Listening is Adventurous too

A few months ago a favorite yoga teacher told me about Brene Brown’s latest book Rising Strong. I have been reading and re-reading passages in the book, and trying to integrate them. There’s so much in there that it’s hard to take it in. But one piece of it (right now) has kept me thinking.  Brene Brown talks about being in the arena, being brave with life, and having the courage to show up when we have no control over the outcome. She claims that when we sign up for this (going into the arena) that we are basically signing up to get our asses kicked. Frankly, I agree with her. Once we are really vulnerable, we are truly laid bare for the world to see, then we are completely exposed for the worst ass-kicking — failures, judgments, hardships, a real full-on beat-up. And this is where it happens, according to her.

But this, is not the most eye-opening thing for me, it was Brene’s insight on that feedback and “judgment” from the people in the seats. In the “cheap seats” as she refers to them. She points out that in the arena of vulnerability, there are many cheap seats. In those cheap seats, people sit and watch, and they hurl criticisms from afar. They are not blooding their knees or scraping their elbows, and yet, we all hear (and often are expected to listen to) the people in the cheap seats.

Brown notes that while we cannot cut ourselves from everyone, we can seek out feedback from people who also have bloody knees and scraped elbows, from those people who are also willing to take on the un-fixable with courage. She continues to say that maybe, just maybe the outcome is very possibly the ass-kicking itself, just being in the arena. Because it is the arena that builds the strength. It is in the arena where strength is built.

We need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives. For me, if you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback. –Brene Brown

I spent almost a year cultivating what I crassly called my year of not listening. It was an exhausting time where I felt like ripped open and stoned. I would get up every morning and make it to work by 8am, barely. I worked with the sweetest people. They barely knew me and yet, they took me in. Work was a routine that offered me stability. I wasn’t very good at it, but I enjoyed it because outside of work, my life was upside down. I liked the customers and my co-workers, and they offered me space to exist without judgment. Outside of work, I could barely find a corner where someone wasn’t offering a better way, a critical eye or a “helpful” piece of advice from afar. But in reality, there was nothing to be done. There was really nothing that could make it better. It was just time that needed to play out. I needed to be there in order to witness and hold space, but I could not direct it. That idea of control was only just that.

I was living 12 hours away from my husband and 16 hours away from my son who was in his first year of college. My mother had just suffered a medical and mental health breakdown. She also was diagnosed with dementia. Her affairs were in complete disarray. Her home was in disarray; she had been failing for several years, and no one quite knew how to handle it. So it was ignored until the breaking point. I undertook the process of becoming her legal guardian.

At the same time, I concurrently was becoming my adult sister’s guardian. She had lived with my mom her entire life, and now needed to live on her own. Her housing was a fairly straight-forward process, but I also had to witness and hold space for her learn to live independently, and importantly, grieve the process of separation from my mom. These were really quite difficult, and hopefully I can put it into words eventually, but for now, it just was a process.

The evolution of these things, wildly intertwined in so many ways, and they also had to be dealt with in completely separate ways as well. This proved much more challenging than I can still really wrap my head around. 

Because of the entanglement of the relationships, the complicated medical issues, and probably a lot of other things, I was mostly consumed with tasks, and complications. And competing ideas. And eventually I simply had to move forward. I got a job in order to have routine, and some life that was grounded in stability of “normalcy.”

And then at some point during this year, I decided that listening to other people was part of my problem. It was like alcohol in a wound, or hot water on frost bite, or a sweater on sunburn. I needed to take advice only from people who knew the whole picture or who were experts. I was being stoned to death by advice, and more so buried by the expectations and fallout of not heeding advice from so many fronts that I was not able to track it all. I needed to be selective, and strong about who was in my reserved seating, as Brown refers to it. This matters so much. And I’m so grateful to her for giving me a metaphor to understand this experience.

The weight of the actual tasks was a heavy enough burden, but the extra weight of the advice was so heavy that I was actually breaking down. Maybe this was the ass-kicking that Brene Brown is referring to. I’m not sure, but in retrospect, I was definitely down, and the metaphor works for me.

So my decision: stop listening.  I felt guilty for it. 

I’ve carried that guilt around for more than a year now. All the mistakes I made during that time– maybe if I would have listened to other people those could have been avoided? Maybe I could have been easier on myself?  Maybe. Maybe. maybe. But I did listen to some people, just not everyone. I chose those in my reserved seats. Maybe for the first time in my life.

Reading and re-reading Rising Strong has reminded me of something important:

Fixing Un-fixable Problems = Un-fixable Problems + Unbearably Tired People

There are things that needed to be teased out in my situation. People’s safety needed to be secured.  Things needed to be cleaned up. But the problems themselves could not really be fixed. They existed before me. And they will exist after me.

So, my fear of mistakes was really more fear of listening to those in the cheap seats. There is no clear line for travel, no paved road. Maybe no road without a dead end at all. I have no idea. No one does. All I could do was jump in and take care of people, and find them as much safety as I could at that time.

No one’s fight is like another’s. But one thing Brene Brown gave me words for: being in the arena. I know what the cheap seats feel like. I know what the heckles sound like from the cheap seats. Hell, I’ve heckled myself for years. And I know what’s its like to be begin to distinguish between the feedback that feeds my bravery and the feedback that feeds my self-doubt and my fear. I know which one I choose.


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