You learn a lot about yourself and others when you are in a physically compromised situation like I have been for the last six months. Between a couple surgeries and multiple fractures in my back, I’ve been laid low. Having a history of being fiercely independent previously, I have had the opportunity to learn the fine art of being dependent on others, at times feeling like a burden, a very uncomfortable position to say the least!
The Spiritual Squeeze
I have been forced to learn about patience, humility, and grace, none of which comes naturally to me. Quite the contrary. Being a single person for most of my adult life, I have taken undo pride and no small amount of egotism, feeling quite self-satisfied with my own fortitude and sufficiency.
Asking others for help now, sometimes from the smallest gestures to larger ones that might inconvenience them, has been challenging and sometimes downright painful for me in my current situation. It has come easier though is still uncomfortable and sometimes laced with fear and guilt.
I have found some people are generous and offer willingly while others get downright nervous or withdraw, pulling back with the subtlest of mortification, their pupils contracting inward scanning their own lives and responsibilities. Then there are those who offer but don’t really mean it, mostly unavailable when you get right down to the specific request later on.
It is very easy to be judgemental about this latter group, having operated from this very behavior myself in the past. I want to judge them when they turn me down, usually feeling a bit sorry for myself in the process. It is a lonely road. But the catch is, while I want to condemn them for being selfish, absorbed, uncaring or unsympathetic, the finger has quickly curved in on myself with the whiff of past recognition.
One of the greatest gifts of my life, and I say this with all humility, is the occasional ability to move quickly from judgmentalism to forgiveness to acceptance. This was aided not long ago by flashbacks of moments when I’ve declined to help others during my far more vigorous, busy and able-bodied history. I remember drawing away, pulling back, thinking I’ve got too much on my plate, sometimes offering help but knowing I don’t really mean it myself.
Recently I asked a woman in my apartment building if she could put a pain patch on my back and be available if I needed help for a few days, trying to explain that my regular backup people were away. Recognizing her reluctance from the get go, I tried to make clear it was short term. Her response was vigorous and persistent, telling me she was very busy, she wasn’t the best person to ask, she’d do what she could but couldn’t make a commitment.
Invariably she kept steering me away from her, stating she worked 55 hours a week, could I get a nurse, call the ER, whatever. I like to think my decline of help to others was gentler, more subtle, but guessing I’ve been as transparent at times as she was with me, I doubt it. Becoming more angry than fearful I wouldn’t have help, I pressed her and she ultimately relented.
Remarkably, while I was very upset initially, I moved quickly to taking stock of my own past behaviors in this regard, knowing, knowing not only did I have to forgive her but also forgive myself. This struck swiftly and thoroughly and I felt relief, free of having to project my judgement onto her. This forgiveness and relief lasted about 12 hours!
It is a hard thing at times having to take a steely-eyed look at ourselves, yet without examining our own behavior, what good are any lessons that are presented to us. After all, isn’t that what we’re here for? To learn, to grow, to evolve, to transcend? If I cannot forgive her how can I forgive me, and vice versa? We are all on a path at times intersecting with others, teachers of a sort, and presented with these golden opportunities. While this might seem like such a simple example, for me it is no less important than the earth shattering larger spiritual or ethical challenges in life.
At the end of the day, we are all at our own place of consciousness and development. When I forget that, that someone else no matter how obnoxious or irritating they might seem to me, or self absorbed and self centered, I am the one who suffers on the inside both emotionally and spiritually. I suffer in the judgment of that other person, But mostly I suffer in the condemnation and judgment of myself. To love oneself is just as important as to love another, to have compassion for the impairment that may be developmental, less visible than broken bones or surgeries in another, that is no less real but far less obvious.
The seemingly complicated state of fleeting forgiveness towards my reluctant neighbor squeezes me spiritually to step back, to really assess why I’m hurt, frustrated or scared and to at least try to identify with her. And even if I can’t stay in that space, I know I’m able to return to it at some point. Oh, the lessons of an illness, what consciousness-raising grist it provides for growth, acknowledging she too has her own struggle of guarded isolation and remoteness, filled with fear and self protection that felt as threatening to her as mine was for me in that moment.
