When our children were little, my friend Beth and I used to worry about their safety on the schoolbus. “They don’t even use seatbelts,” we complained to each other. “Are we being stupid?” We considered filing a complaint with the mayor’s office, but with one thing and another, we never got it done. Besides, we reassured ourselves, we hadn’t heard about any school bus accidents in New York City.
When our children got older and started traveling to far corners of the earth, we continued to worry. But this time, when they were in Africa or China or the Mid-east during hurricanes, floods, wars, and kidnapping of foreign visitors, there was no mayor’s office to call, nothing to be done except wait, and pray, and worry about these independent, adventurous and beloved young people.
Recent disturbing events – the Newtown school tragedy, Hurricane Sandy, the failure of a group of New York City subway riders to save a fellow passenger who had been pushed into the path of an oncoming train – close to home have naturally reminded us all of how vulnerable we are. Of course, there are people around the world for whom such physical and emotional dangers are part of daily life, but it is human be more affected by – to identify with – these events when they occur on our own territory. Perhaps one important positive result of our children’s travel for Beth and me is a more personal link to the sadness and danger and poverty in other parts of the world. But the question remains the same – how do we respond to these horrors while also living our lives?
The truth is that there is not one single way to do this, just is there is no single way to parent or to live a good life. The struggle is often to find a balance between setting limits and providing safety, accepting our own limits to control things, and living with uncertainty.
Here are some quotes that I have found helpful over the years, both in my personal and my professional lives. Many of them were brought to me by clients who found them soothing or helpful. The serenity prayer is an old and well-known one, and sometimes seems trite – but like the others, I think it has an important message for us as we move forward in difficult times.
1. Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that's all that's happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness--life's painful aspect--softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody's eyes because you feel you haven't got anything to lose--you're just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We'd be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn't have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.”
Pema Chödrön, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living
2. God, Give us the grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
And the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Alcoholics Anonymous “Serenity Prayer” attributed by them to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr
3. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
E.M. Forrester, Howard’s End
4. It is easy to turn the responsibility over to others or, perhaps, to seek explanations in some kind of laws of history. It is less easy to look for the reasons within ourselves or in a field where we, all of us, carry major responsibility. However, such a search is necessary, because finally it is only within ourselves and in such fields that we can hope, by our own actions, to make a valid contribution to a turn of the trend of events.
From speech by Dag Hammarskjöld at the University of Cambridge
5. And so, as citizens, both locally and globally, we face the same process as we do in relationship with our loved ones, officemates, and friends: discovering how to live in the balance between admitting on some level that we are powerless, while at the same time (and through that process) finding the power we do have to make real, powerful, and lasting change.
Samantha Smithstein, PsyD, Psychology Today blog post “The Power in Powerlessness”
6. It’s like going surfing. We want to think we’re in charge, but really, we’re not. We tense up when we try to take charge. When we soften into it instead, we ground ourselves. We’re safer and we have a much better ride.
Mindy Bacharach, yoga teacher, NYC
7. I’m not up for laughing, but their laughter makes the room feel safer, so we begin to explore. John Green, Paper Towns
8. …trying to change your unpleasant thoughts and feelings typically just makes them more entrenched…thoughts are just mental events to be noticed, not true or false pronouncements on the fundamental nature of reality itself. Similarly, feelings are something to be felt, not powerful and dangerous bullies to be avoided at all cost.
Steven C. Hayes, Hello darkness: Discovering our values by confronting our fears. Psychotherapy Networker
9. The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don't wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Heart of Buddha's Teaching
Teaser image source: http://lifelessonsmilitarywife.com/?p=1859