Feeling Small

After weeks of conflict with someone I once was close to, something unexpected happened: I saw how a focus on defending myself (or some escalated version of same, such as counter-attack) squeezed my energy down, reduced and compressed it, making me feel smaller. I was surprised to experience this as a sequence of strong physical sensations. As I felt the smallness, I saw how it fueled the urge to push back, leading to escalating responses but with the opposite of the desired effect: I (and likely the other person) each wanted desperately to regain our former stature in the other’s eyes. After a few rounds of combat, chances are we each wanted to regain our former stature in our own eyes, too, but attempts to accomplish this via attack-counter-attack only diminished us both. 

The backlog of accumulated insults from the past few months keeps tugging at my sleeve. In realizing that every response triggered an escalation from the other person, the decision to stop responding was also difficult, as I had created a momentum that kept me hooked on going ‘one more round’ in the vain hope that the other person would finally understand my point of view and change their behavior. 

Logical arguments had no effect. They seldom do in a conflict. Anger toward the other person had no effect, either – on their behavior or my experience, except, perhaps, to make things worse. This time, the undeniable physical sensation of contraction into smallness kept pulling my attention away from my anger until, grudgingly (haha) I saw that, regardless of how strong my personal feelings of hurt and injustice may have been, no amount of arguing reduced that awful, pinched sensation of smallness.  

I come from a conflict-phobic family. Whenever a conflict arises, I often experience a period of slogging, of resentment and struggle and cranky defensiveness – the kind where all seems lost and I care little for the other person’s well-being. It never works to leap frog over being upset in order to reach a state of inner calm and generosity. (Tried that for years).

In this situation, I resented being in the other person’s company even through our virtual similarities. But it was that care-less-ness that created the internal feedback I needed most: that damn sensation of smallness, compression, and the hardened edges necessary to keep the walls up. 

My lack of care for the person who hurt me was uncomfortable, too. Still, I struggled to amputate that part of myself that once cared or might care in the future (unimaginable at the moment) but was only left with the raw flesh of my own exposed wounds. Alas and thank goodness, once that recognition appeared, things began to shift. What followed was a tiny, almost imperceptible flicker of kindness toward myself, too abstract to be anything tangible yet. Time passed. Then a bit of healthy distraction, just enough to allow the kindness to gain a foothold while my mind was on something else, and when I returned my attention to the problem that was a knot in my stomach, I could sense an incremental softening. Though I’m still hurt and angry, I’m also grateful, because as this microscopic shift toward kindness began to take root, there was an accompanying sensation of growing larger than the conflict, larger than my own chaotic emotions. Large enough to contain the conflict in its entirety, including both our strong feelings. Large enough to pique my curiosity. Larger, even, than the vicious attacks still sailing in from the other person. Far more compelling than feeling small.

In addition to all the struggles with the content of the other person’s insults, and the increasing fascination with the unfamiliar physical sensations of contraction and expansion, I also noticed that I couldn’t feel that expansion while clinging to an air of slight (and sometimes grandiose) superiority. The only thing that lifted me out of my own smallness was to extend a calm and inclusive benevolence without prejudice. This began to soften me toward suffering of all kinds by exposing my ill will for what it was: a tear in my own sense of intactness. 

In the body, specialized protein molecules flag unhealthy or invasive cells so that our T-cells can identify and bind to the attacking cells in order to either heal or kill them. I like the idea that our T-cells bind to the attacking cell. It’s another palpable sensation – like a bear hug from someone we trust who sees that we need comforting and refuses to let go until we melt into their embrace. I searched for a way to identify the site of the injury inside myself, so I could summon my psyche’s T-cells to gather ‘round. To my amazement, as the sensation of smallness diminished, I felt myself literally becoming bigger internally. 

If it’s true that a rising tide lifts all boats, then sincerely wishing someone well is that tide, especially when they don’t deserve it. Whether it’s a broken body or a broken heart, healing requires a benevolent community. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by ill will of any kind.  

Liberian peacebuilder Samuel Gbaydee Doe once explained how, in a deeply community-oriented culture like traditional Liberia once was, part of the deeper trauma for all soldiers, especially child soldiers, is their profound sense of disconnection from themselves as well as from their communities. “This is why,” he said, “we must deliberately go into the field and lavish love on those incapable of loving.” 

We already know this, of course - at least in theory. Jesus and Martin Luther King and Gandhi and many others have always told us these things. But how to actually feel it when the hurt and harm are directed at us, or when something or someone precious has been lost? How to cultivate a genuinely loving attitude toward those most damaged, ie those that lash out and destroy most wantonly especially when I feel fully justified, and least inclined to being loving? I had already given up. And then I felt it. 

Even if I never again experience the physical sensations of smallness and expansion, the experience will remain a touchstone. Now that I know it’s possible, I can’t un-know it. Darn! Then again, however we manage to get to a state of benevolence, no matter how arduous or fleeting, it is a contribution in the long run to saving all our asses.