Yesterday, a young woman (I’ll call her Mary), with whom I had worked previously, called asking if she could speak with me about a serious matter. Mary is a teacher, and I listened as she related how another woman teacher, who “had it in for her”, had tried to tell her how to run her class and had ended up turning the students and the director against her. When she finished, I asked her if she had noticed that this situation was identical to the ones she had faced in the last two schools she had taught in before requesting to be transferred (both times). She said she had, but insisted that the situation this time was much more serious than in the past and had to be dealt with immediately or she might face being brought before the law. I suggested that given the late hour (it was ten p.m.) we had best leave any discussion for the following afternoon and we made an appointment for 5 p.m. today. I was left to ponder the dilemma overnight and had the following dream:
The dream. I am riding with my husband in a brand new, pale green Cadillac. He is driving and I sit in the seat beside him. The color of the car is pleasing, somewhat like pistachio ice cream, yet I am feeling irritated because he already owns another expensive car that he has left at home. There is a man sitting in the back seat who is my husband’s friend. My husband comments to his friend that he is thinking of buying a new “Lincoln” and I feel the irritation turn to anger and knot in my chest. Without thinking, I spew out a barrage of sarcastic and biting remarks that end with a threat to divorce him if he proceeds to buy another car. Suddenly the friend in the back seat intervenes and repeats what I have said, mimicking my words and tone. I immediately realize how unpleasant what I have said has sounded and understand that I should apologize to my husband. This realization feels very peaceful and loving; but in spite of it, the anger in my chest increases and becomes extremely uncomfortable. I struggle to overcome it because I want the peace and love I see in the other solution.
At that point I was torn from the dream with the most anguishing need to breathe I have ever felt. Apparently, the sensation of anger in my chest was coming from the fact that I had stopped breathing altogether and my heart was actually beginning to hurt. While I brought my breath back to normal and oxygenated my heaving chest, I jotted down the dream.
As I walked back from coffee this morning, the Mary’s problem came to mind again and suddenly the solution seemed crystal clear. I knew what I would say to her this afternoon when we spoke and I also feared that she would probably take what I said the same way that I had taken the friend’s mimicking in the dream: unable to override the anger. I suspect she had intimations of this from our previous work together, for she sent me a message a few minutes ago cancelling our meeting, adding that perhaps we could talk again later in the week. So I am left with the situation, the dream and what it taught me, and the desire to share both.
The dream had revealed two things. It had shown me that in order to solve or avoid a conflictive situation, one must be able to see what one is doing to produce it; in the dream, it is obvious I am headed for a conflict with my husband, but the man in the back intervenes and mirrors to me what I am doing so I can become conscious of it. It also shows me in a very dramatic way that anger is blocking the possibility of changing the situation and avoiding the conflict. So the dream, in some way, was prophetic: it showed me what I had to say to Mary, and also that she probably would not want to hear it. Therefore I was not surprised when she cancelled our session.
In the dream, I am defending myself against what I see as my husband’s extravagant and unnecessary spending on cars; my mind will tell me it is a legitimate defense. But when the man in back mirrors my actions and words, I can see that what I called a defense is actually an attack and I have begun a war. Byron Katie says that defense is the first act of war, for to defend myself I must attack the other. War takes two, so until I defend myself, there is no war. Mary had said that she had let things go till now (ignoring something is a form of defense and can be seen as very aggressive), but it was the moment to defend herself.
The dream itself does not give the solution; it merely shows where the solution is not. So, I might ask, am I just to allow my husband what I see as an extravagant and unnecessary expenditure of money? It’s obvious Mary can’t just sit back and allow the situation to continue building until it explodes, or she does actually end up with a law suit against her. The opposite of defense (read “attack”) is not laissez faire, but rather something completely different that will change the rules of the game.
In the dream, for instance, I have not even waited to ascertain if my husband is talking seriously or is ribbing me, if he means immediately or sometime in an undetermined future, if he’s conscious or not of other areas in our life where we need to be spending money, or even what his reasons are for wanting to buy a Lincoln. Perhaps I have not been clear about what my priorities are in relation to the family money and his comment might be the opening we have needed for discussing this. In other words, if I step back, drop my impulse to defend myself, and simply ask a few questions and open myself to listen sincerely to the answers a world of possibilities opens up, a world that could even lead to a strengthening of our marital ties and a healthier way of communicating with each other.
In Mary’s situation, the solution is the same although understandably more difficult given what seems to be the intensity of the conflict. She desperately needs to know what it is she is doing in order to avoid future conflicts, but the only persons that can tell her are those she considers her enemies: the other teacher, the director and even her own students. They are her mirrors; they are her man-in-the-back-seat. Imagine, if you can, what the scenario would look like if Mary, notebook and pen in hand, sat with each one of these persons (the students as a group), asked only one question (“What is it that you see I am doing wrong in this situation?”), then listened and took notes of each and every “problem” the others see with her, and when each had finished said no more than “Thank you, I will get back to you on this”. Does this mean that Mary accepts that the problem is all her fault? Certainly not, but it is a concrete demonstration that she is willing to look at her part in it and it will, if done correctly, immediately take away the opposition’s need to keep attacking.
