Love, Impermanence, Uncertainty, Fear: Which Wins?


I read this on another blog—an advice column blog called “Dear Sugar.”

This is the question that was asked:

Dear Sugar,

I’m 29 and dating a man that I adore; we’re planning to move in together soon. I have a stable job that I hate, but I hope that I’ll one day find something I enjoy. I have family and friends and hobbies and interests and love. So much love. And I’m desperately afraid that I’m going to have cancer.

I’m terrified that sooner or later, I’ll be diagnosed. My mother had breast cancer when I was in college. She survived hers, but in some ways, she didn’t. It broke her, Sugar. My father died of liver cancer when I was in high school—he was never lucky enough to be counted “a survivor.” My grandmother had a brain tumor when I was a newborn; she didn’t live to see my first birthday. As much as I take care of my health, as much as I try to be careful, I have this niggling doubt that my genes are setting me up for failure.

I know you can’t tell me whether or not I will have cancer, and I know you can’t tell me when. But what I’m struggling with—what I need help figuring out—is how to make the decisions in my life while keeping this possibility in mind. You know the decisions I mean: The Big Ones.

How do I decide whether or not to get married? How do I look in to the face of this man I adore and explain to him what he might have to go through if I am diagnosed? And worse, if I don’t make it? I’ve already decided not to have children. How can I saddle a child with something that I don’t even think I can face myself? How do I plan for the future when there may be no future to plan for? They say “live your life to the fullest because there may be no tomorrow,” but what about the consequences of “no tomorrow” on the people that you love? How do I prepare them for what I might have to go through? How do I prepare myself?

Scared of the Future

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And this is the answer I would have given:
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Dear Scared of the Future,

Those questions you asked are REALLY good questions—or can be—if—ifyou don’t let them make you totally neurotic. Meaning, if you can achieve and maintain some precious *balance*—accept the wisdom and perspective and appreciation for life that these questions bring, but refuse the neuroticness and craziness and shrinking from life that they also tempt us with.

And it’s very a tough balance to find and maintain.

Most people don’t think too much about death, and so they tend to make decisions without much perspective, clarity, and or wisdom: they live and love as if life goes on forever—or if it’s at least supposed to go on for a very very long time into the future.

And living in this way invites people to live rather badly and superficially—to skim the surface, to take themselves and others for granted, to consume and shop and buy and spend, to live for themselves, to become greedy, to lust for power, prestige, status, et cetera. In short, to live in denial, and in a way where they are forced to limit and guard their awareness and what they will permit themselves to think about.  Only the safest and superficial things are permitted to be thought about and talked over.

And then if they’re lucky, they get some sort of wake-up call at midlife or soon thereafter—some sort of brush with death and their own mortality. And if that wake-up call actually wakes them up, then they live better, make changes, rethink their life, have a metanoia, live with more grace and appreciation and kindness and perspective. Death does that. Or at least it can.

But this is not your lot, SotF. Living in denial is not your predicament. You’ve been touched by death—by the death and near-death of those nearest and dearest to you. Losing your father in high school? Unbelievably tragic. Your mother’s battle with breast cancer while in college? That was strike three. The verdict: Life can’t be trusted; life is tenuous, fleeting at best; we are fragile, I must be next.

You are wrestling with some pretty profound questions and realizations, SotF. Questions that wise people have wrestled with and become wise for having had the courage to wrestle with—while not letting themselves lose their passion and wonder for life.

The Buddha said: “Life is suffering.” Sickness, old age, death: these things cannot be avoided. But most people try—try desperately, try to avoid these, try to avoid thinking about these dark shouters, these inevitables. It’s called self-preservation: and it’s hard-wired into our DNA; we’re riddled with it. Yet because of this—because of how avoidant most people are in terms of facing their own and other’s mortality—most people wind up impoverishing themselves, leading lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation. Leading lives where they try to distract and anesthetize themselves in a myriad of ways—addictions, relationships, sex, shopping, impulsivity and fanaticism of every kind, mindless reading, elaborate new age metaphysics and soft-minded mumbo-jumbo. And they live and love poorly, badly, superficially, because of it. Because they lack courage. Because they are afraid—and too afraid to face (and really *feel*) how afraid (and lost) they are. There are numerous ways in which we human beings check out from the full intensity of living and loving. There are numerous ways we humans have devised in order to try and avoid suffering and feel like we have some control over our fate and over death.

