Many of us experience, from the moment we awake, a background hum of concern—for one thing, for many things, sometimes for everything. It’s as if almost all of life comes wrapped in some sort of concern. The hum has been with us for as long as we can remember and can come to us in various frequencies—a feverish pitch to the faintest of whispers. We might be concerned about being heard or liked, finding the right mate, getting ahead. Here’s a tale of a child’s concern—but one that is by no means exclusive to childhood:
“I had always wanted to be in a club. The first one was founded by my older sister for the sole purpose of letting her friends in and keeping my friends and me out. The clubhouse was our parents’ bridge table, with a bed sheet thrown over it, but no matter. The more exclusive and restricted the membership, the greater our desire to get in. And the more we sought ingress, the greater the power the club held over us. That’s what made a club a club.
“It wasn’t until I kicked and screamed, and my parents intervened, that the sheet finally was lifted and we were admitted to the inner sanctum. Naturally, the moment we were, the club’s exclusivity seemed to evaporate. In fact, it was no longer even a club – just the space under the sheet covering the card table.
“Not much has changed since then. As adults (more or less), we’re enthralled by closed doors and velvet ropes, held at bay by guest-list checkers, gatekeepers and membership committees. What’s the matter with us? Are we social masochists? Is our need to belong so great that it trumps self-respect? Yes, of course! And not just belong, but belong to something just far enough above our regular stations so as to elevate our opinion of ourselves, if not others’.”*
When do these ever-present, never silent concerns begin? With the very early awareness that something can and most likely will go wrong. This awareness arrives early in life, long before we were able to sort out whether having concerns was even valid. When we first thought something might go wrong—whether whatever happened was truly threatening or just apparently so—the world of concerns was born.
This world of concerns finds a welcoming host in us. It takes residence, sets up house, slowly begins to add mass to itself—and becomes something to which we unwittingly pay heed. We even develop a concern for the success of our concerns. Over time, our concerns occur as if they’re just part of who we are— an idiosyncratic part of ourselves, a personality quirk, but for sure something we act as if we’re stuck with, like a genetic or hard-wired trait.
Growing up, like any child, I had my share of concerns. Not about getting into a club under the card table, but about being “better” and doing things more perfectly than my sister. That’s what mattered to me at the time. In the eyes of whoever was looking, I wanted to be seen as the best—at getting good grades, at baking cookies, at whatever I did. I studied books and my peers to learn what I could in order to be perfect, better-than, recognized, and loved. But how perfect I was or wasn’t didn’t occur for me as a concern I was responding to—it was just me being who I was.
Being perfect wasn’t easy. The landscape kept shifting. As life went on, it was harder and harder for me to be perfect. I realized that I wasn’t the most loved sibling, or the only smart girl at school. Eventually the need to be better-than and perfect, day after day, was no longer as enchanting or compelling as it once was. I just wanted to relax and give up the push. Truthfully, I longed to enjoy my sister, watch her excel, be her buddy—but my need to come out ahead took precedence.
Stopping at times like that to question our behavior, yet continuing the behavior, rationalizing and justifying as we go along, seems pretty surprising. Why would we enact behaviors in order to get something we realize we don’t really want or need?
Most in-order-tos are a strategy for dealing with some concern. And often, whatever initiated the concern was so long ago we have no real memory of it. How we responded to what happened back then worked back then, so we carry it forward with no awareness of why or that it’s even an “it”—it’s just how/who we are. As Charles Dickens says, “The forces that affect our lives, the influences that mold and shape us, are often like whispers in a distant room, teasingly indistinct, apprehended only with difficulty.” Yet these whispers, which we can barely apprehend, still have the power to shape our lives today.
When much of what we do is a response in order to deal with some concern, that’s not great news because it’s as if we don’t know or do anything just for itself—and that keeps us from being present. The ultimate kind of bad news, however, is to find out that we will never get enough of whatever it is—honest enough, genuine enough, contributing enough, savvy enough, wise enough—to quell our concerns. If that’s the case, the natural state of being whole and complete cannot happen. In order to deal with, adapt to, and accommodate to that, we put together various ways of being—and there you have it, that’s our life experience. This dynamic occurs over and over, and we keep being driven by it—it comes with the territory of being human.
While we may not have been aware of this dynamic before, now we are. Being aware of what we weren’t aware of, and being responsible for it, leaves us free to choose and free to create possibility. But how do we create new possibilities? In language—it is in language that the power to choose and the power to create possibility reside. Language is far more than just a tool that describes or represents reality. To know the power of language, other than mere words, essentially requires a transformation from knowing ourselves as who we have considered ourselves to be, our identities, to knowing ourselves as our word. With that transformation comes knowing ourselves in a new way, that of honoring our speaking—honoring our word as ourselves. It is in the relationship each of us has to our “word” where the rubber meets the road. If we are willing to honor our word as ourselves, we give our word the power to alter the way life occurs for us.
Being one’s word only exists as a possibility. When we have created a possibility, it’s not something we’re trying to do. Nor is it a matter of in-order-to. Questions like “will it happen or not,” or “do we need to do ‘X’ in-order-to get to ‘Y’,” aren’t really relevant to possibility. When we create a new possibility for ourselves, it does exist. It’s present in the world—not as a physical phenomenon, but as possibility.
* Tom Connor, “No Admittance,” Town & Country, February 2006.