“Life grows hollow, not from the tedium of the day, but from the hardening of the heart.”
– Monshu Koshin Ohtani
How to prevent the hollowness of life creeping into our souls; that is the eternal battle for the living.
I am struggling with the hardening of the heart lately. I’ve been in this funk for several weeks. Life feels too overwhelming. I grit my teeth and get through a busy work week, but by Saturday I am weary and often in tears. I feel directionless and on my worst days–hopeless. I am tired and depleted.
If one more person tells me how or why I shouldn’t feel this way, I might explode. Become a widow and single parent to three little ones and hold a full-time job, then come back to me with pearls of wisdom. Until then, it’s just something I need to figure out on my own. I need to bang my head against the wall enough times before I figure it out. Eventually, I will. I hope.
Each morning feels like I am going off to battle, wrangling the kids into the crumb-filled minivan, listening to the kids whine as we go out the door, somebody inevitably will want to go back into the house for some stupid toy they aren’t supposed to bring to school, and when I say no a meltdown will ensue, and I can’t help but feel bitter and angry and resentful that the person I planned a family with is not here to fulfill his part of the parenting obligations. It’s hard to go through the bullshit of parenthood on my own. This is the most tedious, soul-draining work I have ever done. It is isolating and lonely. It is difficult to not feel angry rage over the ways my life has devolved into this game of survival that I have been forced to play.
I’ll be honest. It is extremely difficult to not have your heart get hardened from this experience. No matter how much internal work I do to not get overwhelmed by what the universe has thrown at me, I still get brought down to my knees by the weight of it all.
Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t meant to be happy. It’s a stupid thought, I know. But still one that runs through my mind. Maybe, for some cosmic reason, I deserve this fate.
I think of my teta (grandmother, in Arabic). I don’t remember her ever being “happy,” unless you consider buying Lotto scratchers and playing bingo with the senior citizens happiness, and of course, watching her firstborn amazing grandchild (me) grow up. But I don’t think so.
At least not in the way that I define happiness. I think happiness is when we pursue an authentic life, and when we do the things that are important to us. The things we are curious about. When we engage in what brings us joy.
I don’t think Teta ever pursued anything for herself. The difficulties in her life seemed to harden her into a state of resignation about her lot in life. She let herself become a conduit for her family’s happiness. She did our laundry. Made us food. Babysat. Worked and scraped and scrimped to get by. She left her family and life behind in Israel to start a new life in the United States. She divorced my grandfather and never had another relationship. I think about how she never had a healthy, fulfilling relationship with a man. Her identity became one mired in sacrifice.
What did Teta want to do with her one wild and precious life?
I’m sad to say that I do not really know, no matter how many times I stretched out on her couch and talked to her, listened to her stories about the other guy she would have rather married (instead of my grandfather), and the stories of struggle. But where was the happiness? What made her heart sing? What would have made her feel whole?
I’m sure members of my family would say: us. We were her happiness!
But can that be true?
I know that as much as I love my children–this was true even before my husband died–being a mother could never be the exclusive source of my happiness. My husband would never be the only source of my happiness. I started the parenthood journey thinking that being a mother and a wife would be the pinnacle of my life’s happiness, but it never was.
They can’t be our happiness, but they certainly can become our happiness blockers. Our children, our partners, our family and friends and colleagues and so forth—they can take our attention away from the things that make us feel whole. It’s not that they purposefully do it to us. Our loved ones don’t intend to sabotage our happiness. Rather, it’s because we let their needs take priority over our own. We choose to devote our energy tending to them and letting our own needs fall by the wayside.
I’ve known this to be true for a long time, and yet I let myself fall down that rabbit hole of self-sacrifice.
I feel unbalanced lately. I feel like my ship has veered off-course, and I am getting dangerously close to lost-at-sea. For the past 29-months of widowhood and single parenthood, I’ve been so busy making sure my kids are happy and healthy and well-adjusted that I seem to have forgotten how to put on my own life vest.