“There is a great deal of pain in life, and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain.” – R. D. Laing

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.” – Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”

But, again, this is not your lot, SotF. Your situation is different: How do you find (and maintain) balance between the lessons that having death over your left shoulder is teaching you (“carpe . . . carpe diem . . . seize the day, make your life extraordinary . . . !”), and not letting death and the uncertainty you feel in terms of your own remaining life-span make you totally skittish? How do you live and love well and fully amid all of this uncertainty and fear? For you, the question is not: How would I live if I knew I only had one year (or 5 years) to live? It is: Now that I know not to take anything and anyone for granted in life, what do I most want to experience, and who (if anyone) do I most want to experience that with? Who do I want to go through time with—whatever time I have left and he has left? How do I most want to spend myself and my time?

Death is certain; the time of death is not. This is true for us all. Maybe (perhaps even likely, I don’t know) because of the history of cancer in your family, the odds are a bit increased that your time may be up a bit sooner rather than later. But death wins and life loses if you go too far and swing to the opposite side of the equation—if in ways you don’t even realize you are shrinking from living and loving and refusing the gift.
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How do I decide whether or not to get married?

If you love this man deeply, if knowing him has changed your life in ways you could not imagine and still cannot fully fathom for the better and vice versa, if knowing each other is bringing you both more alive, then you look him in the eyes and promise to love him with all that you are for as long as you can and then you go out and do this. Every day. That is the essence of carpe diem.

Read Schweitzer’s essay “Overcoming Death” in “Reverence for Life” (pp. 67-76), read chapter 14 (“Sex, Love, and Death”) in Schnarch’s book “Passionate Marriage,” read C. S. Lewis’s words in the chapter on “Charity” in “The Four Loves.” And watch “Shadowlands,” watch “The Notebook,” and if this is how you feel about your beloved, if this is who you are and who you aspire to be at your core, then marry him, give yourself fully to him, and LOVE him with all that you are and aspire to be.
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How do I look in to the face of this man I adore and explain to him what he might have to go through if I am diagnosed? And worse, if I don’t make it?

If he loves you, if he truly loves you, he will consent to all of this; he will sign on for it. Love is not about sparing someone else inevitable pain or trying to shield them from the brute inevitable facts of life. Love is about facing reality bravely, courageously, with grit, resolve, kindness, compassion, depth, understanding, openness.

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” ― C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves”

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I’ve already decided not to have children. How can I saddle a child with something that I don’t even think I can face myself?

Then death may have already won and claimed you. Consider that. Consider with what you are saying here whether death may not have already won. Consider that.
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How do I plan for the future when there may be no future to plan for? They say “live your life to the fullest because there may be no tomorrow,” but what about the consequences of “no tomorrow” on the people that you love? How do I prepare them for what I might have to go through?

It’s not your job to prepare your spouse or to protect him from your death. Every person has to prepare themselves for their own death and for the death/loss of those they love. Every person has to do this for themselves. No one can do this work for anyone else in life. And having to do this work and prepare for one’s own death and for the deaths of those we love is a horrific thing to have to do; but the alternative—trying to avoid this and spare ourselves and others this—is even more horrific. It leads us to live superficially at best and badly at worst.
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How do I prepare myself?

Be gentle with yourself, treat yourself kindly, and read (Pema Chödrön’s books would be a great place to start), think, write/journal, contemplate, talk, listen, love, live, walk, observe, participate, develop a spiritual practice, meditate, appreciate, be grateful, cry, weep, be open, smile, laugh, breath. Most of all breath. Be good to yourself, be kind to yourself, let yourself love and be loved—yes, this most of all—let yourself really love and be deeply loved.

