My mother is a mortician. Once upon a time, she had the great misfortune of performing her rather unique skillset on a very young child. The child was not killed by an illness or a freak accident, but by her mother. When she shared the story with me, my reaction surprised me. The tale is anything but lovely. It exists outside the fringes of what is acceptable in our society and breaks our rules to the most extreme degree. I was just as likely as the next person to react with judgment and anger and to sanctimoniously discuss what a terrible person the mother must have been and how I – benevolent as I am, pillar of patience, model of compassion – could never have done something so heinous.
On this day, however, empathy prevailed. An idea materialized out of the ethers that being understanding toward this person did not imply being any less heartbroken about her actions. This mother was young and managing her new and challenging role alone. I scrolled through my own mental rolodex and remembered how real and debilitating post-partum depression and grief was for me, and that, but for the needs of my premature baby, I may not have been saved from myself. I recalled how I fought….against everything – NICU nurses, my family, even my daughter – because I just didn’t want any of it to be part of our story. I thought about my strong support system and the fact that I could cry and vent and, even now, go out and get a cup of tea when the child-rearing struggle gets too real. I couldn’t imagine having some of the feelings or difficulties I had without the tools to properly manage them. I was, of course, saddened at the thought of such a young life being snuffed out before she shared her gifts with the world but as I thought about it, that fact was true of both the child and the mother. I saw pain, I saw severe duress, I saw overwhelming unconsciousness. “I can’t judge her,” I said to my distressed mother. “How much pain must she have been in then…and now?”
Pain is prolific. Human beings are in a near constant state of disquietude. It may be obvious, full-on agony – the kind that never escapes recognition and to which, despite our best efforts, we are never oblivious. Or it may be covert – that mild irritation that manifests itself in nail biting or stress eating or insidious gossiping (a tactic that allows not only for ignorance but superiority…bonus). Regardless of the expression, we are usually clueless about what’s really going on. Rather than understand the feelings, most of our energies are used in trying to escape them and the painful present of which they are a part.
Rooting Out Expectations
If the love of money is the root of all evil, the clinging to expectations has to be the root of all unhappiness. Our minds, resourceful as they are, have an uncanny ability to apply our understanding of the past and manufacture ideas of what the present should be. That’s great, if we’re trying to efficiently make sense of the world but being married to those ideas doesn’t allow for much vision, creativity, or necessary change to occur.
We want our often lofty and unrealistic should bes to be met with precision. If life complies, we are elated, but if it disobeys or even if it fails to acquiesce in the way we have outlined, we become disappointed and fail to see reality. Relationships should be in constant harmony so we lash out when they fall short. We don’t see that our soul mate is not the one that makes us perpetually blissful but the one that helps us to learn the most about ourselves. Time should be our own so we fret when our small children won’t play independently and we still don’t have clean hair. We don’t see that we could learn from those small children, who are generally contented (notwithstanding a tantrum or two) precisely because they have no enduring expectations of contentedness. We should be able to sleep in so we’re upset about the early meeting that was called at the last minute and we don’t see the gift of a quiet moment and a drive to work lit by a perfect sunrise. We don’t see… In our constant state of restlessness, carried by the tumultuous wind of expectations – sometimes high, but mostly low, and without the slightest bit of self-direction - we don’t see.
So how do we exist in a reality that is painful? We consciously follow the pain, that is, with an intention to see it and not to get lost in it. Rather than run, follow the tears, the irritation, the anger, the aggression, the frustration, the stomach tightness, the clenched teeth, all of it. Those reactions are prompts to look just under the surface. There we find the assumptions, the harboring of which is causing the pain in the first place. We question them, make necessary adjustments, learn and go on to more consciously direct our lives with the wisdom that only comes with clear vision. We can respond properly, make proactive choices, and discover the valuable things we need right now.
That is the acceptance to which wise people refer as the solution to ending suffering – a moratorium on fighting against what’s there by trying to insert what should be there. Accepting discomfort doesn’t mean being happy about it. It means bringing awareness to it. It means feeling it without being consumed by it, recognizing our resistant thoughts and actions without clinging to them, and operating in a reality apart from the expectant ones we have created in our minds. It means finding the peace that rests on the decision to let go of our expectations and to see. Then we can accept that this hurt is part of our story, and the wound ceases to bleed.
A Final Word
In truth, there is very little difference between me and the young mother I described. I simply had the tools to restrain many of my reactions long enough to face what was actually there. She did not. Through that realization, I was gifted with a split second of understanding and I was able to see her, in spite of her heartbreaking offense – still fighting, still restless, still hurting, and still utterly exhausted. If I could have talked to her, I would have said, "there is beauty in pain, tenderness in that which is broken, an opportunity to connect and love in our shared human experience – an experience that includes the lessons of both joy and pain. You are here...right now, you are here. You need only look through the tears and see."
Love in all things,