And So It Goes
At the end of the day it does no good to compare me to her, her to me or even her to the two steadfast friends who have provided support and compassion but just happened to be gone at that time of seeking another’s help only to be thwarted by my neighbors reticence, no good at all. Identification is one thing, comparison quite another for comparison is filled with judgment. Whether I get irritated or not is irrelevant at the end of the day if she’s doing the best she can as I was in earlier situations—and even now—but lose the thread of ongoing understanding and forgiveness as a constant I can return to. Because I will invariably have to repeat the lesson, God willing, and by my own intention, be squeezed into that place of love and forgiveness of self and another we all seek until it all sticks.
“Who would you be without your story?” Byron Katie
My recent move from Encinitas, CA to Sonoma, north of San Francisco has been challenging, interesting, exhausting, and enlightening, with generous splashes of happy thrown in. After a mere month or two, while physically settled, I’m hardly that emotionally and psychologically. Yes, I have my core, my spiritual inner being, that feels pretty much centered, constant, with periodic inner tremors gradually subsiding. One of the most unsettling elements however is that of identity. Read more →
“How to Write About Trauma”. That is the title of the NYT Op-Ed piece dated 08/15/16, penned by Said Sayrafiezadeh, an American-born, Iranian-cultural-inheriting memoirist and fiction writer. I read it with serious curiosity for several reasons. First, I’ve recently begun conducting an Expressive Writing course and specialized coaching practice on the same topic. Read more →
Trauma – “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, like the death of a child.” This is how Google defines it. Webster defines it thusly, “a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time.” Okay. Read more →
Why, you may ask, would I need to know how to sell a kidney? Well, let me tell you, it’s an ugly story. Recently, I went for a routine teeth cleaning and my annual dental exam, only to discover I need 5 crowns. Why? To save one molar and four incisors (two central and two laterals.) When learning of this, and in a state of shock I might add, I asked the dentist “is this because my teeth are old?” She informed me that the molar already had a large filling that had begun to leak (who knew,) but that it now also had a large cavity. To save the entire tooth, she would need to drill it down to a nub and put a crown on it.Read more →
I’ve been reading “Gift From The Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh recently, feeling even more affected by it than the first reading years ago. The beauty of it, her poignant insight, strikes a profound cord someplace deep. Take, for example, the following passage: Read more →
Odd that I remain disbelieving that Bennet is gone, died, finished, caput. Oh, I intellectually understand it, the idea of it. But the emotional reality; How could it be that he is no more, that you are no more? No more phone calls, no more visits. No more Bennet to be with. Where are you, dear friend? Where have you gone? It seems you slipped away, right outside the worn out body, into the ethers. It seems strange you are no longer on the planet. How can it continue to spin? Read more →
After having written about the unique beauty of the place I moved into a few months ago, I thought an update was in order. It seems the place comes with people.
I knew they’d be here. Now, I may be one of the rare individuals who would rather live with others as opposed to living alone. Having said that, living with other people is not without its challenges and discomforts, sometimes small and other times GIMONGOUS. While there are seasons when its best for me to hunker down alone, living in cloistered fashion, more often than not, I’m happier and, quite frankly, better living in some form of what can best be described as ‘community.’ Read more →
So I’m getting ready to move in less than a month, having found a lovely little adobe home-share situation. Because the place is already well-established with current tenants, much of my furnishings will either go to my son for safe-keeping or be given away. Read more →
I watched a documentary recently, “Alive Inside”, about people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia or impairment, including just getting old, and was profoundly moved. In an odd way I recognized myself which was nothing short of sobering, to say the least! While my mother endured Alzheimer’s some years ago, quite frankly it was not that identification that was so jarring to me. Rather, it was the sniffing out of my own slow leak from a sense of my former self. This was not because I have any more “age associated memory loss” common to being in the early 60’s than the next person. Instead it seems I may be both blessed and cursed with taking my substantive ‘temperature’ of who and what I am and want at a plethora of life stages. It’s almost as if I’m being dogged by some form of conscious interior evolution. Drat!
This past year I have come to observe a kind of tiring, a rejection of that turbo charged daily living that prevailed in my younger years. Having ‘put it all out there’ from ego-driven ambition, the idealism and naiveté of youth, and the drive to prove myself as a consequence of insecurity, I have felt spent—and for more than a year, actually: probably about six or seven!
There’s a down side to outgrowing the above stage(s) of course. While it provides a measure of much needed respite, a kind of inertia creeps in when chucking so much stimulation: inertia or a filling time with illusory often trivial tasks that hide the loss of authentic robust and energized living can result. It seems this downsizing of an over-stimulated lifestyle has come at a price, and not just for me but for others I’ve observed as well.
