“For knowledge, add. For wisdom, subtract.”The growing up process was all about gaining knowledge – learning how to get along in this world, how to negotiate the physical and social terrain so that we’d get our needs met and be safe. The arc of our becoming was measured by the progress of our knowledge, and we thus arrived at adulthood with a lot of knowledge, which is to say, a lot of strategies.
Our shining light, however, gets covered over by all those strategies -- until the strategies fail, and fail so utterly that our heart is torn open. When that happens, the arc of becoming then requires shucking off some of those strategies, forgetting some of that hard-earned knowledge, opening up to what’s present without quite such a need to subject everything to one or another of our preset strategies. If we can do that, if we can subtract the carefully learned categories of knowledge upon which our previous life had depended, we arrive finally at wisdom.
Let me just tell you some stories – three stories (one today and two more in subsequent posts). These are excerpts and abstracts of stories you can read at greater length and detail in Elizabeth Lesser’s book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.
1. Judi's Story
Richard and Judi’s second child, Marion, was born brain damaged and with life-threatening epilepsy. Shortly afterward, Judi awoke to a numbness in her leg and overall exhaustion. It would turn out to be MS. Judi
“went through periods when she raged against the world, when it seemed as if terror, like an evil guest, had moved in and taken over her home and family.”After a number of years, Judi looked back and spoke of
“the miracle of who each one of us became by not shrinking back from the challenges.”She wrote:
“We still process stray pieces of shrapnel that work their way to the surface from time to time....Our trials have taught us lessons that have made the rest of our lives all the more precious. The first lesson is as old as the hills: ‘This, too, shall pass.’ Everything passes and changes and turns into something you would never have imagined, if you will only let it. I have learned how suffering only increases when I demand of life that ‘this should not be happening to me.’That’s Judi’s story. It shows the miracle of who she became by not shrinking back, by not retreating protectively, by breaking open.
That is the second lesson – not to dwell on whether or not something should be happening to me. In the process of grappling with the fact that I had a debilitating illness for the rest of my life – and that my daughter would struggle with her situation for her whole life too – I realized that my only hope was to give up the life that had been, in order to make room for the life that is. I call it my ‘choiceless choice.’ Making that choice, over and over again – to accept what is, and to release what was – has become the major focusing agent for my spiritual work.
My spiritual practice deepened because my life and my child’s life depended on it. When I say ‘spiritual’ I don’t mean a practice that is in any way separate from the rest of my life. I mean an emotional, intellectual, and physical process that is ruthlessly real and adventurous and full of death-defying risks. I mean a process that is patient, surrendered, and openly embracing of what is before me every day when I wake up in the morning to my changing body, and when I help my daughter deal with hers....
And so I went deeper... until my illness naturally became my teacher. As I learned to hold my disease in the light of truth and heightened awareness, I experienced a new outpouring of self-love and the love of God....
I surrendered my MS and Marion’s condition and all of my losses and fear and blame and guilt to the flames of what is. And in the ashes of what had been, I began to dig up my soul....I began to notice how so much of what we do each day is really a way of avoiding the deep and quiet voice of the soul....Today I value every nuance of despair and every trill of joy, as I was never able to before.
I still lose my way and take day trips down the side streets of anxiety over money, personal conflicts, my children, or my health, but mostly I am content with the unfolding skein of my life threads.
I have already met some of the worst fears I could conjure up and am a kinder, humbler, more patient, and I hope more loving woman as a result....In fact, it is the acceptance of death that has finally allowed me to choose life.”
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This is part 2 of 4 of "Broken Open."
Click for other parts:
Part 1: Seeing the Blessing in a Crisis
Part 3: The Wisdom of No Control
Part 4: Pain's Surprising Lesson