Saturday, February 16, 2008

A story and comments on "The Three Little Men in the Woods"

Did you notice a theme last week? I was writing about holding silent and then jumped the gun on some blog posts. A synchronicity?

(If you don’t believe in
synchronicities, that’s ok, consider this an apophenia moment).

I’ve been reading “The Three Little Men in the Woods” and trying to find a modern parallel. Found one in my experience at work yesterday. Weird. Another synchronicity?

If you want to read the fairy tale first,
here it is.

Here’s my story.

I’ve spent most of my life in counter-cultural work (massage therapist, theatre director) or freelance, office-free positions (massage therapist, part-time college professor). My new job involves office work, and all the politics and personalities of a bureaucracy. Now, if I had to be in my windowless office full time, I’d be unhappy. But I’m blessed to be able to work half-time, and I find this new environment fascinating. I’m especially intrigued by the psychological/emotional churnings beneath serene surfaces.

When I walk through the corridors and cubicles of my new world, I visualize a minefield or the dark woods featured in many fairy tales. As a newbie, I cannot know of all the previous in-fighting or schemes between co-workers. My strategy is to listen well and watch for clues.

Perhaps it’s because of my previous travails, or my ego isn’t as involved in this work; whatever the reason, I have felt myself “centered” at work. When colleagues ignore a request or send me a cryptic email, I’ve been skillful at getting them to talk to me and express their fears. Because I’m generally happy and confident in this place, I can extend kindness. Without fail, when I offer a friendly response, I’ve seen my co-workers’ anger or defensiveness melt away.

Yesterday, however, I was the angry worker. “Betsy” was supposed to help me prepare some documents for publication. I had pressing deadlines and it seemed (to me) that she was passing the buck and doing little to help me. In the past, when faced with such bureaucratic tangles, I would trust that my colleagues were working with me. That trust in their good intentions brought out their best and together we maneuvered around obstacles.

But in this case, I deeply resented Betsy and her methods. I tried calling her but she wouldn’t answer her phone. My anxiety and anger increased and seeped into several emails we exchanged.

Before sending another frantic note, I called again. Betsy answered.

“I’m freaking out,” I said.

“You want to come down and look at the proofs I printed for you?” Betsy’s voice didn’t betray an emotion.

“No, I’m freaking out, can we just send them to the printer?”

“You don’t want to look at the proofs?” Betsy asked.

(This had been my passive-aggressive request—asking Betsy to quickly print another set of drafts for me.)

“No. They’re ok. I don’t want to take any more time.”

Betsy told me to email her the request.

“Ok, I’ll do that right now.”

I hung up. What had happened? Our contact had been brief but my impatience was palpable. I’d become possessed by some hysteric. Would I become the talk of the marketing department? Dana, my office-mate pursed her lips.

“You need to be careful to keep on their good side,” she murmured.

Crap. Have I screwed up this important contact? I was mortified but tried to stay positive. In the evening, I retold the saga to my hubby. This morning I read “The Three Little Men in the Woods.”

Like the hero in the story, I have had a cycle of good deeds. My kindnesses have produced more kindness in others and my mouth has been “dropping gold coins.” Feeling centered, I’ve been able to offer good judgment and well-timed words.

But there is another part of my psyche that got triggered by Betsy. Overtaken by the evil stepmother (my negative affect, or “complex”) my “Queen-self” is replaced by this other part of my personality. (Have you had this experience and wondered, “who was that person inhabiting my body?”)

Luckily, as in the story, the Queen isn’t completely gone, she’s regressed to an animal that swims in waters (the emotions). Claiming my own emotional reality (“I’m freaking out”) is the best I can do with a negative affect. Using “I” statements is often the only tool I have to get me across these rough waters.

Of course, Betsy didn’t see the Queen-in-me, just a frantic duck in the water, but that’s the best I could muster. And owning “my stuff” meant less harm to our relationship.

I thought of the encounter throughout the day. It wasn’t until later, in retelling the story, that I realized my own shadow connection to Betsy (we share a “lazy” quality that I hate). This is probably why she triggered me. Laboring at this new understanding is like waving a sword of discrimination over the duck. By working at self-knowledge, I can regain my regal center and communicate with more grace.

And what about the title? Who are the three little men? While Jung might not agree, I see them as symbols of the Higher Self—a Trinity-God within who sets in motion the rewards and punishments we internally seek.

The final image of the story is fierce and one that I’ve read in other tales. To be trapped in a small barrel filled with nails reminds me of being trapped in our own tiny perspectives and tortured by my own projections and complexes.

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