Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lesson from the Farm: Hot Wire

My Dad and me (age 3) on the farm. At a young age, my
sisters and I learned to respect the "hot wire."
Growing up on a small, family farm had its perks. For one, we had our own pony named Butterball. In the summer, there were always fresh tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, okra and blackberries to pick. We had a creek running through the property, which—aside from the occasional Water Moccasin—was a great source of fun. And we got to ride in the back of our Dad's pick-up truck through the cattle pasture. (Ah, the good ol' days before seatbelt laws were enforced!)
   On the downside, the spindly rabbit-ears atop our black-and-white TV set picked up only two stations, NBC and CBS. There were no fast food joints within 10 miles. And, since we had cows on the farm, when you walked through the pasture, you had to be careful where you stepped.. In that way, farm life also afforded many lessons not found in the city. One very important lesson we farm kids learned that our citified counterparts did not was this: Do not grab onto an electric fence wire unless you know (ie: have seen for yourself) that it's turned off.

   Dad contained his small herd of cattle by means of this highly portable, inexpensive and almost invisible fence. When the cows ate down the grass in one part of the pasture, he'd string electric fence around another portion of land and move the cows to a fresh arena. Because we could never be sure where Dad had live-wire strung, we learned to look for the fence, squinting to discern a piece of bright green rubber garden hose strung through the wire as a handle, or by finding the slim metal rebar poles that tethered the fence to the ground.
   Of course, every now and then, I'd forget the pasture change and run smack-dab into the wire and its current. Although not lethal, it was a shock, to say the least.
   The electric wire released a zolt that would deter any critter from rubbing up next to it more than once. But if you happened to be a human critter with hands instead of hooves or paws, and you grabbed the wire full-on, you could not let go of the wire until the circuit was broken. Thankfully, the current wasn't steady. The charge burst on and off so as to limit electrocution. And yes, more than once I grabbed the hot hire thinking it was turned off and met with a jolt of electricity that sent an unpleasant shock up my arm and throughout my body. The voltage wasn't strong enough to cause damage to a kid, but the hurt was sufficient to produce gushes of tears. And for that split second, although I knew the current would break, I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to let go and I'd be trapped there unable to loosen my grip, the electrical current flowing through my body, exposing my very skeleton like a cartoon character with its finger in a socket. Of course, the current did break and I was released. Lesson learned. Or so I thought.
  There are times today when I still feel like that child grabbing onto the hot wire. But now it's an emotional current that I clutch tightly before I realize it's charged. Aversive emotions—fear, anger, loathing, resentment, etc—create an emotional electric fence that, once grasped, can be very hard to let go. When I'm pissed off, it's quite difficult to loosen my grasp. I want to be right. I want to be acknowledged. I want people to do what I want them to do. And I want them to do it RIGHT NOW!
   Only self-awareness and compassion can break the circuit. Self-awareness is the "safety," the circuit breaker, for anger and frustration. When I can allow myself to stop and sit for a moment with my aggression, I can defuse it. But I must be willing to let it go when that moment of neutrality comes along. Because if I don't loosen my grasp, the next jolt of anger-infused electricity will grab hold of me again, just like the electric fence on my Dad's farm.
   It's unpleasant to hold onto the hot wire of anger but sometimes we just can't get free of it. It keeps us transfixed and stuck. We can even grow so accustomed to feeling uncomfortable that the feeling becomes the norm. In other words, sometimes it's hard to know that I'm stuck because being stuck is all (I think) I know.
  But when accomplished, the relief that comes from letting go of anger is as tangible as the relief of letting go of the electric fence. There might be fall-out of tears or upset because I—once again, stupidly—walked right up to the wire and grabbed hold, but the more I learn to be aware of my emotions and the reasons for their existence, the more I see that I do not have to be ruled by these temporary storms of the mind. Awareness is the break I need to get away from that which would destroy me.
   And what is this "awareness"? To me, awareness is the realization that whatever it was that I thought was against me, or holding me back, messing me up, dissing me, keeping me down, may actually be something set out there to protect me—or like my Dad's fence, to keep something else in—rather than to keep me out.
   Awareness is the realization that everything that happens is not "all about me." Awareness is the ability to not take things personally. Awareness is realizing that the offending person (my friend or family member or a total stranger) is completely clueless to what's happening in my head and most-likely didn't intentionally aim to offend me. Awareness is realizing that even if he or she DID intentionally aim to offend me, their action or words are most likely due to factors in his or her life that have nothing to do with me. (This is where compassion comes in.)

The next time you're pissed off or feel that electric jolt begin to flow through you, the next time you feel (in the words of Pema Chodron) that "you're hooked" by anger or resentment or envy. Try to stop the flow of the current by letting go of the thoughts that fuel your crappy mood. Let go of the live wire. Take a breath. Catch yourself. Focus only on the present. Try to see what is happening right now. Become aware. I swear this works.

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