Monday Mind Hack — Perspective

I try hard not to fall back on the old cliché “It could be worse” when trying to console someone or boost morale. “It could be worse” is almost always true, and yet it is so far from comforting it almost feels like scolding.

“Quit yer bitchin'” more like. Not helpful. “There’s a first-world problem,” someone says when you’ve lost one too many rounds with the technology in your life. Great: now I can feel frustrated, overwhelmed and ashamed of what a yuppie douchebag I’ve turned out to be. Thanks for that.

So when someone posted an article on Facebook with the one-word comment “perspective” I was hesitant to read it. Plus it’s called “Notes from a Dragon Mom,” which made me think that it was related to that whole “Tiger Mom” thing, and I’m sure we can agree no one needs to go there again.

But I didn’t want to leave my desk chair and go face the onerous task of grinding the morning coffee beans (“There’s a first-world problem”), so I read it anyway.

Wow. Perspective. Read It. Really.

The author, Emily Rapp, writes movingly about parenting a terminally ill child:

Ronan won’t prosper or succeed in the way we have come to understand this term in our culture; he will never walk or say “Mama,” and I will never be a tiger mom. The mothers and fathers of terminally ill children are something else entirely. Our goals are simple and terrible: to help our children live with minimal discomfort and maximum dignity. We will not launch our children into a bright and promising future, but see them into early graves. We will prepare to lose them and then, impossibly, to live on after that gutting loss. This requires a new ferocity, a new way of thinking, a new animal. We are dragon parents: fierce and loyal and loving as hell. Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice.

Her point isn’t that those of us with healthy children should feel guilty for that unearned grace or foolish for having dreams for the future, but that parenting—living—is ultimately a “here and now” experience.

The truth is that healthy children and healthy parents die unexpectedly, as our family learned personally and painfully this summer when we lost 3 friends in a car accident. And there are less dramatic changes and surprises: a career ends abruptly, lifelong friends move away, a mental illness appears out of nowhere and settles in to stay. It now takes me two hands to count up the number of friends—mostly mothers 40 and under—diagnosed with breast cancer in the last two years. What Rapp writes about parenting is true for all the plans we make: “none of it is forever.”

Gratitude for not having any of those problems is great, but it’s still a short-term perspective. The long view, ironically, reveals that regardless of whether we’re healthy or sick, successful or at sea, today is really all there is. The only way we can be sure that we’ll achieve the desired consequences of our actions is to do them “for the humanity implicit in the act itself.”

If I set that as the standard for what I put on my agenda today, what stays? What goes? And what do I need to add to make this day worth doing, just for the sake of doing it? If I set that as the standard for how I perform the day’s necessary but ordinary tasks, would I do them differently?

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About mina

Like a rock: sometimes hard, sometimes crumbly, occasionally brilliant, sometimes dense.

Posted on October 17, 2011, in cancer, Children, letting go, love, mind hacks. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I’ve been considering this article too and wanted to share this Thomas Keating passage, which seemed relevant to how this focus on ‘the humanity implicit in the act itself’ may have relevance in our daily lives. Next step is a contemplation of consciousness and being:

    Gerald May in, Will and Spirit, calls the two kinds of will willfulness and willingness. He equates willfulness with self-sufficiency, self-determination, control and mastery, and a basic attitude of saying no to life. Willingness he equates with self-surrender, mastery, and a basic attitude of saying yes to life (17).
    May says:
    Will is a given, but we are cursed by its tendency to expand into willfulness. The most popular modern resolutions of this problem have to do with seeing will as tempered and balanced
    by love. This is reflected in Carl Jung’s statement, “Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking.” Or in Rollo May’s, “Will without love becomes manipulation.” (37)
    May makes the astonishing observation that “we are all addicts” (41), that “addiction at its most fundamental level is a playing out of humanity’s willful striving against the irrevocable mystery of
    consciousness and being” (40), and that in fact we are addicted to, among other things, our own willfulness (50). The cure for this wrongheadedness is an opening of the heart that softens us into
    willingness. It can come about by hitting “rock bottom,” as May points out (51), or, if we are lucky, it can come about through contemplative practice.

    • Oh Sally, don’t you hate it when it come through hitting rock bottom? I wish I was smarter than that, but I guess I’m not.

      I really like the contrast between willfulness and willingness — I have been trying to be more willing, more open to saying yes. It feels like it has gotten easier over the years, as I take myself less seriously. (I mean, I can be painfully serious, but me, I am not something to be taken seriously.) I guess that is what the quotation is saying: saying yes means not being so concerned with controlling whatever you’ve decided your “self” is. Hitting rock bottom has definitely been an effective way of countering that illusion!

      Thanks for sharing that passage — you’ll have to tell me where it came from.

  2. You said “The only way we can be sure that we’ll achieve the desired consequences of our actions is to do them “for the humanity implicit in the act itself.”

    If I set that as the standard for what I put on my agenda today, what stays? What goes? And what do I need to add to make this day worth doing, just for the sake of doing it? If I set that as the standard for how I perform the day’s necessary but ordinary tasks, would I do them differently? ”

    Honestly, I would like to hear more. How would you do them differently? (I am often inspired by real world examples.)

  3. I wish I had more real world examples to give you — it’s not one of my strengths. I often think of Thich Nhat Hanh “washing the dishes to wash the dishes” rather than “washing the dishes to get them clean.” It’s one of those subtle adjustments, like when your yoga teacher tells you to move a part of your body that you’re not sure you can control voluntarily, that is more internal than external.

    But I can sit and do homeschool activities with my daughter to get to the end of them, or to get her to do better in math, or to stick to my schedule, or I can do them to do them — to sit there with her because it’s a good thing to do in itself. The one thing I am good at is cooking to cook, rather than cooking to eat or get dinner on the table. I can’t do it all the time, but I can do it. Sometimes it feels like achieving flow, where you are just in that moment and not thinking about the next moment and the moment after that. Other times it feels like a connection to everyone else — whoever you are, sometime you’re going to sweep the floor, or clean up a messy baby, or fold the towels. It’s like a ritual that connects you to the cycles of life that go on eternally, just with different players, but in a more day-to-day way.

    Do I always think about that? No, of course not! And when I’m thinking in those terms then I’ve usually stopped feeling it, but that’s OK, because I get to think about what I was doing to get to that place and I can remember that feeling.

  4. I remember reflecting on how I only have one life to live and I should really have more profound thoughts throughout the day. I was waiting for the boys to finish a choir lesson and I was upset because I had been going over my to – do list in my head, but not doing anything that was going to leave an impact in this world. Oddly, the whole thing made me feel more comfortable with the small things that define me.

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