Yet Another Lesson in Slowing Down

Terry Lieb Learning from Failure, Mindfulness 2 Comments

I spend a lot of time observing the amazing variety of flora and fauna from my back patio. I feel close to God while experiencing nature, and I often see something in the way an animal or even a plant will behave that I can apply to my own life. Recently I had occasion to take a lesson from my own responses to some of my backyard neighbors.

For several years a pair of my feathered friends had been building a nest on top of our ceiling light on the covered patio. I suspect they saw it as a safe, out-of-the-weather spot, with possibly even some extra warmth to help hatch their eggs. The piece they didn’t figure into their decision was how their poop— a lot for two rather small birds! —would make a huge mess on our patio pavers. Not a ton of fun to scrub off on a regular basis!

This year I decided to prevent them from building on the light. I took a small piece of aluminum gutter guard and secured it to the top of the light with some quick ties. Problem solved! I congratulated myself on my ingenuity.

Then one day I noticed a nest behind the gutter guard! They’d found a way to squeeze between the top of my amazing invention and the ceiling. In fact, my ingenious addition unintentionally made their nest even more secure than before! Frustrated, I decided to get rid of the nest to encourage them to build elsewhere before the ladybird laid her eggs. I removed my “amazing” preventative contraption and threw the nest out into the yard.

nestAs it landed on the ground, I noticed what appeared to be eggs rolling out of the nest. I immediately felt awful. I climbed down from the stepladder and took a closer look at what I had done. One egg was still in the nest and two were beside it on the grass. I quickly decided to put the eggs back in the nest and place it back on the light.

Unfortunately, when I went to return the eggs to the nest the shells were so soft that they immediately broke when I tried to pick them up. Now the guilt set in! If only I had checked the nest first, I would have left it as it was! One of the parents landed on the back of one of the rockers on our patio and stared at me in apparent disbelief. Its expression seemed to say, what on earth did you do?

I sat down in the other rocker to reflect on what had just happened and a similar situation that I’d recently experienced popped into my mind. Just a few weeks earlier as I was getting wood to start the woodstove, I noticed a section of a snake’s body between two logs. We have a lot of snakes on our property, mostly garter, ringneck, and an occasional black snake. In general, I never kill snakes since most are harmless and they are excellent at keeping field mice under control. However, this particular snake had markings that appeared to me as being very similar to a copperhead.

The copperhead snake is quite poisonous, but I had never seen one on our property. I couldn’t see the snake’s head which would have been a clear identifier. I became fearful that at some point in the future I could reach into the woodpile without seeing the snake and get bitten. Even more frightening for me was the thought of our grandsons being bitten while playing around the woodpile and feeling I would be somewhat responsible.

snakeWithout taking the time to punch up a picture on my cell phone to double-check the markings I took a shovel and basically cut the snake in half where part of the body was visible.  As I carefully pulled the snake from between the logs, I immediately realized it did not have a triangular head or slit-shaped pupils! A very easy and quick check on my phone app clearly identified a non-poisonous rat snake. A snake I would have loved to provide housing for in my wood piles where field mice are too plentiful! This time it was clearly fear rather than frustration that drove my reaction and caused me to react too quickly. But again, I was left with regret and guilt.

Incidents like these have plagued me throughout my life, probably more than most people. About 40 years ago, an older and very experienced psychologist who I had hired as an independent contractor treated me to lunch one afternoon. She said, “I have a diagnosis for you; do you want me to tell you now or do you want to do the testing and have me tell you later?” Not having the pleasure of knowing her, you can’t fully appreciate her blunt, no-nonsense style! Actually, she is 97 years young and still kicking…anyone who gives her grief, that is!

I chose the first option.

“I trust you have self-observed that you struggle to sit still, have difficulty in focusing, and tend to be impulsive,” she said. “I am about 98% sure you are on the high end of the ADHD scale.”

Although I’m not big on labels, which I often find to be limiting and unhelpful, one of the reasons I hired her was her excellent diagnostic ability, so I had to take what she said seriously. And at least an ADHD label was better than the several less-than-flattering labels that teachers and others had applied to my behavior over the years (none of which would be appropriate to repeat here)!

I gradually began accepting and integrating her diagnosis and opening up to how my impulsivity served (or more often, didn’t serve) me. I started to see how I had made hasty purchases and investments, jumped into ill-advised relationships, and been too quick to confront people, sometimes leading to fractured relationships and even occasionally physical conflicts.

