Taking Out the TrashMarch 8th, 2009 at 19:23
Why are some things so simple to explain but so hard to understand? So often I stood in my own way so I failed to see the truth. Something as mundane as being a twelve-year-old tasked by my mother with emptying the kitchen trash can when it was full.
My mom clearly explained the job to me. I should keep an eye on the kitchen trash can, and when it was full I should take it out and dump it in the trash can outside. Pretty simple stuff, right? But invariably the trash in the kitchen would build up to overflowing and my mom would have to remind me to take it out, which I would immediately do. “So what’s the problem?” I thought.
Big problem it turns out! It pains me now to think of how many times my mom explained to me the fundamental difference for proactively taking responsibility for something versus following an immediate order to go do something here and now. Sometimes she delivered the explanation with a nicely modulated voice, but other times, exasperated, she would raise her voice and show her frustration and disappointment. Then I would be angry and feel hurt and not appreciated. But after being on the wrong side of that lecture, when I saw the trash can full again, why did I not just take it out? Waiting again for the reminder that should not have to be given.
The context of course is important here. We were two years out from my mom and dad’s divorce. Their relationship had suffered because my mom liked to deal with issues and feelings directly with what later became known as “I statements”. My dad, on the other hand, struggled with being direct and assertive, but was passive-aggressive instead, and showed his anger not verbally but by some sort of passive resistance to going with the program. When it came to my relationship with my mom, I had learned to be just like my dad, like some junior proxy, continuing his fight with the evil queen of the household. I was mad at her too for the divorce, what she did to both my dad and me, but I was not in touch with my own feelings enough or possessed of enough self-esteem to say so.
It was only several years later after many sessions sitting in the rocking chair in her room as she sat on her bed, sometimes with all the bills spread out over the comforter, sometimes in tears, trying to keep all the balls in the air and make it through another day. I finally began to see her as a human being not unlike myself – struggling, wounded, afraid, longing. This was not an evil queen who had vanquished my dad, but just a former kid like me, grown up for better or for worse.
It was with that realization that I finally got out of my own way and saw the simple truth. What I want to say is, “Mom… I’m so sorry.” But you have to admit that once I did see and understand what was going on I finally started to act. Besides taking out the trash when it was full and before I was told, I took on buying the groceries and taking the dirty clothes to the laundromat. Those chores became my consistent contribution to the household and my ante to win some self-esteem.
Later on, my mom confessed that if she had to do it over again, she would have given my brother and I more chores earlier on. I think she’s right, and I think I made the same mistake with my own kids. So why are some things so simple yet so hard to understand?