Taking the full measure of life

On Wishing & Wisdom

August 22nd, 2008 · 10 Comments

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Wishing has power–not necessarily in a magical or religious sense (though maybe?), but because when you formulate a solid wish for your life, you set yourself up to put the wheels of your life in motion, allowing you to move toward your desire.  Or at least, you can use the wish as the catalyst for your life.  You can also make a wish and do nothing except see if it comes to you.  Some people seem to do that, but I’m generally of the former type.  If I want something specific, and I realize that I want it with all my heart—and if I don’t let fear of trying hold me back—I use that desire in my heart to propel myself toward what I want.

I’ve recently enjoyed reading The Wishing Year by Noelle Oxenhandler, which is the story of a woman, a year, and three very disparate wishes.  Part of what I found compelling about The Wishing Year was how Noelle treated the idea of wishing’s personal history in her life–the effects of a Jewish and Catholic upbringing, with a heap of Buddhism and some classic American consumerism thrown in as she grew.  The tensions that Noelle feels among the rituals and beliefs about wishing—about wanting, and what it is appropriate to want—in these traditions create a complex web of thought and emotion in her mind.  Her experiences with the process echoed some of the experiences I’ve had when I’ve tried to parse the same topics in my mind and spirit.

I do believe that wishes can have power. And while I do not believe, for a second, that ‘we ask for everything the universe brings us’ (otherwise, I’d be saying women ask to get raped, children ask to get molested, etc.), I do believe that when we make powerful choices in our lives about how to cope with the situations we are presented.  Even people who seem powerless in situations may make decisions that give them wisdom and some control of their situation through perception and the small things they can control.  I have been amazed at what some people I know have survived–coming through it toughened, altered, but reaching a new point of thriving nonetheless.

I’d like to think I’ve always been growing and learning, though I can think of times when I was so bogged down in my life’s dramas that I felt stagnated by them; when I felt afraid, at times, that I would even slip permanently into depression or deeper mental illness.  I worry less about that now, worry only fleetingly, really; one of my great wishes for my life was to create stability for myself.  The process of reaching a relative point of stability (as much stability as a person can control, at least) required hard work on my finances, my self-care, my relationships, and my career, among other areas.  Having stabilized my finances with the dissolution of debt and the development of savings, having stabilized my love life with a patient, good-hearted, eager man as my husband, I turned more of my work inward at the beginning of 2007.  And as you know if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, it’s been a process that’s altered my life immeasurably.  I can honestly say I don’t know the last period of my life when I’ve grown as much as I have in the last 2-3 years.

And on it goes.  I used to think (I can be amazingly naive, I assure you) that when I got to be an adult, I would have life figured out.  I thought that’s what happened to adults.  I clung to this belief even as I became an adult, even as I watched the lives of several people a generation older fall to pieces, even as I realized my parents were average humans and not in any way omniscient beings.  I was dashed against this belief as life’s storms revealed my enormous imperfections and ineptitude, wondering when when when I would finally reach the peace of the shiftless foundation that I thought adulthood would provide.

Now I get it, at least a bit more.  To be frantic is bad, but to sit too still, for too long, is to stagnate.  We have to grow and adapt for our entire lives.

Honestly, I think maybe I’ll go through another round of that dissolution when I have a kid of my own looking up to me; I could see myself feeling a bit of panic about needing to be a knowledgeable figure for this little one.  But I found very wise what a new mom once told me about parenting:  “Right before my daughter was born,” the mom said, “I thought about everything from birth to first words to boyfriends to college, and I panicked.  But when I held her for the first time, I realized that I don’t have to deal with all of that simultaneously.  I just have to deal with today, and not even that, but just this very moment. Can we cope with this moment? Okay.  The rest will come in time.”

It’s so true, isn’t it? Not just for children, but for life in general. Let’s picture what I could have said to myself, if I’d known what was coming at 14 or 16 or 18, with a focus on potentially panic-inducing events:

“Sally, the relationship with the first guy you love will break down as you break down.  In a depressed panic over your crumbling life, you’ll leave one college for another. Your father will cheat on your mother, and your parents will get divorced.  Financially, you’ll panic regularly throughout college over your very limited funds.  Several of your friends will be raped in college; you’ll learn another was molested much of the time you’ve known her.  There will be a major, televised terrorist attack on your country; you will watch over 3000 of your countrymen die, and the occurrence will throw much into disarray, leading your country into war and taking the country in a potentially dark direction. You’ll have two surgeries for cancer, and your medical problems will seem endless.  You’ll lose many of your friends with your first cancer surgery.  Your once-amusing fear of tsunamis will be realized with a tsunami that kills hundreds of thousands of people in several countries, breaking your heart with their losses and perhaps forever altering your view of the ocean. You’ll be confusedly engaged at 23 and then cope with a broken engagement before you are 25–at which time you will feel horrified with your body as you weigh in at about 225 pounds.  You will feel lonelier than you have ever thought possible.  Your finances will seem like a black hole you cannot escape.  One of your sisters will stop speaking to you, perhaps permanently. Six months after you marry, your beloved husband will get in a horrible car accident that will shake up your life.  Oh, and you won’t be able to eat most of what you eat now by the time you’re 27 because of food allergies and gluten intolerance.”

