“Be kind to all you meet, for we are all fighting a hard battle.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke

We cannot always do what we'd like to. We cannot always be who we know we should be.

I haven't posted to the Journey Blog in some while. Considering why, I looked at my life: I have work that I find gratifying, friends and family who keep my little emotional and mental boat afloat, a faith community that welcomes me no matter how long I've been away...and yet, I was suffering.

When you build your life around someone, you risk their growth away from you. You are vulnerable in the best sense. To love a person is to fling your heart into the future, an arrow into the unknown. In my case, the arrows are the two people I gave birth to so long ago. They left me, as they should have, as they were ordained to do. As I taught them to do. Gratified by their accomplishments and collegiate goals, my boys, the center of my universe for twenty-two years, moved away to college. A great space in my life appeared; I'm a single person, so my cats and fish were my only companions after years of happy noise and "Hey, Mommy, guess what?" I was blindsided by loneliness, but I was determined not to fill it with anything. And up came confusion and anger about family of origin issues, questions about the choices I'd made in life and why, the things that were thwarted seemingly by a divine hand, the mistakes and misgivings of an existence governed by doubt and control and rebellion against that control.

To sit with oneself, present and unflinching, is an act of courage, instructive in its painful realizations and the consequent compassion that emerges after enough time and patience. Spectres of the mind, our pasts invite regret and confusion and judgment. They invite preoccupation to the exclusion of all else. But if we look on these challenges with compassion and curiosity, we can find acceptance and forgiveness. The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron believes that we can befriend our uncomfortable feelings, sit with our ill-fitting selves, to come to a peace born of this practice of compassion. It is difficult to invite those uncomfortable feelings to sit with us without our acting on the desire to fix it or run from it, and yet we are called to do that. 

There were many days when it was all I could do to get out of bed, to look at the work my students were doing, to respond to them in a meaningful way. I gradually gave myself permission to get up with the sun, to not try to do too much in the evenings, to be as kind to myself as possible. To release most of the shoulds was a challenge, however. My diet became very simple as I lost interest even in cooking. There was little painting going on and my morning journal entries were efforts to practice gratitude for the good I could still see but couldn't much feel. Once I realized what was happening to me (which took a couple of months of isolation), I could talk about it. I told someone I trust at school, who could relate. I told the boys, and they began to come home, to text, and call more often, as they had no idea what I was going through. I told a few other people, who met me for dinner or came over or simply encouraged me to continue attending to what was happening to me and practicing compassion toward myself.

It took five months to come to terms with all that had emerged in me. I felt like I'd come into the sun again after living in a cave, the shadows of my fears contorted dancers animating its walls. It turns out that this rite of passage was partly about the boys, and partly about something else: my struggle to move past the misperceptions about myself from people who could not see me at all. I emerged with a shaky confidence, a humility born of survival, and a great sadness at the suffering of humanity because we do not understand ourselves, and do not do what would bring us peace because it is messy and time consuming and we think somehow we'd miss out on something great while we're away. This is how the great writers of the world recognize a person becoming wise: these truths become self-evident after gathering courage to face ourselves alone.

We are all part of the human race; as such, we are obliged to show up and attempt to alleviate some of the suffering we cause ourselves and others. Our experience is hard won, and many are uninterested in our wisdom. But we go on; there are some listening. Sometimes, we even hear our own truth. You may not recognize your worth to another human being, or their suffering as a consequence of confusion or pain over something of which you're unaware. This is why compassion is critical, and why we must continue to seek out ways to connect, to help, to offer (and give) our gifts. Some of those gifts can only be earned.