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Ha Ha Boundaries

Posted in Adventures With Humans

In 2010, Bill Bryson released his book, ‘At Home: A Short History of Private Life.’ I had been a fan of Bryson’s work and remember ‘At Home,’ because it was within those pages where I learned about the ‘ha ha.’ The ‘ha ha,’ despite sounding like a childish retort to a fart, or someone's failing, is a landscape barrier sunk below the otherwise unobstructed view of the lawn. If you had a castle, or a fancy manor, you could keep tourists, or villains, or grazing deer away from you and your gardens by digging a sloping ditch towards the building, and then installing a sheer wall on the near side of it to deter access. From your position having your cuffs buttoned at the west window in your manor, your view isn’t interrupted by any long piles of rocks, spiked iron fencing, or the aesthetic nightmare of pressure treated lumber. Your view isn’t ruined at all, except for odd siting of puzzled deer, or the paparazzi walking away from you, muttering to themselves.  The ‘ha ha,’ is a subtle, yet unmistakeable boundary, the perfect symbol here as I share my hard-won lesson about boundaries, specifically that I should have them.

You don’t go to the gym so that you get good at going to the gym. You go to the gym so that you can leap, and lift, and get your sorry ass up off the floor after a fall. This line of argument mirrors healing work, going to therapy; you don’t go to therapy so that you get good at going to therapy. Any work you undertake towards healing is done with intent to finding your grounding through trauma, so once you are up off of the floor you can participate in the world. In my particular case, my efforts have been rooted in childhood and the attempt and then the suicide of my father, a sorry fact you need to know for this essay to make sense.  Alongside my successful healing, is my gratefulness to my recent therapist who, pre-Covid got me curious about Buddhism. I began reading works by Buddhist teachers alongside the Jungian theories I had already been exploring. Jung helped me to better comprehend the psyche, and Buddhism offered pathways to walk the talk in real time. It’s important to note that neither Jung, nor Buddhism suggests that life is easy. The first of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths is, “Life is suffering.” Jung, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Hard lessons are learned through experience, and here I’m sharing what I believe is my completion of a somewhat impressive example.

There were three interactions that lead to my present feeling of grokness: The first one was an event that I attended during which, in my unpreparedness–being swept along like an oblivious moron, I was triggered. It wasn’t an event that I should have attended, but the lure of belonging is strong, so I took it hoping for that as truth. A person there, well-meaning, reminded me of my mother when she was drinking. I didn’t get it at first but became aware of something building inside of me more intense than simple discomfort. It was as if alarm bells were going off in my head, and though I supressed it, I was full-on angry by the time I left. This was a complex anger reacting to the triggering display so large as if I was being tested.  I sat with the feeling for three days before I calmed down and figured it out; this was on me; “Wake up idiot! You need better boundaries!” It would have been convenient to simply blame the other, but I know better; larger, over-the-top reactions are clues to something deeper-in that wants attention. This was a gift from my psyche. To ignore it, to blame the ‘other,’ would have healed nothing and only guaranteed a future repeat of the scenario, possibly more intense until I noted the damn alarm bells.

 People don’t go to the gym to talk, but sometimes between sets, there are conversations to be had. My second interaction was in the gym with a woman in her early 40’s. She and I began talking and because of where the conversation headed, I mentioned my father’s suicide. My first clue that this was a mistake was when she offered quick lines from her own therapist, avoidant of the deeper psyche and the power of childhood trauma. The modality seemed a “just put a smile on your face,” kind of deal. The big reveal came a couple weeks later. She had been away, and when we greeted each other, she asked if I was “still mopey.”  I was unprepared, shocked at the outrageous arrogance, but responsive enough to change the subject. Could I even imagine saying “still mopey” to another? No. And, no.

The third interaction was with an older man at the gym. We normally don’t have long conversations, but again, in my effort to explain an experience, I mentioned my father’s 2004 suicide. The man barely paused, then said, “Oh, well he must have been pretty old.” Jesus Christ! Gobsmacked, I stupidly defended myself telling saying, “He tried earlier, when I was nine,” in an effort to make the man understand the broader story. I should have stopped talking, but I had a childish wish for my tragedy to be felt, even a little instead of considered as nothing of note. I finished the conversation as quick as I could, went on to work whatever muscle groups but gave up and went home. Words speak. 

It’s important to note that none of the people in those three reactions were monsters. Inconsiderate? You could say that. Ignorant? Yes, but malicious? No. The big question is whether I am so delicate that I have to stay away from people in case they say something wrong. If I am expecting everyone else to read my mind, I am a fool. Also, isn’t there opportunity for teaching here? As per usual, the universe offered possibilities: I found myself listening to podcasts by the American Buddhist teacher, Joseph Goldstein. Through these, I was reminded of the power in both the suffering and the healing I’ve done. It is only in suffering that one can access the compassion necessary to heal it. The by-product is the ability to experience the deeper parts of life through nuances of grief, all the way to life’s profound richness and beauty, and to see this in others. The broader benefit is that by healing, the trauma is not passed on to undeserving offspring to bear, and this has been my goal from the beginning–my responsibility. I can’t force anyone to accept the path of healing–vulnerability is terrifying if you see it as a threat instead of the doorway into love and the deeper self, but for myself, I am grateful for all of it.

Thanks to Goldstein’s words, and my meditation practice, I was able to see my suffering for what it was; purely my own. With curiosity, I can consider other people in my life as teachers; mean, thoughtless comments offered out of ignorance and not a specific intent to harm, although sometimes there wafts a certain irritating dismissiveness. But I don’t have to remain irritated. I can let it go.

I’m not giving it all up for the saffron robes, but I am fond of the Buddhist quality of equanimity, that ability to not be so attached to outcomes, but rather better set in the moment. Equanimity in itself isn’t a boundary, but rather a clear, intentional perspective that I can use to establish my own ‘emotional ha ha.’ I don’t want to avoid anyone, but I want the ability to be able to pause during a conversation and with curiosity and compassion, offer my true perspective on any less-than-stellar behaviour or comment. Being kind doesn’t mean being a sucker. Standing up for oneself is healthy, shows character, and backbone, and for God’s sake some self-respect. Parents are charged with instilling this in their children, but I’ll take it now–better late than never. It wouldn’t have taken much for me to have responded to the woman with, “Sorry, what was that word just there?” I wouldn’t say it with a confrontational tone; curiosity has more power. Of course, the phrase, “Get the hell off of my lawn” comes to mind too. I am so far from perfect. Ha ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha.