My mother is always complaining that I don’t spend more time with her but when I do all she does is complain anyway. It’s not that I don’t love her because I really do. And I get that she’s had some hard stuff to deal with in life. But I think sometimes she forgets that the violent husband she had was also me and my sister’s violent dad. I know my mom won’t live forever so I do want to spend time with her but what’s the point if she’s just always going on about a marriage from 10 years ago? Is there anything me and my sister could do that would help her not waste the last part of her life?
One of the most challenging aspects to being healthy is watching our loved ones choose to be miserable. Of course they don’t see it as a choice. When you don’t want to listen to her complain your mother thinks you’re not being supportive. She thinks commiseration is connection when really it’s the empathy that creates the connection. Empathy is where we understand the experience of another, commiseration is about pity. In empathy we’re equals in understanding but in commiseration one person is describing suffering and so they are in a state of suffering, while the other person is not describing suffering and so they are not experiencing it. In commiseration there is separation.
Because you don’t view your mother as a beaten and defeated person it is uncomfortable for you to be in the presence of her when that is what she is manifesting. Your discord comes from the differences in the frequencies of your thinking. Keep in mind, your mother can be thinking about a marriage 10 or 20 years in her past or she can be thinking about something that happened earlier this year, this week or even a few hours ago. The principle is the same: if you think it you re-live it and if you re-live the thoughts you will re-live the chemistry and the chemistry creates the emotional experiences that you then translate into the narrative that you habitually use to define “your life.” So it is not only possible to continue to live Then in this Now, in fact that’s what the vast majority of people do. Almost no one lives Now.
Everyone is always time traveling by using their ability to tell themselves stories about themselves. As an example, even you took time you could have spent enjoying and instead you spent it creating your email to me—an experience which required you to re-live your mother’s unpleasant behaviour on previous occasions. Now I understand that you had an objective of increasing your future enjoyment of life so I’m not suggesting you did anything wrong. My point isn’t that you have to choose to live only thinking about the present moment or even that you would always choose pleasant memories. My point is that you will experience whatever you think. The issue isn’t so much about control as it is about understanding. Once we truly understand then we also immediately gain control. Your mother doesn’t need to get happier, she needs to understand.
Your mother’s challenge is that she thinks the collection of narrative stories she tells herself and other people is her history. She thinks that she’s locked-in and that she can’t change her past, and because it was bad that means now has to be bad too. Well that’s incorrect and silly and a waste of your mother’s existence. Every human being will have tragedy in their lives. We can’t see this in most cases. It’s not visible. Half the people your mom is complaining to probably have much harder lives than hers. But she doesn’t ask about that because she’s too busy being in pain. She doesn’t see the pain as being what she’s doing, she believes the pain is somehow connected to her past. But if you ask her how it’s connected, the only thing she’ll be able to do is tell you the narrative of her life again. She’ll think that’s an actual thing but it isn’t. It only lives in her thoughts and her thoughts are malleable and changeable and fleeting and forgetful, so we shouldn’t take them too seriously. Besides, as Alan Watts used to say, “Just as the wake does not move the ship, nor does the past move the present.”
I too hope your mother wakes up before she passes. You’re right that she is surrendering her time on the stage to sit backstage asking for rewrites of scenes already performed. But you can’t awaken for her. About the only thing you can do is model healthy behaviour. When she starts to talk about the past don’t engage with it by trying to talk her out of talking about the past because that’s just another way of talking about the past. Instead change the subject. And when you can’t do that anymore then leave and let her know you’re going to do something enjoyable. Don’t ask questions that lead her towards negative thoughts. Don’t talk about negative things or she’ll draw parallels to her own life. Don’t even discuss yourselves or your lives. Talk about ideas or places or activities but try not to talk about people or make judgments. The rest is up to your mother.
It’s important to remember that learning comes in many forms. Your mother may be precisely what prompts you to read my blog. She might be at the heart of most of your spiritual and psychological growth. I’ve never even been tempted to smoke because my mother was a lifelong smoker who used to trap us in hot cars in the summer and it really got me to hate smoking as a kid. As an adult I realize that those lessons are precisely why I now don’t smoke. Likewise, are you familiar with the idea that your enemies are your teachers? The Dalai Lama talks about how vexatious people are your instructors. By living in the past and creating a negative psychological environment your mother has helped make you aware of your own freedoms in that regard. By grinding against her negativity you are learning more and more about positivity. It’s why I always say, we’re always either benefiting by joy or benefiting by growth.
I didn’t realize those hot sessions in the car were going to pay off big-time so they seemed much worse then than they do now. Hopefully you can come to that realization sooner than I did, and then you can live with gratitude for your mother’s negativity. For like the irritating grain of sand that is the basis of every pearl, her negativity is likely to be the very basis of your own psychological strengths. And such is the Yin and Yang of life.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.