Monday, July 30, 2012

Forgiveness and Gratitude

"God, mom and dad! You're so embarrassing!!"
In the Hindu tradition, Ganesha is the Remover (or Supplier) of Obstacles and has many genesis stories. The predominant story is that his father, Shiva, beheaded him when he came between Shiva and his wife, Parvati, and replaced his human head with one of an elephant variety. In the midst of a conversation about our parents, my wise friend Rebecca pointed out, "Ganesha's dad cut his head off and replaced it with an elephant's head, but no where in the scriptures do you hear Ganesha complaining about his dad. This is what separates humans from gods."

The arrogance and staunch idealism of youth demand that our parents be perfect. On a practical level, this makes sense. When we're small, soft and vulnerable, we need our parents to be perfect. We rely on them for absolutely everything for many years of critical development. If they are unable to perform their duties for us, we may not survive. It's life and death.

The tricky thing is, when we are small every need we have feels huge and urgent. There is little distinction between vital needs and non-emergency needs. We need to be fed; this is mandatory for survival.. We need love and stability, but it feeds us in a different way than food. We may not grow up to be particularly well adjusted, but as long as we're being fed, we will grow up. We can survive without good emotional care but that doesn't mean we feel any less urgent about getting it. Brilliant writer Cheryl Strayed pointed out that withholding "makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel." If a parent is unable to take exemplary emotional care of their child, the child notices. They will not know why, but they will ache and writhe with need, knowing that something important is missing.

If we're lucky, we grow up. If we grow up aching and we're really lucky, we get to dig deep and excavate the ache. This is the work we do to become healthy, fully grown adults. This is how we grow up the small, soft, vulnerable parts of ourselves that still stomp little feet and pout little lips, demanding the sort of love they expected from their "perfect" parents.

In the excavation, we might unearth anger and arrogance, shame and blame. Hopefully, after a suitable period of raging against the inadequacy of our upbringing, we can learn to forgive our parents for all their failures, whether vital or non-emergency. Our parents are not perfect and neither were their parents or their parents before them. Parents are not gods. They are mere mortals loving you the best way they know how. Even Shiva cut his own son's head off in a fit of jealousy and replaced it with an elephant's. I don't know about you, but nothing my parents ever did wrong was as wrong as that.

There's an ache in me that's ached since long before I understood that I was aching. I just knew that something wasn't right, something important was missing. I have spent a lifetime being angry about it, writhing crazy and desperate, trying to feel better. Up until now I didn't see that the path to better is paved with forgiveness and gratitude. Forgiveness for all the ways in which I've felt failed. Gratitude for all the ways in which I absolutely was not. There were many things about my upbringing which were far beyond adequate and for which I can be deeply grateful.

This is where we start. We can muster the grace and courage required to let go of anger and youthful arrogance. Life is not "fair" and at this point in your life no one owes you anything, even your parents. We cannot make anyone give us the sort of love we want, not our parents, nor our friends or lovers. It's our job as adults to find gratitude for what our parents did give us, forgive them for what they did not, and open ourselves to someone who is freely offering what we've always wanted.

You can keep aching. It's familiar and comfortable. If this ever becomes tiresome, know that there's another way, a graceful, godly way in the style of Ganesha. There's a big, ancient heart in you capable of weathering the pain and vulnerability of forgiveness and gratitude. Soften. Drop the angry armor. Say Thank You. After all, this mess made you who you are...and you are glorious.

And your dad never beheaded you, which is pretty cool. If nothing else, you can say Thank You for that.

Friday, July 13, 2012

With So Much Worry In The Way

A person can go a long long time thinking about themselves in a particular way and be mistaken. Sometimes the thoughts we think about ourselves are mean ones having to do with intelligence, body image, ability or worthiness. Other times the self-deception is harder to overcome because the thoughts are nice ones having to do with virtues possessed. For instance, I've spent the last 28 years thinking that I am a very open minded, judgement-free individual, and in many cases I am. When it comes to strangers in the world at large I'm extremely supportive. Everyone should be able to live their life in the best way they can, in the way that will inspire the greatest joy and the least amount of harm. The path of life is winding and I have all kinds of patience for people finding their own way in their own time.

