Friday, May 25, 2012

I'm Not You

I haven't been writing here for awhile because the emotional difficulties stemming from my transition from the life I knew in Asia for so long to a "new" life in America have been pretty overwhelming for me. There are many aspects to this transition, but one of them is that I have had to deal with other people in a way that I did not have to for most of my adult life. Specifically, I now have to deal with family in general and my in-laws in particular.

The difficulties I've had have led to self-reflection about what is important to me and why, but also the limits of empathy and the seemingly limitless capacity of people to be self-centered in their thinking. Neither of these are exactly revelations, but personal experience is a powerful reinforcer of such thoughts.

In the place that I'm currently at, a group of islands in which people who are wealthy tend to vacation, I have found it hard to enjoy walking as I did back in the country I lived in in Asia. The reason for this difficulty is multi-fold. One is that the island I'm on is small and carved up into pieces of public and private land such that one can rarely walk far on a hiking trail before encountering a sign saying you cannot go any further or you'll be trespassing. Before I came here, I imagined long walks in nature and escaping the hectic sidewalks and crowds of the metropolis that I had been living in. Now, I find it hard to wander longer than 20 minutes on a nature trail or beach without being road-blocked by private property signs.

Since I grew up very poor, I'll admit that I have a negative reaction to the idea that wealth buys people a piece of the beach such that the public can walk for such a short time before being driven back. There's this huge world of trees, beaches, and natural beauty that someone has laid claim to because they don't want anyone coming within miles of their land. It just seems wrong to me that anyone can possess such things, especially when it isn't being used outside of the most attractive tourist times (the summer).

At any rate, this post isn't about my social views, as I realize that it can be argued that the possession of such property may be as much about protecting the habitats as privacy. This is about how bothered I have been at not being able to walk much here as compared to where I was before. Unless my husband and I walk along a relatively narrow public road with little shoulder and almost no protection from the beating sun and share it with intermittent vehicles passing by, we cannot walk for long before having to turn back. We have tried going to various public parks on this island to find better spaces, but have been stymied again and again by various problems.

On one particular occasion, we planned a trip to a particular park based on web site information and when we arrived, the trail leading to it was a virtual swamp. We tried to walk along the beach, but the stretch that the public had access to was no longer than a 10-minute stroll before we were barred access. Even the road itself dead-ended onto private property. This was extremely frustrating and, for about the third time, we complained about the way in which we couldn't walk anywhere on Facebook.

I need to mention that we are staying in a vacation cabin that is owned by my in-laws and they adore this island. They own two houses on it and have been coming here for more than 20 years. However, when they come here, they spend the vast majority of their time sitting in the cabin and just looking out the window at the view. They watch T.V., use the internet, and go to the tiny local village to shop. Occasionally, they will go crabbing or drive the car to some scenic spot and sit there and look at the view. Most of their time here is spent doing almost nothing different than what they do at home. They just do it with nicer scenery around them.

For my husband and I, this is a nice enough place, and we are grateful to have a place to stay while we work out our lives in America (a sentiment that we have expressed many, many, many times), but this environment is not only sleepy, but practically comatose. We are not the type of people who enjoy sitting around staring out windows looking at the same scenes again and again nor do we see value added to internet use or T.V. watching for having done it in a cabin on an island instead of at home. We are accustomed to a more stimulating existence, and, since I have lost weight, a more active one. We really don't watch much television at all (never did), and that makes up a lot of my in-laws' lives.

You may guess that one of my in-laws, in this case, my father-in-law, took the critical comments about the limits of our ability to walk personally. He was upset and said that he felt we mustn't like it here and his feelings were hurt. It's important to note that this is the only point which we have complained about and has no bearing on our immediate environment. I have also commented on Facebook about how lovely the cabin we are staying in is and my husband has been very positive about the local wildlife. However, my father-in-law was agitated about these repeated complaints.

That being said, my father-in-law has had his complaints about this place as well, and his have a far greater bearing on the immediate environment around the cabin. There is an area at which people practice shooting their guns not too far from the cabin and another at which they ride their dirt bikes. He complained at least 3 times and at great length about the noise from the gunshots. He also talked about how he lobbied to limit their ability to do shooting practice and failed. He went on about these things at length on multiple occasions. My husband and I have never complained about this noise. In fact, each time my father-in-law complained, I said it didn't really bother me at all (nor do the dirt bikes). He has also expressed less than glowing opinions (though not actual complaints) about other aspects of this place (the food at certain restaurants) and has complained about the behavior of some of the neighbors.

