During a New Year’s Eve conversation, my sister and I got to talking about wholeness. “Do you feel whole?” she asked me. My impulse was to say no. The self critical part of myself—magnified by motherhood—responded that there were so many things missing from my life…so much work to be done. Wholeness isn’t something I associate with my life, not now.
“I feel whole,” she said. “I really do.”
A few days later, I reflected on our exchange. There was something niggling about what I had said. Was I uncomfortable with the idea that my life is a work-in-progress? [Surely not. As a thirty-something, shouldn’t I want my life to be a work-in- progress rather than already complete?] So then, what was it?
During a long walk on the beach, with Ayla asleep in the stroller, her face tilted up towards the sun, I understood that I had answered the wrong question. “Do you feel whole?” was the question not “Does your life feel whole?” And so, as I watched pelicans nose-dive into the ocean to catch their breakfast, I asked myself the question one more time. In a perfect world, my personal film editor would have cued a clip covering all of the most important moments of 2009—ending with the words, “Do you feel whole?” And instantly, I would have known the real answer. But this year, I couldn’t rewind past Christmas Day.
On Christmas morning, just after my daughter and niece had dumped out their stockings and ripped apart their gifts, I had a serious fight with my father—the first in many, many years. My version of the story is that he acted out, in front of family and friends (and grandchildren), and I called him out on the inappropriateness of his behavior. Instead of making concessions for him because of his age, I believed he ought to be held to a higher standard. In my mind, aging isn’t an appropriate excuse for behaving badly—and I resent that our culture encourages us to turn a blind eye when our parents and grandparents act out. Shouldn’t it be just the opposite? Shouldn’t our elders’ teach us what it means to live with grace, wisdom and maturity?
The conflict with my father revolved around an old habit pattern—an irritating thing that he’s done countless times, over many decades, that nonetheless hurts the people he loves most. Some might say that it’s too late for him to change. But that’s not true either. Modern neuroscience has taught us that the brain has a natural elasticity—an ability to change—that doesn’t diminish over time. Our brain is absolutely capable of changing thought patterns, routines, and behaviors, even when we’re 80 or 90 years old. It may require some extra effort but it’s always possible to rewire our neural circuitry in order to think and live differently.
As I faced off with one of the most powerful people in my life, I observed myself closely. When the conflict emerged, I clearly communicated the line I felt my father had crossed. I stayed within my personal boundaries—that is, I didn’t say mean things or do things that I might later regret. I found a means to calm myself down afterwards. I also made sure to protect Ayla from the disagreement. When the heat of the conflict subsided, my mind started making unfair associations (“He acts like my child, not my parent”) and drawing unnecessary conclusions (“Our family will never be normal”). But like a good traffic cop, I stopped my brain in its tracks and redirected it to a more truthful place. And when the fight was over, I let it go. After a day, I managed to find my smile and put it to good use for the rest of the vacation.
As it turns out, I didn’t need to look back on all of 2009 to answer the poignant question put to me on New Year’s Eve. The answer was right there—smack in the middle of our family feud. Do I feel whole? Well, yes I do. To me, wholeness isn’t about having the perfect life. It’s about having the inner resources to handle all of the twists and curves on the journey of life. For the first time in my life, I am absolutely certain that no matter what sort of tragedy strikes, I know that I can, and will, find my way back to happiness.
Tonight, as I packed up our suitcases, I realized that this vacation was mildly disastrous—between the fight with my father, the unseasonably cold weather in Florida and the numerous other snafus along the way, I should be horribly disappointed. Last year, I would have been horribly disappointed. But this is a “whole” New Year. And I’m ever so happy that it, and I, have arrived.