Obviously, up to now only questions have been asked but nothing has been solved either in the dream or in Mary’s situation. And what Mary must do next is even more difficult than her first step. Armed with all the negative criticism she has carefully written down, she must now work with it, which means that she must look carefully at everything they have said about her, and see where each accusation is true, for until she does that she will be obliged to keep on defending herself and will never learn who she really is. This is very hard to do, and Mary will only be able to do it if she understands deeply that this is FOR her, for her growth, and has nothing to do with the others. For instance, if she has written that she is aggressive with the students, is disrespectful with them, yells at them or grades unfairly she must find specific examples of how she has done this with these students or with others (and my experience is I can always find whatever criticism is leveled against me). I am not talking about guilt; this isn’t about placing blame. It is about knowing the truth for it is the truth, after all, which will set us free. Neither is this about right or wrong; it is not that the others are right and Mary is wrong; this is Mary coming to know Mary. If she goes deeply, if she really looks, if she is painstakingly honest, she may come to surprising conclusions. She might find, for example, that she has been in the wrong profession all along, that she needs another type of school system with stricter controls over the children, or even that it is not what she is doing, but the way she is doing it that is wrong. In any case, she will have a wealth of information about herself that will make her life much easier, and that might also allow her to suggest positive changes in the system the school is using if the others are open to it.
But Mary’s work isn’t finished yet. Now that she has clearly seen her own part and found concrete examples of it, she has to return to the “enemy camp” and tell them about it. This is not an I-have-been-a-bad-girl-please-forgive-me exercise, but an honest, mature acceptance of reality as it is. It might sound something like this:
Mary: I have gone over all the matters that you pointed out and found that in a,b and c you were absolutely right and I thank you for pointing these things out. I have taken measures to change these actions and just wish to ask that if you notice them happening again to bring them to my attention as quickly as possible. In d,e and f I found that what I was doing was correct and it was the way I was handling it that was wrong; I am looking for other ways of achieving the desired results and would be open to any suggestions or ideas that you might be able to offer. In as far as g,h and i I believe we are looking at serious problems for which I would definitely need your help solving… etc.
Or she might just say: I have looked carefully at all your comments and I want to thank you sincerely for helping me to realize I am in the wrong profession. Before I leave how can I make this right for you and the school?
No matter what the outcome, Mary will have succeeded in turning a no-win situation into a learning and growth experience for herself. Notice that in no moment have I mentioned what her “accusers” might have done that was wrong or uncalled for; that, in my opinion, is not her business. Unless they expressly ask what it is she thinks they might have done better, Mary has only to occupy herself with her part. Can I just clean up my mess?
Nothing I have said above is new. In the Catholic religion it is called Confession and Atonement; in the Twelve-Step Programs, Doing a Personal Inventory and Making Amends; and in The Work of Byron Katie, Accepting the Gift of Criticism. I have practiced under all three systems, but it is with The Work of Byron Katie where it has become most significant and deep. In the first it is God who tells me what I have done wrong; in the second, I myself must find it, sometimes with the help of a Sponsor, but in the Byron Katie work it is my accuser who becomes my mirror and my teacher and in this process a love beyond understanding can be born.
I still remember the first time I had the opportunity to “accept the gift of criticism”, on that occasion, from my brother. Several years ago, he needed a large amount of money for a something very important in his life and he asked me if I would loan it to him. After saying “yes” in an self-centered desire to be considered the best sister on earth, I realized that the loan was not in my interest and I changed to a “no”. He was furious although he had no problem getting the money from another source. He did not speak to me for over a year, after which he sent me a letter containing all the rage he had kept building up in that time. The letter is much too long to copy here, but it called me a coward in every way possible, said I was selfish and hid my head in the sand like an ostrich, and that I had stabbed him in the back when he needed me most. It was two pages long and the first time I read it, it took my breath away and caused such rage and pain in my chest that I had to let it sit for a few days before I could tackle it. But when I did, I found truth in every single thing my brother had accused me of and could name examples both from the past and from the situation with him. I copied each one of his accusations and included after each one my admission and the examples, and how I was trying to overcome this fault.
When I had finished doing my work, I was at peace with myself and with my brother. There was no war in my heart, and that is the only place where war can hurt me. I sent the worked letter to my brother. When he answered, it was obvious that he had not understood what I had done. He thought I was apologizing for not lending him the money and, frankly, that was never the question: I was actually proud of myself for having the strength to say no and was prepared to do it again if the occasion ever arose. It took him several years and a complete change in his circumstances to get over my “treason”, but today we have a kinder and more equal relationship, and during those years of silence I had the privilege of loving my brother and being at peace with him.
So, if Mary gets back in touch wants to hear what I have to say, I probably will tell her this story first and then gently suggest (I know, no way to drop a bomb gently) she do her part. Strangely enough, what I learned is that what might seem like weakness and defeat is actually power and victory: power in the only place where I can wield it (inside myself) and victory over my own life.