Stop Resisting

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I’ve been notably happier since we returned from our Japan trip. The arbitrary “start over” button of New Year’s Day was helpful. Visiting temples and Buddhism was soul cleansing. There is something beautiful about cold wooden floors, incense burning, monks chanting, and knowing that you are under the roof of a temple build hundreds and hundreds of years ago, amidst a civilization of people who have seen tragedy and mastered the art of rebuilding their lives. Their resilience is inspiring. But perhaps my good mood is because I’ve been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of nothingness. The idea that there is nothing other than our conscious choices is, for me, liberating. The passage of time has also helped dissipate the pain that swelled inside of me in the days and weeks and months after Kenneth passed away. I still catch myself wondering if all of this is real, but it doesn’t hurt as much. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to living with the pain and don’t notice it as much anymore.

My happiness has not been due to a decrease in stress. The stressors are always there. Recently my toddler stuffed my pants into the toilet. The dog shredded my screen door and chewed through the backyard gate again. I have three drop-offs in the mornings and three pick-ups in the afternoons. Dinner. Dishes. The usual components of the average rat race, amplified by being all alone to tackle it all.

I had a lot of those stressors even when my husband was alive. It’s easy to forget, kind of like how we forget the pain of childbirth. But it was most definitely there. I remember when my stepson moved out of our house. I remarked to my husband that life still felt stressful even though we had less to do. When my stepson lived with us, our days were filled with hectic meetings, appointments, extracurriculars, behavior issues, court dates, neverending custody drama with the baby’s mama, and so many tough situations that kept us in a perpetual state of chaos and stress. When he moved out, a lot of the pressure was relieved, but in time, somehow, the stress crept back into our lives. Stress always has a way of doing that. The circumstances really don’t matter.

I’ve noticed people who don’t have not much going on, yet still claim to be busy. Sometimes they even claim to be overwhelmed. You scratch your head wondering what could possibly be so stressful for someone who has so few obligations.

And there is your answer. We adjust (positively or negatively) to any situation we are in. The circumstances always feel impossible. We are either defeated by it, or we conquer it.

I refuse to feel like I’m trapped in a rat race. That’s not a way to live. I want to be happy. I choose happiness.

My secret these days has been to fight the resistance.

I’ve been trying not to resist.

I used to believe that accepting the status quo was lazy and weak. “Good enough” wasn’t something I embraced. When my husband passed away, I was plagued with horrible thoughts. I was angry that all of my life plans were destroyed. I hated the fact that I had just unwillingly become a single mother. I’m not sure if men understand the stigma surrounding “single mothers.” I was in line at Ralphs one evening with my kids. It was after work. I was dressed professionally. The kids were acting squirrely in the cart. They were hangry. The grocery clerk looked at me and asked if I was paying with food stamps. Nobody had ever asked me that before. I already felt self-conscious about being a single mother. I already felt self-conscious about toting kids around without a ring on my finger. I looked him square in the eye and told him I was concerned about what impression I gave him that I made him think was paying with food stamps. I couldn’t think of anyone doing that to a man. He diverted his eyes and mumbled an excuse.

But those were the days when I was particularly sensitive to it all. Now I’m so tired and run over by life that I don’t care as much. I had no choice in this situation. I did everything I was supposed to do in life and this is what the universe gave me. I can’t waste my life worrying about your potential interpretation of my existence.

In the words of the great Taylor Swift, “I don’t know if you know who you are until you lose who you are.”

Now I know who I am.

I’ve come to accept it. I’ve decided not to resist reality. It’s there. I can’t change it. Fighting it will only make me unhappy. I’m a woman whose husband died. I’m a single mother. An only parent. This isn’t the life I planned, but it’s my life.

I’ve also realized that acceptance and complacency are two different words.

Complacency: uncritical satisfaction.

Acceptance: a willingness to tolerate a difficult situation.

Resistance is what happens before acceptance. Complacency happens when you aren’t willing to turn resistance into action.

