"LISTEN. Are you breathing just a little and calling it life?"
~ Mary Oliver
Several years ago, one of my children became very ill in such a way that everything was turned topsy-turvy for a long long time. I experienced fear (well, actually, terror), a sense of helplessness, sadness, and confusion. Wait - how did this happen? This isn't how things were supposed to be. How do I make this better?
This was definitely one of my "dark nights of the soul," full of anguish and a deep desire to do whatever I could to help my child. There have also been several far less dramatic seasons in my life during which I was beset by prickly uncertainty and unease. Like career shifts, changes in relationships, a move to a new community, a health challenge.
This is life. None of us is immune from dark, confusing, or unsettling times. We are not robots. I have learned, sometimes against my will, that such experiences provide opportunities to grow into more light and heart and wisdom. I say "against my will" because many times I have fought like mad to push things back to the way they were before, which is, of course, not possible.
How do we get through such times? One way we can respond is to "breathe just a little," maybe hoping to hide from what is going on, wishing that it will just pass over us without having any real impact. It hurts, and we don't want to hurt. But that feels to me like settling for a small life, one far less glorious and meaningful than it might otherwise be.
It isn't easy to breathe deeply at these times, to allow ourselves to fully experience what is happening, even the pain. How do I remember to breathe deeply? I rely on family and faith and friends. I have learned to make time to get very quiet, just by myself, to listen to what new story is emerging. I have also met with professionals who can hear me out and ask the hard questions that help me imagine beyond my conventional perspective into a new and more gratifying vision.
And I remember the words of writer and physician Atul Gawande, in his awesome book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.
"You may not control life's circumstances, but getting to be the author of your life means getting to control what you do with them."
When you write your own story, you can do so in a way that helps you sustain health and happiness and meaning throughout your life. You will rewrite chapters occasionally as you face new challenges and unexpected circumstances. But always, YOU are the author.
And P.S. Loved ones who are ill, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually, often find their way in the world to a place of well-being and thriving. Others' paths are more challenging, where hope is hidden and light hard to see. Those of us surrounding and supporting our loved ones, however, can provide strength and guidance when we discover and speak our own truths to them with love. AND we can continue to live our lives with meaning even while providing care.