face – noun | \ˈfās\
: the front part of the head that has the eyes, nose, and mouth on it
: a facial expression
: the way something appears when it is first seen or thought about
On Saturday, I donned exercise pants and t-shirt, laced up my running shoes, and hit the pavement for a 45-minute walk-run in the unseasonable warmth of February. I ran to the bank first, doing my kill-two-birds-with-one-stone plan of taking care of errands while I work out. It’s one of the wonderful benefits of living in the heart of our little city. But once business was taken care of, I spent the next half-hour tooling around the neighborhood, setting mini-goals for myself, like “run until East Street, then you can walk” and “try to make it all around the soccer fields without a break.”
That last one didn’t happen, however, because just as I was about to turn from Wabash onto Coulter Street, a black dog came running towards me. My flight-or-fight instinct started to kick in. I considered sprinting, but I was too tired to outrun him. I thought about taking a defensive stance, though I would be no match for a vicious dog. But when I realized the dog’s owners, also heading my way a good 50 feet behind, seemed to be completely calm, I knew I was in no danger. So as I have been taught, I pulled my fingers into a fist, held my hand palm down toward the dog, and let him give me a good sniff before I looked directly at him. Within seconds, he was nudging my hand for a petting.
“He’s nice,” a trim woman with gray hair called out.
“I figured he must be since you weren’t calling him back,” I said as they came up to us.
“We could have called him, but it wouldn’t do any good,” she explained. “He can’t hear.” The teenaged girl with her stood by quietly, smiling at me and then the dog.
“If he’s like my dog, he thinks everyone in the world exists just to pet him,” I said, and we all laughed.
“Yes, and he thinks all old men are grandpas with treats,” she added.
“I’m sure a lot of the old men would like a dog to give treats to,” I said, as the dog took off down the sidewalk. “Well, have a good day.”
“You too,” she said, and we headed off in our separate directions.
Fight or flight might be our instinct in uncertainty or danger, but what if every time we ran away or held up our fists (rather than extending them) we actually missed an opportunity to connect with another person (or dog, as the case may be). What if fight and flight are just two of the options? What if, instead, we decided to face our enemies?
The next day before church, I decided to make the boys and Steve a nice breakfast. So, I fried strips of bread soaked in egg for French toast sticks, and I peeled and shredded potatoes to make hash browns. Just before I served up the food, I was rinsing out the egg bowl and noticed a backflow into the sink with pieces of potato floating in a pool of grimy water. I went into the living room to get Steve who, after checking out the cesspool in our sink, quickly diagnosed the problem: too many potato peels down the garbage disposal.
I could have just agreed. I should have, in fact. It very likely was the problem. Instead, I blamed myself, allowing the shame of being at fault to cloud my judgment, and fought back with a shallow theory that maybe there was another reason the sink wouldn’t drain. “I put potato peels down the garbage disposal all the time,” I said, far too defensively.
In her book Rising Strong, Brene Brown explains how it’s not just danger or uncertainty that thrusts us into this instinctual response pattern. Shame can do the same thing. “When we experience shame, we are hijacked by the limbic part of the brain that limits our options to ‘fight, flight, or freeze.’ Those survival responses rarely leave room for thought, which is why most of us desperately shift around under the rock, looking for reflexive relief by hiding, blaming or lashing out, or by people pleasing.”
By the time breakfast was over, all was forgiven about my little potato peel outburst. At least as far as Steve was concerned. But though I had stopped fighting him, I hadn’t yet faced myself. Hours later, after we had finished church, gone out to eat, and enjoyed a movie with the boys, we finally made it home. Still in a dress and leggings, I went straight to the kitchen and started pulling out rolls of garbage bags and cans of cleaning supplies from under the sink.
“What are you doing?” Steve asked. We had agreed just to call a plumber on Monday.
“I’m going to try to fix the sink,” I said. I had Googled “how to clear clogged sink drains with a garbage disposal,” and when the baking soda/vinegar solution didn’t work, I was headed for the sink trap. I grabbed a bucket and a giant pipe wrench, but all I really need to turn the plastic slip nuts was a strong grip. I unscrewed one, then the other. And before I was ready, all the grimy water I had run into the sink was now partially in the bowl but mostly all over the floor, the inside of the cabinet, and me and my dress and leggings. At first I didn’t see them, as the water spewed all over. But when I turned the trap pipe upside down, a handful of potato pieces fell into the bowl. When I put the plumbing all back together, the water flowed freely.
“You were right,” I said to Steve, who was walking me through the process. With his knee brace and crutch, there was no way he could climb under the sink himself. “I’m sorry,” he replied, meaning it.
“Many of us will spend our entire lives trying to slog through the shame swampland to get to a place where we can give ourselves permission to both be imperfect and to believe we are enough,” Brown writes. And this time, my swampland felt a little too literal. Maybe being covered in rancid water and pieces of potato were a kind of penance for me. Instead, I’d like to think there was nothing left to do but face my shame in that humble state.
It might be too late to try to alter our fight-or-flight instincts, but we can train ourselves to resist them. If instead we choose to face what’s standing in front of us, even if it’s our own shame, it might just keep us out of the swamp.
What’s YOUR word of the week? Drop it into the comments section, or share it on this week’s Facebook post. If you post about your word on your blog, please slip the link into a comment below so I can stop by and join you.