Who here watched Nickelodeon? Or had a younger sibling that did? I can raise my hands on both counts. (Did you know they’ve changed their logo? Bah! That makes me sad.)

Well, for those of you who didn’t, and because it’s good practice to explain what you’re talking about if you’re going to bother to be writing about it, Nickelodeon was big into sliming people. They’d have kid game shows where green “slime” would get dumped on people. They’d do it at their awards ceremonies. Bright acid green goop. Even when you knew it was coming, you’d still feel that “Awwwww!” feeling every time, probably picturing yourself under the bucket. (As a side note, Heinz and other condiment makers have capitalized on this cool/gross thing and make all sorts of weirdly colored ketchups and what-have-you marketed to kids. I used to think this was sort of amusing and then I started reading about food coloring which of course took all the fun of it away.)

The point is, slime. By virtue of choice (you are competing) or perhaps just by chance – where you happen to be standing (on a podium for an event hosted by people who are known for flinging buckets of goo on folks they are simultaneously honoring with awards), the next thing you know you’re covered in slime.

As I am wont to do, I’ve been thinking a lot lately, searching for a metaphor, and this is the one that came to me. Living in this wonderful and woeful world, there are numerous forces – both big and small – external to yourself over which you have no control, yet which have the power to affect your circumstances. (Thanks for that obvious statement, right? Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.) Here’s what I’ve been thinking about: sometimes it’s tricky to tell which of those things are in fact, externals, and which are part of the machine that is you. An example: when someone sneezes on you and you get a cold, the symptoms of that cold are in many ways your body’s defenses against an intruder (stuffy nose, etc) but while the symptoms can be seen as internal, the cause of the symptoms – that virus or whatever organism it is – is ultimately external to your organism. Some very clever diseases and infections confuse the body so that it fights itself and in that way, go from external to internal. I’m sure the well-read science types will dispute the details, but bear with me as I’m sure you can see the comparison I’m drawing here.

Responses to situations are often emotional. It’s emotional to punch someone in the nose (especially for them) but it’s also a physical action. More often responses begin in the psychological, spiritual, feeling-based realm and if they build up past a certain point (different for everyone, hence the idea of the short fuse, eh?) that’s when you start seeing the left hook.

After a certain point though, like an auto-immune disorder, those feelings can start to turn on themselves and begin attacking their own organism (that’s you).  It’s bad enough to be in a situation where a toxic pattern has been established, but it’s infinitely sadder to think that the toxicity would seep in and corrupt from within. Some may read this and think that’s the only possible outcome, but I disagree. There are boatloads of examples of people who’ve been through truly harrowing experiences and who remain hopeful and cheerful and go on with their life, because they grasped this idea of externality. I create my reality, not you. To get back to my metaphor, you can slime me all day, but I can rinse off the slime, again and again – that slime is not me unless and until I myself convert the slime into slimy feelings.

I review books on food (cookbooks, food histories, commodity studies) and as part of that reading and the personal reading I do that goes along with it, of course I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He says,

If you are what you eat, and especially if you eat industrial food, as 99 percent of Americans do, what you are is corn.

So, emotionally speaking, if you are what you think and feel, and especially if you are in a long-term situation that creates a lot of negative thoughts and feelings, those negative thoughts and feelings become part of you. You – not the person or persons or organization or club or department or gang of ruffians whose actions initiated the negative thoughts and feelings. You. Well, that sucks.

The bottom line, as my mom has been telling me for years:

You can’t change other people.

“But Mom, she…” “You can’t change her. You can only change you.”

Perhaps I wasn’t paying much attention before (sorry, HR types and ombudspersons) but I now see a clear connection between this idea and what they teach you in all those books and classes about conflict management:

“When you do X, I feel Y.”

That is, “I am notifying you that your behavior, which is external to me and over which I have no control, impacts my feelings in the following way.”

“When you ask for my advice and then ignore it, I feel ignored … unappreciated … disrespected … annoyed … hurt … &c.”

“When you lie about what I said, I feel upset … betrayed … angry …”

“When you criticize, I feel … ”

Not letting those “you did X” people entirely off the hook, but so much of the “I feel Y” part originates in our own messy selves. Maybe “I feel Y” is as simple as “You stepped on my foot and now I feel pain in my foot.” Maybe it’s not; maybe I’m always sticking my foot out there and then crying when people step on it. These things have to be sorted through.

However you slice it, I have a long way to go. To be honest, I’d really love to reach the point where I could complete the “I feel …” clause for absolutely any sentence as follows: “I feel compassion, I let the offense drop immediately, I don’t mention it to anyone, and I continue moving forward.”

Sometimes I’ve managed to stick with “I feel disappointed and sorry and it’ll take me some period of time, occasionally measured in hours but sometimes in days (and now and then in weeks), and on a not-so-good day I might have to discuss it with more than one person first to be sure that it’s not me (where on a better day, maybe just one person; and on a good day, nobody at all), but then I’ll forgive you and let it go and I’ll keep doing that until I really forgive you, and most of the time I will have the guts to not avoid you when I run into you, neither will I let you walk all over me. And I’ll do this every single time you do that, and at some point I’ll quit keeping a mental tally.”

Occasionally I think that even better would be, “I feel compassion and I continue moving forward” because that skips the whole bad feelings part – but, one step at a time, and, I’m still on the fence as to whether that’s possible or fully desirable. To be a good citizen of your world, by which I mean your highly localized day-to-day, I think you have to be engaged; if you’re not invested to the degree where you feel the tiny tears in the social fabric, then maybe there are some other things happening with you (c.f. On Being Real – the Cloud of No as moat or buffer). Feeling those little rips doesn’t necessarily mean they have to hurt you, per se – it’s more an issue of being sensitized, I think … ideas growing muddy, so clearly a subject for another post.

But it’s really helping me to think of all those things, those icky hurtful unnecessary tiresome prickly things that come as part of the whole experience of not being solitary, as slime. They’re not me. I can choose how to react to them. I can keep rinsing them away. You could chase a dog around and pour slime on it all day, and that dog is still a dog, and that slime is still just temporarily covering the outside of it until it shakes it off, which it will do over and over if my experience with canines is to be trusted. Leave the slime on long enough without cleaning it off … then you’re maybe dealing with infections and other things that require more wholesale interventions. My happiness, positivity, hopefulness – that slime can’t change that, and it can only cover it up as long as I let it.

Two final points that must also be made:

  • To think you’re going to get through life without some dirt is silly. It’s not a tragedy every time I look at the dust that builds up on the coffee table, I just clean it off (eventually… when there’s company coming) and move on. Recently studies have shown what previous generations took for granted, which is that superclean environments reduce our ability to fight off infections, full stop. So a little dirt is good for you, sort of like weightlifting for your immune system. I am willing (are you surprised!?) to extend this to my metaphor. If you can only be happy in perfect circumstances, that’s not saying much.
  • This principle works in the reverse (ie the positive) too. Not discussing that today, but it is possible to be infiltrated by good things. I recommend it.

Here’s to selective permeability.