Difficulty keeps the struggle away
Do you find you often feel like life is a struggle? Despite my best efforts at mindful acceptance and letting go of that which I cannot control, I sure do. I don’t think I was born with struggle on my mind. In fact, when I reflect on some of my profound childhood disappointments – disappointments that range in intensity from my failure to win the Tiger Beat contest and meet Ralph Macchio to my parents’ first split – I remember bouncing back from these heartbreaks rather quickly (albeit with the help of a lot of ice cream and Ding Dongs). Perhaps “bouncing back” is another way to say “denial,” but I was the kid who ran barefoot through the grass, who marveled for hours on end at the stars, and who joyfully chased and caught fireflies only to let them go so they could fly free. To this day, I still consider myself an optimist, although in between then and now something inside me changed. I don’t ascribe this change to my daughter’s illness, but her illness and my ensuing education woke me up to the realization that struggle had become my way of life, my default point of view.
Months ago, I began to think in earnest about my notions surrounding struggle. Actually, what happened was that I asked myself why everything has to be so fucking hard. Why, with as much gratitude as I have for the changes in my life and my daughter’s life, was I finding it so hard, still, to be a wife and a mother and a friend and a writer and, well, just about everything.
I’m a fan of using mindfulness to solve questions like these because mindfulness is the tool that makes the unconscious conscious. So using mindfulness practice in its simplest form – which means I simply thought a lot – I reflected on my struggles and wondered what I could do to change them. While I cogitated, I did the other thing I do best: I studied. I read Ram Dass articles and watched more of Pema Chödrön’s “Making Friends With Yourself” e-course. I reviewed the notes I took. I pulled my Brené Brown books off the shelf and Buddhism For Beginners and thumbed through the well-worn pages, and then I watched three weeks worth of educational videos from Mrs. Mindfulness’s free on-line mindfulness summit. I could study mindfulness for a lifetime and not learn all it has to teach me, but I did figure one important thing out about struggle.
My basic understanding of suffering is this: We suffer because life is in a constant state of flux, called impermanence, and we cling to or grasp for that which we cannot have, which is for life to stay the same. Pain cannot be avoided and is an inherent part of life. We struggle against the pain. We struggle to avoid the pain. Here’s the rub: the struggle begets more pain and more struggle and more pain and so on in an endless vicious cycle. This was an unhappy realization. Of course I try to avoid pain. Who doesn’t? What I went on to figure out, though, is that there is a profound difference between living in a constant state of struggle and facing life’s difficulties. I didn’t have to change my life; I needed to change my thinking about my life.
This is hard to explain because I can’t quantify struggle and difficulty in measurements that make sense, like having six inches of difficulty is much better and less painful than having twelve inches of struggle. The difference between the two is as easy and as hard as understanding that it’s all in how we think about them. Energy that inhabits our body relative to struggle is much different than the energy relative to difficulty, like the difference between a feather landing on your heart and a boulder. When we face a difficulty, we accept the situation as it is, without judgment, and we don’t fight against it. We can regard the situation from a more detached place, and decide how to act in response accordingly. We feel lighter and more clear-headed. At least, that’s the ultimate goal. Sounds good, in theory. I decided to try it first in small doses.
When I dropped the container of blueberries and they rolled all over the kitchen floor and under the fridge, instead of screaming out curse words and shaking my fist at the sky, I took a deep breath and said, “Well, that sucked,” and I dropped to my knees to clean it up. I even tried to laugh a little. One day when I was trying to write, I stared at my blank computer screen and blinking cursor and nothing entered my mind. I mean not a single word or phrase or image entered my mind. Instead of slamming the computer’s cover down and declaring myself a shit-ass writer, I took a deep breath and said, “No big. Come back to it later.” I grabbed my coloring book and walked away. I considered these changes real progress and was excited about them. I was excited because I could feel the difference inside me. Eventually, I practiced trying to view more intense struggles as mere difficulties until a couple of weeks ago when what I’d learned was put to a big test.
A few things happened to me and to my daughter that were painful and ignited intense struggle in both of us. Now, writing about the specific events would require the telling of stories that would “out” certain people – people whose words and deeds were hurtful and cruel and who have not volunteered to make appearances here. I would have thought most of these people would have known better, but I also understand that some of them, for reasons beyond their control, simply can’t know better. Telling these stories would undoubtedly cause hurt feelings in return and would, in the long run, change nothing. Since my intention for this site is not to use it for harm or revenge, I’m going to by-pass the details of what happened because the details aren’t the point. The aftermath is the point, and the aftermath’s ability to teach me important lessons about a change in thinking.