Acceptance allows me to take my resistance and transform it into productive action. I hate being a widow, but I don’t have a choice. As much as I think the universe has wronged me, there is no grievance department. Since my husband’s death was sudden and unexpected, I had zero time to process it before being thrust into survival mode. There were many unknowns that weighed on me. They still do. I had difficulty reconciling it all in my head. I still do.

But resisting never made it better. It didn’t alleviate the stress I felt. I found that clinging to the past caused more resistance, which in turn made me angrier and unhappy.

We feel sadness over not being able to control the ever-changing nature of life. Parents feel the bittersweet sting of babies that grow too fast. We agonize over new government leadership, new work schedules we didn’t ask for, new bosses, new laws, and in my case, having to live my life without my partner and raising our children without their father.

Accepting the reality allows you to strategize your next move. It frees your mind so you can spend your energy doing something about the change you want. It allows you to choose happiness. You’re able to continue living.

Too often we attach our happiness to other people and inanimate objects or things. Being a wife wasn’t the only source of happiness for me. I realize for many people their significant other is the center of their universe. I haven’t taken this route, partly out of stubborn feminism, and partly out of practicality. If my husband was my reason for breathing, I’d have nothing right now. I was born alone and will most likely die alone. I am responsible for me. This isn’t meant to be sad. It’s liberating. I get to make conscious choices throughout my journey of life. I can’t think of anything more empowering.

To fight my mental resistance, this is what I’ve done:

Purpose.

What do I care about? What would I fight for?

If you haven’t defined a purpose for yourself, you are like a ship with no sails floating aimlessly in a vast ocean. Having goals and focus is what can help you get up every morning and keep you excited about the next day. You have purpose, and you have reason for being. Through your ups and downs, you still have the stabilizing purpose in your life.

Help others.

I would die if I sat around thinking about my misery. Trust me, there is plenty of misery to mull over. But it serves no purpose. Get it out of your system in short bursts, let out the steam, and then redirect your attention to others. Contributing to your community makes you feel like you’re a part of a bigger picture. Whenever you feel like you are drowning in your sorrows again, you remember that you are part of a larger community, you have value, and you are not alone.

Prioritize.

I can’t get everything done. I’ve had plenty of meltdowns over this brutal fact. I had to take the day off because one of the kids were sick. By the time I got everyone dropped off, went to the doctor, dealt with the pharmacy, and took care of a couple other errands, it was almost time to pick the other kids up again. I envisioned my day off involving the sick kid napping and me hammering away on my to do list. Nope. It was grunt work. It was a rat race kind of a day.

I’ve had to accept that my to do list is a wish list. To survive, I have had to recalibrate my expectations and be able to identify what has to be done today, what can be done later, and what are long term goals. I can’t hold it against myself if I don’t accomplish what I wish I could do. It’s just me around here. I can’t do it all. That’s okay. I had to learn to let it go. I still struggle with it, but I’ve gotten much better, which means a lot less stressI recently renamed my to-do list my “Take Action List.” Although it may seem like a subtle difference, there is a big difference between definitively having to “do” something versus “take action,” which implies that any measurable progress or action would be sufficient. As long as I do something, I’ve taken action.

People first.

I regularly write in a journal of intentions, and quality time with my family and friends always makes the list. Connections with other human beings is what brings us true happiness. I’m a work-in-progress, but I try to make sure the kids and I eat dinner together every night, that I limit my time away from them after school, and that we continue making lots of memories together. It’s great to have friends at work, in the neighborhood, and friends of varying ages, interests, and places. The more we know each other’s stories, the more we humanize each other, the better we get along and the more we enjoy life.

Reduce triggers.

