Peace not War
Like many young clinicians of my day, during my first psychotherapy experience, I struggled with an anxiety disorder and a toxic relationship—one which constantly triggered me to negative self perceptions and beliefs. A leitmotif for the many phases of my subsequent development, it has been everpresent, albeit muted and simplified.
The theme is this: presented with an opportunity to speak up publicly and clearly about a controversial topic, I freeze. My voice gets tight, my breathing is shallow, I perspire. My thoughts revert to admonitions and warnings rather than intellectual discourse. I forget what I want to say, thinking instead that I am crazy and stupid to consider speaking my opinion at all. An entire litany of self deprecating remarks follows and I am silenced. I recall a certain person who convinced me that I had no right to a voice; that to open my mouth would cause undue harm and devastation; that I was bad and wrong. The more I argued with it, the louder it became, just as it had in real life, many years earlier. It was impossible to make the voice go away.
Catastrophic thinking no doubt—but a belief system internalized at a young and impressionable age, from an important and powerful adult.
A turning point for me in this struggle to gain confidence and speak up, occurred when my therapist offered an analogy which I still find useful today, as a construct for the intrapsychic world, as well as the interpersonal and international ones. It is a paradigm I borrowed from Anne Weiser Cornell, called the “radical acceptance of everything”; an antidote to warring parties (internal and external) who refuse to listen with compassion and compromise and instead try to destroy one another.
My therapist suggested that I consider the “voice”--the litany—the actual person, if you will, who delivered the messages in the first place—to be like the “crazy person on the subway”. With all due respect, and with no malice intended, I use these words descriptively, without judgment. Indeed, that is the entire point.
The crazy person on the subway is someone whom we all know well. Being on the subway is a captive experience and he or she is there, just like you and me—with the same rights to transportation and existence. Until the next stop, there is no escape. Alone in the corner, the crazy person evokes strong feelings--wariness, concern, disgust, compassion, sympathy, love, anger—you name it—the crazy person is the receptacle for all sorts of projected feelings—negative and positive. Yet absolutely none of what he or she is or says requires any response—none of it is intended for you or me at all. The crazy person just is—a buddha of the subway. Notice, be curious, feel compassion, take action, let go.
My belief is that we all have a crazy person on our own personal subway.. He or she is there whether invited or not and we must learn to accept his or her existence and listen —rather than fight to get rid of him or silence her. For overall mental health and well being we must establish a comfortable boundary of respect and compassion, without violating his space and endangering either one of us.
Once I got it that my crazy person was just one person, one part of who I am, no more or less powerful than any other part or person on my own personal subway—I began to find strength and confidence in the many other people that were taking the ride with me. I learned to listen and understand and accept all of me and us on this crazy and complicated journey through life—in peace not war.