Sunday, August 7, 2016

8/8/16—Rewriting Our Story

I was watching Shark Tank the other night—a show where entrepreneurs try to get millionaires to partner with them on a business—and there was a little girl on with her dad. She was six years old and, with her dad, invented a paint-on bandage in tones and colorful colors. Personally, I thought it was brilliant. The sharks didn't buy into it, though. 

As I watched them walk away from the sharks after their pitch, I thought how wonderful it was that her dad took her seriously and believed in her so much. I thought, "what an epic adventure they'll both always hold in their memories." I cried because it was beautiful. Then that cry turned into crying for myself because I had nothing like that with my dad. 

The second I had that last thought, however, it was as if someone in the heavens said "wait just one second, missy." Then the canoe trip replayed in my mind. The canoe trip was epic. And it was something just me and my dad shared. 

We didn't set out to have an epic canoe trip that day. My parents were visiting a friend with a house on the Shenandoah River. I was maybe 12...too young to stay at home over night by myself, even with my teenaged brothers around. So it was just the three of us on that trip. 

We put in up-river, up above the rapids. The put-in spot was maybe a 4-7 mile car drive from the friend's house, so we counted on a 2 or 3 hour trip. My mom got in the canoe first. She got in very carefully, as my father had lectured us both on the proper way to get into a canoe. Once seated, she got herself all adjusted...her big straw hat carefully tied beneath her chin, her book at her side and her hands folded on her lap. Then I got in the canoe and carefully took my seat. Then my dad got in the canoe and toppled all of us into the river. 

My mom stood up, maintaining her British dignity as she moved toward shore, soaked and dripping. Without a word, she walked back to the car and drove away. That left just me and my dad. I certainly hadn't planned on being stuck with my dad all day, nor had he planned on being stuck with me. See, my dad, who was such a charming person to strangers, had two modes of conversation with his kids. Either complete silence because he was off in some world you weren't invited into. Or, when he was stressed, terse and brusque. I can't recall ever having many actual conversations with my father. 

So with my only hope for rescue now driving off in the station wagon, my father told me to get back into the canoe, which I did. The first hour or so of the trip was fine. Lazy paddling on calm waters. Then we came to a dam, at which point we got out of the canoe and had to carry the heavy thing all the way around the dam. On the other side of the dam, I was told to get in the canoe as fast as possible because water moccasins were headed right toward me. This, of course, terrified me. And thus the scene was set for phase two of the adventure...the rapids. 

Nobody had prepared me for this. I was in flip flops and shorts, which meant I couldn't get out of the canoe from that point forward because of the sharp rocks. And, as it turns out, 5 miles by car can be 25 miles by river, depending on the river. Any food or water we had went down when my mom got dumped. And, on top of all of that, I was in charge of steering through the rapids. My dad would call out "shoot right" or "shoot left" and I would comply. But it's a well-known fact that my father, who was a navigator in the Air Force, didn't know his right from his left. So I would inevitably do it wrong. This just upped the stress level and, as I said before, he got pissy when he was stressed. 

So hours of intense rapids go by and the sun starts getting lower in the sky and it's clear we're hopelessly lost. My dad kept saying "I'll know when we're a mile or two away because there will be a general store on the right bank." By now we've been on the river 6 hours...twice the amount of time he said we'd be gone. It was clear to me that he finally realized we'd bitten off more than we could chew. And even though I kept asking him to pull over and call for help, we soldiered on. By this time, though, he finally noticed he had a terrified young girl in the canoe that he'd been barking at the entire trip and she was on the verge of a breakdown. So as the sun and all hope began to disappear, he got calmer and kinder. He realized he had to put his own shit aside and be strong for me.

We started our trip at noon. And we finally saw the general store at 8pm. By 9:30, as the last sliver of light left the summer sky, we reached our destination. 

So, as it turns out, I did have an epic experience with my father, one none of my other siblings would ever come close to duplicating. It's a fair bet I'll never do 25 miles of white water canoeing again in my life, so I can now say I've done that. And while neither of us ever would have volunteered to do it alone together, we survived it. And though he never said it, he had to have felt proud (or something) of me because I didn't cry and I gutted it out. I imagine, as a father, he had to swallow hard because he brought a young girl out ill-prepared for the conditions. He miscalculated. He put both of us in danger. He knew it. I knew it. And we never spoke of it. In the end, all we suffered was hunger and sunburn. 

The point of this rather long story is that we have things we tell ourselves that just aren't true. We have stories we make up. As I was watching Shark Tank and crying over the adventure I never had with my father, I was lying to myself. Sure, my adventure was a nightmare...haha. But it was something we survived together. It was a connection. And I saw that my father was fallible. I saw him vulnerable. I saw him, for the only time in my life, having no answer at all...not even a wrong one. I think I saw him scared. A veteran of three wars. A two-star general. Scared and over his head in a situation he couldn't control. 

We have tales of victimhood and woe we tell ourselves and many times they just aren't true. Byron Katie has a series of four questions we should ask ourselves for when we're retelling our stories of woe in our head. And the first one is simply, "is it true?" Very simple, yet very powerful. 

If you use that question responsibly, you're likely to find that everything other people did to you was really something you did to yourself. A mean person didn't make you feel bad about yourself, for example. They didn't tie you down and attach electrodes to you, refusing to let you go until they had scientific proof that you now felt bad about yourself. No. They said something and you chose to feel bad about yourself because of it. 

The same is true for so much of what we mourn in our lives. They're stories that we tell ourselves, but they're not true. Often they're just about us not taking responsibility for our own role or they're about us failing to see the gift hidden within. And while many of us might not have gotten what we wish we would have from loved ones, that's not an excuse for why we haven't given it to ourselves. It's also not an excuse for why we withhold it from others. I would venture to say that many, if not all of my own hard luck stories, aren't entirely true. 

Here are Katie's four questions: 
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely KNOW it's true?
3. How do you react when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without that thought?

Even as I told the story above, you can see beneath it a belief that I wasn't quite loved by my father. But also in the story, you see that's not true. We could have all left with my mother, but he wanted to continue on with me. He was actually open to being told he didn't know his right from his there was some openness there. And when he finally awoke to how scared I was, he softened. I was his little girl. And we shared something that I'm not sure if my other siblings ever got to see...his weakness, his vulnerability, his humanity. Even remembering this trip when I did felt like a message from the other side letting me know he loved me. 

And yet for question's soul wrenching to believe your dad doesn't love you. I would be a different person today if I hadn't held that thought for so much of my life. And at the crux of it all, it just wasn't true. He never said he didn't love me. He never cast me aside. He never rejected me. He just wasn't the warm, affirming father I wished I had. And that's not really his fault now, is it? He met all his own expectations of what a father should be—strong and a provider. That he didn't meet mine begins with my own expectations, includes the fact that I never told him what I needed, and ends with what he was capable of based on what he was given to work with from his parents. He did as much as he knew to do. 

So what story have you been telling yourself? How has it affected your life? And who's fault is it that you chose to tell the story the way you have all these years? How would you be different had you chosen another, more accurate story? Allowing our stories to define who we are when they are, in the end, just stories, is as dangerous and toxic to our happiness as a river full of water moccasins. Best to rewrite the story and just paddle away.