The Law Of Consequences. It sounds so straightforward, reasonable, linear, just, doesn’t it? We like to think it makes sense. We talk of natural consequences, i.e., my kid forgot to turn in his homework, and so he’ll learn responsibility by finding out that means he’ll fail this assignment and get a lower quarter grade. It is comforting to think that the universe apportions out an appropriate result for every wrong choice, exactly calibrated so the individual so afflicted can learn from his/her mistakes.
It so doesn’t work that way. The god of consequences is fickle, unpredictable, inattentive and hyper-focused by turns, and not at all run by the linear thought patterns of which we are so fond.
It is so easy to fall into the trap of measuring our responses by the magnitude of the consequence we have felt, instead of by the mistake we feel we have made. And so consequences can be experienced as terrible, sometimes life-altering punishment (which, in shame and guilt we can feel we deserve) or, if there is no perceivable negative outcome to an action, we can feel justified in what we’ve done since “nothing bad happened”. (This is a common aspect of unexamined privilege: the guy who pushes his unwilling girlfriend to have sex, but doesn’t think it’s a problem, because she doesn’t complain, for example. He’s focused on the outcome he sees rather than the value of consent, and he misses truths about himself and her, as well as the pain he’s caused, as a result.)
In a prior relationship, my boyfriend had a cat I thought was sick. I put all my energy into trying to persuade him to take the cat to the vet; so much so, that it literally didn’t occur to me that I could do it myself. That was a mistake. The ultimate result was that the cat died, despite my trying desperately, via forced feedings and fluid injections, to save his life. The guilt I felt was astronomical. Such pain. And in the extremity of the moment, I turned my mistake into a gigantic crime of moral dimensions, and beat myself up with it. It took me such a long time to grow and move through that. The little cruel god in my head told me, sneering gleefully, that I deserved the pain, because I had done something so stupid and unforgivable. My therapist gave me the gift of seeing how very small that god is, no matter how vindictive, and that I could look beyond it to other realities and other ways of seeing.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t help our children to help themselves, to learn for themselves, to experience and experiment with life, and, so importantly, to allow them to fail, repeatedly. I fail repeatedly in ways large and small. But one thing that I have been learning is that my life doesn’t have to be defined by my failures or my successes. I don’t have to interpret their existence as proof either that I am a Bad Mother, a Bad Person, a criminal deserving of the universe’s retribution, or a Hero, a Special Snowflake, or a model citizen deserving the universe’s praise. The picture is a mixture. It’s complex, multi-faceted, not a matter for measuring and judging.
In fear, in grief, in anger, it is so easy to slide into making judgments about the actions of oneself and of others (particularly those closest to us) based on their perceived consequences. But when we do that we run the risk of not adequately assessing the impact we have and/or that others have on us; and also, of assigning blame and guilt inappropriately rather than viewing people and situations through the lens of compassion and love and looking for positive solutions.
And doing so makes it very hard to tolerate limbo, transition, or uncertainty.
Had I actually had something malignant in my breast last week, I would have assigned greater weight to my procrastination in the matter of scheduling a mammogram. Since it turned out to be nothing, it would also be easy to sweep the experience under the carpet, close my eyes, and pretend nothing had happened. I am going to opt for the middle course, and have a yearly mammogram from here on out. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to learn this lesson without the pain I could have experienced.
Getting older, I have been gradually learning to step back from the, “Well, you should have known/what a stupid mistake; of course x thing happened/I deserved to be punished” responses. I am trying to focus instead on truth, compassion, and understanding as a way to see clearly and act lovingly so as to find positive ways to move forward. It’s a life-long spiritual task. But as I make progress down this road, I start to feel better; at once more accepting of my lack of control, and aware that I have more mastery and choice available to me than I have believed to be true.