My people skills are not great. It doesn’t take much for me to feel like I am under assault. People do extraordinary and often very short sighted things. People are always hustling to do less and get paid more and often they accomplish this not by efficiency but by cheating. Most of this is minor stuff, but I don’t deal with it well.
I balance it all with time in the mountains.
Sometimes there’s not enough mountains to offset the stress of dealing with people. This is one of those weeks. Aside from my runner friends, I just want to escape from everyone.
I’ve written about this a hundred times: as a kid, I had one ambition: to escape. Trains became a fascination. I figured I could cover a lot of ground on a train, and in the vast emptiness of the Canadian Prairie, where you are almost always exposed and there are very few places to hide, covering a lot of ground in a hurry is important.
The forest seemed like a good place to hide, except that there wasn’t anything like a forest where I lived. There were small poplar groves here and there, and I would ride my bike a few miles on gravel country roads to get to one of these groves and just hang out. I’d’ve preferred something denser, with bigger, older, thicker trees, like oak trees maybe, something I could climb up or get deeper into. If someone knew you were in a poplar grove, they would easily find you because there’s no underbrush, and poplars are spindly trees that don’t offer much coverage. If, on the other hand, you were in a thicket, you could find a place to hide, but there were no thickets for thousands of miles, not on the Canadian Prairie.
Essayist Rebecca Solnit has a book called A Field Guide to Getting Lost that really does serve as a field guide to me. In the chapter Open Door, she quotes Jaime de Angulo, who she describes as the “wild Spanish storyteller-anthropologist”. About the Pit Indians of Northern California, de Angulo writes “They say of a certain man ‘He is wandering,’ or ‘He has started to wander.’ It would seem that under certain certain conditions of mental stress an individual finds life in his accustomed surroundings too hard to bear. Such a man starts to wander…The Wanderer, man or woman, shuns camps and villages, remains in the wild, lonely places, on the tops of mountains, in the bottoms of canyons.”
Wandering, says de Angulo, can lead to death, madness, despair, or it may lead to encounters with other powers, provided you get to the remotest places a Wanderer might go. “When you become quite wild, perhaps some of the wild things will come to take a look at you, and one of them might take a fancy to you, not because you are suffering and cold, but simply because he likes your looks. When that happens, the wandering is over and [you become] a shaman.”
Sometimes it’s just not possible to wander.
Sometimes, life and responsibilities and all the things that need doing in the big city feel like a tight leash. This is especially true, for me, if I will need to have meetings.
These days, I have been working on a project that is bringing a lot of change to the way a bunch of people work. They don’t like this, of course. People tend to resist change. People still have this idea that you can unring a bell, return to some magical time in the past when everything was better, except that it probably wasn’t better, and even if it was, it’s gone. Fear combines with nostalgia. This is the foundation of so much of the conservative movement in the United States. And so I have these meetings, and people blame the new system for all their problems, and I struggle not to get hostile because hostile is where I often go when dealing with social situations that make me uncomfortable, and almost all social situations do, especially ones where I think people are scrambling to evade personal responsibility.
There’s a slight detour from the El Prieto trail, and at the end of that detour, painted on an old car hood, is the first portion of the Prayer of Saint Francis. In its entirety, the prayer is this:
St. Francis Prayer
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace! That where there is hatred, I may bring love. That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness. That where there is discord, I may bring harmony. That where there is error, I may bring truth. That where there is doubt, I may bring faith. That where there is despair, I may bring hope. That where there are shadows, I may bring light. That where there is sadness, I may bring joy. Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted. To understand, than to be understood. To love, than to be loved. For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.
Some days, when I know I’ll need to be dealing with people in situations that will be stressful, where people might feel defensive, which means most human interaction, I’ll make sure my morning run includes a stop at this car hood.
I am a staunch Agnostic, which is not the same as being an atheist. Agnostics believe that the the truth value of certain claim, particularly the existence of God, is unknowable. To be an Agnostic is to acknowledge mystery, and to try to learn to find comfort in, or at least not be frightened of, the unknown and the unknowable. It requires a “letting go”, a ceding of the desire to feel in control, because so much of our everyday quest for knowledge is not fueled by a desire to know but a fear of not knowing.
Forget for a moment that it’s a prayer, because it scarcely invokes God. The St. Francis Prayer is a simple guide for living. It says stop being a self centered douche, and then just to be clear about it, it lists all the most common ways we, or at least I, become a self centered douche, and it tells me exactly what contrary action to take.
This is very handy stuff for someone who does not have natural talent when it comes to dealing with others. I’m not really even trainable when it comes to human interaction. I need to read the instruction manual pretty much before any meeting. I need to try to pause each time I’m about to speak and see whether or not my words follow the instructions in that prayer. Even if I really do think I am dealing with incompetence or laziness, and these thoughts are not the result of momentary frustration, (which, in truth, they generally are), is there any benefit to any or all by expressing these thoughts?
The Blue of Distance
In the essay “The Blue of Distance”, Solnit writes that children are seldom interested in distance, only in what is immediately in front of them.
I was an atypical child. I was fascinated by distance. I want to put as much of it as possible between me and you. All that the immediate held was the threat of danger. I learned this lesson immediately. My introduction to humans taught me that they are irrational, that love turns to hatred on a dime, that a caress can turn abruptly into a beating, that people are violently unpredictable and that ultimately, whether they mean it or not, they are dangerous and will cause you great harm.
In the vastness of the prairie, with an unobstructed view to the horizon, the only place safe is beyond the horizon.
In the mountains, it’s easier to find a place to hide.