Circles and Spirals

“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”

                                                                          –Wendell Berry



In years past when I trained Resident Assistants in preparation for the arrival of first year students in the fall, I would ask them to create a visual model of a welcoming, inclusive community. Invariably, the group would form a circle, holding hands with one another. It provided a wonderful opportunity for discussion, as the model they’d just created was, in fact, closed to new people. The group discussion that followed was always rich and insightful, culminating in some very creative group formations representing community.

In many ways, the image of a closed circle has never really appealed to me as a metaphor. If some circular pattern or concept was needed, I’ve always preferred a spiral because it speaks of ongoing movement, of a future; it can spin upward to represent growth or downward to represent depth. A spiral allows for the concept of coming full circle, without that being an end-point. Yep, I’m all about the spiral.

Except that this week my life has been all about the circle.

Everyone has issues with people in their lives that, for one reason or another, just don’t go well. Contact with that person(s) ends, but messily, with unresolved turmoil or emotion. Moving back to a community in which I lived and interacted for seventeen years meant that I was returning to the vicinity of several such situations and what I perceived as “problematic people” from my past.

I didn’t intend to actively avoid these individuals, but I suspect I’m not that different from others in that I (passively) hoped to not run into them. I’m not proud of that cowardly impulse, but I think it’s a normal, human one. Most of us are cowards when it comes to conflict and discomfort in social interactions. However, as with so many things associated with moving and my new position, it appears that there is a plan other than my own at work in my life. This became apparent as one after another of my so-called “problematic people” walked through the door this week.

What I discovered through these encounters is invaluable. First, I learned that allowing myself to think of individuals as problems stripped them of their humanity. Instead, I had come to see them as one might view characters in an uncomfortable drama – broadly drawn to represent one value, rather than as multi-dimensional beings. Second, casting them in the drama which was held over week-after-week inside my own head meant that neither they nor I were allowed to grow beyond the initial messy turmoil (whatever that was). Third, dramas feed on emotional avoidance – so that the longer these situations remained unresolved, the larger they grew in my reckoning. Over time, interpersonal icky-ness came to be equated in my thinking with insurmountable impediments to forgiveness and healing.

Of course, that was not true. In each case, our encounters were initially awkward – I hadn’t expected them and they had not been prepared for me. But after the first few moments, each of these people I had previously defined as “problems” proved to be generous, good-humored, open, receptive. And I like to think that I mirrored those qualities. By the time we parted company, I no longer feared seeing them again. More important, the arc of negative energy associated with each person was finally closed. Brought full circle.

So this week I’m learning to appreciate the closed circumference of the circle. It doesn’t mean I am done with these individuals – who knows whether we will cross paths again or play a part in one another’s lives at some future point. Completing the circle doesn’t close off the person, it puts a stop to the energy drain of the unresolved drama. It can, in fact, make further connection, even some spiraling together, possible.

Which brings me back to idea that there is a plan other than my own visibly at work in my life. Had I made a plan for this, I certainly wouldn’t have placed several such encounters in close proximity, time-wise. I’d have decided each needed both space and careful engineering. Most likely, I’d have obsessed to the point where authentic connection or response wasn’t possible due to the anxiety and stage-fright I’d have felt. But here’s the thing: these unclosed circles were holding me back from doing the work I feel called to do. They weighed on my confidence, authenticity, full engagement in the present. Now I can leave them where they belong – in the past.

And my “problem people”? They can, once again, be fully human as opposed to one-dimensional characters in my mental melodrama. Their names are off my marquee. I can get back to work, less burdened and distracted, on my spirals.

And for that I am truly, profoundly grateful to The Planner.


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