How to Build a Thick(er) Skin, Part I

Warning: I am not a guru. I am not perfect. These are just things that I have learned, and figured out– from experience, and derived from the grace of friendship.  There are people of good will who have helped me see these things, such as my husband,  and Taylor Marshall, and countless others over time. This is just stuff I have collected that I hope will be helpful to those I’ve been listening to on the interwebs.

There are so many who suffer from the slings and arrows of our outrageous times– both in the good  and the bad. The wonders of technology– who can argue these are evil? Certainly there are downsides– there are downsides to everything. There are lots of special stresses and new avenues to hostility that are made manifest by abundance itself, as well as the technology that makes it all possible. Sadly we are more lacking in our ability to face those things than ever.

Part I: Why do we need to?

I hope that people who are not writers or Catholics could benefit from some of this rambling. But, my faith is my strength, and has played a large part in my path building my coping skill-set. I was born a sensitive person– and spent a good deal of my life in that space.  I have tried many many things to work with this, including therapy, drugs, and various self help regimens.  There was a great deal that was not helpful– and an alarming array of things that made the problem worse.

The first part is to understand the problem itself, and recognize it as yours. Remember that this tendency DOES has it’s perks. It means you notice things others don’t. It means you have a wider range of experience to work from– but most of those perks are internal, and can themselves work against you.   It has a lot of downsides.  They affect everything– from how I lived to how I voted, to how easy it was to slip into a set of habits that make depression much more problematic. Sensitivity can drive you away from people, and push things out of proportion. If you get benefit from it, you can turn it into an idol, and let it run your life.

When you become a public persona, no matter how small, these things start to crop up more and more, and there is only so much you can do to hide from it.   Before long, you are only hiding from yourself, and all the things you tell yourself. There’s a recipe for depression if I ever heard one.

Back when Andy Warhol (was credited to have) said “everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame” (or words to that effect), he probably didn’t know how right he was. Because the truth is, anyone who says anything on the internet has a drop or two of diluted celebrity. It manifests in the down-sides, first and foremost.

Whining and moaning– or just talking about it, is a temporary fix. While it feels good, relying on this has serious problems as  coping mechanism and social strategy.  This is not to say that you shouldn’t talk about it– but there is a time and a place. Here is where journaling, or rage writing are helpful. But you don’t necessarily want to make a blog post about it, or use this as your primary means of interacting with your friends and neighbors.

Granted, I’m speaking to an American culture, which has both bifurcated, and deteriorated (yes, BOTH sides) over time.  We have lost the courage of our convictions. We have lost our stamina, attention span, and most of all, our toleration for the small things that help friendships and love relationships last.  Because, let’s face it. Those friends whom you love best are the ones who were with you through the hard times, with whom you cried, struggled or suffered. That they were still with you in the end made their presence that much more sweet.

In the mainline culture, we have blurred the lines, debased true friendship, and worship both the sex bond and the associate who doesn’t know TOO much. How ironic when all they have to do is browse FlipBook or Froogle to find out yet another shallow snapshot of who you are. We have even turned the lifelong project of self improvement into a search for gurus and quick fixes– the philosophy of the hour. Understanding yourself and why you do things– and all the while, using an objective yardstick to monitor your progress, is considered not only antiquated and wrong headed, but actively harmful. I’m here to tell you that the opposite is the case.

And self improvement is a powerful aspect to getting a thicker skin. It is not how many people wind up with it– because frankly, most of them were dunked in on the deep end of the acid bath, and adopted it by necessity. The trouble with that approach is that it also comes with it’s own set of blind spots that can sprout barriers to personal, social and spiritual development. There are also those who grew up in a family who consciously worked on developing a healthy attitude in this area. Those are frightfully rare in this day and age.

Theory

Because it seems like cheating to give you a whole blog post (it’s getting long already) without a single facet of a solution to this sticky problem, I’ll mention that I’ve talked about a few already.  That would be faith (note: does not have to be in the form of religion, but it helps), proportionality, and friendship.

I will cover these in more detail in my second post, but I’ll give you a taste right now.  Faith— is about believing. It’s about knowing what you are doing is for something or someone greater than you. I cannot emphasise how important that is.

It is also remarkably illusive at times, which is why Catholics call it a Supernatural virtue. You can’t build it yourself, you cannot entirely hold yourself responsible for it slipping away in dark times. God’s existence isn’t self evident. The value of human life is not self evident. You have to have a set of principles through which to build, toward those ends– that is, leaving yourself open to faith, and developing a stick-to-it ness, through repeated exposure to the ideas that reinforce that faith.

At the same time, this powerful help must be tempered. Faith without humility, without knowing you can be wrong, or how you cannot perfectly match up with your principles, means that you can’t really defend– or even stand– against personal attack. At the base of it, all criticism is about how the ideal never met a reality it couldn’t best.

If you believe you are unassailable, it will leave you vulnerable. This vulnerability is not just an opening to attack, but a tendency to hurt yourself.  It opens the door to to recklessness and poor judgement.

The dangers of arrogance are manifold. Every jab in your direction, every ad hominem attack– especially those that rely on a kernel of truth– will be devastating. The flip side to this problem is the recklessness– believing you are right and can do no wrong not only makes you blind to your own defenses, but also makes it that much harder to evaluate your situation.  In case you are wondering where humility came from, that’s a part of proportionality. These things cannot and will not operate independently.

The second part of proportionality is knowing the truth. What is real. How you relate to that reality. Because yes, the truth hurts. This is why we keep trying to do away with it in modern society. The whole modus operandi of the Spirit of our Age is to provide a panacea against pain. But reality isn’t like that, and we, as humans, weren’t built for that. So much hurt is generated by ignoring these facts– and that is why generating more hurt and drama is a big part of what we do.  Humans don’t feel alive unless something is going on. We will never tolerate a numb stupor unless we are depressed or on drugs.

There are times and moods when we want rest, when we want distance, when we want comfort. That is not the same as numbness. We can get numbness by sitting in a corner and thinking about white paper– or taking  ibuprofen.  What we want is support, and that is where friendship comes into this.  Because friendship is not just about unqualified support, but also about proportionality. When we are too close, too angry, or too defensive, we cannot see clearly. Friends help us to see clearly, or at least, snap us out of our defense mechanisms, and give us the distance to go back to our reason and re evaluate our proportionality, or replenish our faith.

Keeping in mind– friendship is the hardest part of this whole thing. Finding those friends who are both willing and able to be supportive through the rough stuff– and able to make those constructive criticisms that help you with your proportionality– is important.  But, as Jesus said, you have to pull the log out of your own eyes. YOu can’t always rely on others, so prayer, and the study of reason and history help with these sorts of issues.  Nothing helps stability like having a leg to stand on.

For what it’s worth, that’s why the Twelve Step program insists on a Higher Power. You need a friend who is more than human, who can be there even when other people can’t. Because you are a 24 hour 7-day a week project, and no one out there can stand in for that. When I don’t know what to do, I pray. At least half the time it means I keep my mouth shut when I should. More often than I used to, at least.

Stay tuned for Part II!

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