The event ended, and the hangers-on were going to a pub for some drinks. I joined. I sat next to a man I had already been talking to for a while before we shifted locations. The seated proximity allowed us to go between group chatter and face-to-face deepening conversation, further away from the sharing of anecdotes and jokes to more spiritual and philosophical matters. We took turns between the two, with a natural kind of tempo.
I don’t remember what led to the remark, but he said, “I believe we choose our reactions.” He hit upon something I had specifically been thinking about all week, if not my whole life.
“Hmmmm. I’m not entirely sure about that. There are a lot of things that happen to people that affect them beyond their choice to be affected,” I argued.
He seemed to understand what I was saying, but insisted upon his point, that ultimately, it was our choice.
“It sounds somewhat privileged to me,” I said, and I think he understood what I was saying a little better. But he still insisted that we have the power over our own reactions.
I think I agreed that we had power and choice over what I called our functional reactions, that is, what we do, but that we didn’t necessarily have a choice over our emotional reaction, or how we felt. He still begged to differ. I told him I didn’t agree, but that we didn’t have to agree on everything, and we moved on, enjoying the rest of our conversation – a friendly, interesting person I would gladly speak with again.
I fell asleep fairly easily that night, and perhaps the gin and tonic and a bit of earlier wine were of help. But tonight, a night later, sleep wouldn’t come. I’d had a good day, wrote an amusing song, saw my sister and nephews, ate well, had gone for a walk, and I spent the rest of my evening continuing to re-work old pieces of writing that happen to deal with some fairly traumatic personal events, a task I have been putting off for a long time even though I know I need to do it, a task I had finally started just two days ago, after a four-year hiatus.
And since, for the last few nights, I have also been engaged in the reading of a novel before sleeping, I thought I would turn to it, so I could take a step back from my own writing. But the two somehow intertwined tonight. Tonight of all nights the novel turned a very dark corner, and lines within it resonated a little too deeply, and I sensed the agitation spread throughout my body as I kept reading, which I did despite my discomfort, hoping for resolution which didn’t come.
Putting it away, turning off the night light, laying my head on the pillow, I tried to let my thoughts flow without controlling them, as is said to be beneficial, or wise, or both, and what rose within my mind was a string of memories of times I had felt afraid to the core, reaching back as far as to my five-year-old self, hearing the television news my parents watched in the evening. My heart wasn’t pounding from the same fear, but from the knowledge that there had always been some around.
I was just that kind of kid, I guess. I’ve met other people who’ve confessed a nervous constitution, lying awake for nights, dreading the same violent or dire tragedy they had just seen in a movie or read about falling upon them. I guess I’m just one of those people. Aside from far too detailed war books, I remember books I’d been given to read about sexual abuse, god knows why they were given to me, with such graphic descriptions of depraved violence as to scar me for life. Even as a reader of non horrific fiction I am altered, dazed for weeks after reading, walking with the character of the book inhabiting my skin and thoughts. So imagine what scary and tragic books do to me. Imagine what real life does to me. And growing up in a place and within a group, so to speak, where I knew I was without question a target of potential violence from a very young age was certainly significant to my said nervous constitution.
I let the thoughts flow, and after recognising the ubiquity of fear in me for as long as I can remember, my thoughts led me to times I had been held in a lover’s arms, and the grateful, albeit fleeting, sense of safety that such an embrace would grant me.
But when you have enough romantic connections go bad, that doesn’t work so well either anymore to assuage your anxieties.
And to go farther back to memories of the comfort of parents’ arms, the tragedy of how long ago it was, having learned they too are vulnerable, fallible, is too much to bare as far as comfort seeking goes.
To be perfectly clear, I am not always afraid. “Courageous” is a word that gets thrown around a lot by people describing my life. It’s that when I am, all of my fears rise up at once. And then I want comfort. And comfort is no longer comforting because everything that once comforted is itself broken.
And I just want to feel safe so badly.
It is so bloody basic.
I remember a sculpture I made at seventeen. When asked to explain it, I said it represented the inability of the protector to protect.
