to something negative within us or around us, we pay a price. A few examples are always useful:
A woman contacted me a few years ago desperate for help. Her husband of twenty-six years had recently had a stroke that left him mildly impaired. His only limitation was in how he walked. Otherwise, he recovered his brain functions beautifully. Actually, he was extremely lucky or blessed, as I prefer to say. But he had imagined that his 50’s would be far more vigorous. He had very specific expectations and now these would not be met. Instead of feeling grateful for having mobility and complete recovery of his neurological functions, he tumbled into what I have to say was one of the most extreme displays of self-pity I have ever witnessed in my life.
At first his wife did her best to break through his narcissistic field, but eventually she found that she was adapting to it. In fact, she told me that sometimes she actually felt as if his negativity was like a gravitational field pulling her in. Little by little, she realized that her own behavior was shifting to adjust to his depression. She felt guilty feeling happy about something, so she stopped mentioning when anything good happened to anyone else. She felt guilty when something nice happened to her, so she began to keep that information from him. Eventually their relationship became endless sessions of her listening to him recall the good old days when he was vital and happy.
She thought that perhaps I could break through his barrier, as she had run out of energy. And she also knew that she was at her own Rubicon. That is, if he did not shift, she would either have to leave him (which in her heart, she knew she probably could never do), or she would end up as depressed as he. She said she lacked the strength to battle the energy in the environment any longer. She had to adapt and disintegrate with it. It was the choice of a slow death and she knew it. But adapting to a life alone was also out of the question for her. She needed a miracle.
Believe it or not, this story has a happy ending. This couple has one child, a daughter. The mother never wanted to involve the daughter in how desperately depressed her father had become and as the daughter no longer lived at home, it was not that difficult to keep up a false front. The mother finally enlisted the aid of her daughter, who blasted her father with what can only be described as a reality hit directly to the gut. Though I am not sure what she told him, the end result is that she rebooted her father like a computer into present time. He doesn’t look back now. The man who he was and the future that man wanted are gone forever. He has done a great job of adapting to a new life.
Yet another example that is very common is how we adapt to pain in our body rather than attend to it. I have more stories than I can count on this subject, but one that stands out is about a man I met years ago at a workshop I was doing with Norm. He was quite ill by that time. We spent a couple of hours together during which time he shared quite a bit about his life. I was quite surprised at how late his cancer was diagnosed, as bone cancer that spread to the spine is extremely painful. I asked him how it was that his cancer was diagnosed at such a progressed stage. He said, “You know, I started to feel a little lousy quite a while ago, but I didn’t think anything of it. Some days we feel better than others. I just took more aspirin, more vitamins. I just got used to feeling lousy, that’s all.”
Doesn’t that say it all? He got used to feeling lousy – that’s all. He adapted to feeling lousy because it took more energy and effort to feel good. Lots of people go that route and I have no doubt you know a few. Maybe you have made that choice yourself.
And my last example is that of a man who gradually adapted to corrupt business practices in the environment in which he was working. At first he was shocked by the sale of subprime mortgages. He knew that his bank was encouraging its mortgage staff to give mortgages to people who essentially did not qualify for their loans or worse, who did not really understand the terms of the loans. But he stayed with it and little by little, he started to tell himself that he needed the job, the money, and everyone seemed to be happy about the outcome. But he admitted that in his gut, he knew the whole thing was rotten. By the time I met him, the mortgage crisis had occurred and he was filled with remorse for how he had contributed to what ended up being a global financial nightmare, not to mention the many people who ultimately lost their homes.
Adapting to the shadow side of our lives or to ourselves ultimately leads us to a type of moral or ethical or psychic bankruptcy. There is no other alternative but to end up in the gravity field of one or more of those patterns, as we end up abdicating our personal choice to either individuals or circumstances. Endless choices of what are essentially acts of self-betrayal can produce no other consequences than to lead us to what Buddha calls the First World, a type of hell of our own making. Sometimes circumstances greater than our own hand place us in that First World, such as natural disasters or war, accidents, unforeseen financial disasters (an Enron, for example) or indeed an illness that happens in spite of how carefully we’ve attended to our health.
Signs that you are in the First World are that you feel completely and fully powerless and even hopeless. You can feel as if there is absolutely no way out. It is understandable that a person would give in to the weight of this state of mind and heart. In the First World, all things appear to be exactly what they are not; that is, everything appears to never change, to never end, to never have purpose or meaning. And that, too, is understandable.
Most often we find ourselves in the First World as a result of our own choices. As I said, there are the exceptions such as the ones I’ve listed above, but let me ask you, “How many people do you know who have actually experienced a natural disaster and been fully wiped out?”
Most people find their way into the First World slowly, gradually because they have adapted to negative patterns in their lives that have chipped away at their stamina or their self-esteem or their common sense. Like the frog in the pot of water that doesn’t notice the water coming to a boil until it is too late, the same holds true for so many of us who gradually adapt to our patterns that sabotage our well-being or that are destructive in our environment. Although it’s rare that we end up in a situation in which it’s actually too late to make a change, it’s often that we do not wake up until we find ourselves at that point.
Next week – Adapting to the light