This rule does not apply to my loved ones. I am invested in the way they feel to the point of holding great fear and judgement around the choices they make. I have a pattern of withdrawing my support when they are making a decision which may cause them what I perceive to be unnecessary pain or suffering. I pretend to know exactly what will happen and display great indigence over them putting themselves in a position which might cause them hurt, because it hurts me to see them hurting.

There are a lot of problems with this. First of all, it shatters the other self-delusion I've been harboring which is that I am more-or-less unconditionally loving. That nice Mother Teresa lady wisely pointed out that if you're judging people, you have no time to love them, and I dedicate so much time to judging the worthiness of my loved ones' choices it's incredible that I have any time left over at all for love. Ultimately there is love at the heart of all this activity, albeit perhaps a bit misguided. See, I love the people I love so fiercely and think so highly of them that only the best will do. I never want them to be uncomfortable or unhappy, so I attempt to control their experience of life with my worry and judgement.

Here comes another problem: suffering is important. Not forever, but for a time, in the process of learning something valuable that can only be experienced, it is vital to our "becoming." I would absolutely not be who I am today were it not for what I've suffered. With reflection, it's made me stronger, smarter and ultimately braver. Who am I to deny that to someone else? Because I lack the long term vision of a gifted psychic, I have no way of really knowing what the outcome of a choice will be. However, I have seen for myself how what started ugly ended up a beautiful blessing. The lotus emerges from the mud. There's just no way to know until you know.

The most compelling problem I see? If I'm all wrapped up in worry about the choices my loved ones make, not only do I have no time to love them, but I also don't get to enjoy them. Worry is fertile ground for resentment, anger and more judgement, and no one asked me to look after their lives for them. There is absolutely something to be said for voicing your concerns if you see someone you love making a choice that may be unhealthy or harmful. If you are going to do so, it should be done thoughtfully with great tact and care. After you do so, if they go ahead with their plan, you have some considering to do. Can you support them and not the choice? Can you love them unconditionally and enjoy them even if you don't agree? Can you gracefully admit you were wrong if things turn out well or gracefully avoid "I told you so"-ing if they don't?

If you cannot, are you prepared to let your connection go over a differing opinion? If you are not ready to stand behind the people you love through anything, it may mean losing them. These people we care about deserve our love and support, not our fear and judgement. There are cases where severing ties is healthier for one or both parties, but outside of extreme circumstances I think there may be a way to keep loving and supporting someone even if you don't love or support their choice.

My worry does nothing for the people I love and it certainly does nothing for me. We're all in the continual process of becoming and the only process that we have any business attempting to control is our own. Rather than drown in my worry, I want to learn to enjoy my loved ones as they are today. This means dropping my expectations that they change. It means dropping this sense of responsibility for other people's well being. It means getting comfortable with their discomfort and supporting them through it, rather than taking it on as my own. This is a healthy, helpful boundary to identify. Our experiences will be different and this is okay.

Imagine what sort of love could be possible without so much worry in the way. Imagine how much you could relax and enjoy your relationships. Is it worth it to try?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Ordinariness of Suffering

Your pain is a very ordinary thing. The details that make it up are unique to you, but the pain itself is so very common. Everyone has experienced some variety of trauma or loss and many people carry it around clutched tightly to their chests like a badge of honor. It is as if what we feel will be invalidated by acknowledging how typical it is to feel that way, so we wrap ourselves up in the feeling, in the old story, and guard our experience.

It's only when we pick our stories apart that we begin to see the connections between wounded hearts. My story and pain our mine, but they look an awful lot like so many stories I've heard and so much pain I've witnessed. I won't ever be able to fully understand what it was like for you to experience what you have, but know that I have suffered too, that I am also the walking wounded trying to heal.

Many hearts never get to heal. I have met countless supposed adults who still act like small, sad, hurt children. Some people are so attached to what they've already been through that they keep living it over and over, like continually breaking a bone that is right on the verge of knitting back together. Clinging to the past makes it impossible to grow ourselves up. If we live through our histories, we will never grow up our love or our sense of self. Are you living as a healthy, happy, well adjusted adult? What would that look like if you were? What would you have to let go of to achieve that?

You are welcome to continue to feel isolated in your pain, but know how incredibly normal it is. Healing is on offer if you are willing to do the work to drop your attachment to the past. It's not easy, but you'll be in good company among those who seek to grow themselves up.

The past is past is past. Your pain is not a treasure to guard. Will you let it go?