On dealing with the ephemeral nature of emotions and life.
This past week, I failed to achieve a goal that was meaningful to me. I felt a bit disappointed at first. And then really disappointed. And then I spiraled downward into an abyss of sadness that I couldn’t seem to escape. Life felt empty, I cried without provocation, I couldn’t get inspired about anything. Until, you know, the next day. Impermanence with the illusion of endurance is one of the paradoxes of pain. Somehow, we are more willing to accept that our joy or happiness won’t last, but anguish and upset seem set in stone while they’re happening. Fortunately, I recently had an experience of physical pain that taught me a valuable lesson.
A few weeks ago, I had one of my 3-day TMJ headaches. These are quite excruciating and definitely debilitating. But I’ve had them fairly regularly for several years, and I know what to expect and how long they last. So while I dread getting one, I no longer resist it when it’s happening. I know that I need to hunker down in the den and distract myself with television. Reading is impossible, as is any movement. My husband knows the routine, too. He serves me tea and food in my temporary sickbed, adjusts the room temperature as needed, and brings up hot and cold packs for my head. And I endure. Sometimes the pain makes me cry, but that is only when I am starting to resist, thinking it shouldn’t be this way, wishing it was gone. This time, I just reminded myself that this, too, shall pass. It won’t last. 2 more days. 1 more day. Almost done.... Thankfully, Turner Classic Movies was showcasing 31 days of Oscar-nominated and -winning films, so I was well tucked in.
When I experienced this past week’s disappointment, I couldn’t access the transience of it while it was happening. But once it passed, I made the connection of pain being ephemeral, whether emotional or physical. I decided to use my headache experience, where I could step back and see a more long-term view, and map it onto my recent distress by doing a little test with myself. Now here is where aging is of great advantage — we have access to retrospection. I did a quick analysis of my life by writing down the following categories that matter to me, listing them in the left margin of my journal: Career, Health, Happiness, Relationships, Contribution, Finance, Satisfaction. Then across the top of the page, I made 3 columns: Age 30, Age 40, and Age 50. In each one, I did a general summary about each category, and then examined the direction through the past few decades. Has the area improved? Declined? Gone up and down? Down and up? Here are my conclusions...
The things I think will make me happy — career, finance, health — have all decreased, but my happiness has increased. The only other category with the same trajectory is relationships. And there it was in black and white. My happiness is correlate not with external circumstances, but with the quality of my relationships — including, and especially, my relationship with myself. It seemed like the right answer, all zen-like and enlightened. But it was not the answer I wanted. I wanted an excuse, a reason, an incentive to focus more on my career, my finances, and my health. To make matters worse, it turns out that my satisfaction is directly correlated with my contribution to others. Well, damn. What is an ambitious, poor, sick girl to do? Give up on my goals? Sacrifice my dreams? Settle for less? And then it hit me.
Nurturing relationships and contributing to others are not actions contrary to succeeding in career, finance, or health. This is not news to me. What my little analysis tells me is that I have inadvertently imposed a divide between these important areas of my life, and that has created a false separation. It’s like I’ve been trying to use my left arm and right eye for one area, a foot and an ear in another, and the rest of me divvied up among the remaining categories. I can’t function fully in one area if I’m not whole in all of them. The only thing to do is to unite my drivers with my goals. To remember that I am not compartments to be distributed, but one whole person, available to give myself fully to any area I choose. This doesn’t mean I won’t sometimes be disappointed, but I can be all in while remembering that all of life is transitory. Right now, my career, my finances, and my health, are in the 3-day-headache stage of my life. All there is to do is to take care and tuck in. It won’t last. 2 more days. 1 more day. Almost done....
From A Run In My Stocking: Confessions of A Recovering Perfectionist www.aruninmystocking.com