Truth be told, over these last few weeks, I desired more than once to punch someone in the face. Sweet little Tracey? you may wonder. Shocking, I know. I even imagined punching this person repeatedly, until the nose bled and a tooth came loose – a good example of my lack of acceptance and struggle. The good news, aside from the fact that I would never act on these thoughts, is that in the midst of imagining twelve rounds in the ring I noticed a big change in myself. My tendency to want to hurt people who hurt me has reduced in frequency, duration, and severity. Yay me! Practice paid off. I wasn’t so sure, however, that the same reduction in frequency, duration, and severity could be said of my feelings toward those who hurt my daughter.
People who hurt my daughter and impede her precious progress piss me off – majorly – mostly because I’m her mom and that’s my job, but also because handling adversity is not her strongest suit. She’s a teenager, for god’s sake. Of course her emotions are going to be more incendiary than an adult’s. Also, one of the primary parts of the brain affected by depression is the amygdala, the integrative center for emotions. In layman’s terms, teen-hood coupled with a malfunctioning emotion center is what is called a “double whammy.” And though we’re working on it, she hasn’t had enough time to develop an understanding that she is more than the sum of her thoughts or that she can gain control over those thoughts and her reactions to them. In other words, as well-versed as she is in positive coping skills and therapy speak, when I talk about mindfulness, struggle, and the like, she thinks I’m full of crap. My best intentions often fall on deaf ears. I have a lot of work left to do, and for better or worse, get plenty of opportunities to do it, like the other night.
My daughter lay on her bed full of rage and despair over certain of the aforementioned events. I sat down beside her to provide support and maybe a little comfort. She looked at me and said, “I just don’t understand the point of all of this. I’m suffering all the time. Everything’s a struggle. I don’t think there’s anything to look forward to.”
Oddly excited by this teachable moment, I thought, Here’s my chance! It’s taken me forty-seven years to start figuring this shit out. If I could impart some of my hard-earned wisdom to my daughter, I figured, maybe I’ll see her reap the benefits before I’m bedridden and wearing diapers. And I know for a fact that she’s come far enough in her recovery to experience moments of happiness and joy and does not feel all the time like life is a struggle. All I had to do was clarify it for her. I jumped right in.
“I know life feels that way sometimes, Babe, like such a struggle,” I said, hoping to sound like I was validating her feelings. “But I can tell you for sure that there are ways you can learn how to address those feelings and change them. Not by ignoring them, that only makes them worse, but with techniques that can change your point of view.” That’s when I had an epiphany. I realized that I’d made more progress shifting my own point of view than I’d originally thought. Sitting on the edge of her bed, I was sad and disappointed and angry at what had happened, yes, but I hadn’t sunk into a quagmire of my emotions and I wasn’t stuck there. My negative and downright violent thoughts had equilibrated, even toward those people that had hurt my daughter. The change was not instantaneous by any stretch, more like the slow descent off a high peak, but it was change nonetheless. New thinking made my progress possible. My brain’s wheels started spinning, preparing a speech for my daughter about how to accept life’s difficulties.
“Life doesn’t have to be so hard all the time,” I continued, and took a breath. I opened my mouth to speak again when she interrupted me.
“Mom,” she said.
“I’d like to be alone. Would you please leave?”
“Oh,” I said, deflated. “Um. Okay. I guess we can talk later.” I rose from her bed and headed toward the door. At the threshold I turned and hoped to have the final say, to sneak in a few educational tidbits. The stink-eye look she shot in my direction told me all I needed to know about what would happen if I opened my mouth. I turned on my heel and walked out the door, forced to remember again that my daughter has her own lessons to learn in her own way and in her own time. If she needs forty-seven years to do it, well, that’s my difficulty to accept. I walked down the hall and let my hurt feelings go. Optimistically, I have zero doubt that life will serve us plenty more difficulties to navigate.
That’s my two cents. What’s yours: What’s your point of view regarding difficulty and struggle? Do you see a difference between the two? How does one or the other manifest in your life?