“Don’t believe everything you think.”
This is one of my favorite bumper stickers, in part because it encapsulates what I’ve come to understand about our minds. Namely, that they are often untrustworthy. To wit, memory can change under the influence of others; we can believe we’re being objective when in fact we’re behaving from a place of beliefs and opinions; and if there are things we think, or behavior we engage in, that our brain doesn’t want to acknowledge as part of us, it will conveniently “forget” those thoughts and behaviors in order to maintain its preferred self-perception.
For nearly a hundred years, schools of psychology have explored the idea that much of our motivations, beliefs, and fears lie outside our conscious mind. In fact, neuroscience has recently confirmed that most of us operate from a place of 95% unconsciousness. Or, as one of my favorite psychologists, Polly Young-Eisendrath, puts it, “A little island of consciousness tries to justify what we do after we’ve done it.”
For example, if I like to think of myself as a nice person, but then I cut someone off in traffic, my mind will find all sorts of explanations for why I did that, but none of those explanations are likely to include the idea that sometimes I’m not nice. Our brain likes to believe what it believes, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
At the dinner table the other day, my kids and husband were talking about the challenges of speaking directly to someone you’re in conflict with. Unbidden, a memory surfaced. One I haven’t thought about in 30 years.
Early on in my relationship with Mark, his grandmother died. His mom asked Mark and his two siblings to come help her and their grandfather to pack up the house in preparation for selling it. Mark and I lived in Texas at the time, so in the spring of 1989, we made the 33-hour drive to Albany, Oregon to help out. I’d only met Mark’s family a couple times; I still felt insecure around them and eager to please. I looked forward to helping clean and sort and pack boxes – things I was quite good at, and things that would enable me to lean on a shared activity while being around people I didn’t know very well.
Mark’s grandfather lived on a few, thickly-forested acres in north Albany in an old farmhouse. It was a beautiful patch of land, if a bit dark, even at high noon. A stack of broken-down packing boxes leaned against the side of the front porch when we pulled up. Inside were Mark’s grandfather, mother, older sister, Jennifer, and younger brother, Floyd. No actual packing had started. People walked around aimlessly, seeming uncertain where to start. I found their disorganization and lack of efficiency wearing.
“Where should we begin?” Jennifer asked, standing in the middle of the living room and looking about. She grabbed a stack of photo albums. “What about these?” She opened one. “Oh, wow. Mark, remember this?” She sat on the couch and patted the cushion next to her.
Mark sat and leaned toward the open pages and laughed at what he saw. “We’ve got to get Floyd in on this! Hey, Floyd!” He hollered for their brother. Floyd appeared in the doorway. “You’ve got to check this out, man.” Floyd sat on Jennifer’s other side and peered at the book. At intervals, Jennifer slowly turned a page and it would start again: “Do you remember that? Can you believe we were ever so little?”
I stood near them for 10, 20, 30 minutes as they strolled – inched – down memory lane with each other. Eventually their mother called from another room, “Is there any more packing tape?” Her three offspring lifted their heads, initially disoriented to be torn from their reminiscences.
Jennifer said, “I ran out of it, too, Mom.”
“I’ll go get more!” I volunteered. “Maybe the corner store has some?” Turning onto their grandfather’s road from Highway 20, there’d been a small convenience store west of the intersection.
Mark frowned. “Do you think they’ll have any?” he asked me.
“If not I’ll find somewhere else.”
“Maybe the office store across the river?” Jennifer suggested.
I grabbed my purse. “Sure. If the convenience store doesn’t have it.”
Mark began to look more energized with the sort of energy that might motivate him to accompany me, or might decide that my errand wasn’t actually a good idea after all. “‘Bye!” I said, and was out the door and into my car before anyone could think to stop me.
I was seething. I drove too fast down the country lane muttering, “Rude. Thoughtless. Uncaring. Exclusive.”
As I approached where the road intersected Highway 20, the tree cover gave way to a sparkling, blue-sky day. The corner store was to my right. Straight ahead was a green highway sign. Above an arrow pointing west it read: “Corvallis 10 miles.” That’s what I needed to do: I needed to go to Corvallis. Screw packing tape; screw Mark; screw his rude family.
I turned the car toward Corvallis in a burst of gravel, feeling at once free and triumphant. Ha! They’d tried to make me feel small and unwelcome. Well, I’d show them, I’d step right out of the cone of shame they’d constructed for me and be my own club of one.
On a sunny, late spring day, the drive between Albany and Corvallis is one of the finest Oregon has to offer. The highway is lined on the river side with incense cedar and grand fir trees. To the right, farms and fields show the tender green of early growth and the occasional Oregon white oak to complete the pastoral scene. My spirits lifted to the point of giddiness. Somewhere along the way, I decided I couldn’t possibly go to Corvallis without getting lunch at Nearly Normal’s. Even better! I’d escaped the crushing experience of being ignored and now, as if that weren’t enough, I was going to get to eat my favorite barbequed tempeh burger. Life was good.
No one had a cell phone in 1989. I briefly considered finding a pay phone before remembering that I didn’t know Mark’s grandfather’s phone number or last name. So, off the hook.
As expected, my barbequed tempeh burger was delicious. As I finished it and wiped my greasy fingers, I felt perhaps I’d been gone long enough. I paid my bill and walked to the packaging and mail store down the block for packing tape.
Mark was on the porch sorting the flattened boxes when I drove up. He straightened and waited for me to turn off the engine and get out of the car. After driving in the sunshine, the yard felt cold and oppressive.
“Hi!” I said cheerfully. I held up the packing tape. “Got it!”
His expression was quizzical, and something else. Maybe annoyed. “Where were you?”
I shrugged. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to find packing tape.”
My family shrieked over this story. “Mom,” my daughter said. “Passive-aggressive much?”
“You think that was passive-aggressive?” I asked innocently. Telling the story, I felt effervescent, free. How had it slept in my Unconscious all this time, only to emerge whole at this precise moment?
Polly Young-Eisendrath might suggest that at the time this incident was happening, the story I told myself about it was one I liked: I’d been snubbed and took back my power. But not long after it happened, some part of my psyche knew the narrative was more complicated and less flattering than I’d first devised. But I wasn’t quite ready for this truer story, which featured me as not a hero, but as a scalawag. And so my mind did what minds do so well. It swept that story under the rug of my Unconscious.
Why did it emerge when it did? Things often skulk around in our Unconscious because our mind can’t tolerate anything that contradicts our self-perception. It can’t tolerate it because we experience this contradiction as shame: “It’s bad to be passive-aggressive. So if I’m featured in a story where I’m being passive-aggressive, I myself am, therefore, bad.” Most of us do anything we can to avoid feeling shame.
But something wonderful has happened with age. That story popped into my mind recently not just because it was relevant to our dinnertime conversation, but also because I can now accept that sometimes I’m passive-aggressive. And I can acknowledge the truth of this inside of a compassionate and full view of everything that I am. This updated, richer notion of what it means to be a human being enables me, instead of shying away from my flaws, to say instead, “Of course I’m passive-aggressive sometimes, I’m a human being. I’ll do my best to improve in this area, but there’s no need for me to rake myself over the coals for being imperfect; that just goes with the territory.”