And now I’m floundering in the choppy waters of stress, trying desperately to hold my head above water with each passing day feeling like a losing battle. I’ve lost sight of the things I need for myself.
When you realize just how hollow your insides have become, it is kind of scary. I see visions of my hardened Teta, jaded by her misfortunes in life, sitting on her couch in one of her moods. In hindsight I think she had undiagnosed depression. She often verbalized that she had nothing good to look forward to. Nothing good in life. Everything was unhappy. She became attached to her unhappiness. My teta would cook for us and clean for us and she was my everything, but now that I am a mother, I know there was no way we could have ever been everything to her as a woman. There had to be something more.
I will never know, and neither will she.
As for me, I’ve spent some time sketching out my problems. I would like to say that I have a solution, but I’m okay with not having one at the moment. I want to give myself permission to feel what is out of whack in my life, and to work on addressing those parts of me without necessarily knowing what that will look like. I know that eventually I will figure it out, as long as I know there is a problem and continue to take action.
One thing I have decided is that whatever I am missing, and whatever I end up looking for, none of those things are needed to complete me as a person.
I think of relationships. I used to believe that we looked for “the one” because there was something inside of us that was empty without that person. We needed to find “the one” to complete our being. Mr. and Mrs. as a unit in life. Oneness.
In widowhood, that doesn’t feel true anymore. I can’t rely on somebody else to be the magic bullet solution to my happiness. I can’t wait for someone or something to complete me.
People and things come and go. They change. We change. And besides, I don’t need to be completed. I am already complete, I am just terribly neglected and a little lost right now.
I am looking for what will supplement who I already am as a whole person.
New learning opportunities.
Time and space.
Relationships, platonic or something more.
Everything in moderation.
Our happiness is not one thing. It isn’t a relationship. It isn’t something we check off a list. Our happiness is more of a tapestry, woven with our own hands, using the infinite and colorful threads of our joy and suffering. Maybe it’s the big picture. Maybe it’s the way that we keep going.
My children can not complete me.
Work can not complete me.
Writing can not complete me.
Men can not complete me.
Friends can not complete me.
A European adventure can not complete me.
They can certainly enhance my human experience, but they will never be the cure to the hollowness I feel inside of me.
That monumental task of filling the empty space is for me to figure out. Or not figure out.
It is my choice.
I suspect it has something to do with my own head space. If I can untangle the loose threads, I might be able to go back to weaving the intricate and beautiful tapestry that I’ve been working on since my birth.
Somehow, I know I will.
Beautifully honest and articulate. Rich and I didn’t have children so I can’t pretend to know how hard it must be with three little people to parent whilst grieving.
Thank you, Hayley. So sorry for your loss.
Thank you Teresa, your essays are always worth reading and speak volumes to people in entirely different life situations.
Thanks, Tim. We all have our own brand of pain, but we all share the human experience of suffering. It’s fascinating and humbling.
I loved this so very much. Thank you. This week will mark eight months without him. We didn’t have children and I’m also floundering; attempts to distract with work and shopping leave me empty. But I’m willing to try on the idea that I may, in fact, already be whole. The question is then what will supplement my wholeness? Thank you for bringing this question to light.
Beautiful– even though I feel hollow for different reasons, I totally understand .. thank you for writing this!
Thank you. We all feel hollow for different reasons–totally!
I loved this so very much. Thank you. It’s been a hard slog in the last eight months since my husband died, and this is the first time I’ve considered that I may, in fact, be enough as I am right now.
You are enough. It will just take time to start seeing the things and people who will warm your heart again. And even when you can see those things, you’ll have those inevitable moments of hollowness. The cool thing is that apparently we all have those feelings of emptiness, but for various reasons. How cool that we can share this human experience, the good and the bad, through our shared experience of suffering. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but at least we can know we aren’t alone, and maybe the burden will feel less heavy, and we can serve as reminders to each other that we will survive. Again and again and again.
I love how honest you are. I can relate to some of what you are going through.