Nothing is guaranteed. This is so difficult to accept, and like everyone else you are having difficulty accepting this, but you are approaching this from a much different starting point than most. But the crux is still the same: to accept that life does not offer guarantees, and thus to learn how to live and love on life’s terms, and not your own. Acceptance means surrendering some of the control you are so desperately craving; it means relinquishing this, easing up your grip on the proverbial wheel; it means learning to live and let live—it means to let yourself live and truly live.
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***
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And this is the answer that Sugar gave:
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Dear Scared of the Future,

There’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth.

Sometimes when I’m all pretzeled up inside and my own crazy lady is nattering on, I’ll stop and wonder where she got her information. I’ll ask her to reveal her source. I’ll demand some proof. Did her notions come from actual facts based in ration and reason or did she/I dredge them up from the hell pit that burns like a perpetual fire at the bottom of my needy, selfish, famished little soul?

Is there credible evidence that my friends secretly don’t like me very much or were they all simply deep in conversation when I walked into the room and it took them a beat to say hello? Was the acquaintance who said, with class sizes that big, I’d never send my son to public school, actually saying that I was a second-rate mother, recklessly destroying my children because there are thirty kids in their classes, or was she simply sharing her own complex parenting decisions with me? When I receive letters from people who disagree passionately with a particular piece of advice I’ve given in this column is it true that it would be absolutely impossible for every reader to agree with me on every point or that I’m a stupid piece of know-nothing shit who should never write again?

If you asked me to draw a picture of myself I’d draw two. One would be a portrait of a happy, self-confident, regular-looking woman and the other would be a close-up of a giant gaping mouth that’s ravenous for love. Many days I have to silently say to myself: It’s okay. You are loved. You are loved even if some people don’t love you. Even if some people hate you. You are okay even if sometimes you feel slighted by your friends or you sent your kids to school someplace that someone else would not send her kid or you wrote something that riled up a bunch of people.

I have to cut the crazy lady to the quick rather often. Over the years, my emotional well-being has depended on it. If I let her get the upper hand my life would be smaller, stupider, squatter, sadder.

So will yours if you let it, sweet pea.

You have my deepest sympathy and my most sincere understanding, but you’re not thinking clearly on this. You’re granting the crazy lady way too much power. Your sorrow and fear has clouded your ability to be reasonable about your mortality. And if you continue in this vein it’s going to rob you of the life you deserve—the one in which your invisible inner terrible someone finally shuts her trap.

You do not need to look into your lover’s eyes and “explain to him what he might have to go through” should you be diagnosed with cancer. Tell him about your family’s experiences with cancer and about how you made it through those difficult times. Share your fears with him, and your grief. But don’t make the illogical line from your relatives’ real illnesses to your nonexistent one. Only the crazy lady is pretty convinced you’ll get cancer and die young. All the rest of us are entirely in the dark. Yes, you need to be aware of your risks and monitor your health, but do so while remembering that in most cases a genetic history of any given disease is only one predictor of your own likelihood of getting it.

Any of us could die any day of any number of causes. Would you expect your partner to explain what you might have to go through should he die in a car accident, of heart failure, or by drowning? Those are things that could happen too. You are a mortal being like every human and June bug, like every black bear and salmon. We’re all going to die, but only some of us are going to die tomorrow or next year or in the next half century. And, by and large, we don’t know which of us it will be when and of what.

That mystery is not the curse of our existence; it’s the wonder. It’s what people are talking about when they talk about the circle of life that we’re all part of whether we sign up to be or not—the living, the dead, those being born right this moment, and the others who are fading out. Attempting to position yourself outside the circle isn’t going to save you from anything. It isn’t going to keep you from your grief or protect those you love from theirs when you’re gone. It isn’t going to extend your life or shorten it. Whatever the crazy lady whispered in your ear was wrong.

You’re here. So be here, dear one. You’re okay with us for now.

