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When Opposites Collide: Finding Creative Freedom

by Debbie Baker

A recent visit with my 87 year old mother-in-law ended on a tense note because of what I now understand is a polarity between us.  We have had many conversations in the past about how we see things differently; she is inclined to view the world with suspicion and disdain, and while I have my own level of caution and sometimes outright fear, I tend to view the world with hope and trust for our future.  Much of that stems from my relationships with young adults (mostly friends of my two daughters, but also others I have met along the way), and all of the potential I see in their fresh perspectives and surprisingly mature awareness.  

My mom-in-law, on the other hand, feels strongly that young people are clueless, spoiled, “entitled”, and over-indulged. She is inclined to communicate her perspective in a very vitriolic manner, which is grating to me but which I have tolerated out of respect for her age and experience. We have generally avoided conflict in the past because we have “agreed to disagree”; it usually means that I have ended up listening to a bunch of stuff I basically don’t agree with without engaging and providing feedback. She is aware that I don’t agree with her, but she still brings it up.

This last visit, my mom-in-law did not allow me the luxury of not engaging.  The day before she left, she and my husband were sharing their frustration and disgust at all manners of modern life and politics.  I remember observing how my husband, who is not always so negative, easily falls into the family dynamic of feeding his mom’s venom.  Eventually, the conversation got around to “damn kids in college these days, spending more time riding their bikes around and playing than they do studying, and they all expect everything to be handed to them on a ‘silver platter’!”  

I studiously continued to read the newspaper and not engage, but my husband got up to go take care of something and the full force of his mother’s frustration and disdain swung in my direction. I murmured something to the effect that I didn’t agree and would rather not talk about it, but she wouldn’t let it go. So, unfortunately, my attempt at inquiry was filled with impatience when I flung at her: “I do not understand where you get your information from! What you describe is not what I see and I don’t get where you come up with this stuff!” She proceeded to tell me that she “talks to people; my friends and others”, and I shot back: “Are you telling me your friends believe this stuff too?!?” Well, I obviously hit on something, because she started back-peddling like crazy and then switched her message to the one about how grateful she is for her kids and grandkids. Which I believe is what is truly in her heart. So, rather than following through with a compassionate and authentic attempt at some dialogue that could help create a deeper understanding between the two of us, I retreated once again into simply not engaging.

WHAT I HAVE LEARNED:

My mom-in-law and I are having problems managing the polarity between us. Where she feels that young adults (at least a majority of them) are selfish, unaware, “entitled” and greedy; I feel that most young adults show great idealism, promise, and an awareness of abundant potential. What I have come to realize is that my mom-in-law and I share the aspiration of having our beliefs deemed relevant, and a hope for a better future. Conversely, I believe we both wish that our beliefs are not deemed irrelevant and that we are not powerless toward a better future. It was a relief for me to become aware of this; that even though we express ourselves in very different ways we at least have these in common.

Ever since the exchange I have wondered at my decision to not engage, and then my use of a strong Model I tactic to get her to back-off. Upon reflection I think it goes back to my old tendency to avoid conflict. And I realize now that the avoidance stems from a belief that if I do not have the right to ask someone to change their opinion/approach/behavior, then it doesn’t matter what I say and so why then even bother?

The epiphany is that I have practiced protecting my “rightness” through my silence and thereby avoided being challenged or criticized. What’s different this time is that I responded from a position of establishing a boundary instead of letting someone continue to talk over me. Since she was not willing to honor my initial request to not drag me into her conversation, it feels right that I should set a boundary. My attempt was clumsy at best, but it has value in raising the self-awareness that I am at a point in my life where I am willing to do this for myself. I hope that I am able to name that in a more authentic way the next time I get an opportunity.

WHAT I WISH I HAD SAID/DONE:

I wish I had taken a moment to do a check-in and see if there was a healthy way to have the conversation. I wish we had a conversation that would allow me to set my boundary and deepen the understanding between us. A conversation that might have started with my using the polarity mapping:

“Mom, we have already established that we don’t see this the same way and so I wonder why you continue to want to talk about it. I told you I didn’t want to engage in this conversation and I am curious about why you chose not to honor that. I get that you perceive a lack of gratitude and that you feel kids today have it too easy. I assume you would like them to have more respect for authority, and that you feel they should work harder and spend less time goofing around. From your perspective I can see where you might believe the lessons and hardships you have had to endure seem to be negated by young people who have not had the same experiences. You may feel that they disrespect some of your values about power and authority.

Where I feel differently is, I think we need well-educated youth to help shift some of the negativity in our politics and in the workplace. The young adults I have been exposed to have worked very hard to take what they have learned and use it to make a positive difference in the workplace and in their world. I suspect that over time the belief in abundance that many young folks have subscribed to can actually attract more abundance, rather than depleting it. I love the creative thinking that has the potential to change the world in positive ways. And I really respect the kids I know that “get” that life is to be lived, not feared.

What I have concerns about is thinking that perpetuates the old “command and control” paradigm. I hope the next generation will not stay caught in living the values that have been prescribed to them; particularly those that perpetuate the ‘need’ to be a wage slave. My fear is that if we keep believing and doing things in the same old ways it will stifle the creativity required to build a better future. I know I can’t ask you to change your opinion and out of respect for you I won’t do that; but I’m wondering if you might consider that others feel differently. Now that you understand better where I am coming from, maybe that helps?”

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