A few days ago, I was in Alamo Square Park in San Francisco with my three children. It’s a beautiful park perched atop a hill with views of the bay and the city, famously next to the historic Painted Ladies, which are the colorful Victorian houses that San Francisco is known for.
The park has a nice playground where my children were digging in the sand. I watched them with a sense of contentment, admiring their youthful energy and enthusiasm about such simple pleasures. Earlier in the day we had fun walking around Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, stopping to watch the barking sea lions and eating sourdough bread. We took a bus up Fillmore Street to the park, and we had plans to finish the night with Vietnamese street food for dinner. A perfect way to spend our final hours on the last day of a good trip.
I thought about how Kenneth brought me to that same park when we were single and had just started dating. I remembered bringing his son to the playground. Later, we brought our firstborn, Ethan, placing our hands near the small of his back as he toddled up the stairs of the slide. Kenneth and I smiled knowingly to each other, unable to believe that we were actually there as a family. The last time we visited was when Eloise was a baby. She was tucked inside of a baby carrier, pressed against my chest on a chilly February day four years ago. Now the children and I were there without Kenneth, our family having grown and shrunk since that time, and sometimes that truth still felt surreal no matter how much I had become at peace with it.
Eloise saw a French girl playing near the slide and I watched her abandon her brothers, scampering over to see if the little girl would play with her. There was a language barrier, and the French girl turned away and called out for her parents. Eloise’s face crumpled. She lingered for a few seconds and then climbed off the playset, returning to the sand that her brothers were shaping into a cake and putting sticks onto as pretend birthday candles. Eloise is always looking for little girls to play with, a problem when you are the only girl wedged between an older brother and a younger brother, and most of our friends have sons. A few weeks ago at a Christmas party she put on make-up with another little girl and reveled in the chance to be with her female peers. As I observed her on the playground, noticing the way she kept a watchful eye on the gate so she would know if any little girls came to the area, it made me think about longing.
I am also riddled with longing. After 5 days in the city with my children, and after 20 months of widowhood, I long for adult companionship. I remember when Kenneth and I used to drive up north every other weekend to visit his son. 8 hours each way. We never ran out of things to talk about in the car. I miss that. He was my best friend who would tell me how pretty and smart I was. We shared ideas and exchanged information, constantly learning from each other.
And now there was an intellectual and physical void in my life, and I longed to fill it. The problem was finding who could–not an easy feat.
It doesn’t matter what we are longing for. We are all longing for something at any given moment.
My kids long for their father. Other kids long for food on the table and a stable home.
I long for time to myself and to not be an only parent. Other people long for a child of their own.
Relationships. Love. Jobs. Friends. Places to live. Money. Status. We often confuse lacking any one of these in our lives with personal inadequacy.
There must be something wrong with me because I’m single, for example.
But when I was married, I felt longing. Sometimes deep longing. Sometimes all-of-the-time longing. I wanted my husband to be a better listener. I wanted him to stop making messes around the house. I wanted him to stop arguing with me. I wanted time to myself. I longed to be free.
Before marriage, there was lots of longing too. Longing to find a significant other. Longing to find “the one.” Longing for a career. House. Children.
My longing has always been an elusive shapeshifter.
It doesn’t matter if I am single or married, younger or older, richer or poorer, a parent or not a parent, fatter or thinner, the longing never goes away. The finish line of complete fulfillment is a mirage. A lie. There is no such thing. Every feeling, no matter how wonderful or terrible, is ultimately fleeting. Feelings are not sustainable; they slip out between our fingers like grains of sand no matter how desperate we are to keep them in our clenched fists. We simply can’t have them forever, for better or worse.
I’ve come to the conclusion that longing is just a part of being human. There is always something to want. You can spend your entire life feeling like you don’t have enough. Perhaps feeling like you are not enough.
Since we can’t get rid of our desire for something more, maybe the secret is to tame your longing. To see it for what it is–endless. Natural. Unavoidable. And then rein it in. Guide it. Mold it into something positive.
Longing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes our longing motivates us to accomplish great things. Other times it causes us depression and sadness when we let it become gnarled and overgrown inside of us. Taming our longing means becoming skilled at knowing when to let certain feelings go.
I am reminded by an important quote by the Dalai Lama. I try to remember it during stressful times in my life. The Dalai Lama said, “If there is no solution to the problem then don’t waste time worrying about it. If there is a solution to the problem then don’t waste time worrying about it.”
We often get consumed by our worry that we will never have something, or that something will last forever. The pain we feel comes from our fears.
It is more productive to be objective and tactical about our longing. Whatever I desire, I have to assess whether or not it is attainable. If it is, then I need to devise an actionable plan. If it isn’t, then I need to let it go.
It’s the idea of approaching our feelings with a strategy. Jealousy, desire, hopelessness–so many emotions can cause us varying degrees of pain. Getting stuck in a feeling doesn’t bring us any closer to solving what causes us the pain to begin with. There has to be a more practical and useful approach.
It is hubris to believe that we can control everything in life, or that we can have everything that we want at the snap of our fingers without putting in the work and effort.
I am reminded of the sentence tattooed on my arm, my late husband’s favorite affirmation.
“I am responsible.”
For remembering that I have yet to experience a life where I haven’t had longing, so I might as well recognize it as a known entity instead of a source of inadequacy.
For remembering an ability to adjust my perspective.
For remembering what I have.
For working toward changing anything I don’t like.
And working for what I want.
For understanding that there are factors beyond my control.
And knowing that I am responsible for always choosing the next right step. And that the next right step is never usually sitting on the ground in defeat.
By taming my longing, I can have the clarity I need to take action. Otherwise that longing, if left unchecked, may obscure what I see and how I live.
I’m too bossy to empower one feeling to dictate the terms of my life. I like to manufacture as much of my own destiny that I have reasonable control over.
I just read this, and first of all, I’m sorry. I lost my grandfather last month and it’s still very difficult for me. I’m missing him so much, but I know he’ll always be with me, just as your husband will always be with you and your children, through his teachings and actions. His words touched my heart. Thank you very much, and I hope you and your children are well.
Hands in prayer, John
So sorry for your loss. Everyone you have ever known is carried inside of us in some way, some more than others. ❤
I just read your story on the Little Budda site and your description of expectations and feelings were just what I needed for me -today! I am facing an early death of my husband of 38 years. I am feeling frozen and yet so many thoughts and pain. I am so sorry for your loss as well. I am 56 and grateful that my family are raised with families. We have had a lot of love and wonderful times but have known our share of dark times. I will keep you in my mind and heart as my example that whatever happens, I will be ok! Thank you!
So sorry for your loss, Loretta. It is hard, but the unexpected consequence that you won’t expect is that it will not only be a time for sadness. You will dig deep into yourself and be forced to get reaquainted with who you used to be, and discover who you will become. It takes you through a wide spectrum of feelings, good and bad and everything in between.
Teresa, you are a wonderful writer. I am so deeply sorry that you lost your husband. Forgive the cliched words. They aren’t adequate. I am in terrible pain today and feel so much gratitude for coming across your article in Tiny Buddha: “When things don’t go as planned” I felt everything your wrote deeply and it’s giving me strength to find resilience and to persevere. Thank you. You have a beautiful family. And I hope you take time for yourself as and when you need it. We are all ‘enough’ and to truly know and accept that everything we need is within us is very powerful. I meditate and it has been life altering. I’ve learned to be ok even when it’s not and to find gratitude every day.
Thank you so much, Dawn. Sending you positive vibes.