That Time You Brought Down the Big Top—Confronting the elephants in our daily circus

Updated: Jan 8

1/7/2020

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I’ve had this horrible cough for about six weeks now. It began as a rather sticky cough—not dry, but also not terribly productive, a pointless cough that was bothersome. Then it became productive and ultimately acute bronchitis on Christmas Eve Eve. Now, one round of antibiotics and acrid cough syrup later, that nasty cough is stuck to me like last year’s five pounds.


And nasty it is. I sound like I need quarantining, or like Phyllis Diller after an all-nighter, or like that icky toddler no one comes near for fear of the plague. But the thing is, I feel fine. I look healthy, I'm not contagious, and I am anxious to leave my sequester. So yesterday I took a deep breath, coughed up a lung, and went to lunch with friends, willing my wind pipes to behave for two hours. And when they defied me about ten minutes in, I didn’t wait for reactions. I addressed the elephant at the lunch table.


“I know. It sounds disgusting, but I’ve been on antibiotics and I feel great. Supposedly the cough just lingers. Now, what’re we ordering?”


I could have pretended there was no deathly sound emanating from me, but that would have been foolish. The elephant needed a good one punch. And later that night before bed, as I drank my umpteenth cup of lemon zinger with whiskey this holiday break, I realized that coughs are just that--loud, cackling, and unable to ignore. Of course I had to address it. It was courteous. Were it not for the obnoxious grotesque eruption from inside me, I’d have said nothing. But coughs are also unthreatening to relationships, and I had to wonder if inaudible, unseen elephants were present at lunch, would I be as forthcoming?


Hell no.


I have never been one to rally with conflict. For starters, I’m a could’ve said and should’ve said arguer. My recollection of facts and drawing of opinion doesn’t hit my tongue nearly as fast as seasoned arguers achieve. I’m much better in a text or email, when at my leisure I can call to mind my credibility and wit. Second, I’m naturally critical of myself and therefore I’m not prone to high expectations of anyone. I accept another’s explanation as their honest truth. We’re all screw ups trying to figure out life, so why bother making an issue out of something when neither of us is perfect? But mostly, I hate going...there. You know what there is—that dank, awkward place where everything feels distorted. It’s where the way things were can’t continue. It’s mistakes and betrayals and poor choices. It’s where the hurtful words my friend said to me hang out with that money I still owe my cousin from ten years ago. And like any reasonable person, I’m happy ignoring that place even exists.


So, hypothetically, are there elephants I’d need to save a place for at other luncheons? Probably. Would I do anything about it? Probably not.


But let’s face it. Elephants are fat asses. They take up a ton of space and you can’t not see their size. They are there in the thick of it, chomping down, trumpeting, and taking up all the room. But they are also more or less gentler than other creatures. They don’t hunt you down or pounce on you from the brush. You can pet an elephant, ride an elephant, and even train it to do tricks. And in the solitude of my whiskey in my teacup, I asked myself this:


Just how many elephants am I training in my circus?


When I actually thought about it, the answer shocked me. It also depressed me. From tiny elephants to gargantuan pachyderms, under my big top is a small herd. There is unfinished business two decades deep with one person, an unforgotten exchange with another, a spoken insult thought to have vanished with the wind but still resonating, and one very obvious rift. For someone who hates conflict, I sure do seem to harbor negativity. And the weight of such ill feelings made me even more breathless than my lingering bronchitis. What good was it to ignore such resentment and guilt when all it does is obstruct room in which to make my relationships better? I wasn’t a pacifist taking it easy on myself and my relationships. I was a ringmaster of deception.


There would need to be a pen, a pad of paper, and more whiskey to make sense of such a greatest shit show of all time that I just stumbled upon. I acquired said materials and got to the business of sorting elephants. And upon further examination, I realized that nearly all of them were unbeknownst to the other party, leaving me with another super colossal thought:


Am I a big fat elephant?


I do have opinions even if I don’t call them to mind as quickly as others. I am easily offended in some situations even though I am quick to forgive. But when I don’t share my opinion or admit my offense, it’s because I hid it from you--you who sit beside me unaware of the jumbo behemoth between us--and all because my biggest elephant just might be my fear of honesty and how committed to it I must be if I open my mouth and speak the loudest, guttural truths inside me. And why am I so afraid? Perhaps the elephant on the very top, pathetically waving a flag, is my lack of confidence to have authority over myself enough to honor my opinions and my needs.


So where does that leave my herd of pachyderms?


Well, about a quarter in size from where I started. I could go on an elephant-eradicating crusade, demanding apologies and forgiveness, but until I get my circus in shape that would be about as useless as a sticky cough. It would also be a pretty spontaneous stampede as disruptive as my cough. But there are real elephants, taking up all the room between myself and others. They wouldn’t be there if I gave a damn. That’s the thing about elephants. Whether or not you confront their presence depends on how much you care about the relationship. Investing in the bad times to understand one another enough to avoid further bad times is the only way to build the best of times together. But the other thing about elephants is that if only one person cares enough to address them, eventually they squeeze everyone out.


It takes two to push an elephant out of the room.


I know enough to know that I hate the reminder elephants bring to a good gathering. They say an elephant never forgets. How funny then that often we try to forget they exist at all. But they are there—at lunch with friends, holiday dinners, happy hours, staff meetings, and even in our bedrooms. They force us to admit just how dark life can get, how good people can hurt good people, how we can be both victims and aggressors, how scared we are, and how much growth we’ve yet to achieve. They remind us how something that seems strong can be fragile, and that often we are our biggest obstruction to any room.


But like a nasty cough that you can’t unhear, elephants are also productive. And that’s why my final thought as I reached the bottom of my teacup was that maybe these elephants are necessary to our nature of things. Just like Dumbo, we may discover the magic of our true feather, and should we accept the challenge, our authority to break down the circus, pack it up, and send it off to the next town—assuming we acknowledge the circus came to our town at all.