I used to seek examples of people worse off as a sort of smug proof that at least I wasn’t in that particular leaking, stinky boat. But now I seek examples to give me strength. Wow, look at what that person has been through – and with her grace intact. I can do this. (Is this just smugness of a different ilk?)
“That sounds so hard,” she says, while sitting in her own house of cards is clearly not easy.
So much about survival and the quality we bring to our lives has to do with perspective. My dear friend whose husband is imploding inward, a psychologically fragile man who can’t be trusted with their kids’ safety right now, cannot fathom how hard it must be to be the woman whose ex-husband is exploding outward, making threats and spewing meanness. “That sounds so hard,” she says, while sitting in her own house of cards is clearly not easy. Similarly, the person with the new roof but ancient furnace thinks how rough it must be to be the person with a leaky roof – how awful to be damp. While across town – or even right next door – someone is cozying up to a brand new furnace, while watching stained patches bloom on the ceiling and wondering just how the neighbor bears her old furnace. How hard, how hard.
With age, I think most of us deeply get the notion of there but for the grace of God …. And when we hear of other’s trials, we are often deeply moved by them. And yet to feel okay in our own little corner of the Universe, it somehow helps to survey the land and see other people struggling. To know there is always something worse.
My heart expanded toward each person when I put them in this place of vulnerability.
When I learned metta, a meditation in which you think of yourself, then a friend, then a neutral person who you hardly know, and finally a person who is difficult for you – sending thoughts of wellness to each one – I was very affected by my imaginings of each of these people alone in their homes, sitting with something heavy: stacks of bills, a sick relative, personal illness. My heart expanded toward each person when I put them in this place of vulnerability.
Why did I so naturally go there, to these dark and difficult spots? Why not imagine each person in the context of his or her greatest joy, greatest success, quietest but truest pleasure? I’m not sure. A dark imagination, perhaps; the same one that practically materialized Charles Manson when I was kid, I was that certain he was in our kitchen cabinets.
Now, I lay in bed at night and breathe – into my belly, into my ribs, into my chest – I see my friends and the people who have hurt me, I see my kids and the people who may hurt them, I see the girl from 8th grade who made me cry and the boy who broke my heart, I see the friend I know I hurt and my grandmother so far away. All of them float in and out of my vision. Sometimes they are sitting alone in a room with an empty vial of pills they cannot afford to refill. Sometimes they are twirling a laughing child or sitting by the ocean. They are ebbing and flowing, as do we all.
“How is your mother?” I ask my friend Mary. “Going in and out,” she said, and as she described it, I recognized my dog and her tethering and untethering from this world. But I also recognize myself – my days of joy and being with my authentic self which fall too quickly into days of fear and collapse. Going in and out. It’s a movement that becomes more recognizable, even more appreciated, but never easier. Unless easier means trusting that with every out breath, an in breath will follow.
(Tonight, frustrated at my kids who weren’t going to bed despite my pleas, my son stopped in front of me. “Mom, you need to take a big, big breath and then unhale!”)