Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Elephant That Followed Me Home

Some people have cats and dogs follow them home. While I have cats and a dog, I picked each of them out and invited them home. They were not strays that followed me home.

Recently, I've come to the conclusion that a stray has followed me home. That might not be completely right. She's followed me not just home but from home to home. She's even followed me across state lines, to camp when I was in college, into graduate school, and on and on.

My stray is an elephant. After all these years, I should probably have a name for her. But I don't. Perhaps I should keep it that way. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, no matter how big she has gotten, I've tried to ignore her, pretend that she wasn't there. Largely, I haven't wanted to admit that she was there.

At least on one hand I have. On the other hand, I think I may have snuck her extra peanuts when the keeper wasn't looking. I've gone back and forth. The problem with that is that it has resulted in intermittent reinforcement. It's when an animal or even a person gets use to being rewarded for a certain behavior. Then, the behavior is asked for but no reward is forthcoming. It happens that way several times. Then, BOOM! The coveted reward is given. Psychologically, intermittent reinforcement is actually stronger than continuous reinforcement. The behavior can be elicited on the hope that a reward is forthcoming.

Many years ago, I heard a story about elephants. Evidently, when circus elephants are very young, a chain is put on their leg. They learn that they cannot break it. As they grow, the chain actually remains the same. As an adult, they could easily break it. But there is the catch. Because they have been conditioned from such a young age, they never realize that they are capable of breaking that chain. They unwittingly stay captive.

That elephant followed me home as early as grade school. I was a shy and socially awkward child. I was aware enough that I didn't have a clue as to how to relate to my peers that at the bus stop, on the bus, and every spare moment in class my nose was buried in a book. That continued into junior high and high school. But it grew.

In grade school, everyone went to lunch as a group. While I might have sat at the end of a table alone, you had to sit and eat. Tables were dismissed from the lunch room to that terrifying playground where I made occasional forays into hop scotch and four square or tag but more often than not, I found a spot to sit and read. In junior high and high school, the social pressure grew. Despite my mother's effort to provide a lunch (and she even asked what kind of sandwich we each wanted), I tossed that brown paper bag lunch rather than face the hostile lunch room territory. I retreated into an ever present book.

The elephant was that I was hopelessly inept at all things social, that no one would ever like me, that I was a loser.

Today, I can go into a restaurant and sit and eat alone. Though, I am typically armed with a book. I don't prefer it, but if I cannot find someone to go with me, I will even brave movies alone. (Too dark for a book there.) Put me in a purely social situation, even something as seemingly benign as church, and I may panic. Sometimes I hide it better than others. Sometimes I don't.

So, this elephant comes into play in two ways. She's followed me home, dogged me through life. (Sorry to mix metaphors or animals words on you, but it fits.) I've kept her fed with things like:

  • What a stupid thing to say.
  • You will never get this.
  • I cannot believe you messed up again.
  • Run, it simply isn't safe!
But maybe even more than that, I've believed that those chains are still there. Sometimes I try to look at truth, the things that God says about me. I am dearly loved child. But I think sometimes I put the emphasis on child rather than dearly loved. And child can offer up a connotation of helpless.

I'm not sure how, but the elephant needs to go. She needs to find a new home. Better yet, send her back from where she came. While she is comforting in her predictability, we would all be better off with her back there.

Not sure how you send an elephant packing, but maybe admitting the elephant is there, is the first step.


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