We see a prairie dog hit by a car lying on the side of the road. I turn to look at my son’s face to see if he sees it. As we live in a rural area, he’s learned over the years of seeing too many dead animals to look at the fields and mountains instead of at the side of the road while we’re driving, but sometimes his eyes veer to the telltale lump of fur.
“A prairie dog, Mommy.”
“I know, love. Breathe it in.”
We watch a snippet of news and see the devastation in Texas (or wherever the current devastation might be), and I see their faces fall. As I’ve shared in other posts, my sons try to avoid the sadness by asking, “Why?”, which I’ve learned is the kid-equivalent to the adult tendency to escape the pain of life by turning to mental additions and projections like, “I’m not in love with my partner” or “I have a terminal illness” or the multitude of ways that we push away pain. It seems to be a basic human tendency to travel up to the safer and cooler chambers of mind rather than stay with the hot pain in the heart. I put my hands on their chests and say, “Breathe it in. Breathe in the sadness.”
They’re listening to an audiobook about the period following the civil war, a story about a girl named Addy who escaped from slavery with her mother but had to leave her baby sister behind. In the sixth book, the family is reunited, but learn that the older man who took care of the baby passed away during the intervening years. My older son calls out to me, “Someone died in the story, Mommy.”
“I know, sweetheart. I heard. Breathe it in.” I’m crying as I listen from the other room, and I breathe into my own pain just as I teach them. I feel the sweet release of tears opening my heart and rolling down my cheeks. When I walk in, my sons look at me and half-smile, knowing how I can’t read these books to them aloud because of how hard they make me cry.
A few pages later, the older woman who cared for the baby dies and my younger son asks, “Why do they have to make people die in this book?”
“It’s part of life. People die. We can’t escape it.”
There is no escaping the pain of life. People die. Animals die. Nature disasters hit and we collectively feel the repercussions. Sometimes it feels like too much to bear, and certainly as young people, with nobody to help hold the pain of life, it is too much to bear. For a long time, my husband and I protected our highly sensitive sons from death as much as we could (and we still protect them from much of the world’s news; if it’s too much for me most of the time, it’s certainly too much for them). We would edit out the sections of books or films that included death, and picked our book and movie selections quite carefully. But at some point we knew that they had matured enough to be able to tolerate life’s reality. And this is why I find myself saying breathe it in multiple times a day.
The book ends with the young girl reading the Emancipation Proclamation at her local church, and the whole church and all the churches of the city where the document is being read explode in joy. We know, of course, that the repercussions of the slave trade are still in motion. We know that we have a long way to go before all people gain equality. But we celebrate these milestones that move the human race along toward more consciousness and freedom for all people and beings. And I cry again, this time from the joy stirring in my heart. Breathe it in, I say to myself. Breathe in the joy just as much as the sadness.
We vacillate between pain and joy, between slavery and freedom, between separateness and togetherness, between doubt and clarity, between well-being and illness, between darkness and light. We know one because of the other, as it’s through the polarities that we know the opposite experience. And we learn from practices like Tonglen – which I teach in all of my courses – that breathing it in is only half the practice. When we breathe in pain, we breathe out joy. When we breathe in loneliness, we breathe out connection.
We also remember and re-learn that one of the by-products of a well-breathed heart is that, when we stop shutting down to or pushing away our own pain and the pain of the world, we become more compassionate. And when we become more compassionate we have no choice but to give. So we breathe in the pain, yes, and then we breathe out a desire to help, to offer, to give, to heal in some way. As we’ve been watching some of the rescue efforts during Hurricane Harvey, I was reminded of a statement by Mr. Rogers that I quoted in a similar blog post about having hope for humanity:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. That’s why I think it’s so important for news programs to make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams, medical people, anybody who is coming in to a place where there’s a tragedy, to be sure that they include that, because if you look for the helpers you’ll know that there’s hope.”
We can all be these helpers, and the more we do our inner world, the more we help from a full place inside of us. Every week I ask my sons, “Where should we donate today?” As we like to donate locally to support our local community, this is what we chose this week. I also remind them that one of the antidotes to pain and loss is to give. We don’t give to avoid or bypass our sadness but as a way to channel the fully felt sadness in a positive direction.
We breathe in the pain, we breathe out an offering. This is how we heal our hearts and the hearts of the world one breath and one compassionate action at a time.