Once I stopped justifying my instinctive, “off-the-cuff” behavior based on the times it did work out well, I could see how it was negatively impacting my life in a variety of ways. I began making a concerted effort to step back and give myself space from my impulsive decision-making. Since I often couldn’t even see it myself, I incorporated those close to me, enlisting their aid to help identify when I was acting without thinking things through.

I believe I have made notable progress over my lifetime, but it still shows up, especially if driven by some unresolved feelings such as frustration and anger (as with the bird nest) or even fear (the snake). It is upsetting and disappointing that even after so many years and so much work, I still slip up. It’s tempting to berate and denigrate myself or just throw in the towel, but this is where my faith comes into play.

The God I believe in and am getting to know is endlessly patient, forgiving, and merciful. If God can forgive my (many) mistakes, can’t—and shouldn’t—I try to do the same? Instead of beating myself up about my mistake, I tried to see how I could learn from it. Actually, by forgiving myself, I was able to examine my behavior more clearly, identify where I went off the path, and hopefully come up with better alternatives for next time (and there always is a next time!).

patioSure enough, about two weeks after the bird’s nest incident, I woke to find our bird-feeding haven in total disarray. Apparently, a raccoon had torn down the bird feeder, upset my recently planted marigolds, and toppled the birdbath! He (or she) may have thought I put the sunflower seeds out for him, used the marigold planter to get to the bird feeder (which he mistook for a raccoon feeder!), and then utilized the birdbath as a platform to try to reach the suet feeder only to find three different species of woodpeckers had emptied it yesterday!

Two years ago this same masked bandit, or possibly a relative, pulled off a similar performance and I became angry and frustrated, especially since he destroyed our huge climates plant that completely covered the locust pole supporting a hand-crafted wooden bird feeder gifted us by a close friend over 40 years ago. At that time I reverted to traps (which the raccoon was much too smart to fall for) and even considered sending him to “ raccoon heaven”!

That reaction wasn’t successful and left me feeling frustrated and even somewhat guilty. Based on the self-analysis I had done after the egg debacle, I knew I needed to change my response and challenge my creativity to outsmart this ingenious character. After considering the problem from all angles, I came up with a new plan. I moved the birdbath, committed to bringing the hanging feeder in at night, and scattered a few mothballs around the base of the locust pole to hopefully deter our scent-sensitive visitor from his objective.

It’s now been several days since and to my knowledge the raccoon hasn’t returned or if he did he left without rearranging or destroying anything. But regardless of the outcome, I celebrate the fact that I was able to use the nest incident to motivate a different, more considered response in this case. That may seem like a minor win, but it’s small victories like this that really matter in a lifelong battle against an ingrained pattern of behavior. I know I haven’t conquered my impulsivity problem for all time (and never will), but I’ll never give up chipping away at it!

 

QUESTIONS FOR DEEPENING THE JOURNEY

  1. Do you ever act prematurely or impulsively, before you have all the relevant facts? What sort of consequences have you experienced from this?
  1. Do emotions like frustration, anger, and fear increase the likelihood you will behave reactively? What could you do to help slow down your response when in an emotionally volatile state?
  1. Sometimes it isn’t emotions but expedience that drives hasty reactions (just want to “get it done”). Do you ever allow yourself to do what is quick and easy even if you know it might harm others?
  1. Are you able to turn mistakes into learning opportunities? What was the last thing you felt guilty about? What did you learn from it?
  1. Do you ever find that feeling guilty or bad about the consequences of your actions gets in the way of examining your behavior objectively? Could self-forgiveness enable you to be more successful in actually acknowledging and changing your behavior?
  1. What lifelong battles do you wage against ingrained patterns or personality traits? How do you feel you are doing in regards to this/these battle(s)?
  1. Are you able to consistently celebrate your victories and progress, even when you occasionally slip up? If not, why and how could you do that better?
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Sue Barron
Sue Barron
June 1, 2022 12:59 pm

What an interesting confession. I totally cannot relate to this myself, but it was fascinating to think about what these situations were like for you. My problem is bossiness. For half my life I did not even realize this! I have worked hard to word things carefully now, and meet halfway with folks. I guess each of us has our traits to work on. I believe God meets us where we are and helps us if we are really trying.

Last edited 1 year ago by Sue Barron
Elsa B Heintzelman
Elsa B Heintzelman
June 1, 2022 6:57 pm

I struggle with my need to appear knowledgeable, “Miss Know It All” in groups, and I realize that I appeared this was just today with a group of retired colleagues. I hope to control that impulse to supply information that no one needs to hear, and to consider my words before jumping into the conversation. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, but I resolve to let it go tonight in prayer! Thanks Terry!