I would’ve wanted to die rather than go through all of that.  Instead, I have gotten to weather each storm as it came—and grow from each one, in time:  sometimes quite painfully.  Of course, I’ve also gotten to experience many beautiful, striking, wonderful, awe-inspiring, and/or peaceful events, as well.  Through it all, I’ve had the opportunity to become someone who realizes that there is an amazing, mature beauty that adults possess through the ability to continue to grow over time—through the commitment and will to keep moving, and keep growing, no matter what comes, with the knowledge that even if life is never what we might have expected, it can still hold purpose, meaning, and beauty.  And we can become wise, which we could never achieve through stagnation.

My husband told me a story about a pottery teacher working with two groups of new students for a long class.  To one group of students, she said, “Your goal is to make one perfect pot.  Your final grade will be based on you turning in as perfect a pot as possible.”  To the second group she said, “Your goal is to make as many pots as possible.  Your final grade will be based on the volume of pots you turn in at the end of the class.”  At the end of the class, the students who had tried to create only one perfect pot had created only mediocre results.  The students who had produced many pots over the course of the class had honed their skills so that the final pots they created were beautiful to behold.

We are those potters, and the pots are our lives’ moments.  We don’t have one shot at this life as a whole.  We’re refined over time–one event at a time, one wish at a time; coping with what may come, and reaching for what we most want. Or we can be, at least; we can choose to be.

Tags: on the soapbox

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ricki // Aug 22, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    It is truly amazing, isn’t it, what we as humans can endure? People are amazingly resilient. What a beautiful, thought-provoking, uplifting post.

  • 2 Andrew is getting fit // Aug 23, 2008 at 1:13 am

    I love this post. 🙂

  • 3 Betsy // Aug 23, 2008 at 5:34 am

    What a lovely post, Sally. But the paragraph about all the hardships in your life–it’s interesting to try it the other way round, too. Sometimes, when I feel stressed and terrible, as though here I am treading water and getting nowhere at all, either personally or professionally, I think to myself all the things that I could have never anticipated would happen: I married a thoughtful, intelligent person; I worked in one of the country’s best museums; I’ve published; I was accepted to a great program in my field; I have a wonderful nephew; I cook so much better! None of these things did I plan or expect. It makes me realize I shouldn’t be so wed to stability that I stagnate–I have to try new things. I can’t plan my life and try to live it precisely in that way; I’d miss so much if I did.

  • 4 Betsy // Aug 23, 2008 at 5:36 am

    Which is what your post was saying, of course!

  • 5 Cheryl // Aug 23, 2008 at 8:15 am

    Yo u ‘re so right. Often it seems that when we are faced with new challenges, ones we never wanted or expected to face, we find beauty, strength and knowledge beyond our wildest expectations!
    As always, thanks so much for sharing so eloquently.

  • 6 BinikiMe // Aug 23, 2008 at 11:54 am

    Beautiful, beautiful post.

  • 7 Hannah Celeste // Aug 23, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Most excellent post. I have been thinking something very similar recently. In fact, just today I was telling my husband that if I knew what various events in my life would be like (or how I would feel) then I wouldn’t want to go through any of it–which is why sometimes it’s just NECESSARY and good to not to that and just take things as they come. But oh the anxiety sometimes!

    One good thing to remember is that people who care enough about their fellow man, themselves and life in general are people that are generally ‘on path’ and make great strides in learning about themselves and their world. It’s the people who just don’t care what they to do themselves or other that should be concerned. I mean, not to the point of obsession. But a desire and a motivation to experience life and understand it is what it’s all about!

  • 8 G.G. // Aug 23, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    Lovely post.

  • 9 Jenn // Aug 25, 2008 at 7:10 am

    What a beautiful post. It was exactly what I needed to read this morning.

  • 10 Teresa // Aug 25, 2008 at 11:59 am

    Lovely post. Isn’t amazing how some people can rise to a challenge. Thank you for sharing, I appreciate the comment you left.

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