“The neighbour says that we just have to keep moving,” my sister announced to me after making me wait over a half hour to show up so I could give her the food I had made for her.
“I’m not sure that’s true,” I mumbled.
“Yes,” she sneered back. “I didn’t think you would be.”
In my experience contemplative people value action, those who get things done and even times when they themselves take action.
Action oriented people, though, often don’t value contemplation, the power of reflection and thought.
For them, action isn’t just an end in itself but also a way to avoid having to engage the loss and tragedy, the spiritual questions which speak to our values. The results of action are visible and immediate, but the results of contemplation slow us down, demanding we live a considered life.
While I value action and its results, I often also see where living a life with only action leads us to a disconnect between our outer and inner worlds, leaving us able to put our head down and do the work but unable to really understand our deeper priorities, to be really present and open to the world around us.
“I don’t want to have to dress up for Halloween at work!” my sister railed to me yesterday. “How can they force me to be creative and be a heads down go getting robot team player 60 hours a week? I don’t want to give them any more of myself! I want to stay concealed, not letting them steal my inner essence, just like I had to stay concealed to stop my narcissistic, Aspergers mother from making my personal stories about her!”
As my parents caretaker, I worked for them over twelve hours a day, seven days a week for months and months on end. Action was always required.
I couldn’t, though, take a robotic approach to my duties. My most important job was to help them through the tragedy they were experiencing, interpreting the outside world to them and helping them negotiate their own feelings, making them feel safe, heard, cared for and mirrored.
My time of contemplation gave me the structures to help them. I had done the work to unwire my own buttons so much that when my mother made me her therapist, saying things like “my husband sometimes put the children agead of me and that hurt me deeply,” I could respond with wisdom and grace rather than screaming at her that I was one of those children and we needed much more than we ever got because of her shit.
After she prayed over my mothers body, still in the recliner where she died, the deacon from hospice noted that she had never seen someone sob silently before. It was a technique I had to develop to process my own feelings while not upsetting my parents, a way to keep the action moving while I was still emotionally present, open and vulnerable.
According to one trainer, my character makeup should not exist, because I cross between slow and fast, between thinking and emotion, making a slash on his four quadrant graph. To me, though, that is just another way I am a bridge, passing through the walls his chart identified as real.
Fast performer and slow analyst together, I value emotion, speed & action while I also value thought, contemplation & depth. There is a reason I can snap to being present for others, getting the work done, while also offering them a reflection of what they have compartmentalized off, have put aside to let them grunt into the demands of serving the machine.
Awareness is hard, which is why we so often wall our own emotions off, leaving us free to do the dirty work that is needed. When our emotions do come up, we don’t want to engage them, to feel and understand what the deeper messages are, but instead want to fix them, discharge them, get over them so we can go back to normative again.
When men get into therapy, an old saw goes, they need the first year to acknowledge that they do indeed have feelings and the second year to understand that they they won’t die if they actually feel them. Opening up those pits of suppressed feelings just seems to be more dangerous than keeping them buried, even if it means stuffing their emotional holes with whatever is at hand. A drink rather than a deep conversation? Don’t mind if I do!
For many, it seems incredibly obvious that if my feelings, my experience of tragedy is swamping me, then I should just put them away, take action and get over my damn self. After all, don’t they have pills that will do that today, fixing depression and allowing you to be normal again?
The idea that I have never been normative just isn’t on their radar. I worked very hard for every action I took, doing what other people needed in the hope they would see me, reflect me and support me being who I am, even if that was too queer for their taste.
For me, small talk has always been hard work, demanding the discipline of æsthetic denial, putting my own feelings away. Instead, I had to become deeply self aware just to survive as a child in my mother’s home. That early adultification did not serve me well in connecting with my peers, one of the foundational elements that pushed me into theology rather than action. Love in my home was theoretical much more than it was embodied, so understanding it on a conceptual level was my only choice.
I know how that affected me, but I also see how it affected my siblings, isolating them from their own feelings, actualization and empowerment. They satisfy others because they don’t know how to satisfy themselves.
In my life, I had to learn to perform past tragedy, to put up the shields, get my head down and just perform the persona I had to be in that moment, invulnerable and tough. I can still do that when required, but as I get older I have less energy to put on a front and more awareness that doing that won’t really get me much closer to what I desperately need.
If I choose to be who and what other people want me to be, I can satisfy them, yes, but how will that every help me satisfy myself?
Some will say that action is an end in itself, that the work is what is important. They don’t see or value, however, the work that I do, the reflective, contemplative work that leads me to creation almost every day. While they like it when a bit of that helps them through, too much is just overwhelming and challenging, because they need to keep active, not stopping to be present in away that might reveal real tragedy.
How can my blah-blah-blah ever compare to real success, the kind people pay you for? How can my complicated gibberish ever balance the feeling when you git ‘er done?
Action is vital, no doubt.
I just don’t believe action is all that gives the human experience meaning.