Relative Importance

This morning, my boys were having a discussion about the relative importance of things.

Daryl, the puberty-entering near-twelve year old, was sitting at the dining room table, eating his cereal and milk. Hal, the learning-to-read-efficiently near-seven year old, was sitting in the living room, reading a book.

“Hal,” Daryl called out. “You need to come eat your breakfast.”

“I’m reading!”

“So? You need to eat breakfast.”

“Reading is important.”

“Not as important as eating breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. You need it to fuel your body for the rest of the day.”

“Well, reading is more important than eating!”

“No it’s not! You have to eat or you’ll die. You can read after you eat breakfast.”

When I related the conversation to my husband, Hal clarified his reasoning. Turning to his brother, he said, “Well, what if you ate poison, huh? If you ate poison, you’d die! And what if that poison had a sign on it that said ‘poison’? If you read it, then you wouldn’t die. But only if you can read!”

Who can refute such logic? Certainly not an older, thinks-he’s-so-wise brother.

Seeking Wisdom

What happens when one control freak delegates a task to another control freak and then takes it back? Well, for the second control freak, the results are not pretty. She’s highly likely to have her feelings hurt and be extremely angry. She’s liable to cry and rant to her spouse about the problems of being micromanaged, of not being allowed to do the task, of how she could have done the job and done it well. No, not just well, better than it’s ever been done before. She wants to call the first control freak and tell her about the terrible thing she has done. She wants to make the first control freak feel badly for what she’s done to the second one.

But if she has a modicum of wisdom buried deep down in her brain, she’ll recognize her response is not rational. She’ll carefully consider her husband’s question, “What do you want?”

If you call her, what result do you hope to achieve? What do you want? And are you prepared for the unintended consequences? Because they are always there. There will be unintended consequences to the conversation. Are you ready for them? Can you accept them?

This was my situation this morning. I had been given a task for a group I am involved in at church. As I tried to gather the information I needed to do the task, the leader of the group kept interfering, telling me it should – no, not should, would be done this other way. She asked for intermediate information and then dismissed me, saying she would explain when she saw me, but she was going to go this other route. I never got a chance to put together my brilliant plan. I was devastated.

What do I want?

I want to build the plan. I want to solve the puzzle. I am a problem solver, an optimizer, an engineer. I am logical and organized. She is frazzled right now. I know I can do this better than she can. I know it.

Realization #1

As I ranted to my husband, he commented, “You’ve been here before. In fact, I’m convinced that if you didn’t have me in your life, you’d be just like her in 30 years.”

He’s right. Why am I so upset? Because she wouldn’t give me the control. She offered it but then took it back. And. I. Want. The. Control.

Ok, so part of my problem is that I’m dealing with an older version of myself. A version that never had the moderating effects of a spouse and children. So what now? I still want to confront her. I want her to know she hurt me. I want her to know how her behavior stifles the willingness of the people around her to volunteer. To give her the help she needs.

She did it to my husband too. When he came back with the rough draft of his assigned task, she brushed him off and said she’d decided to go this other route and had already drawn it up. My husband, being who he is, was hurt for a few minutes but then embraced the freedom of no longer having the responsibility and the even greater freedom of knowing that he wouldn’t be volunteering for anything else in the future. And he was content.

That’s not going to work for me. I can’t let go of the task that I want to do. And I still want to talk to her, even though I suspect that everything I would say would go wrong. Unintended consequences.

So I pondered the situation some more. I became convinced that while I wanted to be blunt with her, I shouldn’t. Any time I have stepped up to be blunt, it has gone poorly. But what about Christian accountability? Don’t I owe it to her as her Sister in Christ to let her know how her behavior affects the people around her? Don’t I owe it to her to help her be a better person? Didn’t I just write about this?

My husband is not enough like me. He gives good advice, most of the time. But sometimes, even when the advice is good, I implement it poorly. I needed another perspective. So I contacted a friend in the same church group. And I hit wisdom gold.

She sat quietly on her end of the phone while I explained and whined and ranted. I poured my heart out about what had happened and how I had reacted and what I wanted and then I asked her opinion and shut up and listened.

Realization #2

Control freak number one is freaking out right now. My friend is also a control freak and she can relate to what number one is going through. She explained to me that number one knows she needs to delegate and she tries but there is this constant swirl of stuff that must be done going on in her head and she just can’t stop it. And she actually can’t delegate it, even though she tries.

My friend talked about how she knows her mother raised children and she knows she is competent and able. Yet when my friend was trying to master the new mother thing a couple of years ago, she was convinced that no one else could change her son’s diaper as well as she could, even when she needed the break.

Realization #3

When my friend was in that mode of trying to keep all the balls in the air all by herself, she went with speed, not diplomacy, in her interactions with those dear loved ones trying to help. That’s why I was hurt. Because number one didn’t (couldn’t?) take the time to let me down gently. She felt an uncontrollable urge to make sure it was done right and there’s simply too much going on in her head to consider how her actions would affect others.

