I live on a pond. A spring fed, well-behaved stable kind of pond with one outflow near our house. When it rains a lot the pond level rises since the outflow can’t compensate fast enough, and that’s when I start to panic. Since our house is right on the water I fear flooding. Or do I? It would have to rise a biblical amount to flood the house and even in hurricane Irene, we were fine. So why do I get all tense and sleepless? Obviously my overreaction—I would call it terror—is not normal. Then one morning during yoga, a snippet of memory flashed.
I was on my dad’s sailboat and we were heading for Bermuda. A storm was settling on us and I was steering–my dad standing next to me. As it rained harder and the wind picked up, my dad said “I don’t know how much more of this the boat can take.” At his comment, my knees buckled, and it was only my hands and arms gripping the wheel that kept me upright. I thought; if my dad thinks we’re going to sink, we’re going to sink. I’m going to die.
Obviously I didn’t, but it was a fierce storm, made worse by my belief in my dad’s words. Now when it’s raining and the water level rises next to my house, my emotional memory is screaming at me to get this situation under control even as my intellect knows it’s impossible.
How do I sort this out? I think the answer lies in choice. I could blame my father for saying that thing that scared the bejesus out of me and left me with the emotional memory, but I could also choose not to. I could say: I do such-and-such unhealthy behavior because of the way I was brought up. But now I’m fifty-five and an adult, and if I’m still doing that behavior, it’s because I am choosing to.
Acknowledging choice creates space. And creating space gives us some objectivity. There are aspects of my childhood that taught me unhealthy behaviors. But in order to see that I had a choice to be a different person, I had to create space—I had to get away from that ‘normal’ to see other possibilities. It’s like clearing a garden in a tangle of forest. We clear it inch by inch until there’s enough space to realize we can plant what we want rather than accept what is there by default. So that ‘s it. We have choices. Always.