And just last week I went to my first ever counseling session. It was a little protocol-y, I went out of curiosity, I went because it was free, but also out of growing fatigue for my own symptoms of anxiety, my lowering physical tolerance for the chronic adrenaline heights. I went because, though I assure you I am mostly fine, when I’m not fine, I am deeply distressed, shaky, and terrified. Sure, we all are. I put on a grin and do what I have to do. But my insides are flipping out as I do, and I want to go hide under a rock only I know I’d be scared there too. I told the counselor that I thought it was more crazy to not have the reactions I have. She stared at me a bit blankly.
But according to my new friend, we choose our reactions.
And I cannot help but feel like that is a comment judging my reactions as too dramatic, too messy, too needy, too immature. He wasn’t directing his opinion at me personally. He knows nothing of my personal story. It was the personal implication of his stance. If I follow his logic, I should choose to be better-adjusted and happier, and it is ultimately my fault if I am having a negative reaction. But I am not convinced. Because I have already chosen to try to be positive my whole life. I have chosen to turn my feelings toward productive creative work, I have chosen to be kind to people, to talk about peace-making, chosen to listen to the other side of arguments, even when that has meant suspending my terror to try to understand the actions and feelings of those who have instilled it in me. I have chosen to look at all human beings as vulnerable and worthy of love, despite their misguidedness of action and danger to me and others.
But even with all these vigilant, life-long choices, I am often a prisoner of my reactions. My efforts to choose positive reaction, to choose diplomacy, to seek some kind of evasive peace of mind, have perhaps also suffocated me. And the truth of my actual, internal reactions has been burning in me, trying to come out, finding peculiar outlets, like muscle spasms, injuries, headaches, stomach aches, stray thoughts, text-book markers of post-traumatic stress disorder I am, frankly, very tired of, partly because of what they physically do to me, and partly because I feel like a failure for having them.
So I don’t know what to make of my friend’s claim.
Do I choose those reactions? It’s hard to believe that I do.
It’s hard to believe that having nightmares that leave you crying in the morning is a choice. It’s hard not to find his utterance quaint and ignorant and seriously lacking in empathy, though I am certain that it is not how he intends it. I am fairly certain he means it motivationally, or self-convincingly.
I’m tired. Is that, too, a chosen reaction?
I am not blind, of course, to the partial truth in what he is saying. It is obvious. The notion exists for a reason. There exists in the human mind and spirit and body an incredible capacity to overcome, and to turn anger into peaceful productivity, self-improvement, benevolent action, social change. I commend and encourage it, and, god knows, I try it.
And of course, I can choose not to be annoyed at a lost item, or at a minor but irritating miscommunication, a stain on my favourite shirt. I often wonder why anyone lets themselves be as bothered by such trivialities as they are. So on that level, I agree with my new friend. We can choose, on small scale things, to not be bothered and just go with the flow. I’d say with eight years of road under my belt, I even excel at that.
But don’t take away from me the truth that when my guard is down, when I have held on tight to my fortress of dignity all day, for days on end, that when someone spits in my face, when someone threatens my survival or implies its threat, that I am choosing to be offended or scared by it.
You’re damn fucking right I’m scared and offended. And they? Have they not chosen to scare and offend me?
If it’s my own choice for feeling this way, if it is my own choice, this not ‘letting it go’, then yes. Fine. I’ll take full responsibility for it. I choose to be outraged, I choose to be sickened, I choose to be full of grief, I choose to be lacking in grace as I process what has happened to me and what happens around me, and I choose to wallow in guilt about my own misgivings. And yes, how dare I not keep these reactions in better check and seek more personal “wellness” in between my productive, wonderful positivity?
But I am not asking for help in emotion management. I am not wishing these emotions away, so much as asking for the permission to speak about them. I am pleading for attention to DO SOMETHING about all those horrific things out there that have me so bloody afraid, sad and angry. Maybe the attention shouldn’t constantly be about how to feel okay about everything. Everything is not ok. Maybe some attention should be put toward gathering our fear and outrage and grief so we can collectively advocate and facilitate real social change.
Maybe he IS right. I still don’t think I choose my miserable moments or sensitivities. I think perhaps people choose to numb themselves to theirs. And you may choose to agree, or write me off as foolish. I choose to go on feeling, either way.