How to Be Human
December 25, 2010
It’s Christmas, which I don’t, being a Jew, celebrate. But, just for the record, I’m a fan of Christ—the light, the faith required to love in the face of impossibility, the healing capacities, the realization that we are all divine at our core—these are things I know to be true. And even if I didn’t, I’d still be here—smack in the middle of the darkest time of the year, the inward season— gestating the light-filled seeds for the next year. And where am I exactly? Santa Barbara. Running away, I realized this morning, from my longing. The funny thing is, it isn’t working.
This time of year has always been difficult for me. When I was younger, I’d mysteriously manifest a flu, complete with fevers and fever dreams around Christmas. I remember spending many a holiday fitfully in bed, burning up and dreaming that China was going to eat me, or something along those lines. Now that I’m a little older and a little more conscious, I’m able to go inward without the fever, but what I’m going inward towards today has me skittish. I’ve been running from this particular pain for a long time.
The other day in my office I sat with a student and client discussing his recent break up. He was struggling and felt lost. He’d approach his sadness and then slip off of it, like hands around a wet water balloon. His heart was closed and he didn’t know how to open it.
I disclosed a personal challenge in the hopes that it would help him understand how to be with his own emotions. I shared a recent conversation I had had with my ex-boyfriend and his soon to be wife in which they revealed that they were planning on having babies. Babies were the whole reason he and I had broken up. I was 32 when the relationship ended, in the middle of a devastating illness, and filled with longing to have a child. He already had two children and was, he was certain, done. Although we loved each other deeply, we both felt we had to let go and give ourselves to the futures pulling us towards different destiny paths. It was a painful leap of faith and the actual separation took months. Now, years later, I was faced with the thing (deep inside) I knew someday I’d be faced with. He was going to have babies, and I was 38, single, childless, and still filled with the same longing I had then.
His fiancé is a friend and member of my women’s circle. Their union feels right, inspiring, and powerful. There’s no part of me that begrudges them their happiness, and, at the same time, I am filled with envy, desire for my own such union, and an old, dark friend, loneliness and its accompanying, equally familiar cousin, the mistaken belief: “there’s something wrong with me.” Upon hearing their news I smiled because I authentically felt happy and then began to cry. I stared into the eyes of the man I once loved and the woman who had become a sister and cried for that which I had let go of and that which had not yet manifest. They were tears of appreciation, gratitude, grief, and longing, my heart stretched to hold it all. The beauty of the night (it happened to be a full moon eclipse) and the poignancy of the news filled me. I was genuinely happy for them, and genuinely grieving for me.
This, I believe, is one of the markers of maturity, negatively capability as Keats puts it, the capacity to sit in paradox, to hold contradiction without needing to choose black or white. But that’s the mind’s description, the heart (via the poet Rilke) has a different poetry:You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Ranier Maria Rilke
Rilke writes of faith. Of following your longing even when it makes no sense. And of letting life wash through you, wave after wave, and learning, as you crest each one—gasping for air, shaken, but with new, embodied knowledge—that you can live through pain and not only survive but grow stronger and more human in the process.
Sitting there in my office with my client, I knew there was a reason why I shared this story, but by the time I got to the end I had forgotten it and felt embarrassed to have revealed so much. After a moment he looked at me and said, ”it helps me to watch you, helps me know how to do it, how to face pain and go through it, I, we, need our teachers.” This, I realized, is what we do as therapists and healers and humans committed to a path, teach people how to go in and through and emerge on the other side.
In March of this past year I found myself on the floor, surrounded by 13 women, and howling. Hmm. Not sure that’s the right word. Wailing? It was kind of a pure animal growl of terror and grief. I couldn’t reproduce the sound if I tried. I was there for something called the Authentic Women Experience. There to practice full-throttled embodiment, and vulnerability, and trust in service of opening to my (someday) beloved. The exercise we had just done was about forgiveness. We were instructed to gaze into a mirror and speak for 10 minutes, out loud, forgiving ourselves for whatever we needed to. I went through my surface litany: I forgive you for being hard on yourself, I forgive you for being judgmental of others, I forgive you for always being late, blah, blah, blah. Then, two minutes into it, I surprised myself by saying: “I forgive you for losing control of the car,” and began to hyperventilate with emotion.
Holy crap, I was still blaming myself for a car accident I had had ten years prior, (even though no one was hurt but me). I was still holding myself responsible for whether I lived or died, when in truth, it was not my responsibility, (at least not my personality’s responsibility) but Spirit’s. I was trying to do God’s job. As I lay on the floor looking up at the women who were there to support me, one woman, a close friend, took my hand and looked at me with so much love that I knew it was safe to go into the “deep.” I started to have a panic attack, but instead of stopping part way through, instead of panicking about the fact that I was panicking, I breathed, found my courage, crested the wave, allowed myself to access the fullness of what I was feeling, and let it out. I writhed and gasped, and screamed and cried and shook, I felt the terror that I had felt the night I almost died, the terror I had locked away in my heart until that moment. And I freed myself of it.
That evening, at least four women pulled me aside, thanking me for showing them what was possible. “I do that in my own home, shake like that, I thought I was crazy. Seeing you do it here, it helped me accept myself and my body’s reactions as normal.” “I’ve never seen anyone feel that much, really let themselves go all the way into something. It helped me think that I could do it, and that I could help other people to really grieve.”
The way I see it, we have a couple of options: abandon whatever it is that wants to move through us, or follow it through to its completion and watch the miracle unfold. Following it through to its completion takes trust, but the more we do it, the more we trust ourselves to be able to—trust our bodies not to break, trust our hearts to keep beating, and trust the god in us, our inner divine, to hold us as we surrender.
I imagine this is a lot like giving birth. The act of laboring and delivery, and the raising of a child, these are the biggest leaps of faith I can imagine. Someone once said that having a child is like watching your heart walk around outside your body. You love this being more than it’s possible to love, and yet you can’t control its outcome, you have to surrender to the larger Universe holding you both. Surrender and trust.
This is (I think), part of why I long to have a child. I want to know what it’s like to give everything, to love fully and let go. So I’ll start now. By letting go of knowing who my partner is or who my child is or when he or she is coming. And I’ll sit in my grief and sadness and my longing. I’ll finish this article, make dinner for my friends who are coming to spend a rainy Santa Barbara Christmas with me, and later go into the quiet of my room and breathe into my ache. I’ll go to the heart of it, for my clients who are hungry to know how to ride a wave of emotion to its completion without drowning. For my daughter or son to be who I will want to teach how to be fully human but who will end up teaching me. And for me, because life is short, and why do we inhabit human bodies in the first place if not to as Rilke wrote, “Let everything happen to (us)” and learn a little more each time it does about how to be divinely, imperfectly, human.
Sweigh Emily Spilkin, © 2010
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