There are times when I want to collapse from the overpowering wave of not-knowing that washes over me in moments of conflict or overwhelm: my boys at each other’s throats or my husband and I in an argument or a temporary falling out with a soul-sister or the state of the world or the homeless man on the corner. The world seems to storm around me like the fluttering of a thousand moths, a hurricane of emotions tipping into a flicker of despair from the awareness that we all struggle and nobody has the answers. Where’s the magic wand? Where’s the ultimate parenting manual that teaches us in the trenches how to ensure that our kids will get along like boats sailing on a lake as smooth as cream? How do we solve the world’s pain? Does anyone have the answers?
But then something else takes over. It usually arrives in the aftermath of repair when someone has come forward with the courageous act of true accountability and the other person receives. These moments of vulnerability soften me into submission, an acceptance that while we don’t know what we’re doing, maybe we don’t have to know. And then the awareness that we’re not supposed to have the answers and, in fact, that there are no answers filters in, another warm breeze of softness. It reminds of Rilke’s famous quote:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Part of what trips us up is that we expect life and relationships to be easy. There is nothing easy about life, and relationships especially seem to stir up every hidden demon, every dusty complex, every latent, unshed tear from our own life and our parents’ secret histories hidden away in the attics of their psyches. They ask us to grow in ways that nothing else does or can. And yet when we don’t feel like kissing our partner we wonder what’s wrong. When our kids are struggling socially or academically or spiritually we wonder what’s wrong. We search for answers and usually end feeling worse about ourselves, falling prey to the implicit message that says, “If you follow my advice, your kid or relationsihp or life will be conflict-free and effortless.”
A more comforting and realistic mindset is to know that every moment of flow is a small miracle. When my open heart aligns with your open heart and we want to experience closeness together; when the kids find their way to a creative game that satisfies them both; when friendship flows for weeks or months or years on end without a blip… to me, this is evidence of Spirit at work. Why? Because there are so many ways that our hearts close, when fear or jealousy or negative habits prevail and prevent others from merging with your river, that when two open hearts meet in a cosmic, joyous collision – when your desire to kiss aligns with my desire to be kissed – it’s a holy moment of grace.
But instead of celebrating those moments as miracles we’re conditioned to expect them. And when they don’t occur, we invariably wonder what’s wrong: What’s wrong my relationship, with my kids, with my parenting skills, with my ability to be a good friend? The culture trains us to expect perfection, and reinforces that expectation with endless books and blogs that pretend to carry the treasure map to the Holy Grail.
Fifty percent of relationships are repair, a friend once shared with me after a session with her therapist. Those words stuck, a rudder in the sometimes rocky sea of relationships. This same friend and I used to talk for hours as young mothers about our irritation with parenting books that deigned to assume that they could provide the answers to every question we struggled with: sleep, food, temperament, sibling issues, marriage challenges as young parents. We read the books and only felt worse about ourselves because we inevitably came up short compared to the examples in the books: Do this technique and your child will sleep through the night! Follow these steps and your kids will never fight! We did and we followed and still the challenges prevailed.
We quickly learned to stop reading the books, and considered writing one ourselves that would have said: There are no definite answers. Trust yourself. Nobody knows your kids like you do. This worked for me and it might work for you but if it doesn’t just try something else. And there may not be an answer to your problem. It may be that the answer is to allow for the struggle and to know that not all questions have answers. And to trust that, with time and enough compassionate love toward yourself and your kids, most challenges resolve with time. Your kids will sleep. They will eat vegetables. They will play with other kids and learn to share. Give it time. It’s their timetable, not yours.
It’s the same conversation my friend, Carrie, and I have today about what we read in most marriage and meditation books and blogs: Follow these tools and you’ll live a pain-free life. It doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t work because there is no way to live on this planet and not experience pain and struggle. It doesn’t work because there is no “there”, there is no “complete”, there is no perfect life.
We are all unformed: you, me, our partners, friends, and kids. I believe now that even people we hold up as figures of completion or perfection – the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, Jesus – are and were raw as well. The difference, I think, is that as a result of years of dedicated practice, they’re able to move toward their raw spots with love and compassion. They probably react less impulsively than most people do, but when they do “act out” they move toward the reaction with curiosity. But I’m guessing they are as imperfect as the rest of us.
We derive such comfort in knowing that we’re not alone in our imperfections. The path of comparisons in unhelpful at the least, dangerous in most cases. The path to liberation lies in cultivating a daily, moment-to-moment relationship to our most uncomfortable places, trusting that when life grabs us by the ankles and drags us into the underworld, that is when we grow the most. When we shift our mindset from lamenting to learning, we step out of the victim role – “why did this happen to me?” – and into the hero’s saddle, where we remember that our entire life, from birth to death, is one long transitional interlude that is designed to help us learn and grow our capacity to know and be known, to soften into compassion, to love and be loved. We remember that there is no finish line, that we are all raw and unformed, and with this remembrance we stop fighting life and bring a little more self-love to ourselves as we journey through this painful, glorious planet we call Earth.