There is a wish in all of us to be able to get around troubles in life rather than go through them.
If only we could skip from the beginning to the end without having to go through the middle…
If only we could skip the pain and just have the pleasure…
If only we could skip the classes and just get the diploma…
If only we could skip the dating and just get to the happy marriage…
If only we could skip the marriage and just get to the happy…
But then there are the deeper wishes.
If only we could skip the littleness and just be big…
If only we could skip the needing and just be full…
If only we could skip the anxiety and just be at peace…
If only we could skip the confusion and just know…
If only we could skip the conflict and just be friends…
One of the great truths of psychoanalysis is that life does not work that way—and that it is a good thing that it doesn’t work that way. A satisfying life is not found in arriving at some ideal state but in growing through all the experiences between A and Z.
Rick Steves, the ultimate travel guide, urges travelers to approach their trip, from beginning to end, as a real journey not just a series of inconveniences that one must go through to reach some ultimate destination. The richness of travel comes in the experiences in the airport, with the person who helps you with your luggage, with the jerk who steals your cab, with the Italian who blows you a kiss, with the child who helps translate the basic German you learned through Rosetta Stone. The Grand Canyon is amazing to behold, but what really touches you is getting through the heaving lungs and aching knees while you hike it—and the cold beer in the end! You can buy a stunning photo of The Pyramids to hang on your wall, but it is a million times better if you and your family actually are there!
Lately, I have found myself saying (through the experience of the previously mentioned construction project that is still not quite done), “I just want it to be over!” This experience, like so many in my life, has stirred up a lot of anxiety. On the surface, there are anxieties about spending too much money, picking the wrong paint color, discovering problems I didn’t know about. But I know that is not really what I am worried about; mostly, I feel that the final result will be great. What I really worry about, at a deeper level, are all of the painful feelings that I must go through between here and there. I worry that we are going to get into a fight with the contractor, or that he will take advantage of us. I worry that I am being greedy by giving myself something so pleasing. I worry that I will not be able to take it—that I will crack up under the stress and have a tantrum or a meltdown. But I also know, from experience, that I will enjoy the project more because I have been so involved in bringing it about—by going through the experience, I make it more my own.
These worries tell so much about my inner world because I am having them in a stressful situation that is going reasonably well. Such worries are amplified exponentially when we are facing even greater pressures—illness, grief, divorce, unemployment, death, an unknown future. In these more distressing experiences, we feel even more pressure behind our wish to have it to be OVER! It takes real courage to face life as it comes, step by step, just as it is. It takes real courage to be present to our experiences so that they can touch us, shape us, and enrich us. So that they belong to us.
I will always treasure the memory of one of my dearest friends who helped herself to courageously face an extended and ultimately terminal illness. She taped a note to her computer and looked at it every day, week after week, month after month, as she faced the roller coaster ride of battling cancer. With a nod to Ram Dass, the note said, “Be here now.”
We can try to get around life. We can try to take a short-cut around the pain. We can try to circumvent the difficulties. But we can’t actually avoid the journey. If we try to do so, then the short-cutting itself becomes the journey. And that is what we will most regret. Through all of our days—and at the end of all of our days—we do well to be guided by my friend’s motto. Be here now.
I leave you with the gift of a favorite poem of mine, by Ellen Bass…
The thing is
to love life
to love it even when you have no
stomach for it, when everything you’ve held
dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands
and your throat is filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you so heavily
it’s like heat, tropical and moist
thickening the air so it’s heavy like water
more fit for gills than lungs.
When grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief.
How long can a body withstand this? you think,
and yet you hold life like a face between your palms,
a plain face, with no charming smile
or twinkle in her eye,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.