Contemplation on Defense and Openness

As I was driving home from my job where I do social work today, I began to think about what separates people from each other, and how difficult it is to really exist in this culture. Capitalism has such a competitiveness nature to it, that it seems like our only options the majority of the time are to be defensive, and protect our limited resources, or to be offensive, and eliminate that which may threaten it.

There is a lot of stigma around mental illness and addiction. It is often a “me vs. them mentality”, when in actuality, I often believe it is an extreme version of something we all deal with. All of us have coping mechanisms.. ways of protecting ourselves. Sometimes, we do this through habits or behaviors. You learn not to make eye contact on the street, to remain silent when someone accuses you of something or raises their voice around you, to move out of the way when someone is walking in the middle of the sidewalk, to have a glass of wine to help you fall asleep. Or, you raise your voice, you beep your horn at someone who cuts you off, you ball your fists when you hear something you don’t want to hear.

Anger and fear are not isolated from each other, and they’re not necessarily easy to navigate either. It doesn’t quite matter what your mental capacity is or isn’t. We aren’t taught to accept and channel these emotions, we are simply taught to repress them. And when others can’t repress them, we see it as something wrong with them.

Social Work is an interesting field, at least for me. Its like plugging in a part of me that already analyzes, that already exists. When you work with people who supposedly “need” your help, there is a balance of boundaries, of compassion, of understanding. You’re not supposed to be judging or taking things personally, and you’re not in a competition for who is better or worse. You just realize that you’re able to help in some simple ways, and do.

Daily life is not like this. We don’t treat “normal” people with these same standards of compassion and acceptance. Instead we hold them to standards, often those produced by our society, and our personal or religious beliefs. What we don’t allow for, or account for, is the amount of anxiety and stress beneath the surface. If someone comes up to a cash register, and argues with the clerk for 15 minutes about a sale on a product, most of think: Geez. What’s their problem? Can’t they just pay and move out of line?

And yes, market places and other business settings, especially in a corporate and capitalistic environment, are supposed to be removed from emotion, or personal connections. Its more of a “Here is the rule. If I break it, I will give you something. If you break it, you don’t get anything.” Its simple, its impersonal, its general. It provides a barrier and mode of interacting that is most certainly more efficient.

But that’s the thing. That person arguing about that sale might not ever cross our mind again. We had to wait for them, and were bothered by their demands, but unless we’re mentioning it to a friend as something that bothered us, we are not going to put anymore energy into them.

But we start to think about what might actually be causing that behavior, things gets complicated. Perhaps they have trust issues from bad relationships with family or friends, perhaps their reading comprehension fell behind in school and they just got by because no one noticed, what if they really don’t have that much money and need the item? Or, even harder to understand, what if they have money, but are afraid to spend it in the fear that they will lose the security that comes with it? It is true that for a person living in the United States, money is power, and security. And power doesn’t necessarily mean influence, it means the ability to survive.

I cannot help but have these thoughts about almost every person I come across who seems disgruntled, or quiet, or a bit loud and pushy, or confused. I want to know why. I want to get to know them so I can speak their language. So I can figure out what they need, and how. I think if we all were able to do more of this, a lot of our problems would be solved. The barriers would come down.

But not at first. No, I do not pretend to dismiss the fact that when the dam is lifted, flooding will ensue. In fact, I think the dam is already bursting at the seams with the amount of anxiety and stress every individual is going through nowadays. “Mental Illness” is only an illustration of that. Its not wrong, and it doesn’t make anyone who suffers from it someone that we should feel superior over, or pity. No, its just a conversation that needs to be had, and some things we can do to interact better with one another.

I dream of a world where we can all be open with each other. I know I personally have a difficult time truly opening myself to anyone, even those closest to me. Peeling layers away reveals more layers, more defenses. But as I slowly undo the layers for myself, and learn to love them, I’m slowly changing the way I’m interacting. To share thoughts about anxiety or other similar matters might seem courageous, but really..I think its just simply necessary. At least, if I want to find some more infinite capacity for love in my heart.

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