“You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world … but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.” – Franz Kafka
I’ve never been particularly good at relationships.
My primary obstacle has been a strong impulse to act in my own self-interest. This is a consequence of another strong impulse, to attend to my own suffering.
The two are intimately related. It’s like having a cramp in deep water. The suffering is the contraction, which causes you to flail about looking for support and solutions. If you don’t find those solutions, you’re sure you will drown. So you flail and flail. Which hastens the drowning. Etc.
In this context, although relationships have been something to grab onto for support, none have addressed the root of my suffering.
So I gravitated towards friends and partners who were self-contained, who didn’t ask for much. And it worked, for a while.
Did I mention this essay is a love letter?
It’s about my son, Eden.
Yesterday it was raining. We went to the park, and he squealed and stomped through the puddles in his little green slicker. He’s almost two. His joy is so pure, like a high note in a song. He overflows with it. He loves sticks, and small stones, and especially loves dropping them through sewer grates.
“Bye-byeeeeee,” he says.
I say, “Eden, do you want this stick?” He says “noooooo,” and then he takes the stick.
I say, “Eden, there’s your favourite flower!” He says “noooooo,” and then he walks over to the flower.
I say, “Eden, do you want this berry?” He says “nooooooo”, and then his lips reach out to take the Saskatoon berry from the tips of my fingers, and it feels like I’m feeding a baby chimpanzee.
For Eden, “no” means “no,” and “yes,” and “maybe.” Actually, “no” means “I am!” He defines himself in opposition. Other parents will nod: welcome to the Terrible Twos. He got there early, all in a rush, his wet hair slicked back in a dark pompadour.
His opposition brings up all The Things in me – and not the things I would have expected. I don’t mind his defiance, not at all. I secretly enjoy it. I expect this will change in a few years, when I’m trying to get him to school and he’s cackling under a pile of sheets in the laundry hamper.
What I notice now is my own neediness, hidden away all these years. I reach to give him a hug: “noooooo,” he says. A tiny knife to my heart. Anytime I express an expectation, or a preference, or any attempt to control him: “noooooo.”
He’s like this with everyone. His psychic geiger counter is hyper-sensitive to trace amounts of other peoples’ needs.
So I practice being utterly still inside. I follow his rhythm, I flow along with his cues, I hunker down right next to him on the floor as we build the blocks and read the books and fit the puzzle pieces.
Sometimes being with him this way is easy; other times less so. And anyway, it’s not even true that I need to be perfectly present. I lie back in a pile of stuffed animals and think about meditation and he chucks his sippy cup at me. He’s happy, and so am I.
Until I’m not. Until something becomes unbearable, and I manage to slip away to read, or work. I often don’t realize I’m doing this. It’s like there’s an invisible force field around him – except it comes from me.
Why am I pushing him away? It’s more complicated than a fear of rejection. It’s like I love him too much. He’s my favourite person in the world. The stakes are too high.
Do you know the stakes?
I didn’t. I knew parenting would be rewarding and challenging. I didn’t know it would be everything – like the life I had before, except now in 3-D, with the vanishing point always in sight.
Like the three-inch-long shoes he wore in his first year, now sitting on a shelf in his bedroom. I see those shoes and think “he’ll never be that age again.”
Every week is like that. The hand that now fits into your palm, where once it could barely fit around your index finger. The careening walk that was once a spider-crawl. The perfect pronunciation of “tomato” that means you’ll never again hear him say “minyamo”.
The cost of every new joy is exactly the loss of an older one.
These losses happen quickly and they are not trivial or sentimental. If you’re paying attention, there’s nothing more real.
The most honest line I’ve heard to describe how meditation changes people, or at least how meditation has changed me, is: “Hurt more, suffer less.” Things go through more quickly, because there’s less blocking and protecting. But they also hurt more, because … there’s less blocking and protecting. That’s what happens when you let life in.
Fortunately, the same dynamic applies to the sweetness of everyday pleasures.
Today the sun was out. We went to the schoolyard around the corner and sat by an old storm drain. The pavement was warm under my hand; I could feel the little pebbles embedded in the surface. I stacked a pile of wood chips next to Eden. He inspected them one by one, then dropped them through the grate.
This is who he is, today.