“Each of us must make his own path through life. There are no self-help manuals, no easy answers. The journey of life…is not brightly lit and it has no road signs. It is a rocky path through the wilderness.”
—M. Scott Peck
November was a sad month for me. No, that’s not true. I was more than sad. For weeks last fall, I struggled to find a word to express how I felt and eventually realized that “grief” rather than “sadness” fit the bill. The trouble with the word “grief” is its unique association with devastating loss. And, in the fall of 2010, I couldn’t pinpoint any meaningful deficits in my life—no deaths in the family, or major break-ups, foreclosures or job losses. Nothing to rationally justify my grief.
But there are some life lessons that you simply can’t absorb until you’ve lived them. And learning to explore, and surrender to, our darkest—and often most confusing—feelings is one of them. Even if you don’t understand the source of your depression, grief or fear, sometimes we human beings just need to feel them, and to trust that they have something to teach us.
In October, when the grief first appeared, my instinct was to resist it—to push it aside in favor of ruminations about my daughter, my next meal, my work. But the grief stretched itself long and wide, until it seemed to fill every cell in my body. By month-end, I had mounted a full-scale retaliation—thinking happy thoughts and actively socializing my sadness away. And then, just when I thought I was in control, my grief reappeared in physical form—brutal skin rashes and outbreaks of hives. They appeared not on my elbows nor between my toes but on my face and neck—the most public parts of my body. Every time I looked in the mirror, I literally had to face my losing battle with grief. Then, one weekend in late November, I had the house to myself and decided to sit with my grief for a few days to see what happened. I happened to be reading Elizabeth Lesser’s Broken Open—a book that encouraged me to surrender and assured me that I would come out the other side.
Parker Palmer has written about depression being a great teacher in his life. He writes that the root of the word means “to come down” or to paraphrase, to become grounded. As I surrendered to my grief, I too experienced the sensation of falling down. It was highly unpleasant to say the least—for days I was alternately sobbing and shaking with grief—but eventually the flood of tears began to subside.
As I regained coherence, I began to see myself, and my life, with unusual clarity. I was in fact grieving—not a recent loss—but one that had occurred several years prior. I had lost my partner and left my home—shortly after giving birth to my daughter—yet another massive, transformational event. All of this transpired in the space of a few months—and with a newborn to love and nurture, I had scarcely any time to eat or pee, let alone to process what had been lost. Last fall, I realized that I couldn’t move forward until I held those losses up into the light and learned something about myself—about life—from them.
I have come to believe that grieving the life we wished to live and learning to live the life we have is a critical milestone in human development. We all create, and hold onto, a vision of how our lives ought to turn out. But our egos create these ideas early in life—before we are fully formed—so we are bound to outgrow them. And at some point, we need to replace those visions with an acceptance of life as it is and a commitment to respond to our unfolding triumphs and tragedies from the heart.
As it turns out, my grief was a great teacher. I learned to surrender into my own pain. In doing so, I finally let go of the life I was supposed to live—the book deals, the global speaking tours, the winsome husband, and yes, even the old farmhouse in southern France that my spouse and I were supposed to renovate in our golden years. I hurled all of my painstakingly inspired life delusions out the door.
There was another component to my grief. Of the many life changes I experienced in a short period of time, I had invited some, but others I had not. For someone accustomed to believing herself “in control” of her life, I struggled to accept the uninvited changes too. Were they my fault? How could I have made such colossal mistakes? How could a competent, functional person let her life fall apart?
It took many hours of reflection to see that if life turned out the way I planned, it would erase all the fun and mystery of being alive. Rilke’s quote, “In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us,” served as a reminder that the unexpected twists and turns are expressions of life “working on me.”
When you view life from that vantage point, you can also see that our worst moments are not directly correlated to our inherent goodness, state of spiritual growth or work ethic. We can be good people and try hard and still have to face horrible realities. We are not here to live unblemished lives. In the future, I want to give myself permission to be sad when I stumble and fall, and to have compassion for myself on the way down.
We all expect unconditional love from one source or another in our lifetimes. But we so rarely give ourselves the love we desperately need. Next time I experience unexpected change or loss, I want to be the first person to gently say, “This hurts so much, but remember, you really are an exquisite human being.”