My family and I recently found out that we are expecting another child- a little brother to our precious little princess. The last several weeks especially have been tough- not just the physical reminders of this beautiful little soul taking up residence but the emotional and philosophical questions that come with it and the journey through my own relationships as we prepare to complete our family. I have realized that I have been, am being, scarred for life.
I am convinced that no one has the perfect family- nuclear or extended. There are ups and downs, trials and successes, bumps, detours, and burned bridges abound. My childhood was rarely joyful and often difficult. My parents had issues, individually, in their marriage, and with their children. When I was young I thought this was unique to us, my friends seemed so happy and I felt in a chasm of sadness fighting to breathe. I knew at a very young age that I had to escape, I knew I wasn’t meant for the life I had been born into and when I was 19 I did. I moved to a state where I didn’t know a single soul, I found a fresh start in salty air and in those 8 months there figured out just enough about myself to get a game plan on paper—which led me to another state where I knew no one. Along my way, over the four years or so since I’d left my family’s home I found myself pulled back into their lives. The difference was that now it was on my terms- I had severed my anger and resentment and was able to build those relationships into what I knew was healthy. You can’t ‘escape’ your past, I knew that but I had gotten desperate. And I couldn’t be happier with the choices I’d made to become myself. You have to make peace with your past, and I have. Most of my family and I are on spectacular terms- due to growth on both ends and healthy boundaries that I have seen over and again are vitally necessary for everyone’s health.
In my “journey” (I know, that sounds like a cheesy self help book’s intro) one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn is that just because you put work and reflection and intention into your life doesn’t mean that others do the same. Just because you love someone, especially someone you’re bound to forever (in my case my siblings especially), doesn’t mean that you can save them. Your advice, however brilliant and probably universal, isn’t applicable in word form. You cannot tell someone your lesson and they learn it- they have to put in the time, effort, reflection, sweat, tears, and intention themselves or else all that brilliance is merely empty words. Buddha said that ‘No one saves us but ourselves. No one can. And no one may”. My revelation has been not that this is true (that’s fairly obvious), but that the reverse is as well. We can’t save someone else. No matter how much we love them. No matter how much we try. And when we martyr ourselves for someone who isn’t ready to save themself, we become an exercise in futility and waste. That’s a hard lesson. It’s a painful realization to accept when you consider that that may mean your big sister, little brother, mother, father, or even child.
I believe that we are surrounded by competing ideologies. Half the world thinks “everything happens for a reason” and “things just work themselves out”. The other half knows that more often than not things happen because of the choices we make and that things don’t ‘sort themselves out’ like an autopilot button- people work things out for you and you think they work themselves out. Obviously I fall more towards the latter theory of life. And while some things in life might fall squarely in one camp or the other, most of life is a balance of those ideas. Yes, as my 94 year old grandmother says, “Shit Happens”. But, as she also reminds us, “Life is about what you do about it”. Too many people want to blame “shit” for their problems. They think that sticking their heads in the sand will result in their problems magically disappearing by the time they decide to peek out (and when that isn’t the case they stick their heads back in the sand so quickly you barely noticed they moved). It’s tempting, when we see a loved one with their heads in the sand, their backs bent and hearts heavy, to try to save them. Our heart begs us to pick them up, sand and all, and move them away from their problems. It tries to allow us to convince ourselves we can dress up their problems in shiny ribbons and spit-shine their faults. The problem is that those problems follow them (and if you’re carrying them that means they follow you, too) or the spit shine wears off and their battered, beaten faults are still there. The only way to make them go away is to address them. Not for you to address them, but for them to. Your role, if you really love someone, is to stand next to them or behind them, hold their hand, rub their backs, envelope them with your love and support. Otherwise, you’re just enabling them and their problems, faults, and mistakes only grow bigger and start to cast shade on you, too.
Perhaps the hardest part of this hardest lesson is: understanding that sometimes, too often, these people that you love so dearly have no intention of changing anything. They have no intention of growing up, of maturing, of changing one thing in their lives. Maybe they’re happy in their sorrows, maybe they’re terrified of the unknown despite the despair of the now, maybe they just don’t want to put in the effort. This is what makes that oft-repeated Serenity Prayer so impossible “The serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the WISDOM to know the difference”. If I ever have these three things I will consider myself fully grown.
Again, the reverse is true. As much as you can’t save anyone, neither can they save you. You can’t put your head in the sand and expect your parents, siblings, spouse, or child to change your world, either. If you look around and don’t like where you’re standing and what you’re standing in, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Roll up your sleeves, get dirty (ie accept the crap you created), and change your position. A definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and again and expecting different results and yet an increasingly overwhelming majority of people do just this. It is this idea of self-justification that they just KNOW they’re handling something right and if they keep doing the same thing they’ll be rewarded. I’ve yet to see that happen. Ever. Your life is a result of your attitude and your actions, period.
I’ve also learned a lot about myself. Mostly extensions of the aforementioned principles. I came to terms with my first two decades and those who had played roles in it (many positive). I spent some time in therapy- a fantastic tool I can’t recommend enough. It was enlightening because I hadn’t always thought about events and circumstances through others’ perspectives. It’s humbling, honestly. It’s not that I was wrong (or right), or that what I felt was fair (or wasn’t), it was that everything in life is complicated and sometimes the clearest understanding of life is only achieved through multiple angles. I truly believe that even the most genuinely happy and “put together” people in this world could benefit from therapy, from a neutral third party who is able to reframe your thought and force you to consider alterations to your attitude. I’m also convinced that too many people are so trapped in a tunnel vision within their own world of pain they don’t see the shadows they cast on others.
I conclude these drawn out and complicated thoughts with hope. Because I “found” peace in my life I have hope. I actually hate that phrase- “found” makes it sound like you just stumbled upon it like a penny one day out on your way to get groceries. Like everything else in life you have to fight for that hope. Fighting seems to have this negative connotation in today’s society of laid back and detached laziness. Fighting is a good thing- more often than not you are fighting yourself- fighting all your own fears, insecurities, faults, and pain to save the hope, grace, serenity, and courage that you can achieve. They’re not rights, you don’t deserve these things just because you breathe oxygen, they’re rights of passage, proof of growth, scars of battles hard fought. I have scars that you cannot see at first glance. They do not mar my face, they do not limp my gait. They soften my heart, clear my mind, and strengthen my resolve.
These are some of the lessons I want to pass on to my children. It’s so difficult because I know that simply saying this knowledge will do no good. They’ll believe what they see. They have to see me fight in life. They have to see me help them without solving their problems for them. They have to stumble, fall, skin their knees, and have their hearts broken. And they have to see me standing there with a full heart when they look up from their pain. With a band-aid, with an ice pack, (later on) with a glass of wine… I want them to earn their scars, as painful as it will be for me to watch it happen. Experience and observation have made me absolutely certain that true success and empathy in life are essentially impossible without this ‘journey’. No parent who loves their children wants to see them experience even the slightest bit of pain, but even less do we want to see them unhappy, unsuccessful, and lost- which is the alternative.