There is a goofy cardinal living around here. Almost every day I see this little red guy out by my van. He sits on a rear-view mirror and every so often flies down and flaps menacingly at his mirrored image. He retakes his perch on top of the mirror to rest, but then goes violently against that other bird again over and over. This isn’t my photo, but it’s exactly what my cardinal does. He doesn’t know the fierce bird he sees to be his reflection.
About a year ago I discovered The Work and Byron Katie. If you’re not familiar with it, her book Loving What Is will introduce you to this interesting form of self-discovery and healing. You can also visit her site at thework.com and find videos of Katie doing The Work with a variety of people. What they learn about themselves is nothing short of amazing.
The Work starts with a worksheet (also available to download) in which the participant completes information around a repeated stressful and upsetting circumstance in their life which revolves around a given person. The worksheet urges you to be as petty and nasty as you want to be. This is YOUR work. Let go and have at it. There are sections for you not only to write down what you think about the person but also for you to answer some other questions about it.
Next, select one statement you wrote, ask four questions about it and then turn it around. The first question asks: Is it true? Well, of course it’s true. He never listens to you and it’s driving you crazy. You’ve been living this situation. Then the next question to answer is: Can you absolutely know that it’s true? Sometimes this injects the shadow of the doubt into the equation (as in you’re not in his head so you don’t know if he listens sometimes or not) but most people answer yes, he never listens to me. The next question “How do you react when you believe that thought?” lifts your thought into the realm of the optional. You don’t have to believe that thought but when you do, what happens? He ignores what you say. Stress, upset, anger, frustration? Usually. Which brings you to the final question: Who would you be without that thought? Katie cautions that she’s not asking or telling you to give up the thought—just to think about who would you be without that story you’ve been telling yourself about believing that he never listens to you.
Now, the turn-around. You reformulate the thought in any of several mixtures. For example, the statement “He never listens to me” becomes either “I never listen to him” or maybe “I never listen to me.” What The Work participants always find out is that this statement is surprisingly as true or truer than the first one. This realization can be incredibly tearful and painful, but also gives that person’s recognition the opening necessary to better love themselves—and others.
The Work parallels Matthew 22:39, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” although in a different sense than most people know that verse. This is, of course, The Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. Every child learns that in the sandbox experiments of what happens when I throw sand at Johnnie or grab Susie’s bucket. We learn to treat others well so they will be nice to us.
But there’s another layer to the verse, though, (as is more often the case than not). As The Work demonstrates, you can only love your neighbor insofar as you love yourself. If there are things you like about yourself, you’ll find and love those in the people you associate with. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, whatever qualities of creativity, skill, diligence, persistence and grace they embody are those we see in ourselves. Likewise, or maybe conversely, as the The Work demonstrates, whatever undesirable or distasteful qualities drive us nuts in others, correspond to those traits within ourselves.
The Caruthers’ Corollary to this is—your “neighbor,” your spouse, your child, that guy in the office—they are our living laboratory of mirrors who take the time to be the butt of our angst, all in order to show us where we fall short in loving ourselves. Jesus also comments earlier in Matthew that you might call your brother “Raca,” the term you would use which drew down punishment according to the religious figures of the day, but if you called him “a fool” you risked hell fire. The hell he’s talking about is almost certainly that of self-loathing and the sidecar of separation from God.
To those doing The Work, simply exposing those hidden beliefs to the light of day often not only offers healing to the person, but also allows that painful upsetting situation to just evaporate. There IS no situation once you’ve learned what you need to from it. You no longer believe the lie you were telling yourself about how this other person was making you miserable. It’s over. Of course, if you don’t do The Work or find some other path of understanding how you are thinking about yourself, that coworker/spouse/parent/child/neighbor will find their way into your life again and again in different casting calls. All this also begs the question: Who am I driving nuts today?