Unpleasant Guests, Limited Wisdom

A friend called yesterday. She's a teacher and struggling. Can't find a new job. Doesn't know how to make ends meet. Her friend is in trouble. It's a lot to handle. She called to hear something good from me. I hope I gave her something. Even if I did, I sent her a version of this today because it seemed on the nose.

What do you do when you find unpleasant guests are knocking at the door of home? Some thinly disguised versions of greed, hatred, or ignorance. Of course, the guests are usually better presented than this scruffy bunch sounds, because the self does a fair bit of work to make them more presentable to itself.

Practice says a strange thing: So that you can let them go, make mindful room for them. Welcome them in as the brief guests passing through that they really are, not the long stay tyrants we can easily turn them into. Find out who they are really, so you can know more skillfully how to let them go. The Way is not about drowning in bliss but establishing freedom in every mood, condition, emotion, and belief. And so it has to be about knowing, moment by moment, our actual condition upside-down and inside-out, with an alert, curious, willing attentiveness. Sitting patiently and ungrudgingly with the way things actually are. — Susan Murphy, Upside-Down Zen, qtd in Daily Doses Of Wisdom, page 164

I told her she certainly does have unpleasant guests knocking at her door. They aren't greed, hatred, or ignorance, more like frustration, anxiety, and fear. Unpleasant characters indeed. They present as matters of fact, unavoidable, the natural order. We've been taught that there's no other way to think of them. That's why people tell us to suck it up and deal. We're told, the world simply is this way; quit your whining.

There's some wisdom in that. We do well to accept the world as it is, but I'm not describing an awful place or situation. There is plenty that sucks about this life, but there's more than plenty wonder in it and the world is more interesting than all bad or all good.

Have you ever had to listen to someone who believes bad things come in threes? Two things happen and they cast about for magic number three. There it is! they cry. Of course it's there when they go looking for it. This morning the toilet paper roll was empty and I forgot to have breakfast. Where's my third bad thing? I can go looking for it or not. My choice. The third thing is out there (so too are the fourth, fifth, sixth), but there's this good writing, my wondrous wife in the next room, and my friend to whom I first wrote all this. We find what we're looking for, bad and good, and these things come more than three at a time.

My friend is having some awful times. Bad things are at her door. She should welcome them and offer them food, a place to sit. Be polite, I told her. Be compassionate toward them. But don't indulge them. Don't let them move in and take up all your time and space. They can visit for a few, but then send them on their way. Accept them in order to let them go. Accept the way things are without falling for the con that they will stay this way forever.

That's the limit of my wisdom. Feeling that it's not quite enough, here is the sheer grace of Derek Walcott's most gorgeous of poems:

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Let Go

There are things beyond my control. One is that of the four kids in my alternative school class, none were able to keep their heads off the desks and eyes open. All four passed out. This sort of thing can drive me crazy.

After all, I'm the teacher and supposed to get them learning, doing something. I tried, but they were just unwilling and one even began to get angry. None of us need that. I backed off. I let go.

It's the first day after break and none of them made it wholly back to school. So it goes. I had plans for today and was actually excited about them. That we didn't do them is disappointing and would have been infuriating if I hung onto the story I had in mind as to how class would proceed.

Instead, I let it go and I'm content.

For years I tried to let go of the frustration at this job. I did pretty well and got through years which could have been unbearable. For that relief I'm grateful and today, for one hour, it was better to let go than go into frustration.

What else can I let go so that I focus on what matters and where I can make a difference?

Accept & Explore

I ran a lot of hills last summer. At first I gutted them out just trying to get over. It wasn't fun and made hills more difficult than they needed to be. Luckily, I talk to myself while running and on as I started up one hill I said this:

Accept what the hill gives you. Give the hill what you've got.

I've been in therapy for more than a decade and am just starting to learn things. My therapist is wise and thoughtful, but I tend to reject most advice and counseling thinking, That's fine for other people... or Yeah, but... About four months after she suggests some ridiculous, wrong-headed idea I figure out that it is spot-on and of tremendous help.

Years ago, discussing a conflict in which I found myself, she suggested that I simply accept what was happening. "You mean surrender?" I asked. She waited for me to think about it. I said, "I can either fight or surrender and I'm not giving in." She waited, maddeningly patient, then suggested that acceptance isn't surrender. The situation did not require me to win or lose.

Of course I resisted. I'm a binary kind of guy. It was months before I realized that entering the battle meant I had already lost and there's a wide expanse between winning and losing.

Hills aren't battles. They're just hills and geology says they've been here a few million years and aren't going anywhere fast. Might as well accept them. And running uphill I have the opportunity to see what I have to give. That's a cool way to think of it. It's an even cooler way to feel.

Feeling open to the possibility that life isn't a battle to be won and there are more than two options available allows me to move up the hills and get over them. I accept and explore. And the view from atop some of those hills goes on and on as if there is no end to what I might see.