Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Twelve Things I Learned (from My Sponsor)

Definition for the day: IRONY- 3 a (1): incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2): an event or result marked by such incongruity. (source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/irony)

My daughter and I were talking recently about how life seems to be almost predictable in its flair for the ironic. It's almost cliché, really. In other words: frustrating as hell. Let me tell you a story about irony.

My sponsor thought that it was ironic for someone with a Master's degree in the "communicative arts," such as myself, to have such a difficult time communicating with loved ones. This was the first pointedly derogatory thing I remember her saying to me, or at least the first time I noticeably took offense at something she said. And I still think it's a misguided thing to say. Now let me tell you why I think it's even worth mentioning.

The first reason is that it's just flat out wrong. Having a degree in literary analysis is almost always a surefire way to appear ridiculously obtuse to the general audience. Some folks start making comments about the vocabulary you use. Some people think you won't be able to relate to "younger students" because that much schooling makes you useless to young people. Others even say things like, "Well, maybe on your 'higher plane of reasoning' that makes sense." And, as a general rule, many people come at you with apprehension due to their own insecurities, usually based on past experiences with merciless English teachers who bled red ink all over their schoolwork. Like those folks, for instance, who, after asking me what I do, make self-effacing comments about watching their grammar around me (and it's even worse when there is email correspondence involved). So, you see, right from the get-go, a person with an English degree can be at a severe communicative disadvantage.

The second problem, for me, revolves around the study of rhetoric, Aristotle's idea that understanding one's audience and appealing to the hopes and fears of those listeners, or readers, can provide the well-trained rhetorician with incredible powers of persuasion. Rhetoric is something I honed to a precision (mostly in writing) that surprised even myself at times. A lot of it is intuitive. The rest of it is pure calculation. Have we not heard enough politicians' carefully crafted speeches and debate responses to have that feeling of being manipulated, both emotionally and logically? So, being good at persuading people (or making a solid argument, whether they agree with you or not) isn't always a good thing when it comes to personal relationships. You can acquire a bit of a reputation: "There's no arguing with her." Being as logical as Spock doesn't always make for good communication in a relationship of the heart.

All that is to say that yes, I was very good at rhetoric, but no, I was NOT very good at the language of love. Unfortunately, they don't teach you that in graduate school. And I felt that my sponsor, in pointing out her idea of a discrepancy here, was being unhelpful at best. I certainly didn't ask for a sponsor to treat me like I should already know what it is I was obviously lacking. That sent me straight back to childhood, straight back into pure emotion with no logic to speak of. And that was the beginning of the end of my sponsorship.

I met with my sponsor in person just twice after that, and her style continued to spiral down into the realm of personal attack. At first I thought it must be some kind of "tough love" tactic, holding the mirror so close it hurt to look. And there was a lot of truth coming at me, but there was just too much coming at me. I just sat and listened. And her tone became more and more shrew-like, more abusive, more "you should know better by now." It got to the point where I literally couldn't ask a question about what she was saying or disagree without being accused of "playing the victim." Or she would say, "Well, if you want me to just be warm and fuzzy and agree with you, then you are wasting your time here."

I was trained as a child not to expect warm and fuzzy, so this seemed like a rational thing to say. And by now, I sure knew that I had issues, so here she was, doing me a favor pointing it all out to me over and over again. It wasn't until the final visit that I became conscious of the disparity between why I was there, and what was happening. I felt good about something and she twisted it into some diseased thing. All this time, she'd been talking about loving the child within and finally, here I was, the adult, listening to her abuse that little girl, sounding much worse than my mother ever had. The adult chose to leave. But my sponsor followed me to the door to get one last barb in before I left: "Yeah, go ahead and just add me to the list of people who have victimized you all your life." I knew then that I was lucky to have regained consciousness and found the strength to get up and get out of there. I said, "Ok. Thank you." She might have accused me again of trying to get in the last word by responding at all, but I didn't have to hear it this time.

In my opinion, this situation was mercilessly ironic. I placed my trust in a woman who said she saw herself in me and was sure she could help me because of it. Instead, it seems she saw a little bit too much of herself (or not enough?) and some of her old issues came up as a result. Nobody's perfect, after all. At least, this is the scenario I console myself with since I know she has literally sponsored hundreds of people, with better results than this. Which, I know for a fact because that was one of the things she was trying to shame me with during our final meeting. But, really, the true irony comes from the fact that it was she who taught me to recognize abuse, to recognize the difference between my adult self and my petrified child self, and to tell people who hurt me that I can't be around them. I can thank her for that, now.

As always, trauma brings obvious lessons. But what began as trauma has become much more comical than tragic for the very reason that she had taught me so much about how to look at my life and see the truth of the situation. So, in honor of the helpful relationship that we did share for a short time, I offer another list: twelve things I learned from my sponsor.

Hats off to you, B.W.!

1. Write to know, to discover, yourself.

2. Write from the heart.

3. Be honest, and direct.

4. Commit to reality--to the truth.

5. Respect yourself first.

6. Refuse to play the victim with others.

7. Refuse to play the victim with yourself.

8. Stand up to bullies (even if it means walking away).

9. Ban abusers from your life.

10. Love the child within.

11. Be the adult.

12. Take action.

Ok, one last dose of irony for the road! I'd been working on recognizing the truth of my relationship with my mother. We'd had some serious communicative issues over the past year and were essentially only communicating on a superficial level for birthdays and holidays. Well, like I said, my sponsor's tirade on that last day struck me as so much worse than anything my mom had said that I promptly went home and called Mom. I admitted my fear about talking directly about the issue and said I was ready to hear what she had to say. We said our peace, which was really quite simple. We aren't perfect, but the lines of honest communication are now open. We admitted that we have a tendency in our family to say what we think the other person wants to hear. (Sounds like I first learned a little rhetoric at home!) We promised not to do that anymore, and we agreed that we would accept and encourage the other person in the quest for genuine feelings. In other words, we have given each other permission to be ourselves. And I also forgave anything in the past that I was holding onto...and promised not to use the past against her in an argument. Whew! It was such a relief.

I think my sponsor would be glad to know that I finally took action--even if it did take me a couple of months.

God grant me the Serenity
to Accept the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.

Be well.

© Nicole J. Williams, 2007, all rights reserved.


Camellia said...

My A Course lesson I'm sticking with for a few days: I'm not the victim of the world I see.

So glad you could hear what you needed to hear...both good and not, take the lessons you learned and move on. Super.

Allyn Evans said...

Well said, Nicole. Thanks for sharing.


Kathe Gogolewski said...

Hi Nicole,
Allyn Evans told me about your blog, so here I am. I thought your latest post was a fascinating read, and yes - filled with irony! What's ironic for me is tha I had a discussion today with friends about what it means to be a victim - what the role entails - and one of our group recommended that we visit the website of Izzy Kalman, who addresses the issue of bullies in schools, but the tenets of his philosophy are applicable to adults,too. I felt inspired by what I have heard and read about the man and his work, so I'll share his website with you. If you get a chance and are so inclined, hop on over and see what you think:http://www.bullies2buddies.com/

His presentation is kid-like, but don't let that put you off. I understand (from a brilliant man) that Izzy is brilliant. I trust my source. :)

Thanks for the mill-grist!
Kathe Gogolewski

Anonymous said...

Very true. And the serenity prayer gets me through every day.