So, if my father-in-law has an issue with something on the island which limits his enjoyment of his time here, it does not mean he hates it here. If I have an issue with something on the island which limits my enjoyment of my time here, it means I hate it here and he is personally offended. This hypocrisy illustrates all too well how people expect the world to be processed in the way in which they process it and are confused, upset, or even offended when others perceive things in a different manner. He expects others to emotionally process everything as he does and can't understand why they do not. In fact, when he "had" to tell us how he felt, he said that he just can't understand why anyone would not "love" it here as he does. Well, we aren't him for starters and enjoy different things and are bothered by different things. This is not a rejection of the entire place, but merely the fact that we have different values than someone who prefers to sit around all day doing very little.

Of course, there is more to the story than that. One thing that I learned from this experience is that my complaints weren't merely coming from a sense of frustration and disapproval of people of means hogging up as much land as they could. Walking is much more to me than mere exercise or diversion. If it were merely that, I probably would  not have complained at all.

I realized that walking for me after nearly two decades of being crippled by my body and unable to do so without pain represents my liberation from my former self. It is a demonstration of my success and my hard-earned independence. I need to do it not only to move my body and maintain my health, but also to feel free. I was not so removed from being a person confined in a wheelchair who was able to learn to walk again and I felt as if that ability was being taken away.

For my father-in-law, walking is something he is indifferent toward doing because he has never lost the ability to do it. To him, it's just the lamest, slowest form of exercise and locomotion. It's a diversion he doesn't enjoy. To me, it is the only exercise I am physically capable of doing due to a bad knee and bad back (which don't limit my walking too much, but make more strenuous exercise inadvisable at best and likely dangerous). But, it is much, much more than that, but he never asked why it bothered me. He never asked me about the roots of my feelings. He didn't care about me because he only cares about being him and he didn't realize that I'm not him and may have different feelings and needs.

Unfortunately, I realized that this is only the beginning of what is likely to be a long and difficult adjustment. My husband's family is very insular and much more self-centered than any group of people I have ever known. Their rejection of me when we first married went a long way toward shattering my hard-earned esteem at the end of college and setting me onto the path that got me to nearly 400 lbs. The challenge for me is to maintain a decent relationship with these people, but not allow their selfishness to have a destructive impact on me.

Fortunately, I have insight and my husband sees them for what they are now (he did not before). I know that it is not me. It is them. I don't say that as a way of dismissing them, but merely recognizing that their actions toward me do not reflect my value nor my behavior. They are selfish and ignore other people's needs because they don't know any better. Many of them have mental health issues which are masked or mild enough not to need strong treatment, but present enough to make them, at times, unpleasant to deal with. I didn't realize this before since my husband had praised them so much before I met them, but he was naive (by his own admission) and we see it now. With his support, I hope that I will not be dragged to the head of the same self-destructive path I was at before.

The lesson I would hope readers will take from this, and the one I'm taking as well, is to remember that others will judge you by your actions while letting themselves off the hook for theirs. Others will view the world through their emotional responses while trying to reject the validity of yours. Others will not understand or see why you value things they do not, but that does not mean you should not or are not entitled to value those things (much as they may try to convince you otherwise). Others will react to you based not on your value, but on their own psychological needs. Most people will treat you in a manner which is gratifying for them personally regardless of the effect on you or their relationship to you. They don't do this out of malice or meanness. They do it because they lack awareness.

That means that you have to protect yourself, though it doesn't mean you have to do it in a retaliatory or nasty way. For me, it's going to me structuring interactions and holding back when it comes to my nature. That is a nature in which I try to be kind and helpful to people because that is what I think the world should be like. However, sometimes you can't give of yourself to people who are selfish and clueless. They will take from you with one hand and then slap your face with the other hand because they don't have any idea how to build a relationship. They act on need and lack the reflective capacity to see their own behaviors. Knowing this, I will try to adapt to this situation and not allow it to tear down what I have built for myself after years of hard work. It has not and will not be easy.

1 comment:

Jan said...

Interesting post SFG. Whilst I was reading I thought at least she has the insight to be aware and build appropriate mechanisms in order to deal with the situation. I think that coming home after such a long time away and then to be living in such a place is enough to cause lots of emotional upheavels. Your comments help me to gain some insight to my own family dynamics. I hope the next stage of the plan comes soon and is a much better experience.