Earlier today I was mowing and weeding the yard. While doing so I came across a three to four-foot King Snake hanging out in the grass. I didn’t want to hurt it so I nudged it with the wheel of my push mower and it didn’t move. I bumped it again and the snake curled up into a ball. I was hoping the third time was the charm and tried to get it moving but it wasn’t going anywhere. I then went and grabbed a wooden stake, found the snake still rolled up and not willing to budge. As a last result, I pushed the stake through the center of the ball, picked it up and placed it in another part of the yard where it would be safe. “Sheesh!” I thought to myself. It just had to be difficult.
After getting back to my mowing I thought about the defensive behavior of the snake. It wasn’t helpful for it or me. I reflected on my defensive behaviors and unhelpful coping skills. As someone who deals with mental illness, I know first hand what a sense of being in danger, uncertain, threatened can do. It can cause me to make a bad decision, seize up, pull myself into an emotional ball and try to keep the danger out. Most times it doesn’t work but, like the snake, its instinct.
I know if I would’ve been able to communicate with the reptile I would’ve explained it needed to move for its own safety. If it was left alone eventually the snake would relax and be able to go on its way. When people fight, flight or freeze when we try to help our intention doesn’t matter. What matters is understanding and adapting our help to meet the needs of the other.
On Saturday, while burning some debris in the yard, I went to grab a stick which was near the fire but not burning. My intention was to put it in a more advantageous position. However, as I grabbed the still cool end of the stick a single burning piece of ash fell right where I placed my thumb. I quickly dropped the stick and began shaking my whole hand the way someone does when they burn themselves. For the past several days I have had a reminder of the encounter, a blister on my right thumb.
The blister is a reminder of the randomness of life. A second earlier or later and I probably wouldn’t have burned myself. In the same way, we often see the haphazard events of our lives. A moment before or after and there’s no car accident or more or fewer injuries in it. A doctor’s appointment a month or two earlier or later and a disease is detected or too far advanced to undergo treatments. A moment premature or delayed and we miss a relationship we cherish or disdain.
Whatever life brings our way there are remains that stay with us. Whether positive or negative who can tell? The most we can do is be aware, open to new experiences and cautiously protecting our souls.
One of the images I like to use with the men I work with is an illustration about a sponge soaked in water.
If I were to go to a store, find the kitchen aisle, and buy a pack of sponges, I could take them home to use as I see fit. If I opened the packaging, took out one sponge and if my kitchen sink was clean I could fill it up with water, take the sponge which had never been used, ball it up in my hand, plunge it in the water, let it go and it would soak up clean water. If I then retrieved another sponge from the packaging, took it outside, found a mud puddle, balled up the sponge in my hand, plunged it in the murky water, let it go, it would soak up dirty water. The sponge isn’t the difference, it’s the water.
It’s similar to our lives. We are mostly products of where we came from, where we are, and where we are going. If our intentions are good and our hearts are pure most likely we will produce good results and our minds and spirits will be at peace. If, however, our hearts and intentions are selfish we will have no peace and wreak havoc on the lives of others.
What is self-awareness? My favorite quote from Aristotle; “The mark of a wise mind is the ability to think a thought without believing it to be true.” The idea is that just because a thought pops into our minds or we’ve been convinced of a thought most of our lives doesn’t necessarily make it true or real.
The problem is that few people arrive at this level of self-awareness. Few question their beliefs, convictions, and paradigms of how life should be, how it’s supposed to work. In fact, for most, it’s the opposite. There’s never a question about themselves and how they came to think the thoughts, do the deeds, be the person in the mirror.
The most important journey each of us takes is the journey within. Knowing ourselves, accepting our prejudices, biases, preferences, and understanding how they make us unique and how they set us apart from others.
A wisdom proverb states; “What annoys you about others reveals the character within you.” The path to self-awareness is first setting aside your preconceptions about everything and allowing the world to just “be“. Each experience, moment, lifetime is a once in an eternity expression of the universe and it’s Creator. Allowing it to make its impression upon you instead of charging into it wanting to put your stamp on it is the first steps into a larger world and a deeper self.