Jigsaw Puzzles & Venn Diagrams
The Flipside of It's Not Personal
In case you missed Friday’s newsletter, I had an unexpected, crazy experience. I went out first thing to do the day’s watering and discovered that someone had stolen a rose bush I had planted and named for my grandma right out of my yard.
I wrote about it on my social media channels and some folks suggested it may have been someone I know since I had posted some lovely pics of the blooms recently. Honestly, I think that’s unlikely. I live on a very public corner. Hundreds of people go by my house every single day. Very occasionally, weird stuff happens because people are acting out. Despite my somewhat public life online, in my day-to-day life, I’m kind of a hermit. I don’t have a lot of people I’m close to, and they tend to be folks who are, like me, trying to show up with integrity for life and their relationships. I haven’t been close to someone passive-aggressive enough for that kind of destruction since I left my marriage, which luckily was a long, long time ago.
The whole episode was a painful, but timely, reminder that when people do us damage it’s never personal. They’re acting out their own stories and we’re collateral damage in their war with themselves. This doesn’t mean they aren’t responsible for what they do. Dealing with the consequences of their emotional flailing’s effect on other people is sometimes the only way folks learn to get beyond their emotional reactivity and consider other people. Regardless of their ability to process consequences, however, remembering that it’s not personal is part of my healing process. It helps get me out of my own reactivity and desires for vengeance or recompense. If I don’t take things personally it’s easier for me to learn and move on.
The flip side of not taking other people personally is what’s really humbling, though. If the role you get cast in other people’s stories isn’t personal, then the role you assign to people in your own stories isn’t personal to them either. There may be aspects of who they are that cause them to slot perfectly into the story you’re telling about your life, often unconsciously, but that doesn’t mean who they are, or were, for you is the entirety of who they are. They aren’t defined by you any more than you are defined by them.
Coming to really understand the two sides of this coin is the main reason why Western romantic mythologies of being completed by someone else, as if I were a jigsaw puzzle created with an essential piece missing, feel so wrong to me. Sure, there are aspects of myself that I can only discover through relationships with others, but they didn’t give those aspects to me. Our connection may have brought out hitherto unknown parts of me, but those parts came from me and they will remain mine after that person is gone. Everything I experience in a relationship is wrapped up in my stories about myself and what I allow myself to have, not what someone else magically puts in my hands.
For me, it’s more of a Venn diagram than a jigsaw puzzle. I am a whole person. You are a whole person. When our lives overlap I may encounter parts of myself I never knew existed before, some of which I enjoy and some of which I find abhorrent, but they’re all mine.
Hopefully, as we get older we get more conscious about what we want and the stories we want to tell. We’re clearer with ourselves and the people in our lives what part we hope they will play so that they get to choose their role on purpose. When things go awry we take responsibility for our own story, and for asking other people to play a part in that story they didn’t choose. If the roles we want each other to play don’t coincide anymore, we openly engage in conversation and growth together or we release each other. We don’t try to coerce or manipulate people into parts they didn’t sign up for.
It’s a messy business, trying to be a whole person in relationship with other whole people. The unexpected happens constantly and we have no control over anything but ourselves. We try to rise up to meet the world as it is with integrity, grace, and compassion. Sometimes we succeed. But when we make mistakes we don’t get to blame them on anyone else. We show up, take responsibility for ourselves, make amends as necessary, and learn, so we can make different mistakes next time.
It’s not happily ever after, but it’s real and true always.
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