Here’s something I’ve learned about growing older: there’s always more growing to do. Every time I pause to draw a self-satisfied breath at how wise I am becoming—how I finally learned my lesson, avoided repeating the same sticky mistake, saw an opportunity in time to seize it—I catch a whiff of a new challenge bearing down.
Of course, it’s not only me: what I am experiencing in the little world of my heart and mind is there for all of us in the big world of human societies, especially this society which is now so clearly in transition.
In the current installment of personal lifelong learning, I am having a pretty intense time feeling long-suppressed emotions. As my shrink put it, for most of my life, I have used my brain to avoid—to insulate myself against—feeling emotions too painful to face. My agile mind has always been able to come up with another way to look at things, something else to focus on, a new approach to try out—anything but flat-out feeling it. When I ask what I haven’t allowed myself to experience fully, what crusts of congealed feeling are clogging my ability to move forward, the answers aren’t hard to reach. Those dammed-up feelings can really stunt one’s growth.
Everyone has their pain. Mine was a socially and economically marginal family, immigrants lost in an unwelcoming world, focused on their own survival with a ruthless ferocity that kept them locked into the little universe of the family, seeing life in suffocating close-up. We lived in a large, crowded household mostly peopled by my mother’s side of the family: maternal grandparents, aunt and uncle, first cousins all crammed into a single dwelling until some of us moved next door. I joke sometimes that I was never alone in a room until I moved out at 17, but really, it’s not much of an exaggeration.
I have always had a vivid mental image of the mourning period after my father’s death, which is to say after the disappearance of the one person in our household considered capable of functioning normally in the ordinary world. I turned 10 a month before he died. I spent the week of sitting shiva wandering around the house, serially eavesdropping on conversations I couldn’t parse, uncomfortable with the excessive eating and drinking, the loud, insistent chatter, the confusing mixture of laughter and tears. I simultaneously craved attention and relished the adults’ utter and unprecedented indifference, allowing me to roam freely for once. Recently, this memory has acquired a soundtrack, my inner monologue. I don’t know that I formed these exact words in my mind, but this was the message: I’m on my own now, I told myself. From here on in, I will have to rescue myself.
“The primal nature of the human mind,” says my shrink, “is to be loved.” Not having that, I kept myself as separate as I could from the turmoil that surrounded me—the gambling, the struggles to make ends meet any way they could, the adults’ primitive relationships to outsiders. What I didn’t let myself feel is how much I wanted it to be otherwise. What I didn’t let myself feel is how much it cost me to save myself. To the contrary, emerging more or less intact had always been a point of pride: how could you have grown up in such a household, friends ask, how could you be so unscathed?
So now I am letting myself face and acknowledge these feelings rather than generating a string of plausible distractions. I expect to get better at it as time goes by, not to be so easily decentered by emotional ambushes. I don’t expect to lose my grip on the ultimate reality that I am grateful to my family for giving me life and seeing that I was fed, sheltered and sustained until I could care for myself. But I now know that I am not responsible for the terrible trauma of their lives, that I have no obligation to sacrifice my well-being to those memories. Whatever happens, the healing effects are already palpable: I’ve cried my heart out and the space that created has refilled with love and hope.
As I traverse this inner path, I lift my head from time to time to check in with the big world. I practice my HopeAerobics, which seem to be working. Much is to be gained, I believe, from training our attention on what we want and moving steadily toward it.
But I have also been noticing how the drama I am experiencing in the little world of my own head and heart relates to big-world headlines. I ask myself this question: as a nation, what traumas haven’t we allowed ourselves to experience fully? What crusts of congealed feeling are clogging our ability to move forward and stunting our growth? Here too, the answers aren’t hard to reach. This nation has still not acknowledged and made amends for its horrific treatment of the people who occupied this land before European settlers, nor for the terrible sin of enslaving other human beings—and those are just a couple of highlights of the first hundred years.
A wise Jewish teacher I know says that when you are reaching for forgiveness, don’t start with Hitler. Forgive the perpetrator of some petty personal transgression before you attempt to close larger wounds. Develop your capacity, or your reach will always fall short. And so it goes with teaching oneself to feel the pain that self-protectiveness has held at a distance.
I believe we will succeed best by starting with our own moment in history before working our way back to its roots. As we approach the possibilities that an Obama presidency suggests—a period of political dialogue rooted more in firmly in decency than at any time in living memory, the enlivening of democracy in both theory and practice—shouldn’t we let ourselves feel the pain and shame the last eight years have sown? We have sustained ourselves through two terms of George W. Bush by focusing on his buffoonery, downplaying his impact by making him an object of derision. But now, to move forward, shouldn’t we let ourselves feel the weight of so many lost and damaged lives, of so much danger to the planet rationalized in the interests of profit, of becoming a prison nation, of sacrificing children’s education and health to tax cuts for the wealthiest, of leaving so many to drown in hurricane waters?
As the Obama-McCain contest begins, progressives are right to equate McCain and George W. Bush. Perhaps they are even right to do it with humor: as George Bernard Shaw famously said, “If you are going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you.” But to truly clear the way for a change, we had better pause to get real. I am beginning to think we must let ourselves feel the pain that has been created in our names, if only to ensure that the healing we desire and anticipate is real, not just sweet icing slathered over a spoiled cake. I am beginning to think we need a national period of mourning for the damage our current president has done to the world and to the country he promised to protect.
The Tibetan Buddhists have a practice called “Tonglen,” which means “giving and taking.” You don’t have to be Buddhist to use it. The practitioner breathes in suffering, whether encountered as fear, pain, anger or other powerful negative emotions, completely embracing and accepting it; then, transforming it, breathes out compassion, love and well-being. As I breathe in the pain of my little world of childhood, as I embrace it, my heart opens to breathe out love, actualizing my little healing. May we breathe in the tremendous shame and misery of having allowed George Bush and his minions to do so much harm in the big world, so as to breathe out compassion, reconciliation and hope grounded in reality, actualizing our big healing.