What is our job or duty when there is so much sadness and pain in the world?
I asked Newman this question last week as we sat together in front of a campfire. I had been experiencing waves of sadness throughout the afternoon, those waves that come on sometimes when nothing is wrong at all, except somehow you feel the possibility of pain everywhere, of fear and danger threatening to swallow you.
Newman answered quickly but with assurance: our job is to take good care of ourselves and our own and to do no harm. If everyone in the world just concentrated their energy on that, we’d all be so much better off.
I felt relieved to hear that, as I do whenever I allow myself to narrow my gaze to my own small world within the greater one. If I can take good care of myself and those I love, it relieves others of that burden and engenders a kinder, happier, more generous state of being, at least in theory. That doesn’t mean we have to close ourselves off to the wider world; it just has to do with where our energy is primarily focused.
I’ve spent a lot of energy lately trying to find happiness. It comes in waves, like everything else. Sometimes I feel like I am just riding out hormonal patterns that influence everything from energy to mood to tolerance to appetite. I can neither predict nor prevent the patterns; I am perhaps learning not to fight them so much, to give them less power.
While I do feel like I’m getting to know myself better as time goes on, I can now thoroughly appreciate the reality that further change in my life is not just possible, it’s probable. In my relationship with my partner, for example, I’m aware of the possibility of change so much more than I was with my ex. I counted on the comfort of stability with my ex; I wanted it and appreciated it. With Newman, there’s much less security and stability although we have developed some of our own routines and rituals.
I’m generally much happier now though because, even though there’s less I can “count on,” I’m thoroughly engaged with him most of the time, in one way or another. I do count on that, actually; it’s what matters most to me. At the same time, I have no illusions about finding perfection in a relationship anymore; I know there is always a tradeoff, and there is always bound to be stuff that makes you crazy.
Newman jokes that our fights with each-other are ruining our ability to “do no harm.” I point out that we have slowly learned how to talk more directly, clearly, and without yelling, and that our fights have evolved into passionate negotiations, discussions–the airing of perspectives, if you will. For every one of our “incidents,” there is a resolution, a moment where one of us looks at the other and says (or thinks) “oh, I never thought about it that way.” That we can get there, to the place where we see each-other with fresh eyes, is worth the process, for me. Newman could certainly do without it, but it is an old habit, for him, to avoid conflict at any cost, and he can usually admit that he desires real connection more than he desires avoiding all conflict.
I know Newman craves peace, and I am working on finding it for him and with him without sacrificing honesty or losing myself in the process. To avoid fighting just to avoid fighting, however, would not help us get to the root of our issues, which we both say we want to do. I want to name the issues, then negotiate or fix them, and in the process, stretch out the moments of joy and minimize the angst, which shows up in ways that have become more predictable.
In truth, I know exactly what would make Newman happy in our life together at this stage. He wants me to be available to him anytime he wants to be with me: to listen and talk to him, be loving and passionate with him, and every once in a while to surprise him in a way that makes him fall in love with me again. He would like me to never schedule anything so that he can be universally accessible to his children’s needs, wants, and whims. He would like me to let him “escape” for solitude whenever he wants to. And he would like it if I never set any demands/requests/expectations/claims on him to meet my needs or the needs of my child.
I don’t think he would disagree with this vision for happiness, and perhaps it is not far from what many of us want in an ideal world. I cannot give that to him without losing myself or living a lie, however, and so the negotiations are inevitable.
Newman likes to be in control, as do I. At his worst moments, when he senses his freedom and control being taken away, he has an amazing inability to see beyond himself; at those times, he appears to me as almost childlike, complete with temper tantrums and a surprising naivete. At his best, however, he is entirely loving, generous, and sensitive. He will spontaneously and continuously offer me and my child lots of love; he just has difficulty producing it on demand or according to a (my) plan.
Who among us doesn’t have difficulty with this sometimes?
Yet what relationships require is for us to try to take care of each other, and not always when or how we feel we want to. To do this well, we must develop the practice of loving so that it is natural, authentic, spontaneous and responsive to others’ needs. If we manage it well, then we manage to take care of ourselves and our own–and do no harm.
Most of us adopt this practice of loving most naturally with our children, although there are times even here where we are tested. The magical part of our relationships with our children is that we find ourselves easily and frequently forgiven and forgiving, freed to become perfect again the next time around.
It’s a little more challenging with adult to adult relationships, isn’t it? The good news for me and Newman is, he’s getting better, inch by painful inch, at meeting me halfway, and I am today about a thousand times more patient (and slightly less judgy) than I used to be.
I’m also learning to let go, to accept beauty and joy when it presents itself, rather than to stand back scowling with arms crossed tightly across my chest as I think smugly, “well, yes, you’re beautiful and joyous, but look what it took for you to show up! I’ve been waiting for you forever, and if you think I’m going to forget about that, you’ve got another think coming!”
I am slowly learning that playing the game is much more fun when you don’t keep score.
I think, or at least I hope, that couples have to learn how to fight in fairness and love in order to eventually leave the fighting behind. Newman and I still have some stuff to work through. We’re both still fully present and invested in doing so, though, and we are both getting really, really good at apologizing and forgiving.
That is not to be underestimated. That, in fact, is everything.
So to sum up what I’ve learned so far:
It’s ok to love yourself and take care of yourself. Try to do no harm. If you do harm, apologize. If harm is done to you, forgive. Try to let things go. Don’t resist life’s waves and bumps so much. I mean, don’t help them out or feed them unnecessarily, but acknowledge them and what’s behind them. Then try to move on. If you find yourself unable to move on right away, it’s still ok; it’s ok to love yourself and take care of yourself.
See how the cycle works? Nice, isn’t it?