Yours,

Sugar

http://therumpus.net/2011/12/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-92-your-invisible-inner-terrible-someone/

Real Love & The Examined Life


We naturally tend to speak to others in our own love language, meaning we try to love others in the way we would want to be loved, in ways that speak love to us.  This is just part of being human, part and parcel of being a see of awareness born into one set of five senses, an ego limited to a particular skin bag of bones and nerve endings.

But Love—real love—means stretching ourselves to learn how to speak love in a way that speaks to those we love in a way that is more native and natural to them (so long as that way is healthy, of course).   Real love means learning how to speak in other dialects of love—the other person’s dialect.  It means learning to love another in a way that is meaningful to them, even though it may (initially or for a while) be foreign or difficult to us.  That’s part of the self-extension of real love. 

And it involves a lot of paying attention and noticing and thinking.

The other side of the self-extension of real love means stretching how we receive love.  Real love means stretching ourselves and our hearing so that we can receive love from others in a way that is native to them even though it may be foreign or alien to us—meaning even though it may not be our preferred way of being loved.

This is a huge part of what it means to be in a conscious relationship. 

In a truly conscious relationship, both people are focused on increasing their own awareness of themselves and their real underlying motivations and needs and patterns, as well as their awareness of the other person and his or her real motivations and needs—and intending this level of awareness or being fully present 24/7/365.  This is what makes a relationship, by definition, a truly conscious relationship. 

And it’s an inescapable part of leading an examined life. 

And, truth be told, to live anything less than a very mindful and examined and consciously aware life is to waste one’s mind—to forsake it—and live asleep, unconsciously, as if one had never been born.  Or to live as if one had never been born human but instead was an animal.  Perhaps a very successful and pleasant to be around animal, but essentially an animal nonetheless. 

What makes us most human—and what simulaneously most frightens/terrifies/haunts us—is our capacity for self-awareness.  Self-consciousness, self-awareness, is both a tremendous blessing and an onerous curse.  Because the more aware of ourselves we are, the more keenly aware we will be as well of our own mortality, our own finitude, the possibility of a vast pitch-black eternity of nothingness to come after our meager little life has run its course.

“I stick my finger in existence—and it smells of nothing.  Where am I?  Who am I? How did I come to be here?  What is this thing called life? What does it mean?  Who is it that has lured me into the world and why was I not consulted?” – Søren Kierkegaard

We might say that the child is a ‘natural’ coward.  Most of us, by the time we leave childhood, have repressed our vision of the primary miraculousness of creation.  We have closed it off, changed it, and no longer perceive the world as it is to raw experience.  The great boon of repression is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act.

But nature has protected the lower animals by endowing them with instincts.  It is very simple: Animals are not moved by what they cannot react to.  They live in a tiny world, a sliver of reality, one neuro-chemical program that keeps them walking behind their noses and shuts everything else out.

But look at man, the impossible creature.  Here nature seems to have thrown caution to the winds along with the programmed instincts.  She created an animal who has no defense against full perception of the external world, an animal completely open to experience.  Not only in front of his nose, in his ‘umwelt,’ but in many other ‘umweltsen.’  He can relate not only to animals in his own species, but in some ways to all other species.  He can contemplate not only what is edible for him, but everything that grows.  He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now.  He lives not only on a tiny territory, nor even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes.  It is appalling, the burden than man bears.  He doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect.  His own existence is incomprehensible to him, a miracle just like the rest of creation, closer to him but all the more strange.  Each thing is a problem.

Man had to invent and create out of himself the limitations of perception and the equanimity to live on this planet.  And so the core of psychodynamics, the formation of human character, is a study in human self-limitation and in the terrifying costs of that limitation. 

