The fundamental ambiguity of being human. Understanding that everything changes.
Right now, life feels especially fragile. I know intellectually that life is always uncertain and fragile, however, when things feel particularly unexpected, it feels like a harsh reminder. Life is always unstable. And not shielding my kids, or myself, from this reality is the most important and challenging work I have ever engaged in.
Although I am Christian, I currently find myself curious about Buddhism. I just read Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön who is a Buddhist nun. I really loved the message in this book. Like any book, I never agree with or accept the entire thing as the truth, however, there were absolute gems hidden in these pages. Particularly, the idea of accepting our uncertain life instead of approaching it with anxiety. Feeling more peaceful and less anxious? I’m all in.
The Three Commitments
The book goes on to mention Three Vows or Three Commitments. I plan to write more about this later. For now, the three are:
- The commitment to do our best not to cause harm with our words, thoughts, or actions — in essence to be good to each other
- A commitment to helping others — nurturing compassion to ease suffering for everyone
- To embrace the worlds as it is — to surrender to life, accept everything, and come to know ourselves with kindness and honesty
The fundamental ambiguity of being human means that sometimes I want to hide. Sometimes, I would much rather shield myself from pain and run as far away as my legs will take me. So it comes as no surprise that I often want to shield my kids from this uncertain world, as well. I think I want them to happy and joyful 24/7. Then, I realize I don’t. I don’t want to lie to them. I don’t want them operating under the false reality that life, for everyone (or anyone), is filled only with love and joy and laughter. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Of course we don’t want to expose our kids to more than they can handle. It would not be appropriate to let my three and four year olds watch the nightly news which is currently filled with countless COVID related deaths, shootings and children being separated from their parents at the border. My goal, obviously, would never be to induce fear or provoke nightmares. However, I also never want my kids to think it’s all rainbows and butterflies. Like everything else in life, finding that balance is key.
One way I have found to increase my comfort with talking about uncomfortable topics is to simply name them. Having worked closely with a children’s clinical psychologist, she advised us to encourage parents to explain things to children using simple, accurate terms. This was the approach I took when I told my kids about systemic racism: Some people are treated differently because of the shade of their skin. My kids also know about my dad: Buddy died from cancer. His body was not strong enough to fight off the cancer germ. This is deserving of much more than a quick paragraph. But, naming the difficult topic in simple, age appropriate and accurate terms is one place to start.
Let kids practice
We are often so quick to swoop in and save our children from hurt feelings. We then expect them to be able to deal with these feelings appropriately. How could they possibly do that when they have had such few opportunities to practice? Brené Brown mentioned “sitting in the dark” with people and I absolutely love this image. When our children are discouraged, sad, lonely, or disheartened, we owe it to them to sit in the dark with them and with those feelings. When we do this, we let them know these feelings are normal and healthy and come and go. Moreover, we must resist the urge to try and turn on the light. To hurry them out of their discomfort for their own sake, or for ours.
Believe me when I say, this is not easy. I have tried this approach and it doesn’t feel natural. Grace wasn’t invited to a birthday party that Keener was and she felt incredibly left out — which is a normal feeling. My instinct told me: Make her feel special. However, I fought the feeling. Instead of saying, Oh, it’s OK sweet girl. We will do something so special and get you a treat of your own! instead, I said, It’s hard to feel left out. That’s happened to me before and it doesn’t feel good. I sat in the dark with her. Feeling left out is normal when you are left out. Shielding her from this truth — or denying her of this feeling — would not serve her well.
Model dealing with hard things
We don’t want to treat our kids as our therapists when we tell them how we are feeling, however, we do want to model for them that we deal with hard things. Making this transparent is the easiest and best teaching opportunity there is — if we remember to do it. I verbalize my feelings to my kids as often as I can remember. I try to use the granularity that Susan David talks about to model a specific emotional vocabulary: I am feeling drained, disheartened, lonely, or anxious. I let my kids know that when sad things happen, it’s normal to feel sad. When someone dies, it’s normal to feel sullen, cry, and miss them. I certainly don’t want my kids thinking that I always have it together and that they should too.
We read as many books as we can about resilience. Grace’s current favorite is I Can Handle It about a little boy named Sebastian. It depicts different feelings such as I feel annoyed when I can’t find what I’m looking for. Then it goes on to list different options he can do as a result. Not being able to find what you are looking for often induces frustrating feelings, which is normal. Letting our kids know there is 1. Nothing wrong with feeling annoyed and 2. There are things you can do to help yourself are both essential to dealing with an uncertain world.
This is just as true for ourselves as it is for our kids. Knowing when we need help is everything. Help from a friend, a doctor, a therapist or a medication — we all need help. I’m not sure if it is harder to admit it to ourselves or to someone else, but identifying that we need help can be just as challenging for us as it is for our kids. Jess Sims, my favorite Peloton instructor, says, “I don’t care if your house is empty or packed, you are not alone. I am here, we are all here doing this together.” You are not alone. I am not alone. Feelings are one of the most universal things in the whole world and yet we are nervous to admit we have them. Dr. Kristin Neff says to stop throughout the day and ask yourself, “What do I need that would help?” Perhaps we think asking for help is a sign of weakness. I would argue there is no greater sign of strength.
The following are some direct quotes/highlights from Living Beautifully
- We have a choice. We can spend our whole life suffering because we can’t relax with how things really are, or we can relax and embrace the open-endedness of the human situation, which is fresh, unfixated, unbiased.
- Be fully present. Feel your heart. And engage in the next moment without an agenda.
- We keep trying to get away from the fundamental ambiguity of being human, and we can’t.
- Reality is wherever we find ourselves in the moment, and it’s not as solid, not as certain, as we think.
- Our wish for all beings, including ourselves, is to live fearlessly with uncertainty and change.
- We’re not trying to cultivate one part of ourselves and get rid of another part. We’re training in opening to it all.
Thank you for being part of this life training with me. May we continue to find ways to help ourselves and our kids live fearlessly with uncertainty and change.
This post is in memory of Frank, whose beautiful life unexpectedly ended on Saturday March 20, 2021.