The Grace to Let Enough be Enough

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More“What come next?”

There was a period of several months recently when Julianna was constantly asking this question: when a song ended on a CD, at the end of a scene in a movie, whenever we got back in the van after running an errand or going to a lesson.

Lately, it feels like the two younger boys have taken up the standard she dropped. The whole time we were at the Lake last week, it seemed the moment we left one attraction they were demanding to know what the next one was. Frequently asking to do other things that weren’t on the agenda at all. Since we got home, I’ve been on full-speed ahead, trying to catch up with everything I didn’t have time to do before we left and while we were gone. And yet the kids are coming to me with deep sighs and saying things like “When do we get to go on the carousel?” and “I want to go to the arcade at the mall!”

I came down pretty hard on that last one. “We just went to an arcade–at the Lake!” I said. Quickly followed up by a (short) lecture on ingratitude and an attitude in which nothing is ever enough. (Because we all know how effective Lectures were when we were growing up.)

But short as that lecture was, I could see in their eyes that they Weren’t Getting It. And I took a look inside myself and had to wince at what I saw.

Because I have this problem, too. Christian ends every day by taking a survey, generally of what went right: what we accomplished, what he’s thankful for. Meanwhile I’m always fighting this rumbling dissatisfaction, this desire for more, more, more. If I managed to write a text for one verse, I’m dissatisfied because it wasn’t two. If I write half a chapter on a novel, I’m frustrated because it wasn’t a thousand words. Or because I’m afraid it’s episodic, and I’m terrified that it’s never going to live up to the potential of the concept. (Because this concept? It’s a good one. Really good.) When we finish a project, I feel a brief satisfaction, and then it’s right on to the next thing I haven’t gotten done yet. And of course, the list of things I want to get done literally never ends.

This is how I’m able to “do it all,” as people always put it, but it definitely has a dark side. I love everything I do, but, German-like, I have trouble drawing a line and letting go when it’s time to do so. I have trouble living in the moment.

But it drives me crazy when I see it in my kids. Perhaps it’s because they are trying to make their ingratitude my problem. I look at the kaleidoscope of experiences they’ve had and I’m just thunderstruck at how it’s never enough. I take a deep breath and I remind myself that kids are always clueless, self-absorbed, and developmentally incapable of the kind of awareness I’m able to exercise. I tell myself surely I was the same way, and this is just part of the process of raising holy terrors into holy men and women.

But I also think I have some work to do in my own soul. This Chade Meng-Tan book I’m reading is slow going because I feel I should be practicing, not just dinking around with it, and I have too many other irons in the fire to devote the time properly. But in the way it resonates with my experience reading Thomas Merton, whose words in turn resonated with what I have experienced sitting in nature, I know that the key to this whole puzzle resides in a quietness of spirit that has to be cultivated.

So there’s my next challenge. And perhaps—just perhaps—my efforts will enlighten my children’s lives, too.

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Default: Happy

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Image by Moyan_Brenn, via Flickr

There are two basic states of being: default happy and default unhappy.

This is the insight that leaped out at me me almost as soon as I started reading Chade-Meng Tan last week. Some people are happy all the time, except when something bad happens to them. Other people are unhappy always, unless something good has just happened.

Christian and I have a running joke about “brooding artists.” I know a few of them, and sometimes I am one. It occurs to me that my whole life, I have been a “default-unhappy” person. Always a little melancholy, always searching for what went wrong, rather than what went right, when thinking back over a day or an event.

This is not who I want to be.

I realized most of the people in the world who drive me crazy do so because they’re never happy. That unhappiness may manifest in different ways–neediness and abrasiveness are the two that come to mind first—but at the heart, it’s basically default-unhappiness.

I don’t want to be that person.

I want to be a person who wakes up in the morning, walks through my days, and goes to bed more or less happy with my life and circumstances. Because that is what we were meant for. We weren’t made for regret and self-flagellation, for scowls and feeling like the victim at every moment. We weren’t meant to carry around a vague anxiety like a backpack we can’t take off (or, since we are a superhero family: like Doc Oc, fused forever to his metal arms).

So I’m embracing this concept of meditation, and finding that it is virtually identical to what I first learned when I was trying to deal with anxiety issues. Then, I called it “letting go.” Now, it is part of every morning I spend sitting in nature, attempting to quiet my mind and be still in the presence of God. It reminds me a lot of what Thomas Merton talked about in Seeds of Contemplation. The difference is that this is more practical in its instructions, and so I feel like I have some guidance, instead of stumbling around trying to find my way on my own.

It’s been a week, and although I’ve still gotten angry with my children, I feel like my anger has been well in my control, and possible for me to let go of quickly afterward, instead of ruling the next several hours. I am pausing frequently during my day to take stock, when I feel that default-unhappy trying to kick in, and release it. And Christian and I are recognizing that there is value in this for our increasingly bickering children, too. So as of last night, we’re making it a part of family bedtime prayer routine.

Will it help the eleven- and seven- year olds get along better, and teach the four-year-old to find his inner empath? Only time will tell. But it seems like a better option than trying to discipline it into them.