Lesson 6 – The Wisdom of Gollum
‘Lesson from the Road’ is a series on the discoveries I made about myself both as a man and husband whilst walking almost 600 kms together with my wife Deborah.
Our journey followed The Way of St Francis, an ancient pilgrims’ route through central Italy. It was a beautiful and uplifting time for both of us. But along with the joy we also experienced tears. As we walked, issues came up I’d never fully addressed and could no longer push away.
I’m glad to say by the end of the pilgrimage, my twenty-five year relationship with Deborah was stronger. These stories from the road recount what I learned on the way. I hope they entertain, illuminate and even help in your relationships with the people you love.
Here is lesson six. Please share it with others who might want to read it.
Walking is a form of therapy. There are few distractions as you trudge down the road for hours on end. As the scenery slowly passes by in front of you, your life passes by inside in much the same way.
One thing I began to notice was how much I talk to myself. It’s as if there’s a conversation going on inside between two quite separate people: ‘me’ (whoever that is!) and a Gollum-like character I never see. He seems to sit just outside my peripheral vision, rendering judgement and opinions on just about everything. And I defend.
One day after a sharp disagreement with my wife, the little guy had the volume turned right up.
‘Nasty Deborah,’ said Gollum, seemingly on my side for a change. ‘Nasty, nasty, nasty. She was so mean to you!’
‘Yes, she was,’ I silently replied. ‘Totally unreasonable. She made me so angry!’
‘You were right,’ he continued. ‘She deserved to cry.’
He got me. I suddenly felt a surge of remorse. What a jerk I’d been!
Gollum then cunningly changed tack.
‘You are the nasty one!’ he cried. ‘Nasty, nasty, nasty. You made her cry!’
‘I know, I know,‘ I said. ‘Shut up about it will you?’
‘You’re cruel,’ he went on. ‘She is your wife. How can you live with yourself?’
And so on it went for kilometres!
Am I crazy or is this normal for at least some people some of the time? To try to make sense of it all I visited Steve, a psychologist I’ve known for many years.
First, he reassured me I’m not crazy. He then had me look at my past to understand why I behave the way I do.
After the death of my mother I was thrust into a role of responsibility at the age of fifteen. I had to be strong for Dad and my three younger brothers. If I fell apart I feared the family might too.
I did such a good job looking composed I can’t recall any adult ever asking how I was doing. That was hard. I wish someone had the insight to realise it was all a pretence.
I just got tougher, concluding if I’m not going to get cared for then no one will.
We had no outlet for our grief at home so there was a lot of conflict amongst the siblings and with Dad. I felt compelled to act as disciplinarian and peace maker.
The end of school was on the horizon and I desperately wanted out the day it was finished. I became an achiever, pushing aside my feelings and the desires of my heart, and trying to looking competent and in control. Weakness and failure repelled me. Gentleness was a luxury. When the pressure was on no one got a break, especially me.
This way of operating did not change much over the ensuing forty years. My harder edges got a bit rounder here and there but looking back at my life this way, I can see why I still react the way I do.
When my wife Deborah gets sick, for example, I have little empathy. Instead I feel like an adolescent, protesting, ‘Who is going to look after me?’
If she makes a trivial error, I criticise her because people shouldn’t make mistakes. If she wants to sleep in on the weekend and walk around all morning in her pyjamas, I get anxious because I think there is too much to do. Sometimes I even make up ‘rules’ I impose on her without consent; for example, if I get up early to exercise so should she.
After each outburst I feel remorse for being so hard. I don’t want to be this way but I do not feel I have much choice. I always end up in an endless loop arguing with Gollum!
The powerful insight from Steve was to give myself a break. While it’s useful to take responsibility for my behaviour, self-condemnation leads nowhere.
So I’ve started some experiments. Like hanging around with Deborah doing nothing. No achieving, no results, no agenda, no schedule. Just chilling. Giving her a hug and getting some in return. Picking a rose from the garden and putting it in a little vase on her bedside table. Laughing at my mistakes. Encouraging her to walk around in pyjamas on the weekend. Maybe even having a nap after lunch.
And just because I can do something, I might even say ‘no’ and trust it will take care of itself.
Gollum seems to be a bit quieter lately.
Have you ever realised just how superior you are to other people? I do, sometimes even with my wife. It’s not a recipe for a success in a relationship! Look out for lesson seven.
I’d love to hear your story and maybe even publish it in an article! Write something, paste it into the Comment box on the Contact page and send it along.