Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Shopping rather than doing

During my transition back to my home culture after more than two decades living in a foreign one, I've spent time in three different homes. Two of them, including my current residence, belong to my in-laws. Those two places were decorated by my mother-in-law, who passed away last November.

I didn't know my mother-in-law very well because I had a rocky road with my in-laws in general. I've written here before about their social skills, or lack thereof, and the way in which my fragile esteem was damaged by the way they treated me as if I were a burden or simply invisible shortly after my husband and I started to live together.

Before I get to the meat of this post, I should explain a little about the background of my relationship with this woman. Before we married, my husband lived and worked abroad in Asia for a year while I remained in the north east in the U.S. We conducted a relationship over our year's separation by post. The separation was terribly hard on us and when his contract ended and he finally came home, we were desperate to be together. We knew we'd live in his home state on the west coast, but he was coming in fresh from life abroad with no job or apartment. His family have a very big house and they had a spare room that people slept in on occasion. My husband asked if we could temporarily stay with them until he and I pulled our life together. His parents said, "no".

The main reason for their refusal was my father-in-law didn't trust that my husband would get a job and move out fast enough to suit his desires and he didn't want to face the prospect of an indefinite term in which we would be invading his privacy. This was fair enough. However, when we were offered a room in the home of my husband's best friend's parents' home, my mother-in-law's response was  essentially 'we can't let them do that because it'll make us look bad.' So, they didn't want to offer us a temporary place to stay while we found our footing (finding jobs, getting cars, etc.), but she also was not comfortable with our staying with someone else even though it meant that he and I could be together immediately.

During the time we resided with the friend's family, my husband's mother didn't have much of  a relationship with me beyond occasionally making passive aggressive comments related to our progress in getting out of another party's home. When my husband and I once got some take-out food from a local restaurant, she said, "you won't be able to keep doing that if you don't get a job." She also mentioned that we really should move on and stop inconveniencing his best friend's mother.

My impression of my mother-in-law was that she had little personality aside from that of someone who fretted over all sorts of things, both trivial and large, and a selfish concern for how our actions reflected their lack of generosity toward us. When we made a trip home after a few years in Asia and visited them, she was more preoccupied with our not dirtying anything which her first grandchild might end up crawling on with our clean stocking feet (shoes are taken off at the door) than spending time with her son and daughter-in-law who had not been around for 2 years and were going to go away again in 5 days. Nearly all of my interaction with her was critical or as a third party observer. She had no qualitative relationship with me at all.

I had heard and continue to hear a lot of stories about my mother-in-law from her children. My husband long ago told me about many incidents in which her anxiety and overly cautious nature created problems for him. When he was 12, he told his parents that he could go to an amusement park with other kids if he sold enough papers. When he proceeded to work hard to sell enough, his mother wouldn't allow him to go because she was afraid that something bad would happen if he did and she was unwilling to go along to assuage her fears. She simply exercised her paranoia at his expense.

To her kids, she was responsible for denying them pleasures because she spun unlikely scenarios of doom. Even her husband has told me tales of how she had a great many irrational fears, but he would allow her to dictate that her children live in accord with them while explaining to them that the world wasn't all that dangerous, but it would make their mother feel better if they just did what she wanted.

From my limited (and largely negative, though not horribly so) interactions as well as the multitude of stories I was told and continue to hear, I knew my mother-in-law to be a person who lived captive to her fears and anxiety. Only yesterday, I had a conversation with my sister-in-law in which she told me that she feels that her mother was always passive aggressive with her and that she feels that her mother slowly destroyed herself from the inside out with her emotional problems. She felt that her mother accelerated her decline into dementia and that her lifelong health problems were the result of her inability to come to terms with her panic and anxiety.

I mention all of this because it provides context for the point I'm trying to make. Two of the houses are reflections of this woman. The current place is more her than the other, and it is a very telling situation indeed. This house is liberally peppered with Buddhist paraphernalia. There are no fewer than three Buddha statues, two signs which say "namaste" on them, bells, beads, and copious numbers of books with themes about not sweating small stuff, meditating, relaxing, and finding inner peace. This house is a shrine to a mentality that my mother-in-law never possessed, not for a moment.

I asked my sister-in-law about this contradiction in her mother's personality and the trappings I saw all around me. She told me that they represented what her mother wanted to be, but could never succeed at. No matter how many Buddhas, singing bowls, bells, or books she bought, she couldn't purchase the inner peace she craved.

