Yesterday, sitting amongst an intimate group of women in their thirties, one of my students asked me, “Does life keep getting better?” I closed my eyes and paused, searching within for my true experience. The women groaned, interpreting my silence as, “Uh oh, bad news.” I explained to them that the question is a profound one, and that I needed time to locate my response.
After my students left and over the next several hours, I found myself continually returning to the question. First, it was interesting to me that already their experience was one of improvement every year of their lives. Did I view my life that way?
A good starting question for me was, “Define better.” I have spent my adolescent and adult life in search of understanding and experiences that are healing and transformative. “What would need to have happened or be happening in order for me to feel my life is getting better with time and these efforts?” I asked myself. I’d need to feel an overall lightening, more joy, ease, sense of freedom. Gladness to be here on the earth in my body with my personality and essence.
After four decades do I feel…better? Do I have a sense of having made “progress?” What would be the signs of that? Would I be free of old burdens, doubts, fears, paralysis, stories and behaviors? Am I?
I’ve spent my life “working on myself” with the idea and goal of being rid of self-hating, self-punishing, self-cruel and self-deprecating thoughts, perceptions and behaviors – towards myself and also as evidenced by outward behaviors. What would I have if I were free of those? Happiness, freedom, empowerment, easeful positive self-talk, self-care and self-compassion. I’d finally “like myself” as my Dad indicated I “should” when I was a teenager. I’d be able to have fun and intimate relationships within which I’d feel safe, confident and open. I’d know that indeed I can and do love and am loved. I don’t feel any of that. Not all the time. There are moments of that “perfection” but I have learned to count on them as fleeting. This has been disappointing and to my perfectionism, evidence of still not having arrived at the destination of ever-abiding peace. I have wanted a fixed universe, a final arrival that remains in the desired, non stress-inducing state. Not happening.
So what if Life (ever paradoxical and maddeningly impossible to figure out once and for all) is simply (ha!) complex beyond comprehension, conceptual containment and control? I have been brought to the ground in the past months. Illness and resultant debilitation helping my mortar to weaken, crumble and fall apart. Forced to relinquish expectations of ever getting it, solving it, being done and there and without feeling– which I thought would be proof of happiness.
Instead, I bow my head, vanquished, and humbly admit, finally, that I don’t know how much time I have left and so, okay, I’ll submit myself to the messy experiment of interrelation, community, vulnerability, emotions, ups and downs and just being in Life knowing that I know nothing. Of course I did this before, but with more trepidation, rigid requirements and expectations.
So, is life better now? Well, yes. Is it happier and unchangingly so? I feel greater fullness and joy more often. As I put myself out there and share my fear, confusion, rage, hurt, dependency, childishness and lack of experience due to a lifetime of shame, silence and hiding – I find for the first time that I do actually like myself.
Who knew that facing, feeling and exposing my feelings would lead to what I always wanted: a sense of wholeness, self-knowing, acceptance and kindness. A warming, melting heart. Who knew that having needs and considering them as important and legitimate and worth tending to – whether lovingly or clumsily – would be medicine for my spiritual, emotional, mental (and surely physical) ailments? I grew up understanding that happiness was “good” and other feelings were “bad.” I tried to bash, numb, anhilate and ignore the “bad” ones and they didn’t go away and I didn’t feel better. Not for long, anyhow. I judged myself a failure and that made me even more unhappy; further compounding my complexity and hopelessness around ever undoing the tangle of knots in my brain, heart and spirit.
So now, here I am, having submitted to being human and part of that “race”.
Only, I’ve also given up the race or hurry part. I used to live in panic of not doing enough, not doing well, of wasting and failing the invisible and grave exam that I thought my life was. Running on the treadmill of time, never knowing what the test was and therefore at a disadvantage, unable to prepare and win and finally be “loved” by “God.” I thought it was a handicap that I couldn’t figure “it” out, which might be true, but I don’t expect to know and therefore “have” that now. Instead, I have my days and moments living blind, but with more heart, less worry, greater self-forgiveness and yes, ease.
Life is better, but not in a permanently upward swing kind of way. In a deeper, mellower and more tender way. What I finally told my students was this:
You ask whether life keeps getting better. In my experience life has gotten more profound. The gains are greater and so are the losses. Moving through Life and time is an exchange. One exchanges the excruciating realization of less time (finiteness and the increasingly undeniable inevitability of mortality) for greater understanding, wisdom, acceptance, open-heartedness and Love. Love for life, self, being human, physicality, the vast and myriad varieties of earthly manifestation: creativity, nourishment, beauty and generosity. As well as the underside of All: deterioration, unfairness, death.
I also shared with this group of women each on her own quest for authenticity and a meaningful life the following:
With more time here on the planet my perception and experience of Life is expanding and transforming, ever opening like a lotus flower. What I thought was Life and Real is continuously changing. Life is so much more than I thought.
As I ride the wave I am on I am shown so much. I learn and grow, increasingly aware that I know less and less. And I am more and more okay with that. Life, in the end will have it’s way with me. And it is. And I Am.
Robin Rainbow Gate
I help people midlife and beyond to find their inner power, health and well being through slow living
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