You can’t avoid life, and inevitably there will be things that bother you. You have to learn how to deal with the unfavorable, otherwise you perpetuate the process of healing. However, this doesn’t mean you have to put up with triggers that you know will continuously bring you pain. For me, I’ve decided that Disneyland is my biggest trigger. We used to go frequently as a family. Now when I go, I’m surrounded by families. You might as well put a billboard in front of my face with glittering, flashing lights reminding me that I don’t have my husband. I find myself struggling to navigate crowds. Folding up a stroller while holding the baby is almost always a disaster. There are many rides we can’t go on because there’s just me and we need another adult. I’ve been to Disneyland about 6 times since my husband passed away and it just isn’t getting better. I’m at the point where I truly believe I’ll be happier not stepping inside of Disneyland for a while. At this point I feel like that’s okay.

Flexibility and calibration.

One day everything will be fine, and the next day you’ll feel like you’re sinking. To be happy, you must be flexible and become a master at re-calibrating your expectations and plans. This is the only way you can keep moving forward. Just like in nature, you either adapt or you become an evolutionary dead-end.

I’m not an expert at any of this, but I feel like sharing our experiences with each other helps us understand, learn, and grow from each other. I would never want to sugar-coat this horrible experience I’ve had with death. It’s not always okay. I’m not always happy. I get stressed out. But overall, I’m happy. I am actively choosing happiness and look forward to many more tomorrows. It’s not just one moment that defines us–it’s the totality of our experiences that make our lives.

5 comments

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  1. Karl

    It’s sometimes confusing whether to lead a kind of ‘Zen’ life where you just accept everything and allow yourself to be like a stick in the river, just floating down where the current takes you, or whether to get a paddle and try to guide your way where you want to go, (but ultimately the current is the master), and getting out of the kayak isn’t an option, you must continue floating, and when the current gets rough, you may get scared and may even fall out, but then the current becomes gentle again and you can climb back in. Not the most original metaphor but it does seem to work. It sounds as if you are in the kayak with your 3 children and at first you had a blind-fold on, which was the unspeakable pain of losing your husband, but now you have only one eye covered, and you can at least see where you are going. I think eventually you will have full vision and will be able see further ahead and float along with more skill at steering than before, and if you hit a rock you can bounce off it, spin around and carry on facing down-stream.

  2. Karl

    ………. also…….. I think you would greatly benefit from Ekhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now’ series of books, you won’t like reading them at first but as the information seeps into your mind, you began to see what he’s getting at, and the false identities and cognitive structures you have built all your life (job, national / ethnic identity, culture, wealth, social status, education, religious beliefs) start to melt away and you can see a glimpse of what/who you really are.

  3. Graham

    Hi Teresa,

    I can completely relate to the sense of calm you felt and almost soul cleaning you felt coming back from Japan. Where I live, on a Narrowboat in the UK, there’s a Church opposite just now and they clean the church bells every week. The random dusting of the bells actually sounds like Buddhist temple bells being rung while monks chant. Obviously it’s not, but it does transport my soul.

    I would often say to others that time heals, and once again, here I am taking my own advice. The pain does become less, but it never truly goes. On some days when I find myself laughing at something, I almost feel guilty for being so happy.! To me, this shows a pace of time must be changing, and by default so must I.

    I can completely relate to your “life stressors”, although my life floats at a far slower pace these days. My sister’s husband is in exactly the same place as yourself. One decision he made very quickly was that the dog had to go to a new home. It was just unrealistic to keep a dog as well as doing everything else for 3 children now. The children took it quite hard. As you’d expect, they seen it as another loss added to the loss of their mother. But children are tough, tougher than we realise, and they’d adapted quickly.

    And that’s it.. we adapt/adjust to the situation as you say. We rebuild ourselves, we re-adjust where we are, and who we are. It’s not easy though, it takes work, a lot of work, and ultimately, it takes time as well. But we do it, we do it for the life we want.

    Your life.. You in particular, is also more than just a label. Of all the things you could/are labelled as.. You’re still just Teresa.

    Choose happiness… and happiness chooses you back. The mental resistance fight is a fight, and without you realising it, without us all realising it, the more we work out, the more we work out, and the stronger we become.

    Off to read about Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of nothingness, with dusted church bells in the background.

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