Realization #4

I told my friend that my urge to do the job was so strong that I was tempted to develop the plan anyway and then show it to number one. In her calm patient voice, she responded, “From everything I have heard you say so far, if you did that, and she rejected it, you would be devastated and hurt again.”

She was right. I didn’t want to just do the job. I didn’t want to just solve the puzzle. I wanted to do the job and have it be accepted. Have it be used. I don’t want praise. Praise, in fact, makes me very uncomfortable. But I want to be useful. I want the most efficient process in place. I have to live with it too, after all.

And if I succeed. If I succeed in developing a more efficient plan and then it gets rejected anyway, I will have to follow the other plan with the full knowledge that mine was better. Ok, the full belief. I am wise enough to know my plan might not actually be better. But if I feel it is, the effect is the same.

How much more devastated would I be if I spent my precious time developing the plan and then had it rejected? Wouldn’t it be better to stop now? To set aside my desire to implement the solution? To live with what number one comes up with?

Realization #5

I told my friend that I wanted to ask number one why. Why won’t she let me develop the plan? Why? This has always been the most important question to me. Why? Why do people do what they do? It’s what I’ve always wanted to know. Who, what, where, and when have never been as important to me as why.

My friend then dropped a bombshell that I’m pretty sure I’ll still be processing months from now. She had learned something while working at a psych hospital. You never ask why. Why immediately puts someone on the defensive. Ask them why and they shut down. They have to defend their actions. There are ways to get at why without asking why. “What am I doing that isn’t working for you? How would you like me to proceed?” Questions like that. Questions I’m not very good at.

There’s a feeling I get deep inside when someone tells me something that I had never understood but I now, immediately, know is fundamentally true. I got this feeling several times in the course of this conversation and this was perhaps the biggest.

Number one doesn’t know why. If you ask her if she wants help, she will say she does. She believes she wants help. In fact, she does want help. She just doesn’t know how to let people help. If I ask her why she won’t let me, she’ll think I’m accusing her. She’ll get defensive. And that’s when I realized… that’s exactly what I’d be trying to do with the question. Asking someone why they are doing something or why they are not doing something is an accusation phrased as a question to absolve the accuser of the guilt of making the accusation.

I wanted her to feel bad for not letting me do the task. And asking her why she won’t let me is a way for me to accomplish that. But now that my friend has enlightened me to number one’s state of mind, I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t want to make her feel bad. I don’t want to contribute to the chaos and stress.

But I still want her to know she hurt me. I still want her to have the opportunity to learn from the situation. To be better. And I told my friend that.

Realization #6

“Then tell her. But do it after the event. Do it once it’s all over and the stress is passed.”

Oh, man. I’m a gotta-do-it-now kind of person. Shoot, I’m writing this blog right now instead of taking care of several other more important things because I feel I’ve just got to get it off my chest. She hurt me. And I want to let her know. Now.

But now’s not the time when she can hear me. Now, I would be contributing to the problem, not helping her be better in the future. The “you hurt me” talk needs to wait.

So now I need to decide what to do. Do I call her? If I do, what do I say? What do I want? If I can’t have what I want, can I settle for something else? Can I let it go?

Here’s what I want. I want to develop the plan. But more than that, I want to stay in the group. In my anger and frustration this morning, I contemplated not showing up this afternoon. I even contemplated dropping out completely. Those thoughts stabbed me in the chest. I couldn’t breathe with the thought of not being part of the group. It is seriously a highlight of my crazy, overbooked existence. I can’t imagine life without it. It. Is. That. Important. To. Me.

So compared to that? The plan is not that important. My desire to confront is not that important. I can’t jeopardize my participation in the group. Moreover, I can’t jeopardize my typically positive interaction with number one. To some extent, I have to accept that an idea will not be a good idea until it comes from her. That is who she is. Perhaps she can change, but right now, that’s who she is.

Now I have to consider who I am. Can I keep offering help under number one’s parameters, as my friend suggested? Or do I need to follow my husband’s lead and not volunteer in the future? I’m only human. I have to consider what I can handle. And I don’t think I can handle being rejected again. And now we get to…

Realization #7

I want to grow. I want to be a better person each and every day. To do that, I have to learn; I have to listen; I have to be willing to critique myself as much as I critique others. More. And I have to know the right people to talk to. My husband and my friend made a good team today. They talked me away from the edge. They forced me to look at what I wanted and why I wanted it. They helped me see the other person as a flawed human instead of a frustrating beast.

And I learned, as I have learned before and will probably have to learn many more times in the future, that I can only improve myself. I might be able to help others improve if they are willing. If they approach me, like I approached my friend. But I can’t make someone be better. I can only make me better. I can’t fix number one and her issues. No matter how glaringly obvious they are to me, I can’t fix them. I can only fix me and my issues. And I can only do that when I calm down and listen to the people who know me and who have a healthier perspective on the matter at hand.