(Ernest Becker, from “ The Denial of Death,” pp. 50-51)

This double-edged sword nature of awareness is what keeps many people from ever becoming very aware of themselves, others, life, and instead forces them to unconsciously, unknowingly, stunt themselves psychologically and emotionally and remain narcissistic, impulsive, unthinking, unreflective, unaware.  Because it just seems easier (meaning less frightening, less terrifying, less disorienting and bewildering) to live that way.  Why trade in a bunch of little niggling nuisance even luxury problems for a set of bonafide and likely irresolvable and unanswerable and perhaps endlessly terrifying existential questions? 

Why submit or surrender oneself to this—to living this honestly?

Why not limit one’s awareness, live dishonestly, and do like the vast majority of other people do and not dedicate oneself to truth and reality but instead dedicate oneself to trivia, distraction, and the art of dissipating oneself and immersing oneself in this and that illusion or fantasy or lie?

This is one of the fundamental philosophic and psychological questions in life, if not THE fundamental question in life: How self-aware to permit ourselves to be?

Or: how much denial and self-deception and dishonesty to allow ourselves to generate and buffer ourselves with.

Real love is based on—and is the fruit of—real self-awareness, real self-honesty, intense soul-searching and self-scrutiny, in other words, a very very examined and highly mindful life.  Or in still yet other words, it’s based on having a truly high-functioning conscience. 

Thus, if a person is not leading a highly mindful and examined and reflective life, then one is not capable of truly loving others or one’s self: one’s love will at best be hit or miss—a mix of acting out one’s feelings, good and bad, and perhaps the fruits of a decent upbringing and many Sunday sermons—or at worse it will be some form of exploitation, robbery/thievery, narcissism, parasiticism.

This is the choice we are all faced with: How aware to permit ourselves to become of ourselves, others, life.

To not permit ourselves to become very aware of ourselves and others and life will mean we will have to live superficially, dissipate our mind on popular fiction and the worst of bestsellers, live in the shallows relationships-wise and conversationally as well, insulate ourselves from those things that (not to mention people who) might overwhelm or frighten us.  It means to commit ourselves to a life of comfort first, a life of ongoing dedication to the path of least resistance, to laziness, to cutting corners, to not extending or stretching ourselves, to stagnating as a person, to stunting and blunting and dulling our awareness, to listening to lots and lots of SportsCenter or Entertainment Tonight, et cetera.  It means committing ourselves to never growing up, to never outgrowing our innate narcissistic (self-centered) and antisocial (unconscientious), and borderline (impulsive, avoidant, emotionally reactive and volatile) tendencies.

On the other hand, to become ever more self-aware and lead an increasingly mindful and examined life will entail a life of discipline, facing challenges, facing reality, thinking, reflecting, reading decent books, courage, non-avoidance, honesty, deliberateness, facing our fears, extending and stretching ourselves and growing vertically or perpendicularly as individuals spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, intellectually.

From M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled,” page 303—

A young woman who had been in therapy with me for a year for a pervasive depression, and who had come to learn a good deal about the psychopathology of her relatives, was exultant one day about a family situation that she had handled with wisdom, equanimity, and facility. 

“I felt really good about it and myself,” she said. “I wished I could feel that way more often.”

I told her that  she could, pointing out to her that the reason she had felt so well was that for the first time in dealing with her family she was in a position of power, being aware of all of their distorted communications and the devious ways in which they attempted to manipulate her into fulfilling their unrealistic demands, and therefore she was on top of the situation.  I told her that as she was able to extend this type of awareness to other situations she would find herself increasingly “on top of things” and therefore experience that good feeling more and more frequently.

She looks at me with the beginning of a sense of horror.

“But that would require me to be thinking all the time!” she said.

I agreed with her that it was through a lot of thinking that her personal power would evolve and be maintained, and that she would be rid of the feeling of powerlessness at the root of her depression.

She became furious.  “I don’t want to have to have to think all the goddamn time!” she roared.  “I didn’t come here for my life to be made more difficult.  I just want to be able to relax and enjoy myself, have fun, and enjoy a comfortable life.  You expect me to be some sort of god or something!”

Sad to say, it was shortly afterward that this potentially brilliant woman terminated treatment, far short of being healed, terrified of the demands that real mental health would require of her.