This situation strongly reminds me of how women approach weight loss. They buy exercise equipment, diet books, packages of diet food, and take part in forums. What they don't do is actually change enough to lose weight and keep it off for good. If throwing money at problems could make them go away, my mother-in-law would have had the inner calm of the Dalai Lama and most fat women in America would be thin.

The problem isn't that people aren't trying, but rather that they spend more effort on the trappings than on the actual work because they think that the trappings are the work.
My mother-in-law's problem wasn't that she didn't try. She went to meditation classes, listened to lots of relaxation tapes, and read about and practiced a variety of techniques to achieve inner calm, but she didn't deal with the core issues. Those were that she was playing fear and anxiety recordings in her brain in a continuous loop. Rather than focus upon finding a way to stop those recordings, she just tried to paper over them with a lifestyle she hoped to emulate. In other words, she tried to fake it until she made it, but faking never resulted in making.

I've written before about rewiring your mind. This is a Herculean mental task which requires millions of adjustments in thinking through time such that you stop going down mental routes that you are comfortable and familiar with. People don't want to do this because it's incredibly hard and taxes the blood glucose in your brain such that you are exhausted. It also forces a complete change in self-definition and an alteration in how you view your identity. Though it is far more effective than trying to buy a lifestyle you want in the hopes that it'll somehow magically replace whatever your problems in your current one are, it's also far less immediately gratifying. I don't know if my mother-in-law could have found some peace had she spent more time trying to stop her worry train before it left the station, but I'm pretty sure that trying would have been better than continually buying Buddhist paraphernalia and scattering it around her home.


Escape Pod said...

What a great analogy! I think most of us shop instead of do in areas of our lives, but I wonder whether we shop because it's easier, or if we shop because it's all we know how to do. Most of us don't know how to go about changing behavior that feels hard-wired into us. I worked with a therapist for awhile, and she wasn't much help with the how either, it was as if understanding why I was doing something was going to magically remove the impulse to do it. That's why I so appreciate the posts you've made on the nuts and bolts of making changes. Thank you for that!

Human In Progress said...

Interesting read, as always. I feel for both this woman (as it sounds like her life couldn't have been too satisfying) and for those that she impacted in a negative way.

I know you are making a broader point about change and default patterns of behavior in this post, but as a fledgling Western Buddhist, I also take this as a cautionary tale. It is indeed easier to buy pretty statues and interesting books than it is to practice mindfulness and/or the dharma as a whole. And there have been days where I felt hopeless and not knowing what to do, ordered books on Buddhism from Amazon! It's not a regular way of coping for me, but it HAS happened and it's something to watch out for.

Thanks for the valuable reminder!

screaming fatgirl said...

Escape Pod: You make a very good and compassionate point. I've been told that people don't find knowing "why" useful and, as you say, it's not the end of the process. It's the beginning of a troubleshooting phase in which the why helps tell you the "how", but it seems many people are never helped with the "how". I think that is because there are a lot of counselors out there, but they operate in the same manner as unskilled artists. They can do something, but they are not gifted at it, so their results are less than impressive. At the risk of being immodest, this is something I am gifted at (and always have been), though I'm also cursed by it.

That being said, my experiences with people are that they don't even want to hear about the "how" in many cases. They're too busy telling me that they can't be helped or that psychology is a crock and we all need to "just do it" or that it is biological determinism. Take a pill, or wait for one to be invented, because that will "work". It's quite disheartening really. It's made me question my desire to go into a helping career and consider just turning to a potentially more profitable skill-oriented field that has nothing to do with psychology for my career in America. I'm on the fence about this at present. I'm applying for jobs outside of psychology right now, and I'm leaving things to some extent in the hands of fate.

Human in Progress: Despite the fact that her actions (unintentionally) damaged me, I feel for her, too. I think she lived life in such a limited fashion and was stuck in some very painful loops. However, I think she was comfortable in them, and never wanted to break out badly enough. This is not a criticism at all. In many ways, I also spent about 15 years or so in a loop of my own and, even now, I wish I was back in my rut as I was "happier" in some ways there than I am now (I still need to write a post about that when I have time). However, ultimately, I think her life got smaller and smaller as a result of staying there and she did not live such a fulfilled existence. Unfortunately, I think that she is not rare.

As you say, sometimes, when we fail, we want to do something, anything, to succeed, and buying something provides a false sense of advancement. When you're dealing with big problems and issues for which concrete improvement is hard to measure, buying something feels like countable progress. I think that's actually okay, as long as it's a temporary release valve that propels you forward and not a pattern of behavior that substitutes for actual improvement.

Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful comments. Both were quite good and made me think more.