For several years, our family lived in a small village on a island in the South Pacific. One of the things that everybody there knew how to do really well was use a knife. A big machete. A bush knife. A bush knife is an all purpose tool. You clear your garden with it. You dig up taro with it. You shave kindling for a fire with it. You smack open a coconut with it. As long as you have a bush knife, you'll never go hungry. It's like having your own fast-food restaurant along.
Learning to use a knife starts early. Babies often have their own knife. (It's a butter knife, but still. You could poke an eye out with that thing.) Hacking at tree roots with a paring knife is a common hobby for toddlers. And it's normal to come upon 40 or 50 kids mowing the school soccer field by swinging their 40 or 50 bush knives all at once. By the time these folks reach adulthood, they are knife experts.
Now I didn't grow up needing a bush knife in my life, and my knife education had stalled out somewhere around the chef's knife. So when I arrived in the South Pacific in my mid-20's, I had the approximate knife skills of a 3 year old.
Of course everyone assumed I would know how to use a bush knife. Every adult does.
But after that first trip up to the garden with the women, the one where I was trying to dig up a taro and nearly cut off my thumb, the light quickly dawned. They knew they had a real incompetent on their hands. A knife moron, if you wanted to get mean about it. The next time I was headed out to the garden with someone, this is the advice that rang out along the path behind us: "Don't let her carry the knife!"
I was thinking about that this week because we talked about boundaries in our parenting class. I was thinking that sometimes we just don't get to use boundaries early and often enough to get competent. If we grow up in a family that's boundary challenged, we just don't develop the capacity to manage our own emotions well. Maybe somebody else always carried the knife for us. Maybe we had to carry theirs. Either way, we didn't learn to manage our own stuff.
I think that sneaking sense of emotional incapacity is what keeps us in bad relationships and situations. Some of us think we can't take care of ourselves, so we end up playing the victim role over and over in life. Always needing somebody bigger, smarter, stronger. Some of us get worried that others can't take care of themselves, so we end up as the rescuer. And some of us switch those roles back and forth, back and forth. A victim in some places, a rescuer in others, but always tied into the drama.
We end up blaming everybody else for making us feel sad or mad or scared. It's Wall Street! It's Mitt Romney! It's my job! It's the kids!
No. It's me. I don't know how to take care of myself very well.
When the exhaustion and the frustration and the depression finally get to us, and we realize what we're doing--that's a good, good day. Because it's never too late for us to get out a baby butter knife and say, "No, thank you." Or, "I already have plans for that day." Or even, "I can't stay here any more."