Now, I have made LOTS of change in my life, some of it wise and some of it foolish although I didn’t know so much about the foolishness at the time. This reflection is probably no different from most people’s on the planet. Still, it is sobering to consider one’s life in retrospect. The rearview mirror-gazing looms large in the accountability department, revealing subterranean conflict that requires a piercing examination, some of it horrifying, some of it funny. Yes, funny. One better be able to laugh at one’s self if for no other reason than to reduce the freight that bad choices contain, especially choices one still feels stuck in. Sometimes, I swear that state feels so dense, so swallowing, I can almost hear a sucking sound. Awful.
Enter a conversation recently at breakfast with friends, one of whom said he was mad at his dad for shrinking (my word not his) from his former robust self. I remember, too, being really angry at a friend who I felt had done the same thing: a brilliant woman with a PhD who got stuck after the death of her husband. From where I sat it seems she was mired down in an over-attachment to the only thing/person that defined her and identified her greatest reason for being. It had always been obvious to me she had her own reason for being.
What I have come to know now is that my friend’s inability to move forward in recapturing the best parts of herself, separate from any identification from spouse, previous profession, or lifestyle (including the energy of youth) happens far earlier than any single event. Rather, a single catastrophe may mask a cumulative pattern of avoidance brought on by the event itself thereby serving as a tipping point that exposes some character defect yet to be resolved, worked through, transcended.
I see this dynamic at play from my own previous inability to resolve or change certain behaviors or problems in my life. It is glacially slow and subtle, this interior evolution thing, right up until it smacks you around and you either shrivel up and die (not always a literal death) or mutate and overcome the problem. This occurred earlier in life when my miserable marriage reached intolerable proportions, as well as when I was forced (thank God) to confront my inability to stop drinking on my own and had to seek help to stop. This kind of confrontation occurred again when faced with a tumor-sized polyp triggered in part by DNA, but also certainly by a lifetime of doing work I grew to hate. I remember my surgeon describing the tumor as “angry.” And, yes, I had been angry; for years and years and years, suppressing it without ever truly addressing it.
But back to the documentary. “Alive Inside” shows old people, dementia-riddled people awakened to some sense of their former selves by listening to music that once moved them. It is a powerful and beautiful thing to see as they leapfrog over a lifetime of who-knows-what-kind-of-unresolved-avoidance-riddled crap, arriving at something elemental and basic in their souls. They are enlivened by the beat and rhythm of life traveling to their head and heart by an iPod filled with music meaningful to them. For those of us boomers who still struggle with unresolved crap, this film offers hope not just for aging parents and loved ones but for ourselves as well. After all, sometimes a person may reach the end of all they can do in a lifetime whether the body continues on or not. And with modern medicine keeping us alive longer and longer, it’s hard to get off the planet these days. This does not mean, however, one has to shut down all faculties, including joy and connection with others which provides the most meaning to all of us.
Oddly, I’ve long had a fascination with old people, a fascination, curiosity, and identification as if recognized from a former state and time. Yet, as I witness my current reluctance, even resistance in avoiding entrenched crap in several areas, I have a new appreciation, even compassion towards those individuals unable to change one more thing, to transcend one more problem. It is hard, this aging process, of which the body’s role is the least of it!! Body breakdowns are a nuisance, yes, but it’s the deeply emotional, psychological, and spiritual wear and tear that really takes its toll. And like so many things, it is easier to notice this dynamic in someone else before we see the slow leak within ourselves.
So as 2015 approaches, I hope to take stock of that which I am able and willing to change in my own life and accept and surrender that which I am not. Part of this (we can call it a New Year’s Resolution) involves summoning yet more strength and courage to look at the really hard, shitty stuff honestly, which is no small feat.
And the other part? I’m pledging to listen to more music, main-lining it if necessary, as well as do more things that invigorate me, animate me, and massage my heart. I’ve even started a list of songs to share with my son just in case I get Alzheimer’s. He’ll know what to do with it. And if I never lose the mind, I will have at the ready a plethora of spiritual ‘nutrients’ that will enliven me for the rest of my days.
For anyone interested in the documentary “Alive Inside”, it is available on Netflix, a portion of which can be viewed on www.musicandmemory.org: Henry. I highly recommend watching the entire film. It’s an eye-opener.