It’s a humbling experience and I am not, at my most fundamental, a humble person. But if there is one thing I want to master before I die, it’s this. To humble myself enough to hear the wisdom of others. To seek that wisdom. And to be wise enough myself to see and implement that wisdom.

UPDATE: I wrote this on my lunch break. That afternoon, I went to church. She had modified my spreadsheet, added identifying stickers, and was having everyone record the information I had already recorded instead of verifying what I had recorded. It soon became apparent that she still intended me to develop my plan, but only after she had collected the information the way she wanted to.

When I requested that people record certain information that I needed to know, she glared at me and said no. A friend (different from the phone friend) reminded me to breathe. Just breathe. Breathe. And don’t volunteer again. But right now just breathe.

By the end of the evening, she had explained herself in a satisfactory enough way. I was still frustrated, but not angry. I was still being micromanaged. I had my job but I was not empowered. I still don’t know if I will ever volunteer again. As frustrating as the situation has been, however, I’m glad it happened. I’ve learned a lot. About her. About me. About navigating the sea of humanity. And I’m a better person for it.

Garage Sale Frenzy

A wise woman waits until her children go to bed and then quietly gathers up the outgrown clothes and excess toys, books, and movies for a garage sale. A foolish woman takes her children to the garage sale that is reselling their pilfered possessions.

A woman such as me can fall from wisdom to foolishness with alarming speed.

And thus we found ourselves at the church garage sale. Everyone found items that they just absolutely had to have, thereby nicely replenishing the dent I had made in the accumulated “stuff” at home.

Hal found a singing Valentine’s bear that played “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes while a lighted sign spun in a circle and displayed messages. I always knew where he was because I could hear the bear. So could everyone else.

He also found a Cars jacket that he absolutely loved. I explained that it had been his when he was two but didn’t fit him anymore. “It doesn’t?”

“No, honey. See? It says ‘Infant, 24 months’. You aren’t an infant, are you? Not a baby?”

He agreed to put it back and then proceeded to point out all his other clothing including his dear Superman pants and Cars pajamas.

Jane came running to me all excited because she had found her favorite pair of her friend Madison’s shorts. “And the best part is that I don’t even have to try them on because I already know they fit!”

Daryl was livid when he looked through the DVDs and found Spy Kids and Woody Woodpecker and… “G Force! Daddy! She gave away G Force!” He glared at me as if we had become mortal enemies.

At one point, he showed me a crystal shaped perfume bottle. “Mommy, I thought this was a light, like a night light or something so I pressed the bottom like this {he pressed the ‘bottom’, which was really the top because he was holding it upside down} and then it sprayed on my face!”

After we paid for all of our new treasures, we drove down the road in our little Prius. After a few minutes, I grimaced. “Daryl. I really wish you hadn’t mistaken that perfume bottle for a light.”

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Jane was telling me about her day at school. They were reviewing problems in math class. When no one else answered a question, she would raise her hand.

On one such occasion, a boy started to harass her: “Well, there’s Jane with her hand in the air. Thinks she’s so smart and knows all the answers.”

She responded, with a fair amount of sass, “Yes, I do know the answers and I’m happy I know the answers, because that means I’ll pass the test and advance to the next grade and then graduate and be able to get a job!”

She claimed that that shut him right up! I didn’t bother to point out that it probably hadn’t endeared herself to him. I don’t think she cares.

In some ways, she is so much like I was. She loves to do extra problems and can’t stand to not raise her hand when she knows the answer. I was painfully aware of how unpopular those desires were and very much wanted to not be made fun of. As a result, I tried not to make a scene. My daughter, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care what lower performing students think of her and appears to think it’s her civic duty to chastise them to do better.

A couple of weeks ago, again in math class, the teacher assigned the odd problems for homework. Jane raised her hand and asked if she could do the evens too. People groaned and said, “Jaa-aane! Stop it. You’re going to end up making us all do extra!”

Again, her response was considerably less than charitable: “Well, maybe you should be doing more problems. Maybe if you tried a little harder you’d get better grades. I like doing math.”

On the one hand, I’m very proud that she’s not afraid to speak her mind. I am happy that she is unashamed of being smart and enjoying school. On the other hand, I’m glad she’s not a boy. If she were, I think she might get beaten up a few times before she learned when to hold her tongue.

Wisdom Comes With Age

Daryl: “I’m a lot smarter than Hal.”

Me: “You don’t know that.”

Daryl: “Sure I do. Hal, what’s 12 times 12, huh? It’s 144. I know a lot more than he does.”

Me: “That doesn’t mean you are smarter than him. It just means you’ve learned more than him. He’s too young for us to know how smart he is. He could be smarter than all the rest of us put together.”

Daryl: “Well, I’m wiser than he is. I’ve lived some long, hard years more than him.”

Yes, son, nearly nine long, hard years makes one a very wise young man. Indeed.