Heaven or Hell: A Matter of Choice

Recently, due to a desire to increase my bank account, I took on employment as a part-time cashier. It is the kind of job I needed: one that could be left behind at the worksite while still giving me time to write and continue seeing my BodyMind clients. I didn’t expect or want much else: it was a means to an end, period. It came as quite a surprise, then, when it started to mirror Robert Fulghum’s book, All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten. And although I really cannot compare cashiering to pre-school there is a similarity in that while the work is seemingly basic, there lies within, like kindergarten, a multitude of universal lessons for self-growth. Here is but one of the things I have learned.

I was serving my umpteenth customer when, between a combination of both of our ignorance, we irritated each other. It doesn’t matter what was the cause but with dual stubbornness we both chose, in that immediate moment, to not remedy the situation— we stayed in our grumpiness. She snarled, I ignored her, she left and the next customer appeared. I looked at this new person. The better part of me wanted to establish a fresh connection. This part wanted to hold open my heart, drink in another experience and savour a bond, however temporary.

Another part, one buried deep within, rebelled against this desire for interconnection. Age-old and bitter in taste, it bore down with heavy hands. It grabbed on to the mood left over from the last encounter and mired me in darkness. It didn’t want to breathe in new air; it just wanted to suck in the noxious fumes of self-righteousness, judgment and self pity. And, weaving its way through the clouds of that soul choking miasma was the pain of guilt.

I do not invest in the doctrine that the customer is always right: rudeness has no play in any human interaction. The problem, however, was not only that I, too, was less than considerate—we were equal opportunists in this dehumanizing exchange—but that within seconds I took on all the blame. Despite the fact that both myself and the customer were in the wrong, guilt for the failed encounter laid heavy upon me. It inverted my anger until all fingers pointed at me: it was my fault the connection had gone awry; I was wrong.

Hanging on to guilt, taking too much responsibility and indulging in self recriminations are part and parcel of codependent behaviour. Seductive in nature these behaviours urge you to continue the self-torture; convincingly reassuring you that the pain of failure will only be relieved with self-abnegation. Moreover, they provide the illusion of protection: it is near impossible to open your heart to another when you are closed off behind dark thoughts. It is better to kick yourself first, the purported rationale goes, than risk being kicked by another.

In the past, I was quite adept at hanging on to these soulless thoughts. Even if my role in the purported conflict was insignificant, I could (and did) take on more than my share of responsibility. Remorse could last all day; sometimes many days. But times have changed. It has been easier these past few years to shed the burden of always being wrong. And while I have been more and more on the successful end of this battle, something clicked that day—a visceral shift that left no room for dissension. The boundaries strengthened: I had choice.

I could continue feeling guilty and, consequentially, miss out on creating new connections with the line of customers forming in front of my till. Or, I could just acknowledge my part in the previous transaction, remedy my behaviour and move on. Simple. Time, as clichéd as it sounds, stood still: noises ceased; movement slowed; a choice was to be made… had to be made.

I won’t say it was easy. I won’t even say I did it willingly. A part of me wanted desperately to hang onto the feelings that spoke of my failure. But another customer was before me demanding my attention. I looked at him; I looked within. A wall of my own making stood between us. I made a choice.  It surprised me how well it worked. I opened my heart.

Milton said it best when he gave words to the Archangel Lucifer soon after his fall from Heaven: The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. What matter where, if I be still the same …

Jo-Ann Svensson teaches “Creative Codependence” and is a BodyMind Practitioner.